Yesterday, my wife and I took our daughter to see Toy Story 3. I thought it was great. She thought it was “unremarkable.” We have been bitterly debating its merits ever since. The last time we had a disagreement this acrimonious was when she declared her hatred of the Beastie Boys. Until then, it never occurred to me that anyone could dislike the Beastie Boys. What pop-cultural disagreement has come between you and a loved one? —Jeremy
My boyfriend and I rarely really agree on movies. I’m addicted to animation; he generally isn’t impressed. He likes so-bad-it’s-good movies enough that he throws periodic bad-movie parties; I feel like purposely watching bad movies is a waste of time when I still haven’t seen so many of the classic canon of great movies. I don’t buy films unless I’ve seen them and loved them and want to show or lend them to others; he’ll buy nearly anything he finds for $2 or less in a remainder bin. I tend to be a harsh critic when it comes to plot holes and glaring character inconsistencies; he bends over backward to fill in those holes himself, to the degree that our friends have labeled him Movie Justification Man, as though it were a superpower. We just approach film differently. Fortunately, we enjoy watching movies together and debating their merits and flaws afterward, and we rarely seriously disagree. It’s far more common for one of us to like a movie while the other is indifferent than it is for us to actually have sharply opposed opinions. But once in a long while, something like M. Night Shyamalan’s Lady In The Water comes along. To be fair to the boyfriend, rather than trying to encapsulate his positive opinion of that ill-conceived, shambling, ridiculous, self-important, incoherent piece of crap myself, I IMed him and asked him to do it. He messaged back “It captured the flow and logic of a story told by a child (as opposed to a children’s story), and had a nicely developed theme that if you trust people, they will often prove trustworthy. And it was very funny.” You know what I found funny about that movie? That someone as smart as him was in any way taken in by it. It’s one of the only cases where we’ve ever agreed to disagree and walk away, lest “debating” turn into “shouting.”
This happens all the time in my house, partially because my husband Steve is what I refer to as a delayed-hater. We’ll watch a movie together and enjoy it thoroughly (like, say, Anchorman) and then months later, he’ll claim it wasn’t so great, he didn’t enjoy it that much. Then I get mad over the inexplicable flip-flop. We have argued a few times about Dave Eggers: Steve is a more dedicated fan than I’ve been, and he accuses me of not acknowledging how much influence Eggers and his publication/s have had on our generation, and specifically, my own career. More recently, we got into a major argument over Matthew Sweet, of all people. There we were, watching SNL and agreeing that neither of us were enjoying MGMT’s performance very much, when he said “Yeah, they sound like all those other crappy singer-songwriters out there, like Matthew Sweet.” Well, first of all, I didn’t hear any similarity between MGMT and Sweet, but more importantly, how dare you criticize a musician who figured so prominently in the soundtrack of our youth? Steve later backtracked, saying he has no problem with early Sweet, but holds it against him that he collaborated with Shawn Mullins. That’s fair enough, but from now on, Matthew Sweet is like Hitler in our house, the standard of evil against which everything else is compared. “Yeah, that Osama bin Laden’s a regular Matthew Sweet.” Aren’t you glad you asked?
I’m lucky in a couple of respects. My wife and I have a lot of overlap in our tastes, and enough good sense to let each other spend time alone to indulge the parts of our tastes that don’t overlap. I watch horror movies and listen to Steely Dan when she’s elsewhere. She has friends over to watch True Blood, and I go to the movies. It works. She has good taste in comedy, too, but I was forced to turn off an episode of Wonder Showzen, a.k.a. “that horrible show with the puppets” once. I doubt she ever much cared for the show (hence the alternate title) but the ”D.O.G.O.B.G.Y.N.” bit crossed some kind of line, then went even further. I was told, in no uncertain terms, that it had to be turned off. That had never happened before (and hasn’t happened since), so I listened.
I married a misogynist. Or that’s what I like to tell her, because she’s predisposed to disliking female musicians. Our biggest disagreement centers on Sleater-Kinney, whom I adore but my wife hates with a passion that’s almost unnerving. Much of her criticism dwells on the natural vibrato of Corin Tucker’s voice, and I understand how that could annoy someone. But her animosity extends into disdain for the band’s overt feminism, which she dismisses wholesale. The stridency of the band’s “message” turns her off immensely; I suspect she thinks that Sleater-Kinney’s shtick is narcissism buried under girl-power platitudes. I counter that she’s simply being cynical, and even on the occasions when S-K lapsed into ham-fisted sloganeering, it came from the heart. Tucker, Carrie Brownstein, and Janet Weiss were hardly peacocks trading on riot-grrl signifiers for fortune and fame. They looked like people we’d be friends with. Me, I think The Wife secretly envies their gutsiness… but I should stop typing now.
