“All that I desire to point out is the general principle that Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life, and I feel sure that if you think seriously about it you will find that it is true.” —Vivian speaking to Cyril in Oscar Wilde’s essay “The Decay of Lying”
“It doesn’t take much time for corruption to take root, Reverend.” —Roger Dunbar speaking to Reverend Shaw Moore in Dean Pitchford’s musical drama Footloose
I remember the first time someone compared me to Kevin Bacon. I was a scrawny, pimple-faced freshman with an Opie haircut, and she (we’ll call her Ivy) was a Rubenesque sociology major with a pierced tongue. We were sitting in our dormitory’s TV lounge at two o’clock in the morning, exchanging naïve intellectual philosophies while eating Bugles, which was something that felt urgent and transgressive at that point in my life.
Eventually, the conversation turned to music, and that’s when I told Ivy I wasn’t allowed to listen to secular rock bands growing up.
“My dad is a preacher,” I explained.
“So what?” she said. “My parents are Catholic.”
Like any modern middle-class American raised in the suburbs, Ivy saw no disconnect between pop culture and religion. In her world, it was perfectly acceptable to attend mass on the Sabbath and then listen to Black Sabbath in the minivan on the way home. But that’s not how it was at my house. I hadn’t yet internalized the phrase “small-town fundamentalist,” so I didn’t know how to explain my childhood with pithy irony, but I’d described my upbringing to enough confused peers to get my point across.
“Well, my hometown is really small and conservative,” I said. “And my dad is strict about stuff like that. I wasn’t allowed to listen to rock music or watch movies or go to dances—”
That’s when Ivy’s eyes grew wide, and her hands began to flutter around like butterflies in a blender. “Oh my God! Oh my God!” she exclaimed. “You’re just like Kevin Bacon in Footloose!”
I had heard of the movie, of course, but I’d never actually seen it, just like I’d never seen Star Wars or Goonies or The Breakfast Club. In my hometown, there was an old, single-screen movie theater on Main Street next to the Napa Auto Parts store, but my father had forbidden me to enter it. The few movies I’d seen were animated and made by Disney.
Ivy owned a well-used VHS copy of Footloose, and she insisted that we immediately go to her room and rectify my ignorance. Her roommate was staying the night with her boyfriend, a thirty-year-old Burt Reynolds lookalike, so we had the place all to ourselves. Ivy shoved her stuffed animals onto the floor, and we pushed her pillows against the wall in order to turn the bottom bunk into a couch.
Honestly, I can’t recall how I felt about the movie during that initial viewing. It was the first time I’d ever been alone with a girl…at night…on a bed. I spent most of the time casually trying to look down the front of Ivy’s white tank top, and attempting to position my hands in such a manner as to cover the bulge in my pants. However, despite these distractions, I was able glean the gist of the plot. A teenager from the big city moves to a small town where dancing is illegal, and he fights for the right to party. There were certain aspects of the movie that seemed authentic—specifically the setting and the dated fashion sense—but the rest was so theatrical it bordered on comedy. During the famous angrily-dancing-in-an-empty-warehouse scene, I laughed aloud, garnering a disapproving look from Ivy, whose eyes were glistening with tears. When the credits finally rolled, I nodded while Ivy pontificated on how the movie must have made me feel, and then she gave me the first of many chaste hugs and sent me on my way.
The second time I saw Footloose was with a twenty-two-year-old pop-culture enthusiast named Teddy. It was either my second junior year of college or my first senior year, depending on how you look at it. I had predictably rejected my conservative Christian upbringing by this time and was experimenting with Marxist Buddhism. (By “experimenting” I mean I’d read The Communist Manifesto once and watched Seven Years in Tibet whilst stoned.) Teddy was fascinated by my lack of early pop culture contact. “You’re a blank slate,” he would often say after learning that I didn’t know who the Pixies were or that I’d never seen an episode of Hill Street Blues. He would then expose me to the unknown artifact and grill me about it afterward.
