Social Q’s columnist Philip Galanes doesn’t suffer from an inability to dispense competent advice. Every week it’s pretty much the same: Someone writes in asking whether they are morally obligated to fly to Australia for their best friend’s nephew’s wedding, or whether it is acceptable to poison their neighbor’s dog, and Galanes offers a response most of us would consider pretty reasonable. The problem lies in the fact that Galanes wishes to do more with his column inches than issue basic life strategies to lunatics who lack the faintest vestiges of common sense. No, Galenes wants to stand out. He wants entertain us with his sparkling wit. Philip Galanes wants to be clever.
But, being clever is hard! What are you supposed to do — go through life making note of the many absurdities and subtle ironies of social interaction, then articulate them in unexpectedly revealing turns of phrase? Who can do that?? The man isn’t Jane Austen! And fortunately, there is a simpler route to cleverness, one that any scribe can easily follow by watching celebrity news shows and listening to the routines of mid-level standup comics: references. Yes, by using cultural references, any writer can cultivate a unique literary persona, while showing he has his finger on the pulse of the Youth Generation. This is the path Philip Galanes has chosen. So, like the lobotomized love-child of Jackie Harvey and Neil Hamburger, he reels from paragraph to paragraph, indiscriminately strewing allusions to celebrities, politicians and hit television shows in his path.
I had oft noticed that Galanes’ references — like Bill Clinton’s sweaty jogging shorts, like Elaine Benes’ discarded Today Sponges, like the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ blood-spattered heroin needles (or something) — were not very fresh. But, just how behind the times is he? And is he getting better as he goes along — catching up a little? To find out, I undertook an analysis of the data. I singled out the references from Galanes’ ten most recent Social Q’s columns, and then from ten randomly selected 2008 columns. Next, I determined the “age” of the reference (calculated as the number of years since the phenomenon under discussion could have been considered fresh and timely). I used this data to find the average age of a Galanes reference, in the past few months and in 2008.
The resulting analysis will be something of a slog for all of us. But it will be a valuable reference for future scrutiny of Galanes. And if you read the whole thing, you may experience the not-entirely-unpleasant sensation that your mind has been cast adrift on a gently undulating sea of non-sequitors. Warning: Don’t try to read all the linked Social Q’s columns in one sitting!
Jan. 6: “Then again, I may not have my finger on this pulse, considering that the horrifying ‘Look Who’s Talking’ trilogy — in which John Travolta and Kirstie Alley shared the screen with chatty infants — grossed about $350 million.” 1989. 22 years.
Dec. 30: “What next? No more fishing in the Clampetts’ cee-ment pond?…. Take Whoopi Goldberg in ‘Sister Act.’ And those von Trapp kids couldn’t carry a tune in a basket until Julie Andrews came along.” 1962; 1992; 1959. 49, 19, and 52 years.
Dec. 23: “Piano Man loves to perform, and is probably taking his Vladimir Horowitz act a bit far.” I had to look this one up! Vladimir Horowitz is a pianist who made his United States debut in 1928. 83 years.
Dec. 17: “Many fine folks don’t send holiday cards at all — much to the dismay of Hallmark…. Why not give Mr. or Miss Chips a gift card from Staples or Office Depot…. Who doesn’t love an almost-new box of Legos?” This one has a strangely timeless quality. The popular consumer brands it references are ones that we all love, that have existed since time began, and that will never pass away from this earth. Age of reference = 0 or ∞. It won’t count towards the final average.
Dec. 9: “Why worry about engineering when we have TMZ? The all-things-semi-celebrity news source reported last week that Fergie’s husband, Josh Duhamel, a sort-of celebrity in his own right, was chucked off a plane for texting, as well as ‘taunting the attendant.'” Reported in December of that year, so 0. The more recent ones like this are important, because they’re aspirational. They let you know what Galanes wants to be doing.
Dec. 2: “Russell Crowe and the crazy mathematician he played in ‘A Beautiful Mind’ are never around when you need them.” 2001. 9 years.
Nov. 26: “[Wigs are] economical and worked like a charm for Cher and Christina Aguilera — and the rest of the cast of “Burlesque” (aside from Stanley Tucci)… Remember when Eva Gabor moved to Hooterville on “Green Acres[?]”. 0; 1965, so 55 years.
Nov. 18: “Rather than excluding him from the party — which might end up like ‘Stella Dallas,’ with Barbara Stanwyck pressing her nose against the outside of her in-laws’ window — why not speak with the old man?” 1937; 73 years.
Nov. 11: “In German, it’s called eifersüchtig; in America, ‘Desperate Housewives’…. As Joni Mitchell sang… sometimes, ‘you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.'” Desperate Housewives debuted in ’04, but was reported to be the most popular show in its demographic in ’07, so we’ll use that. 3 years. “Big Yellow Taxi” came out in 1970; 40 years.
