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.
Who was your pop-culture mentor?
This question was sparked by Jason Heller’s excellent For Our Consideration about his uncle Mike, who introduced him to comic books, Dungeons & Dragons, and H.P. Lovecraft. Reading Heller’s piece led a lot of us A.V. Club staffers to think about our own pop-culture mentors. Mine, I think, is my dad. Though Eric J. Eakin knows a lot more about Todd Rundgren than Arcade Fire, I'd say he's my pop-culture mentor. When I was growing up, he was always churning through a rotating stack of CDs from the library, listening to anything that Rolling Stone or Spin wrote about, whether it was the latest A Tribe Called Quest record (not his favorite) or something from Kings Of Leon (preferred, because “at least those guys rock”). More recently, he's been into checking out whatever's popular on Spotify, which has weirdly led him to be into Skrillex. Granted, hearing my dad extol the virtues of EDM is a little strange, but he's taught me the importance of having a wide base of musical knowledge, as well as the importance of keeping current. Sure, it's nice to like what you like, but if you're going to hate on a sound—EDM, for example—at least check it out first so you know what you're talking about. I also think that keeping current—with music, at least (he’s only just now discovering The Office)—has helped keep my 61-year-old dad young. He might be weirdly enthusiastic when he's talking about what kids these days are into, but at least he knows what's out there.
I can't think of one particular person who is responsible for my eclectic musical tastes, though I suppose I should give a general shout-out to any writers for Vibe or Spin during the early-to-mid ’90s. However, I do remember the person who is responsible for my appreciation of jazz: my high-school band teacher, Mr. Millsapp. Through some scheduling fluke or another, I was required to take Jazz Band as my musical elective during my junior year of high school. I wasn't especially pleased about it at the time, but it proved to be invaluable to me. I still remember several signature Millsapp quotes when I think about music composition—particularly, "Never underestimate the value of a well-placed triplet." And whenever I hear “Feel Like Funkin' It Up” or “Salt Peanuts” in a pop-culture product (Treme and The Cable Guy, respectively), I become a 16-year-old sitting in the band room again. I don't know that one specific person can be credited as the mentor who propelled my literary tastes, either. But I still find myself practicing some very simple, very valuable advice given to 9-year-old me by my grandmother, who was a high-school English teacher: “Dearest, if you're not enjoying that book, just pick up another.”
I have to credit my mom with “making” me watch lots of classic old movies, but I have a feeling a lot of people are going to say that. One other person who filled in a lot of gaps in my pop-culture education was one Nathan Rabin. Way before I ever came to write for The A.V. Club, we were merely friends. (I initiated the friendship by sending him a fan letter when I was out of college.) I think it was perhaps the first time we hung out that he took me by the metaphorical hand and presented me with Showgirls. “Is this real? This can't be real,” I kept babbling in joy and confusion. (I may not have been sober.) It was one of the most fun pop-culture experiences of my life. If it weren’t for Nathan, too, I wouldn't have known who Dolemite was or probably have ever seen Grey Gardens (the latter of which we watched with my mom, actually, bringing the whole pop-culture-mentor thing full circle). We've watched a few stinkers together, too—I accompanied him to screenings of The Hot Chick and Austin Powers In Goldmember—and it may not shock you to know that sometimes watching the terrible stuff was just as formative and fun as watching the more essential goods. My pop-culture knowledge is by no means complete, and Nathan and I don't agree on everything, but thanks to him I'm a lot more up to speed than I would have been otherwise.
I've referenced it in a past AVQ&A, but my mom’s side of the family was incredibly generous when it came to letting me explore music I was interested in, both by taking me to shows and by buying me records long before I earned money of my own. But the one person who I have to thank most is my uncle Brian. While still in grade school, I developed an interest in punk rock, and right on cue Brian gifted me the massively influential Clash On Broadway collection, Social Distortion’s Somewhere Between Heaven And Hell, and numerous other CDs. When I was 10, I became interested in playing guitar—an instrument Brian played and was quite exceptional at—and that Christmas the family gave me a low-end Telecaster model that Brian had picked out. It took a couple years for me to dedicate myself to learning how to play, but the moment I mastered a few simple chords, I started playing in bands. And while it’s entirely possible that I would have made these discoveries on my own at some point, I’m beyond grateful for the jumpstart he gave me.