The second time I watched Footloose, I came away with three things: 1) How can you have a dance musical about small-town life that doesn’t have a single country song in it? 2) No one who grew up on or near a farm would ever play chicken with tractors. That’s absurd. Tractors are extremely expensive pieces of equipment, and without them an agricultural community cannot exist. You might trash your car or burn your house to the ground, but you would never risk damaging your family’s tractor. 3) If Footloose were actually a movie about my life, I wouldn’t be Kevin Bacon; I would be the histrionic preacher’s daughter played by Lori Singer.
Teddy insisted I was being purposefully obtuse in my analysis.
“But it’s a movie about your life,” he said. “It has to mean something to you. Do you know how bizarre that is? It’s like if I grew up next to an old Asian man who taught me martial arts in order to beat up the town bully, but I never saw The Karate Kid.”
“What’s The Karate Kid?” I asked.
I was just fucking with him.
Even I knew about Mr. Miyagi and Daniel-san. But I saw Teddy’s point. In a world where pop culture was ubiquitous, I accidentally managed to embody an archetype that everyone knew about but me. It was art imitating life imitating art imitating Flashdance. Still, I didn’t see what all the fuss was about. For starters, I thought Footloose was a fairly ridiculous movie. There were a lot of cheesy pop songs in it, and the premise seemed melodramatic and contrived. To be fair, I probably wouldn’t have felt this way if I’d first seen the movie when I was ten or fifteen like most of my peers. The cheesy pop songs would have seemed exciting and poignant, and the melodrama would have just been regular old-fashioned drama. This was true of many pop-culture phenomena that my classmates consumed with nostalgic glee. John Hughes movies, for instance, come across as whiny and shallow if you don’t start watching them as a teenager. The same goes for listening to the Cure. (One of the few exceptions is The Labyrinth, which is totally awesome no matter what age you see it.) Furthermore, although I couldn’t place my finger on it at the time, there was something unsettling about the level of knowledge Footloose fans claimed to have about my life. They presumed an artificial intimacy that was both flattering and bothersome. I’d been an unpopular child growing up—due in no small part to the fact that I was required to constantly remind my peers they were going to Hell—and was unaccustomed to being the center of attention. Having my life connected to the world of celebrity, even in such a small, absurd way, was intoxicating. I wanted more.
My peers seemed to want more, too. When the connection between my life and Footloose was made and I admitted that I’d seen the film, there was always a pregnant pause afterward, a period during which my faux fan stared into my eyes and waited for more. These moments felt weirdly political somehow, as though they wanted something from me, something I didn’t know how to give them.
And then one day I figured it out. They wanted my testimony.
For born-again Christians, a testimony is when a believer shares his or her conversion story. Usually this takes place in front of an audience during an important religious event, such as a baptism, but it can also be a personal experience, such as when a Christian shares their testimony with a nonbeliever in the hopes of converting them to the faith. The main purpose of the testimony is to establish solidarity within the group by reaffirming their philosophical point of view, and the best testimonies are those that show a sharp contrast between the perceived nihilism and depravity of the secular world and the sense of purpose and belonging in the Christian world. Therefore, while the story of a preacher’s son who accepts Jesus is fine, it’s much more satisfying to hear the story of a drug-addicted heavy-metal musician whose life was destroyed by excess and then saved by the grace of God.
I can’t recall the first time I consciously compared my childhood to the plot of Footloose in order to seduce a woman, but it was probably in grad school. At the time, I was getting a master’s degree in literature for no other reason than it seemed more fun than trying to find a real job, and when I wasn’t writing incomprehensible research papers about Lacan and Derrida, I was drinking copious amounts of alcohol and attempting to have one-night stands with undergrads.
