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50 Years In LA: The, Like, Rise of the Valley Girl

by Emily Hummel @hummeline / LAKings.com

They are toy garden cities in which no one lives but everyone consumes, profound equalizers, the perfect fusion of the profit motive and the egalitarian ideal, and to hear their names is to recall words and phrases no longer quite current. -Joan Didion

 

Didion waxed poetic-as she often did-about the malls in Southern California in her book of essays, The White Album, in 1979. Shopping malls had been cropping up around the Los Angeles area for decades after World War II, but by the late 70s and early 80s, they began to reach their apex.

 

Didion waxed poetic-as she often did-about the malls in Southern California in her book of essays, The White Album, in 1979. Shopping malls had been cropping up around the Los Angeles area for decades after World War II, but by the late 70s and early 80s, they began to reach their apex. 

We begin to see them appearing in films, from Fast Times at Ridgemont High to Valley Girl to the original Buffy the Vampire Slayer and eventually, Clueless. Malls become where meet-cutes happen, where fights break out, and eventually fill the role of a microcosm of teen society. When one can barely drive, after all, these third spaces-not home, not school-take center stage.

 

The Sherman Oaks Galleria, as shown in Fast Times at Ridgemont High

 

One mall, above all, reigned supreme. The Sherman Oaks Galleria, now a shadow of its former bizarre 1980s architectural glory, was front and center of teen culture in Los Angeles. "Like, the Galleria" would soon become synonymous with another well-known Angeleno phenomenon, the Valley Girl, thanks to the release of Frank and Moon Zappa's iconic eponymous song, which included Moon's exaggerated impressions of her Encino classmates:

Whatsa matter with the way I talk? / I'm a Val, I know
But I live in like in a really good part of Encino so it's okay 
So like, I don't know / I'm like, freaking out totally / Oh my God!

 

Watch: Youtube Video 

 

To call Zappa's feelings on the Valley strong would be an understatement. He claimed that he "hated" it, that it was "the most depressing place," and it "represents a number of very evil things,"so it seems understandable that he would take aim at the conspicuous consumption so exemplified by the Galleria. To his credit, it's deft work, and his biographer Kelly Lowe, praises his ability to bury "the Marxist theory of commodity fetishism" under "four minutes of pure pop confection."

It's surprising, then, that the song was his "biggest commercial success in years,"with the single rising to #34 on the Billboard charts, and ended up as his only Top 40 hit. Despite the record not selling well (or so Zappa claimed), the radio airwaves - originating with KROQ! - played it over and over. This sudden popularity led to Valley Girls and the concept of "Valspeak" gaining traction across the country.

 

"If her passions are shopping, popularity, pigging out on junk food and piling on cosmetics, the answer is probably 'fer shurr.' If she is almost unintelligible, the verdict can only be: 'Totally.' Particularly if she pronounces the word "Toe-dully."
-Time Magazine, September 1982

 

A significant amount of this slang has faded to the wayside (when was the last time you heard "bag your face"?), but Valspeak lives on in uptalk, in the quotative "like," (i.e. "So he was like, do you want to go to the mall?") and vocal fry. It was, after all, espoused by teen girls, which studies have shown are on the forefront of linguistic shifts - up to 90% of language disruption is spearheaded by women. Now those characteristics have bled into the broader sense of "SoCal English," as more people (including men!) have started incorporate it into their language as well.

 

 

A scene from the 1983 film Valley Girl

 

Despite the mass shuttering of malls across the country, the Valley Girl too, lives on. Few times have we had a subculture both so embraced and so ridiculed, few times such a visceral reaction to where someone grew up, even still, 30 plus years after the single first dropped.

Finally, for a fantastic time capsule, check out this video of a Valley Girl contest (!) set in none other than the Sherman Oaks Galleria, circa 1982. It has all the makings of a parody of Valley Girls-including a young Fred Willard as judge!-but it's not. Moon Zappa, as one of the other judges, simply referred to it as "a nightmare."

 

Watch: Youtube Video

 

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