everything that you need to know about pop culture and adulthood

A.O. Scott wrote a smart, long, deep piece about the death of adulthood in art and culture in contemporary times. He’s right about most stuff, though very, very safe about everything. It has of course inspired and will inspire a vast number of Hot Takes. Some will praise him. Some of them will be part of the invincible genre of “entitled fans of pop culture cry and whine about their bogus self-conception of being oppressed.” Most will lament with Scott in the general while contributing to the phenomena he mourns in the specific. I am here to cut through the noise for you and speak to you like an adult.

1. Pop culture such as comic book movies, sci-fi, pop music, and genre TV shows has become the most powerful force in the history of human culture. There has never been a cultural force of greater economic power, artistic hegemony, media ubiquity, or social enforcement than today’s pop confections. Never. In any civilization or period of human history. Ever. Base determines superstructure. But as far as superstructure goes, this is as powerful as it gets.
2. There is no such thing as high culture. There probably never was but even if there was it died long, long ago. Outside of your fantasies, there is no group of intellectual elitists looking down their noses at the music or TV you like. Such people do not exist. When you imagine them you are being Homer at college, raging against that grouchy dean.
3. There is no conceit in current intellectual life more demonstrably false or more ubiquitous than the notion that lovers of pop culture, genre fiction, or similar “low culture” are an oppressed and denigrated minority. This is not only true, it is the absolute opposite of the truth. If you are a typical Game of Thrones/Harry Potter/Beyonce loving pop culture lover, you are part of the most spoiled, entitled, serviced, and coddled cultural group in the history of human culture. Ever.
4. In fact, the opposite of the conventional tale is the case: those who like any kind of art or media that has not been blessed to receive the bullshit, self-serving mantel of “pop culture” are subject to a never-ending stream of disdain, dismissal, and abuse. To believe that different types of cultural products should exist, and that some of these should create artistic pleasures based on work, ambiguity, or difficulty, is to be immediately and permanently labeled a snob, an empty signifier that exists simply to provide people with a convenient label to apply to those whose artistic tastes are different than their own. If you like any kind of artwork that does not leave its pleasures totally and utterly accessible at all times and to all people with no expectation that consuming art should involve effort, you will be lectured to by the aggrieved. You will get yelled at by the AV Club and Vulture and Slate, by Steve Hyden and Andy Greenwald and the rest of the crew at Bill Simmons’s Geographical Center of the American Middlebrow, in the New York Times and the New Yorker and every other sundry magazine, blog, site, app, Tumblr, Twittr, Tindr, Grindr, newsletter, listerv, forum, message board, image board, room & board, surfboard and broadsheet that humanity produces. They will deny that what you like is good, deny that you really like it, and invent all sorts of nefarious reasons that you say you like the thing you say you like. They will question not just your right to like what you like but undermine the very notion that someone else could have an aesthetic sense that is different from theirs.
5. The proximate cause of this instinct is an economically broken society in which the society of abundance and security we were promised by national mythology has turned out to be an intricate machine through which the number of winners is steadily reduced and the rewards for those still within that number are steadily increased, leaving us with permanent precarity, an inability to face the desperate need for total economic revolution, and subsequent aggression about the consumptive and aesthetic choices that we feebly use to fill the holes in our heart where our satisfaction, feelings of meaningful work, and sense of life security and fulfillment are supposed to go. Nobody, in a functional society, could really care that much about whether Jim Parsons deserves another Emmy.
6. Everyone who writes any kind of response to Scott’s piece that even minimally agrees with it will feel compelled to lard that response with genuflection and reassurance to the aggressive nerds who police our artistic discourse like prison camp screws, searching everywhere they can think of to find the disrespect they believe is simultaneously their burden to bear and the confirmation that they are part of a great and powerful master race that will rise with the completion of their very own Hero’s Journey story arc, which they imagine to lull themselves to sleep at night on their Boba Fett comforters, which we are forbidden from ever making fun of because then we are guilty of commiting a cultural Kristallnacht in the eyes of said nerds, and they own the executives who own pop culture and the writers who write about it.
7. Pop pleasures do not require defending. It’s like feeling compelled to defend respiration.
8. They’ll keep building the notion of the High Culture Elitist Monster in their minds forever, no matter how palpably unreal it is, because they have so thoroughly entangled the pleasures of art with the soothing novacane of invented victimhood. It’s not that you feel the pleasure and feel the guilt. It’s that the pleasure isn’t pleasurable if you don’t get to pretend that it’s guilty. You throw money at a vast multinational corporation and they give you sugar and you still get to keep the subversive thrill.
9. The only part of adulthood that really matters is the part where when you finally grow up, if you ever really do, it’s because you recognize that there’s other people in the world and that they matter and their needs matter and you need to set aside your self-obsession for long enough to recognize that other people’s needs are often more pressing or important than yours and to act accordingly. Every frame of Guardians of the Galaxy exists to tell you that you are the only human being in the universe.
10. None of this would ever exist if the right people weren’t getting paid.
11. Beyonce is boring.

