Welcome back to AVQ&A, where we throw out a question for discussion among the staff and readers. Consider this a prompt to compare notes on your interface with pop culture, to reveal your embarrassing tastes and experiences, and to ponder how our diverse lives all led us to convene here together. Got a question you’d like us and the readers to answer? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This one’s from reader Danny Crytser: What are your pop cultural dealbreakers? These are cultural products that someone can profess to enjoy only while losing all of your respect.
Ayn Rand. I’m such a jackass about Ayn Rand. I meet too many people who are into her work—who give me an earnest spin on how her ideas about competition, excellence, and capitalism have inspired them. They preface it with all this stuff about how they thought it was dumb before they read it, and how it really made them think about some stuff that happens in the world. I do not give a shit. I can’t even sit out the rest of the conversation—my eyes glaze over and I start avoiding eye contact, which is probably the same way I’d react if someone confessed to being in a bloodthirsty murder cult. I’ve read some Rand, though admittedly not her two masterworks. (God help me, I tried, but they were so awful.) Each is a bloated, self-righteous brick, better used as a doorstop than reading material. On the plus side, I found them a useful primer on how to exploit others for gain. No wonder the finance industry is so into it!
A friend and I actually have a name for this: Sudden Revulsion Syndrome, or SRS. It’s that feeling when you’re on a date, everything’s going great, and then the guy’s mean to a waiter, or mentions that he loves Boondock Saints, or whatever. I can let most things slide, but I absolutely can’t abide someone who just doesn’t even try to know anything new. Growing up, my dad was always checking out what was on the latest Billboard or Rolling Stone chart, and even if he didn’t think it was for him, his interest in what was new led me to believe that kind of vim and vigor keeps us culturally young. I’m not down with people who listen to the same stuff they liked in high school, and who still think Austin Powers is the funniest movie of all time. Yes, Everclear had some hits, and yes, I’m into hearing “Santa Monica” every so often, but there’s a whole world of other, newer music out there, and denying yourself a chance to find any of it is just a travesty—and that kind of stubbornness won’t get you anywhere with me.
Let’s keep getting broad: I’m less angered by public declarations of ignorance than I am dispirited by them. There’s a great, big world of art, culture, and entertainment to dig into, and there’s nothing to be gained from taking to Twitter to exclaim your conscious choice not to hear a song, watch a movie, or follow a professional sport. I understand that this type of thing is usually done as a humorous defense mechanism (because nobody likes to feel left out, particularly when social media is blowing up about the latest Game Of Thrones or a surprise Beyoncé album), but the joke’s not funny, and the subtext is a bummer. We’re denied so much, so often in this life—why keep yourself from something that might bring you joy and then go around bragging about it?
I’m fairly tolerant of people enjoying pop culture that doesn’t jibe with my own tastes, due in part to liking enough terrible music to put off any potential beau, but my biggest pet peeve stems from people who say, “I like everything but… .” It’s perfectly fine to dislike certain specific bands, shows, books, or films, but this type of cultural isolation suggests a person who fears new ideas, or, at the very least, who has let a stereotype color their outlook. It’s not that I ask for people to be connoisseurs of each and every artistic endeavor, but being open to a new experience, well, that makes a world of difference.
I have almost always been a “live and let live” kind of pop culture fan, probably because I saw High Fidelity at an impressionable age and took away from it the idea that you are more than the sum of the things you like. So I am pretty okay with just letting people like whatever they’re into, even if it strikes me as terrible. But I discovered while home for the holidays that I draw the line, apparently, at The Following, Fox’s ultra-grim serial killer drama about how the only meaning in life is in death or something, man. I heard from so many friends and relatives and in-laws and passing acquaintances that The Following was just the best, and it took everything in me to choke back incoherent rage and spittle about how much better Hannibal was, how fundamentally empty the show is, and how I couldn’t believe they, people whom I loved, could be so taken in by it. Fortunately, they all seemed pretty disappointed with season two, so maybe I will win this one in the end.
Laura M. Browning
For years, my response to this question was a certain roots rock band especially popular with twentysomething dudebros. But I’m not actually that much of a music snob, and it’s more about what that band represents to me, which is the real dealbreaker: people who aren’t curious about pop culture. Don’t just mindlessly listen to the radio or watch whatever happens to be on TV tonight. Find something you love and can geek out over. (If that happens to be Dave Matthews Band, though, we might need to talk.)
People who don’t read are a thing that exists, and it’s awful. People who announce it with pride are worse. Why on Earth would someone declare that they have no interest in educating and/or entertaining themselves by happily avoiding an entire medium of art? I spent two years with someone who, after experiencing a childhood full of reading and graduating No. 1 in his class, just stopped reading. I don’t know what the fuck I was thinking, and I’ll never go down that road again. And not that books were ever uncool, but if you, like me, have found yourself lost at times and struggling to make something work, remember John Waters’ advice: “We need to make books cool again. If you go home with somebody and they don’t have books, don’t fuck them.”
