Perfect pop culture?
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.
The AVC audience tends to be about examining pop culture closely and intimately, and picking it apart to analyze its minutest flaws. But is there any art you consider perfect as it is? Not a lyric you’d tweak, a plotline you’d shift, a character you’d alter? Alternately, is there any art you love so much, you refuse to subject it to close scrutiny, and prefer to think of it as perfect?
Peter Beagle’s 1968 novel The Last Unicorn remains one of the few cases of lyrical prose writing that never seems pretentious or overwritten to me, and it’s one of the few books I poke at people who are vaguely interested in exploring fantasy, but don’t know where to begin. There’s a sharp modern edge to the humor, almost a meta awareness of its genre and the expected tropes, but it’s a sweet, sad book as well as a witty one. It isn’t at all in the style of modern fantasy, with its continent-spanning politics and heavy emphasis on realism; it’s more of a timeless classic in the realm of E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web, another book I can’t fault in the slightest. Both books get at the nature of love and sacrifice in the best way possible: Through touching, compelling stories that illustrate their principles rather than describing them.
This is a perfectly timed question for me, as I was just having a conversation over the weekend about one of my favorite albums of all time, Seam’s The Problem With Me, and the word “perfect” came up. I don’t throw that word around too often—I can find fault with lots of my favorite stuff!—but this record, from 1993, doesn’t have a single flaw. That doesn’t mean everybody in the world will enjoy it; in fact, it’s tailor-made for people who thought the indie-rock of the mid-’90s was music’s high point. But Problem’s pacing and elegance are so spot-on for me that when people ask the unanswerable question, “What’s your favorite album of all time?” I go to this one. From the opening guitar chime of “Rafael” through to the hypnotic swirl of “Autopilot,” it’s just… perfect.
The thing about perfection is, it’s most easily achieved by people not making full use of their talents. And while no one likes to appear nitpicky, most of the work that is most dear to my heart was made by people reaching far above their heads, resulting in movies and books and records that I think of as beautiful, messed-up old friends with whom I never tire of arguing. That said, the second I read the question, I thought of 1953’s The Earrings Of Madame De…, directed by Max Ophüls, from a screenplay he wrote with Marcel Achard and Annette Wademant, from a novel by Louise de Vilmorin, and starring Danielle Darrieux, Charles Boyer, and Vittorio De Sica, any one of whom could have used their performances in the film to get themselves cleared of criminal charges in any court of law. Even if film existed of them holding a rifle on the grassy knoll, they could get a pass on anything. I will make no further attempt to discuss this movie’s qualities, because it would be obscene just for me to say its title aloud, and profane those syllables by passing them through my filthy mouth. Suffice to say that the last time I saw it in a theater, at the Film Forum in New York back around 2007, I loitered for a while after the lights went up, almost hoping someone would say something bad about it, so I could prove my love by starting some shit up in that motherfucker.
For an album full of long, repetitive songs, Hawkwind’s Doremi Fasol Latido somehow doesn’t waste a second. Released in 1972, the space-rock legend’s third full-length is its first with drummer Simon King and bassist Lemmy, before the latter went on to form Motörhead. Accordingly, Doremi rocks in a way Hawkwind’s previous output didn’t. As punky as it is, though, the band still swims through the acidic waters of Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd, even as its muscular new rhythm section propels it into the uncharted fringes of cosmic confusion, ritualistic rage, and the curdled idealism of the ’70s. Hawkwind put out plenty of stuff I love, but to me, Doremi isn’t just a flawless example of pulsing, snarling psychedelia; it sums up everything fantastic, majestic, and demented about its era, and about rock ’n’ roll itself.
The first thing that comes to mind is Magnetic Fields’ Charm Of The Highway Strip, Stephin Merritt’s audacious 1994 masterpiece. The album’s conceit is bold and audacious: marrying classic honky-tonk’s high-lonesome lyrical themes and pervasive melancholy with new wave’s hypnotic synthesizers and stylized vocals. Reduced to its broad outlines, the album might sound like a smartass stunt or an irreverent provocation, but there’s nothing ironic or sarcastic about the album’s take on country. Charm Of The Highway’s perfection is attributable in part to its succinctness: at 10 songs lasting less than an hour, Strip never even threatens to wear out its welcome. It’s an album that got under my skin the very first time I heard it, and it continues to haunt me anew.