Update: 12. Tony Scott’s problem is that he refuses to actually consider real-world virtues that come with maturity and adulthood. Like, even a little bit. For all its tweedy NYT weight-shifting, there’s no point where Scott actually bothers to look at factors like 9. here. He’s too concerned about not appearing to be a man of the people. Which is Scott’s singular, existential failing as a critic: he has the instincts and chops of someone willing to criticize the public taste, but not the heart for it. He’s too interested in being beloved to be provocative, so he settles for that NYT Sunday magazine approximation, “thought provoking.” It’s a shame.

65 responses

  1. There’s a lot to engage with here – most of which I agree with enthusiastically; some of which I might quibble over – but I had to say that “the aggressive nerds who police our artistic discourse like prison camp screws” is a masterful phrase.

  2. I’m not sure what to make of this deliberately contradictory provocation: “there is no group of intellectual elitists looking down their noses at the music … you like” and “Beyonce is boring”…

    It seems to me you either don’t remember highschool and its cooler-than-thou indy-rock and jazz snobs; or you were willfully blind in college to the legions of students with obviously insincere intellectual and aesthetic tastes (fans of Derrida, Deleuze and Guattari, and so forth).

    But aren’t you glad the internet exists and we have things like ubuweb, perseus, etc. (pick your snobbish poison)…?

    • But this is the point: why would accusing something of being boring possibly be snobby? It’s usually the supposed snobs who are accused of liking boring things. Snobby has no meaning beyond “disagrees with me in an uncomfortable way.”

      • But snobs don’t think the things they like are boring. No one thinks the things they like are boring. They think the things they don’t like are boring, that’s generally why they don’t like them.

        • homo economicus speaks!

          but this is exactly the problem with critiquing nerds as commodity fetishists, the context naturally demands that the critical question devolve into: if not what I like, what do you like/want to consume?

        • Not true. Real “snobs” can readily admit that much of what they like is boring. Sometimes even they find it boring. Wrestling with boredom and finding meaning/pleasure in it is one of the chief qualities of what, I guess, we’re all now not supposed to call “high art.” And I am not using “boring” as a synonym for “challenging.” Watching all (or any) of Andy Warhol’s Sleep or Empire is a deeply, profoundly boring experience. It’s supposed to be. Producing boredom is one of their reasons for being and that’s what makes these films or anti-films so amazing. The problem with most pop culture is that it rejects boredom, it mobilizes every element of spectacle it can to ward it off but most often completely fails in its primary mission. It’s at this point that the entire apparatus from Freddie’s Item #4 kicks into high gear and goes to work on our heads, propping up complete garbage. Otherwise, everyone is liable to see any and all Avengers related movies, for instance, for what they really are: Just another way to make money off our need/desire to kill time before we all drop dead. High art has the same purpose, deep down, but at the very least, sometimes in the thrall of its profound boredom, it forces you to sit with your mortality by making you feel the hours and minutes ticking past.

      • People who find ordinary pleasures boring, saccharine, etc., are exactly who we have in mind when we use the word “snob”.

        The days of Plato dismissing the Phyrgian mode of music as “effeminate” and Ruskin complaining about the “ill-educated conceit” of Whistler are thankfully over. So you’re right so far: those kinds of steep-nosed snobs don’t exist anymore.

        But Snobbery still exists and it has as much to do with status and power as it always did: the feeling of shame at a party when you don’t know the musician someone is talking about — and how tightly all of that is bound up with money — who can afford to go to college, who can afford to major in the liberal arts versus something more practical, who has the leisure time to read, who can train their nose to appreciate expensive wine…

        The awful thing about these people who can afford to train their palate is that they just casually drop names like Plato and Ruskin in conversation, and they obviously at some level want to assert their intellectual dominance.

        If asked, they wouldn’t say “I don’t like Beyoncé because the genre doesn’t fit my intellectual program.” No: if pressed, they would insist that they merely find her work boring. There’s no arguing with taste, right? But the obvious implication is that their taste is more refined than yours. Because they can afford it: the money, the leisure time, whatever. And now they look down at ordinary pleasures and blow their dog whistle: “it’s boring”, “it’s saccharine”.

        So, in large part, the rabid defense of pop culture you’re complaining about — the revenge of the nerds — is also a democratizing impulse…

        But also one of the great things about the 20th century is elite critics starting to take popular art seriously. As when Cahiers du Cinema started to praise John Ford…

          • Yes, “ordinary pleasures”. We ought to be suspicious when you say you like foie gras but you are bored by birthday cake.

          • What is the definition of “ordinary pleasures” when said pleasures are so commercialized, industrialized, and commodified?

            It is merely “snobby” to dislike HoHos andTwinkies and Cheese Whiz?

            I guess I am a snob.

            Plus, I would note that some of the best wine is cheap. One has to only be interested in wine to find it.

