This week I was working through some materials from my dissertation for a talk and was reminded that for some reason AC/DC was a big deal to the elementary- and middle-school kids I was working with in 2007/2008, for reasons I could never figure out. Related, perhaps, the UK-based research team at CelebYouth.org included boxer Mike Tyson in their tentative list of the Top 12 celebrities from their interviews with young people in the UK. I know scandal kept Tyson in the public eye long past his boxing prime, and I guess I saw an ad for his one-man show on the TV the other day (?!) so he’s still around and kicking. But Mike Tyson! In kids’ Top 12 celebrities across sports, music, movies, everything! That can’t possibly be explained just as a comeback. (And in their short writeup the CelebYouth researchers don’t mention his recent exploits, suggesting they didn’t come up in their interviews.) And I’m pretty confident that it isn’t the case that this stuff stays alive for kids as part of a mainstream public cultural memory. For starters I can’t believe that Tyson would be in the top 12 celebrities for adults. But also because other figures that do get archived in public cultural memory can be totally unknown to kids. For instance when I was teaching music in 2001 I was surprised that middle-school kids had no idea who Nirvana were (which I remember because it completely ruined a lesson plan).
Instead I think there’s some sort of process of canonization that takes place largely inside kids’ peer culture. Other examples from my research are MC Hammer and Vanilla Ice, which combined with Tyson suggests a strange interest in early nineties pop culture? Those three also fit into a canon of campy, gimmicky, or novelty performances (Tyson’s small voice, Hammer’s pants, Vanilla Ice’s whole act). Of course Sir Mix-a-Lot’s “Baby Got Back,” and Michael Jackson’s music too, but both of those are definitely part of a mainstream public canon too. (Jackson and Tyson have similar trajectories of astonishing talent and a long tail of scandal, combined with voices that are ripe for public ridicule…) Another example of this kids’ canon is the 1997 novelty hit “Barbie Girl” by Aqua:
Also “Bad Touch” (1999) by the Bloodhound Gang:
And in 2007 the kids I worked with were discovering the “Gummy Bear” song, which I imagine may stick around for a while too:
AC/DC doesn’t fit this story about camp/novelty, while KISS would, so that one’s a bit of a surprise I guess. Nelly’s “Country Grammar” (with it’s “Down Down Baby” chorus) would seem like a fair candidate, but definitely wasn’t one that the kids I worked with were into.
I should probably go back to my fieldnotes and make a comprehensive list of these. There’s something interesting happening.