Am I the oddball here in saying that my first major pop-culture mentor wasn't a friend or family member? It was actually Harlan Ellison, which is why I retain such a soft spot for him in the face of a lifetime of irascibility, litigiousness, and overall crankishness. I first ran across him through his classic science-fiction stories, but then I started reading his books of criticism: The Glass Teat, The Other Glass Teat, and Harlan Ellison’s Watching were particular influences because they talked so much about specific films and TV shows, what was good and bad about them, and what they meant to him and to culture and society at large. But I also got deep into his personal-essay collections, particularly The Harlan Ellison Hornbook and An Edge In My Voice, in part because he so clearly lived a life steeped in pop culture and had such strong and well-expressed opinions about it. I started treating his books as a shopping list of things to watch and read and see so I could engage better with his thoughts on them, whether he was recommending Big Trouble In Little China, the films of Val Lewton, or the film writing of Kathi Maio. It was a weird early pop-culture education because it came steeped in such an idiosyncratic voice, but I admired the way he set such a high bar for his entertainment, and if he absolutely loved something, if he found it worthy of praise and recommendation, I knew it was something special that I needed to seek out.
I didn’t have an older brother or a just-young-enough uncle to guide me through the pop-culture woods, so I had to rely on my two best friends—more specifically, my two best friends who let me join their goofy pop-punk band when I was 13. My musical qualifications were questionable, but my pals were kind enough to let me “sing” and eventually “play guitar” for their so-called Un-mellow Band. (We eventually changed our name to the equally un-mellow Holy Mary Motor Club.) It was during our early years (the early ’90s, to be exact) that my bandmates exposed me to music that would go on to shape both my personal tastes and the direction of our group: “Weird Al” Yankovic, The Dead Milkmen, They Might Be Giants, The Talking Heads, etc. Hearing something like, say, “Bitchin’ Camaro” for the first time was a huge revelation for my 13-year-old brain (“You mean music can be good and funny?”) and set me on a healthy course of not taking pop culture too seriously. Remarkably, we kept our group alive for 15 years or so, and though we never reached the wacky, dizzying heights of “Weird Al” superstardom, we did have a song about a crime-fighting llama from Los Angeles called “L.A. Llama.” That's a musical legacy I can live with.
As a kid with an omnivorous ear but no disposable income, I spent my youth scraping for music wherever I could find it, taping albums I borrowed from friends or selling off my CDs so I could buy new ones. There was one resource I could always fall back on whenever I needed a free fix, though: my dad’s CD collection, which introduced me to many of the staples a kid needed to be versed in during the ’90s alternative boom, from The Clash and The Talking Heads to R.E.M. and The Pixies. My dad was the first person I knew who owned a copy of Nevermind (which I eventually claimed as my own), and it was only after his persistent recommendations that I eventually gave The Replacements a chance. It wasn’t his great taste that stuck with me the most, however. It was his openness to new music. Instead of retreating into old comforts in middle age, he continued seeking out bands he’d never heard of and familiarizing himself with genres he never much cared for, and he’s carried that curiosity with him into his retirement years (one of his favorite recent discoveries is Outkast—not bad for a guy who, like all dads of his era, intrinsically loathed rap music). When I qualify for senior-citizen discounts, I’ll be proud if I’m half as plugged into new music as he is.
This is a bit of a cop-out, but it was most of my family. My dad played me Richard Pryor: Wanted way earlier than he probably should’ve. My mom, a classical violinist, loved listening to the Heavy Metal soundtrack in our Toyota wagon. (Devo’s version of “Working In A Coal Mine” still brings me back.) My oldest sister was the first punk in her high school (she named our cat “Cyd Vicious”), and she had Circle Jerks and Sex Pistols records around (again, maybe earlier than I should’ve heard them) and, later, Echo & The Bunnymen and the Pretty In Pink soundtrack. My oldest brother had The Wall, and I’d listen to “Another Brick In The Wall (Part 2)” over and over because it was so damn rebellious and had that funny spoken-word bit in it. And then my other brother brought Bauhaus and Joy Division into the mix. Everyone, as is probably obvious at this point, listened to a lot of music. Jason Heller’s recent essay (which inspired this AVQ&A) rang so true for me: Music was just always on in my house, and I soaked it all in. The world actually has my mom to thank for GWAR’s cover of “Carry On Wayward Son” from last year’s A.V. Undercover. She had Kansas’ Leftoverture in her groovy ’70s record cabinet.