At this point in my life, I had almost no contact with my family. I never spoke with them on the phone and only visited every three or four years. Part of the reason for this was simple geography. My parents and siblings all lived in rural Nebraska, and I was now a city slicker. I didn’t want to go to the country, and they didn’t want to come to the city. (I realize most people don’t consider Greeley, Colorado “the city” but compared to where I grew up, it’s Paris, London, and NYC all rolled into one.) Furthermore, as my sociopolitical views began to skew left, it became almost impossible for my father and me to be in the same room without an argument breaking out, followed by long periods of intense silence. No one wanted to be around us, especially us.
However, the primary reason I stopped communicating with my family is that I was busy creating a new narrative for myself, one that included my family but only as a punchline. I was a reformed Christian, a born-again liberal.
In my experience, this is a natural progression for those raised in extremist environments. When you’re accustomed to living in a black-or-white world, it’s almost impossible to adopt a gray perspective right away. You tend to swing from one extreme to the other before settling somewhere in the middle. My father was on the Rush Limbaugh/Jerry Falwell side of the pendulum, so I felt I needed to be on the Michael Moore/Fidel Castro ticket. Like many young academics in a post–Cold War, pre-9/11 world, my radical views were mostly about intellectual exploration and social posturing. I didn’t chain myself to nuclear power plants or throw red paint on women wearing fur; I simply hung out in coffee shops reading Chomsky and consciously attempted to piss off conservatives every chance I got. (Facebook didn’t exist then, so this took a bit more creativity than it does today).
And I cashed in my childhood experiences in exchange for sex and social acceptance.
This is how it usually happened. I’d be at a party/bar/club drinking either a screwdriver or a rum and Coke, and I would find some lame excuse to start up a conversation with an attractive coed: “What’re you drinking?” or, “Don’t you hate this song?” or, “Haven’t I seen you reading Chomsky at the coffee shop?” We would exchange academic résumés (history major, grad student, etc.), and I then I would ask where she grew up. I didn’t actually care about the answer; I simply wanted her to reciprocate the question so that I could tell her about my “small-town fundamentalist” upbringing. No matter how the conversation was progressing before this moment, she would immediately take an interest in me, if only for sociological reasons. Now that I had her attention, I would deliver a rehearsed semi-witty monologue about my crazy right-wing father. There were several anecdotes I used, all of them short and told in a dry, self-deprecating tone. 1) My father collects gold coins because he believes that when the apocalypse comes, the global economy will collapse and national currency will be worthless. 2) I attended kindergarten in a private religious school located in a bomb shelter under our church. 3) When I was five, my father tried to move our family “off the grid” so the government couldn’t spy on us. 4) I was baptized in a horse trough. No matter which of these stories I told, I would always end with the line about how my father was so strict he wouldn’t let me watch movies, listen to rock music, or go to dances. Nine times out of ten, the girl’s eyes would widen and she would say something like, “Oh my God! Your life was just like Footloose!” To which I would inevitably reply, “Yeah, but without all that shitty Kenny Loggins music.” It’s not a great line, but since she was usually drunk and it appeared as though I came up with it in the moment, she would find it clever. Seventy-five percent of the time, the conversation would end there, but 25 percent of the time, it would continue, usually because the girl now thought I was unique and/or charming, despite the fact that our interaction was completely contrived. Not always, but on a fairly regular basis, this would lead to sex.
I used this tactic so often that it became second nature. I couldn’t talk about myself without the my-family-is-crazier-than-yours patter. Once, I approached a girl in a bar that I’d never seen before and started to go through my routine. She stopped me after a few lines and said she already knew the whole shtick; apparently I’d used it on her roommate several months ago. I was becoming a cliché of a cliché.
But it wasn’t just female undergrads who found my life story appealing. I also shared my childhood anecdotes with groups of elderly hippies, middle-aged professors, and teenage hipsters, always with positive results. Sometimes I would start my narration only to discover that the listener grew up in a similar environment, which took some of the wind out of my sails, but not often. For the most part, the people I interacted with in college had heard about small-town fundamentalists, but they’d never seen one in real life. Many were newly reformed liberals like myself, and they wanted their stereotypes of conservative culture confirmed. I was only too happy to oblige. I gave them my testimony, and then we celebrated our open-mindedness like true secular progressives—with Jäger shots and safe sex.
