Have you ever seen a new movie or played a new game, hopped online because you were excited to discuss it, and discovered that the internet is flooded with thoughts and opinions so aggressively terrible that you want to bludgeon whoever wrote them? We have a tendency to think that all pop culture is made specifically for us, and to lash out when we discover otherwise. So here are some questions to ask.
“Was This Intended For Me?”
You’re in a car, Justin Bieber came on the radio, and the driver reacted like modern pop music has taken his family hostage. “Who listens to this garbage?” asked a man in his late 20s who thought that Toby Keith’s “Red Solo Cup” was the apex of western civilization. The idea that the song was marketed at tween girls, not him, seemed impossible for him to wrap his head around. If you’re outside of the target market, your opinion is as irrelevant as a vegetarian judging how you ordered your steak. I’m sure Bieber appreciates his 40-year-old fans, but they aren’t paying his bills and government fines.
It’s easy to dismiss something that wasn’t made for you as having no value, while forgetting that countless people think the same thing about all the stuff that you like. One of the worst things an adult can do to a teenager is mock their interests just because what’s new and novel to the teen is old and boring to the adult. Maybe it’s objectively bad, or maybe it just doesn’t push the right buttons in your brain. But unless it’s fascist propaganda, it’s really none of your business. That horror trailer you saw and derided as being the same crap you’ve seen for decades is new to someone, somewhere. They don’t care how unoriginal you think Amityville: The Awakening looks if will get them a couple of good jump scares and a chance to awkwardly finger without their parents walking in.
“Why Would Someone Like This?”
This is a rhetorical question that gets asked in a thousand Reddit threads a day. It’s the Jeopardy answer to the clue “This question reveals that you have no imagination by assuming that everyone without the exact same taste as you is an idiot.”
But it’s also a question that’s worth asking seriously, especially when the latest trend rolls in and you feel like an alien for not getting it. For example, while what feels like all of North America debates taking out a second mortgage so they can afford Hamilton tickets, I would rather watch a show set to Metal Machine Music played through an elevator speaker than hear a second of The Man Who Wanted To Tax Whiskey Yet Is Somehow Still Beloved. I find musicals too relentlessly cheery and upbeat and stuck in the past, and while everyone is tapping their toes I think “Lyrics are a terrible way to dispense information! Just sit down and have a conversation instead of singing about how you’re angry for five minutes! And why are you holding up LA traffic?” But the musical lovers in my life think that songs are a far more powerful way to express emotion than some boring old monologue, especially if an upbeat song is being used to dull the impact of dark subject matter. We just interpret stories, and the emotions they’re trying to instill, in different ways.
Knowing where the other person is coming from is a better long-term solution than rolling your eyes and grumbling every time they go on about how much they love Grease. But the real trick is to do it with fads that are mocked as much as they’re loved. I made fun of Twilight as much as the next guy, and that’s because they’re written like Stephenie Meyer is trying to devolve the English language. But if you understand why they sold 100 million books and produced five blockbuster movies, you’ll understand more about the world you live in than if you dismiss it as some dumb fantasy for people with bad taste.
Note that determining why something is likable doesn’t mean that you have to start liking it yourself. I get the appeal of trashy reality shows, but if you expect me to sit down and watch one then there’d better be a case of beer on the table. We all have to live in the same world. So if you start turning pop culture tastes into battle lines, you’re the one who ends up looking dumb for being unable to figure out what the deal is.
“When Is It Meant To Be Consumed?”
I think people who half-watch a movie with you while browsing their phones, then complain that they didn’t like it because it was too confusing, should be hauled in front of a show trial and sentenced to re-education camps. But apparently that’s “a clear violation of human rights,” and so a lot of pop culture is made for those people. Police procedurals and their ilk are mostly half-watched by people who are making dinner or cleaning or going through their email. Their repetitive banality is their strength – you’re not going to miss a shocking twist or a brilliant piece of writing if you need to run the vacuum cleaner for a couple of minutes.
Again, this doesn’t mean that they’re beyond reproach. You can’t criticize Law And Order for being repetitive, because that’s its job, but you can call it out for ripping plots from the headlines, for distorting our view of crime by over-representing women as both victims and criminals, and for how it mishandles rape and sexual assault for cheap entertainment value. But when you’re really into pop culture it’s easy to forget that not everyone else is, and that some people just want something mindless to collapse in front of after an exhausting day at a stressful job. Sometimes you just want to watch a bad guy get caught or a patient get saved while you fall asleep. There are good procedurals and stupid ones, and you can’t consider them all useless just because you don’t need that particular stress valve.
