Friday, December 18, 2009

Charge Aught!!!: Harry Potter - Man of the Decade

Each decade has a few culturally-defining events - those rare moments that somehow bridge the gaps between Americans to appeal to everybody. It's the sort of thing that's so huge that you can't escape it. Everybody is talking about it, and, regardless if they liked it or not, everyone has an opinion. Think the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan show.

These events come in all shapes and sizes, and the past ten years have been no exception. There were the news events, like the attacks of 9/11, and the sporting events, like Michael Phelps' golden romp through the 2008 Summer Olympics. One event is tragic, the other inspiring, but both brought Americans together and made us feel like members of a single community.

But as I started thinking about pure pop-culture moments, my mind drew a blank. In the nineties, for example, Titanic ruled the big screen while Seinfeld conquered the airwaves. The aughts seem to have no blockbuster equivalents for movies or television, and the music scene is more fragmented than ever.

But then I realized that perhaps there was a grand unifying piece of pop culture this decade. And, even in this age of whiz-bang technology, it came from the old-fashioned medium of the book. I submit that Harry Potter was the piece of pop culture that future generations will use to define this decade.

Okay, so perhaps Harry Potter wasn't a "moment" so much as a "movement". And the first three books were actually published before the decade began. But if the nineties saw the birth of Harry Potter, the aughties saw him take the throne as the king of pop culture. What other work can you name that appeals equally to eight year olds and eighty year olds? J.K. Rowling's books were innocent and fantastical enough to appeal to children, but packed with enough cleverness to win over adults as well. The result was a series of seven books that managed to infiltrate every facet of our cultural consciousness, from top to bottom.

It seems that every year there's a new expose that comes out chronicling the decline of reading and the death of the book, or something like that. But Harry Potter stands as at least one refutation of this argument. Who'd have thought that a 700 page book would get a first print run of twelve million copies? That the New York Times would create a special "Children's" category of best-sellers because the first three books refused to drop off their Fiction Bestsellers list? I'm a big fan of fantasy fiction, and I've always done my best to disguise my reading habits when in public. But somewhere around 2000, not only did it become culturally acceptable to haul around large hardbacks with dragons and bespectacled wizards on the cover - it became cool.

Naturally, the marketing followed soon after. There have been six movies (with two more on the way), countless toys and accessories, and even a planned 22-acre Harry Potter theme park in Orlando. It could have been very easy for the Potter-mania bubble to burst, and, in retrospect, it's sort of surprising that it didn't. But there was no Potter-fatigue, and somehow all the additional merchandise didn't ruin the initial product (perhaps George Lucas could take a few tips from Rowling on how to do this). Likewise, the cadre of chubby wand-wielding overzealous fanboy nerds failed to turn others away from the Potter juggernaught. And, unlike Twilight, the films never overshadowed the novels. The books just kept selling, and the fanbase just kept growing.

The Harry Potter books aren't perfect, by any means. I have some very significant complaints with the last couple of volumes. But, in a larger sense, it doesn't matter. The Harry Potter phenomenon has become so huge that it's hard to remember what the world was like before the young wizard appeared on the scene. Harry Potter has become one of those timeless children's stories who just seems to have been around forever, like Winnie the Pooh, or The Wizard of Oz.

But he did appear not so long ago, and it was a hell of a good time for him to show up. In previous decades, Harry's message of love and friendship might have seemed corny or naive. But in a decade marred by terrorism, racked by war, and capped off with a recession, it was the perfect escape. Rowling's books were not necessarily carefree, but they were light-hearted enough to provide a momentary distraction from the real world.

When the writers of Charge Shot!!! began discussing ideas for our end-of-the-decade wrap-up, I wondered if I would be able to distinguish what was culturally important during the last ten years from what was merely a formative influence on me during my passage to adulthood. Harry Potter is one such thing that straddles the line between the two. I got the first book in 1999, when I was thirteen and just going through the pangs of puberty. The last book came out in the summer of 2007, when I was twenty-one, and I had an internship at a government agency that marked my first real "adult" job. As I finished the book in one sitting on a hot July day, the saga of Harry Potter was finally complete. And, quite suddenly, I was a grown-up.

So, yes, my opinions of Harry Potter are probably biased by the fact that I grew up with the books. But it says something about these cultural events - that they can be so spanning, so huge, and somehow still make personal connections to people. Rowling's septology deftly managed to do both.