Pop culture often gets a bad rap, especially from those styling themselves as intellectuals and “real artists”. Some argue that it dulls the senses, doesn’t encourage “higher thoughts” and deadens the cultural tastes. A few critics would go further to say it poisons our minds. They are right in some ways. Popular culture wields a lot of power in defining the music, food, fashions and even the way we talk to others.
There is no doubt that pop culture as a giant menu and we get to pick what we consume. What we choose on that menu says a lot about who we are and what we want. What we want often changes with circumstances in our lives. Some days, we want a deep, reflective art film. Other days, we would rather watch a mindless comedy. While it’s important to nourish our brains and souls, sometimes we want something light. At times that’s all we can take when life gets too heavy.
When my third son came along, nothing was normal. He entered this life through an emergency C-section and nothing has been easy since. Jack was born with multiple birth defects including an open palate. This meant I couldn’t just take him home. I couldn’t hold my baby and feed him as I did with his older brothers. He spent the Holidays in the NICU hooked up to blinking machines. He should have been home with his family and the twinkling Christmas lights on our tree.
When I could finally bring him home there were monitors and an oxygen tank. Every two hours, day and night, I would use a breast pump. We’d push a tube through little Jack’s nose and into his stomach for feedings. During this time of no sleep, recovering from my surgery and heartbreak I wrestled to come to terms with the immensity of the truth. My child was not “normal”. He would not have an easy life. How do I help this tiny boy? What would his life be like? What would mine be like now? I didn’t know what to do.
I mourned and I prayed. I researched his condition. I couldn’t take it with my aching heart and on so little sleep. Most of the time, I forced myself to eat more than Jello so that Jack would get the nutrients he needed to live. However, when it came to my pop culture buffet, I loaded up on everything that arty types say is not nourishing. Buffy and Alias were comfort food for the soul.
During the long hours of pumping and feedings, I escaped into all five seasons of Alias and all the Buffy episodes I could get my hands on. It passed the time and it transported me into the lives of strong women who faced life and death, disappointment and betrayal, setbacks, sorrow and ultimately triumph. Sure, it was cheesy stuff and not exactly intellectually stimulating. However, it truly helped as much as the medication I took to numb the pain and it also gave me hope.
Time went on. Jack needed constant special care. He grew and developed slowly. Jack’s life was punctuated by frequent doctor visits and discomfort. At a year old, he weighed only eleven pounds. Then there were several surgeries (with more to come).Through this difficult time his personality emerged. Despite everything, he became a sunny, silly boy. His very favorite thing to watch on TV was SpongeBob SquarePants. Many parents I know find that cartoon annoying and off putting. We love it because it made Jack happy. He would smile and laugh at every episode. When he could finally speak, his first sentences came from the show
While In the hospital for surgeries, Jack liked to have his SpongeBob blanket and doll. It brought him comfort and grounded him with its familiar, cheery yellowness.
SpongeBob is a pop culture icon. The cultural references and satirical characters tell us something about who we are. The archtypes are familiar ones: Squidward the pessimist, Mr. Krabs the greedy boss, Patrick the fool, Plankton the megalomaniac, among others.
However, I love how the star of the show, SpongeBob, who is the most irrepressible optimist on TV, perhaps only rivaled by Leslie Knope of Parks and Rec. And that optimistic sponge, who finds fun in everything (and lessons) during hard times, is the character my struggling little boy identified with at a time when pain seemed to be the only thing he knew.
A couple of years ago, after his most recent surgery, we received a very special surprise. My uncle, comedian Mike Guido, is friends with Tom Kenny. Tom is the very talented actor who does the voice of SpongeBob. Mike told him about Jack and how he is a big fan of the show. Tom sent us a personalized voice recording as SpongeBob just for Jack. When we played it for Jack post-surgery he was the happiest little patient on the planet. He smiled and laughed and made us all listen to it over and over. It made me cry. To this day Jack enjoys listening to it and quoting it and it always warms my heart.
When I thanked Tom he said, “I was happy to do that for Jack. Being able to do things like that is one of the perks of my job that I treasure. Sounds corny, but it’s true. In addition to the fun job, hopefully I get to make people who are dealing with challenges smile for a minute or two.”
Tom Kenny’s job is grounded in popular culture. It’s his vehicle for reaching out to others. And the way those messages and feelings are received is inextricably linked to the mode of communication that we call Pop Culture. Because that’s what it is. All commerce, everything that’s for sale, is an expression of wants and needs. Pop culture is a business that provides those things, both positive and negative. But it’s also the language we speak, how we express ourselves and communicate as a culture. Pop culture is the embodiment of our common ground and voice.
We should celebrate the good and examine the bad in our popular culture. It’s up to each of us to choose responsibly from that big cultural buffet. To quote the yellow sponge himself, “Let go of what kills you and hold on to what keeps you breathing.”