I’ve joked in the past that my favorite genre of music consists of sad guys screaming, so it’s probably safe to assume that everything I consider perfect should be taken with a grain of salt. That said, I own way too many records and spend too much time thinking about how an album can use the break between sides to its advantage, or how a band can still make a 7-inch revelatory given the format’s limitations. Against Me!’s The Disco Before The Breakdown and Snowing’s Fuck Your Emotional Bullshit belong in the latter category. Disco is a three-song suite that encapsulates Against Me!’s past, present, and then-coming future. The EP sandwiches what is perhaps the band’s best song, “Tonight We’re Gonna Give It 35%,” in the middle, between the title track and a simple acoustic number. It concisely summarizes all the band had to offer, while expressing its frustrations with the scene that groomed it. As for Snowing, the band found ways to inject humor into its obvious ’90s emo influences. Fuck Your Emotional Bullshit gives emo some much-needed self-awareness with songs that name-check At The Drive-In and a title that plants its tongue firmly in its cheek. The production on both records is far from pristine, but that’s a reminder of how sometimes the best things are the ones that make their limitations part of the work. These two stand out as examples of artists bound by their medium, yet still finding ways to say everything they need to say concisely.
I’ve spent so many hours making mixtapes and carefully scrutinizing the track listings of CD compilations that I’ve developed the unfortunate tendency to skip over just about any song on an album that doesn’t keep me completely entertained from start to finish. So I’m kind of having to go with my gut on this one, which is probably why I’ve got such an out-of-left-field answer. I’ve invested in a number of reissues of albums that came out during the ’80s, many of which haven’t aged very well, but one which has only gotten better for me with time is A-ha’s Hunting High And Low. My sister actually glommed onto these Norwegian pretty boys well before I did, which should come as no surprise to anyone who’s seen their videos, but after they finally got me in their corner with their Bond theme (“The Living Daylights“), I finally sat down and gave their debut album a really good listen, and I fell for it in a big way. It still sounds very much of its time, but beyond the accepted fact that “Take On Me” and, to a decidedly lesser extent, “The Sun Always Shines On TV” continue to be remembered as classic singles, it’s just a wonderful collection of smooth, polished, extremely catchy ’80s pop that hits a number of emotional notes. I’m not a big fan of the word “perfect,” but I wouldn’t want to change a single thing about this record, so I reckon it qualifies.
Getting older means going through lots of phases when it comes to favorite albums. I got deeply into The Who between high school and college, which is pretty much the perfect time to get into a band that’s all about the aggression that comes from having tons of energy but no real direction. And while I don’t really listen to Who music much anymore, Quadrophenia still stops me dead in my tracks whenever I come across it during my travels up and down my iTunes collection. It has a collection of killer tracks: “5:15,” “The Punk Versus The Godfather,” and “Doctor Jimmy,” to name a few. But its real power is cumulative, with the piece as a whole gradually washing over the listener like waves crashing on the beach intermittently between songs. It has no direct connection to mod life in 1960’s England, but the album’s beauty, intelligence, and ferocity still bypass all intellectual consideration and slam directly into my emotional center each time I listen to it. “Tommy” is widely considered the band’s most important work, and “Who’s Next” produced a series of titanic achievements in rock music. But “Quadrophenia” is the acme of the band’s career, the one album that reigns o’er me above all.
Baz Luhrmann’s first film, Strictly Ballroom, was made on a shoestring budget, and it’s distressingly niche—ballroom dancers, Spanish-language maxims, and the Pan-Pacific Grand Prix, whatever that is. I soured on Luhrmann as his career progressed, but in my mind, he will always be a genius for this slight, ridiculous, near-farcical film. Each scene is precisely filmed and edited; there isn’t a moment wasted or a shot that lasts too long. It’s deliciously campy, but unlike in Luhrmann’s later films, his limited resources restrain his overly theatrical vision. The result is spectacle on a domestic scale, a family drama on drugs. Strictly Ballroom is wickedly entertaining, and it sits in the sweet spot between comedy and pathos for a full 90 minutes. There are a few other films that get to that place—The Princess Bride comes to mind—but none of those have dance numbers choreographed to Doris Day’s “Perhaps, Perhaps, Perhaps” and Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time.” Strictly Ballroom is a hair away from being a hot mess—which somehow makes it even more perfect in my mind. Perfection, after all, implies something safe, complete, perhaps even boring. But as the movie teaches, a life lived in fear is a life half-lived. Go big, or go home. The movie is all the better for how much it risks on the way to success.
