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.
What are your best pop-culture-related memories of the past decade?
Most of the best times I’ve had interacting with pop culture in my adult life have involved organizing marathon viewing parties for friends: for instance, when the box set of the Dungeons & Dragons cartoon came out in 2006, we got a bunch of sugary cereals to simulate the Saturday-morning viewing experience, then invited over a bunch of role-players to watch a handful of episodes. Some of them were older and grew up on the cartoon, and had fond memories of it as one of the better adventures on TV; others were younger and have been spoiled by Cartoon Network and anime and long-form serial shows, and they were shocked at how bad it was by comparison with modern animation. Nonetheless, we all got into the spirit of the dumb running gags and predictable tropes, and recited along with the intro and the running gags. Did I mention there was quite a lot of drinking involved? It was a deliberate mix of my childhood and my adulthood, it was pretty raucous, and a lot of fun. Similarly, when Tim Burton’s Sweeney Todd came out on DVD, I invited over a whole lot of people, and we drank and I made meat pies to go with the movie. The crust went spectacularly wrong and I had to replace it with pie crust at the last minute, so everything ran late and people started showing up before the food was in the oven, which led to a kitchen assembly line of my lady friends patting together meat pies and singing “God, That’s Good!” from the musical (“More hot pies! More hot! More pies!”) in harmony in the kitchen. It was a great time. Finally, in July 2007, I went with many of the same people to see The Decemberists in concert outside at Chicago’s Pritzker Pavilion. We brought a picnic and sat on the lawn and ate, and it rained, and we watched the young’ns around us dance in the rain, and it was a spectacularly joyous event. It also introduced me to the band that’s become my favorite new find of the ’00s. Here’s hoping the ’10s cough up something that brings me nearly as much happiness.
I’m gonna go with one from each category. The first is being just completely blown away by There Will Be Blood. I hadn’t felt a filmic shock like that in ages, and though I see lots of movies, I distinctly remember where I was sitting in the theater and just what an impact it had on me. It’s certainly the last movie I saw three times in the theater. On the TV tip, I have a pleasant memory of the last few episodes of the last season of The Wire showing up on DVD at the office; Genevieve, Kyle, and I could barely contain ourselves, and we ordered pizza and watched them all in the conference room almost immediately. (It should be noted that we completely and competently finished our workdays first.) Musically, I’m going with Arcade Fire live—I saw them everywhere from a tiny club in Milwaukee to Lollapalooza to a (relatively) tiny church in New York City, and each time and place brought something incredible with it. I love you, 2000-2009.
My favorite pop-culture memory of this decade was seeing Richard Linklater’s animated movie Waking Life. Not because it’s a great movie. It is a great movie, but it was also the first movie—the first thing, really—to make me feel optimistic about the future after September 11, 2001. I saw Waking Life at a critics’ screening that fall, and getting lost in its kaleidoscope of images and flood of ideas felt like blessed relief from a historical moment that had become defined by extremism and destruction. Sure, humanity could entrench itself in bloodlust and religious extremism, but it could also produce these curious minds filled with theories about what we’re doing here and what it all means. It was the first time in a while I felt that the years to come might lead somewhere other than dust and ruin. Oh, and having near-front-row seats to see Randy Newman, a gift from my wife, wasn’t bad either.
1. Boston, 2003. I’m at a table with a bunch of other music geeks in the basement of a bar-restaurant, digging into a giant plate of nachos. (These are terribly exotic to the Englishman in our company.) A familiar drumbeat begins on the jukebox, and a murmur goes around the table: Is it The Strokes’ “Hard To Explain,” or—too good a possibility to resist—Freelance Hellraiser’s “A Stroke of Genius,” the mash-up of the music from “Explain” with the vocal of Christina Aguilera’s “Genie In A Bottle”? The slicing hi-hat that opens both songs seems to stretch out for minutes; we hold our breath in anticipation. Then, as Julian Casablancas moans, “Was an honest man…” the entire table, as one, erupts: “AWWWW!” Our disappointment is real; so is our jubilation.
2. I’ve resisted seeing Pootie Tang despite the entreaties of my sister Brittany, who thinks I’ll laugh as hard as she did. That ends in 2002, when I’m at a friend’s house in Louisville—a bunch of us have driven down from New York for the Kentucky Derby—and it’s on TV. I succumb instantly. Two years later, I’m living in an apartment building in Seattle, one floor above a good friend. I keep telling her she needs to see the movie; she refuses to take me seriously. One day, over at her place, she mentions that she’s broken down and Netflixed it. We put it on—and she literally falls off the couch laughing during the opening scene. Later, she puts on the closed-captioning so she can figure out what the hell the title character is saying.
