Art improved over time
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? E-mail us at email@example.com.
Sometimes we relate to pop-culture differently over time, not because it’s changed, but because we have. Maybe it’s something we grew into and matured enough to appreciate. Maybe it’s the opposite, and nostalgia has made that pop-culture represent something to us that it didn’t have when we first encountered it. What pop-culture did you come to appreciate over a long time period?
When my younger sister and I were kids, she was deeply into Bon Jovi and Poison. She had their albums, she had posters of them, she actually went to a Bon Jovi concert long before I ever went to a live show. And I mocked her relentlessly for it. I listened to country, folk, and showtunes, like our parents; all that rock and hair-metal stuff sounded silly to me, and I was scandalized by how much the members of Poison looked like girls, with their makeup and froufy hair. Kids are dumb; they have limited experience with the world, and often anything outside that experience is a little threatening, so they mock it in an attempt to downplay its popularity. Especially if it involves their siblings. It wasn’t really until I got into Rock Band, and more recently, karaoke, that I realized how often Bon Jovi’s ’80s songs come up, and how much fun they are. They’re still cheesy, but in a Journey-like, everybody-sing-along way. “Livin’ On A Prayer,” “Dead Or Alive,” “You Give Love A Bad Name”—they’re all great, rousing sing-alongs. And everyone I know knows the words. And we gravitate toward them every time we have a Rock Band get-together. I owe my sister a retroactive apology. And I wish I’d been less dumb and blinkered as a kid. We could have been singing along with those songs together decades ago.
This question is so well timed for me, so thank you Tasha. Just last night, I was writing the liner notes for the upcoming reissue of Archers Of Loaf’s 1998 swansong, White Trash Heroes (#humblebrag, sorry). I remember at the time reacting to the album the way many fans did—with confusion and something less than immediate love. The band, in the last throes of its original existence, went dark and weird, and left a lot of its traditional sound out of the equation. But the intervening years have been kind to White Trash Heroes; the album makes more sense in the context of what singer-guitarist Eric Bachmann would later do as Crooked Fingers. It still ain’t easy listening, but it’s never a bore, that’s for sure.
Jim Ross, a.k.a. “Good Ol’ JR,” was involved in pro wrestling for decades before cementing himself as the primary color man for WWE’s Monday Night Raw in the mid-to-late ’90s. That run coincided with the company’s hallowed “Attitude” era and my own college years. Before long, GOJR became a hotly impersonated figure for my roommates and me. Exams weren’t just grueling tests of intellect, they were “slobberknockers.” Parties that veered out of control were forever remembered for devolving into “hell, fire, and brimstone.” We admired Jim’s “intestinal fortitude,” but his approach to calling matches bordered on hysterically old-fashioned. However, after wholly re-immersing myself in WWE archives via Netflix instant streaming, I’ve developed an entirely new perspective on JR’s craft. Even after suffering bouts with Bell’s Palsy, he remained a booming, rumbling, articulate orator with wit and gravitas. It often seemed like Ross was the only person in attendance who didn’t realize the in-ring action was fake, but that was part of his appeal. He’s like the uncle who still gets in character as Santa every year, even though his teenage nephews are too cool for Christmas. JR delivers his own spectacle in the booth, and he’s riveting when he talks about the toll wrestlers put their bodies through, even if the wins and losses are scripted. Ross is in the WWE Hall of Fame, but deserves to be considered among the great commentators in modern sports.
Ian MacKaye of hardcore pioneer Minor Threat and post-hardcore pioneer Fugazi has become a subcultural icon, and for good reason. I’ve been listening to his music since I was in high school in the late ’80s, and it’s always been immediately accessible, with a high impact. That said, like many Ian MacKaye fans, I’ve long underappreciated his younger brother, Alec MacKaye. The funny thing is, I’ve been listening to Alec’s bands almost as long as I’ve been listening to Ian’s. Both brothers recorded for Ian’s legendary Dischord Records, so the connection has always been blatant, and Alec’s groups over the past 30 years—The Untouchables, The Faith, Ignition, and The Warmers—are by no means hard to track down. But there’s been an unspoken Dischord pecking order that dictates Alec’s underdog status, one that’s only heightened by his best-known release, The Faith’s 1982 split LP with Void. To this day, the Void side of that LP is considered not only superior to The Faith’s side, but one of the greatest slabs of hardcore every recorded. Both those claims are true. That doesn’t mean that The Faith’s half of that record isn’t good—although, honestly, it isn’t half as good as Subject To Change, The Faith’s incredible 1983 record, a savage yet inventive mini-masterpiece that helped set the stage for the legendary proto-emo band Rites Of Spring (formed by The Faith’s guitarist, Eddie Janney). The band of Alec’s that’s taken the longest for me to warm up to, though, is Ignition. I’ve always liked Ignition, but only in the last couple years has the late-’80s outfit really become one of my favorite bands of the era. Not arty enough to be post-hardcore like Fugazi, which was just coming together at the time, Ignition’s music is dark, smoldering, oddly metallic, and intensified by Alec’s craggy, garbled, perpetually unhinged vocals. And therein lies my love of his voice: Where Ian’s vocals are always piercing, barking, and almost trumpet-like, Alec’s are murky and ambiguous. I guess the older I get, the more I appreciate that. It doesn’t hurt that Alec’s first band, the blazing, high-school hardcore group The Untouchables, has a major fan in the form of Sonic Youth—who recorded a faithful cover of The Untouchables’ corrosive anthem “Nic Fit” for its 1992 album Dirty. Sonic Youth asked Ian MacKaye to guest-star on that cover version. But not Alec, who was actually in the band responsible for the original. Sigh. Once an underdog, always an underdog.
