Pop-culture we’re afraid to revisit
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Are there particular pieces of pop culture (movies, books, albums, etc.) that were at one time very meaningful to you, that you’re now afraid to revisit later in your life for fear that they will no longer mean as much? When I was in college, the movie American Beauty spoke to me in such a way that I would often tear up in anticipation of the final scenes approaching. Now that I’m older and in a different place in my life, I consciously avoid that movie because I don’t think it will speak to me in the same way, and I don’t want to diminish its initial significance in my life. —Bluewater
I watched way too much cheesy TV when I was young—The A-Team, Knight Rider, the Transformers and G.I. Joe cartoons, basically all the stuff that’s giving us our crap action cinema of today—and it mesmerized me back then; I have no desire to re-watch it, even for cheap nostalgia or ironic sneering, because it’ll just prove how much time I wasted on dreck back then. Honestly, as I’ve said here before, I don’t look back much when it comes to pop culture: There are way too many new things I haven’t tried, so I don’t get much pleasure out of revisiting old things. Part of that attitude is because when the “everything ever produced is now available on DVD” singularity began to form, I revisited some of the cartoons I loved most in early childhood—Blackstar and Dungeons & Dragons leap to mind—and was more saddened than offended by how profoundly they sucked and how little they validated my childhood respect. I’m even afraid to revisit the films I most loved in college—Reservoir Dogs and Hal Hartley’s Simple Men, for instance—because they’ve since been imitated and re-treaded so often that I doubt they’d live up to my memories, which were formed when I’d never seen anything like those films before. Generally when it comes to pop culture, I’d rather reach way back into the past or try to keep up with the present, rather than revisiting my own history.
As a little kid I was obsessed—and I mean fucking obsessed—with Battle Of The Planets, the Americanized version of the anime series Science Ninja Team Gatchaman. I’d rush home every afternoon from kindergarten and first grade so as not to miss a single second of the show, which ran on Tampa’s Channel 44 in the late ’70s. Back then, of course, there was no way to read up on Japanese cartoons; in fact, I had no idea it was Japanese at all. There were no toys to buy, so I built my own shitty Phoenix (the spaceship piloted by the team of teenage superheroes known as G-Force) out of Legos. The show was just so damned cool: Each hero in G-Force had a smaller vehicle that detached from the Phoenix, and the entire mothership, as its name promised, would go up in flames at the end of every episode in order to defeat the bad guys. But when I got older and anime began to pop up everywhere, I never seriously considered tracking down Battle Of The Planets. I never got into anime as a whole, and all the things I’ve read about BOTP since then have blasted the show for gutting the Japanese original in order to make it palatable for delicate American audiences, including downplaying the overt androgyny of the main villain, Zoltar. In any case, there’s no way the show would give me the same thrill it did when I was a kid, so I’ll just let my fond, hazy memories be the reruns.
Does it count if you’ve actually revisited them, just for a short visit? Roundabout 1990 or so, I absolutely loved this largely forgotten Manchester (sorry, “Madchester”) band Inspiral Carpets. I had T-shirts, all the 12-inch singles, etc. My first-ever show at Chicago’s famed Metro was Inspiral Carpets, in 1990. (My future wife’s parents drove us down from Milwaukee and waited outside.) The band’s debut album, Life, and its follow-up, The Beast Inside, were in heavy rotation for quite a while there, but I eventually moved on to bigger and better things, like Ned’s Atomic Dustbin. I still have all the Inspiral Carpets records, though, and I thought it’d be fun to pop in Life, which once meant so much to me, knowing pretty surely that it wouldn’t do all that much for me. And it didn’t. It’s a decent-enough pastiche of ’60s and ’90s sounds, and there’s a spark, but it might grow dusty again.
In pop culture, as in love, sometimes it’s meant to last, and sometimes it’s best to move on once the spark has faded. Trouble is, with love and pop culture, it’s hard to tell what’s what in the heat of infatuation. I loved both Twin Peaks and The X-Files obsessively at different periods. When I revisited the former, the love remained. When I gave the latter another go, the thrill just wasn’t there anymore. So I’m happy living with my fond remembrances sometimes. But here’s one that worries me: I loved Milan Kundera’s novel The Unbearable Lightness Of Being when I was in college, but now I wonder if it was just a college thing. I reread another Kundera novel—The Book Of Laughter And Forgetting—last year, and left it much less impressed than the first time around. The ideas seemed a lot shallower and the judgments much more harsh. (Incidentally, I was rereading it as part of a half-formed blog idea about Abba that I ended up not writing in part because my ideas just didn’t come together and the book wasn’t what I remembered. Consider yourself spared.) So I may just leave Unbearable alone, even though the other day I saw a woman on the train reading Kundera’s Immortality, which I haven’t read, and I wound up wondering if it was any good. I may never find out.