There is a single moment when my music tastes separated from “what my parents listened to that I liked as well” and “cool stuff I’d heard on the radio.” I’d gone to my local used-CD store and picked up Incesticide, Nirvana’s B-sides album, when my friend Phil noticed that it wasn’t a normal release but something slightly more rare—a copy sent to radio or press, as I recall. He wanted the rarer copy, so he perhaps foolishly made me an offer: He would give me his normal Incesticide, plus any two CDs from his collection. He was more of the music geek to my books-and-video-games geek, but our tastes generally coincided, so I happily went over to listen to his recommendations and make my choices. The first was The Vaselines, which made perfect sense, as I was already into Nirvana. I don’t remember most of the other things he played for me because one dominates my memory. Into the CD player went Richard Hell And The Voidoid’s Blank Generation, out of the speakers came jagged guitars and howled lyrics, and suddenly I had my own music tastes separate from those given to me by my family (although now I know the CBGB’s scene is its own cliché). It didn't even matter that I misheard that first track’s lyrics as “love bombs in space.” From there he guided me to Television’s Marquee Moon, then Patti Smith’s Horses—the album that made me believe that women could rock as hard as men, an embarrassing admission given how much I love female-fronted bands now—and I was off to the races. So thank you, Phil, although I’m sorry I never could love The Cure like you did.
I think, like most of the people here, my parents, especially my dad, were an early influence on my musical tastes. Without them, their record and tape collection, and their consistent enjoyment of WCBS-FM’s constantly spinning oldies, I wouldn’t know anything about doo-wop or early ’60s power pop. Also, without my dad I wouldn't know much about classical music, The Boston Pops, or jazz. But their influence only took me so far; by the time I graduated high school, I was still mostly listening to oldies, classic rock, top 40, and lots and lots of Billy Joel. No, it was the guys at the fraternity I pledged my freshman year of college, Beta Theta Pi, that made me into the listener I am today. You have to understand: I went to Stevens Institute Of Technology, where frats were the only means to have any sort of social life (the male-female ratio then was seven to one), so there were frats there that weren't populated by just douchebags. No, the guys there quickly converted me from a lame pop listener by turning me onto The Pixies, Jane’s Addiction, The Red Hot Chili Peppers, Nine Inch Nails, and other “alternative” bands. You can just hear the transition in the shows I did at the campus radio station that year; they started with all classic rock and graduated to more of a mix. I even started incorporating ’80s alternative and New Wave, even though the ’80s were barely over.
Like most of us, I’ve had a number of pop-culture mentors over the years, but the first and most important has to be my dad. As I’ve mentioned in past AVQ&As, he took me to see pretty much every science-fiction and fantasy movie that came out between 1977 and 1985 or so, and the ones we missed in the theater we always caught on HBO or at the local video store. He also had me watching Star Trek and Twilight Zone reruns before I could walk and was giving me science-fiction novels, both classic and contemporary, as soon as I learned to read. Top that off with a laissez-faire attitude toward what I was allowed to watch—in short, if it was on TV and he wanted to watch it, I was allowed to watch it—which meant I saw Phantasm at 6 years old, and it’s pretty easy to see where my deep love for all things science fiction and horror comes from. Oh, and the fact that the man would literally watch anything, regardless of quality, as long as it had some lasers, robots, or trolls in it also probably explains my love of epically shitty movies, too.
I’m really interested in all of these family answers because, as much as I love my family, they don’t know crap about pop culture—especially American pop culture. I’m first-generation immigrant, so not only was pop culture out of my parents’ area of expertise, but it was also considered a waste of time and energy, especially for my mom. (There are, to date, about five movies that my mother considers worth watching. One of them is Rush Hour. I don’t have the heart to tell you the others.) And though my dad has since gotten into Carly Rae Jepsen and Jean-Claude Van Damme films, when I was a kid, I had only media to teach me the ways of pop-culture nerdery. Somehow I got my hands on Entertainment Weekly and that, along with the arts and culture pages of the Tampa Tribune, gave me my first taste of the world of film criticism and television recaps. I still have articles from both publications taped to my bedroom walls at my parents’ house—little snippets of glossy paper that ended up having a huge impact on my life.
I feel like a cultural latchkey kid saying this, but nobody has had as profound an influence on my cultural development as lists of movies on the Internet. After my best friend got me into movies and then we went to different colleges, movie lists guided us into cinephilia. I was always into year-end top 10s and award slates, but learning about older movies began with the IMDB top 250, a weeklong entry-level survey of the midcentury foreign canon smashed together with a semester of action blockbusters. Next I learned about Grandpa’s favorites, the AFI 100. One day my friend pointed me to The Criterion Collection, and I hadn’t even heard of most of the movies. It was like I re-grew an imagination. Criterion and the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They? 1000, the Megazord of movie lists, are still guiding me today. That’s why I love Internet lists. Even the most basic is eager to ask, “Have you tried this?”