I didn’t watch Footloose again for almost a decade, and then for my birthday, a friend gave me a copy of the special collector’s edition as a joke. At the time, I was the arts-and-entertainment editor at an alternative newspaper in Boulder, Colorado, so thinking about pop culture was literally a full-time job. I was still using the same tired Footloose monologue to impress women, except now I had a backup plan if it failed: “Did I ever tell you about the time I interviewed Bill Maher?”
I decided that I needed to watch Footloose again for nostalgia purposes, so I smoked a joint and put the disk in the DVD player. The next day I watched the commentary by Kevin Bacon, and the day after that I watched an interview with the writer, Dean Pitchford. A week later, I realized that I’d watched something on the DVD every day for the past seven days. For some reason, this seemed significant, and the thought crossed my mind that I should do this for an entire year. I can’t really say why. Maybe I was feeling homesick. Maybe I finally decided that Teddy was right, and the correlations between my life and the plot of this film were just too numerous to ignore—it had to mean something. Or maybe it was just the weed.
In any case, that’s what I did. I watched something on the Footloose special collector’s edition DVD every day for twelve months. Usually it was just a scene. I would push play before brushing my teeth in the morning and listen to John Lithgow deliver the opening sermon: “If our Lord wasn’t testing us, how would you account for the proliferation these days of this obscene rock and roll music, with its gospel of easy sexuality and relaxed morality?” Sometimes I would watch the speech that Kevin Bacon delivers to the Bomont town council toward the end of the movie: “See, this is our time to dance. It’s our way of celebrating life.” It became a ritual. It relaxed me. It gave me a purpose. If I spent the weekend at a friend’s house, I made sure to bring the DVD with me, and if I didn’t know whether or not there would be an entertainment system, I packed my laptop just in case. I was determined to break the secret cultural code that connected my life to Footloose, no matter what the cost.
If you watch a movie that many times, especially one you’re not particularly fond of, you start to fixate on bizarre details. For instance, why does everyone in this fictional universe ride around on dirt bikes? Do people in Hollywood seriously think that off-road motorcycles are the primary source of transportation in small towns? And what’s the deal with their names? Ren, Ariel, Willard, Rusty, Woody, Wendy Jo. Teenagers at my high school had names like Mike and Nicole. Also, it must be said that the primary love story in this film does not appear to be between Ren McCormack (Kevin Bacon) and Ariel Moore (Lori Singer). It’s between Ren and Wilbur Hewitt (Chris Penn). Their onscreen chemistry is magical, while Ren and Ariel are painful to watch. Also, I’ve never seen two heterosexual men dancing together in a meadow. Ariel isn’t Ren’s girlfriend; she’s his beard.
But that’s the least of Ariel’s concerns. Let’s face facts—this girl is probably bipolar and definitely suicidal. I have no idea why more people don’t discuss this aspect of her character. (Perhaps because most people haven’t been repeatedly compared to her for twenty years by their Gen X peers.) During the course of the film, she purposefully puts herself in life-threatening situations on two separate occasions. The first is when Ariel and her female friends are driving down the highway after church gossiping about mail-order diaphragms, and Ariel’s boyfriend at the time, Chuck Cranston, pulls up next to the car in his pickup. (The pickup has a pair of antlers attached to the roof, by the way. That has nothing to do with Ariel’s mental state, but it’s another strange choice made by the director regarding small-town culture.) For no particular reason, Ariel decides she wants to crawl out of the window of the moving car and into the window of the moving pickup. And then, just in case that’s not evidence enough that this person needs some serious therapy, instead of simply climbing safely into the front seat of the truck, Ariel pauses in the middle and straddles the two speeding vehicles, standing with one foot on each window screaming with delight as a semi bears down on her and Sammy Hagar sings “The Girl Gets Around.” In the end, she ducks into the truck at the last possible moment (a move that probably defies the laws of physics) causing both vehicles to veer into the ditch. Does anyone call the police or at the very least tell their high-school guidance counselor about the incident? Nope. They simply refuse to share their French fries with her at the drive-in. When her father shows up two minutes later, no one bothers to tell him that his daughter just tried to play chicken with a 30,000-pound truck. They’re far more concerned about dancing to Shalamar songs.
