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? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This week’s question comes from editorial manager Laura M. Browning:
As I’m preparing for an upcoming surgery, I’m trying to figure out what TV I should mindlessly watch while I’m in a stupor of post-op pain meds. And that got me thinking: What pop culture is best consumed in an altered state?
You know those people who, when drunk, hear a familiar song and are adamant that it’s one of their favorites? I’m one of them, and I’ve spent a lot of time in front of jukeboxes skewing the selection even further in my favor, because I like nothing more than drunkenly wiggling around with a beer in my hand. I am aware, however, that some of these song choices don’t hold up as well when I’m sober. That’s the case with Rusted Root’s “Send Me On My Way.” I know almost nothing about this band, and am familiar with only this song and its accompanying music video, which depicts a gaggle of people I would most likely bludgeon if I had to spend an extended amount of time with them sans alcohol. But, when under the influence, it is exactly the song I want to erratically hop around to while hitting (I’m not actually doing this) all those lovely (probably annoying) octaves and confidently singing, “You know what they say about the young,” when everyone else in the bar (huge drunken assumption on my part) is bumbling through the difficult-to-decipher line.
Several years ago, I broke a couple of bones in my foot. It necessitated some rather unpleasant surgery involving metal pins, not to mention months of physical therapy to recover. For several weeks I couldn’t do much of anything besides lie on the couch, ingesting some fairly potent pain meds. It turns out, however, that this was the ideal time to venture into the world of watching House in reruns. The Fox drama, which I had previously assumed would be just the latest in a seemingly endless series of televised examples of asshole white guys being rewarded for behaving like monsters, instead turned out to be a funny, sharply written treat. Don’t get me wrong: The show is carried wholly on Hugh Laurie’s back. But my own growing fondness for my little pills mirrored Gregory House’s investment in same, and a guilty pleasure suddenly became much more relatable. Plus, during my recovery, I walked around with a cane, and my already-established appearance and manner of dress provoked more than a few catcalls of “Hey, House!”
Laura M. Browning
I’m going to attempt to answer my own question, even though this will get real old real fast if I attempt to watch it repeatedly during my convalescence: the Buffy episode “Band Candy.” It’s largely about being in an altered state, and the show gets a little goofy, even by early Buffy standards, when Giles’ old friend/nemesis shows up in town and starts producing chocolate bars for the band to sell. Unfortunately for the residents of Sunnydale, those chocolate bars make everybody who eats them act like children, and predictable chaos and shenanigans ensue. It’s certainly not the only time Buffy took a turn for the ridiculous, but it’s the one that gets funnier and more enjoyable if you’re a little tipsy and can enjoy the freedom of being young again.
Getting high and watching a movie is a luxury in which I rarely indulge these days—in part because I’m apparently now too old to know anyone with a hookup, but also because much of what I end up watching is for work. On the rare occasion that I do partake, I tend to go for sitcom favorites, which reveal new depths of hilarity when revisited under the influence. (You haven’t really laughed until you’ve wrapped your stoned brain around season two of Arrested Development.) What I really recommend, though, is subjecting your poor altered brain to a horror film. Even the most seasoned genre buff may discover that their walls of it’s-just-a-movie jadedness completely collapse; suddenly, stuff that you shrugged off when sober seems absolutely terrifying when you really think about it. I’ll never forget, for example, when I smoked before re-watching Drag Me To Hell, a film that had greatly entertained me upon first viewing. But it didn’t really have the full effect until I was in the proper headspace—in other words, until I could start really dwelling on the actual idea of eternal damnation and how horrifying it would be to get dragged there. All of this might sound like a recipe for nightmarish paranoia, but for those who can handle their shit and enjoy being scared, it’s like riding a roller coaster from your living room.
The Beatles conceived their self-titled “White Album” on a Transcendental Meditation retreat, during which the band members abstained from the wide variety of substances they’d consumed ever since that time John Lennon and George Harrison got dosed by their acid-freak dentist. (One notable exception: They were still getting stoned, which explains much of The Beatles’ second side.) Yet that doesn’t prevent the double LP from being an absolute hoot to listen to and shout along with in a room full of inebriated yahoos. “The White Album” is the best conversation you’ve ever had with a drunken friend: It’s self-indulgent. It’s all over the map (one minute it’s on Cold War politics, the next it’s going on and on about someone’s dog). It’s given to occasional bouts of melancholy and/or mawkishness (“While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” “Julia”). Eighty minutes in, it takes an unexpected detour into unintelligible cacophony. And at the end, somebody says “Good night.” All of that, plus this inalienable truth: The only appropriate time to listen to “Why Don’t We Do It In The Road?” is when you’re completely shit-faced, surrounded by a half-dozen or so of your closest, similarly shit-faced friends.
