This week’s question is from commenter Ayatollah Colm Meaney:
What piece of pop culture have you either disliked, hated, or were otherwise disappointed by as a whole, but which directly introduced you to something you loved? My go-to is always the beautiful jazz rendition of “O Holy Night” that gets used in the otherwise abysmal Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip. Nothing about that show works, and even the inclusion of the song is beyond maudlin, but damn if that recording can’t work on its own.
I don’t hate Dino Stamatopoulos’ clay-and-Christianity satire Moral Orel, but I do think it’s too in love with its own darkness and bitterness to be entirely satisfying as a work of art. But I’ll be forever indebted to Stamatopoulos for a soundtrack choice he made in the premiere of the show’s third (and final) season: bookending the episode with The Mountain Goats’ “No Children,” a stunning musical testament to the potentially toxic power of love. It’s the perfect theme song for the marriage of Clay and Bloberta Puppington, which is slowly killing them as well as ruining the life of their devout, God-loving son. More importantly, it was also the first time I’d ever heard John Darnielle’s lyrical wit and distinctive, reedy voice, and something about it just stuck. An evening of Googling “band from the Moral Orel episode” turned into years of devoted fandom, impromptu sing-alongs, and musical therapy, meaning I have one of TV’s all-time darkest shows to thank for one of the most positive pop-culture obsessions of my life.
Back in June 2009, a power outage on a hot day drove me from my apartment to a movie theater, where I saw Todd Phillips’ The Hangover with a capacity crowd. I felt like the only person there who didn’t guffaw at every joke. The whole thing left me cold, but there was one selection on the soundtrack that caught my ear: an odd, old-timey folk recording I couldn’t identify. After the power came back on at my place, some light Googling revealed this strange old tune to be “King Kong Kitchie Kitchie Ki-Me-O” by Chubby Parker, as sampled in a rap song called “What Do You Say?” by Mickey Avalon. My interest in the Parker song led me, in turn, to the Anthology Of American Folk Music, a massive, multi-album collection of folk, country, gospel, and blues recordings from the 1920s and 1930s originally compiled by filmmaker Harry Smith in the 1950s. For me, this was the mother lode: a whole world of weird, wonderful music, all in one place. Many of the songs and artists were utterly new to me, and I don’t think I would have found them without Smith’s Anthology. I remain grateful to The Hangover, even if its depiction of Ed Helms’ nagging girlfriend kind of ruined the comedy for me.
Julie Taymor’s Across The Universe was clearly attempting to introduce a new generation to The Beatles, and while that’s ultimately what happened with me, I don’t think I took the path the filmmakers intended. Far from being drawn to the band because of my love of the film, I was just supremely embarrassed by how many Beatles songs I heard for the first time while watching it. Recognizing that my knowledge of one of the world’s most influential bands couldn’t be limited to Evan Rachel Wood and Bono covers, I immediately set about giving myself a Beatles crash course, borrowing most of their albums from the library and working my way through their 10-year career. Freed from the trying-too-hard context of the film, I discovered I did genuinely love the Fab Four’s music and the Beatles playlist I created back then is still one I frequently fire up. While I’ve had no desire to revisit Across The Universe, if Taymor ever wants to make a Rolling Stones film, I’d be the first in line to see it—if only to gain some motivation to fix that blind spot, too.
It’s not that I don’t like The Big Lebowski, it’s just that I don’t like it much. It’s one of my least favorite Coen brothers movies. Don’t get me wrong, The Dude is one of my actual role models. And honestly, I love a lot of the stuff in the movie, just not the movie itself. Too many characters and scenes have this faint air of trying too hard. John Goodman’s character, for example, seems to be designed for the purpose of being obnoxious, rather than feeling like a character who is simply an incredibly obnoxious person. But I have not been able to get the Gipsy Kings’ version of “Hotel California” out of my head since I first watched John Turturro lick that pink bowling ball. The lick is actually a great example of what I’m talking about—it’s unnecessary. I get that Jesus is super weird without a shot of him licking a ball. But the song works so well regardless, especially when Turturro starts dancing, that it’s become one of those songs that simply makes me happy when I listen to it—no matter how badly I’m bowling that night.