        • You don’t have to go to an elite school to appreciate or learn about art. That is some of the reverse snobbery this article is addressing. All you have to do is search Netflix for the classic section or for films with 5 Star reviews, go to a museum, go to your local arthouse theater instead of the megaplex, read a website about art or avant-garde film. A world of information on art and artists is at your fingertips on the internets. That’s democratization of culture at work right there. Expand your mind beyond reality tv and comic book movies. Btw, I love fantasy comic book movies, but I also love challenging works of art that address the human condition.

      • This is his very point. Calling someone a “snob” is just using a word to say that they’re tastes are different from yours. The argument is that no one is looking down their nose at your art thinking their own cultural discourse would be “better for the greater good”, or at least higher brow. To distinguish ones preferences from a others or all just means that it’s only that, a difference in preference. This doesn’t make all preferences pretentious.
        The difference comes from calling someone a snob to actually being a snob. I think fewer of those exist than what one would call out another for being a snob.
        But it’s early, and I haven’t had my coffee made from weasel poop yet.

  3. I read Scott’s piece. I liked it, even if t it meandered a bit.

    But, I think he misses something.

    The most powerful force in culture and history is religion. Also, most religion reads like mediocre pulp. Pop culture is just an extension of religion with more elaborate and accepted rituals.

    • Yes exactly. American civil religion serves only to placate the nation after a stressful event. Then, once everyone calms down, they make movies about that event.

  4. Speaking of intellectual elitists, didn’t Adorno do this, with much more wit and erudition, 70 years ago?

    The difference is that now, in later capitalism, you can see that homo economicus sees culture properly as a market. There is certainly “high” art but it is distinguished merely as a domain of a market segmented by price, among other things. In fact, at the upper reaches of ‘high,’ the art itself is not saleable but what is in play is actually a sort of social capital traded between nonprofit arts organizations with ties to the distribution of large pools of philanthropic capital. It is precisely this total experience of art as a marketplace which is the basis of the lament of lost Kultur in these sorts of analyses.

    Which is why shoe-horning this into the “inequality” discussion is missing the point. You’ve lost everything the moment you start talking about “cultural products,” regardless of the distribution of capital (or income) within society. It’s not that valuing ‘high culture’ isn’t valued, it’s that we have difficulty thinking about ‘values’ themselves outside of decisions to consume/not consume products.

  5. Spelling error: “novocaine” is spelled with 2 “o”s and an “i”; it is a portmanteau of “novo” (as in the Latin “de novo”) and the suffix “caine” (as in “cocaine”).

    “Novacane” would presumably be a kind of Latin American sugar substitute. Possibly you were led astray by the track of that name on Beck’s 1996 album Odelay.

    If I were in less of a hurry I would make some clever remark about how this relates to the point of your post.

  6. Novacane is a song by pop culture artist Frank Ocean.

    Novacain(e) is the local anesthetic, also known as Procaine.

    Found the misuse ironic.

  7. I was really disappointed with Scott’s piece. He did a massive set-up and then failed to pull the trigger in the end. And that last line, “Now get off my lawn,” completely repudiated everything he wrote before and showed his own embarrassment in his argument. (Also, how does he have so much time to watch TV? Isn’t he still one of the Times’ book critics?)

    It’s funny, though. I’m not sure that the perpetual American adolescence in Scott’s argument is particularly American. I’m reading Trollope, whom I love, and in the last of the Palliser series, the middle-aged Duke is exhorting his grown children, particular his two sons, to grow up and act like adults. They have been expelled from university, are losing money on horses, and spend too much time at their club. Granted, this is the upper-crust of the British aristocracy – how else are they supposed to spend their time if they have no interest in government? But if Trollope wrote his novels for a wider audience than just the upper-class, then you would think that the “childish adults” theme was recognizable to readers in other classes.

    Overall, I am discouraged with the current state of cultural discussion. I would love to see more long essays in the Times about classic literature, ideas, philosophy, even, instead of recaps of the latest episodes of half the shows on TV. I know there will always be at least a few people who feel similarly; I guess it’s just a matter of finding them or else keeping that part of myself to myself.

  8. 1. You’re just overreaching with (4), even allowing for rhetorical hyperbole. If you go into the A.V. Club comments section and say you like reading Bellow, Lessing, Mann, Samuel R. Delany, I don’t think too many people (except for straight-up trolls) are going to sneer at you; on the contrary, you’re going to find at least a handful of people who want to talk about those authors. This is even more the case for “difficult” films. (I don’t think there’s a lot of difficult TV, but that’s a function of the medium.) I know plenty of folks who play or listen to classical music, and none of them have ever mentioned feeling like pariahs. Twitter right now is full of people sharing poetry from a multiplicity of times and places. Are way more people interested in more accessible art? Yes, because that’s a tautology of a sentence. But this reproach for what’s not pop culture? I see no evidence of it. I do see a lack of interest, which is arguably worse, but that’s not the same.