3. Seattle, 2007. So much has been written about the Daft Punk world tour that year that there isn’t much to add, except maybe that I was stone cold sober the entire time, and I don’t regret it at all.
So many of my pop-culture memories of the last decade—and a great decade it’s been for that stuff, no lie—have been intensely personal, entwined with spending time with friends and lovers, discovering ways almost by accident that art and music and literature can bring people together. But that shit is boring, am I right? What do any of you care what now long-disbanded group I almost accidentally stumbled upon one frigid Chicago night, or what tradition my friends and I developed around seeing the Lord Of The Rings movies, or what bands I talked about haltingly with a French couple in a Paris goth bar? Not a noodle, that’s what. So instead, I could tell you that seeing Rakim and Ghostface at SxSW made me feel like I was really part of hip-hop for the first time, or that I walked out of Dogville feeling like my whole perspective on film had been rewired. But instead, I’ll tell you that I interviewed Ozzy Osbourne two years ago, and he wished me a happy Christmas. Ozzy Osbourne wished me a happy Christmas. If that doesn’t make life worth living, I don’t know what does.
By far the biggest moment of the decade for me, pop-culture-wise, was the Democratic National Convention. For four long days in August '08, my hometown of Denver was swarmed with politicians, actors, newscasters, crazies, and, yes, world-class entertainers. I blogged about the whole thing here [http://origin.avclub.com/articles/avc-at-the-dnc-day-four,8616/], but the best night of the entire citywide circus was when The A.V. Club hosted a free concert featuring Neil Hamburger, Eugene Mirman, and Ted Leo And The Pharmacists. A fact I failed to mention in my blog: Back in 1996 or so, I sent a letter (yeah, an actual, written-on-a-dead-tree letter) to Ted Leo begging him to come play at my crappy warehouse venue with his old band, Chisel. I, ahem, never heard back from him. (I guess I must have sounded a little bat-shit, axe-murderer kinda crazy in my heartfelt yet slightly desperate request.) So to have Leo playing a show in Denver that I helped organize was like, well, a long-unanswered request come true. On top of that, the band (as well as the comics, of course) kicked tons of ass that night—and it was all underscored by the fact that then-Senator Obama had just given the speech of his life. (Up to that point, that is.) Having an earnest talk about the greatness of Kool & The Gang with Hamburger over Japanese food earlier that day? Driving around with Leo and crew while they sang Misfits songs in the voice of John McCain? That was just icing on the cake.
I could cite all the albums that knocked me flat the first time I heard them, or the fun I’ve had picking through Lost and Buffy with our readers these past two years, but for me, the defining (personal) event of the decade was when I led a seminar on criticism at the local university. I don’t know how much the kids got out of it—I kind of suck as a teacher, honestly—but in preparation for the class, I asked my colleagues for suggestions on readings, and thanks to their input, I was exposed to the work of Robert Warshow, Dave Hickey, James Agee, Philip Lopate, and more. It was a humbling experience to grapple with critics working on a level of insight and craft far beyond what I’ll ever be able to achieve, but it was also something of an inspiration. I’ve adjusted my career goals accordingly. I’ve got a long way to go before I reach them.
On a lighter note, I’ve enjoyed all the famous folk I’ve interviewed over the past 10 years, mainly because doing those interviews has given me something to say to my family that’s more impressive than “I spent the day watching a Belgian documentary about the dwindling Third World food supply.” The story I’ve dined out on perhaps more than any other? The time Nicole Kidman called me at home to give me a few quotes for a story I was working on for The Hollywood Reporter. It’s always a kick when a celebrity calls personally rather than going through a publicist. (Even when you know the call’s coming, hearing “Hey Noel, this is Ben Affleck” is still cool.) But the best part of the Kidman call was that she told me she initially dialed the wrong number, which means that someone else in Conway, Arkansas that evening got a random call from Nicole Kidman. That’s kind of delightful.
