There was a time in my life — probably between the ages of 4 and 7 — when I watched the movie Grease at least once a day. As a member of the first generation to grow up in the age of home video, this put me in a position that few children (outside of those born to theater-folk) had ever previously experienced. But putting aside the historical import of my obsession with Grease (along with Mary Poppins, Star Wars, and The Sound of Music, which all vied for my attention at the time), I wonder what that did to my brain.
You don’t need me to tell you that the messages embedded in Grease aren’t exactly healthy. The way to get the girl is to ditch your friends and hobbies and try to be someone you’re not? Oh, no, you don’t need to do that – instead just convince the girl that she needs to slut it up and come to you. The popular kids are the ones who smoke and drink and fuck without consequences?
And yet, I don’t think any of those messages really penetrated my young brain. For one, most of the sex and drugs went way over my head. I was probably in college before I decoded the line about Greased Lightening being a “pussy wagon,” and I think I was in my late 20s before I noticed the scene where Kenickie and Rizzo have sex and the condom breaks. This phenomenon — discovering (or possibly rediscovering) elements of a film I have literally seen hundreds of times when revisiting it later in life — fascinates me. I know that people reread great works of literature to uncover new depths upon each rereading. But Grease ain’t War and Peace.
And yet this hasn’t only happened with me for Grease. Throughout my late 20s, I would listen to old showtunes, like “All Er Nothing” from Oklahoma or just about any Cole Porter song, and suddenly “get” the dirty jokes.
How is it that I — a pretty intelligent guy, with an undergraduate degree in English and therefore upper-level training in close-reading of text — managed to not pick up on major plot points of a movie I had nearly memorized in my youth until so late in my life? How did the jokes in songs I could sing in my sleep not land until after decades of singing them?
There’s the cliche that familiarity breeds contempt, but in this case, I think familiarity breeds laziness. How much of the richness of life do we miss out on because we just assume that everything is as we always expect it to be. If our assumptions about our neighborhoods, or our friends, or our government, religion, or other institutions are based on impressions formed in our childhoods — what nuances, surprises, or punchlines are we missing?
Didn’t expect a post that started with a heavy metal cover of the title song from Grease to go there, did you?