    2. I’m more and more of the opinion that we ought to be thinking about the development of humanity on a much vaster, more cosmological scale; that it’s absurd to think of any as adults just because the species has a few millennia of history under its belt; that the more you look at our behavior across the globe, the more clear it becomes we’re like my three-year-old insisting that he’s a grown-up and that he knows exactly what he’s doing and doesn’t need any help, even as he undermines his own efforts to build anything and flies into a reactive, self-pitying tantrum. In this sense, the death of adulthood — the acknowledgment that none of us know what we’re doing, that all of us speak from a very limited place of authority, that people are in charge because of when they were born and not because they’re necessarily wiser — is a blessing. (Like most blessings, it’s a mixed one.)

    3. This has a lot to do with the rise of mass media. I would guess that when McLuhan talks about how electric media obliterate time, people think he’s referring to, for instance, how we can listen to audio recordings from 100 years ago. But he also means that in an electric culture, the former distinctions between “child” and “adult” blur. Suddenly, kids become consumers to be marketed to, wielding more power over a family’s buying decisions than ever before. They’re part of the audience for national and global news; it doesn’t matter that it’s not “aimed” at them. They’re sexualized for commercial purposes. Of course we’re seeing the death of adulthood; we’ve already been lamenting the death of childhood for a while now, and they’re intertwined. Take a group of kids, overschedule them, micromanage them, expose them full-on to the anxiety of being a human being at this period of time, and it’s no surprise that as soon as they get little more autonomy, they retreat from the mantle of adult responsibility.

    4. In keeping with that theme, we live mythically now, as McLuhan also tells us. Almost no one in America really understands what’s happening with, say, ISIS — instead, we have a broad, fuzzy sense that there are “bad guys over there.” We construct narratives to understand the world, and all the narratives are by nature rough and approximate, because sharper focus would take greater energy, and our brains use that for more local and immediate concerns. I’d submit that having all these disconnected narratives in our heads prompts a lot of anxiety, and that it makes sense we’d look to simple and accessible myths for solace, as well, to quiet the storm and give it a modicum of order. Even if it makes sense, though, there are still problems with the dominance of simple narratives in pop culture, such as (1) grappling with more complex art might help us grapple with more complex realities; (2) we seem disinclined to actually take away the main thematic points of those simple narratives, as demonstrated by the legions of superhero fans who act like total assholes; and (3) our simple narratives can’t even get the basic shit right. For example, you end up with a Batman movie that wants to tell you that personal sacrifice is necessary to save the world, but then immediately undercuts that message by showing you that there was actually no sacrifice whatsoever, and in fact the good guy is OK and happy, which is really what’s important.

    Well, that was long.

  9. You touch on, but don’t explore, the paradox of pop culture. Pop culture is for everyone, but everyone wants to feel unique.

    People who are good at pop culture are good at exploiting this. Look at David Letterman, Louis C.K., or Jerry Seinfeld. All three make you feel unique and mildly transgressive watching them – a feeling you share with farmer in the midwest, a programmer in Silicon Valley, and a financier in New York.

    Its a delicate balance. Letterman and Leno, for example, cover all the most banal aspects of our mass culture, but with a wink, like we are all in on the joke.

    People, especially artists and other members of the creative class, strive to be on the edge, but the masses keep following them to the edge. At one time only ghetto dwellers and Jazz musicians smoked pot. This was edgy. Now,everyone smokes and pot is mundane.

    Comedians job is to find the edge and dance around it, which makes us laugh. We laugh because we are nervous. Will they go over the edge? Sometimes, as with Michael Richards racial remarks, they go over the edge and we condemn them. Other times, as with Chris Rock or Louis CK’s material on race and sex, its an exquisite balance of the transgressive and hilarious.

    All pop culture does this though. Miley Cyrus wiggles her tongue at us, Rhiannon, her behind, not to titillate as much as to make as feel daring, hip, and up-to-date.

  10. “Outside of your fantasies, there is no group of intellectual elitists looking down their noses at the music or TV you like. Such people do not exist.”

    I might be misunderstanding your argument, but in my experiences, this is still very prevalent when it comes to music. It seems that “anyone who understands anything about music” agree that bands like creed and nickelback are just horrible. I never understood that. What makes the doors or the stones any better?

    • Hard to overstate how out of touch it is to think that the Stones or Doors are considered cool. The rise of “poptimism” is all about hating on liking rock bands while treating liking Beyonce as some sort of national duty.

      • “Hard to overstate how out of touch it is to think that the Stones or Doors are considered cool. The rise of “poptimism” is all about hating on liking rock bands while treating liking Beyonce as some sort of national duty.”

        I think youre overestimating how prevalent this type culture really is outside your internet and academic circles (im referring to internet/nerd/anti-elitist/hipster/ironic cultures).

        Even though im a reader of your site and an educated, 30 something new Yorker, 9 out of 10 people I speak to would have no idea what any of these cultural movements youre referring to (nor have they ever come in contact with them). Most sports fans I speak never even HEARD of deadspin (grantland is the most internety culture they are exposed to, and only because its linked on espn). Nor have any of them ever heard of vulture or the AVP club. And like I said, I run in the type of circles where these sites and movements should be pretty well known.

        Or is it that im just too old and that this world is mostly unknown to people past their 20s?

