I believe that no other country embraces, studies, celebrates, laments, digests, and analyzes pop culture like America. Maybe it’s because we virtually invented the modern concept of pop culture—this interesting, sometimes uneven mix of history, current events, and celebrity. But in trying to define “pop culture” in order to create a yardstick for this collection, I still found myself searching for a proper definition of what the term means. Then, buried in an obscure, online encyclopedia, I found this:
“Pop Culture: Those series of activities & events that are more or less equivalent to national identity.”
In one simple sentence, it was just what I needed: a frame to hold these hundreds of “tiles” (which is how I have now come to view all of the entries in this book). Some tiles are bigger than others, some more interesting to look at, some more colorful, some more vital, but each one necessary to create a full and complete mosaic. In this case, the mosaic forms the American pop culture experience.
But while that definition helped set a criterion for what I would include in this book, it didn’t address the main concept. The purpose of this book is not merely to list the events that helped shape our national identity. Rather, the purpose of this book is to identify the exact places where these events took place, thus allowing one to stand on the spot where pop culture history was made.
Think of all the events that have touched us. The news stories, movies, songs, concerts, and television shows. The tragedies, heroic deeds, controversies, and strange phenomena. The historic events we learned in school, from Columbus to Lincoln to Lindbergh to Kennedy . . . all of the moments that have amazed us, stunned us, entertained us, delighted us, appalled us. The landmarks which shaped our tastes, opinions, and passions.
Some aspects of these events we tend remember more than others. For instance, who was involved. When it happened. What the details might have been. But the one component that seems least available is where exactly did the event occur?
We’re taught that Columbus discovered the new world, but just where exactly did he land? Where was Lincoln standing when he delivered the “Gettysburg Address”? Where did Lindbergh take off from on his famous transatlantic flight? Images of the Hindenburg’s fiery crash are iconic, but where exactly did it occur? We all can picture Marilyn Monroe’s white dress billowing up as she stood over a subway grating. But where exactly was she standing? Where did Buddy Holly crash? Where did Jimi Hendrix burn his guitar? Where did Wilt Chamberlain score 100 points? Does the Brady Bunch house really exist? And where exactly was John F. Kennedy, Jr. standing when he saluted his father’s casket? That remote intersection on a desolate stretch of highway where James Dean was killed . . . where the heck is it?
Has the exact spot ever been documented? Is it marked? Can I go stand there if I want to? Has it been turned into a parking lot?
I wrote this book to help answer those questions, and all the others that might arise as one attempts to trace the physical path of pop culture history. After all, I think there are many of us who feel the need to visit these places. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly why, but for me it’s always been about getting “closer” to the event by gaining the same physical perspective as the subject. Whether the environment has been altered or not, you still get a sense of place. Other people I talk to about this seem to have the same motivation, in some cases coupled with a nostalgic desire to make some sense of a part of their own past.
As I began putting this book together, it became clear that its two most important aspects would be: 1. The criteria in choosing the events.
2. The categorizing of these events.
As for the first aspect, choosing the events, there were two simple questions that I attempted to measure each entry against: Would most people be generally aware of the event or landmark? Would most people be unfamiliar with the exact location?
Naturally, there are exceptions to every rule. I’d like to believe that many of the things I’ve included are at least semi-familiar to most of you reading this. But I’ve also included some you probably are not aware of, which I feel are relevant in helping to fill out this pop culture mosaic. For instance, most people are aware of the devastating Chicago fire that happened October 8, 1871, started perhaps by Mrs. O’Leary’s cow. So in this book, you’ll discover the exact site where that fire originated. But did you know that on that same day, an even more devastating fire occurred in Peshtigo, Wisconsin? It’s not surrounded by the myth and lore of the Chicago blaze, but it’s an event that (I believe) belongs in a collection like this.
Generally speaking, American historical events (including natural disasters and major tragedies) were fairly easy to choose. Where Washington crossed the Delaware, where the Declaration of Independence was signed, where Francis Scott Key wrote “The Star Spangled Banner,” etc. are matters of deep historic record and are natural inclusions in a book like this.
However, when it came to the more subjective choosing of events/landmarks that involved the arts, things got trickier. After all, who is to say which film or concert or television program has earned a placed among pop culture icons? In my selection, I tried as hard as I could to not let my own tastes get in the way. I chose movies that I believe have stood the popular test of time (i.e. Casablanca) and/or greatly influenced pop culture (i.e. Saturday Night Fever). Of course, it also helps when there is an actual public place to go visit, given that most movie sets are closed environments. The same standards applied for television, music, and sports sites. Did the event leave an indelible mark on pop culture? Were many people affected by it? Do people still care about it today?
All of the caveat questions aside, I know there are bound to be some issues not just with what has been left out, but with what I have chosen to include as well. As I have learned in discussing this book with friends, that’s the fun of a project like this—it demands a debate fueled by personal taste and dissenting opinion.
As for the categorizing of the locations, many events could easily fit into more than one category. For instance, Marvin Gaye was murdered by his father. It’s a crime, but he was a singer. Crime section? Music section? Where does it belong? What we did (myself and my publisher, Jeffrey Goldman) was to classify each event based on its most definitive element. Thus, Marvin Gaye goes into the Celebrity Death and Infamous Celebrity Event chapter. Once again, opinions will no doubt differ as to whether each event is in its most appropriate place. But I can assure, we did the best we could given the eclectic range of information. That’s sort of the trademark of American pop culture—the wildly disparate quality of what ends up entering the national consciousness.
So that’s about it.
Whether you visit these places or not, I hope you find comfort in simply knowing that they actually do exist, that you could go there if you wanted to. To reflect, to inspect, to gain some new insight, perspective, or appreciation. There are so many anonymous, out of the way spots which have been forever altered after their random brush with history. Some have become national historic landmarks, others have evolved into places for fans to pay homage, and many have been forgotten almost entirely.
But however they exist today, they are real.
So, if you’ve ever found yourself wondering, “Where exactly did that happen?”
Well, look no further. Because you’re about to find out.
© 2003 Chris Epting