May 7, 2006

Ten Things I Hate About “Pop Culture”

Filed under: URBMN 2005-08 — Tags: , — Cameron Archer @ 11:15 am
In March, my Maxtor 40GB hard drive crashed and died.  I still don’t know why it crashed – either it blew out during a power outage or the hard drive was just corrupting itself on its own.  Whatever the reason for the crash, this is the first time I have lost data for any reason since 2001.  I managed to do a backup of important files before the hard drive decided to kill itself, but many files that I’ve had since 2001 are now gone.  You know what I was doing for six weeks?  Trying to find the cheapest way possible to fix my computer, running Scandisk for two weeks straight (and I mean twenty-four-hour straight here – I gave up after 10,000 bad clusters) and trying to bring my computer up to some sort of usability.  Hell, a few files I did back up just before the Maxtor flatlined were corrupted and wouldn’t copy from CD-ROM to hard disk.

This is the fun one has owning an AMD Athlon.  If I didn’t know any better, I’d say my computer’s rejecting parts.

In a way, losing my hard drive has caused me to rethink why I do a website in the first place.  Frankly, I have a love/hate relation to writing.  I’m not one of those “loves having written/hates writing” types, probably because I don’t seem to know who I’m writing for.  I send pitches to CBC radio shows, yet I hate the black hole tube of irrelevance CBC Radio is becoming.  I try not to be pigeonholed as “dumb,” yet that theme seems to pop up in my writing time and again.  I sell myself as a voice in the “pop culture” landscape, yet I despise it.  I’m a man of predictable dualities!

You have to admit that “pop culture” is a broad and limiting term.  The term is supposed to refer to popular culture as a whole, and at its best 1960s baroque music is on equal terms with 1930s science fiction and 1990s grindcore as grist for the mill.  Too often, though, “pop culture” is used as a cover for lazy writers to cover trends and/or contrive some sort of style guide out of things that are, after all, disparate.  Look at metal, for instance.  To some, it’s all bad, despite the fact that political grindcore is as different stylistically and aesthetically from Black Sabbath as Gang of Four is from crust punk.  Everyone pigeonholes groups of people to certain tastes – punk, metalhead, Mod, weirdo, resident hipster doofus, it’s a grand codification – but “pop culture” writing doesn’t usually focus beyond these tastes.  Arts writing has its share of bad articles and most of it is disposable, but “pop culture” shouldn’t be used as a catch-all excuse for bad writing and shoddy journalism.  To illustrate my point, here are the top ten things that drive me nuts about my sometime livelihood.

I’m sorry I’ve never learned how to write a decent segue.  Trust me, I’m trying to.

Certain members of the Toronto Star A&E writing staff
I like Rob Salem’s reverent yet critical approach to shows like Stargate SG-1 and the Adam West version of Batman.  That he was responsible for the cable channel Drive-In Classics just makes me respect Salem more.  I’ve grown accustomed to Ben Rayner and Jim Bawden.  Norm Wilner is one of the more critical and intelligent film reviewers in Canada.  Could someone tell me what is wrong with Malene Arpe, then?  Her articles are usually bereft of intelligence or insight (case in point: action stars aren’t like Sylvester Stallone or Arnold Schwarzenegger anymore, so here’s some generalizations and bad research to back up her point).  It’s her job to cover trends, but she tends to do nothing more than compile lists and wax poetic about the latest popular thing to hit television.  Vinay Menon and Raju Mudhar aren’t much better, either – it’s their job to find the trends and talk about television with a critical eye, not treat a national newspaper like some random blog.  All questions of bias aside, it amazes me that the Toronto Star can hire very good writers and absolute duffers at the same time.  It takes a special kind of paper to hire Greg Quill and pretend Rita Zekas’ gossip food column is actually worth reading.

By the way, if John Sakamoto doesn’t include at least one mashup in his “Anti-Hit List,” I know the world will end right then and there.

Bandwagons
I’ve never understood the nature of “making the rounds.”  Case in point: Jason Reitman’s Thank You For Smoking received at least a Maclean’s article and a piece on CBC News’ The National – no doubt it’s been well-covered by now in the media.  An anti-smoking (or anti-lobbying, depending on how one wants to spin it) film, especially one positing the notion that making smoking sexy in films causes people to smoke more, is not a daring target for satire.  Ignoring the fact that Jason Reitman’s father directed Ghostbusters and Twins, how is this film any different than a hundred other such films that are raved about at the Toronto International Film Festival and Sundance?  The film seems to have been mildly praised by mainstream critics, but the puff pieces about Jason Reitman should raise hackles.  He’s a young director, the son of a Hollywood icon and earmarked for “bright young thing” status.  He seems like the sort of man critics will turn on if Reitman doesn’t eventually live up to advance praise.