We went back and forth over whether sports counts as pop culture. I hope it does, because in terms of bringing me joy, I can’t think of anything in the last decade that came remotely close to the Chicago White Sox winning the World Series in 2005. I remember watching them win and win and win all season long, with a few exciting and infuriating exceptions. I asked my dad, “Do you think they could go all the way this season?” and him saying, “If they don’t do it this season, I don’t know when they ever will.” I remember the excitement in the air when our own Leonard Pierce accompanied me to the first playoff game, us against Boston—everyone in the park was just so thrilled to be there. I remember being turned on by A.J. Pierzynski’s infamous heads-up play against the Angels (and being glad he was on our team, or else I’d probably hate him). I remember marveling at how, at the chilly World Series game I attended, the season started off freezing in April and was going to end freezing in October, and how long it had all taken. I remember the sting of champagne in my eyes after seeing the Sox finally win, and calling my Dad up to hear him crying over the phone, telling me he’d been waiting more than 50 years for this moment. And I remember the parade, too: Steam’s “Kiss Him Goodbye” being played over and over again through speakers on the Chicago streets. I still have some black-and-white confetti stored away for when we need to relive it—could be another 98 years, after all. I recall how some of the haters pointed out that it was the lowest-rated TV World Series in forever and not giving a shit, because that’s the White Sox for you, and we didn’t need bandwagoners. I guess if I need to tie this into pop-culture, I can say that it was the year Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’” came back into vogue, but secretly, I hate that song.
At the risk of sounding like a despicable ass-kisser, getting hired by The A.V. Club has to rank pretty high on my pop-culture-related memories o’ the decade list. (It has to, since it’s also pretty high on my life-related memories of all-time list.) The A.V. Club was hands down my favorite entertainment publication before I worked here, and getting the chance to write for it was like Pete Townshend asking me to replace Keith Moon in The Who. In other words, pretty damn incredibly fucking awesome and just as unbelievable. I had previously spent six years at my corporate-owned hometown newspaper, where I had a front-row seat for the slow, sad implosion of the top-heavy, hopelessly inefficient mainstream media. I had just about reached the point of going out and finding a real job, since it appeared that the concept of being paid to be a professional writer and reporter was going the way of blacksmiths and buggy-whip makers. So, getting hired here wasn’t just a dream come true, it also enabled me to jump a sinking ship and keep a career that’s (mostly) fun and impossible to explain to my parents.
Steve Hyden and I share more than a first name and the first syllable of our last name: I, too, am grateful to The A.V. Club for the chance to write about what I love, alongside writers I’ve respected for years. I was first introduced to The A.V. Club in college, after another momentous event that occurred at Vintage Vinyl in St. Louis, 2001. I mentioned in a previous AVQ&A that I was a late bloomer when it came to music fandom—it started when I worked in the music section of a Borders in high school, but that was mostly me looking to my loveable burnout coworkers for recommendations. I didn’t start seeking out tunes on my own until that moment in The Lou. I was a sophomore at Washington University in St. Louis, and my good friend Dave Carp had dragged me to Vintage Vinyl, a few blocks from campus, so he could buy records for a new collection he was starting. (Side note: That collection was never listened to, and he mostly just hung them on the wall.) I was pretty much wandering around looking for CDs I somewhat recognized from those Borders days (Belle & Sebastian, Wilco, Guided By Voices) when a song came on over the loudspeaker. It had an infectious beat; its guitar hounded the gritty vocals; it wrapped itself up neatly after a few minutes. Garage rock. As silly as this was for a college sophomore to admit, it was unlike any other music I’d ever heard. So I went up to the counter and asked what it was. Some band I’d never heard of, called The Strokes, with a song called “Barely Legal.” I snagged a copy of Is This It and devoured it back in my dorm. My interest in music followed shortly thereafter.
I have this theory about creativity: that an individual’s interests and output can pretty much be traced back to one catalyst that started it all—a moment that you might not really even be able to explain. For me, that moment was in that record store. I can’t really explain why it was “Barely Legal” or The Strokes in general, but it’s that song, at that record store, that made me want to think and write about music.
I’d have to say the coolest part of the ’00s for me occurred in the spring of ’01, when I was introduced to Europe via a monthlong tour with my friends’ band. I’d been dying to go overseas, and seeing Europe—specifically England, Wales, Germany, Holland, Italy, France, Austria, Czech Republic, Belgium, Switzerland, and Luxembourg (blink and you’ll miss it)—from the level of a bunch of dudes in one-window van was pretty amazing. The schedule didn’t allow for visiting the touristy sites, but those will always be around. The experiences I had won’t happen again. When else will I stay in a radical communist squat in the middle of Milan, bike through east Berlin at 3 a.m., wind up at a strange strip club in Prague, discover in Nancy that alcohol greatly improves my memory of French, or zoom through Holland watching a German-subtitled Jenna Jameson film? Well, maybe next March—but that first trip changed my life and introduced me to a whole new world of pop culture.