The second time Ariel flirts with death is when she takes Ren to the train tracks, where she shows him a secret spot where local teenagers gather to drink beer and write poetry on the walls. While staring awkwardly into each other’s eyes, they hear a train coming, and for no logical reason Ariel decides to stand in the middle of the tracks and scream at the locomotive. At first, Ren thinks she’s just kidding around, but it soon becomes apparent that Ariel isn’t going to move. Ren is forced to dive-tackle her at the last possible moment in order to prevent a bloody death. Does Ren inform anyone about this profoundly disturbing behavior? Nah. He’s more concerned about planning the prom.
It’s not particularly unrealistic that Ariel’s friends don’t tell a grownup about these reckless acts. Most teenagers make crazy decisions at one point or another that would cause an adult to freak out, which is why adults are generally the last to know about such things. However, the reason for Ariel’s unsettling conduct isn’t sufficiently explained within the narrative. The audience is led to believe that her manic behavior and attempts to kill herself are caused by her older brother’s death years ago and the subsequent authoritarian behavior of her Bible-thumping father, but it’s simply not enough to account for Ariel’s shocking self-destruction. In the end, the plot relies too heavily on the prejudicial belief that religious conservatism is principally flawed and leads to psychological corruption.
Another example is the scene that takes place the night before Ren is scheduled to speak in front of the town council. While the family is asleep, someone throws a brick through his cousins’ bedroom window with the words “BURN IN HELL” written on it. This is not a new cinematic device, but it’s normally used in movies where a white community is trying to intimidate a black family, not musicals where teenagers fight for their right to boogie. But that’s not even the most extreme instance of liberal moralizing in Footloose. There is also a sensationalist scene toward the end of the movie in which members of the local congregation—led by the bow-tie-wearing sycophant Roger Dunbar and his wife Eleanor—decide to have a book burning at the library after misinterpreting Reverend Moore’s censorship rhetoric. Book-burning scenes in movies made post-1945 inevitably cause the audience to draw comparisons to Nazi Germany, and that’s basically what happens here. To be fair, Reverend Moore immediately realizes the situation has gotten out of control and puts a stop to it, but it’s too late to put the hyperbole cat back in the rationality bag. The implication has been made: religious conservatism leads directly to political fascism.
Obviously, this is a lot of baggage to foist upon a dance musical constructed around Kevin Bacon’s haircut and pop songs about loose feet, but after watching the movie every day for twelve months, everything about it seemed more ominous. This had happened to me before. When you overanalyze a fairly uncomplicated piece of art designed to entertain American teenagers, you will inevitably project your own meaning onto it in order to make your analysis seem more relevant. This is just how pop-culture journalism works.
But there was another reason I was being so hard on this particular movie. Not long before I started my year-long Footloose obsession, my parents got divorced. My father moved across the country and I rarely spoke to him, which was nothing new, but I started to reestablish a connection with the rest of my family. They all still lived in rural Nebraska, and I drove down to see them on several occasions. During these visits, we sat around the kitchen table eating homemade apple pie and reminiscing about old times. No one brought up politics or religion or culture; we just told stories about our lives and generally enjoyed each other’s company. I began to realize what a pretentious prick I’d been toward my relatives.
Most of my family could still be categorized as “small-town fundamentalists,” although I was starting to understand that this broad designation (like all broad designations) was sort of meaningless. They were complicated, interesting people who were simply trying to get by like everyone else, but I’d spent a decade thinking of them as props used in a one-man show inside my head titled Look at How Liberal and Enlightened Dale Has Become!