Nov. 4: Some shit about Lady Gaga. She rose to fame in 2008. 2 years.
Conclusion: The cultural references in Philip Galanes’ recent work have an average age of 27 years. The median is 31.* Also note that the more recent, “ripped from today’s headlines” references seem to be (even) more awkwardly shoehorned into the paragraph in which they appear, and feel more like they were chosen at random.
*I should note that this math is kinda tricky, so there are probably errors somewhere! Where’s that crazy guy from Pi when you need him? Or Paul Erdősh, from that one documentary I saw about Paul Erdősh? Or Richard Feynman, the famous physicist who wrote What Do You Care What Other People Think? What do you mean, you don’t know who I’m talking about?
Columns from 2008
Oct. 9; “We’re just hostages — like Patty Hearst, without the beret.” 1974. 34 years.
Oct: 23: “I have a hunch that your Lady Cancel-lot enjoys chatting with you on the train but isn’t sure if she wants to go on a date.” You probably know the character of Sir Lancelot best from Sir Thomas Mallory’s La Morte D’Arthur, but as you may recall, he first appears as a main character in Chrétien de Troye’s French verse romance Le Chevalier de la Charette (The Knight of the Cart), composed in the 1170’s. Some scholars have suggested the character derives from Llwch Llenlleawg (“Llwch of the Striking Hand”) from the anonymous 11-century prose romance Culhwch and Olwen, but we’ll give Galanes the later date. 830 years.
Nov. 6: “I hate to break it to you, Jenny Joplin, but your next-door neighbor isn’t necessarily a music hater or ready to settle in for an evening of ‘Golden Girls’ reruns.” The Golden Girls was an “immediate runaway hit” upon its debut in 1984. Janis Joplin began her solo career in 1969. 24 years; 39 years.
Sept. 25: “Or he could exclaim, ‘How about that Sarah Palin!’ That’s bound to change the subject. I’ve yet to meet the person who doesn’t need to weigh in about her.” Sarah Palin burst forth from political obscurity in 2008! o.
Sept. 18: “Three words for you: ‘Monster dot com.'” A company founded in 1999. 9 years.
Dec. 26: “It would certainly seem that way, Nancy — especially if you’ve noticed charges for Barry White’s ‘Greatest Hits’ or economy packs of scented massage oil.” White first issued a Greatest Hits in 1975. 33 years, but Galanes should lose like a million points for making a joke as hackneyed as “Barry White = gettin’ it on.” And he does! One million points have been deducted accordingly.
July 27: “So unless your e-mail message came with a soundtrack by Barry White, why on earth would you ask for a date electronically?” Dammit! 33 years.
Aug. 3: “Parents who try to thwart their children’s romances by invoking class are nearly always pulverized by beautiful, low-rent ingénues like Jennifer Lopez in that movie where she played a sexy hotel maid, and in that other one where she played a sexy singer, and finally, in that one where she played Jane Fonda’s sexy daughter-in-law.” Here he’s making a humorous allusion to the fact that Jennifer Lopez, a sexually attractive actress, plays sexually attractive characters. He is on the cutting edge of satire! Don’t you wish you had a job writing for the New York Times? 2002; don’t know; 2005. 8 years, 3 years.
Nov. 28: “Every morning, set your iPod to the song “So What!” by the pop singer-slash-philosopher known as Pink: ‘So, so what/I’m still a rock star/I’ve got my rock moves/And I don’t need you.” A 2008 song! 0 years!!
Dec. 18: “The sheer volume of cackling in response would have driven the clueless husband and his goody-two-shoes wife into the mountains of Afghanistan — where, presumably, Mrs. Gandhi would have located Osama bin Laden and brought him peaceably to justice.” Osama bin Laden rose to prominence in the American consciousness in 2001. 7 years.
Conclusion: In 2008, the average age of Galanes’ cultural references was 84 years. The median was 24. In the time period under analysis, his references become more current by a total of 56 years. If he continues to improve at the same rate, his columns will consist of only new, cutting-edge references in as little as one year! One the other hand, if you ignore the averages and look at the medians, his awareness of current events has actually fallen behind by 7 years during that time.
But in the final analysis, what do the numbers and facts really matter? Philip Galanes’ writing isn’t bounded by months and years. It is timeless. It’s a vital part of what makes the Sunday Styles section a cultural force to be reckoned with, and it’s unforgettable. Like Snooki and “The Situation” — like Jack Tripper’s desire to bang Chrissy and Janet, as broadcast on so many endlessly-rerun episodes of Three’s Company — like Heidi Montag’s new face, or Cher’s old one — Philip Galenes will never really change.