Obviously my family and my close friends were all pretty vital to my pop-culture development, but I'll be a little different and say that the biggest impact was moving to England at the age of 9. I was old enough to retain my foothold in American culture, but in terms of the music, comedy, and television I was exposed to, living in England for 13 years was vital in forming what I watch, laugh, and listen to today. Of course, it also made me the insufferable bi-continental nerd that I am today, the pouting asshole with his arms folded who refused to watch the U.S. version of The Office until well into season two because how could it be as good? And it meant that I had to work extra hard to keep my head above water when it came to American culture because not everything makes the trip over the ocean—even if that meant me and my brother angrily calling ITV and asking them why they had stopped running new episodes of Everwood on one of their backwater cable channels.
There’s not really any one person who consistently introduced me to new pieces of pop culture that would go on to be among my all-time favorites, but there are three individuals whose contributions were unparalleled in the way they helped shape my musical appreciation. The first was my next-door neighbor Betty Steiner, who’s about 40 years older than I am. When buying me a birthday present one year, she decided she’d select an album that she reasonably presumed any kid would enjoy: The Beatles’ 20 Greatest Hits. It was my first Beatles album, but it was not my last. Next was Tom Nuckols, who, in my senior year of high school, asked me completely out of the blue, “Hey, do you want to go see Sid & Nancy tonight? It’s playing at the Naro in Norfolk.” Cue my introduction to punk, not to mention alternative music in general. Calling it a mind-awakening experience is not an understatement. Last, there’s Bruce Brodeen, founder of Not Lame Recordings. I’d always been a sucker for a pop hook, but his catalog of “extremely highly recommended” power-pop albums from around the world taught me more about the genre than I ever could’ve imagined and helped cement my decision to just enjoy a song because it’s catchy and not care if it’s cool.
My father is a doctor and my mother was a microbiologist, so I didn’t get a lot of pop-culture mentorship from them aside from some Beatles records and trips to see Disney movies. But the first figure I can remember in a mentoring fashion is Roger Ebert, whose reviews I started reading online every week shortly after finding Ebert & Roeper on a local cable station around a year after Gene Siskel’s death. That show quickly became appointment television for me, but what really fed my curiosity for film were Ebert’s The Great Movies essays, now collected in three volumes that I treasure as gospel. Those books are like the IMDB lists, only personalized with something substantial to guide a new cinephile through the canon. In their infinite wisdom, my parents granted me some unlimited Blockbuster card that allowed me to rent two movies at a time for a flat monthly fee during the summer. So every day I would hop on my bike and ride a few miles to the nearest store, rent two movies, watch them, and then return them late in the afternoon and grab two more for the night, working my way through Ebert’s selections and rereading the essay after I watched each film. Now I’m surprised that my local Blockbuster even had films like Aguirre, The Wrath Of God, and Gates Of Heaven. But over the course of a few summers, I gave myself a skeletal film education that grew into my obsession.
I was just telling Erik [Adams] that I don’t have a good answer to this, because I grew up in the middle of nowhere with no real pop-culture heads. If you want me to talk about my various agriculture mentors, I could discuss that all day, but pop-culture mentoring becomes a trickier thing. Should I talk about my mom, for watching old movie musicals with me when they popped up? Should I talk about my grandma Bird, who lived in the “big city” (of 10,000 people) and let me rent whatever I wanted at the video store? Should I talk about the great pop-culture blogs I’ve read since that became a thing, sites that continue to introduce me to new stuff every day? I suppose I could talk about Matt Zoller Seitz, who was the first to give my writing a chance, or Alan Sepinwall, who showed me a new way to write about TV that I quickly glommed onto. Or I could talk about the various message boards on which I’ve discussed movies and TV over the years. But if I’m going to think of who first turned me onto good stuff and helped guide me to the things I love the most, I pretty much have to start with awards shows. As a young kid who wanted to know more about TV and film, the Emmys and Oscars helped guide me both to what the Hollywood community considered “best” and a whole culture of people who were writing reactive articles that said otherwise (like Danny Peary’s brilliant Alternate Oscars). Watching the Emmys and Oscars every year guided me toward films and TV I love to this day—like The Mary Tyler Moore Show or The Godfather—but it also guided me toward people who wanted to show how those awards had gotten it wrong. The conversation continues, and that’s why I’ll always have a soft spot for those overblown festivals of pomposity.
