The cluelessness of youth
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.
A few weeks back, you covered art you tried too late, but I was wondering what blind spots you had growing up that an older you wishes you knew about. While I was always into film, I was totally clueless about music and comics growing up in Cleveland. I had no clue about the great stuff that was being created right under my nose in my cursed town, like American Splendor or the work of singer-songwriter Bill Fox. I can’t help thinking that adolescence would have sucked a little less if I knew about Ghost World and bands like Pulp and New Order. Is there anything you guys missed out on? —Stephanie Bencin
This was a tough one to answer. While it was often difficult to expose myself to the arts in the suburban-Arizona wasteland of my youth and adolescence, I feel like I did a pretty comprehensive job of catching up once I was able to do so. My childhood was almost entirely free of rock music (my parents were into country and classical, respectively), but I got hip to stuff like metal and hip-hop pretty early in high school, and filled holes in my musical education, from opera to jazz, throughout the rest of my life. Likewise, though neither of my folks were big readers, they both encouraged me to read, so I was the biggest nerd on my block at least until college. I was also a latchkey kid, so I had the time and the freedom to explore stuff like comics, art, and writing, and while I wasn’t exposed to many good movies as a youth, I watched all of them that I could, and made up for lost time with foreign and art films once I got older.
If there’s one big cultural gap in my childhood, it’s probably videogames. I’m old enough to remember the time when they didn’t really exist, and by the time stuff like the Atari 2600 got very popular, my parents had split up and my mom didn’t have enough money to spend on something so frivolous. I would occasionally play it at a cousin’s house, but never enough to get any good, and while I’m familiar with most of the big arcade games of the ’80s, I always felt my precious convenience-store dollar was better spent on comics and Slurpees, so I didn’t notch the kind of hours behind the Galaga or Missile Command consoles that most of my peers did. The Nintendo era almost completely passed me by, and in the 1990s, I was too immersed in music, literature, drugs, and failing to get laid to care. The end result of all this is that, as I’ve mentioned before, I really like contemporary videogames, but I also completely suck at 99 percent of them.
At the risk of being predictable, I’m going to have to say I wish I had listened to country music growing up. Being a Midwestern urbanite from Chicago and Wisconsin, I assumed country music was a Southern, rural thing. I blindly swallowed all the lazy, reductive caricatures of country as the exclusive domain of pickup-truck-driving racist rednecks and toothless, moonshine-swilling hillbilly-Americans. I subscribed to a Hee Haw view of country as a whole mess of homespun foolishness us big-city types didn’t have to worry about. Oh sweet blessed Lord, was I ever wrong! I am very much enjoying my journey through country’s back pages in Nashville Or Bust, but I wish the trip had begun two decades earlier.
Does “the entirety of post-Beatles rock” count as a piece of art I missed out on in my younger years? I grew up in a household that emphasized books and getting out of the house, in that order; we spent a lot of time at parks or the zoo, but almost none at home listening to music. And the music of my household was largely the acoustic folk (The Kingston Trio, Peter Paul & Mary, etc.) hit musicals (Fiddler On The Roof, The Sound Of Music), ’60s rock, and country-and-western (I’m not sure you were missing out on that much, Nathan) that my parents grew up on. That extended to my friends once I started going to school; they were more into academics than art. So I made it to high school with fairly minimal exposure to the music of the era; sure, I listened to the radio sometimes, but to an ear trained on Waylon Jennings and Simon & Garfunkel, all that rock stuff just sounded like noise, and since music wasn’t really a draw in our household, I never really developed the natural urge to explore everything I could get my hands on. In college, I discovered British television and art cinema and foreign films, and I started to fill in some of the biggest gaps in my cultural landscape, but my friends were largely theater types, film fanatics, and computer dorks. We chatted online and played games together and went to plays and programmed our own film marathons, but the subject of our music rarely came up. Add all this up, and I came to The A.V. Club both incurious about popular music, and largely ignorant of it. A decade of working here has exposed me to a lot of different music, but I still sometimes feel like I grew up in a cave compared to all the deep-steeped musicheads here.