I didn’t want to admit I was this shallow, so I began looking around for a scapegoat. As a pop-culture journalist, I blamed television and movies for everything else—why not my own megalomania? I managed to construct a half-baked theory that Footloose was some sort of modern liberal passion play designed to indoctrinate the public with an anticonservative message. This message had been consumed wholeheartedly by an entire generation of impressionable minds, which was why everyone my age immediately connected my life story to the plot of Footloose. It was Hollywood that had reduced my family members to convenient stereotypes, not me.
If this sounds ridiculous, that’s because it is. Yes, Footloose does contain a subtle reactionary political message, but it was the 1980s; reactionary political messages were the order of the day. (Have you seen Rocky IV lately?) Furthermore, the theory just doesn’t hold up under close scrutiny. If Footloose writer Dean Pitchford had truly wanted to make a movie vilifying small-town Americans, he would have created a series of unlikable characters played by unsophisticated actors for which the audience has no empathy. This is clearly not the case. Instead, the central conservative figure, Reverend Shaw Moore, is played by Lithgow, who delivers a nuanced performance focusing on the pain of a personal tragedy (his son’s death) and his internal struggle to protect his community without alienating his family. When the reverend goes too far, his wife (Dianne Wiest, another accomplished actor) steps in and becomes the voice of reason. All of the main characters are relatively complex, especially for this genre, and the narrative generally avoids easy black-and-white solutions to the issues it raises. The story still hinges on an outsider from the city who comes to a small town and shows its citizens the error of their ways, but that’s an old plot device that has been recycled for generations; Pitchford didn’t invent it.
Yet despite the blatant inconsistencies, I managed to hold this ill-conceived theory in the back of my mind without really examining it too closely (for obvious reasons), until 2011 when the Footloose remake came out. Originally, I planned on boycotting it on principle (movie remakes are generally shallow attempts to cash in on a franchise while destroying people’s childhood memories), but then I saw that Pitchford was involved in the project and decided I could not ignore it.
The 2011 remake of Footloose addresses almost all of my criticisms (including the absence of country music and the impracticality of playing chicken with tractors). The movie starts off by showing the tragic death of Bobby Moore, Ariel’s older brother and Reverend Moore’s son, on his way home from a party where drinking and dancing take place. Actually showing this event instead of simply talking about it gives more pathos to Ariel and Reverend Moore. This makes Ariel’s wild behavior more understandable (along with the removal of the ludicrous Ariel-straddling-two-cars-while-a-truck-speeds-toward-her scene). No one throws bricks through children’s bedroom windows in the remake, and library books are not torched by fascist Christians. All of the citizens of Bomont, even those in minor roles, are more urbane and less authoritarian. Every single modification to the plot and dialogue indicates that the creators recognized the problems I noticed in the first film and tried to correct them. Furthermore, I didn’t see a single dirt bike in the whole movie.
So there it was, my entire theory blown up in my face, or at the very least made obsolete. I could no longer pretend there was some kind of cultural machinery working against me. Footloose may have created a musical blockbuster that accidentally contained similarities to my own childhood experience, and consequently the universal popularity of the movie may have caused my peers to draw erroneous conclusions about my life (especially when I purposefully invited such comparisons), but anything beyond that was my own doing. For years, I consciously compared my life to the plot of Footloose in order to ingratiate myself to strangers and sleep with women. Ironically, like my father, I inflated the significance of pop culture and accused Hollywood of a contrived political agenda in order to make the outside world conform to my internal rationalizations. In the end, I wasn’t Ren McCormack or even Ariel Shaw. Perhaps the person I most resembled in the movie Footloose was Reverend Shaw’s pushy, self-righteous disciple Roger Dunbar, who willfully misinterprets the reverend’s message in order to give himself permission to demonize certain cultural artifacts, which he has determined are the source of all his problems.
Listen to Dale read his essay:
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Original Rumpus art by Lyndsey Lesh.