Over many years of doomed relationships, I’ve noticed that culture addicts like myself tend to be drawn to people who are equally obsessive about the arts—which only means there will be trouble down the road when you discover your partner has an antipathy toward your favorite movie/band/novelist that matches the intensity of your love for same. I had enough arguments of this sort with one of my ex-girlfriends that we made a rule: What’s important is that we both have a passion for culture, not that we have a passion for the same things within that culture. Luckily, I can’t go so far as to say that I had a Seinfeldian moment where I broke up with someone just because she didn’t share my fascination with Filipino comic-book inkers of the 1970s, but I definitely have to admit that some of the most intense—and pointless—arguments I’ve had with girlfriends were over pop culture. One used to rag me endlessly over my tendency to overanalyze things; she found it laughable that not only did I have to like or dislike a piece of art, I had to sit around pinpointing exactly what about it I liked or disliked. Another used to take occasional inventories of my libraries of music, books, and movies, and criticize them for what she perceived as not enough representation of gay, female, or non-white creators. But if I had to narrow it down to just one polarizing figure, I think it would have to be Yoko Ono. For some reason, I’ve ended up dating two women who both idolized the Widder Lennon, and while I respect her career and think she’s a decent human being, I tend to dismiss her music in particular as derivative, pretentious twaddle. This wasn’t the cause of my breakup with either of these wonderful ladies, but it sure didn’t help.
For someone who once loved arguing about pop culture (or anything, really) just for the sake of arguing, I sure have mellowed out in my dotage. Part of that calming influence definitely comes from my girlfriend—which is ironic, seeing as how her main obsession, young-adult novels, is pretty much the last thing on my personal pop-culture list. Granted, her library job requires her to keep up on that burgeoning category of literature, but she genuinely loves the stuff. In addition to the adult novels she reads for her book club, she devours at least three YA books a week—which, granted, is about as much of an accomplishment as eating three Happy Meals a week. [Ducks thrown shoe.] And she’d surely continue doing so even if it wasn’t part of her job. As much as I love books, I just can’t climb on board. I know many YA novels today are supposed to be nearly as complex and mature as the grownup ones, and tons are made within the science-fiction and fantasy genres I love. But I started reading adult novels exclusively starting around the age of 10, and I have this total aversion to books that are deliberately written down to younger readers and that star immature, adolescent protagonists I simply couldn’t relate to anyway. Although my girlfriend would probably disagree with that.
My girlfriend and I are wonderfully compatible in just about every conceivable sense, but I have failed miserably in my efforts to turn her on to hip-hop, just as I have failed miserably in my efforts to turn my friends, family, and readers on to hip-hop. So while my soul, country, rock, and jazz-standards mix-tapes have played in heavy rotation in her car stereo, my hip-hop mixes haven’t, which has left Ghostface, MF Doom, and Tha Alkaholiks tragically unlistened-to. Part of it is cultural: She grew up in the South on the Grateful Dead, Lou Reed, and Frank Zappa. I grew up in Chicago on A Tribe Called Quest, Beastie Boys, and Dr. Dre. Another instance in which our taste deviated radically came when she, my father, and I sat down to watch Duck Soup, and my father and I chortled with laughter from start to finish, even though we’d seen it countless times before. Meanwhile, she sat there in silence, wondering why in the hell what she saw as random idiocy was considered an apogee of comic brilliance. I didn’t particularly mind, of course. The older I get, the more I’ve learned to love and accept people for who they are, not for who I want them to be. When everything else clicks, differences of opinion on the virtues of Groucho Marx or Madlib don’t seem terribly important.
While everybody else can talk about how they differ from their significant others, my wife and I have fairly similar tastes, and when we disagree, we do so politely, unlike in the early days of our relationship. She will also—like your husband, Claire—decide months after the fact that she didn’t like something nearly as much as she originally did, but that’s all right. No, I’ve come here to talk about most of the rest of my family, for whom the joke, “Well, if the critics didn’t like it, that must mean it’s a good movie/book/TV show” never gets old. (To be fair to them, since I started working as a critic, I’ve heard it less. I just imagine they say it privately, then turn in their chairs to point at a ridiculous picture of me hanging on the wall, and laugh at it.) The height of this comes from my younger sister, who has asserted the following to me at one time or another: 1) Charmed is better than Buffy the Vampire Slayer. 2) She would really, really like to see the Frank Miller film of The Spirit, because the critics didn’t like it, so it must be good. 3) The best show on TV is The Biggest Loser. (I can’t tell if she can see me dying a little inside when she says this and gets a charge out of it, or she’s genuinely oblivious.) 4.) She won’t read the Harry Potter books until all of the movies are out. (Though on this one, I believe she eventually caved.) 5) She really liked Transformers AND Transformers 2. And this is to say nothing of how the two of us battle over the tastes of our parents, who tend to believe her, possibly because they subconsciously think I would only steer them toward critically acclaimed Ukrainian pornography or something. I don’t mean to overly mock my sister, who’s a great friend, a wonderful cook, and many, many other fantastic things, but when she wanders anywhere near a movie theater, bookstore, or TV set, she turns into my pop-cultural evil twin, and she must be stopped.
For my girlfriend and me, it’s not so much about stiffly opposed loves and hates as it is about respectfully not sharing each other’s degree of dorkery for certain things. I can appreciate how Ween manages to sound clever and genuine through no end of comical shape-shifting and deadpan genre exercises, but she insists I don’t grasp the band’s awesomeness. I reply that I think Ween is fine, and maybe one day I’ll dig deep and end up drawing Boognishes on my sneakers, or some such craziness. Conversely, I’ll always feel attached to Tommy by The Who, but the goofy transition tracks make the psychedelic magic feel “dated” to her. (That’s understandable, and Quadrophenia is a much better-constructed album anyway.) Also, she doesn’t necessarily detest the more abrasive music I like, but doesn’t agree with me that an afternoon errand-run is as good a time as any to pop in a Jesus Lizard CD. If the disagreements ever do get tense, I’m sure we’ll just remember our mutual soft spot for Blondie and throw on Parallel Lines.