This week’s question is from contributor Jesse Hassenger:
I went to a couple of shows on Sleater-Kinney’s recent tour, and they played their kick-ass song “Entertain.” When the song came out in 2005, Carrie Brownstein described it as a screed against the empty nostalgia of then-contemporary rock music. As much as I enjoy hearing Brownstein calling out a bunch of flash-in-the-pan buzz bands (and as much as I agree that just because something is catchy doesn’t mean that it’s good), in my heart of hearts I don’t particularly agree with the song’s lament that fun rock music is “just a silly ruse,” or with its vaguely humorless kiss-off to the idea of music being, you know, entertaining. But “Entertain” is a great song anyway, a fierce and uncompromising blaze of punk rock crit (and, hey, pretty catchy). This got me wondering: What piece of pop culture (or lowly entertainment) do you love despite not necessarily agreeing with what it’s saying?
How much time do you have? I possess an uncanny knack for falling in love with pop culture that I find utterly reprehensible, politically or morally. Time and again, I find myself becoming enamored of a film, album, TV show, or novel whose perspective or message strikes me as utterly wrong-headed, if not offensive. Sometimes, the popular view of stuff I love is based on a misreading—Carol Clover’s book Men, Women, And Chain Saws goes a long way toward rectifying some of the faulty assumptions about many of the horror movies I adore—but often, I just go for the appalling stuff. Want to talk to me about how screwed-up you find the politics of Kick-Ass? I agree with you! I also love that movie. I’ve watched it a lot, and each time, I find something new to be dismayed by, intellectually, even though director Matthew Vaughn does his level best to offset some of Mark Millar’s more horrifying attitudes. But Nicolas Cage shooting his daughter in the chest to teach her how to take a bullet? Never gets old. (Let me stress, this is just the tip of a very large iceberg. If we have to agree with the message of any art to enjoy it, we’ve got a real problem, people.)
Kanye West’s Yeezus is an ugly piece of work, teeming with so many questionable opinions that it singlehandedly kept the think-piece industry running for most of June and July of 2013. Yeezus also contains some of the most bracing and exciting music of West’s career, a cathartic blend of industrial beats, digital squawks, and left-field samples and guests. (Two years on, “Bound 2”’s combo of Ponderosa Twins Plus One, Brenda Lee, and Gap Band leader Charlie Wilson still slays.) In reworking the record right up to its delivery date, West created something uniquely raw and honest, 40 minutes of id running roughshod over musical accompaniment painstakingly carved at the 11th hour. On the basis of a responsible work ethic, Yeezus is objectionable; in terms of content, it makes the “sarcophagus” / “esophagus” couplet from “Monster” sound like Barney Rubble rhyming about Fruity Pebbles. But Yeezus is also the sound of Kanye West making the record he wanted to make exactly the way he wanted to make it, the biggest musician in the world taking bold stances in bold singles like “Black Skinhead” and “New Slaves.” I’ll always have respect for that sort of uncompromised artistry, no matter how much I feel like I need to take a shower after listening to “On Sight.”
I have to admit, like millions upon millions of Americans, I follow the comings and goings of the Duggar clan, stars of 19 Kids And Counting. The Arkansas-based brood has big hair, ancient courtship rituals, and loves tater-tot casserole, and while I find myself pretty much diametrically opposed to every single thing they believe (and I mean that. Every. Single. Thing.) I still eat that shit right up. I suppose that’s a testament to TLC’s marketing and selective editing. Sure, the show has talk of God and countenance and whatever, but it’s more about how expensive it must be to cook for all those kids, or what it’s like to have to travel around in an honest-to-God tour bus every single day. That kind of logistical chatter has always interested me, even though I seriously worry every time I page through a Duggar-centric People Magazine or DVR one of the show’s special wedding episodes that I’m passively contributing to the decline of each and every one of my civil liberties. If only those kids weren’t so damn charming!
As a kid with a healthy attachment to his library card, I devoured all of the classics of fantasy and science-fiction literature I could. Among many others, that meant long, pleasant afternoons reading through C.S. Lewis’ Narnia books, delighting in the battles, the humor, and the much dreamt-of scenario of being pulled into a magical fantasy world. But it’s impossible to divorce Narnia from the Christianity that pervades it. Even as a kid who had recently joined the Assemblies Of God as a sort of half-assed rebellion against my agnostic parents, I found myself skeptical. It’s not all parables and heavy-handed lessons—like his contemporary Christian author, J.R.R. Tolkien, Lewis’ God often shows up in the form of normal people fighting for the greater good, instead of ostentatious miracles. But the exceptions to this are nowhere worse than in the final Narnia book, The Last Battle, which finds Lewis at his most aggressively allegorical. I still love the man’s writing—the opening line of The Voyage Of The Dawn Treader, “There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it,” is one of my favorites in all of literature—but the more his books go “further up” and “further in,” the more they leave me, like poor Susan Pevensie, behind.
