Pop culture too extensive to start
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
Your pop-culture resolutions for 2013 focused on stuff you finally plan on getting around to this year, which made me wonder, are there any cultural touchstones you’d like to get into, but that seem too extensive to even start? For me, this includes Neil Gaiman’s Sandman and the Comedy Bang! Bang! podcasts. I’m sure I’d like both, but I think their respective outputs are too fleshed out at this point for me to jump into. —DL
Prediction: 50 percent of the comments are going to be dedicated to chiding other people about their choices, with “Oh, but you gotta try that, it’s great!” For instance: Oh c’mon, DL, there isn’t that much Sandman. The main series is even completed, so you know exactly what you’re getting into—it’s not like trying to pick up an ongoing series that may continue forever. And if you’d just started a few months ago, you could be following along with our weekly discussion series on Sandman. It isn’t quite too late! As to Comedy Bang! Bang!, it’s perfectly acceptable to pick up a podcast with the current installment, just like with any radio or news show—you may miss a bunch of in-jokes, but you don’t need a heavy backgrounding in the plot thus far. That said, I completely understand the feeling of “There’s so much of that thing already that just starting it seems exhausting.” Which would explain why I never got past the first couple of episodes of Fringe, even though I’m told it gets fantastic later on. Or Chuck, which I’m told is eventually right up my alley, once it gets past the beginning. Or Babylon 5, which—ditto. Really, I just don’t have a lot of patience with recommendations that start, “Sure, the first season or two—the first 26 hours—are rough and not terribly interesting, but you have to watch all of them anyway to understand the really good stuff that you’ll love once you finally get there!” These days, I have little enough free pop-culture-enjoying free time that I prefer to stick to pop culture I’m going to enjoy before I’ve invested dozens of evenings in getting to the good part. (And now it’s your turn to tell me why I’m off-base and all these shows are totally worth it and I should get off my ass already. Or I guess in this case, get on my ass and on the couch.)
Tasha, you hypocrite. (I still love you.) You handed me the first season of Buffy The Vampire Slayer on DVD well over a year ago. (Were you wondering where it went?) And you told me that I would eventually love it, but that the entire first season was basically a total slog, and that I would have to suffer through it in order to get to the good stuff. [Oh, I did not either say that, you big exaggerator. —ed.] I am willing to do that, eventually, but when there’s so much other potentially great (or fully vouched-for) stuff sitting on my stack of DVDs, it’s going to take me forever to get there. Plus, seven seasons? That’s really a lot of seasons, and then I’m aware that there are spin-offs, or at least one spin-off, as well as superfans who are going to kick me for not diving into this whole mess sooner. What’s a boy to do?
Almost every day, I think about how I’d like to get more into two different types of music: jazz and classical. Those headings, though, are frustratingly broad. If someone wanted to get into rock, for instance, where would I tell them to start? The Beatles? Elvis? Chuck Berry? Or something modern, maybe? While I have a working knowledge of both classical and jazz, the difficulty for me comes in the breadth of similar recordings in each genre. Do I want to listen to the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s take on Beethoven, or the Cleveland Orchestra’s? Which recording of Rachmaninov’s Symphony No. 2 should I listen to first? Is the 1959 recording of the Cannonball Adderly Quintet in San Francisco better than the 1962 one of his sextet in New York? Because I don’t even know where to jump in, I tend to avoid the pool altogether, and I’m worse off for it. Hey, maybe 2013 will be the year.
I feel this way about most comics, but especially most webcomics, and most particularly Achewood. My wife went on a binge a few years ago, and she knows my taste better than anyone, and she said, “Hey, you would love this.” I tried to get into it. I even bought a few print books, as I generally enjoy reading comics more that way. But I just couldn’t force myself to keep going. What I was reading was good, though the early months of Achewood are, I’m told, pretty different from what comes next. It had a voice, and distinctive characters, and it had a lot of stuff I loved. But the thought of going through all those years of comics and trying to track down the assorted blog entries written in the voices of the characters to get the full experience proved too daunting. There was a time when I had an office job that involved about 45 minutes of work stretched across an entire day; that was the time to get into Achewood, and I sadly missed that boat.
For years, I’ve been scouring used bookstores and online retailers and collecting some of the classics of the “New Journalism” era, with an eye toward writing some kind of piece for this site. I read a lot of Tom Wolfe and Hunter S. Thompson as a teenager, along with a few New Journalism anthologies, but I’ve always wanted to delve deeper into Norman Mailer, Joan Didion, Gay Talese, and the like. So far, I’ve made it through all of Talese’s Fame And Obscurity and about a fourth of his Honor Thy Father, but I still have stacks of books I want to get to. The problem is that there are also comics I need to read and review, plus RSS feeds to keep up with, and all the articles I have saved on my Instapaper and Readability apps, and… you get the idea. I have so much reading to do that I never have time to read.
When Podmass was just ramping up, in the spirit of partnership, I agreed to substitute for Dan Telfer when he was unable to cover The Best Show On WFMU. It was my fault for not asking whether it’s the kind of show one can just jump in on, but I learned the hard way: it isn’t the kind of show one can just jump in on. A lot of the jokes, references, and characters went over my head, so I doomed the episode to a “Rest” instead of a “Best.” That earned the write-up lots of spiteful comments—including, I hear (but chose not to investigate), some ire from host Tom Scharpling himself. I decided to make lemonade of the situation and asked Scharpling about the relative difficulty of jumping into his show in a later interview I did with him, but I learned my lesson. Don’t agree to review a new-to-you podcast unless it’s a show that’s easy to dip into for newcomers. Especially if its host reads Podmass.