      • Out of touch in what milieu? You’re making generalizations about all of American culture. I assure you that at my place of work, the Doors and especially the Stones are indeed cool, and that Beyonce is at the top of nearly no one’s list. Does that mean I inhabit a cultural backwater? I would submit not; my social and work circles are fairly typical for a 30-something white professional working in an industrial setting, with the wide range of educational diversity that implies. It’s worth considering that ‘culture’ is a concept that is much much much wider and deeper than the media produced by it.

  11. Two things:

    1) “If you like any kind of artwork that does not leave its pleasures totally and utterly accessible at all times and to all people with no expectation that consuming art should involve effort, you will be lectured to by the aggrieved.”

    Can you point out some specific examples of this? I don’t think I’ve ever encountered it. This is not snark. I really can’t think of any. I would like a better idea of what you’re talking about.

    2) Something I think you’re missing is the way cultural elites co-opt “low” culture as part of the status game. I.e., you say you like Miley Cyrus to show that you can, unlike the insecure middlebrows who limit themselves to “correct” things. Have you read Bourdieu? I find it hard to believe you haven’t.

    • It’s absolutely ubiquitous. My brother is a fan of Japanese noise music, the really hardcore stuff. He has had people say to him many, many times that he can’t actually like it– that he only claims to like it to appear cool. War & Peace is mentioned as a particularly imposing and difficult-to-read text on The Atlantic. In the comments, I mention that in fact it’s a fun, enjoyable romance and adventure. Half a dozen commenters pop up to claim that a) I don’t really like it or b) I haven’t ever even read it. Steve Hyden of Grantland writes that ” an album that the majority of pop fans will have no interest in hearing (in part because it’s been rigged to turn those people off) can never be meaningful.” (Read that fucking sentence!) Angry nerds attack any critic that dares give a poor review to a beloved comic book movie, and always, always, always under the theory that only a snob could ever have tastes different than their own. The very notion of the hipster, now applied to pretty much anyone who thinks that aesthetics matter and has an individual taste, is premised on the idea that liking things that aren’t the height of artistic populism is inherently an affect. We are living in the period of the total and ruthless victory of pop, while the people who love it maintain the fiction that they are an oppressed minority.

      Yes, I’ve read my Bourdieu.

      • Well, OK. But I thought a big part of your thesis was that the anti-snobs have “won” in the sense that they now hold elite positions in the culture and media industries. Internet commenters, your brother’s friends, the angry nerd mob, etc. don’t really support this.

          • But then where are they, writing it? Where are the pieces in mainstream publications, online or otherwise, attacking difficult art as such? That one Grantland writer I don’t think is representative.

            From where I’m sitting, which is New York with a bunch of people who work in media and/or went to fancy schools, what you’re describing just bears no resemblance to reality. The old taste hierarchies function as they always did. People claim this or that lowbrow artifact as a kind of intra-class signalling taking place in a context where familiarity with “high” culture is understood. Maybe they make gif-illustrated lists for a living but if you have never heard of the French New Wave, you will not fit in at their parties.

          • I’m sorry, but you are misinformed. Did you not read the Scott piece? Do you not see all the places where he pre-announces the total defeat of high culture? Do you not recognize that he clearly feels the need to avoid any semblance of preference for the high brow or judgment of the low? Did you read any of the massive backlash against that Slate Young Adult piece? Have you never been to io9? Are you unaware of the poptimist movement? Are you not aware of the career of people like Sasha Frere-Jones? Have you ever been to the AV Club? Badass Digest? Ain’t It Cool News? Have you noticed that the traditional mass market publications covering high culture, like the New Yorker and New York Times, now run vastly more pieces on television and video games than they do about opera, ballet, or experimental theater? Have you not noticed the absolute and utter commercial AND critical dominance of comic book movies? The Oscars for the Lord of the Rings? The way the internet devotes 90% of its attention to Game of Thrones when it’s in season and 50% when it isn’t? The absolutely bizarre enforcement of loving Beyonce, where you’re brow beaten if you don’t call her the greatest musician alive?

            Besides, I’m telling you: I am living these experiences. I have them myself. All the time.

          • I don’t think anyone is contesting your claim that pop culture dominates the conversation. (Again, this is a tautology: Work that is easier to engage with is probably going to be engaged with more, for better or worse.) But for some of us, the lived experience is that we have somehow managed to also discuss our higher-brow interests online without being lambasted or chided for them, or even getting called weird. Again, I see people talking about difficult movies in the A.V. Club comments, I know lots of classical music fans, I am Facebook friends with former Gawker commenters who admit to not caring about Beyoncé (I am one of them!), and no one has bristled at that, except facetiously. Another ex-Gawker friend shares and retweets poetry with other people on Twitter every week. Alan Jacobs, among others I’m sure, wrote a response to the Slate YA thing that called out parts of it, but he certainly is not indicting anyone for reading more complex literature.

