Interview with Leslie Savan on pop language
It's been almost eight years since my friend and hero Leslie Savan stopped writing her advertising column in the Village Voice and hunkered down to write a book. Lo and behold, her labors have finally delivered us the think-book of the year: Slam Dunks and No-Brainers: Language in Your Life, the Media, Business, Politics, and, Like, Whatever is now out.
At first blush, Slam Dunks is a bit of a departure from Savan's advertising criticism. But on closer look? Not so much. The book focuses on American pop language--on everyday expressions and their ability to spread like viruses--Bring it on! Whassup? or “thinking outside the box." So how does this connect to Savan the ad critic?
Imagine, if you will, a society overwhelmingly dominated by advertising aliens, one in which people not only confront ads in schools, hospitals, homes, and offices, but internalize the language and values of advertising in their personal lives. How might you expect the inhabitants of this peculiar world to communicate? Well, one could reasonably expect that their lingua franca would resemble the advertising that surrounds. It would be pithy, punchy, with a bit of Hollywood glitz. It would, in other words, be pop.
Savan, in this smart and original book, documents the handprint of commercial media on American language, drawing parallels along the way between our homogenous cultural landscape and increasingly homogenous language. Pop language, Savan convincingly argues, resembles advertising itself.
I talked to Savan via phone from her home in New Jersey last week. An edit of our conversation follows below. For some basic background on the book, you might find it helpful to read the Q/A on the Knopf site--or Savan's piece in the New York Times Magazine--first.
INTERVIEW BELOW THE JUMP
Stay Free!: You mentioned that the strongest influence on pop is black American vernacular. Why is that?
Leslie Savan: Under slavery, black people in American often spoke in code in order to communicate under the master’s eye without him suspecting what they were really feeling. The code inevitably led to a kind of cool stance--a show of self-control and restraint. [As in, "keep cool."] They couldn't be seen yearning for escape. White people assumed a lot of slave songs were about God and heaven when they were really more along the lines of, "Get me out of here!"
Speaking in code also produced a lot of clever wordplay, and a playful, ironic alternative to the standard tongue. Creating a language that allows you to speak to “the Man" while at the same time giving a wink to your fellows is in itself an art, a form of poetry. I'm interested in the point at which language changes from poetry to PR.
Stay Free!: And, of course, the oral tradition is central in African American culture...
Leslie Savan: Yes. Partly because throughout much of American history blacks weren't allowed to be educated or to own property. They passed things down using storytelling and music. To this day, a lot of black English is full of irony and wordplay, and much of that came down through music.
Stay Free!: What about the word cool itself?
Leslie Savan: It comes down to us from black American vernacular. Cool is the preeminent pop word-the engine that drives most of pop culture itself. The fashion business, the entertainment industry, they're all striving for the Holy Grail of cool. In this day and age you can't separate cool from consumption. We think we can buy cool through our purchases, or borrow it by using pop phrases, which are a form of advertising for ourselves.
Stay Free!: Is the phenomenon of whites talking black universal? Does it happen in other cultures?
Leslie Savan: There is a universal tendency to seek out what sociolinguists call "covert prestige"; that's where a high status group gains prestige by imitating a lower status group. It's not necessarily a white/black thing. In England, upper-class white men have been shown to imitate the speech of working class white men.
Stay Free!: Why? Because it makes them sound more masculine and tough?
Leslie Savan: Yes...
Stay Free!: So is it mostly men who do this?
Leslie Savan: Yes, especially young men. Men are more prone to associate formal speech with being “proper” and being proper with femininity. This is nothing new; it's been true for generations. But more and more now, girls are also aspiring toward a certain toughness. In speech this comes out, say, in You go, girl! Or in women referring to themselves as “guys.”
Stay Free!: Corporations have been co-opting slang speech for ages. You mentioned that in the 1940s, Hallmark issued a “jive” series of greeting cards. In the past, this kind of mainstream attention signaled the demise of a slang term. Is that still the case?
Leslie Savan: When a word goes mainstream, it's no longer slang or outsider, but it doesn't necessarily die. It MIGHT just lose its edge.
Stay Free!: But don't some words die out once they become popular? Jive, for instance. Once suburbia started using it, it just sounded ridiculous...
Leslie Savan: Words of all kinds die when we don't need them anymore. Often, technology makes them irrelevant. Sometimes it becomes too embarrassing to use a particular phrase, but many phrases hang around longer than we think. I remember in the early 80s “Go for it!" was hot and we'd use it around the Voice office ironically. But we continued to use it long after it was hot and after a certain point it ceased to be ironic. Even as tepid as the phrase has become now, it still has a patina of glamour, a bit of a punchline in itself.