Not to come off like some sort of Doctor Robert, doling out pop-culture pills for whatever high you’re looking for, but I’ve done enough drugs in my lifetime that I could probably tailor my answer according to what you’re on. Pot goes well with comedy, obviously, but it also goes well with staring passively at anything; I’ve been just as happy getting high and watching Billy Madison as Barry Lyndon. If you’re on acid, mushrooms, or ecstasy, stick to music—something euphoric and multilayered. Trite as they may be, I associate those drugs, respectively, with My Bloody Valentine, Boards Of Canada, and Happy Mondays. (But really, just go outside.) And if you’re on opiates, as it sounds like you will be, although there’s a really good reason Iggy Pop and The Velvet Underground are associated with heroin, painkillers make especially great bedfellows with binge-watching television. I’ll just recommend one: If you’ve never seen Twin Peaks, now’s the time. It’s a waking dream that makes perfect sense in a narco haze, and Angelo Badalamenti’s score will match the syrupy jazz that’s already swimming through your head. Also, invite me over.
Having spent a good chunk of my life abstaining from drugs and alcohol—call it being straightedge if you’d like—I haven’t formed enough experiences with substances for them to feel synonymous with any song, movie, or show. However, I’ve had a helpless addiction to caffeine for as long as I can remember, often basking in the joy that jittery feeling of overindulgence provides. When that happens, I reach for music that matches my fluttering heart rate, which usually means ’80s hardcore is the soundtrack to my coffee high. There’s something about my hands shaking uncontrollably that makes Void’s “Who Are You?” sound a little bit better than when taken straight, even if it can’t stave the inevitable crash that’s around the corner.
Not that it can’t be thoroughly enjoyed when completely sober (because, oh boy, it can), but Beyoncé’s magnum opus “Drunk In Love” becomes cathartic when “I’ve been drinkin.’” The second that high-pitched wail opens the track, I am on my feet and singing along. Alcohol makes me a big sleepy baby, but Beyoncé makes me hit the dance floor and hit it hard. If I’ve had a few whiskey and cokes, I’m more than happy to show off my dance moves, most of which involve me gyrating my hips and pumping my fists (every move I know, I learned from Beyoncé videos). The best part about drunken “Drunk In Love” is that Jay Z’s verse doesn’t even seem all that bad. You can mumble your way through his awkward references to Clint Eastwood and Trouble With The Curve, so that you can nail the line “breastases in my breakfast” and feel like a god. The next morning, when I wake up in the kitchen saying, “How the hell did this shit happen?”, I know the answer is Beyoncé.
In my senior year of high school, my friends and I discovered that our twentysomething Spanish teacher was not only a major pothead, but also had a small grow operation out of his tiny apartment. He told us he was harvesting, and somehow we got it into our heads that it would be a good time to try the Wizard Of Oz/Dark Side Of The Moon experiment on pot brownies. This was the late ’90s, so it’s not like edibles were readily available. You had to make your own, and ours were too strong. There are numerous theories on the best way to synch up the film and the album, but we started the music on the third roar of the MGM lion. You know you’ve got it right if “Money” comes on right when Dorothy enters Munchkinland. Right around that point, my brownies kicked in, and I was basically glued to the floor, completely paranoid and silent throughout the movie and ride home. Ahh, youth.
I’m that guy who’s never smoked, snorted, or shot up anything illegal, and compared to a lot of my friends, I really haven’t gotten rip-roaring drunk very often. When I was in my mid-teens, however, I experienced what I am led to understand was a second-hand high when—no surprise here—I was attending heavy metal and hard rock concerts. In fact, it probably happened at every single concert I attended at Hampton Coliseum. For one band, though, the innumerable lasers in the air confirmed the level of smoke in the place, so for my answer, I’ve got to go with Rush. I don’t know that it’s necessarily what you’d call a stoner band, but I know there were a whole lot of people getting stoned when I saw them on the Grace Under Pressure tour, and the whole place smelled like Otto’s jacket. I also know that Rush was awesome, man, and I’ve been a fan ever since, so make of that what you will.