            None of this is to say you’re not correct that Game of Thrones, etc., dominate the conversation, and that the scales have likely tipped too far in that direction. It’s just to say that some of us haven’t encountered these hordes of jeering philistines you say are out there. And honestly — this is going to sound bitchy, but it’s meant as a legit question: Your lived experience is that so many people will attack you for your tastes, but is there anywhere you go online, Freddie, where people don’t fight with you?

          • I guess we just disagree about the significance of these things. I don’t think the AV Club or io9 tell us that much about the wider culture. As for the NYer and NYT, it is just not the case that they cover more pop culture than high culture – pick up an issue and look. Maybe you get a skewed impression because modern dance reviews tend not to go viral.

            I’m a huge fan of classical music, from early music to postwar music that many people consider “difficult,” and I have never experienced the reactions you describe – not once, from anyone.

            I can’t stand superhero movies but I’ve just never gotten the feeling that they’re being forced on me, I really haven’t. So I don’t really know what that would feel like.

  12. It’s hard to argue with most of your points, especially #5, however I want to say that I quite enjoyed reading the first book of Game of Thrones — like so many people, apparently, that I see on the bus or subway. I think it’s a great gateway to medieval literature, because it’s written in a pretty accessible modern style while showing the reality of a quasi-medieval society. And speaking of “national mythology” and “permanent precarity,” Martin has a great deal to say about that.

  13. The NYT has been pushing –quite successfully- for government to be everyone’s mommy and daddy for at least five decades but now they’re surprised to learn that everyone is acting like children? This sounds like one of their “Crime Down Even As Incarceration Rates Soar’ stories.

    The main problem with Scott’s piece is that what happens on TV is not the same thing as what happens in reality. No one today is going to give Louis C.K.’s global studies major daughter a job over a telephone-black, computer coding Indian simply because of her “white privilege” as I’ve head him claim/imply on his show before. Beyonce’s sister-power ballads don’t reflect reality that much either – go ask a kid without a father in the house (what…75% of black kids now?) how happy he (especially) is about that. Has it really been a net gain for women that men act like boys indefinitely?

    Sure, the completely male-dominated, ass-slapping, professional world of Don Drapper is gone but so is the world where white people knew how to dance, crime was at record low levels, public schools were cheap and pretty decent, men dressed nice, regularly bought albums full of show tunes and had manners. Why can’t our narrative arts geniuses figure out how to make a compelling story about that? What – the 1950’s are too edgy?

    Scott claims that patriarchy is dead but wait!…sexism is still alive (as if the New York Times could ever identify or bless a non-sexist patriarchy) so I guess that’s the logical cover for why there still aren’t as many female engineers, surgeons, politicians or business elites as one might expect upon learning that men, as a group, are no longer in the driver’s seat and are crying in their bongs. Hey, but TV is full of “genre-twisting shows about women and girls in all kinds of places and circumstances” and that’s what really matters. Will sexism finally be dead only when parity has been reached in the above areas or is it possible that –as per the Scientific Method- even with a completely level playing field, such outcomes might remain lopsided? Not going there apparently.

    Scott: “But in the universe of thoughts and words, there is more conviction and intelligence in the critique of male privilege than in its defense, which tends to be panicky and halfhearted when it is not obtuse and obnoxious.” In other news, no one at ‘The New Yorker’ knew anyone who voted for Nixon after he won the election. If you really want to hear a panicky, obtuse and obnoxious defense, state to someone at the NYT that in circa 2014 USA fewer lopsided life outcomes are the result of privilege than at any other time in world history.

    If you can’t at least pretend to act like an adult you probably aren’t doing yourself any favors no matter what’s on TV. It has always been the case that special talents confer special privileges: if you can play guitar like Jimmy Hendrix you can get away with dressing like a clown, if you’re the star QB you get away with flouting certain social norms and if you’re the top producer at Goldman Sachs you can get away with wearing cowboy boots and hanging the stars ‘n bars over your desk. But if you want to look and act like a bum in 2014, get some serious coding chops first.

    BTW – Pop culture may be ubiquitous and all-powerful but the market for “highbrow” abstract art (aka utter crap with huge price tags and zero evidence of applied talent) has never been greater either. See the NYT Arts section for details.

  14. I’m amazed how fully I agree with everything in this post- to the point where I was weirdly advancing this argument to a friend earlier today without reading it.

    One additional, obvious note: the dominance of social media makes everyone much more aware of others’ tastes, and makes it harder to disentangle ourselves from them.

    At the same time, the development of taste is always connected to personal narratives and to the people we trust. My dad brought me to our local university symphony when I was a kid pretty often, so I don’t think I love classical music out of a desire to signal– I think I love classical music because it means something to me personally. Same with jazz– I had an uncle I looked up to who was an on-again off-again professional player, and I worked really hard at practicing in high school. And my limited enjoyment of mid-2000s pop has a lot to do with being around lots of middle schoolers who loved it.

    And War and Peace is definitely a page-turner that I read twice in two years in the mid-2000s. Of course, these days I have a lot more trouble screening out the Internet and reading long books, and that’s another, connected problem.