A typical sight: Us semi-broken down on the side of the road in Switzerland:
It’s been a good decade for me, especially the last three or four years, and pop culture has played a big part in that. Getting a chance to write for The A.V. Club was, no hyperbole required, exactly like opening a Wonka Bar and finding my own personal golden ticket to a world of wonder, whimsy, and arguing with strangers about my grammar and poor spelling choices. It’s an amazing opportunity, one I’m still routinely astonished and grateful for, and getting to visit the A.V. Club offices twice didn’t hurt, although Tasha’s repeated attempts to Taze me kind of did. (Also, Rabin throws a mean cockpunch. Seriously, I was invited, and I still got pantsed, threatened, slapped, defenestrated, drunkenly propositioned by Keith Phipps, and Genevieve Koski said I looked like a skin-covered ottoman. Plus the taste test. Such joy!) Little else has come close to topping this. I’ve read a ton of good books, including two all-time favorites (Gravity’s Rainbow, Don Quixote), I’ve seen so many great movies, I heard Joy Division and Sonic Youth and Neko Case and The Kinks for the first time. I played my first Grand Theft Auto game, beat all the original Mega Men games, and got hopelessly lost in Fallout 3. I can’t think of any one memory that adequately covers all of this.
So: The first book I reviewed for The A.V. Club was A Person Of Interest, by Susan Choi. It took about a week for the review copy to arrive, and I was freaking out the whole time—what if this was all some prank, what if I’d somehow given the wrong address, what if they came to their senses and realized their horrible mistake—and then when the book arrived, it was the wrong one. Replay of original freak-out. Correct book arrives, it’s good, I do a review, and the review comes back because, well, it’s a little lumpy, would I like a second take? And again, second time’s the charm. Wait two weeks, doubting grade, word choice, the arrogance of having an opinion on something, and then there it is, right up on the site, and my name is under it, and nobody can take that away. It’s been two years, and I’m still terrified when a review or an article of mine is posted. Thanks, really. Can’t wait for next year.
Now that the seal has been broken on writing about yourself (as if I need an excuse), I can think of three that pop out. I have never been prouder to work for The Onion than when I first read the September 11th issue. The culture as a whole seemed frozen in time after the attacks on the Twin Towers, and there was voluminous talk about the Death Of Irony. The stakes were incredibly high, and my friends and co-workers more than rose to the occasion. At the risk of being earnest and painfully sincere (something I tend to be an awful lot these days), I felt like the issue actually helped us heal by providing an invaluable form of catharsis and release for a nation still raw with grief. It wasn’t just funny and brilliant and pitch-perfect: It was important. On a similar note, I will always treasure seeing former Onion editor Rob Siegel’s Big Fan debut at Sundance in 2009. I’d been hearing about it for a long time, but actually seeing it in a sold-out theater with 500 people riveted by every moment was a transcendent experience. I felt so proud of Rob, who’d certainly come a long way since we used to regularly be the only people at the Onion office in Madison late at night. We all knew Rob was destined for great things, but seeing the crowd laugh and gasp and cringe at all the appropriate moments was pretty fucking incredible, and I got incredibly, unconscionably drunk at the afterparty with my Onion brethren. It was a memorable night.
Also memorable: my memoir The Big Rewind: A Memoir Brought To You By Pop Culture getting written up as the main story on the front page of The New York Times entertainment section on July 21st, 2009. I’d just done a semi-disastrous joint reading with Chuck Klosterman and Greg Kot in an acoustically challenged corridor beneath a food court in the general vicinity of a Barnes & Noble the night before and bombed phenomenally, when Keith called and read big parts of the review to me. I’d always venerated The New York Times—other than the New Yorker and The Onion, it’s my favorite publication—so it boggled the mind to think that the paper of record considered my weird, profane, drug-and-sex-filled memoir the biggest entertainment story of the day. It wasn’t 100 percent positive, but it was 80 percent glowing, extremely well-written, and full of my words (and a picture of me by the lovely and talented Sally Ryan, Kyle’s wife). The next morning, I geeked out and went to the corner store by my house, bought all their copies, and did the whole spazzy, “Looky! It’s me in the paper! In the New York Times!” thing to the guy behind the register. I saw Klosterman in the airport the next morning (I was headed, appropriately enough, to New York for a reading) and showed him the review. He was very nice, but shot me a look that implicitly kind of said, “Whatever, dude.” So yeah, this decade had some pretty great fucking moments.