Permission to Be Sad

August 17, 2014

Last night, Cate and I watched Dead Poets’ Society. I don’t think I have to explain why. Unless you’ve been in a cave this week, you know that Robin Williams killed himself. It’s a good movie and one we hadn’t watched in a long time. Still, we’ve both seen it enough that there’s no reason we should be left sobbing at the end. But we were sobbing. Both of us. The reason for that is probably obvious enough, too.

People — and I’ll include myself here — often feel silly grieving a famous person. We don’t know them. We just know the movies they were in or the songs they sung. That’s what we say. No reason to cry. But many of us also talk about the value of art about how important it is about how it moves us, sometimes to tears. I think most artists would have it be so. Would have the work talked about more than the person.

But I don’t think they are entirely separate. No matter what we may want to believe. I think making art is a deeply personal endeavor. No, you do not share all of yourself or even most of yourself when you make art. But you do share part of yourself. Often, I suspect it is the most important part. Who among us doesn’t have some artist who appears in more memories than most of our relatives? I don’t care to take a long view of Robin Williams’ career or to talk about the relative merits of some of his movies. All I care about is that someone who made art that was very important to me and that moved me many times throughout my life is gone. No, I never met him, but even without all the articles and interviews, I suspect I’d still know something about him. That’s the way art is. If it isn’t true, it’s a lie. Many of the things he did were true. And now the man who expressed those truths is gone and I am sad.

What Is Popular Culture?

October 11, 2013

I got into an argument on the internets recently about the quality of a pop group. The pop group is irrelevant, but it came with some comments about the need to stay current with popular culture, and it got me wondering about how we define popular culture.

It seems to me, and this is an open invitation for people to contradict/inform me, that we define popular culture as those things which teenagers and college students really dig. So, for instance, when I was a kid, pop culture was Titanic and The Dave Matthews Band and Spiderman movies and everything else you can think of that made a shitload of money from teenagers around then. We can have debates about whether or not this stuff is good, but that’s not really my point.

My point, more or less, can be thought of this way: Right now, Elton John has an album in the top-10. So does Metallica. So does Cher. When I was in the teenage/college years, Mark Knopfler (of Dire Straits) had several Albums that can only be described as world wide hits (even if they weren’t high charting in the US). Eric Clapton had 4 top-10 albums during this time. Hell, Knopfler still charts in the top-ten in most of Europe.

But look, with the exception of maybe Metallica, none of my students are listening to any of that stuff. Almost no one I knew in college was at all conscious of it. It wasn’t a part of popular culture, but it was really popular. Why? Because of old people (here “old” means over 25). This strikes me as incredibly stupid because, frankly, teenagers and college kids don’t know much of anything. That’s why they’re still in school. I mean, I remember all the great music I discovered in college and half of it was from before I was born. I didn’t know who Dire Straits was, and then I was obsessed (I tend to obsess).  The point is that I didn’t yet know how much I didn’t know.

There are three reasons we pay so much attention to pop culture, one is that it is “new.” Another is that teenagers are still forming loyalties, so advertisers are all over that stuff, thus it has a larger media presence. The third is that it theoretically gives us a glimpse into the collective psyche.

The second of those reasons is pretty easy to discount. Regarding the first, I have found, frankly, that one of the best things about getting older is the realization that there’s lots of new stuff and that most of it is really old. As a musician (can’t remember the name) said recently on Sound Opinions, “the only thing new is you finding out about it.” I don’t really feel the need to go after everything that is extremely popular right now because, well, I’m much more interested in stuff I think is good. Sometimes, what I think is good is that same as what pop culture thinks is good (this happened with Lupe Fiasco a few years ago). Sometimes, pop culture has no clue, even with a relatively young act (Teddy Thompson and Tedeschi Trucks Band spring to mind). And as for the last reason, if you have even a very rudimentary sense of pop culture, you know as much about the collective psyche as anyone.

So, yeah, pop culture. Whatever. Lots of stuff has been pop culture at one point or another, but there’s a reason we don’t still listen to Wham! just like there’s a reason we still read Jane Austen.

In baseball, there is a concept in advanced statistics known as VORP or Value Over Replacement Player. It is used to describe how good a player is relative to another player who could be had, more or less, for free. How this is measured isn’t as important as the concept.