  15. Even pop culture has its distinctions. Older pop culture gave us Aretha Franklin, Diana Ross, Bob Dylan, and the Beatles. Compare Miley, Beyoncé, Taylor Swift, John Mayer, etc. to these and you may be accused of being snobbish. The childishness of our current society can be most easily seen in the top money making films on any given weekend. In former times, animated films were an occasional occurrence, films that adults took children to see. Now it’s the other way around.

  16. “Have you noticed that the traditional mass market publications covering high culture, like the New Yorker and New York Times, now run vastly more pieces on television and video games than they do about opera, ballet, or experimental theater?”
    Bingo! I disagree with a lot here but not that. And I suspect that’s the real heart of the issue.

    If you hang out in the right internet neighborhoods it’s never been better. I almost exclusively follow the twitter feeds of writers and poets associated with the Flying Object writer’s community and a number of small presses. I know what labels to follow for the music I like and if you played Tetsu Inoue’s music for me I would believe you like it. The Beyonce police are not hammering down my door.

    But! I resolved to never subscribe to the NYT when they wasted my time reviewing Tyler the Creator and was confirmed in my resolve when their best album lists year after year were indistinguishable from Pitchfork’s. (You like Lorde? Thanks Grey Lady!) Yes, the places we once thought to go for high culture have completely capitulated, which is more about the state of media than culture. But here’s the thing. Don’t got there. Make your own place.

  17. Freddie,

    “Every frame of Guardians of the Galaxy exists to tell you that you are the only human being in the universe.”

    Almost every frame of the movie made me feel that I was not the only human being in the universe.

    That’s why I don’t understand the nerd persecution complex. We disagree about a prominent piece of pop culture, but we’re no worse for it.

    The nerd persecution complex the snobbery it claims to decry.

  18. I want to like this essay. It pushes all my buttons. I have trouble with it when the rubber hits the road.

    I can think of half a dozen friends and colleagues that loosely fit your description – one literally has a Boba Fett tattoo arm sleeve, one 38 yo with his equally aged girlfriend voluntarily attends and enjoys Miley Cyrus concerts, etc. but they all work hard and take their jobs, family, and personal pleasures and responsibilities pretty seriously. I can talk Horkeimer to them with Hauschka playing in the background and they don’t get angry or withdrawn.

    While I occasionally run across the unemployed live at parents house bearded slacker/internet troll/basement Quinn bashing ‘gamer’ they seem to me to be the exception, not the rule. Thanks for the essay.

    I love the phrase: “Bill Simmons’s Geographical Center of the American Middlebrow” (I’m going to steal it)

    ok – off to see the new Belle and Sebastian movie…kisses!

  19. I think all this essay really proves is that Freddie needs to:

    A. Get out more &
    2. Stop hanging out in the cesspool comments sections of such dreadful sites like AV Club (last relevant circa 2003) Slate, Gawker “Media”, etc. If all you see is A-holes, you’re looking too low.

  20. You undermine yourself with the constant denigration of middlebrow things that permeates this piece. You want the entirety of all culture and everybody in the whole world to stop being so mean to you about the things you like, while you simultaneously make it abundantly clear that you are better for liking such things. All those everybodys aren’t being mean to you because of what you like, they’re being mean to you because you think they’re pathetic excuses for human beings because of what they like. In reality no one gives a shit whether you like highbrow things or not (except, ye gods!, those mean internet commenters who clearly represent mainstream opinion, as all internet commenters do). What people do care about, and react strongly against, is being told they are lesser examples of humanity because they evaluate culture and entertainment with a different rubric than you.

    • You undermine yourself with the constant denigration of middlebrow things that permeates this piece.

      No, I don’t.

      You want the entirety of all culture and everybody in the whole world to stop being so mean to you about the things you like

      No I don’t, and I’ve said nothing remotely similar to that.

      you simultaneously make it abundantly clear that you are better for liking such things

      No, I haven’t.

      they’re being mean to you because you think they’re pathetic excuses for human beings because of what they like

      I don’t think anybody’s mean to me and I’ve never said anything remotely comparable to saying that anyone is a pathetic excuse for a human being.

      In reality no one gives a shit whether you like highbrow things or not (except, ye gods!, those mean internet commenters who clearly represent mainstream opinion, as all internet commenters do)

      I don’t care whether anyone cares about what I like, and I’ve said absolutely nothing to suggest otherwise.

      What people do care about, and react strongly against, is being told they are lesser examples of humanity because they evaluate culture and entertainment with a different rubric than you

      Luckily for both of us, then, I don’t believe that, haven’t suggested it, and don’t have the slightest notion where you’re getting that from.

      Anything else you’d like to make up out of whole cloth?

  21. I thought A.O. Scott’s essay was BS. There was some BS in yours, unworthy of trying to refute Scott’s essay, but I think #9 nailed it. It all comes down to that.

  22. I feel like I’m missing part of the point here.

    “They will deny that what you like is good…”
    “Beyonce is boring.”

