Friday, August 28, 2015

It's Okay To Like What You Like

Don't be this guy

I've always been wary of subcultures, because they seem so limiting.  When I was a teenager I loved punk rock and devoured books about it, but was never a punk.  I didn't pierce anything, I didn't spike my hair, and I didn't go pogoing at all ages shows.  I also loved the sixties counterculture, watched the Woodstock documentary in awe, and listened to psychedelic music and read boatloads of Hunter S Thompson, but I was never a hippie.  In college and grad school I marched and stood on picket lines for various causes, but I was never an activist.  While I knew some punks, hippies, and activists, entree into that world seemed to require a uniform, both physical and mental.

This used to confuse me, I began to think that I just wasn't cool enough to be one of them.  Once I graduated from college, I matured a little and realized that my tastes and thoughts were too broad to be jammed into a limited framework.  Instead of hating all popular music because that was the punk thing to do, I admitted that I actually liked ABBA and disco and Frank Sinatra.  (A book called The Accidental Evolution of Rock and Roll by Chuck Eddy helped me find this path, since he got as much meaning out of disco and Italian teen pop as others did out of the Velvet Underground.)  I still remember meeting a self-professed punk in grad school who said he didn't like Joy Division's second album because he wouldn't listen to anything with synthesizers on it and I thought "there but for the grace of God go I."

These days things are going in the other direction, where the modern cultural Puritans love to point out how much they enjoy cheesy Top 40 music.  It is a kind of faux populism that says "despite my graduate degree from a private college I am down with the people because I like Beyonce."  Hey, there's absolutely nothing wrong with liking Beyonce, but Jesus Lord don't make it into some kind of political crusade.  It's okay to like what you like because that's what you like.  You don't need to justify your love of Fury Road by doing a feminist analysis of it, or feel deficient because you just enjoy it as a well-crafted action movie.

This new pop cultural moment feeds into frankly idiotic binaries that less sophisticated cultural consumers like to enforce.  All of the overblown snark directed at Jonathan Franzen, for instance, has nothing to do with his actual writing, and is more a statement with identifying with a certain leftist cultural mindset.  I find it all so ridiculous.  I think The Corrections and Freedom are great novels, and I really don't care if he is a prickly curmudgeon in real life.  I just. don't. care.  People act as if he is the first prominent writer to be a difficult crank.  And hey, even though I like those Franzen novels, I still think Zadie Smith is great.  I can appreciate Joseph Conrad and Chinua Achebe, even while accepting Achebe's critique of Conrad's Heart of Darkness.  I love Dickens and Catcher in the Rye too, even though Salinger thought of Holden Caulfield as the anti-David Copperfield.  I enjoy genre fiction like Carl Hiaasen novels but also like to pick up difficult, thick stuff like David Foster Wallace.  These false binaries are less politicized in film and television, but we still have them.  Star Wars versus Star Trek, Marvel versus DC, etc., who the hell cares?  Isn't it better to like them all or none of them at our own leisure?

I should also say it's okay to not like what you don't like.  Don't like young adult fiction because it's emotionally simplistic? (This is one of my peeves.)  Fine!  You're not a snob.  Don't like Breaking Bad because of the level of violence? Fine! You don't have to like violent stuff to be cool.  Don't like Birdman because it's too stagey?  Fine!  That's a reasonable critique even if I don't agree with it.  Think Thomas Pynchon's novels are overblown and too showy?  Fine! That doesn't make you unsophisticated.  That guy who wouldn't listen to anything with synthesizers?  That seems rather limiting to me, but if he doesn't like them, he doesn't like them, and that's his loss.

See how easy that was?  Trust me, life gets a lot easier when you let your tastes roam free without any need for explanation and justification, and when you stop trying to be an evangelist for your own particular cultural denomination.


john fremont said...

I remember back in the 1980's a roommate of mine completely perplexed of how one person could have cassette tapes of U2, Prince, Van Halen, Run-DMC and Robert Cray sitting alongside of tapes of country like Bob Wills,
and Dwight Yoakam and classic soul from Wilson Pickett and Otis Redding. I was also enjoyed the soundtrack Madonna's Who's That Girl? and Debbie Gibson. My roommate was convinced that my tapes were somebody else's because there was no way anyone could really like all of those different musical styles!

john fremont said...

To add to my previous comment, it seems to me that the generation gap in popular music isn't as strong as it used to be. Gregg Allman said that kids today know his records alongside of the Beatles and Jimi Hendrix, whereas when he was growing up we never listened to Tommy Dorsey or Benny Goodman. My nephews and nieces and their friends all have very wide ranges of music from different eras and genres on their Spotify playlists. In the 80's , the head bangers would have never had Journey in their record collection, whereas today, my nephew, has them in with Iron Maiden and Tool. How is new technology like streaming is forming different audiences which enables people's tastes to roam freer?