Indie music. I really, really wish I knew more about indie music; honestly, I wish I knew more about pop music in general. I dabble, I have a reasonably interesting collection of music on my iPod, but every week, we get a new rush of CD reviews at The A.V. Club, and on a good week, I’ve heard of one of the artists. Maybe two. The recent announcement that Pavement is doing a reunion tour just confused me; a Twitter friend linked me to one of their big hits, and it was pleasant enough, but I still don’t have the intense emotional connection so many people seem to have with these bands. I wish when I was in high school that I’d branched out a little, that I hadn’t been so scared; I mean, I really enjoyed the hell out of Billy Joel and Meat Loaf, but surely I could’ve been laying groundwork for something better. Reading Noel’s Popless columns last year was terrifically entertaining and illuminating, but at the same time, I felt like I was standing outside a large room, ear pressed to the door, listening to other people grooving. That isn’t a fault of Noel’s writing, just a complete dearth of similar experiences for me to draw on. And I don’t see that changing any time soon. I’ve already made my format choice—it’s always going to be books first, movies a close second, and music a distant-but-respectable third. (Yes, I realize you don’t have to chose, but that’s just how I am.) And I don’t regret that. But I sometimes wonder what would’ve happened if I’d bought a few more CDs that my parents didn’t approve of. Maybe I wouldn’t feel like I have to spend so much time trying to catch up with what everybody else takes for granted.
Diving into the Beatles reissues the past few weeks, part of me felt like I had… not missed out per se, but could’ve had a closer relationship with something so great at an earlier age. I’ve always liked The Beatles, but until recently, the only album I owned (and seldom listened to) was Abbey Road. I was basically waiting around for something like the reissues to buy the rest. (Although I really want the mono mixes.) Now that I have it all, I’ve found a lot more that I enjoy beyond the inescapable hits—which are great, but lose something in their ubiquity, for me at least. Like I said in our A.V. Talk, you can’t be a music fan in this era and not know most of these songs, but I’ve enjoyed finding the non-ubiquitous songs. Still, maybe coming to this stuff late doesn’t matter. It’s not like it changes the music, and I always appreciated The Beatles. But I only recently became a big fan.
I’m tempted to say classic rock in general, though that isn’t entirely true… Being the contrarian I was in high school (that’s right, I had a Love & Rockets logo painted on my army jacket, what’s it to you?), I think I sort of applied blanket disdain to anything that the masses liked. Around that time, it was really groovy to like The Grateful Dead and The Doors (this was the early ’90s, mind you!), so I automatically scoffed at that sort of retro-minded crap. (Me, I liked music that was only 10 years old!) Anyway, I do believe that attitude kept me from giving an open-minded listen to lots of music until many years later, including stuff like Bob Marley and Jimi Hendrix. How could I not like Jimi Hendrix? (Well, it was wanky and accomplished and soulful, which didn’t make sense to my ears then.) I still can’t listen to The Grateful Dead, and I have no desire to listen to The Doors. Maybe when I’m 50.
Maybe it’s an occupational hazard of the sensation-seeking of youth, but I had no patience for naturalistic or historical literature when I was a kid. I loved hard science fiction and philosophical/mystical fantasy, the more hard-core the better; Robert L. Forward’s Dragon’s Egg and Stephen R. Donaldson’s The Chronicles Of Thomas Covenant, The Unbeliever were particular favorites, if that tells you anything. Nothing could be more boring than reading an ordinary novel where ordinary people do ordinary things. I remember slogging through Great Expectations and An American Tragedy in high school and gleefully bad-mouthing them to everyone who would listen. It wasn’t just that I thought they weren’t for me; I hated everything about them, from the literary style to the seemingly self-absorbed characters, and I thought my hatred meant that they were obviously, objectively crap. Now I’m captivated by naturalism and history in all its forms. I read David Copperfield for the first time last year, and there weren’t enough hours in the day to devour the story and savor all its heartbreakingly beautiful emotions. And although I haven’t done it yet—is there a public-domain version I can download to my Kindle?—I have a burning desire to reread An American Tragedy, because I have a feeling that the same features that made me want to throw it across the room the summer before my senior year would make me unbearably happy today. I know that appreciation of human existence itself, in all its subtle and mysterious forms, is unavoidably a product of maturity, but I just wish I had grown up a little faster so I could have had a few more years to enjoy all this glorious art.
