AVQ&A: Sacred cows
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.
Editor's note: As reported, last week's AVQ&A, on critically hyped stuff we just don't get, was our most contentious ever, leading to a lot of behind-the-scenes arguing about whether it was kosher to let some staff members casually dismiss parts of the cultural canon beloved by other staff members. Which led us directly to this related follow-up:
This week's question: What are your pop-culture "sacred cows"? What entertainment opinions do you consider so inarguable that attempts to argue the subject provoke instant rage or frustration?
I'm fine with people liking what they like, and I'll happily still be friends with those who choose to live exclusively in the realms of highbrow or lowbrow culture, or some niche of their own choosing. Sometimes I feel like retreating to one of those myself. But part of what I love about pop culture—and I'm guessing it's what brings a lot of you here—is its ability to unite, even if only so its proponents can argue about the merits of one thing or another. So, please, argue on, and like and dislike what you choose. But I will say this: I don't understand, and will probably not have that much in common with, anyone who doesn't like The Simpsons. I don't necessarily mean the show as it is now, which is… fine. (Mostly.) I mean the genius spirit that sparked the first nine or so seasons of The Simpsons, which trusted its audience to keep up with its well-deep culture references ("The Ayn Rand School For Tots"), knew how to craft brilliant sight gags (I have an image in my head of Sideshow Bob stepping on a rake as I write this), and still made audiences care about the family at the show's heart—and, as the seasons moved along, the whole town around them. Beneath the humor, there's a sensibility at work, a kind of skeptical optimism that places a lot of doubt in those who dictate from positions of authority, but a lot of trust in the ability of common sense, kindness, and tolerance to trump stupidity and greed. The show has been merchandised to the breaking point, it seems a bit exhausted these days, and it maybe doesn't benefit from being aired nonstop on one station or another. But the spirit of the show is something I'm happy to have everywhere.
Generally I don't believe in sacred cows, in pop culture or otherwise. I love The Beatles, but at this point, I'd rather hear a compelling argument about why The Fab Four is grossly overrated than read yet another story about how Sgt. Pepper magically turned establishment squares into rabble-rousing hippies. And while Bob Dylan is, for me, the single greatest and most mind-blowing artist ever, I can understand that some people might not like his voice or get his incredibly convoluted lyrics. From a food-for-thought perspective, "wrong but interesting" often beats "right but boring" for me. But there is one artist I feel very protective of, and, like Sheriff Wydell in The Devil's Rejects, I will kick the living shit out of anyone who speaks a derogatory word about him: The King, Mr. Elvis Aron Presley. I'm not saying you have to revere Elvis, but at least do your homework before dismissing one of the most important people—not just singers or musicians—of the last century. No other rock singer touched on as many different styles, stayed at the center of pop culture as long, influenced as many other important artists (in music and elsewhere), or just flat-out created as much joy in the world, as Elvis. Even if you don't like Elvis, I bet you like at least one of his songs. Who else can you say that about?
I'm used to talking art with people with a wide variety of tastes—there aren't a lot of crossover interests between my Yasujiro Ozu-and-Apichatpong Weerasethakul-watching friends at work and the disparate halves of my current social circle: the Underworld-fan, Robert Jordan-reading male half, or the knitting, America's Next Top Model-and-Top Chef-watching female half. And almost none of them share, say, my current obsession with S.J. Tucker's fantasy-tinged neo-folk. So I'm pretty tolerant of offhanded contempt aimed at everything I love in entertainment. I can't point to a single artist whom I feel so stubborn about that it'd be a deal-breaker if a prospective friend hated them. (I guess I come closest when people gripe about Hayao Miyazaki's movies being slow or boring, which automatically says to me that they can't deal with cinema at any speed other than "addled sugared-up chipmunk.")
But what I absolutely can't stand, and what puts me into a fighting mood faster than anything else, is people blanket-dismissing an entire genre or subculture or area of effort, especially with the always, always, always-uninformed "I'm not interested in that stuff because it's all the same." So here's my pop-culture sacred-cow statement: Every genre is deep, nuanced, complicated, and diverse to its knowledgeable fans. That doesn't mean every genre is for all tastes. You don't have to like industrial or classical or conscious rap or Chicago blues or Beat poetry or fantasy novels or reality TV or whatever else. You aren't even obligated to try them, much less to make the effort to immerse yourself in them enough to tell the classics and the keepers from the trash. Life is short, the world is big and full, and there's nothing wrong with walking away from things that don't speak to you. But people who get snotty or self-righteous about it, as though their personal tastes reflect some sort of immutable reality, steam the hell out of me. Ignorance isn't attractive, but saying "I've never really gotten into [Westerns, opera, FPS games, whatever], and I'm not really interested" isn't nearly as ignorant as lumping together every example of a genre as unnuanced and unworthy. People who do sound exactly like caricatures of '50s parents, squawking about how Elvis and The Beatles are all just stupid noise.
