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The Fourth Wall: These aren’t the c-l-i-c-h-e-s you’re looking for

As the great Aretha Franklin ascended last week, media outlets were flooded with tributes to the Queen of Soul. Her role in the realms of civil rights, women’s rights and music were documented and praised with the utmost respect.

Well, let’s make that with the utmost R-E-S-P-E-C-T.

It was unavoidable. From twitterers to newscasters, Facebook to front pages, no one could avoid making the obvious connotation with one of her signature anthems by using the song title and spelling it out.

Heck, even Major League Baseball’s Detroit Tigers got into the act — posting “R-E-S-P-E-C-T” on their centerfield Jumbotron … next to a picture of Patti LaBelle.

(No, of course they wouldn’t make that error in her home city of Detroit … even though the Tigers are having a poor season. I mean, you’d have to be tone-deaf ­— or worse — to make that sort of mistake.)

We here at the Mail Tribune weren’t immune from jumping on the hyphenated bandwagon, going down that road (at least) twice.

No disr-e-s-p-e-c-t (gets annoying, doesn’t it?), but that sort of pop culture reference is a lot easier to write — on social media or in a one-column, 30-point headline — than something that takes a bit more … wait, what’s the word …

… oh yes, something that takes a bit more thought.

And yet, given the chance to express ourselves, we fall back on the tried and true:

N Why did you buy that new car? “They made me an offer I couldn’t refuse.”

N Is there truly a need for so many Big Green Coffee Machine outlets? “If you build it, they will come!”

N Your favorite team’s chances of winning appear to be over? “Over? Was it over when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor?”

And so on and so forth … yadda yadda yadda.

You do it. I do it. There’s a guy who writes a Sunday column for the Mail Tribune who does it so often that he should be put on double-secret probation … even though that seems inconceivable.

(Note to self: I keep using that word. I do not think it means what I think it means.)

When it comes to using this sort of refrain, so many of us are in the same boat that, clearly, we’re gonna need …

Gotcha.

Cliches are as old as the hills, but quoting song lyrics or movie or TV screenplays has become something other than just interjecting a reference point into a conversation.

Part of this seems to come from the need to establish a sense of shared territory, of tribal recognition.

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, I was toiling nightly in a newsroom that had its share of mechanical issues. On deadline, a key piece of high-priced equipment broke down and a few of us stood there watching as a technician scrambled to get it working again so we could meet deadline.

Another editor strolled past, surveyed the situation and uttered what we all (apparently) were thinking: “Kmart sucks.”

With eight minutes to Wapner … umm deadline … the tension was broken.

Beyond camaraderie, though, there’s the restless, uneasy feeling that we’ve let pop culture seep so deep into our consciousness that we cling to it like a buoy.

It’s a status exacerbated by the shortening of attention spans and the need to use shorthand in all situations. Whereas people would once drop Shakespearean asides into discussions to enlighten, illustrate — or simply show off — society has moved beyond the time when conversation should be pleasant without scurrility, witty without affectation, free without indecency, learned without conceitedness, novel without falsehood.

(That sounded better in the original Klingon.)

I suppose this all was inevitable. “2001: A Space Odyssey” is 50 years old this year and when carrying too much to turn a knob we want HAL to open the pod bay door for us. “Animal House” is 40 years old, “Rain Man” is 30 … and, well, I wouldn’t be a very good driver if I didn’t point out that both had made their way into the long and winding road to this moment.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

The point is if we use these cliché touchstones as a bridge over troubled water for times when life seems to be spinning out of control … then it’s fair to say that they have a purpose — even if that purpose is to share in a communal experience without having to burn too many brain cells.

Years from now, we’ll no doubt be walking around with implanted chips that we’ll activate to regurgitate Taylor Swift or Harry Potter quotes on command, as we project the exact scene or music video on a nearby wall through cameras attached to what remains of our left hemispheres.

Until then, live long and prosper and may the force be with us. After all, tomorrow is another day.

Mail Tribune senior designer Robert Galvin, who will be away next week on an impossible mission that he’s chosen to accept, can be reached at rgalvin@rosebudmedia.com.

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