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 week’s question was inspired by last week’s AVQ&A about dealbreakers and comes from the lovely Tiffany Adams, A.V. Club spouse: What’s your pop culture dealmaker, the thing that someone can profess to enjoy and gain your total respect, no matter what?
I feel an instant kinship and an immediate affection for anyone who’s even passingly familiar with Wizard People, Dear Reader, Brad Neely’s IP-law flouting, factually inaccurate, and gleefully profane retelling of Harry Potter And The Sorcerer’s Stone. I’ve had full conversations about the Potter universe using only the names and details Neely’s Wizard People narrator makes up on the fly, laughter-filled recountings of the heroic deeds of Ronnie The Bear, Professor Hardcastle McCormick, and, of course, that young god among wizards, Harry Freakin’ Potter. Paired with Chris Columbus’ film adaptation of Sorcerer’s Stone, it’s as much a dealmaker as it is a test of who can truly hang: I’ve shown it to friends and family alike, and anyone who isn’t instantly driven mad by Neely’s gravel-throated impression of underground writer Steven “Jesse” Bernstein is okay by me. They’re beautifully powerful, earnest warriors of Gryffindor, each and every one of them.
After staring at this question for a few minutes, I realized I’m almost too much of an asshole to have any dealmakers—I’ve learned through awkward experiences with Facebook and OkCupid that shared fandoms aren’t a good indicator at all of whether I’ll like a person. But if I had to develop an algorithm for someone who I knew had all the necessary qualities of greatness, I’d go with a cross-section of two vastly different media: Broad City and The Outlaws Of Sherwood. The former: outré, woman-centered sketch comedy; the latter: a fantasy retelling of the Robin Hood story, designed for 12-year-old girls. If you love both of those things and are not currently me, you are probably the best, and let’s hang out.
Liking Rush doesn’t mean you’re my soulmate, but it does mean I’ll have an intense soft spot for you. My love of Rush’s music goes back to high school, but I became extremely fond of the band after interviewing Donna Halper in 2009. Credited as helping jump-start Rush’s career, Halper is still the best interviewee I’ve ever spoken to, because like each new Rush fan I meet, she’s genuinely nice, enthusiastic, and supportive. That’s why I take any excuse to befriend a fellow fan. Once, while riding the train to work, I spotted a man in a Rush shirt, and wrote him a quick note. (He had headphones on and I didn’t want to disturb his enjoyment of 2112, or what have you.) Then we emailed back and forth for a few days. Small connections like that are exciting and always make me feel like I’m getting one step closer to meeting Geddy and the guys.
This sounds a little weird to say, considering they can be among the most insufferable (or is that the least sufferable?) people in the world, but I do feel a kinship with pretty much all die-hard Morrissey fans. They’re a funny bunch, particularly those who fully realize that Morrissey’s best musical days are behind him, but still just can’t quit him. But those who lived through the glory days of his solo career—particularly the 1991 and 1992 U.S. tours—have a lot to talk about, usually delivered with a mixture of passion and disdain. “Yeah, he canceled half of his tour dates, but remember when he used to play New York Dolls’ ‘Trash,’ and it was the most exciting thing ever?” I’ll still go see him on every tour, though I never get my hopes up that the show won’t be postponed or canceled outright.
Laura M. Browning
I’ve never understood why The Chameleons aren’t as beloved Stateside as, say, The Smiths. Though the group has a cult following, it doesn’t seem to be on the radars of a lot of music lovers. The Chameleons were part of the post-punk Manchester scene, so if you like anything from that era, there’s no reason you shouldn’t be a Chameleons fan. I wouldn’t say they’re my favorite band but, because they’re somewhat lesser known than a lot of my other favorite bands, if you tell me you’re a fan, you’ve definitely got my attention.
I can’t say I expect anyone to know—or much less love—Wesley Willis, but when I meet someone who shares the same affection for the daddy of rock ’n’ roll I light up with a strange glee. He’s an artistic curiosity, a man who would loop the same preloaded song on his keyboard, put it in different keys and tempos, and sing off-key songs full of vulgarities that offered a glimpse into his tormented, yet always friendly, soul. When he died in 2003, his struggle with schizophrenia was finally relieved, but a big part of Chicago’s outsider art scene was gone forever. When someone appreciates Willis I can’t help but smile, give a light, loving headbutt and utter, “You are my friend,” just like he used to all those years ago.