I recently reread Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho and was once again shocked at how incredibly dull and tedious it is. It’s an unrelentingly nasty, misogynistic, gruesome exercise in facile shock and empty postmodern game-playing that I had a difficult time finishing and would happily have abandoned it if I wasn’t reading it for professional reasons. Rereading Ellis’ zeitgeist-capturing tome (see the movie, which is great, and skip the book, which is garbage) did, however, re-introduce me to the slick professional charms of Huey Lewis And The News. I downloaded Fore and Sports after reading the book, and while I wouldn’t make any great claims for Huey Lewis as an artist, those albums are rock-solid ’80s pop rock that I am happy to have in my iPod. “Hip To Be Square” is a song so unbelievably terrible and cheesy that it might just go all the way around and become a subversive act of genius.
There’s not a lot to recommend about Just Friends. For the most part, it’s just one of so, so many chances Ryan Reynolds was given as a leading man between 2002 and his recent mega-success as Deadpool, and it’s in his smarmy low-rent comedy phase to boot. But I have warm feelings toward that movie due to the one ace up its sleeve: Anna Faris, who plays Samantha James, the superstar girlfriend of Reynolds’ callow music-producer character, one of several obstacles in the way of him reconnecting with his high-school crush (Amy Smart, because this is a skeezy comedy from the first half of the ’00s). Samantha James is basically an unhinged hybrid of Britney Spears and Ashlee Simpson, but Faris goes beyond mere impersonation to play her as a toothpaste-eating, threat-making, terrible-song-crooning monster. Her deranged energy makes Samantha the most lovable character in the movie by far. I’d enjoyed the scene-stealing character-actor work Faris did in Lost In Translation, May, and Brokeback Mountain, and found her some degree of funny in all of them. But none of those prepared me for how hilarious she is in a movie that is vastly inferior to all of them. Catching Just Friends in a second-run theater convinced me to seek out anything that allowed Faris to go full-on goofball. I’ll never own the DVD, but it’s why Smiley Face and The House Bunny did make it to my shelves.
The finale of the American remake of Life On Mars is a terrible, terrible, gobsmackingly ludicrous hour of television. It’s so bad that I almost recommend seeking it out. Although, to get the full effect, you’d need to watch the show from the beginning, which is probably not a good idea. I did; and I reviewed most of it, struggling to find new ways to say, “This is okay? I guess?” through week after week of occasionally compelling tedium. But the finale, which attempts to explain the show’s premise (modern cop wakes up in the ’70s) via a baffling mix of loony science fiction and thuddingly literal symbolism, is something else. Apart from its satisfactions as a piece of colossal narrative goat-fuckery, it did at least introduce me to the Elton John song “Mona Lisas And Mad Hatters,” which is lovely and sad and evocative in a way the finale never, ever is. Between that and the David Bowie song that gave the show its title, I guess the series did two things right, at least.
If there’s one thing on which we can likely all agree, it’s that NBC’s infamous variety show Pink Lady And Jeff was terrible and truly deserving of failure. I was 9 years old when that series premiered, and I was a burgeoning TV geek who’d watch anything that the networks were willing to put on the air, and even I could only stand but so much of it. If it did nothing else for me during its brief existence, it introduced me to a man who would later become one of my all-time favorite stand-up comedians: Jeff Altman. He was also one of David Letterman’s favorite comedians, I would eventually learn, and after seeing him on Dave’s show once, I went out and invested in a copy of his comedy album, I’ll Flip You Like A Cheese Omelet, which had me in hysterics almost immediately. I don’t think anyone but Letterman ever tried to give Altman a chance to recover from the hit Pink Lady took on his career, but I’m sure glad I did.
As an over-his-head college radio DJ in the early ’90s, I was a portrait of sweaty fakery, desperate to fill the massive gaps in my music knowledge in order to not just fill my weekly radio show with the same Billy Bragg or They Might Be Giants songs every time. The now completely forgotten 1990 college radio station flick A Matter Of Degrees (it doesn’t even have poster art on its IMDB page) was a helpful crib sheet. I got first tastes of bands like The Minutemen, John Doe, The Lemonheads, Yo La Tengo, Uncle Tupelo, and Alex Chilton from the snatches of their songs in the movie (I can’t remember ever finding the soundtrack, and I looked). But it was the trying-way-too-hard Arye Gross/Tom Sizemore vehicle’s inclusion of Pixies’ “Where Is My Mind?” that was the real discovery for college-age poser me, sending me out to the local record store in search of anything and everything I could find. (Seeing 1990’s Pump Up The Volume later that year, whose soundtrack included “Wave Of Mutilation,” only cemented my obsession.) Now, having a Pixies song in your “edgy, cool” movie or TV show is almost de rigueur, but then it was my “first step into a larger world.” At least my radio show got a lot better.