Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Pop blues

Over this past weekend I went out to see a band play at a local(ish) brewpub. A few of my buddies are in the band, and a few more members of that circle of acquaintances were going to be in the audience, so it was very much a win-win opportunity to socialize with people I don't see often enough, support my performing friends, and sample some new beer. The beer, as it happened, was underwhelming; so it goes, not every glass can be my new favorite. The time spent with my friends was quality, and unified by some weirdly melancholy running threads.

To provide a modicum of context, this circle of friends consists almost entirely of the gang I used to play RPGs with on Wednesday nights on the regular. In other words, they are all geeks, and even more specifically, they are geeks a lot like me. We are all around the same age, and almost all of us are married, and almost all of us have kids, stable jobs, mortgages, &c. We consume a ton of pop culture, individually and collectively, and then we talk about it a lot as well, because pop culture is our common point of reference, and we really don’t have a lot of other high excitement to focus on. I mean, sure, we ask each other about respective children and jobs and other smalltalk stuff, but eventually we slide down the gravity well into the mass of movies and comics and whatnot that we’re all into.

Lately, though, I find myself pondering what exactly the point of it all is (if indeed there is a point at all). Presumably being entertained is preferable to being bored, and also easier than working at something like self-improvement or changing the world. We fill the time, as pleasantly as we can. And, more often than not in the case of my little coterie, we overfill it, really packing in as much as possible and sometimes more.

One of the mutual friends in the audience at the show was the wife of the bass player (this is the couple I lived with back at the beginning of the great Return to Virginia I mentioned yesterday). She and I follow each other’s accounts on GoodReads, and I took the opportunity of seeing her in person to razz her about her recent review posts. She has been making it known that:

- She challenged herself to read 75 books in 2013
- She has some ground to make up in these last couple months to hit her goal
- She normally reads non-fiction (mostly history of European royalty) but knows she can read fiction faster
- She has decided to let other people, including her nine-year-old daughter, pick books for her to read from the library, which is a half-step up from closing her eyes, spinning around, and grabbing a book at random
- Quite a lot of the books she’s been reading and reviewing lately are not her cup of tea for sure, and arguably not good at all on an empirical level, but see bullets above as to how she has ended up reading them

I asked her what the point was of reading book after book that she wasn’t getting much out of, only to hit some arbitrary tally by December 31st. Sadly, she did not have a compelling (read: any) answer for me. It was just something she had decided to do and she was stubbornly going to do it. I don’t mean that her lack of insight on the matter was sad in the sense that now I, lamentably, have no choice but to regard her as a frigging moron. On the contrary, I choose not to see myself as a frigging moron, and I can certainly relate to totally irrational completist tendencies like hers, so transitively I’m cool with it. But I was hoping she could maybe help me understand myself better, and alas, no.

During the second set the band, which tends to play mainly covers of bluesy rock songs, did a slightly laidback acoustic take on Bon Jovi’s “Livin’ on a Prayer” which as you can imagine elicited a great deal of enthusiastic singing along from the aging Gen Xer’s who constituted the bulk of the crowd. Particularly thunderous were the “Whooaa-OOHHHH!”s preceding each chorus of the song’s title. Apparently this got the attention of the bass player’s daughter, who must have been wondering how seemingly every single person in the brewpub knew this obscure song. And after the show, one of our other mutual friends, who had been sitting with the bass player’s wife and daughter, pointedly asked the bass player how it was that his daughter was almost a decade on this planet and yet was completely unfamiliar with “Livin’ on a Prayer”. The bass player’s answer was simple, honest and telling: “I don’t like Bon Jovi.”

I have been friends with the bassist for longer than almost anyone else in that circle, and I will be the first to tell you that he is a bit of a music snob. Again, I can be a bit of snob about various pop culture scenes as well. But I embrace the idea of crowd pleasers, and in general I tend to find my buttons pushed by them just the same as anyone else. Every once in a while I have a sincerely contrary reaction to something the rest of the world loves, but I don’t see it as an either/or, where I can love Bon Jovi or I can love … obviously this is where I name some eclectic band that is not widely loved but is cool to love, but of course the reason why I was building towards dismissing the “but not both” formulation is at least partly because everything is subject to accusations of not actually being cool, selling out, and on and on. So, yeah, almost everything is crap but then again almost everything has at least some merit to it. And nothing should dictate a person’s favorites other than what speaks directly to them, but if the only thing you have any passing familiarity with is the insular bubble of your own favorites, I think you might be missing out. And then throw in kids on top of that, and questions of what responsibility we have to expose them to wide and varied influences and schools of thought, and it gets pretty heavy.

I know I sound like a broken record (and please pardon that semi-intentional pun) but obviously this only matters in any sense if you have no other real pressing problems in your life, but lucky me, I don’t, so I fixate on this. It’s a little intimidating to think of myself as a tastemaker and curator for my own children, and to try to walk the line between showing them around the canon of “what everybody likes” and then highlighting, without pushing, “what Dad likes”. So it’s a little jarring to see a friend, whom I genuinely like, just kind of shrug off the whole question of pop cultural literacy and acknowledge that anything before his daughter’s time (which is essentially everything ever) that he personally doesn’t care for, she’s on her own to track down somewhere, or somehow ex nihilo make herself aware of.

After the set, yet another of my friends in the band was talking to two folks in the audience whom I had never met. I was standing nearby, talking to my buddy Clutch, and at one point my friend got my attention by saying something along the lines of “Oh, he’s pretty good at coming up with names of movies.” They proceeded to describe a film in halting, comically minimal terms (you know, it’s the one, about the brothers, and they’re Irish, and they’re assassins …?) and eventually I made the leap to guess that they were talking about Boondock Saints, which was greeted with a raucous round of slapping of foreheads and self-berating agreement that that was in fact it.

I am nothing if not prideful and I was not only patting myself on the back for supplying the title that was eluding them all, and not only for being able to do so despite never having seen the flick in question myself and knowing it only by reputation, but for apparently having elevated myself in my friends’ estimation where I am the go-to guy for things like that. In my self-image, I am not a cinephile, am in fact far short of whatever that may mean, but I do watch a lot of movies, and I read a lot of reviews and news bits for movies I’m not necessarily making any effort to see, but want to at least familiarize myself with. Of course, never a moment of pride without agonizing hours of second-guessing: I am very into movies, and have even been making efforts of late (e.g. the 1001 Movies Blog Club) to broaden my appreciation and my historic fundamentals, and … for what? What’s the point, what does it all mean? That I will have a rep amongst my buddies for settling bar bets when they can’t even properly articulate enough specific search terms to use Google? It’s been a few years since Patton Oswalt’s thinkpiece on weak otaku, but I was really feeling it the other night. So I’ve seen more movies than most of my friends, and am passably conversant in another order of magnitude more, with a ton of trivia rattling around in my head. Big deal.

Maybe this is just another reminder of how I don’t really party (do the kids today still use “party” as a verb?) like I used to. Two beers and I get overly maudlin and soporific. Absence of other problems, blah blah blah, but regret is a genuine difficulty of the human condition and one that’s difficult to repair and thus better off avoided. What I struggle with now is mindfulness, staying aware of what I’m doing today and what it’s going to signify down the road when I can’t go back and change it. What I devote segments of my multi-tasked time to, what I can offer to my friends, what I’m bestowing on my children, I want to get those things right. Not in the sense that there’s only one right answer, because I don’t believe that for a moment, but in the sense of not getting it hopelessly wrong, at least.

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