Stay Free!: You wrote a chapter on "weapon words"-phrases like Hel-lo?!, Puh-leeze!, and Ex-CUSE me? that serve as a kind of comeback or put-down. Weapon words remind me of a trend in advertising toward portraying a beleaguered everyman who has to deal annoying people, when the everyman would rather just be consuming some product. Like a husband will be playing sick in bed so he doesn't have to go out with his wife, and he's fantasizing about ducking out and riding around in a new SUV. Do you see any parallels with this kind of thing and weapon words? Both seem to reflect a kind of mean strain in pop culture...
Leslie Savan: Many Pop phrases are punchlines that replace a punch. As I say in the book, there are parallels between pop phrases and ads themselves. Both like to have snappy endings, both are good deal-closers. Pop phrases are basically mini- or micro-ads. They advertise us, tell our audience that we "get it" and that we have the crowd behind us. The first job of any ad is to get attention. Like effective ads, pop words are more likely to pull attention and consensus their way. The problem is that we're more likely to be persuaded not on merit of an argument but on how catchy it sounds.
When television first came out, people feared that images would overtake language and literacy. And in many ways they have. One thing I find interesting is that pop words are as much like images as words can be. In many ways, pop language has more in common with images than words—it’s the word as image.
Stay Free!: Pop words are like brands or logos.
Leslie Savan: Like logoed thoughts--licensed thoughts, licensed in the sense that they seem to descend from something big and flashy in the media. They’ve got the sound of money running through them.
Stay Free!: Your point about pop phrases working like images reminds me of an old debate among primatologists about gorillas and chimps who learn sign language. Some scholars say that when primates sign, they're not actually using language because they don't put words together to form original sentences. They're not coming up with their own ideas, they're just using isolated words, which, some argue, is comparable to dogs that do tricks. Maybe pop language is the equivalent of ape sign language, then. It's not actually language because the words aren't used in a sequence to form distinct ideas.
Leslie Savan: That's a great metaphor. It's language at a primal level--a primate level! [laughs]
Stay Free!: So many marketers have used pop phrases as a form of advertising. And yet it still seems to be that many pop phrases don't have a specific author or source. Most don't originate with marketing but rather boil up from "real people." Why do you think that is?
Leslie Savan: All language comes from real people using and spreading it. A phrase that began with an advertiser wouldn't attract as many people because most wouldn't know what it meant. You want to use language that people are already using. I think Wendy's really did come up with Where's the beef? but Show me the money, which was popularized by the movie Jerry McGuire, could be traced to a baseball player who almost certainly got it from someone else.
It's hard to draw a line between "real" people and Hollywood, because the words are reflected back. You could think of the road to pop as three steps. First, a phrase is used by "real people." Next, TV, movies, or advertising pick up and spread it. And, finally, more real people use it, and with an extra bit of pizzazz.
Stay Free!: Some pop phrases seem sourceless. I remember years ago, out of the blue, I started saying HIH-larious [with an exaggerated emphasis on hih] all the time and my friends came to associate it with me. But later I realized that people similarly say hi-larious [with an exaggerated hi]
Leslie Savan: I've experienced that too with different words. Things come to us before we are conscious of them, and spread.
Stay Free!: Exactly is another one.
Leslie Savan: Right. It's a placeholder. When we flounder in conversation we grab certain words and feel more together and in control.
Stay Free!: You write that street talk once rarely made it into print. And that it's only been relatively recently that the gap between written and spoken language has narrowed. Obviously, electronic media and marketing are a large part of that, but why do you think marketers were reluctant to use street talk in, say, the 1930s?
Leslie Savan: Because it was associated with lower classes and advertisers wanted to reach higher classes. Of course, now advertising plays to "the street" because that's where it's at. This goes back to the idea of covert prestige. When corporations use black street language it comes from the same desire to be cool, masculine, and tough. This is deliberate. Companies pay big money to look like outsiders.
Stay Free!: Yet corporations are as inside as it gets!
Leslie Savan: Yes. There's a Sprint TV ad with a silver-haired CEO who says something like, "This will reallly show them that we want to stick it to the man." His assistant replies, "But, sir, you are the man." So Sprint execs are taking the fake rebel sell one step further—they’re telling us they know they’re ridiculous for claiming to stick it to the main, but are they cool or what for sticking it to the conventions of postmodern advertising?
Stay Free!: But going back to weapon words, I've noticed that a lot of pop words-especially weapon words-end with what are called plosives, the letters B, D, G, K, P, T—and especially the last three. They have a hard sound. So do a lot of dirty sex words: suck, fuck, shit, poop... and so do words that mean to hit: hit, pop, whack. I think it's a primal thing. The sensation in the mouth is a miniature of the sensation you're talking about—something connects and either hurts or penetrates.
Stay Free!: Is this cross-cultural? Is it true in other languages?
Leslie Savan: One linguist I talked to said no. But another linguist, who co-edited a book called Sound Symbolism, says yes. If you look at comic books in other languages, you'd see a fair number of plosives for words that essentially mean “hit.” The word pop is itself a plosive. Making plosive sounds is fun! Explosions are fun—they provide a feeling of release. That's the basis of pop language--the fun. And that's partly why it's such a useful tool to sell with. Fun, like sex, can persuade you of something that wouldn't otherwise stand on its own merits.