I leave my house very rarely, and when I do, people always want to talk about television (for perhaps obvious reasons), so I find nothing more exciting than when people want to talk about anything but TV with me. Don’t get me wrong: I dislike those “I don’t even own a TV!” snobs as much as the next guy, but I like it when somebody can say, “Hey, I love [insert show of the moment] too, but you’re probably sick of talking about that, huh?” And then we can talk about the upcoming Godzilla movie, or obscure ’80s stage musicals, or the Golden Age of newspaper comic strips, or even how the Dodgers are doing this year. Really, I’m easy. I just like to talk. But if we talk too much about TV, then I’m going to have to feel obligated to ask about your job, and neither of us wants that.
There are a lot of total d-bags out there who like Oasis, but I still think I’d be remiss if I didn’t say “people who really, really like Oasis.” That “really, really” is important, because I don’t want to bro down with people who only sort of know the words to “Wonderwall” and never bought The Masterplan. I want to hang with people who got the CD singles in ’95, could call out lines from Wibbling Rivalry, and who actively keep up with the brothers Gallagher to this day. (For the record, my husband does none of this, and I love him all the same.) Those people are my spirit animals, though I imagine our species to be fairly drunk and constantly swaggering, with each member outfitted with one solid unibrow.
My parents raised me with one central motto: “All intelligent people like Star Trek.” With that hyperbolic life lesson firmly in place, I seek out fellow Trekkies (as well as new life and new civilizations). While I’m not sure all intelligent people like the franchise, I do find that those who are drawn to its humanistic, humorous storytelling tend to be the kind of smart, thoughtful, nerdy people I want to spend time with. In fact, Trek has shaped a remarkable amount of my worldview—especially my ideas of social justice and equality. In the original series, Trek’s in-world egalitarianism lead to a diverse casting and the first interracial kiss on TV. Later series like The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, and yes, even Voyager continued that commitment to both celebrating and critiquing humanity through the lens of sci-fi. Admittedly, I can be a bit snobby; if your knowledge of the Trek universe is limited to the new J.J Abrams films, I might not be quite as invested in our burgeoning friendship. But if you’re the kind of person who has an opinion on the best Star Fleet captain, you can bet I’m going to give you a knowing nod (and possibly a Vulcan salute) when we hang out.
My last apartment is my favorite place I’ve ever lived. It was full of detail—a stained glass window, pocket doors between the living and dining rooms—but my favorite detail was that one wall of the living room had bookshelves built in running the length of the room. My parents encouraged me to read from an early age, and some of my fondest childhood memories involve trips to the library with my Mom, or long car rides with my Dad discussing Asimov and Sherlock Holmes. I ended up working in book publishing, as did my wife; both our kids learned to read before they hit kindergarten, and our current place has a bookshelf or two in every room, with books stacked two deep, and then more on top. It doesn’t even matter what it is you like to read. If your house is overflowing with books, then you’re good people, as far as I’m concerned.
In the previous inventory, it seemed like most people took the high road, crazily deconstructing the idea that any pop culture could define a person enough to rule them out as a worthwhile human being. (Whatever—fast zombies are stupid.) This week, however, I find myself doing the naysaying. As a lifelong movie disciple, I used to think no one who loved a movie I found transcendent could possibly be an insufferable ass. Working at indie video stores, as I have for-fucking-ever, however, I have met John Sayles fans filled with self-righteous boorishness, Akira Kurosawa aficionados who bored me stupid, and avowed Firefly enthusiasts for whom I would rather leap out of a helicopter than spend another moment near. But if there’s one movie I’ve found can at least weed out the bottom 80 percent of everyone I meet, it’s My Neighbor Totoro. Maybe it’s the unpretentious stillness, or the minutely observed drama and comedy whose dearth of cruelty or peril is nonetheless entrancing and enchanting. Anyone who rents it and comes back saying, “Give me everything this Miyazaki guy has ever done,” I’ll give the benefit of the doubt. For now.