Do dead germs and fatigue toxins count as a drug? Like Mr. Harris, I’ve always been the least adventurous of my friends, substance-abuse-wise. (It must be a Will thing.) But one absolutely dismal summer weekend, a virus I picked up during an uncharacteristic bout of camping put me into a state I’d definitely describe as “altered.” The persistent fever made sleep borderline impossible, plunging me into an insomniac stupor made up of a complete lack of energy combined with my constantly racing thoughts. But my inability to move beyond my bed or desk gave me the perfect opportunity to dig into Avatar: The Last Airbender on Netflix. Despite the glowing recommendations of friends, it seemed like I was doomed to bounce off the show’s kiddie elements and the anime influences it wore on its sleeve—until my wrecked body left me with no alternative but to watch. Glued to the screen for hours at a time, I started to catch on to the show’s strong but simple characters, clever writing, and lovely animation. Best of all, my nonexistent sleep schedule gave me time to appreciate the show’s deft balance of episodic storytelling and a longer, surprisingly deep myth arc—a balancing act that a lot of other, more “adult” shows could stand to learn from. Would I have enjoyed Avatar more if I hadn’t been quietly convinced that I was dying or going insane? Maybe, but it still made the perfect viewing complement for my own personal version of the detox scene from Trainspotting.
Like the Wills, I don’t have much experience with chemical alteration (imagine me saying that in a nasal voice, pushing my glasses back up the bridge of my nose), but I do have some experience with general delirium, which I imagine is similar to pain-med and other, more illicit experiences. So my general answer would be that an altered state is the perfect condition to watch movies you know aren’t very good but may be semi-secretly predisposed to like. I wasn’t high when I saw the misbegotten Norm MacDonald/Dave Chappelle comedy Screwed during its theatrical run, but I was punchy enough to laugh hysterically through a lot of it, while instantly knowing when I left the theater that I should never attempt to watch it again, lest it reveal itself as the shoddily constructed scattershot quirkfest I could faintly make out through my fog of inexplicable merriment. Similarly, I know my best friend got pretty emotional while watching For Love Of The Game while doped up on painkillers. So take advantage of a vacation from your sharpest senses and throw on a movie you’ve heard only bad things about but stars someone you’ll watch in anything, or takes place in a milieu you’ve always found fascinating.
Well then, it looks like I’m going to be the person who says I have enough experience with altered states that I was completely overwhelmed by this question! I thought about one of the first times I got stoned in a basement with my high school friends and watched Interstella 5555, Daft Punk’s anime actualization of their Discovery album; then I thought I should go with something more stereotypically ridiculous, like when I was in Amsterdam with my best friend and we ended up at a matinee of Step Up 3D with a packed house of Dutch people and McFlurrys. Both worthy experiences that I’ll cherish forever, but I have to go with a more recent example. Jupiter Ascending is a gloriously silly sci-fi fairy tale to which everyone involved commits completely. I can see how cinephiles would recoil, but come on: Channing Tatum is a literal lone wolf with magic flying boots, Mila Kunis discovers she’s intergalactic royalty by accidentally summoning alien bees, and Eddie Redmayne peaks too early with his brilliant performance as a tyrannical aging drag queen (I think?). There’s a chance Jupiter Ascending would’ve been great fun without California’s best medicinal weed, but I’m so glad I didn’t take that chance.
The most thrilling experience I ever had with drugs and art happened the first time I got high. I was in college, and I was hanging out with a couple of friends who regularly smoked up; they invited me to try, and because I’d decided I was a rebel that year (I even smoked a menthol cigarette!), I said yes. Thirty seconds later, I’m in the bathroom hacking up what feels like a lung, and my friends are standing outside giggling and shouting about how I must’ve gotten a “really good hit.” Of course they were right. I spent the rest of the night saying less and less, until I finally went home, ate a whole box of Cheez-Its, and watched Cool Hand Luke. To this day, I still remember how perfect the opening sequence felt as I watched it, like an idea I’d had for years but could never articulate—Paul Newman popping off the heads of parking meters like it was something anybody could do. I left that movie so damn satisfied I’ve been reluctant to go back sober, lest I break the spell.