You see, for a very long time, the numbers in baseball have gotten less gaudy. Oh sure, someone will have a ridiculous season every now and then, but in general, the best players have a much lower VORP now than they did in the 60s or the 30s or the 20s. There’s a pretty basic reason behind this – the bottom level players are much better now than they were 80 or 100 years ago. The population sending players to the majors is much larger than it was then.

That doesn’t mean great players from the past weren’t great. It just means they look better than they were because the competition wasn’t as stiff. Babe Ruth would probably still be a wonderful player if he played today, but he might not be BABE RUTH, if you get my point.

This has been a lengthy introduction about baseball, but this isn’t really about baseball. Instead, I wanted to introduce the concept to you. Now, I want to you participate in a mental exercise I am borrowing from Virginia Woolf.

Imagine Shakespeare’s siblings. He had seven, but three died very young. Imagine they had lived. Now imagine he had more. Hundreds even. And imagine that many of them were just as talented as he was. They, too, were slaving away, writing great plays and poems. But their brother published first and became famous and so maybe they publish a little thing here or there, but in general, the public isn’t interested because they already have one Shakespeare and don’t need another.

Obviously, the numbers vary over the course of his lifetime, but a good estimate for the population of England when Shakespeare was alive is 4 million people. The literacy rate for men was about 30% (I can’t find the exact rate for women, but it was significantly lower). So, of the two million men kicking around England with Shakespeare, there were 600,000 who could at least write their names. If you like, we can guess at a 20% literacy rate for women and call it an even million literate people. Shakespeare was one in a million! Neat! And that seems right, doesn’t it?

There are more than 60 million people in the modern UK.

There are more than 300 million people in the modern US.

There are more than 30 million people in Canada.

There are more than 20 million people in Australia

Those are the four largest nations in the world where English is the primary language. 410 million people. If Shakespeare was one in a million, there should be about 410 of him running around right now.

Add to that this piece of information: Last year, there were over one million books published. That’s more books than there were people to write them in Shakespearean England.

There is a quote from Neil deGrasse Tyson’s memoir, The Sky Is Not theLimit that he takes from an 5000-year-old Assyrian tablet. It says:

“The earth is degenerating these days. Bribery and corruption abound. Children no longer mind their parents… and it is evident that the end of the world is approaching fast.”

The implication, obviously, is that people have always been romanticizing the past. Things today are never as good as they once were. Shakespeare. Dickens. Wharton. Austen. Steinbeck. Hemingway. These are the Great Writers and we will never see others like them.

This is almost certainly wrong. It’s wrong for the same reasons it’s wrong to assume that Babe Ruth was better than any of today’s players. Sheer numbers argue that there must be many more great writers today than there were then. The difference, mostly, is that the 50th best writer now is much closer to the best writer than the 50th best writer was two hundred years ago. That is, artists today suffer by comparison, just as baseball players do.

I don’t think that’s all of it, though. Humanity also tends to give extra credit to originators. Roger Ebert recently had a post about his list of the best films ever. They are almost all old, but many of them are also innovative. Innovation requires two things. Creativity, obviously, but also opportunity. You can’t discover something that’s already been found. Even if you figure something out on your own, it doesn’t count if someone else has done it.

Of course, discovery and innovation become increasingly difficult as time passes and as population increases. This is why there is an entire literary movement (post-modernism) built around the discovery that you can tell a story without thinking about the reader. There simply aren’t that many places left to go.

All of this means that today’s artists have a very low Value Over Replacement Artist (VORA). I recently started Lauren Groff’s new book. I didn’t care for it. I found the language overwrought and pretentious. I put it down. I had really been looking forward to the new book because I had really enjoyed her first two, but I didn’t think twice about moving on to something else. Why? There are wonderful books in uncountable numbers that I haven’t read. Why waste time on one I’m not enjoying when I can simply move on? This kind of thinking makes it difficult to anoint new “greats.” We have so many choices that we pick nits instead of trying to recognize someone as a great artist who is, at times, less great.

But there are bigger consequences because we do, eventually, choose those who represent our generation. Time is a wonderful filter. The larger consequences come because a society only needs so many books, so many musicians, so many athletes, and so many artists.