I buy the new Call Of Duty game every year. And every year I have an internal battle about whether or not I really feel good about buying the new Call Of Duty game every year. I’m not especially offended by the games’ glorification of war or the way they often emphasize the importance of a few soldiers’ lives while completely ignoring a thousand civilian deaths, though. My issue is more straightforward: I hate guns. I think they’re literally the worst, and how easy it is for people to get guns—any people, not just the people who shouldn’t have them—legitimately bothers me a lot. However, put Call Of Duty or some other brainless shooting game in front of me, and suddenly I’m deeply invested in making sure my gun is the coolest and most efficient murder-machine on the planet. I love choosing from different scopes and attaching cool laser sights and grips, even though the thought of doing that in real life disgusts me.
I love the film Rio Bravo. It’s well-directed, -written, and -paced; features fantastic performances from most of its cast; and has one of my favorite musical sequences in film. More than that, it’s an entertaining Western with a sense of humor, with stakes and a point of view as well. Unfortunately, part of that point of view is its painfully pro-McCarthy subtext. Director Howard Hawks made the film as a response to another classic Western, the anti-blacklisting High Noon, which explores the morality of a community as its members one by one refuse to stand with their honorable just-retired Marshal against a dangerous foe. Hawkes found the film’s message un-American and his Rio Bravo presents a very different hero, who refuses help rather than asks for it (and in doing so, conveniently winds up with far more assistance than High Noon’s protagonist). It’s hard not to cringe as Angie Dickinson’s Feathers apologizes to John Wayne’s paternalistic Sheriff Chance for having caused such a fuss over being unlawfully searched. When I can ignore the subtext, Rio Bravo is a blast, but the instant I look past its delightful surface, my hatred of its themes ruins the fun.
This is actually a pretty easy one for me: Chuck Klosterman’s Fargo Rock City: A Heavy Metal Odyssey In Rural Nörth Daköta. I like heavy metal well enough—it was inescapable when I was growing up, so I didn’t have a heck of a lot of choice. But Klosterman freaking loves it, and that love comes shining through every page of his debut book. Even though I don’t share the same level of adoration for the genre, I’m thoroughly entertained whenever I go back and read his remarks on the stuff. (I’ve never felt that degree of appreciation for anything else he’s ever written, though.)
I’m usually unable to separate art from its message. I don’t care how catchy “Sweet Home Alabama” might be; I can’t enjoy a song that was written to defend segregation. I enjoyed the nonstop thrills of 24, but gave up on the show when it started offering torture as sound policy. But there’s one pop-culture figure that, morally, I can’t defend, and yet I can’t help but love. His name is Bond. James Bond. An infantile power fantasy, the Bond films are unabashedly sexist. Nearly every female character in the series gets treated as a disposable conquest—sometimes literally, as roughly half the women Bond gets involved with only enter the story long enough to be bedded by our hero, and then murdered by the villain to motivate him. Although Bond rapes Pussy Galore in Goldfinger, and has questionably consensual sex with an abuse victim in Skyfall, those are considered two of the best films in the series. Beyond that, Ian Fleming’s books are embarrassingly racist, even by the standards of the time in which they were written. Some of that makes it to the screen, from the Orientalism of You Only Live Twice to Live And Let Die’s clumsy take on blaxploitation. I’m fully aware of how problematic the character and the series are, and am far more politically aligned with Archer, FX’s scathing take on the Bond persona and white male privilege in general, And yet, there’s something irresistible about 007. So long as there are maniacal villains with needlessly complex plans and an unflappable Englishman in a tux there to stop them, I’ll be watching.
If I may self-indulgently re-answer my own question, I’d add later seasons of Parks And Recreation, and the finale in particular. I love the show’s optimistic view of what government can do; I’m no Ron Swanson on that front. But in the last few years of the show, I found myself disagreeing with the personal outgrowth of that generally wonderful philosophy: the idea that if good people work hard, all of their dreams will come true and they’ll get everything they ever even maybe wanted (especially children. Multiple children). I’m not saying the show should have ended with everyone or even anyone in abject poverty or even unfulfilled lives; as a fan, I actually really enjoyed seeing inventive happy endings for everyone. But I can’t always buy that, even if I’d really like to.