Think about it, how often in “pop culture” writing do things being reported on not have any connection to things happening right now?  I wouldn’t mind if stories like, say, aboriginal hip-hop were covered, but they tend to be covered within a certain time frame by a few media outlets.  If Lost is the big thing, people will cover Lost and talk about The Dharma Project as if it’s at all important.  That’s the nature of the business and every writer/blogger/what have you is caught up in the now at some time or other.  What gets me is how few media outlets tend to put out product that looks different from what’s out there.  How many times have things like Wolf Parade, Arcade Fire and Tom Cruise’s “insanity” not been heard or talked about lately?  Does anybody think about how embarrassing articles of that nature might look in five years?  Anyone remember electroclash?  The Beta Band?  How about One Minute Silence?  No?  I’ll leave you to your We Are Scientists and “Lazy Sunday”, then.

“Guilty pleasures”
I despise the thought of the guilty pleasure.  It says to me that someone likes something one isn’t “supposed” to like, and enjoys that something in spite of itself.  It’s a value judgment.  If a man likes horror films and erotica, he should come out and say it.  If you become ostracized by liking something that isn’t overly pornographic (let’s face it, shit porn isn’t socially acceptable for obvious reasons) but isn’t “accepted” by a certain group, you’re hanging around with a clique.  I’m not embarrassed to say that I like grindcore, bad horror films, wrestling and Doctor Who.  That doesn’t mean I’m a geek, and it certainly doesn’t bother me to be fond of those things.

Does that mean I’m going to be shunned by in-crowds?  Of course it does, and I don’t care.  What am I supposed to do, pretend I like Todd Solondz films and Death Cab For Cutie?  How does taste have anything to do with what sort of a person I am?  I like what I like, and I don’t want friendships to hinge on Seinfeld episode premises.  How can I date someone who doesn’t like Plan 9 From Outer Space, anyway?

Catchphrases
I don’t think phrases like “worst thing in the history of forever” or “makes the baby Jesus cry” automatically make articles unreadable, of course.  I can take a stab that the articles aren’t going to be any good once I see said phrases, though.  This has nothing to do with pop culture, I’m aware, but those phrases have become Internet euphemisms and deserve to be buried in the same grave as “France Surrenders” and “All your base belong to us.”  Yakov Smirnoff catchphrases aren’t any better when IRONY USES YOU.

Complaining that “indie bands” don’t get any respect in the mainstream
I remember when Pavement were considered of those “sleeper bands” that weren’t as successful as other bands of their day.  Granted, magazines and alternative outlets talked about Pavement constantly, which never made sense to me.  Recently I saw articles in the Canadian press – Ben Rayner wrote one such article – that would have liked to see less Nickelback and more Arcade Fire.  The articles were meaningless, of course, considering how popular Arcade Fire are and how much those names are bandied about by reviewers like Rayner.  I cannot see how a band like Guided By Voices is obscure if it’s talked about consistently by the mainstream press.  What do people like that expect?  If a bigger mass of people are going to get into bands like Arcade Fire, they’re not going to start jumping on the bandwagon because some music reviewer rubbishes a currently popular band, wondering why middle America isn’t jacking to the sound of the underground.  Middle America’s more interested in Kelly Clarkson…

Using popular yet critically-despised bands as shorthand for “shit”
…and Kelly Clarkson sucks, after all!  I absolutely despise the use of bands like Boston or Clay Aiken (any American Idol winner will do, really) as yardsticks for unhipness.  I remember an article, I forget where from, that intimated in detail how the writer was seen as weird because he was more interested in The Velvet Underground than The Steve Miller Band.  The inference is simple – The Steve Miller Band is shit, VU not.  The Knack, disco, and Metallica have also been used famously as the bane of all music.  I don’t care if someone doesn’t like Mariah Carey, and I think she’s as subtle as a jackhammer.  There’s a difference between not liking Carey and doing a CBC Radio piece about trying to scientifically prove her shit.  The piece may be tongue-in-cheek, but it comes across as so intellectually vacuous it makes for bad radio.

So Huey Lewis and the News is “corporate rock.”  I’m sure Huey Lewis could give a damn while he’s cashing his royalty cheques.

Xenophobia
I think every A&E columnist, music reviewer and writer is guilty of this at one time or another.  An Aaron Brophy review in Chart (of the French dance band Demon) began with the proclamation that the French eat snails and goose poo.  A sidebar to a March 1998 Spin article about Daft Punk, and this is going back a ways, went on about how French rock usually sucks.  Andrew Beaujon claimed Indochine’s song “L’aventurier” was based on a renamed variant of Indiana Jones.  Never mind that Bob Moran predates Indiana Jones by three decades, we have to rubbish a rapping baby and Noir Desir!  There are a lot of credible things to hate France for – its recent race riots, testing nuclear bombs in open waters, Arthur Rimbaud – but the writers have to fall back on “ha ha, the frogs have no taste in anything.”  I bet they eat babies and drink pee, too.

