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August 27, 2012

Slate: What 'Honey Boo Boo' says about American culture

NEW YORK — Somehow America always goes a little off the rails in the allegedly slow month of August, and this year's party is as wild as any. Republicans can't figure out how babies are made; cutting-and-pasting a passage from The New Yorker into your Newsweek column is no longer a fireable offense; and all the way down in McIntyre, Ga., there is a mother who feeds her child a Mountain-Dew-and-Red-Bull concoction before the 6-year-old gets onstage at beauty pageants.

June Shannon, who stars with her daughter Alana "Honey Boo Boo Child" Thompson in TLC's controversial hit "Here Comes Honey Boo Boo," would have provoked a firestorm even if what she calls "go-go juice" were the only sin she was broadcasting all over Christendom. All that caffeine, pop-culture commentators everywhere clucked, and all that sugar.

Lost in the outrage is just how squarely "go-go juice" fits into America's long tradition of "white trash" entertainment, which for decades has elevated characters like Honey Boo Boo into the nation's objects of fun. The Pepsi Co. borrowed the Mountain Dew brand-name from slang for moonshine; in the 1960s, it was explicitly advertised as a "hillbilly" drink. The campaign's entertaining TV ads, which you can watch on YouTube, were scored by twangy banjos and errant buckshot and plotted around a "stone-hearted gal" who will open her heart to you if you only take a swig. Watching these old videos after an episode or two of "Honey Boo Boo" makes at least one thing clear: The hillbilly has regained the spotlight in American culture.

As Anthony Harkins observes in "Hillbilly: A Cultural History of an American Icon," one of the hillbilly's signature moves is to peak, popularity-wise, just when Americans sense that things in general are headed south. Its first true zenith came in the depressed 1930s, a handmaiden to the birth of commercial country music.

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