I want to return to one of the numbers I mentioned earlier. There were over a million books published last year. Do you really believe there aren’t a lifetime of classics there? Cate is the most avid reader I know. She routinely blows past a hundred books a year, but over the course of her life how many books can she read? Six thousand? Seven? Maybe eight? That’s less than one percent of all the books published in one year.

Humans, many of us at least, are inherently creative people. We interact with the world through creative expression. Often, this is its own reward, but it’s hard to create as much as you’d like when you have to worry about other things like paying the bills. And the bigger your society is, the more truly wonderful artists go through life utterly ignored and unappreciated. This is a tragedy.

It’s one of the reasons I occasionally pluck a book off the shelf at random when I’m in the bookstore or the library. But how many manuscripts are out there that never get published? Harper Lee walked into a publishing house and handed them her book. You can’t do that today. Publishing almost always requires getting and agent. Getting an agent almost always requires being published. It’s a vicious cycle.

And no one is to blame. Because there is a torrent. Manuscripts, I know, come in by the hundreds, but only so many can be published. We live in a big world and the bigger the world gets, the less the artist matters because there is always another one behind the next door who is just as good as the person they are replacing.

Missing George Harrison

December 13, 2011

Two weeks ago was the tenth anniversary of George Harrison’s death. Correspondingly, I’ve been meaning to write this post for two weeks.

The summer before his death, I was in St. Louis taking classes and catching up from the semester I lost to major surgery. I had just discovered Harrison’s masterpiece All Things Must Pass and had decided to take a summer class called “The Music of the Beatles.” I was in the midst of my most serious period of musicianship. I was playing the guitar for hours every day. I was at the point of music nerd-dom where I conversed about different production styles and coveted intimate knowledge of different guitar tones. At one point, I listened to every song on All Things Must Pass to determine who was playing the lead and rhythm on each track because a friend had asked if I knew where Clapton played lead and where Harrison played lead.

I had discovered ATMP because it had just been beautifully remastered and repackaged. Harrison had a website up where he discussed remastering his entire catalog. It was exciting the way it always is when you find you haven’t missed out entirely on being a fan. He was still there. He was still producing. And then he wasn’t.

Harrison has always been my favorite Beatle. I like his songs the best. I like his willingness to experiment. He is one of very few artists who I find can sing about religion and spirituality in a way that is not judgmental or otherwise off-putting. His songs are simple and honest, but generally done with care and careful ear toward sound.

Most of all, Harrison was someone I related to. He was the hermit I have always felt like. He was also the first artist I ever cared about to die when I was paying attention. Others I came to too late or they held on longer or they are still holding on. Harrison died when he was younger than my father is now. He was an icon of my parents’ youth and my youth. He had a profound impact on me in the way all great musicians can impact you when you are young. His death was a kind of double blow. Part of my youth was gone and my parents were mortal. If Harrison could die of something mundane like throat cancer, so could they. So could anyone. Of course, this is something I knew, but to that point in my life I had been lucky. The only people near me who had died had always been ill or were very, very old.

And now it’s ten years later. I still tear up when I watch the closing number of the Concert for George Clapton put together. I am still sad to have lost someone who brought so much beauty and joy to the world. I am also glad that I found him before he was gone.

Money Is Not Inspirational

August 19, 2011

Recently, the space shuttle program came to an end. You may have heard. Astrophysicist (and nerd-celebrity) Neil DeGrasse Tyson got pretty worked up about it. You can find a video of him being worked up here. In it, he talks about how the lack of ambition where space exploration is concerned hurts the sciences in education. He talks about how many kids wanted to be astronauts once upon a time and how this got them involved and engaged in science. I can remember this. When I was in elementary school, I desperately wanted to be an astronaut. His ramble on the subject got me thinking about how we try to inspire kids today.

All you ever hear about, be you educator or student, is how if you go to college you will make X dollars a year more than if you don’t. That’s it. Money is supposed to serve as the whole motivation for getting an education. But when I was a kid, no one ever talked about how much money astronauts made. I can’t remember ever thinking about how much any of the fantasy jobs I wanted paid. I didn’t care about the money. I just thought they would be neat things to do.

