How Bad Can It Be?: Fightstarters

The point of a column like this is not to be a consumer guide, or to give “thumbs up”/”thumbs down” to the latest media product (which is just as well since Ebert owns the whole thumbs-up thing and could sue the pants off me for copping his gimmick). I’m trying to engage some of the ideas underpinning popular culture — notions of authenticity, influence, presentation, expectation — and kick them around to see how they fall. I’m trying, in short, to start a conversation.

And sometimes I’m trying to start an argument. It falls to the critic sometimes to assume a contrarian stance, either by default or by design. The aim is not simply to be disagreeable, not to reflexively oppose received wisdom, but to take nothing for granted. By taking an opinion that “everybody knows” is wrong, you put your interlocutor in the position of defending the view that “everybody knows” is right, and examining why it’s right. And that’s how you get at deeper truths.

And so, in the spirit of the pursuit of knowledge (and also in the pursuit of pissing people off, why isn’t particularly helpful but which can be a whole lotta fun), here are my fightstarters — a selection of my contrarian, heretical, or just plan Wrong ideas about pop culture. You may disagree: in fact, that’s kind of the point.

Sonic Youth: most overrated band ever. I don’t want to fall into the reactionary stance that “That’s not music, it’s just noise,” but, well, y’know. SY are primarily interesting in theory, rather than practice, and even then not really. They’re nowhere near as smart as they’d like to believe (has Thurston Moore ever made a public statement that wasn’t cringe-worthy?), the lyrics are lazy and obvious, and the noise is treated as an end in itself. Which would be okay, if were interesting noise; but it comes off kind of half-assed, like they’re aiming for the hypnotic repetitiousness of krautrock but can’t quite get their time together, or for the shifting soundscapes of free jazz but they haven’t got the steady flow of ideas that keeps it from slipping into tedium and saminess. So it falls between two stools. Sonic Youth are like the Ramones in that they’ve been doing this for what, almost thirty years now? without getting any noticeably better. That’s not an argument for quality.

Seinfeld hasn’t aged well. I remember watching it faithfully all through the ’90s and laughing uproariously. But now when I catch a rerun, nothing. Not even a smile. Same thing with The X-Files — it’s hard to remember what all the fuss was about. Very much of its time, I think.

It’s ridiculous for Major League Baseball to play by two sets of rules. Indeed, were I Commissioner of Baseball (assuming that position were ever again to have any real independent authority, which is a whole ‘nother topic) I would move to standardize the game. And even though my beloved Red Sox are an AL team, I would standardize to National League rules; big home runs from the Designated Hitter may put asses in seats, but NL rules better capture the essence of the sport, I think, with the emphasis on being an all-around athlete.

Eddie Van Halen is in no way a great guitarist, let alone the Greatest Ever. Oh, he’s got chops and flash, and he is without a doubt the best guitarist for Van Halen — but that’s part of the problem. His comfort zone is ridiculously small, and outside it — on a slow blues, say, or a ballad — he’s pretty useless. His entire compositional genius has gone towards, essentially, creating a cozy straitjacket for himself. He’s essentially a genre unto himself, and only functional within that genre. Does that make him the best of the best? No. It makes him the World’s Strongest Cripple. At this point, he’s not even the best Eddie Van Halen-style guitarist out there; there are others who can cop his tics and apply them with more range and imagination than he ever did.

NASCAR is not a sport. It doesn’t exist on an amateur level, so there’s nothing aspirational about it, nothing of sportsmanship or athleticism or play. The primary thrill of car racing is its transgressive nature: the whole enterprise is about getting away with actions that, outside the confines of the racecourse, would get you arrested. I’ll accept NASCAR as a sport the day that some promising young driver goes to college on a stock-car racing scholarship.

Although it is a cultural moment that comes in for much mockery, the 1980s were, in fact, an excellent decade for music. Don’t look at the clothes, don’t watch the videos — just listen. So much craft, so many hooks. And Simple Minds’ Sparkle in the Rain stands up head-to-head against just about any other album you’d care to name.

The “sport” of boxing has no place in a civilized society. Related: the most important difference between horse racing and dogfighting is that race horses are bred and kept by rich white people.

M*A*S*H was probably the best American sitcom ever.

The myth of the holy innocent, of the purity of the primitive, is so much sanctimonious bullshit, invoked to justify the continued exploitation and mockery of the mentally ill and the socially maladapted.

I would rather watch one of Wim Wenders’s batshit-crazy artistic failures (i.e. everything after Wings of Desire) than an artistic success by nearly anyone else. Exception: his music-related documentaries (Buena Vista Social Club, his segment of Martin Scorsese’s series on the blues), which come off as tone-deaf, patronizing, and borderline racist.

Whatever you may think about Sting’s solo career, the Police were probably the best band of the last 30 years

The hold that football has on the American public is unconscionably disproportionate. Given the length of the season and the overall quality of play, the relative popularity of football vs. baseball leaves me baffled and kind of sad. Baseball players work harder, for longer, and more often. All athletes are ridiculously overpaid, of course, but baseball players come closest to earning that salary. Come on, football; one day a week, for like twelve weeks, and that’s it? Where’s the work ethic?

In terms of melody, mood, sophistication, and daring, the “dance” music of the last half decade or so beats the pants off the “rock” music of the same era; there’s more sheer tunefulness going on in any random track by Lindstrøm than in an entire album by, say, Okkervill River or the Fiery Furnaces.

The most underrated virtue in music, among fans and critics alike, is professionalism. I was watching a documentary on the legacy of the Monterey Pop Festival, and the point was made over and over how all the white rock kids were so blown away by Otis Redding. “We’d never seen anything like this,” was the refrain. To which I thought: Well, duh. