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 email@example.com.
A friend of mine was lamenting the other day that, although he may be the only person in the Western hemisphere not to have seen the movie Office Space, just living and working around so many people who have has shoehorned “the ‘O’ face,” “a case of the Mondays,” and the need for more flair into his daily lexicon. I know the feeling: I haven’t watched MTV in at least a decade, yet for some reason I know all about Spencer and Heidi, and Snooki, and that whole thing at the VMAs between Kanye West and Taylor Swift. (Personally, I blame a large part of this phenomenon on grocery stores: Anyone in the aisles for more than 10 minutes can’t help but be subjected to the most blasé pop song of the moment, and even glancing at the magazine racks next to the checkout counter is enough to bring you up to speed on Brad and Angelina’s sex life over the past week.) So how about you, A.V. Club staff? What annoying pop-culture phenomenon has somehow weaseled into your consciousness, despite your most conscientious efforts to avoid it? —Faithe McCreery
Yeah, those supermarket tabloids are pretty insidious. Without them, I would likely have no clue whatsoever about the latest rash of celebrity adoptions of foreign-born children, something I care about not in the slightest. Really, the personal lives of celebrities in general don’t interest me; I don’t want to know whether they’re pregnant, adopting, giving birth, gaining weight or losing it, dating, breaking up, cheating, getting married, getting divorced, having plastic surgery, getting caught smooching someone of the same sex, etc. I also don’t care who got out of what car without underwear on, or anything about Britney Spears and Lindsay Lohan and their drug problems, or anything having to do with Paris Hilton. Given all this, I’m also pretty uninterested in the comings and goings of reality-show stars, who are like extra-awful wee parodies of big celebrities. So while I’ve never watched Jersey Shore, I’m right there with you, Faithe—I feel like I know more about the cast and their lives than about the lives of many of my own family members. Unfortunately, I work in entertainment journalism, which is often a great deal of fun, but is also often like living in a little buzzing cloud of information, at least half of which you don’t really want taking up precious real estate in your brain.
I feel like I’m endangering my life by saying this, but I’m not into Mad Men. I wouldn’t call it “annoying” (unlike Katy Perry’s “California Gurls,” the earwormiest earworm that ever earwormed) but I gave it a shot, and it just wasn’t for me: I wanted more advertising and less drama, but that’s beside the point. Don’t try to tell me what a jerk I am or what I’m missing, because at least on the second point, I’m well aware. It’s impossible to escape the show. Just a moment ago, I was listening to a Fresh Air interview with Jon Hamm (I could have skipped it, but I like hearing him talk about 30 Rock and SNL), and I’ve learned more about what makes Don Draper tick than I ever needed to know. It’s posted about regularly on the Jezebel blog, and is frequently mentioned in my friends’ Facebook and Twitter feeds. It was even represented in the Banana Republic storefront on Michigan Avenue on my bus route, thanks to a Mad Men-inspired line. The kicker was one night a few weeks ago when my husband and I stopped into a restaurant in my neighborhood to grab dinner. Little did we know it was Mad Men night, and after we had placed our orders, the sound on the TVs raised to a blaring level and we were a captive audience to the episode where Sally masturbates and Betty slaps her. Oh well, at least even if it wasn’t by choice, we were in the know about the TV zeitgeist of the week.
This is going back a little bit, but I was one of the few critics immune to the rough-hewn charms of 50 Cent and his monster first album, Get Rich Or Die Tryin’, particularly its inescapable single “In Da Club,” a fun club song that I strongly feel is no fun whatsoever, and not terribly conducive to dancing. I was clearly in the minority in that respect, as evidenced by the song’s infernal ubiquity in summer 2003. I literally could not escape “In Da Club.” It blared from every passing car. It played on a constant loop on every radio station. It appeared in seemingly half the trailers and movie commercials that summer. I even went to a birthday dinner at Andie’s, a Greek/Lebanese restaurant in Andersonville, and as the cake was brought out, you can probably guess what song accompanied it. (Here’s a hint: its chorus goes “Hey Shawty, it’s your birthday!”) Ironically, I came to appreciate 50 long after everyone else had written him off as a cynical hack, but I still haven’t warmed up to that fucking song, which still irritates me seven years later.
I’m good to a fault at keeping things at the far border-checkpoints of my attention span, even when I don’t have snobbish objections to them. The best example I can think of is a bit old: The OC. During a certain time in college, I couldn’t help but overhear excited chatter about the show pretty much every day. One night, the series finale was on in our college newspaper’s office, and all activity in there came to a sudden, wrenching silence of 9/11 proportions (sadly, that is not much of an exaggeration) as an SUV on the screen tumbled off-road, dispatching some shrill Californian to the roasty tanning grounds of eternity. The collective force of this moment did not cause me to reconsider the show, but it did force me to pay attention for a few seconds, in spite of my indifference. That’s really saying something, because as I’ve said in a previous AVQ&A, it usually takes me a long time to come around even to things I end up loving.