Of course, much of this is the naïveté of childhood. We were pretty poor when I was little, but money still never entered into the equation whenever someone asked me what I wanted to do. Later, in middle school and high school, I started to hear the money-first rhetoric and suddenly I wanted to be some indistinct thing called a “businessman” (I distinctly remember putting this on some career survey they had us do). Of course, I never really wanted to be that. It was simply driven home to me that money was what mattered and money, obviously, was in business. Whatever that was.

But why do we do this? I am a high school teacher and I am happy in my job. I assure you it has absolutely nothing to do with my paycheck. I have a friend who is now a lawyer. When he was in law school, he told me that I should go to law school so I could be a lawyer and make ridiculous money. My response was that I did not want to be a lawyer. I did not think I’d be happy working the absurd hours a lawyer has to work to make ridiculous money while spending all my time doing something that didn’t seem particularly enjoyable.

But I like the job I have now. Yes, the summers off are nice, but I like getting to work with kids on writing and I like teaching good books and I like that at least a few kids have made it clear that I’ve made a positive impact on their lives. But no one ever talked to me about this kind of thing when I was in school, and I think that’s a shame.

Fortunately, I was self-aware enough to know that money wasn’t the most important thing to me, but it was a close call. I wonder why we can’t talk to kids about how money might not make them happy if that’s all they go after. In fact, it probably won’t (ask my friend who now has the lower-stress and lower-paying lawyer job by choice). There is something to be said for contributing to society or pursuing your low-paying dreams in the arts or whatever else it is that really grabs you.

You hear a lot of stuff about how growing up has a lot to do with letting go of your dreams (something I disagree with, but that’s neither here nor there), but I think we’re almost reaching the point where kids don’t get to dream at all. We’ve become such a materialistic, Tea-party driven society that the only thing we really praise is the pursuit of wealth. As a result, I think we, as a society, are losing a wonderful kind of purity.

Think about when you were a kid and how your dreams gripped you. At different times, I wanted to be an astronaut, a baseball player, a scientist, and eventually a writer/English professor. Most of those things have a lot to do with curiosity. They are about pursuing knowledge for the sake of knowledge. This was what inspired me. It wasn’t money.

I grew up at the end of a time in America when everything seemed possible. Who knew where we might go in space? Who knew what we might accomplish as a people? There was real value in helping. In working for societal gain instead of personal gain. There was satisfaction to be found in cooperation and creativity and curiosity and sacrifice. As a result, our society grew and innovated and prospered. Perhaps I am being nostalgic for my childhood, but it seems to me we were happier and better for it. If I get the chance, I will try to mention this to my students.

As everyone in the world is aware, the last Harry Potter movie came out a week ago. I came to Harry Potter late. I was a senior in high school when the first book came out and for a very long time was not interested in “kids’ books.” Cate is just the right age and followed Harry through her youth. It took her a while, but eventually, she convinced me to give the books a shot. I don’t think that the early books in the series even approach great writing, but it is a hell of a story (good storytelling should be considered at least as vital as perfect sentences. Sadly, it often isn’t) and the last several books are quite strong on all fronts.

Recently, I had a conversation with a friend who is a bit of a hipster and highly aggravated about all the Harry Potter stuff. His initial argument was that these were silly kids’ books and he didn’t understand why an adult would bother with them. There are, I think, lots of reasons why this is a problematic idea, but mostly I will say I have come to believe one of the best ways to get a sense of what a society (or part of a society) thinks of the world and wants for its children is to read its best children’s literature (and Harry Potter is excellent children’s literature. It’s part of the canon now, whether you like it or not).

In any case, he abandoned that argument fairly quickly and admitted that: 1. He is skeptical of anything that gets a lot of hype and 2. He doesn’t like fantasy. His second point is what it is. I think it’s dangerous to ever totally dismiss an entire genre as not worth the attention of anyone serious, but I’m not going to dwell on it. What I am going to dwell on is the first point which, I think, goes to the root of the problem with the hipster aesthetic.

Hipsters do not make quality judgments. They make quantity judgments. If too many people like something, they can’t. Period. How ridiculous. My friend’s refusal to have anything to do with the Harry Potter series is mostly grounded in his distaste for things that are popular. It is a classic argument from ignorance. He has no idea what Harry Potter is like. He has gone out of his way to have no knowledge of that world, yet he still feels qualified to pass judgment because it is too popular.

