Culture

In search of lost media

When the world shut down in early 2020, we were all supposed to become exceptionally productive. For my part, I idled away the year engaging in two time-wasting activities: obsessively tracking the movements of the Great Roving Pathogen and searching for lost media.

Lost media can take any number of forms, but it generally consists of movies, TV shows, video games, music, cartoons, photos and books that have vanished, leaving behind only a few traces or some hazy memories to prove they ever existed. Some media are lost due to negligence, others to the ravages of time. A few have been intentionally hidden or destroyed after being deemed too disturbing for the public.

There are a number of online sources devoted to cataloging and recovering lost media, including Lost Media Archive, Lost Media Wiki, and r/lostmedia on Reddit. Though lots of people who frequent these sites like to picture lost media as an iceberg, I prefer to think of it as Three Degrees of Disappearance:

  1. Media lost to you
  2. Media lost to the public
  3. Media lost to the universe

Lost Media

If you want to find lost media, each degree of disappearance requires a different search technique. Here’s how I recovered three personal holy grails — one from each category. Buckle up, this is gonna be quite a ride!

1. Media lost to you

This is media that definitely exists, but you can’t get your hands on it for one reason or another. Maybe it’s rare or difficult to buy. Maybe it’s illegal in your country. Or, worst of all, maybe you’ve forgotten how to find it.

Sometimes you just can’t remember the author of that book, the name of that obscure TV show, or anything at all about that picture you can’t forget. In the era before the internet, you were out of luck unless you happened upon a canny librarian, an accommodating expert, or an exceptionally obsessive collector. Fortunately, the advent of Google, YouTube, eBay and niche hobby sites have made this category almost obsolete.

My First Degree of Disappearance piece of lost media was a song I’d heard just one time years ago. Unlike the infamous Most Mysterious Song on the Internet, I knew that my enigmatic song was somewhat well-known — at least to a certain circle of people. Unfortunately, it was a circle I no longer had access to.

I encountered the song back in college. It happened one dull evening after I read the play Master Class by Terrance McNally during my quest to obtain a degree in Theatre Arts (yes, a real degree from a real university). Reading a script is all well and good, but seeing a play is better. With no way of accomplishing this in a podunk town before YouTube hit it big, I decided to simulate the plot of the play by taking myself across the campus to the music department and attend a real master class.

The class was for aspiring opera singers, just like in the play. The teacher was acerbic and overly exacting, just like McNally’s fictionalized version of Maria Callas. In fact, the evening was so similar to the script I’d just read that I inadvertently transposed elements of the play with the real-life class and unalterably muddled my memory of both.

But there was one thing that stuck with me from the real master class: the song the final student sang. I was familiar with all the other opera arias that were workshopped over and over and over that night, painstakingly and onerously. But not this one. It sounded like nothing I’d ever heard before — not Mozart, not Verdi, not Puccini, not Wagner. The teacher forced the poor soprano to sing the opening bars of the strange tune again and again until they were burned into my brain.

Then the class was over and I never heard the song again. Nor did I know what it was called, who composed it, or even what period it was from. But now and then, from that night until pandemic times, those repeatedly reproduced opening bars would pop into my mind unbidden.

More like this: Why do songs get stuck in your head?

Finally, locked down and with nothing better to do, I decided to find the song that had been plaguing me for so long. Without access to a professional opera singer or classical music major to whom I could hum my off-key rendition of the few notes I could recall, I set about trying to remember anything — anything at all — that might help me figure it out on my own.

This was all I could come up with:

  • It was from the late 19th or early 20th century, and was not a classic aria but some kind of “art song
  • The story told in the song was some trippy nonsense about a faun seducing a woman
  • It was in French

Google couldn’t make heads or tails of any of this.

The only thing to do was try to remember the lyrics. All I knew were the opening words: “Il m’a dit, ‘Cette nuit j’ai rêvé,'” meaning, “He told me, ‘Last night I dreamed.'”

I plugged these vague phrases into a couple lyrics-finder sites, et voilà! Up popped “La Chevelure” from Claude Debussy’s 1897 Chansons de Bilitis song cycle.

A quick YouTube search and then, after all these years, I heard those unforgettable opening bars once again:

Neat! Now I could drive myself crazy playing it over and over while berating the singer for her emotive choices and French diction in a cosplay of opera’s greatest diva and master class teacher. Truly I was coping with the pandemic in a healthy and sane manner!

2. Media lost to the public

This category comprises media that’s no longer in public circulation. It’s the out-of-print books, the paintings in private collections, the discontinued video games, the unreleased death recordings.