Long before broadband connections and torrenting collectives realized the pop-culture junkie’s impossible dream of being able to access nearly every episode of nearly every TV show ever made, there was Tim Brooks and Earle Marsh’s The Complete Directory To Prime Time Network And Cable TV Shows, 1946-Present. There was also its counterpart in the film realm, Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide. Editions of both were given to me at an early age by my grandma. Not as gifts on birthdays or at Christmastime, mind you—she’d notice how I, say, found tremendous joy in reading the Maltin guide’s incrementally withering take on the full Friday The 13th series, then slip the book into a grocery-store bag of Twizzlers and Mackintosh’s Toffee for later consumption. To this day, there are TV shows and films that I only know from their entries in these books (not that I’ll ever reveal what they are, the latter stages of the Friday The 13th franchise notwithstanding), and full credit for the curiosity about what Brooks, Marsh, and Maltin couldn’t capture on the page goes to her—one of the kindest, most generous people I’ve ever known. Also, I’m fairly certain I owe my entire career to The Muppet Show reruns she taped off of TNT in the early ’90s.
Like most of The A.V. Club collective, my old man got me off to a good start. For our weekly visit to the video store, he would pick up a couple of classic films that he thought his two rambunctious boys would sit through and learn to enjoy, like 2001: A Space Odyssey, Harvey, Monty Python And The Holy Grail, and Flight Of The Phoenix. Soon after developing my own tastes for things that my parents tried to keep away from the precocious kid with a draining sense of innocence—like The Simpsons, The Kids In The Hall, and Mortal Kombat—I scored a spot in the University Of Texas’ journalism school, an opportunity I almost turned down to go back to school in my hometown because I had almost had a panic attack at the thought of living in a big city like Austin by myself. But I fell in love with the city. I spent almost every weekend at the Alamo Drafthouse, where I saw movies like This Is Spinal Tap and Evil Dead II for the first time. Thanks to the music stores that sat on The Drag, and to Austin’s godlike worship of Stevie Ray Vaughan and others, I developed a love for new and classic punk, blues, and rockabilly music. The Vulcan Video store offered an endless selection of hard-to-find comedy tapes and DVDs that introduced me to names like Bill Hicks, Lenny Bruce, Jonathan Winters, and Bob Odenkirk and David Cross of Mr. Show. No one had ever told me that Austin was this bizarre, un-Texan hotbed of movies, music, and culture, and it actually depressed me to have to move back to dreary old East Texas after my graduation.
My family influenced me, but not in the way people have described here. I’m the youngest of three kids by a big margin—my sisters are 11 and 13 years older than I am, respectively—and my parents were older than my friends’ folks. None of them shared my pop-culture appetite, so growing up, they mostly influenced me away from their tastes—like my mom’s predilection for cheeseball commercial country and fluffy movies like Moonstruck. But I did have some close friends, particularly in high school, and we all served as each other's mentors as we voraciously read Maximum RockNRoll, watched Reservoir Dogs every weekend, and memorized lines from The Simpsons. I think about those days a lot because I still love a lot of what I discovered then—though I haven’t picked up an MRR in years.
My parents certainly influenced me to a certain extent—Mom played a lot of Simon & Garfunkel and Broadway musicals, and I borrowed my dad's U2, Pretenders, and Police tapes in high school—but I have to say that my biggest pop-culture influences were the radio DJs I listened to growing up. When I wasn’t watching MTV, I had the radio tuned to the local ’90s alternative rock station (107.9 The End in Cleveland, may it R.I.P.) or one of the many weirdo college radio stations left of the dial. The DJs all had quirky first names (Bull, Johan, etc.), so they felt like your super-cool friends, and they were so passionate about the music they were playing, it made you love those bands, too. I discovered so many British bands (Echobelly, Blur, The Charlatans, etc.), ’80s acts (XTC, The Go-Go’s, The Smiths), and bizarro ’90s groups (Material Issue, Dead Can Dance, Grant Lee Buffalo) thanks to them. They made my high-school years more bearable, as they were one of the few constant presences in my life; in fact, I used to sneak my Walkman into study hall and listen to the radio very quietly or tune in at lunch while I hid from the crowds.