I am pretentious as hell. Everyone who knows me will tell you this. I am also wary of things that are very popular, but I try, at least, to have some knowledge of the source before I condemn it. Have I read a Twilight book? God no. But I have read enough passages to know that Ms. Meyer wouldn’t know good writing if it bit her in the ass.

My generation is the hipster generation, and it bugs the hell out of me. The incorrect use of irony, the posing, the pretending not to care. Most people abandon that when they grow up, but here we are, carrying it into our thirties. I think it’s a bit pathetic that so many grown ups have to think about their reputations before deciding if they like something.

One thing I firmly believe, and have told my students once or twice, is that nearly all truly accomplished people are nerds. It can be Steve Jobs or your favorite musician. In order to get really good at something – the kind of good that makes people sit up and take notice – you have to have a nerd level obsession. You have to get up early every day to shoot free throws or stay home on the weekends to play the guitar. No matter how much natural talent you have, it takes an enormous amount of work to be truly special. It also takes an enormous amount of unselfconscious love. Hipster culture is the antithesis of that.

On Tuesday, Cate and I went to see the last Harry Potter movie. I will tell you now that I don’t love Harry Potter like she does. For me, it was The Lord of the Rings (yes, I could read Elvish once). Still, when I was a certain age, I wanted nothing more than for there to be real magic in the world, and I will always be sad when the story of a world as magical and beautiful and flawed and interesting as the one J.K. Rowling created comes to an end, and it does not matter to me how many other people are sad.

Apple recently unveiled it’s new cloud service. Google and Amazon did the same thing a while ago. It’s all pointing to a world where all media is stored in the aether and pulled down for us to use whenever we feel a need for it. I do not like this, not at all.

I will admit that the idea of all my music being accessible to me at all times is pretty appealing. Additionally, I have certainly been tempted by readers and the wealth of free classics available. I may, in fact, make use of some of these services, but I can’t imagine ever fully trusting them. There are two reasons for this.

1. If I can’t hold it, is it really mine? Most of the cloud services don’t require you to actually have things on a hard drive. Further, they often control what you can do with the file. Amazon has removed titles from Kindles before.  You can loan a book that you buy for your Kindle one time. Once. If you ask me, that means it isn’t really mine. Also, what happens if Amazon or Apple or Google goes out of business? Sure, they all look invincible now, but history is littered with invincible companies that quickly fell by the wayside. If a book or album is really valuable to me, I want a physical copy of it that cannot be taken away by some amorphous corporate entity.

2. The devaluing of art. There is something about digitization that makes people feel that art is disposable. Books, music, film, whatever. It doesn’t matter if we lose it or don’t ever give anything for it because it’s just a file somewhere. But you know, people put a lot of their lives into these things. Writing books is hard. Making music is hard. If we are moving toward a point where, as a culture, we start to view these things as having no real value, well, I’ll just get off right here, then.

Am I being ridiculous? That is totally possible. It may be that this is just a technological transition that I am already too much of an old fogey to understand or appreciate. It may be that we are going to find a new way to value art and artist. But I don’t see it happening and until I do, I’ll be keeping one foot out of the cloud and on the ground.

I have, recently, been reconnecting with music. Specifically, with good-sounding music. I am, on my quieter days, something of an audiophile, but parenthood and the requirements of my job had gotten me away from listening to good music on good speakers and whatnot.

Lately, I’ve been having an internal debate about the route I want to take in my music listening going forward. The debate is basically vinyl vs. CD vs. mp3 and the like. I have some thoughts about this and there will be a post coming before too long (I want to run a few more experiments first) about my conclusion. If you’re lucky, it will also feature an extensive discussion of my stereo system (cross your fingers for that one!).

There is one aspect of this debate, however, that I am more than ready to write about. That is, the experience of handling the musical medium. In other words, which feels nicer to own. The clear cut winner here is vinyl, but let me talk about the other two formats first.