Most of my favorite books are messy. While I can’t imagine changing a line in Gravity’s Rainbow or Don Quixote or Ulysses, they’re all too sprawling, too digressive, to be immaculate; their expansive, rambling narratives are powerful in part because, in their best moments, they seem to encompass an entire world, flaws and all. To pretend otherwise would be to deny what makes them so great. But I don’t have anything against perfection, and there’s something to be said for precision of expression. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby is one of the most remarkable collections of sentences I’ve ever read, every word in its place, every moment ideal. (Well, apart from a dash of racism, but even that fits into the narrator’s padded, monochromatic world.) It’s a book that seems more discovered than written. I’m also partial to Vladimir Nabakov’s Pale Fire, which takes a brilliant gimmick (dead poet, mad annotator) and makes it something I can’t entirely describe: hilarious, occasionally off-putting, utterly fake, and totally sincere. And sad, somehow. Anyway, it’s perfect.
Now that we’ve had decades of distance between the original airings of the most classic Seinfeld episodes and today, most experts acknowledge that “The Contest” is one of the show’s greatest achievements. And, yes, that’s one of the best half-hours of TV comedy I’ve ever seen. But season four of the show had a string of classic episodes, from “The Outing” (“Not that there’s anything wrong with it”) to “The Implant” (“They’re real, and they’re spectacular!”) to “The Handicap Spot.” (“Hate the Drake!”) But the only time during that season that Jerry and Larry hit 1.000—instead of the usual .998—was in “The Junior Mint.” Most people think of it as two separate episodes; one where Kramer accidentally drops a “very refreshing!” Junior Mint into Elaine’s ex while watching him undergo surgery, and the episode where Jerry forgets his girlfriend’s name and just refers to her as “Mulva,” because he knows it rhymes with a part of the female anatomy. But it’s one episode, and the way the plotlines intersected was Seinfeld at its frenetic finest, culminating in a final line—“Dolores!”—that took a second to get, but was spit-take-funny once understood.
As with many people, the first time I heard Ryan Adams’ music was post-9/11, and he was standing in front of the now tragically felled Twin Towers, strumming a guitar and singing an ode to New York. Although it wasn’t necessarily the kind of music I was listening to at the time, I immediately purchased Gold and immersed myself in it with a sort of voracious intensity I’d never experienced with an artist, either before or since. It’s a gorgeous, messy, whiplash-inducing mishmash of styles—from the simple alt-country croon of “When The Stars Go Blue” to the fake-Rolling Stones bluesy rock of “Tina Toledo’s Street Walkin’ Blues” to the singer-songwriter sedateness of “La Cienega Just Smiled”—and although I now know all of this had been done before, every twist and turn opened up a whole new musical world for me. Heartbreaker may be considered his masterpiece—and objectively, I agree—but discovering the perfect imperfection of Gold remains my most indelible musical memory.
About every year (or six months) I rewatch the British Office, a.k.a. The Office. (Anything else is a derivation.) Though my sensibilities have been defined by plenty of TV—particularly the alchemy of The Simpsons, Kids In The Hall, and Mr. Show—there’s nothing else I find as note-for-note perfect as The Office. After probably a dozen-plus rewatches, every joke is still funny, every cringe is still gut-punchingly alienating, and not a single emotion is misplaced. At first, I balked a bit at the Christmas special, and especially its happy endings for the show’s primary trifecta of Brent/Tim/Dawn. I’ve since come around to adoring it, in no small part because something in me wants to believe that all the subtle, mounting indignities we accrue in everyday life can somehow be lightened, be it by something as life-changing as true love or something as minuscule as a laugh. I doubt there will ever be a television show I’ll adore this much. And I hope there’s never a time I don’t laugh at “Bloody hormones” and “Here comes Hull down the motorway in a car!”
Though it isn’t terribly well-known here in the States, Slings And Arrows comes about as close as I’ve seen to a truly perfect dramatic series. There are minor things wrong with it here and there, but the Canadian drama is one of those things where the flaws almost make the strengths stronger. Each season of the show has so much to say about love and death and beauty and art, and every season is also so wonderfully life-affirming. It’s rare to find 18 episode of television—especially 18 hourlong episodes—this good, but Slings manages the trick, and rewatching it for my currently ongoing TV Club Classic reviews of the show has been a completely rewarding experience, further convincing me of its perfection. Only something perfect could sustain as many rewatches as I’ve given this show.