I’m with Keith on The X-Files. I think it was the first television show I ever geeked out over. (My first e-mail address was actually SpookysGrl@aol.com.) I organized my week around the show’s schedule, I spent time in fan forums, I had this poster on the wall in my bedroom, and of course I was a shipper, too—I didn’t even know what that word meant until a few years ago. I don’t know why there’d be anything wrong with being an X-Files shipper when viewers are so obviously led to ponder Mulder and Scully’s relationship. Remember that time they almost kissed but it wasn’t actually Mulder, just a guy who was shape-shifting? That was great. Anyway, where was I? Ah yes. Last year, I agreed to an assignment where I’d re-watch the series and write it up, and long story short, I aborted the project. Just a few episodes in, I knew that not only did I not love the show, I didn’t really even like it that much anymore. The sci-fi part of me has died, and the early episodes of the show were a little too formulaic and melodramatic for me, and I wanted to quit before I totally spoiled my fond memories. I have not changed my mind in that it was one of my favorite TV shows of all time, but it just needs to remain frozen in time—specifically, in a time when I was using dial-up to access AOL.
I always get perplexed looks from people when I mention that I loved Tori Amos circa Little Earthquakes and Under The Pink. But c’mon, the melodrama of Little Earthquakes perfectly complements the emo I got into a couple years later. I started dating an Amos superfan not long after I picked up Little Earthquakes, so I ended up hearing it about a million times over the course of that year. Although I loved songs like “Silent All These Years” (my high-school punk band was gonna cover it) and “Tear In Your Hand,” even in 1992 I was put off by the histrionics of “Girl” and the musical-theater nerdiness of “Happy Phantom” and “Leather.” I don’t imagine they’ve improved with age, or with my dramatically reduced tolerance for melodrama. Looking at the track list now, I don’t even remember how “Mother” goes. I’m hesitant to re-listen, because I suspect I won’t make it through a lot of the songs. (Confidential to the 16-year-old version of myself: Lighten up.)
I harbored a lot of forlorn “woe is me” romantic feelings when I was younger. I’d like to think that I was too busy for dates or something, but really, I just never got asked on any. So instead, I dove heavily into the world of sappy melodramatic romantic movies, all of which I watched over and over again. (Can’t imagine why I didn’t get any dates…) Some have stood up, like Empire Records or Sixteen Candles. I shudder to even think, though, about watching Untamed Heart again. Basically, it’s a movie about a socially challenged busboy (Christian Slater with a bad haircut) who has heart problems, and the waitress (Marisa Tomei) he loves, who comes to love him back. Even thinking about the schlock level in this movie makes me uncomfortable as an adult, and YouTube searches for scenes haven’t done anything to alleviate the lurking shame about all the hours I wasted watching this movie on repeat. Self, I apologize.
I make it my business to revisit my favorites on a regular basis, both because it’s fun to do, and because I think it’s important for critics to check themselves. Sometimes the work doesn’t hold up—as is often the case with the indie-rock I loved in the early ’90s, which I appreciated at the time more for the ideas than the execution—and sometimes it’s even better than I’d remembered. I also re-watch old TV shows frequently, and any time a movie I praised shows up on cable, I record it so I can see whether I was too kind. The only time I’d say that I’m “afraid” to revisit something is when I take a second look at movies I raved about at film festivals. As much as I love going to festivals, they aren’t always conducive to sound judgment, since everything I see at a festival stands in immediate comparison to the four other movies I saw that day and the 30 other movies I saw that week. See three duds in a row, and it’s easy to overrate the next film if it’s even remotely entertaining. See three masterpieces in a row, and a solid piece of middlebrow fare can look uninspired and pointless. When I see these movies again with my wife—in theaters or on DVD—I’m anxious, not just because I want her to like the movie as much as I did, but because I want to like the movie as much as I did.
For some reason, of all the albums I’ve ever reviewed, the one I’d be most squeamish about revisiting is Grooverider’s Mysteries of Funk, from 1998. What I remember about the review, especially in retrospect (and probably a little bit even as I wrote it), is how half-assed defensive it was: “No, no, no, really, this stuff is important,” etc. That’s an easy thing to fall into when you’re younger (I was 23 in 1998), and I was definitely evangelical about dance music. But it’s one thing to realize you can’t remember a damn thing from an album you spent considerable time with, and another thing entirely to realize it a week after the review ran, which is more or less what happened with the Grooverider album. It came right as the flurry of excellent, scene-changing tracks that had occupied jungle/drum & bass in the mid-’90s had halted, and it didn’t take long to realize that the album was one of the reasons why, in spite of my flailing.