Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Another Monday, another set of your questions and our answers at Ask The A.V. Club:

When Will Pop Be Done Eating Itself?

I feel like movie-studio execs are getting paid millions for greenlighting horrible movies based on crappy TV I wasted my '70s and '80s childhood watching. Why do these movies get made, and why do people pay to see them? When will pop culture implode?



Noel Murray has an opinion to share:

To answer the first part of your question Lloyd, the reason why we can soon look forward (?) to big-screen versions of Dallas and The Transformers is because movies are expensive to make and market, and Hollywood remains convinced that a recognizable title drawn from a recognizable property takes care of 90 percent of the marketing challenge. And that may be right. Not every TV-to-movie re-do makes a killing at the box office, but ask anyone on the street if they know what Miami Vice is, and many people will say yes, even if they have no intention of seeing a Miami Vice movie. So when the movie tanks, the studio executive can point to the pre-release tracking and say, "Hey, the numbers were there. I don't know what happened."


The second part of your question is more intriguing, and goes beyond movies, because we're living through a pop cycle that's heavy on retro–especially in music–and if this keeps up, one wonders what the next-generation versions of The Strokes and Quentin Tarantino are going to rip off. (No offense intended to either of those pop entities, whose work I enjoy immensely.) Will we, as cartoonist Dan Clowes once predicted, start feeling nostalgic for the nostalgia of earlier generations?

More likely, what will happen is that future musicians and filmmakers will draw inspiration from current musicians and filmmakers that are flying below the mainstream right now. (After all, until '00 bands started swiping Gang Of Four riffs, who even remembered Gang Of Four, aside from rock nerds?) My advice? Listen to more cutting-edge music and watch more art films–real art films, like Syndromes And A Century, not Little Miss Sunshine–so that in 20 years, you can harrumph, "That guy's just a wannabe Apichatpong Weerasethakul!"


Oh, and start lining up now for CSI: Miami: The Movie.

Turning Leitmotifese

A few friends and I are desperate to discover where the brief three-tone theme-music snippet that precedes anything "Chinese" in bad Hollywood products comes from. Since this is a letter, I can't sing it to you, but I'm sure you know it. The most accessible reference I can think of at the moment happens at the very beginning of The Vapors' "Turning Japanese." This musical theme is absolutely everywhere, and it must have an origin, either in some traditional Chinese opera, or some Charlie Chan film, or some crap "exotic" turn of the century orchestral piece, or somewhere. Help.



Donna Bowman is on the case:

It is at times like these that we lament Google's failure, as of yet, to create musical searches. Surely the technology exists for a user to hum a few bars into a microphone and get a bunch of 99-cent downloads from iTunes offered in return.


Nevertheless, I wore my fingers to the bone trying to find the right combination of search terms (pentatonic asian stereotype leitmotif "charlie chan") before getting lucky. Typing "G-G-G-G-F-F-D-D-F" (the notes played in the key of C) leads to the fifth page of a ridiculously in-depth research project on what the author, Martin Nilsson, calls "the musical cliché figure representing the Far East." If you still don't know what Peter and Martin and I are talking about, you can hear a tinny computer-generated version here.

This exact variant, Nilsson demonstrates, appears for the first time as a riff in the chorus of Carl Douglas' 1974 hit "Kung Fu Fighting." Five years later, the Vapors started their new wave hit "Turning Japanese" with the identical riff. Although it occurs incidentally in a Betty Boop cartoon from 1935, no other instances of this exact musical phrase in popular culture have been found in the intervening 39 years.


The likely origin of the memorable phrase lies not in the sequence of notes, but in the rhythm:

Illustration for article titled Ask iThe A.V. Club/i: October 23, 2006

Nilsson calls this "the Far East Proto-Cliché," and documents its use in popular and light classical music back to the 1880s. Although it was used to signify generalized Asian exoticism (associated with places as far-flung as Persia and Egypt), by the early 20th century, it's nearly omnipresent in music associated with "chinoiserie," the fad for Oriental décor and dress.

Every two-bit jazz combo in the country seems to have recorded a novelty song with some version of the Proto-Cliché, from "Chinatown My Chinatown" to "Chong, He Come From Hong Kong" to "My Yokohama Girl." The Walt Disney music department was especially fond of the trope. Versions occur in "The China Plate" (a Disney Silly Symphony in which painted figures on a piece of porcelain come to life), a few propaganda cartoons from the World War II period, and most beloved by The A.V. Club, the classic music-ed cartoon "Toot, Whistle, Plunk, and Boom."


But blame Carl Douglas for the exact motif you can't get out of your head. His version has become the classic expression of the cliché, appearing everywhere from quickie exploitation movies to videogame soundtracks.

Happy Birthday To Crew

What's the origin of the phrase "Go (person's name), it's your birthday!" —usually accompanied by some sort of foolish dance?


Doing a Google search on words like "go" and "it's your birthday" is nigh-impossible, given the commonality of the terms. As well, since it's not associated with any particular name, you can't really put it in quotes. The best I could find was a forum thread with other people like me speculating, but no real answers. Don't try telling me 50 Cent, either. Cheers,


Nathan Rabin says:

Hey Corey,

He certainly didn't invent birthdays, or the concept of celebrating or commemorating birthdays, but First Amendment martyr, godfather of Miami bass, spiritual father of crunk, rapper, entrepreneur, 2 Live Crew founder, ho enthusiast, scourge of George Lucas' existence, and all-around bon vivant Luke (a.k.a. Luther Campbell, a.k.a. Luke Skyywalker) helped popularize the phrase you mention in his 1994 hit "It's Your Birthday."


The copyright holder of Luke's song (attorney Joseph Weinberger, who purchased the rights to many Luke and 2 Live Crew songs when the rapper declared bankruptcy) later sued 50 Cent, claiming copyright infringement.

Junk Science

There was a show in the late '70s or early '80s (more likely the '80s) about a man who builds a rocket ship in his backyard (I think he owns a junkyard) so he can go to the moon and salvage all the spacejunk left behind. Any ideas?



Noel again:

The show you're remembering was called Salvage 1. It began life as an incredibly cool two-hour TV movie, starring Andy Griffith as a junkman who helps an ex-astronaut build a homemade rocket in order to bring back some valuables and pay off some debts. When it went to series, Salvage 1 sent Griffith and company on another crazy mission every week, though not in outer space. In episode six, for example, they braved a haunted mansion and discovered–no joke–that its sole inhabitant was a homesick alien.


Twenty episodes were made, but near as I can tell, only 16 ever aired–14 as a mid-season replacement in early 1979, and two more to fill in for another quickly cancelled show in the fall of that year. Man, would I ever like to see a DVD set.

People who remember the Salvage 1 pilot fondly should know that Mark and Michael Polish–the filmmaking brothers behind Twin Falls Idaho, Jackpot, and Northfork–have recently completed a film called The Astronaut Farmer with a similar plot, starring Griffith crony Billy Bob Thornton as the man who builds the rocket. It's due out in early 2007.


Next week: more answers, more questions, and some responses to our latest batch of Stumped! queries. Send your questions to asktheavclub.com@theonion.com.

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