What’s the point in writing that shit in a review, anyway?  Rex Reed famously wrote a review of Oldboy in the New York Observer that hinged on similar “those Koreans have no taste” jokes.  Whether that’s tongue-in-cheek or not, it has nothing to do with the review in question.  It has nothing to do with the job one is supposed to be doing, and is the hallmark of lazy writing.  Again, we’re all guilty of it to some point – writers tend to filter things through their own belief systems and prejudices – but professional writers should be above Dickey Bit routines.  Botched attempts at character assassination make writers look worse than what they’re trying to rubbish in the first place, after all.

CBC Radio
I know I harp on this constantly, and I won’t go into details here.  I know the network can do better than Freestyle or Radio 3 when it wants to.  Most CBC Radio shows are rather bad, aren’t they?  It’s not just management’s fault that standards are bad there – it’s everyone’s for letting those standards slide in the first place.  I can’t be the only one who finds Sook-Yin Lee dense, now.

“Cheesy, campy, classy”
Another set of terms that are as bad as the “guilty pleasures” mentioned above.  If you’re so embarrassed to have certain tastes that you need to codify them into nice little camps, why are you feeding them, and why are you so self-important that I should care how you like monster truck rallies ironically?  Not that certain things shouldn’t go into museums as standard-bearers of art, but take the bug out of your ass!  More than twenty-five years on, Gary Numan’s “M.E.” seems less dated than the four-year-old Basement Jaxx song that sampled it, don’t you think?

That’s just MY OPINION, though.  Take it for what it is, about as unimportant as everyone else’s – and yours.

Taking this “pop culture” thing too seriously
Quoting Santa Claus from Robert Smigel’s The Narrator That Ruined Christmas:

It’s not about you, douchebag.  No one needs your self-important grandstanding.  Don’t you see?  You show biz types are just trying to shift the focus away from the crisis and onto yourselves.  You’re an entertainer.  It’s a simple job, okay?  Do a dance, show us your boobs, and make us happy, monkey.

It might not be the best quote to end a diatribe on, but at least Robert Smigel makes me happy.  What have you done for me lately?

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3 Comments »

  1. I DISAGREE WITH YOUR OPINION, THEREFORE YOUR WRITING IS WORTHLESS!

    All kidding aside, I don’t mind the term “cheesy.” I find that there are lots of bad movies out there that just can’t be described to others without using that term (or if you’re too lazy to write/say “so bad it’s good”). I’ll glad take that over its supposedly upscale replacement, “kitschy.” Seriously, if you’re too uptight to say “cheesy,” why bother referencing such things?

    Comment by Atomic Mystery Monster — May 18, 2006 @ 2:57 pm

  2. I’m not uptight about saying “cheesy,” and I’m not going to backtrack from my previous statement. I just think terms like “campy” and “cheesy” have been overused. I just think it’s too easy to say “it’s camp” or “The Gingerdead Man is grade-A fromage” as a means to an end. If someone likes something because it’s endearingly inept, impossible to defend or because it seems outdated yet entertaining, those are reasons. I don’t like when people use euphemisms like “campy” to stand in for those reasons, especially when combined with irony and/or sarcasm. I hate veils.

    By the way, the only reason I referenced “campy/cheesy/classy” was because it was one of the first things I had to write an essay on for film studies. That wouldn’t bother me aside from this supposedly being the “post-ironic,” decontextualized era where none of these terms matter. I still don’t know if there is really that much of a difference between “cheesy” and “campy,” since the two terms are sometimes used interchangeably. Could someone fill me in?

    Comment by Cameron A. — May 18, 2006 @ 4:35 pm

  3. Oh wow, that actually got posted. The computer I was posting from screwed up and made it look like my comment wasn’t used.

    I really should’ve worded that last sentence better; “you” was supposed to refer to people who use the word kitschy and not, um…you. Sorry about that. I doubt an Andy Milligan fan like yourself could ever be uptight over such matters. Thanks for the further clarification on your article, though.

    As for “camp,” Toughpigs defines it as “…a secret code made up of various levels of artifice. Camp is a person who knows he’s being absurd and affected, and knows that you know, and knows that you know he knows you know. Camp becomes the thing it’s making fun of, and goes beyond it to become a kind of meta-mockery.” So the 60′s BATMAN tv series is campy while a movie like ROBOT MONSTER is cheesy.

    Comment by Atomic Mystery Monster — May 26, 2006 @ 7:13 pm

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