Stay Free!: There's a good anecdote in your book about the origins of the word Coca-Cola...
Leslie Savan: A linguist was teaching an ESL class in the 80s or so, and, to warm up the crowd, she'd ask the students for words that had been incorporated into English from their native language. Well, these people from other countries all thought Coca-Cola came from their country. They didn't believe her when she said it came from America.
Stay Free!: Are academics studying pop?
Leslie Savan: They're always studying slang, but they're not looking much at the connection to media and marketing--unless, of course, they’re anthropologist types hired by marketing researchers. Pop is really a dialect of media and marketing.
Stay Free!: Conservative critic PJ O'Rourke has accused you of being a killjoy. How do you respond to people who mistake you for the grammar police?
Leslie Savan: I use pop phrases all the time; I can't think without them! [laughs] So I'm not saying pop language is "bad" and never, ever use it. I just think it's fascinating to look at how language is changing and why. Does that make me a killjoy? I don't think so.
Posted by carrie on 11/14/2005 | Permalink
"Black American vernacular" isn't the "strongest influence on pop" because of code-talking during slavery days, it's because major media corporations like Viacom (MTV) have been pushing and glorifying rap and gangsta culture for over a decade now. Just look at any day’s programming on MTV; rappers are interviewed with deferential awe (even when what they are saying is blatantly sexist or racist) and are never called on their ignorant and violent spewings. For many white kids, this propaganda is all they know – is it any wonder they strive to become Wiggers? The sad result of all this is the anti-intellectual, anti-female (sorry… “Bitches”), anti-gay, in-your-face, Fascist pop culture we are seeing now. Dress it up and justify it with all the academic trappings you will, it’s still the dumbing-down of this country.
Posted by: Helen | Nov 15, 2005 10:42:31 PM
I was about to post a comment until I read yours. At that point I felt I had no reason. You covered all the bases on how vile our subculture has become. I love underground hip hop (not mainstream) such as the Def Jux crew, etc, but I feel as though this new race of white wigtards has made it so that I almost have to keep it under wraps that I enjoy it. I dont want to be associated with those people. They are the scourge of society. The only thing that makes me happy about their mannerisms and lack therof, is that 90% of them will not amount to anything in their life. When their parents are too old to support them and they are working at quicky mart just to make enough money for their blunts and 40's, I buy up their delapidated house, refurb it, and make $100k. You Go Wigs... Thank you for your pesilence.
Posted by: vizulefllry | Mar 22, 2006 7:56:00 PM
Although I am inclined to agree with these comments to a certain extent, i think if you closer at what Leslie Savan is saying and also at the deepest roots of where hip hop and its culture stems from, you will see that it leads right back to the days of slavery. slave songs, that eventually evolved towards blues, where lots of hip hop originally is derived from.
And the whole idea of wanting to be closer to the lower status group. To many people it seems being white definitely isnt cool - but this is undoubtedly linked back to slavery, when whites had the upper hand and higher status.
It has also been suggested by academics before that much of the 'gangsta' images portrayed by rap and r 'n b stars is directly linked to black peoples' past struggles with being the poor, downtrodden, pariahs of society. Jewellery, money and fast cars are a way of showing that they have risen up and shoved their success back in the faces of those who previously oppressed them.
Posted by: tamsyn fallows | Nov 23, 2006 8:15:56 PM
Thank you Leslie for a fresh look at our cultures advertising. I almost went into advertising after highschool. As an Artist, my family and peers told me "That's the only way to make money as an Artist"... Not true at all.
While learning about advertising I began to really Hate it. I decided advertising was the infection making our country ignorant. I admit a little fanatic.
I'm also a fan of the Underground Hip Hop movement. It's a shame that ignorance is glorified, and Hip Hop with a real message is forced underground. At the same time I'm sure those "underground artists" are content with being out of the spotlight in order to keep their "stuff Raw".
Thank you again for searching for the Roots to really understand WHAT is being said, and why it's used.
Posted by: Elizabeth | Feb 13, 2007 10:45:44 AM
I like your book.
Quoted you in my blog "Quotes"
Posted by: Joy Basalo | Nov 21, 2007 6:32:34 AM
Balderdash, Helen. You can slice somebody up with the new "street" language for being a bigot just as easily as you can peddle idiocy.
To the extent idiocy and thoughtlessness seem inherent in the lingo, that's thanks to the corporate media, who seek "safe" (non-political) material, to keep their advertisers happy.
Thanks, Leslie! Your unique ad-crit is sorely missed...
Posted by: Michael Dawson | Nov 29, 2007 2:40:12 PM
Hih-larious may come from Strangers with Candy, the television series with Amy Sedaris. Just a thought.
Posted by: Leah | Aug 8, 2008 9:30:11 AM