It’s strange, the life of a pop-cult scribbler: I was drawn to it because I’m passionate about movies, music, and books, but that also means I have a pretty healthy streak of what, for lack of a better word, could be called elitism. I’ve bored friends to tears with endless discussions of the microscopic differences between different subgenres of metal, but have shocked those same friends by not recognizing a song that’s been at the top of the charts for months. Staying au courant is part of the job, but it also means exposing yourself to a lot of cultural garbage—and even worse than that is the risk that you’ll finally encounter some mainstream cultural phenom and actually enjoy it. I went out of my way to avoid Lady Gaga for what seemed like ages, and when I finally heard “Poker Face,” I was alternately delighted and dismayed that I dug it. No one ever believes me when I tell them this, but for a very long time, I actually thought Miley Cyrus and Hannah Montana were different people; that is, I knew there was a person named Miley Cyrus, and I knew there was a fictional pop star named Hannah Montana, but I didn’t know they were portrayed by the same person. Now that I know different, I’ve discovered that, forgettable music aside, I sort of enjoy Miley Cyrus as a media personality; she has the exhausting, hagged-out energy of a showbiz veteran three times her age. Maybe I’m just getting old and tired, but the main reason I avoid the unavoidable these days isn’t because, like when I was younger, I know I’ll really hate it; it’s because I fear I’ll really like it.
Like most—strike that, all—of The A.V. Club’s writers, I take in more popular culture than any healthy person ought, but in some ways, I lead a cloistered existence. I don’t have cable, and I don’t watch TV except when I have something specific to watch. (In other words, Sam don’t surf.) I recently listened to a roundup of fall record releases that referred to Katy Perry’s “California Gurls” as “inescapable,” but I’ve managed, blessedly, to escape hearing it. I’ll throw down mightily in favor of Kelly Clarkson, Taylor Swift, and Lady Gaga, but Perry’s calculated pseudo-provocation is a bridge too far. But like Tasha, I’m most vulnerable when shopping retail, although I’m personally more vulnerable at the drugstore than the supermarket. (At the latter, I’m more likely to be bombarded by Adbusters and Vanity Fair.) Thanks to People, In Touch, and other publications whose names I fail to notice, I’m familiar with every cast member of The Hills and their various romantic trials and tribulations, although I remain perplexed as to why anyone cares. Used to be that to be famous without actually accomplishing anything, you at least had to be superficially attractive, but somehow Heidi, Audrina, and the rest of the show’s plastic-skinned parade balloons have slipped under the bar. These days, however, I’m most confused by something called Teen Mom, and especially by the assumption that its cast members are sufficiently well-known to merit first-name-only status. Listen up, Us Weekly: There’s only one “Farrah,” and she isn’t a 19-year-old from Iowa.
Sing along, everyone: “F-R-E-E, that spells Free / Credit Report dot-com, baby!” Of all the stupid pop-culture juggernauts out there, why pick on the Free Credit Report TV ads? There’s the tune itself, the lamest commercial jingle imaginable. As much to the point is the fact that it’s sung by a smug nimrod who looks like Central Casting’s answer to Wayne Coyne, not least when we see him and his “band”—the other guys in the car from the, er, “iconic” ad—in a Long John Silver’s-manqué restaurant. (Coyne was famously employed by the seafood chain for many years.) And the fact that it recaptures the lamest of lame ’90s alt-folk-pop: Cake wouldn’t even put this crap on a B-side. Not only that, the website earworming us recently sponsored a contest to find the newest sub-alt-garbage band. Congratulations to (I think I can type this) The Victorious Secrets for helping a dubious business enterprise extend its woebegone marketing scheme long, long, long past its expiration date.
I must be a pop-culture masochist, because once the entire world is talking about something—especially something I'll probably hate—I feel the need to experience it, just to see what it's all about. A couple of recent examples: I kept hearing about Ke$ha's "Tick Tock" (that's what it's called, right?), but never actually heard the song. (I listen strictly to WBEZ and WGCI when not listening to iPod/CDs.) I actually had to seek it out on YouTube, and was duly unimpressed. Same goes with "California Gurls," which turned out to be terrible as well. More recently even: I kept hearing about Internet phenomenon Fred, but had literally NO idea what it was all about until last week, and only because Genevieve was talking about Fred: The Movie. And actually, after watching a couple of his YouTube videos (12 million plays each?!), I still don't quite know what I'm looking at. It's for kids, right?
Can I just tell a tangentially related story? It was the summer of 1992, and a friend of mine took pride in the fact that, despite society’s best efforts, he had never heard the song “Achy Breaky Heart,” which at the time was inescapable. “California Gurls” inescapable. “Whoomp! There It Is” inescapable. One day, we’d just paid the bill at a pizza place when I heard the opening strains of the Billy Ray Cyrus hit start playing on the jukebox. I said, “Hey, hold on a minute,” but something in my eye, or my tone of voice, must have tipped him off, and he ran out of the restaurant. To this day, I don’t think he’s ever heard “Achy Breaky Heart,” which I think makes him this AVQ&A’s hero.