In an admission that I fear is going to reinforce all the worst stereotypes about A.V. Club writers, I tend to be fascinated by more obscure authors and works (not to mention historical events and geographical locations—my idea of a perfect road trip was to travel to the spot in Newfoundland where the Vikings landed 1,000 years ago). As such, my dealmaker is often just any familiarity with one of my many random objects of obsession. For instance, if you’ve read—hell, if you’ve even heard of—the British science-fiction author Keith Roberts and his alternate history book Pavane, in which Elizabeth I is assassinated and modern England is ruled by a combination of the Catholic Church, semaphores, and traction engines, then we may not become instant friends, but I’m probably going to want to talk to you for so ludicrously long that we either become best friends or sworn enemies. And that goes double if you’re familiar with his even lesser-known book Kiteworld, in which a post-apocalyptic society defends itself from possibly mythical demons that roam the bordering radioactive wastelands by sending men up in giant kites, armed only with the Bible and a revolver. (The more I think about it, I realize I may just have given this answer because I really enjoy describing the gloriously insane premises of these books. Nah, I stand by it.)
It’s a fine line figuring out what your pop-culture dealmaker is, because you don’t want it to be something or someone too mainstream, but you don’t want it to be too obscure either. Granted, the Trashcan Sinatras come way closer to the latter category than the former, but they did earn a couple of college-radio hits with their debut album, 1990’s Cake (“Obscurity Knocks,” “Only Tongue Can Tell”), and for better or worse, there’s even a small subset of folks who discovered them through Beavis and Butt-head bashing the video for the 1993 single, “Hayfever,” from their sophomore album, I’ve Seen Everything. As such, the band has built a small but very, very dedicated fan base that’s allowed them to soldier on ever since, putting out several more albums in the interim, all of which have gotten regular spins on my stereo. Sure, it’s a pain in the ass to ask someone if they’re familiar with the band and then just earn a response along the lines of, “What the hell is a Trashcan Sinatra?” But when I mention the band’s name and see someone’s eyes light up, then I know without question the person is worth knowing.
I got into Stereolab in high school, circa Mars Audiac Quintet, and became a rabid fan. It was around the time my taste in music started becoming really broad, and Stereolab’s music synthesized everything else I was listening to at the time—jazz, rock, ’60s pop, tropicália—along with overtly Marxist lyrics that appealed to me at an age when I was scrutinizing my beliefs. It was frustrating on one hand, as it was the first time I was really into a band no one else I knew was into, but it was also the first time I felt part of a cult following. When I’d wear Stereolab T-shirts I copped at a concert, people’s eyes would light up when they saw me, and I’d be just as excited when I figured out why. Between the sheer size of the band’s discography and the many stylistic shifts it covers, there’s always a lively conversation to be had. (Dots And Loops is better than Emperor Tomato Ketchup. Discuss.) I wear my ’Lab T-shirts from time to time and get the same reaction, though not as often in the time since the band went on the dreaded “extended hiatus.” More often (but not nearly often enough) I’ll happen upon a fellow Stereolab devotee, and when those feelings of inclusion in an esoteric phenomenon rush back, I can’t help but fall in love with the person just a little.
It took about 30 minutes for me to realize my fiancée was the one after I found out that she’d named her dog David Bowie. Now, as it turns out, her dog (or, as she keeps reminding me, our dog) actually does look a hell of a lot like Ziggy Stardust, so the name is apt, but I didn’t know that at the time. Instead, I realized that if she was crazy enough to name her dog after my favorite musician, then she was probably the right girl for me. As with the dealbreaker prompt from last week, I’m a little hard pressed to say that if someone likes Bowie they’re a-okay in my book (he’s too popular for his fan base not to have the occasional douchebag), but if I had to abstractly pick things I wanted in a potential mate, being into Bowie as much as I am is a definite plus.