That's a perfect segue into something I argue constantly: the early Beatles are just as substantial and worthy of merit as the later stuff. Endless praise has been lumped upon everything past Rubber Soul—and I'm not denying the pure, unfiltered genius that gave way to Revolver, Sgt. Pepper, and just about the entire Beatles oeuvre. It's just that even at Please Please Me, the Fab Four were making the kind of experimental yet commercially viable music they made later. This was just its early stages. Lennon, McCartney, and Harrison (yeah, Starr not so much until the mid-'60s) took the rock 'n' roll not yet popular with white America, mixed in raw blues and skiffle (high-energy, country-inspired folk music), and gave it a smiling face—together, that's no small feat. Plus, those guys were in their late teens/early 20s at the time, which is still pretty amazing to think about. McCartney ensured the timing was airtight, Harrison handled the kick-ass guitar solos (his "Can't Buy Me Love" ditty, while short, is a personal favorite), and Lennon penned more honest lyrics than most bands. (Listen to "Help!" and "I'm A Loser," and try to ignore the upbeat tempo.) In short, opening with "Tomorrow Never Knows" would have been career suicide; the early stuff made the audience for that career-changing track.
I also have a hard time being friends with anyone who denies the brilliance of Calvin And Hobbes. Bill Watterson's gem appeals to any kid who's ever been an outcast (and picked last for sports), any parent who's feared they're raising one, and anyone with an appreciation for the kinds of casual, philosophical conversations that seem to randomly crop up in day-to-day life. It's amazing how well each strip holds up years after it originally ran in print—maybe because, to this day, we all wish we owned a pair of lucky rocketship underpants.
I'll cheer Tasha's principle and apply it to my favorite lump-dismissal rage-inducer: musicals. If I had a nickel for every time somebody told me, "Oh, I don't like musicals," I'd open my own nickelodeon. You don't like entertainment in which music is integrated with the action? I'd say you don't like entertainment, full stop. Now, I understand that accepting certain conventions of certain musical entertainment forms, like people singing to each other instead of talking, takes a suspension of disbelief. But these same people generally have no problem with the suspension of disbelief needed to accept action movies or romantic comedies. Convention is convention; throwing out one because it's preposterous on its face makes as little sense as mandating the teaching of counter-evidence for evolution, but not for the theory of gravity.
The "I don't like musicals" assertion that sends me all the way 'round the bend actually came up in the "Guilty displeasures" thread—Singin' In The Rain. The person who could find Singin' boring or silly is not a person I care to have existing in the same world as me. Such a statement, as is often the case, tells me more about the person making it than about the movie. If there was ever a movie that displayed the ability of musicals (and, I would argue, cinema itself) to simultaneously communicate sophistication and sincerity, it's Singin'. Anyone who is able to accept joy into his life will at least be able to understand its greatness. Only a truly dedicated curmudgeon—the kind of person who sees a dark cloud behind every silver lining—could dismiss it as worthless.
Like Keith, my most sacred of cows would be The Simpsons—the trivia, quotes, and general knowledge occupy roughly 85 percent of my brain. So, what Keith said. My thunder thus stolen, I'll mention something else that's sacrosanct: The Onion. Now before the comments light up with accusations of corporate self-aggrandizement, understand this: While many readers lump everything in the paper together as The Onion, we really are two (and now, with the Onion News Network and Decider, four) separate entities: The Onion's satire staff lives and works in New York, while The A.V. Club (and the company itself) is based in Chicago. Few of us even know the satire guys, much less interact with them, so it's not like we're all tight bros. Before I started working here in 2005, I was a hardcore fan, reading every word, even the super-tiny ones in Our Dumb Century. (My old band even swiped a song title from it, "Gaily We Prance About.") I'd kill time at my boring old job combing the archives. In the days after 9/11, I visited theonion.com a dozen times a day waiting for The Onion's take. I was on the site right when its brilliant 9/11 issue posted, and I literally had tears in my eyes from laughing. (Iblis The Thrice-Damned? Genius!) Nobody does satire better, and The Onion will live on as one of the best chronicles of the experiences, anxieties, and mundanities of late-20th-century/21st-century life—just like The Simpsons. (So can I have a raise now?)
I'm gonna be the guy who has trouble with this, because while I understand the concept of sacred cows, I don't really have any, at least in the pop-cultural sense. (In other words, we can still hang out if you hate Billy Madison.) But I will say that dismissal of certain things will probably result in the loss of my respect for your pop-cultural opinions overall. (And you know how much you wanted/needed my approval!) Something like There Will Be Blood, for example, which a couple of people dismissed in this very column just last week as "boring." Okay, you thought it was boring, I can accept that. But next time you say a movie is boring, I'm rushing out to buy a ticket. And when you tell me something is exciting and fresh and amazing, I'm going to assume it's Everybody Loves Raymond.
