MOGIBO (Me Outside. Good Inside. Bad Outside): Personal popularity in popular culture

MOGIBO is the sentiment expressed in many popular tunes, old and new: I’ve lost at love. I’m out of the loop and it’s sad. I can’t win in the mainstream. The world has left me behind. MOGIBO is one of just a few basic relationships possible between the in-crowd, the out-crowd, good and bad, and the songster.

I was asked to teach a popular culture class to some students who had already been with me for a few terms. I decided to run the class as a seminar, a collaborative and informal content analysis of songs, humor, and other pop cultural artifacts. We tried to mind-read pop culture’s producers and consumers, looking for what makes the popular stuff popular.

We concluded that a lot of it seems to center on whether happiness is to be had inside or outside the mainstream. Where is cool? Is it in the main culture or the subculture? Should you play the game or abandon the game?

A lot of popular music is about doing well at the mainstream game. I’m rocking this party. I’m in the groove. I’ve played the game and I’m finally earning the power that’s due me. MIGIBO: Me Inside. Good Inside. Bad Outside.

These days, of course, we also have a lot of songs about the mainstream game as a wasteland, not worth it, only for losers. The real value is to be found at the margins of society, in the subculture that rejects the main game. I’m an outcast and I’m cool. Now that we’ve broken out of the rat race everything is better. MOBIGO: Me Outside. Bad Inside. Good Outside.

And some songs say that winning the mainstream game doesn’t turn out to be as good as it’s cracked up to be. Success makes me weary. I’ve done what I was told would make me happy, but I’m not happy after all. MIBIGO: Me Inside. Bad Inside. Good Outside.

Songs about partnerships play off the same in/out theme. The beloved often becomes the symbol of the inside, the very object of the mainstream game. I finally won the inside game. I got you. MIGIBO: Me Inside. Good Inside. Bad Outside.

Conversely, I’ve lost the main game because I don’t have you. or If I could be with you, I’d be a winner. MOGIBO: Me Outside. Good Inside. Bad Outside.

Sometimes a partnership is what stands in relationship to the inside and outside. We’re making it in the mainstream together. We’re helping each other be successful. WIGIBO: We Inside. Good Inside. Bad Outside.

Sometimes it’s us against the world. WOBIGO: We Outside. Bad Inside. Good Outside. For we’re living in a world of fools, breaking us up . . .

Popular patriotic and religious songs also play on the theme of insider/outsider relationships and where the good is. The theme isn’t arbitrary. How to win at the game of life is naturally a prevailing obsession.

Some songs try to eradicate the boundary between good and bad. MIGIGO or MOGIGO. It’s all good. We are the same whatever we do. Let’s ignore the in/out distinction. These songs can be especially healing because they run counter to so much experience. They’re like a trip to a fantasy land, a land free from preference, value judgment, or distinction. No hell below us; above us only sky.

In popular humor, the in/out theme is also central. Between the lines a lot of humor addresses the same questions. Is it cooler to be conventional or unconventional? Where are you in relationship to the inside and the outside?

With some humor, we identify with the cool, conventional insider: a straight, clever hero surrounded by foolish, cartoonish characters. In other humor, all the players are fools, and we laugh knowingly, experiencing the contrast between ourselves and all those marginal characters. Whether by associating with the conventional hero or by laughing at everyone, we experience MIGIBO: Me Inside. Good Inside. Bad Outside.

With a lot of humor, we identify with the cool, unconventional, irreverent, and eccentric hero. This stuff is called “picaresque,” meaning humor in which the hero is a rogue. A classic would be “Beverly Hills Cop,” in which Eddie Murphy plays a realist from the inner city injected into the superficial culture of Beverly Hills. He’s sharp. The other men range from dull-witted to bland to evil. The woman love interest is fundamentally both judge and prize. She recognizes Murphy as the winner and kisses him accordingly. The picaresque hero enters the mainstream but does not join it. “Picaresque” probably comes from the Latin picar--to pierce, as in pikepole, piercing the boundary between inside and outside.

While most humor plays with the relationship between inside and out, not all of it deals with status. Most, if not all of it reveals our near-infinite fascination with simple context flipping. From peek-a-boo on, we’re mesmerized and tickled by watching the frame shift from inside to out and back again. It’s magic to us. It’s the hocus pocus of hokey pokey. More on that next week.

Here's a great NY Times article about recent research showing that most laughter is a pressure release for tense social situations. When it's getting a little hot in here, it's a way to get outside of it.

NY Times: What's so funny? Well, maybe nothing

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