Friday, 2 September 2011

The Buffy Factor

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There are certain scents, sounds and tastes which transport us. Whether we want to or not, they drag us into different places, different times, different selves. Television is exceedingly good at taking us back, we trust it to guide us to memories and feelings in a time and a place. It is no wonder reruns of certain zeitgeist shows are so popular, they help to reconstitute bridges between us in the past and us in the present.

While much has been written both during and after the Buffy: The Vampire Slayer phenomenon, there is one dimension left largely untouched and that is Buffy as an interstitial window. Starting in 1997 and finishing in 2003, Buffy spans the pop culture landscape of: the complete loss of metal to grunge, the rise of Generation X aesthetic, the celebration of self-reference, pastiche, tribute and juxtaposition due to the rapid development and expansion of postmodernism from the halls of the academy to the mainstream. We witnessed the fall of an American president to a sex scandal and the subsequent ascension of a war mongering good-time boy to the presidency. War was waged on the US and revenge extracted/inflicted upon two third world cultural others. And during this, words like terror, justice and even America itself as a signifier took on new, deadly meanings. Postmodern playfulness took back seat to the seriousness of tragedy and war and a backlash to the anti-discrimination gains through “political correctness” assumed the volume of a roar.

Buffy’s aesthetic was self-reflexivity, it took well worn tropes and injected them into the present, it then gave those tropes a self-awareness. Buffy used stereotypes to eat away at the stereotypes, destabilizing their edges, spreading doubt. But this was not necessarily as negative as the narrative suggests. Although most of the time we pride stability as a virtue, we as frequently forget the power and delight of contradiction, dis-ease and fluidity.

In addition to this conceptual and visual aesthetic, Buffy also played with music zeitgeisting at the time. The grunge aesthetic, the rise of American college radio as a genre and other self aware Gen-X resulted in a melodic stew of melody, prettiness, grit and darkness. This is a genre aesthetic naturally not confined to the Buffy-verse, it happens elsewhere too.

For example, while Galactic Cowboys were never featured on Buffy and their most relevant album (self titled debut, 1991) predates the show by six years, their melodic and harmonic commitments, reminiscent of a pre-Napster pop world yet to be dominated by a specific and very limited type of hip hop, combined with a thrashiness yet to recede in the imminent face of a Seattle onslaught. Like Mindfunk and Tumbleweed, Galactic Cowboys married a plaintiveness to roughness, rode between the genre landscapes and created something new, engaging and very much of the time. The irony being that in all three cases, the capture of nuance was perhaps too subtle for the time and now they are all but forgotten.

To me, Buffy captured the spirit of the times with subtlety, grace and originality. Its spanning of the period pre/post terror, from democrat to republican, domestic to global, analog to digital is most effectively captured in its narrative, its dialogs, its ethics as much as fashion, music and intent. Although fiction, Buffy may well tell us more of a certain time than any other more traditional historical resource.
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