Other contexts are important too. That new pop hit with the insipid lyrics? You’re not supposed to lie in a dark room and thoughtfully take in every word like it’s Nick Drake; it’s background music for bars, or something to occupy your mind while you’re driving to work. If you like it in other contexts, cool, but don’t complain about music because it doesn’t work in a way it was never designed for. Kids on drugs need music to dance to as much as you need music to balance your budget to. You wouldn’t hump to the Wiggles or cue up the Smiths for a fun road trip or play Swans at your family BBQ. Think about what a song or a show offers the consumer, whether it’s stress release, relaxation, a jolt of energy, or a way to vent negative emotions. Then you can passionately argue that third wave avant-garde black metal is objectively superior to new black-gaze Viking.
“What Was It Trying To Accomplish?”
The Force Awakens is a bad movie. The plot is a boring and vague rehash, it has no sense of time or scale, and it’s not cool to get people excited about Gwendoline Christie and then give her 12 seconds of moronic screen time.
But that’s fine, because The Force Awakens But Clearly Isn’t Lucid Yet wasn’t made for me. It exists to remind casual fans that “Hey, Star Wars exists! Pew, pew, lasers! Woo!” It was made for parents to take their seven-year-olds to and then realize that was a huge mistake when they asked for 27 toys. It reset the franchise and healed society’s collective prequel-induced trauma and set the stage for some new ideas, at least by the standards of carefully controlled billion-dollar franchises stewarded by conservative production companies.
And, sure enough, The Force Awoke But Put Me To Sleep led to Rogue One, which is the smarter and better movie about a universe of space wizards fighting a war against history’s most inept military dictatorship, along with the upcoming Donald Glover Plays Lando Calrissian, Wo Cares What The Rest Of The Movie Is About. The Force Awakens accomplished what it set out to do, so even if “being good” wasn’t one of its goals it’s hard to get too upset about that.
Also, all the other re-boots didn’t “rape” your childhood. They didn’t even buy you a drink. The 2014 Turtles movie was nominated for five Golden Raspberries and three Nickelodeon Kids’ Choice Awards. Guess which the studio cared about? Studios need to bring in money so they can afford to release cult hits that risk bombing at the box office. Getting mad at the new TMNT movies for existing is like getting mad at someone for having a job. You should also consider what a movie is trying to accomplish in terms of tone.
If a movie purports to be rigorously researched, then it’s fair game. Movies that claim to be historically accurate but are full of lies is an entire genre at websites like Cracked. But there’s a difference between saying “Hey, wait, The Imitation Game, a supposedly serious drama, turned a real, decent person into an idiotic villain, and completely re-wrote history in the process” and “Hey, wait, The Imitition Game, the porn parody based on the hit film, is using sex toys that didn’t exist in the ’40s! The immersion is ruined!”
You can criticize a movie based on how it presents itself to you, but if you start applying a different set of rules so you can run up the score in a game that only you’re playing, you’ve become a pedantic jerk who loves to ruin things that other people enjoy.
“Am I Being A Jerk?”
This is a question you should ask yourself in all contexts, but it’s easier to be a jerk when discussing pop culture than at a funeral, because the stakes are low.
Just let people enjoy the things they like, you gigantic douchebags. Life can be tough, and we all need distractions from it sometimes. If people are talking about something they love, don’t wade in with a “Well, actually …” no matter how tempting it is. Just don’t try to ruin things for other people.
So does this mean that we can’t ever criticize anything? No! I’m going to keep calling The Big Bang Theory the pop culture rectal prolapse that it is, and if I had my way Chuck Lorre would be banished to the wilderness. But there’s a difference between discussing the merits of pop culture with other nerds who love to talk about it, and making fun of someone for needing something mindless to unwind with or to park their kids in front of. You can think something is objectively terrible while still acknowledging that it fills a need for someone.
Pop culture, whether we’re willing to admit it or not, shapes so much of how we look at the world. You’ve probably never been to court, but how much do you think you know about the legal system based on movies and TV shows, and then how often have you used that “knowledge” to leap to conclusions about a real life trial? How much history have you learned from in-depth autobiographies and academic lectures, and how much have you picked up from sketchy biopics? How many myths about guns and war and psychology and crime and hacking have been driven into your head through sheer repetition? How many people do you know who have a book or movie that changed their lives? And how many of those people are better for it, even if you thought the book or movie was stupid?
We can and should demand more of our pop culture. Good works of art should challenge the way we look at the world and at our ourselves, or at least keep us entertained while we’re eating dinner in lieu of having to talk to our loved ones. But you can either be a snobby, annoying elitist about it, or you can make smart observations and criticisms while still acknowledging that, unfortunately, The Big Bang Theory has a place in society. Try to be the smart one in the conversation.