My geekdom is a fair and just place, with room for geeks, nerds, and obsessive enthusiasts of all stripes, but preferring fast zombies is the one surefire key to your expulsion from its gates. There’s a reason why zombies are enduringly scary, and it’s not because they’re so good at jump scares or wind sprints. (If that’s your idea of a great horror movie, why not a cheetah apocalypse?) Fast zombies are a dramatic contradiction, robbing the premise of the very wellspring of its terror. A well-crafted zombie fiction is about the slow, inexorable dissolution of human society in the form of a shambling, unthinking, incessantly multiplying evil that forces us, in the face of the removal of all civilization’s safeguards, to reveal who we truly are. Zombie papa George Romero himself envisioned the zombie apocalypse as a “tragedy about how a lack of human communication causes chaos and collapse.” Or, you know, it could be about how fast you can run. Your choice, I suppose.
I don’t think I have any pop-culture-related dealbreakers nowadays. But as my fiancée and I have revealed more and more of our pasts, there are definitely some events that, if we’d met at a younger age, probably would have been dealbreakers for my younger, even douchier self. She revealed that in college she had attended not only one, but multiple Ashlee Simpson concerts. From what I understand, she went with a friend, who was actually a fan. Even still, me at 18 (or even 22, let’s be honest) would denounce her as no true friend at all. (Because really, what friend supports a love of Ashlee Simpson?) I deeply love and admire the woman I’m marrying soon, and I’m not letting a perverse love of terrible mid-2000s pop get in the way. But deep inside me, my teenage self cries out in hipster loathing when I hear about their road trips to hear this. Then again, I purposely play Kraftwerk to mess with her, so maybe I’m getting out easy.
I’m with Noah: These days, I can’t really say that I there’s anything I’d consider to be a full-fledged pop-cultural dealbreaker, nor has there been since my wife and I started dating. (There is no greater sign of true love from a pop culture geek than to marry someone even though you know she owns a copy of the CD that contains the only song you’ve ever truly hated.) With that statement on the table, however, I will say that there’s at least a surefire way for me to start taking someone a whole lot less seriously: saying “there’s nothing good on TV” or some approximation thereof. It’s an easy line for people to throw into conversations when they’re trying to come across as highbrow or as a member of the cultural elite, but it’s so patently untrue that it only ever serves to make me see them woefully uninformed, like someone who hasn’t turned on a television since The Love Boat went off the air. Thankfully, I’m a tolerant man, so I usually channel Homer Simpson in such situations: Rather than trying to argue with the person, in my head I’m thinking, “I know you’re upset right now, so I’ll pretend you didn’t say that!”
I’ve long outgrown my indie-rock snob phase, and I try not to hate on people for liking shitty action movies, or Top 40 radio, or any pop culture I don’t personally enjoy. But if you watch Fox News, you’re a fucking idiot, I have no desire to talk to you, and please stop posting things on my Facebook wall. I have friends on all sides of the political spectrum with whom I can have (mostly) reasonable debates, but watching Fox News regularly isn’t simply endorsing a political viewpoint. It’s more like voluntarily checking out from reality, and deciding instead to live in a bizarre fantasy world where we’re all ruled by the iron fist of a secretly Kenyan secretly Muslim Socialist overlord who’s in an unending process of destroying America, gay marriage is a bigger threat to the country than terrorism or climate change (which, naturally, doesn’t exist), and capitalism itself is in danger of being overthrown by a shadowy cabal of Lego figures and Muppets.
I’m going to get a bit meta here and say that my pop culture dealbreaker is a person with a pop culture dealbreaker. While that might seem like conflict avoidance, it’s actually just a way for me to defend my horrible, horrible taste. I have a high tolerance—perhaps even a sadistic fondness—for truly terrible entertainment. I will happily watch any crappy rom-com starring Katherine Heigl, and I’ve seen every single episode of Gossip Girl. If a One Direction song comes on the radio, I’m damn well going to sing along. So I don’t make a mountain out of a molehill when someone tells me they prefer Star Wars to Star Trek. (Although I might throw them some side eye.) I reject the idea that random pop culture preferences are somehow a monolithic reflection of a person’s intelligence or personality. After all I can still discuss gender roles in Shakespeare or Orson Welles’ cinematic influence even if I also marathoned Smash last weekend. If you can’t deal with that then “Cut, Print…Moving On!”
I agree with 90 percent of what Other Caroline said about not liking pop culture dealbreakers, except that I totally have a pop culture dealbreaker. I do an actual, physical double take when someone tells me they like the Saw movies. It’s one thing to like horror—I don’t, but only because I’m too skittish for a genre that thrives on sudden movements—but torture porn is vile. I just can’t see the appeal or the point of watching a demented psychopath peel co-eds’ knuckles off with a rusty fishing hook. So while anyone who does like Saw won’t necessarily lose my respect, they will make me back away slowly.