By the time I became an episode-recording, Amazing Colossal Episode Guide-owning fan of Mystery Science Theater 3000, the show was in its final season on SyFy. I was introduced to MST3K as it was making the transition from Comedy Central to SyFy, and to this day, I’ve seen only a handful of episodes from the six seasons it spent on the future home of Drawn Together. (That show: yeesh.) I’ve never been interested in the non-Rhino or Shout Factory-sanctioned ways of catching up with the show; a general distrust of strangers keeps me out of the tape-trading game, and a disinterest in watching one of my favorite television shows squeezed into a 1280x720 pixel box prevents me watching the episodes that Jim Mallon has yet to excise from YouTube. Also getting in my way: the summer before my freshman year of high school, when I spent far too much time reading and re-reading the Episode Guide, imagining a glorious “What If?” where I had been aware of the show at its peak—which I gleaned from the book was somewhere around seasons three and four. (Incidentally, this is how I gathered most of my pop-culture knowledge before I had regular access to a car or high-speed Internet. Some people spent visits to their grandparents house assembling puzzles, with a mouthful of hard candy; I spent mine poring over dog-eared copies of The Complete Directory To Prime Time Network And Cable TV Shows and Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide.) Sure, I would have only been 5 years old, but Best Brains was still producing new episodes and Comedy Central was airing reruns several nights of the week. A lot of the jokes and references would have gone over my head, but I would’ve grown with the show, and my pop-culture education would be richer for it. And besides, in my real life, I was only able to bear witness to one Turkey Day marathon, and SyFy didn’t even call it Turkey Day, let alone pay for bumpers of The Mads trying to entertain Thanksgiving guests.
When I look back on my childhood and think about how a sheltered kid from a Toledo suburb grew up into the voracious pop-culture consumer he is today, I can remember certain gateways: The copy of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band I kept borrowing from our hated next-door neighbors, the old war movies and early Stanley Kubrick classics (2001: A Space Odyssey, Paths Of Glory, and Dr. Strangelove, specifically) I watched with my dad, the hours I spent watching TV from my playpen, even after I was big enough to climb out of it. But there was one thing that was always missing: comic books. And it wasn’t just a lack of access to comics; I have no memory of even encountering one until I was well into my teens. (Comic strips, on the other hand? Absolutely. I had the complete Garfield collection.) Never having access to comics has not only impoverished my life, it’s cut off an entire channel of conversation between myself and, well, everyone else at The A.V. Club, for a start. Though I’ve tried many times to get into them as an adult, dutifully reading Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics and even recently thumbing happily through Scott Pilgrim and a couple of Brian K. Vaughan books, it’s too late for me. I feel like I’m struggling with a language that others read and speak with natural fluency. So I’ve resolved not to let my own child go without the brain-rotting picture-books I was so cruelly denied. When she gets caught sticking a Batman comic inside her Social Studies textbook, I’ll still chide her, but my heart will secretly swell with pride.
Although he seems like the patron saint of artsy douchebags who hang out in coffee shops, Tom Waits never appealed to me when I was an angsty, café-loitering kid. Maybe I was in denial back then, but the guy’s whole brooding jazzbo shtick didn’t resonate with me, despite the fact that most of my friends back then worshipped Waits. That ambivalence grew into a full-on aversion as my 20s progressed. Then, around 10 years ago, I impulsively picked up a battered used copy of Franks Wild Years on vinyl. Of course, by that time I’d developed an affinity for shitloads of dark, idiosyncratic singer-songwriters, jazz singers, and blues howlers, and Waits more than made sense—he clicked in a deep, even profound kind of way. What I in my youthful folly had dismissed as empty pretension turned out to be some of the richest, most adventurous, most poignant music I’d ever heard. So yeah, if I ever meet my younger self at the dark end of a time warp, he’s getting an ass-kicking and copies of Waits’ Island Records output, for starters.