This example may be a bit too on the nose, but I’m experiencing a far greater appreciation for works of classic literature these days. It’s been 15 years since I graduated high school, and in that time, I’ve gotten to re-read several “classics” I was force-fed in high school, and thus hated. Forcing a teenager to read War And Peace at an accelerated rate when they’ve got other classes and that whole adolescence thing to deal with is a sure-fire way to make sure they loathe every book they touch. And while I haven’t yet had the chance to revisit that specific example, I have gone back to Tolstoy’s other great epic, Anna Karenina, and absolutely loved it. The same can be said for the works of Dostoevsky and Jane Austen. Not only am I allowed to read at my own pace and actually enjoy the prose, the way these writers crafted their stories and developed their characters, rather than to just churn out a plot summary in a book report for class, but now that I’m entering my mid-30s, I have more context about the world and its history and I can put these tomes into context. At age 14, a good chunk of 1984’s subtler points and satire went straight over my head, and I didn’t care, because whatever, man, like, my parents are just like Big Brother, man. But when I reread it last year at age 32, it resonated more deeply and had more chilling overtones, especially since I now live in the city with the most extensive surveillance-camera network in the country. While it’s important to make sure students are exposed to great works of literature, cramming it down their throats doesn’t do anyone any good, especially since they won’t fully appreciate Brothers Karamazov until much later in life.
I never hated Depeche Mode, but I never had a lot of use for the group, either. Of the music championed by late-’80s/early-’90s 120 Minutes (back when such music got called “college rock”) I never really cottoned to Depeche Mode’s moany, synthy ways, which seemed overblown to me. That started to change over the years, and while I wouldn’t call myself a superfan, I’ve come to appreciate what Depeche Mode brings to the table. Even if nostalgia has a lot to do with that appreciation, I must have missed something about the mix of cold, industrial noise and overstated emotion, because I like it now. Besides, there’s this:
When I first saw Terry Gilliam’s adaptation of Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas at a 10:30 a.m. screening at the time of its 1998 theatrical release, it struck me as visually impressive and uncompromising, but also self-indulgent, grating, and exhausting. (In that respect, some might say it was being all too true to its source material.) Time can do funny things to a movie, however, and when I re-watched the movie when Criterion released it in 2003, it felt electric, riotous, and perfectly in tune with the cultural zeitgeist in its depiction of a confused age wracked by an unjust war led by a hawkish, ghoulish Republican president. What once felt like a noble failure instead felt, and continues to feel, like a trenchant, essential satire that has only improved and deepened with time.
Following on what Tasha was talking about, I’ve noticed I’m coming to appreciate all sorts of singer-songwriters who at one point I either thought of as schmaltzy or playing to the middle of the road. The best example is Lionel Richie, who is seeing a bit of a renaissance lately. I may have laughed at his silly ’80s hits like “Dancin’ On The Ceiling” or overwrought videos like the blind-girl-making-a-bust classic “Hello,” but Richie has written pop songs which stood the test of time, from his Commodores hits like “Three Times A Lady” and “Easy” to songs he wrote that became monster hits for others, like Kenny Rogers’ “Lady.” The same could be said for Neil Diamond; he wore lots of spangly shirts in the ’70s and ’80s, but when Davy Jones passed away recently, what Monkees song did news reports highlight more than any other? Diamond’s “I’m A Believer,” which is strange, since Jones didn’t sing it. Micky Dolenz did.
My first exposure to Tom Waits came through a quick clip of his performance of “Eggs And Sausage” on Saturday Night Live in 1977, and although the clip only lasted a few seconds, it was long enough to strike me at the time as one of the most excruciating things I’d ever heard in my life. A short while later, I was introduced to his cover of “Heigh Ho (The Dwarfs’ Marching Song),” from Snow White And The Seven Dwarves, but while I appreciated that track for at least turning the song into something you could actually imagine a miner singing, I still couldn’t really get behind Waits’ whiskey-and-cigarettes-enhanced gargle of a voice. Somewhere around 2010, however, I finally decided there had to be something about the man’s music that I’d been missing, given how many of my friends and peers dug his stuff, so I decided to start from the very beginning: 1973’s Closing Time. It did the trick. I fell in love with “Martha” instantly, and I was hooked from then on.
I already liked boring-old-people music and boring-old-people movies when I was a teenager, so nothing much has changed there. What has changed over time is how much I’ve grown to love the TV detective shows of the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s. My parents gobbled those shows up when I was a kid, but aside from the playful ones, like Remington Steele and Moonlighting, they were all pretty much white noise to me. Then sometime after college, a fellow film buff hipped me to the cinephile bona fides of Columbo, which I became obsessed with when it was airing on A&E every afternoon. From there, I got hooked on Mannix, Banacek, The Rockford Files, Ellery Queen… heck, these days, I’ll even watch a Matlock or a Murder, She Wrote on a lazy Sunday afternoon when there are no games I want to see. The appeal of these shows is partly their formulaic familiarity, but even more, it’s that their heroes are so clever and witty and resourceful, and it’s so rare on TV that we get to sit and watch people think. Solving mysteries along with these detectives serves the same purpose as working a crossword puzzle: It helps keep the mind sharp as we age.