My reluctance to open up too big a can of worms has kept me away from many TV shows I’m fairly certain I’d enjoy: Lost, Fringe, Doctor Who, and Angel, to name four, with the latter especially galling, given my general devotion to the Whedonverse. Basically, I find that if I’m more than two full seasons behind in a show, particularly if it’s an hourlong show, I’m disinclined to take the plunge. But my deepest shame is a near-total lack of education in comic books. Comics were simply never part of my life as a child, or even through college, where my voracious appetite for film forbade a more balanced pop culture diet. My A.V. Club friends have tried to convert me: The Eisner-nominated Noel Murray bought me a copy of Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics; Keith Phipps has loaned me great Brian K. Vaughan series like Y: The Last Man, Ex Machina, and Runaways; and I pored through Watchman on my own, which is silly, given my ignorance of the superhero myths it was exploding. There are theoretical conversations I would love to have with people about comics, and an entire subculture that’s immensely appealing to me. There are also only so many hours in the day.
To complete the musical walk of shame others started, I have to admit that I am embarrassingly ignorant of hip-hop. I just never had time for it in high school, being too busy tracking down Smiths singles and Cure bootlegs, and somehow I just kept passing it over in later years, even as I embraced and dove into everything from dance music to metal. I’m not a complete virgin to the genre or anything, but looking at my music collection, the stack labeled hip-hop is, by far, the smallest. I’m familiar with the most popular acts in the genre, since I don’t live in a cave or anything, but beyond those artists’ best-known work and the dozen or so albums I own, it’s all kind of a mystery to me. I’ve often wished some benevolent music geek would just make me a list of the best stuff, decade by decade, so I could go in and educate myself. Failing that, I get overwhelmed even thinking about trying to dive into what I know is the biggest, most important musical movement of my lifetime.
I do this all the time, but more often with individual bands than genres of music. The more records a band has and the more intense its following, the less likely I am to dive into its catalogue, especially if the band has already broken up. Without the chance to see a band live, there’s no urgent reason for me to comb through half a dozen records or more. This is currently putting me in a hard place with Rocket From The Crypt, a band with enough records and side projects and more than enough fans to keep me at bay forever. I’ve listened to The Night Marchers (the latest side project of frontman John Reis) from the beginning, so it was easy to keep up with. But now that RFTC is reuniting and all my friends and my boyfriend are frothing at the mouth over it, I feel like it’s time for me to finally catch up. I just need to figure out how to do that while only listening to “Stuck In The Middle.” That should be good enough, right?
Like some of my colleagues, I am overwhelmed and intimidated by the vastness and complexity of jazz. It’s a core component of much of the music I love, from hip hop to western swing to the guitar stylings of Trey Anastasio, but I’ve always been too intimidated by it to do more than plunge a toe inside its very deep waters. I would love to have a nuanced, sophisticated appreciation of the work of Miles Davis and John Coltrane and their peers, to speak knowingly and affectionately about these great icons with a sense of familiarity, but I’m not sure that will ever happen. I try not to be set in my ways, but jazz is one hurdle I may never clear.
Given how many comic books I’ve read and animated films I’ve seen, the only possible explanation for why I’ve never made any sort of directed effort to find a simple entryway into the world of anime is that it just seems too extensive a universe for me to explore. It’s not so much that it’s intimidating, though, as it is that I’m afraid that the right gateway drug could send me into a full-fledged pop-culture obsession, and Lord knows I don’t need another one of those. So what I’m saying, I guess, is that you really shouldn’t offer any suggestions for ways into that world, because you’ll only be enabling me. But since I know you’ll do it, anyway, hang on while I run and get a pen…
I’ve openly admitted that I never watched Lost, and I don’t plan to start. It’s tough enough to catch up on cable shows that only have 10 to 15 hours per season to watch in marathon fashion; I can’t imagine trying to catch up on six seasons and 121 hours’ worth of intense, complicated, layered drama. I only blame myself for this; for some reason, the idea of the show didn’t intrigue me way back in 2004, and by the time I was interested—somewhere around 2007—it was way too late for me to catch up. And as the seasons wore on, the hole got deeper and deeper, and it now feels like an impossible task. So I figure I’ll just have a permanent pop-culture black hole there and move on with my life.
As embarrassing as it is for a music critic to admit, I’ve always been intimidated about diving into the blues. Sure, I’ve picked up the random anthology here and there over the past 20 years, not to mention various classics by Robert Johnson, Howlin’ Wolf, and so on. Christopher Bahn's late Great Vintage Blues column here at The A.V. Club was definitely a help, but even that excellent series barely scratched the surface of such a rich, massive genre. This is a criminal gap in my musical self-education, seeing as how so many artists I love are directly influenced by the blues. The funny thing is, I’ve been able to throw myself passionately into many other genres that can seem equally impenetrable to the novice, including stuff I now dearly love, like reggae and jazz. But the blues remains a threshold I have yet to stick more than a toe across.