Friday, July 07, 2006


E and I are trying our damndest to understand what has happened to the word "random." It used to mean something like arbitrary, as in "random acts of violence." It has a more precise scientific meaning; some would say that violent acts aren't random in a strict sense. Wikipedia prescribes: "The term Random is often used in popular culture in place of the correct word arbitrary." This kind of pedantic correctophilia gets in the way of understanding, though, since different words have different shades of meaning, especially when some words are clearly prefered over others in given contexts and by certain speakers. The kids on Laguna don't say, "That's like just arbitrary." Egotastic woudn't caption a photo of Selma Blair and P. Diddy holding hands on the beach as "File this one under abitrary."

Often it seems to be a rather bland term of praise: "I liked your was random..." (This describing a video of a cooking memoir.) Random often seems to come with a positive connotation, though it can also be used to express skepticism or as a putdown. You hear it on MTV but people as old as I am (I was born in the...early seventies!) also say it all the time. A dear friend of my own vintage called me random awhile back, and I didn't understand why. Did he mean eclectic? Unpredictable? Incongruous? Surprising? Arbitrary? When I asked him why he called me that, he said, "You know, you''re random." Why does everyone else seem to grasp its meaning intuitively? What is its special appeal?

I like to think that some of the avant-garde sensibility of John Cage comes with this usage, that random can mean aleatory, that it embraces chance and resists the strictures of order. But part of me doesn't want give the linguistically lazy this much credit. Random sometimes just means, here's a bunch of stuff. That seems to be what most of these these flickr users have in mind.


Links, perhaps random:

Screens, Virginia Heffernan's NYT blog on online video.

Malls of America contains vintage photos of shopping centers. Addictive.

Paste has a listicle of the top 100 living songwriters, as chosen by a bunch of middle-class American white guys. 11. Randy Newman. 25. Chuck Berry. 47. Sufjan Stevens. 72. Michael Jackson. 92. Alejandro Escovedo. You hate it but you can't look away.

Cronenberg meets Warhol in Toronto. On my to-do list for next month.

The Emmy nominations could hardly suck worse. Industry insiders apparently think the new voting system, which was supposed to make for better choices, isn't working.


Me: That book I got out of the library? It has a recipe for Chicago-style hot dogs, you know, making them from scratch.

E: [skeptical]

Me: Come on, they'd be good.

E: [even more skeptical]

Me: They might not be the same but they'd be good.

E: You've hit on a key point.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

People have been throwing "random" around for more than a decade. In Clueless, Cher walks out of the house party in the Valley saying "pretty random fiesta." I would hardly describe the party that way, since Amber was wearing the dress Cher had worn the previous day, AND Elton gave Tai an ice pack after she got hit in the head, AND Dionne yelled at Murray for shaving his head, despite his insistence that he was just keepin' it real. That's all.

1:54 PM  
Blogger mzn said...

I forgot about that scene. I find her meaning ambiguous. Is it positive or negative or neither? I need to see it again.

2:09 PM  
Blogger zoe p. said...

oh, i find the use of "random" a very vexing question that vexes me regularly every couple of years.

i remember saying it throughout high school, which means, basically, at least the 4-5 years that preceeded "clueless" so when "clueless" came out and cher said that i thought she was referring to the party's overall visual-material-aural aesthetic. the lights, the music, the crowd. i particularly associated the word "random" with the light up lawn thing that tai eventually takes home with her and which may or may not be in the background when cher makes her pronoucement.

for me, "random" had to do with a combination of the playful, chance and, yes, aleatory uses of brand new plastic junk from the dollar store (striped socks and virgin mary nightlights) and thrift (frumpy tacky preppy 50s early 60s) . . . that's a pretty precise definition of random, not just "a bunch of stuff" but a "a bunch of very particular sort of stuff used n very particular ways" but that moment has passed, i know. it also had to do with these things (socks, virgin, plaids) taken out of their original context and meant to mean something else, or nothing.

we'd use the word in more abstract ways too, but often it meant that something or someone was confusing because we had no context for it, like, "she's being totally random." that sounds kind of mean, but i believe the word does have a kind of willfully ignorant dark side.

10:09 AM  
Blogger md said...

when the kids on Laguna Beach say random, I think they mean "out of the ordinary," "strange," "anomalous," "unexpected," but it also is just a word that describes the current climate of their teen/pop culture. This is similar to the way they use the word "drama" to describe the vaguely scripted interactions they have with one another. Ironically, in the context of Laguna Beach, the level or artifice is so high and the lives of the kids so without content (bad way to say this but I hope you know what I mean) that the phrases "random" and "drama" have a sort of flatness. Where am I going with this? Oh yeah, since the brilliant Cher used the term in Clueless, I think the version of "random" that is most prevalent in the slang lexicon of the kids on laguna beach and readers of gossip blogs like egotastis et al is more akin to 70s/80s "freaky" or 60s/70s "groovy." So it's sort of a contemporary of "tipsy" or "whack." I'm not saying that these phrases are without distinction from one another, but that they're from a similar pallette. I think the Lady Sovereign video for "Random" is a good illustration of this. check it out:

i hope this make sense. I am really sleepy.

4:23 PM  
Blogger md said...

actually, this url for the lady s works better

4:25 PM  
Blogger md said...

also, I love that big light up snowman tai brings home from the party in the valley.

okay, I'm done cluttering up your comments.

4:27 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

also, I love that whole party in general. Especially the conversation that Cher has (on her extremely large cell phone) with her father. Where he says where are you, and she says just having some coffee with my girlfriends, and he says where, in kuwait?, be home in 20 minutes, and she says it might take longer, and he says everywhere in LA takes 20 minutes. And in the background you can see some dude barfing in the pool. I MUST see that movie again.

5:51 PM  
Blogger femme feral said...

we have it on dvd. should I bring t dot?

6:11 PM  
Blogger mzn said...

zp, your incredibly specific dollar store and thrift items sound amazing. I had a Mickey Mouse nightlight as a child with glowing orange ears and there was nothing random about it. "Lacking context necessary for understanding" seems like the best definition I've come across. It's very different from "arbitrary."

Lady Sovereign's Random makes almost no sense to me at all. I do get the "drama" idea from Laguna. Laguna really must be seen to be believed. It is some kind of masterpiece but its appeal is hard to pin down.

8:19 PM  
Blogger zoe p. said...

there was a time when i was tired of watching clueless. that time as now passed. i must . . . go . . . watch . . . netflix . . . must . . .

7:39 AM  

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