The media may not be publicly available, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t out there. It’s just very, very hard to come by. It’s sitting on a dusty shelf of an obscure bookshop, it’s on a bootleg VHS tape in a forgotten cardboard box in someone’s garage, it’s locked up in the FBI’s evidence room.

My Second Degree of Disappearance piece of lost media was an old newspaper article.

Back when I was in high school, I wrote a play. It was produced by a Real & Genuine Theater. I was paid a couple hundred bucks for it. That was more money than I’d made in years of babysitting. A lucrative career lay before me: I would become a playwright!

Eddie Murphy laughing

Yeah, well.

Anyway, the local newspaper sent out a Real & Genuine Reporter to interview me and two other lucky juveniles whose angsty scribblings were to be enacted on stage. Brooding in my house a lifetime later, reflecting upon my life choices while menaced on all sides by hostile viruses seeking to end me, I really wanted to see that article again.

But alas, it came out in the time before digital news. And the newspaper that published it, while still in operation unlike so many specimens of print media, has a laughably sparse online archive. Most newspapers maintain a “morgue” where they store copies of each printed edition of their paper. But even if I could travel out of state in a pandemic, talk my way into the newsroom, gain access to their morgue, and figure out which edition the article ran in, the odds that it hadn’t been recycled, damaged in some inconvenient flood/fire/rodent infestation, or simply decayed to dust were slim to none.

There was only one hope: maybe I had saved a clipping in a forgotten scrapbook in some spider-colonized box in one of the many dank corners of my abode. I had all the time in the world, and the garage, closets, crawl space and storage shed seemed like exotic ports of call during this time of contagion-induced house arrest.

And look what I just happened to find!

Emanuelle by Katherine Luck_Oregonian review

This may very well be the only surviving copy of this particular piece of lost media.

“Exit stage teen,” indeed. Not only was this my first appearance in the news, it was also my introduction to the fallibility of journalists. I am not “Katherine Luck (center).” I’m one of the two “stage teens” flanking her. Try to guess which one! The answer may surprise you.

Incidentally, my interaction with the very nice but very inaccurate reporter led to my next employment maneuver after the playwright thing fell through. Reporters are writers, I mused. The whole interviewing-teens-routine seemed easy enough. A lucrative career lay before me: I would become a journalist!

Batman and friends laughing

And with that, let’s turn to the most challenging category of all …

3. Media lost to the universe

This type of lost media is believed to be gone forever. It’s been irrevocably misplaced or utterly destroyed. You might remember watching, hearing, seeing or reading it before it was obliterated from the face of the earth, or it might only exist as a legend. There’s a lot of lost media in this category, including:

The media in this category is truly lost.

But every so often, what once was lost now is found.

My personal white whale from the Third Degree of Disappearance was the most controversial article that journalist, poor little rich girl and drug aficionado Cat Marnell ever wrote.

Back when I was working as a newspaper reporter, I and a great many journalists closely followed her chaotic career. From 2011 to 2012, Marnell worked as Beauty Editor at the now-defunct online magazine XO Jane. As Haute Spotter explained, “At her best, Cat wrote hilarious, honest pieces about beauty products cut through with frank, moving asides about her life.” These asides included confessions of regularly smoking angel dust, habitually using Plan B as a contraceptive since she didn’t like condoms or birth control pills because “they will make me fat,” and eating tissues to lose weight.

She was a modern-day Hunter S. Thompson; it seemed as if she was on the verge of dying at any moment. Gawker’s Hamilton Nolan called her a “dust-smoking suicidal narcissist downtown swinger beauty columnist” and accused XO Jane of only parting ways with her “after they had sucked every last car-wreck-in-action page view that they reasonably could from her while still maintaining a decent Caring Big Sister posture.”

At The Daily Beast, Caitlin Dickson summarized readers’ obsession with Marnell: “Reading about a drug addict’s life while she’s an active addict, especially in real time, is fascinating and a little bit scary. But while her life may appear to be spiraling out of control, Marnell is surprisingly self-aware. This, combined with the ability to write, provides for some spectacular insight on a typically taboo subject.”

When she left her job, Marnell admitted, “I’m always on drugs. …. Look, I couldn’t spend another summer meeting deadlines behind a computer at night when I could be on the rooftop of Le Bain looking for shooting stars and smoking angel dust with my friends.”

Prior to that parting riposte, Marnell wrote dozens of shocking articles. But there was one so appalling that XO Jane took it down from their website almost immediately after it was posted, and thereafter scrubbed it from the internet. It was referenced time and again by journalists, but nobody seemed to have actually read it. It had one of the most intriguing titles I had ever seen: “I Loathe my Scary Dad but I Love my Black Eyes: My 3 Favorite Liners Of All Time.” Years after its publication and deletion, I read Marnell’s memoir, How to Murder Your Life, and reviewed it for a newspaper. There was not a word in the book about the article.