I was very, very nervous the first time I reviewed 24 for The A.V. Club, for a lot of reasons. I was relatively new to the job; taking on a new show was always a challenge; and I was terrified that my conflicted response to the series would make for some unhappy commenters. I was definitely right about that last part, but I kept writing about the show. Things kept being complicated, but nobody fired me for trying to work out why. Having done a few seasons now (and having watched the rest of the show before that), I can safely say that I’m a fan of Jack Bauer and his madcap adventures, but still have trouble with the some of the series’ dodgier thematic elements. Whether those elements are intentional or not is up for debate, but the racial profiling and the perpetual use of torture as a narrative device—a tool that, at least in the show’s early going, regularly yielded up useful information no matter how many of us wussified liberals complained otherwise—made me uncomfortable then, and makes me uncomfortable now. I still have a lot of fun watching Jack be Jack, but I’d be lying if I said that fun is entirely stress-free.
I love Clint Eastwood movies, with Clint both as an actor and a director, but there is nothing I love more than Eastwood’s surreal, psychedelic High Plains Drifter. I can and will talk about this movie for hours. There’s quite a bit to disagree with when it comes to the politics of a lot of Eastwood’s body of work. But High Plains Drifter is specifically problematic because Eastwood’s character sexually assaults not one, but two different women. Their response is to ask for more. In fact, one character gets offended when he does not opt to rape her again. The fuck-the-patriarchy-feminist in me knows I should hate these reactions so much, but the Eastwood fan in me brushes this off as a just another aspect of the solitary Eastwood persona.
I’ve heard my fair share of misogynistic lyrics throughout the years, but I’m pretty sure nothing will ever hold a candle to Jimmy Soul’s 1963 ditty “If You Wanna Be Happy.” The song offers simple advice for men: Marry an ugly woman who will feel indebted to you and you’ll have a happy marriage. Sample lyrics include “A pretty woman makes her husband look small / And very often causes his downfall,” and “An ugly woman cooks her meals on time / She’ll always give you peace of mind.” By all accounts the absurd levels of misogyny should make the song irredeemable, but it’s so damn catchy, energetic, and exuberantly performed that it’s on regular rotation on my iTunes. I know I should be mad when it comes on, but I’m too busy dancing to care.
Pixar may have hit something of a bad patch in the past few years, but there was a time not so long ago when the animation studio’s very name equalled exciting, fulfilling family entertainment. The Incredibles pushed the Pixar formula even further. Its superhero-family tale ups the action and violence quotient so that it functions as a legitimate action film a later fan of The Avengers or Guardians Of The Galaxy can recognize. Funny, exciting, moving, The Incredibles has everything necessary to make it a comic-book geek’s favorite Pixar movie—but for the fact that its main villain espouses a philosophy right out of Ayn Rand’s most supercilious, contemptuous fantasies. If Rand ever wrote a comic book, Syndrome would be her ideal villain, an unexceptional, resentful wannabe hero whose envy of those like his idol, the super-strong Mr. Incredible, curdles into a murderous quest to wipe out every genetically superior ubermensch in the world. (He’s the superhero equivalent of the crappy artists and writers in The Fountainhead who essentially create all modern art out of their desire to devalue the “real artists” they can never hope to equal.) The concept of a supervillain being motivated by fear or mistrust of superpowered heroes isn’t new. The concept has been mined for effective, complex comics drama elsewhere. But the fact the people behind The Incredibles chose to create their villain from the vile, sniveling jealousy of the unexceptional poisons what is otherwise a great, fun movie.
While I wouldn’t say I “love” the 1980 cult horror flick Cannibal Holocaust, widely regarded as the most controversial film ever made, but I have a begrudging admiration for it as a horror junkie. Despite its sordid reputation for grimy rape and graphic violence, it’s actually a somewhat thought-provoking and well-made film, with an excellent score. The film was so convincing that Italian director Ruggero Deodato had to prove that it was not a snuff film. The progenitor of the “found footage” genre, the movie makes clever use of the “civilized are more vicious than the natives” theme. It’s well shot, and not shaky, bucking the later trend of nausea-inducing found-footage rip-offs. However, there is actual animal killing in the film, which I certainly do not agree with. Although it’s rumored the animals were food for the native Amazonians, I refuse to watch those scenes, just like I’ve always avoided watching Faces Of Death. That said, the film’s animal abuse is not nearly as horrible and gratuitous as knock-off Cannibal Ferox, 1981’s quickie follow-up that has none of the social commentary and lots more animal killing.