Pop culture’s sacred cows? Just dare to dis them
“You are a predictable snotty little journalist that had to take a shot at the Rolling Stones. Overrated? I think not. You, on the other hand, have accomplished nothing in your pathetic little career. Who are you? Just another third-rate . . . writer.”
Sometimes, notes like this one from Ron in Sherman Oaks are what passes for fan mail.
After five years of mouthing off about pop culture in the Sunday Calendar section week after week in the Overrated/Underrated column, one thing has become clear to me. Easy targets come and go — chronically overlooked albums, a below-the-radar independent film or whatever CNN has been wasting our time with this week. But then there are the untouchables — artists and works of art that can be criticized but ultimately almost appear too big to fail.
There’s no ceremony declaring when Martin Scorsese, Bob Dylan or Beyoncé drifts into such rarefied air (though big sales and a few lifetime achievement awards certainly don’t hurt), but they’re just a few pop culture figures who can never be rated highly enough, at least in the eyes of their fans.
Try to suggest that “The Wolf of Wall Street” is at minimum a far cry from “Goodfellas” (and at most a tedious critique of excess that somehow forgets to avoid excess itself) and Scorsese’s army of cinéastes arrives in force. Respond to Beyoncé’s latest album with anything other than gratitude and risk the sort of wrath typically reserved for those who spray-paint national monuments.
So what takes an artist to such a protected place?
Works of art, music, film or literature matter only when we find something that resonates (unless I’ve been doing it wrong). If something does click, there’s excitement, joy and depending on when such an exposure strikes, a powerful sense of identification.
The marketer’s most coveted population is the beloved 18-to-35 demographic. It’s a time in life when whatever money you have goes to serving the most important person — yourself — and when you’re forming your closest approximation of your identity. When you are young, who you are can be tidily summarized by what you like.
Let a filmmaker or band have a body of work that grows along with you, and those bonds grow that much stronger. (I’m no longer able to think rationally about Radiohead.) Now mix in the emotional upheaval of those years with said art, and that sense of identification can merge into something else: ownership.
But there’s a difference between something that’s yours and something that’s sacred. James Franco, Aaron Sorkin and the latest “X-Men” movie may be popular, but they’re part of the pop cultural whirlwind. As social media have equipped us all with 140-character megaphones, you can set your watch to how quickly the prevailing winds will carry most of pop culture from brilliant to backlash and back again. An opinion forms, followed by a contrary opinion that will garner more attention, then an even larger course correction to attract those eyes and ears once more.
By this point most of us need a nap and can no longer remember whether Arcade Fire’s last album was sublime or ridiculous. (Hint: It was both.)
But for someone like Scorsese or Dylan, these shifts carry far less weight, in part because of their body of work. Both have achieved rarefied heights, and you can track the footprints left in their wake. Thus, everything they create is viewed from the lens of their achievements.
As a result, Scorsese’s recent work wouldn’t benefit from further editing or perhaps point to the idea that he’s lost a step since “Bringing Out the Dead” — he’s just operating at a higher plane that popcorn moviegoers don’t understand. Dylan’s gravel-gargling-gravel voice isn’t committing what amounts to a war crime against holiday music in 2009’s “Christmas in the Heart,” he’s commenting on nostalgia and the folk tradition.
But to their credit, the most essential artists have little regard for how their work is received. In most cases, accounting for a fan’s response amounts to a sort of ending, an acknowledgment that the act of creation carries an element of crowd service. During one of U2’s creative peaks, Bono & Co. alienated fans with their 1997 album “Pop,” which explored darker themes and hedonistic dance music while the band winkingly declared itself a product and started referencing the Village People. Apparently, this is not what we look for in our world-saving Irish rock stars.
Whether in response to that negative reception or not, the band’s follow-up, “All That You Can’t Leave Behind,” sounded so much like the dictionary definition of U2 that you could practically hear the group’s apology for deviating from expected form in every arena-ready note.
Consider Quentin Tarantino, who last year took home a screenwriting Oscar for “Django Unchained.” In 1997, he took on Elmore Leonard with the low-key “Jackie Brown,” which grossed less than half of his breakthrough, “Pulp Fiction.” Since “Jackie Brown”? Tarantino has stuck to over-the-top genre homages in “Django,” “Inglourious Basterds” and the two-part “Kill Bill.” These have earned big box office numbers, but they also deliver exactly what fans expect as Tarantino sticks to his grindhouse-ready wheelhouse.
For many artists, that chorus of adoration is part of the job description, and a loss in appeal means a loss in vitality.
But the door swings both ways, particularly for artists with a large body of work. We need them to forge ahead with an unbroken (and ultimately impossible) creative hot streak because that reflects back on those who believe in them. Or, as more than one fan of the Rolling Stones, Bruce Springsteen or Woody Allen must have noted: As long as they’re still capable of replicating past heights after so many years, then so can I.
But becoming an artist that inspires intense devotion isn’t always an endurance challenge. Jack White and Jennifer Lawrence haven’t been around long, but what they can represent to their fans runs beyond a few albums or a film franchise. For White, it’s valuing the legacy of guitar-based blues on a music landscape hell-bent on a robotic future; for Lawrence, it’s for a sometimes goofy, seemingly genuine actor becoming a star while still looking like a human being.
Ultimately, all it takes is for one song, story or actor to captivate you at first sight, and defending their work against any and all naysayers becomes part of your job. But as fans, we should want our favorite artists to keep chasing new heights, and the minute that chase becomes less about discovery and more about furthering past success, we owe it to them to recognize the difference and demand more. There are plenty of up-and-coming artists just as worthy of appreciation.
Except for Radiohead. Come on, those guys are amazing.
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