Like Sonia, I’ve learned the hard way that what seems like a dealmaker is anything but; while I salute people who love Breaking Bad or Tina Fey, I no longer assume that means we have anything to talk about. (For the record, this is almost always my fault, not theirs.) But it’s a little easier when it comes to authors, because reading is for winners; and it’s especially easy when I find someone who’s into a least two of the authors I love. If you’re a big Thomas Pynchon fan, we can, at the very least, have a good chat, and if you’re also huge into, say, Vladimir Nabokov or Stephen King or Ursula K. Le Guin or Virginia Woolf, I’d say we’ve got a few nights of exchanging favorites and arguing over outliers ahead of us. There’s something about combinations that make friendships easier; it’s like our pop culture loves serve as an unintentional but unimpeachable résumé for the soul.
Bizarro indie comedy Rubber isn’t exactly an easy sell, but I’ll become best friends with someone who inexplicably enjoys it as much as I do. In a loose callback to nonsensical horror movies like Maximum Overdrive, Rubber is about a sentient car tire that kills people using psychic powers, but—wait, come back!—the whole thing operates under several layers of self-awareness that exist solely to highlight how stupid the movie is. There’s an opening monologue in which a man lists famous movie scenes where things happen for “no reason,” like the alien being brown in E.T. and the president being assassinated in JFK. Then there’s the literal audience that watches the events of the movie from a nearby hill that gets poisoned so it can just end without anyone noticing. The central gag isn’t all that clever, but it tickles me in such a particular way that I’ll totally hang out with anyone who feels the same. We can bond over liking things that normal people would hate.
L7. I lived for lady rock like L7 when I was younger, but I got a lot of “Who?” from my peers every time I raved about it, something I’m sure we’ve all experienced. While other female-fronted bands of the era have gotten their days in the critical sun (Sleater-Kinney and Bikini Kill immediately come to mind), L7 doesn’t hold that same cache so it doesn’t have the same staying power as those with the accolades to back them up. This dealmaker status has little do with the band in general; its music isn’t revelatory or anything, but there’s still a sentimentality factor that just won’t quit, especially because my friends just looked at me like I was crazy every time I wanted to listen to L7. So, if you know the words to “Off The Wagon,” we are immediately going to be friends.
Anyone who likes Mad Men is probably good people. But to raise my standards, anyone who likes the less popular parts of Mad Men is fine by me. I’m talking Betty, Glen, Betty and Glen, “The Crash,” season six in general. I like it when people like things that aren’t easy or even that are actively difficult to like, such as the permanence of Sal’s departure or Pete’s hairline. For Mad Men, audience shutdown tends to respond to either moodiness with Don or specific instances of unpleasantness with anyone else. I just listened to a podcast rant about Peggy being unlikable this season. I want her to be happy, too, but that she isn’t doesn’t mean the show is failing her, much less failing at all. So if someone’s interested in Peggy specifically because she’s so unhappy this season, that’s interesting to me. If they’re a Betty defender, too, then I’ve really found a kindred spirit.
I want to say that my dealmaker is something highbrow like Fawlty Towers, Cole Porter’s High Society, or Alison Bechdel, which are all very close to my heart. The more I think about it, though, the more I realize how much I love meeting someone who likes soapy teen fare without any kind of shame. I could go to any bar and fall into a conversation about last night’s Game Of Thrones, but if I hear someone passionately defending The Vampire Diaries, I’ll be more interested. Too many people write off pop culture that’s made for teens—especially if it’s for teenage girls—but there’s a whole world out there that so many in the 18-plus demo are missing just because they think they’ve outgrown it. The CW, for instance, has much more to offer than beautiful teens in love triangles, whether it’s The Vampire Diaries’ breathless thriller sequences, The Carrie Diaries’ quietly poignant meditations on high school, or most importantly to my purposes, Reign’s willingness to have a character fuck a woman out a window to her death (it was bonkers/the best). And it’s not just TV! Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe” is impossibly catchy; The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is a beautiful action movie; and Amy Poehler’s “Smart Girls At The Party” interviews awesome ladies on the regular, but rarely gets the press it deserves. Teen pop culture is a lot like karaoke—it can be ridiculous, or it can be awesome, but if you’re having fun, who cares how it looks?