I get really aggravated when people start spouting conspiracy theories about the evil underpinnings of Disney, and DisneyWorld in particular. You don't have to be on board with Walt Disney Co.'s business practices, or the animated films' supposed subliminal messages, or the overpriced corporatized fantasy of its theme parks—hell, I'm not really on board with any of those things either—but don't say that the company's devotion to imagination and childlike wonder is anything but admirable. Just because you hate joy doesn't mean children should be denied the opportunity to meet Cinderella and take a wild ride in a teacup. One of my favorite facts about DisneyWorld is that there are a bunch of little "Easter eggs" hidden throughout the park that can only be seen from a child's perspective, like a tiny "hidden Mickey" on the underside of a fountain basin, right at a 5-year-old's eye level. Yes, it's a manufactured fantasy world, but one that puts astounding amounts of effort into nurturing and rewarding imagination and curiosity in children of any age. And just because Disney is responsible for Hannah Montana and countless other entertainment atrocities foisted on the public doesn't mean the successes it's been a part of—including Pixar, Pinocchio, and millions of happy, entertained children—should be scoffed away.
I'm fairly predictable in my sacred cows. Like the big homey Phippszilla, I don't much cotton to fools disparaging The Simpsons. Like Steve Hyden and one or two other fans of the Fab Four, I have a hard time taking Beatles-haters seriously. But probably my biggest sacred cow is William Shakespeare. I can understand people not enjoying certain Shakespeare plays and sonnets or specific productions (heaven knows there are few things worse than badly performed Shakespeare) but to dismiss his canon or to doubt his centrality to Western literature or civilization as a whole is absolute madness. I once got into a screaming match on television with a skinny blonde woman who doubted Shakespeare's contemporary relevancy. We are all still living in Shakespeare's world. Way before The Simpsons could do it, Shakespeare did it first. Speaking of screaming matches, I once got into a one-sided screaming match with an online piece that claimed Preston Sturges' films weren't funny. I started screaming angrily at my computer about the blindingly obvious wrongness and heresy of the writer's idiotic provocation, much to the embarrassment of the people seated next to me in the library. Sturges' films are many things: wise, elegant, unimpeachable, beautifully constructed, and moral, but above all else, they're really fucking funny. Hilarious. Gut-busting. Guffaw-inducing. Chuckle bonanzas. Sturges had an old vaudeville's insatiable hunger for laughter at any cost (for this classiest of comedy titans, there was no such thing as a cheap laugh) so I was very tempted to hunt down said writer and murder him and his family. You know, for Preston.
I tend to cringe any time someone disagrees with me, so there's no shortage of sacred cows in my pop-cultural universe. If I had to single out one, it'd probably be Neil Young, who over 40 years has accumulated so many soulful, diverse, era-defining masterpieces that his frequent missteps can—and damn it, should—be forgiven as mistakes of ambition. It's not like I bristle every time someone slights a Neil Young project: I've done it myself recently on his "Bernard Shakey" films Greendale and CSNY: Déjà Vu, and his streak of '80s duds (which caused his label to sue him for making "unrepresentative" music) is the stuff of legend. But for every Landing On Water, there's a Freedom waiting right around the corner, and the sum total of Young's successes are so awe-inspiring that his missteps should be considered with respect to his greatness. In that way, he's like the musical equivalent to Robert Altman, another sacred cow: Sometimes the process results in H.E.A.L.T.H. or Ready To Wear, but when it also results in Nashville, McCabe And Mrs. Miller, and Short Cuts, there's no disputing his mastery. At least in my presence.
I'm basically a walking container of instant freeze-dried rage™, but I don't have any sacred cows. There isn't one thing in pop culture that I like so much that I will defend it to someone who vehemently dislikes it—mostly because I know that person is wrong, and I'm not getting into a fight over Flowers In The Attic. Sorry, world. It does thoroughly enrage me, though, when anyone brags about the fact that they don't watch television. Congratulations. I understand not having much of an interest in television, and even not owning a television, because you can watch a lot of TV online, but being proudly dismissive of an entire medium—probably as part of a futile effort to make yourself sound smart—is just dumb. Still, there's no point in arguing with dumb people, especially smug dumb people. This is the way those conversations go:
Smug Dumb: No. I don't even have a TV. I haven't had a TV since…I don't even know.
Me: Oh. Well, you can watch it online.
Smug Dumb: Yeah. I don't really watch television.
Me: Your brain is on fire.