Digital – Digital sucks for this. It’s certainly great for travel, but the cover art (if there is any) is an itty-bitty square on your iPod. There are no lyric books. No liner notes. No inside the cover pictures and no disk. There is nothing to hold at all and this does make it much less satisfying on the physical level.

CD – CD is okay. You do get cover art you can actually see (and lyrics and liner notes if they’re available) and you get something to hold. It can be done really well (see the original All Things Must Pass remaster that came out in 2001) and it’s easy enough to throw in neat little extras like video clips or a bonus DVD or whatever. There was an enhanced CD trend a while back that I actually kind of liked, but it’s more or less gone by the wayside as more information has become available from the cloud. Still, CDs aren’t bad, they just don’t hold up to vinyl.

Vinyl, though it lacks some of the options you have with CD (no video clips here) is just better when it comes to physicality. There’s nothing like holding a record and seeing the light glint off it. It feels so delicate and so real and so sacred. Nothing about it feels disposable in the way mp3s pretty much always and CDs often feel.

An Aside: I am, in just second, going to present you with a list of my five favorite album covers. If you are paying attention, you will notice that they all pre-date the CD. There is a reason for that. Album covers are an aspect of the music buying experience that CDs inarguably ruined.


1. Born to Run – Look at that picture. I don’t know if anything gets across the feel of rock and roll better than that. Springsteen is dressed to look all cool and we can tell from the beat up guitar that he’s been around the block a few times, but then there’s that half-hidden grin that says, “Shit, I can’t believe I’m getting away with this. I hope nobody finds me out.” Just perfect.


2. London Calling – Another great black and white image. More savage than the Springsteen, but, of course, there’s the Elvis reference in the layout smiling at us just like Springsteen.


3. Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs – This is poignancy. The painting is known beyond the music word, but on the cover of this album (an album all about a girl) is seems to say here is this music I made for you and here is a picture that makes me think of you to go with it.

4. What’s Going On – Marvin Gaye has some things he would like to say. You should pay attention. Also, in saying these things, he will be much cooler- in every way – than you will ever be. Don’t deny it. You know it’s true.


5. Eat a Peach – This gets extra credit for what you see when you open the album (something CDs can never quite pull off). What an excellent psychedelic painting.

Other Covers I Love: Music From Big Pink, Blue Train, Greetings from Asbury Park, Abbey Road

So yes, vinyl heads – whatever else I may write, part of my musical soul will always yearn for the feel of vinyl.

Painting Leaves

April 13, 2011

When we are young and just coming into our adult interests, we flail around helplessly and embarrassingly. Many are the teenagers who will openly declare to a parent or friend or teacher that so-and-so is the best writer/band/director ever only to revise that opinion themselves within a few weeks. It’s part of growing up. We read books and listen to music that we believe is good because we are inexperienced. The more we search, the more our experience grows. Taste becomes more refined and many of the loves of adolescence are discarded. But some things stay with us.

Tolkien, as much as any writer, made me a reader. As many do, I found The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings in high school. I still revisit those books from time to time. I love them and have been pleased to move into adulthood and realize that they are not just teenager-good, but actually good. However, in high school, I went much farther. I can be a bit of an obsessive at times, and I read everything Tolkien I could get my hands on. A lot of it was highly esoteric writings on Middle Earth and LOTR, but I did trip across an unrelated and decidedly accessible short story: Leaf by Niggle.

It is a simple story, obviously allegorical, about a painter whose ambitions may be bigger than his talents (we are never quite sure and neither is he), but who is primarily derailed by unfortunate circumstances. In the end, he is rewarded in a fairy tale kind of way. I loved the story. I read it then as a story about how perseverance pays off. Keep going and you will get there eventually and all that. For a while, I read it every year, especially at times when I felt rather bad about myself. As time passed, I felt my understanding of the story grow. I felt more and more that I was an artist and that I was struggling and thus, I better understood what was going on here.

For the last several days, I’ve been reading a newish Tolkien volume that consists of previously published stories, nicely illustrated. I hadn’t actually read anything in it, except for one story – Leaf by Niggle. Last night was the first time I’d read it in several years. It’s probably the longest I’ve gone without reading it since I first encountered it. I found my understanding changed again.