Over the years, I periodically and halfheartedly tried to find this taboo piece of lost media, to no avail.

But recently, with “time hanging heavy upon my hands,” as the talented authoresses of Heian Japan were fond of writing (another rich wellspring of lost media), I took it upon myself to find the article one way or another. And I did! Here’s how.

XO Jane’s website, xojane.com, was a dead end. It was acquired by Time Inc. in 2015, then got “folded” first into Time’s InStyle.com, then HelloGiggles.com.

The Wayback Machine is usually a reliable source of lost media from dead websites, but a decade ago the wily folks at XO Jane outwitted this digital library by deleting the article before it could be archived in situ. Clicking on the dates in 2011 and 2012 when the Wayback Machine archived the xojane.com site returned no records of the article.

But maybe there was another way: a sort of “back door” into the article …

Indeed, there was. The key to that door was the XO Jane comments section. Using Google Advanced Search yielded three results: the Haute Spotter piece, a Facebook post with a dead link to XO Jane, and a link to the Disqus comments that ran with Marnell’s article.

Disqus is a blog comments hosting service that’s still in operation, independent from XO Jane. The Disqus page provided an exact URL to enter into the Wayback Machine.

And then, the infamous article was instantly resurrected in all its salacious glory:

https://web.archive.org/web/20111101221236/http://www.xojane.com/beauty/i-loathe-my-scary-dad-i-love-black-eyes-my-3-favorite-liners-all-time

At last, I found out not only what Marnell had written, but also what caused it to be obliterated from the internet.

All these years, I’d assumed that it was Marnell’s father or other members of her wealthy family who demanded that it be taken down. But the real reason was found in the 238 Disqus comments from readers. You’ll get a sense of the outrage the article generated in the very first of them:

“I’m sorry, I get the rebellious-preteen-yearning-for-cosmetic-freedom backstory, but this piece was kind of ruined by opening with, ‘It is Thursday and you must bone me now.’ Some topics aren’t ever funny, and a flippant incest/rape joke was probably the most offensive/nauseating and least necessary line to drop in a beauty article.”

Others wrote:

“It was harsh and made me uncomfortable”

“Child molestation/rape jokes are just never funny or amusing.”

“I’m ALL for edgy beauty, I’m all for cat’s writing 100%. But as a woman and as a woman with a daughter and as a woman who has a viewpoint regarding sexual abuse, and as someone who contributes here, I find it not cool. and I know a lot of our readers have past sexual abuse and I think it’s OK I say I don’t like people making jokes about it in a flippant way.”

This is the opening to Marnell’s article that the commenters were so upset about:

So basically I wasn’t allowed to wear makeup in junior high when all of my friends were. Certainly there are worse rules that can be imposed by a father on a 12-year-old girl, including but not limited to, say, “It is Thursday and you must bone me now.”

(I suffered no sexual abuse as a young person.)

But for me the no-makeup rule was the worst possible thing — and from day one, all I wanted was to be allowed to wear HOT.BLACK. EYELINER.

Even with the parenthetical disclaimer, the quip was considered to be in such bad taste that her normally indulgent readers were infuriated. And it was possible that so, too, were XO Jane’s advertisers, according to Marnell herself.

“I will also say that if someone has gone through it [sexual abuse], they can joke about it all they want if they find solace in doing so,” wrote one commenter. “But when someone has not, it sets my teeth on edge.”

“yours and the advertisers’ too, surely …” Marnell replied.

The critical comments kept coming:

“I feel compelled to mention that the word ‘boning’ eroticizes the rape. … That’s why I’m going to suggest that we condemn this language out of respect for the young assault victims in question.”

“Call me old and cranky (because I am), but this really bothers me. I’m not trying to hurt Cat’s feelings. I’m not suggesting you should hinder her ‘voice.’ And I get that her writing style is legitimate. In most instances, I find it highly entertaining. I also fully get that humor, sarcasm, etc., is a legitimate tool in dealing with past trauma. But is there any limit whatsoever in what is appropriate and not appropriate on this site?”

Eventually XO Jane founder Jane Pratt was obliged to jump into the fray, addressing the commenters, “I thought that it very perfectly set apart the distinctions between what Cat went through and what others of us went through [but] I totally respect your right to disagree.” Then this exchange happened:

It was getting out of hand. So XO Jane simply deleted the article. But not as irrevocably as they thought.

Maybe someday Pratt, Time Inc., or a future entity will find a way to eradicate it permanently. But I’ve learned my lesson during my months of hunting for vanished songs, clippings and articles. Lost media, once found, must be preserved.

Sometimes it’s quite difficult. Other times, it’s as simple as clicking “download.”

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