It’s interesting how many of us say we’ve grown out of cultural dealbreakers. And I can certainly say the same thing, as I’ve matured from asshole to slightly less of an asshole. I tend to think of these dealbreakers in terms of dating, because if I have to be in an intimate relationship with you, I’d rather not be embarrassed by your taste. The big kahuna? Phish. Some of the loveliest people I know are Phish fans, but I never thought I could bring myself to date a hardcore one. Too much noodling for my three-chord heart. The problem? My boyfriend loves Phish. I still like him anyway, although the strength of our relationship is probably based on his tolerance of my near-constant mocking of something he holds near and dear. On the flip side, I could never date someone who hates Bruce Springsteen. A significant other doesn’t need to be as flat-out obsessed as I am, but any potential partner needs to know that Bruce is the No. 1 man in my life.
It took me much longer to come up with a cultural dealbreaker than it once would have, because I too have evolved away from judging a person’s character based on what stuff they like. (I’ve come a long way since undergrad, when I distanced myself from a dude I was casually dating because he wouldn’t stop playing Savage Garden’s “I Want You.”) These days, I’m even-keeled about what my loved ones are into, but I do tend to steer clear of people who want to talk about The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions, both of which I hated intensely. It’s not so much the idea of someone liking something I didn’t as the fact that Matrix sequel devotees tend to be defensive and evangelistic about that overlong pablum. It wouldn’t be an issue if they were as accepting of my hatred as I am of their love, but every fan of the Matrix sequels I’ve met invariably said something like, “Let me explain to you what the Architect was saying, and maybe that will change your mind.” It won’t, but it will give me the sudden urge to freshen up my drink far away from you.
So, [standard boilerplate about how I’m not a jerk, none of us are jerks, I’d never turn on anyone because of their pop culture tastes, it’s not like I’m impeccable or anything myself, etc.] With that out of the way, I have to say that slavish devotion to any movie, TV show, or book is something that I don’t understand, and something that makes me uncomfortable whenever I encounter it. I get being a fan—I love plenty of great books and shows and movies, and I think stories and art enrich our lives when done well, and help pass the time when done poorly. But folks whose devotion extends to a degree to which they’ll structure their entire lives around something, and then be deeply, irrationally furious when that something inevitably “fails” them, seem to be operating in a perpetually locked state of simulated childhood. I’m not denying that it’s painful when something you’ve invested in (often over multiple years) doesn’t live up to expectations, but it helps to remember that there’s always going to be another show, another book, another movie. I’m not sure I could have conversation with someone who didn’t realize that without unintentionally insulting them, so I just stay away.
I tend to agree that if I still had all the pop culture dealbreakers I had as a young snot, I’d be a pretty lonely island. That said, I do run into something that (probably unsurprisingly) baffles me: not wanting to analyze pop culture. Besides the pitfalls of not thinking critically about what’s being offered for consumption, so often people seem to think analysis is overthinking and any criticism is condemnation, instead of part of the process of greater appreciation of pop culture for everybody. (The mirror image of this is the person who likes to snidely mention that they don’t own a TV as if they’re characters in an Austen novel announcing a tony address.)
Count me as another person who generally believes that life is short, and people should just like whatever they like. But I’ll admit to being generally confused by those who care deeply about adaptations of beloved, not necessarily good shows from their childhood. Yes, I’m sure that Michael Bay ruined Transformers and is in the process of ruining Ninja Turtles. Hell, I’m even willing to grant that there’s something in the original shows worth ruining, even if I’m not wholly convinced. But really, unless the promotion of the new blockbuster movie involves collecting and destroying all copies of the original shows, what does it actually matter? Either the resulting movie is an entertaining new spin on something you have fond memories of or, more likely, it’s just another stupid movie better off ignored. I just don’t get why it matters whether these new Ninja Turtles—who are not, for sake of argument, the “real” Ninja Turtles, which will still exist forever in comic and/or cartoon form—are mutants or aliens, and it’s not just because I’m still a couple years too young to have grown up watching most of the shows currently being adapted; seriously, I’m not clamoring for a big-budget Power Rangers re-imagining once the wheel of nostalgia turns to the mid-’90s, and I’m not going to be much bothered if said gritty reboot ignores what made the original property morphenomenal. All that said, there’s really only one manifestation of this kind of thinking that’s actually a dealbreaker for me, as opposed to just a source of good-natured befuddlement: If someone uses the construction “______ raped my childhood,” a phrase that is just awful and unacceptable on so, so many levels, that’s when I know we have nothing further to discuss.