Niggle fritters away time for a while, but he does get to it eventually. Then there is a storm and he has to help the neighbor. Then he gets sick. That is, things come up. I was reading this story while a dog barked and crawled all over me and while Simone decided to wake up even though she hadn’t been in bed for an hour (mercifully, she went back down quickly). It took longer than it should have much like I feel my writing these days tends to take much longer than it should. I read the story and I understood the reward at the end is not necessarily a given, rather it is that bit in our minds that keeps us going. We may run out of time we might never get finished. Thinks happen. Life is capricious. But we keep the idea in our heads and we try to get as close as we can. We may only manage a few leaves when we were really trying to paint a tree, but that’s how it goes sometimes, and we have to keep at it anyway.

Popular = Good

March 10, 2011

I had this idea a few weeks ago, but I didn’t get to it. Please forgive the untimeliness of this post in our 24 second news cycle world…

Recently, the world ended when The Arcade Fire (or is the band called The Suburbs?) won a Grammy over several more popular, but less good artists. The world ended because the Grammys have long been a hackneyed awards show that caters to people who listen to top 40 radio and think popular and good are the same thing. The results are generally comical if you pay any attention to music, but I’m not going to go into that right now. Instead, I thought it might be more fun to look at what would happen if other types of media were subjected to the same “rigorous” selection process the Grammys normally utilize.

The Award: Best Picture

The Criteria: Nominees are the five highest grossing movies of the previous year. The voters will be looking for broad appeal (men and women have to be interested). Also, we want teenagers tuning in, so nothing too old and stodgy and nothing too childish.


1. Toy Story 3

2. Alice in Wonderland

3. Iron Man 2

4. The Twilight Saga: Eclipse

5. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1

Analysis: Toy Story was nominated as it was, but I don’t think it’s the winner here. It is, at least ostensibly, a children’s movie and thus isn’t cool enough to win best picture. Alice in Wonderland is for those weird emo kids or something, so it can’t win. Iron Man 2 has no appeal to the ladies and Twilight has nothing for the boys, so congratulations Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, you are the best picture of 2010.


1. Avatar

2. Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen

3. Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince

4. The Twilight Saga: New Moon

5. Up

Analysis: This is pretty similar to 2010. A kid’s movie (nope). Something for the boys and the ladies (nope and nope again) and a Harry Potter movie, but this time, Harry has some competition. He is trumped by the SUPER AWESOME (pay no attention to the terrible writing/story) Avatar which, because its special effects are out of this world, is clearly the best picture of 2009.

Other Years in Brief: 2008: 1. The Dark Knight, 2. Iron Man, 3. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, 4. Hancock, 5. Wall-E. The Winner: It’s all about the nocturnal flying rodent. Some people misguidedly though this should have won the real award.

2007: 1. Spider-Man 3, 2. Shrek the Third, 3. Transformers, 4. Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, 5. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. The Winner: Have to go with Harry again. His broad appeal is enough to overcome the mess that was Spider-Man 3.

2006: 1. Pirates of the Carribbean: Dead Man’s Chest, 2. Night at the Museum, 3. Cars, 4. X-Men: The Last Stand, 5. The Da Vinci Code. The Winner: This is a very tight, very respectable field. Lots of broad appeal here and the vote is going to be pretty split. When all else fails, go with what’s most popular. Congratulations buccaneers.

The Award: The Pulitzer Prize for Fiction

The Criteria: The five best selling books of the year are up for the award. Voters care less about broad appeal (all real men know it’s uncool to read) than about making sure the book isn’t too hoity-toity.Also, no pictures or little kid’s stuff. This is a serious literary award, after all.

2010 (I had trouble finding a definitive best seller list, this is the best I could come up with)

1. The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest by Stieg Larsson

2. Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins

3. Dead in the Family by Charlene Harris

4. The Short Second Life of Bree Tanner by Stephanie Meyer

5. The Help by Cathryn Stockett

Analysis: This one is easy. It’s all about Larsson. He’s all dark and creepy or something. And people get to think they’re reading high literature without actually be challenged.


Okay, okay. Stop, I can’t go on. Comprehensive best seller lists are hard to find and I just saw one claiming Stephanie Meyer had the top 4 spots in 2009 and 2008. Before that, it’s all Harry Potter. I am so glad everything isn’t run like the Grammys.