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Bad Fads

Though its title and cover (cartoon image of the lower half of a hot pants clad babe) give the impression it’s another of those pb sneer-a-thons, Mark A. Long’s Bad Fads (ECW Press) is actually a more benign creation. A print edition of the Museum of Bad Fads site that Long has maintained since 2000, the book contains decade-by-decade write-ups on selected American crazes that have struck the author’s fancy. As the author points out in his intro, the use of “bad” in his title isn’t intended as either indictment or endorsement of the fads he discusses. It’s meant to hearken back to the seventies connotation: “cool” or “phat” to other generations. I suppose we should be thankful that Long didn’t call the book Phat Phads.

Bad Fads is not, then, a Lileks-like putdown on the base tastes of baby boomers (or what effete types in another decade would’ve called the “booboisie”). It’s more a genial look at the origins and peak moments of different fads in 20th Century America. The book’s tone is like one of those TLC specials on the history of toys or fast food: you can practically hear Mason Adams’s amiable tones as you read it. Long isn’t into any deep analysis of a trend’s “meaning” – and good for him. A few paragraphs in and then onto the next ‘un! The guy doesn’t even crack many jokes: these things speak for themselves.
Thus, we learn that the Limbo got its start as a West Indian funeral rite, that the short-lived fad of goldfish swallowing prompted a Massachusetts state senator to propose a bill protecting the fish from “cruel and wanton consumption,” that the first flag pole sitter was a professional Hollywood stuntman, that the publication of the first crossword puzzle book in 1913 led to an explosion of dictionary and encyclopedia sales (see, not all fads are detrimental to the national mental health!) and that the inventor of the waterbed first experimented with using Jell-O(!) in his furniture.
Occasionally, Long will include a “fad” that just barely meets his definition (“a temporary fashion, manner of conduct, etc., especially one enthusiastically followed by a group”) and seems more like an interesting aberration. The momentary spurt of glass eating on college campuses in the 70’s (sparked by the sideshow geek antics of football pro Tim Rossovich), for example, doesn’t appear to meet the minimal endurance level of full-blown fads (its run was too short to provide the author with any good material once he’s described its genesis). Too, some of the book’s fashion fads (sideburns, bouffant hairdos, lensless glasses) don’t provide enough grist for a decent write-up. I’m sure that trends like hair ironing are more difficult to investigate than entries like Slinkies or hula hoops which were aligned with big money concerns. Still, there are plenty of factoids Long could’ve added (the fact that ironing is used to provide a nostalgic pin to John Waters’ Hairspray, for instance).
Unlike his website, which relies on photos of the actual items on display, Long’s book is profusely illustrated by Jim Fee. I’d have preferred a mix of pics and Fee’s cartoony illos: the poster to Saturday Night Fever may be familiar enough that we don’t need to see it, but a period photo of a suitably iconic suburban family with their fall-out shelter would’ve been neat. Perhaps it cost too much to get the photo rights for book publication, but after a while Fee’s graphics start to look same-y.
Those of us excessively enamored with pop trends should find plenty to like about this book. Unlike a lot of quick-read pbs concerned with cultural ephemera (e.g., Leland and Crystal Peytons’ Girlie Collectibles, which mockingly affected an exaggerated p-c voice that grew wearisome over an entire book), Long’s tome doesn’t condescend to its subjects – even those that deserve it. And if his overly neutral approach sometimes flattens individual entries, it does prove valuable for those of us who simply wanna know the origin of Silly Putty.

A welcome addition to the pop nerd’s reference library.

(Expanded from a piece in Pop Culture Gadabout.)

About Bill Sherman

Bill Sherman is a Books editor for Blogcritics. With his lovely wife Rebecca Fox, he has co-authored a light-hearted fat acceptance romance entitled Measure By Measure.

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