    “…deny that you really like it…”
    “Nobody, in a functional society, could really care that much about whether Jim Parsons deserves another Emmy.”

    “…and invent all sorts of nefarious reasons that you say you like the thing you say you like.”
    “…the holes in our heart where our satisfaction, feelings of meaningful work, and sense of life security and fulfillment are supposed to go.”
    “…the pleasure isn’t pleasurable if you don’t get to pretend that it’s guilty. You throw money at a vast multinational corporation and they give you sugar and you still get to keep the subversive thrill.”
    “Every frame of Guardians of the Galaxy exists to tell you that you are the only human being in the universe.”

    Is this just turnabout? They’re doing it to you, so you get to do it to them?

    And who are “they”, anyway?

    “…the aggressive nerds who police our artistic discourse like prison camp screws, searching everywhere they can think of to find the disrespect they believe is simultaneously their burden to bear and the confirmation that they are part of a great and powerful master race that will rise with the completion of their very own Hero’s Journey story arc, which they imagine to lull themselves to sleep at night on their Boba Fett comforters…”

    But addressing your opponents, you say that “When you imagine [your oppressors] you are being Homer at college, raging against that grouchy dean.” Is the deal here that only one side is allowed to conjure up and hate on cartoonish stock villains?

    Wait, I cut that “aggressive nerds” sentence off. How does it end?

    “…which we are forbidden from ever making fun of because then we are guilty of commiting a cultural Kristallnacht in the eyes of said nerds, and they own the executives who own pop culture and the writers who write about it.”

    Am I supposed to approve or disapprove of Nazi comparisons? Here you’re clearly pointing out the disproportionate absurdity of thinking about anything that goes on in the cultural conversation as an atrocity like “Kristallnacht”. But you spent the first half of the sentence calling your opponents “prison camp screws” who think they are part of a “master race” with no apparent irony. Should I accept that they are cultural Nazis and also accept that you are being a cultural Nazi towards them? Should I reject all accusations of cultural Nazism as ludicrous, including yours? Or is this another thing that only one side is allowed to do?

    I guess I just don’t get what purpose is served by so thoroughly undermining your message even as you deliver it. Is there a reason why someone might want to look like a hypocrite?

    • I am not the culture. The only way your comments make sense — the only way — is if you think that the existence of one person (me) who has opinions on art that different than yours represents the existence of some elitist culture. There is absolutely no contradiction between me saying that there is no elitist high culture that oppresses you and me, personally, not liking what you like. I am in the minority by absolutely any rational, objective consideration of the current state of culture. And even if I wasn’t, my opinions cannot meaningfully be made to represent some sort of edifice of elite aesthetics. Once you accept that, none of your accusations of hypocrisy make a lick of sense.

      At the heart of all of this, though you guys won’t admit it, is that you want to legislate your taste and you are unwilling to contemplate a world where other people get to like things

      • Your statement that “you want to legislate your taste and are unwilling to contemplate a world where other people get to like things” is completely unwarranted. I haven’t even taken a side in this “pop” versus “high-but-don’t-call-it-that” conflict you’re fighting. I have expressed no opinion about Beyoncé or The Big Bang Theory or Guardians of the Galaxy. All I’ve said is that your argument appears to be at odds with itself: you commit the same acts that you condemn others for committing. I first heard about you through your Dish piece where you describe yourself as “a socially liberal critic of today’s social liberalism”, so I know you can appreciate that it is possible to criticize a position without standing antithetical to that position.

        Now, of course you are not the culture. Nobody is. The diehard fan of Jim Parsons you take me for could surely say “I am not the culture” just as easily as you do. You’re absolutely right that your tastes are in the minority and those other tastes are in the majority. But you are also absolutely right that you could say “I am not the culture” even if yours was the majority. Majority status does not put people in the wrong. Actions put people in the wrong. (Really, I wonder why you even raised the issue of majority status at all. It just seems like you’re playing Oppression Olympics here.)

        So what are these wrong actions? You complain of the pop culture lovers denying that what you like is good. But you also deny that what they like is good, and you claim that you have every right not to like what they like. If you have that right, they have that right, right? So what’s the problem with them denying that what you like is good? What principle of cultural ethics or etiquette are they violating and you not? What are you complaining about?

        And so on mutatis mutandis with your other complaints. You don’t have to be a representative of an oppressive elitist majority for them to be contradictory – indeed, we’ve just established that majority status is irrelevant. They are contradictory because you say that an action is bad, and then perform that action. Do these actions constitute evidence of wanting to “legislate your taste”? Then we have before us evidence that you want to legislate your taste. Or are these actions just the open exchange of opinions in a free society? Then the other guys are just openly exchanging their opinions in a free society.

        On a final note, I wasn’t being obtuse before: I really did think you were doing something clever with deliberate contradictions that I didn’t get. It’s disappointing to find out this is not the case.

  23. That’s MY pop culture, there are many like it, but this one is MINE.

    It seems we each want to own the “correct” version of pop culture, and be recognized for it. If we let go of the need to do that, though…

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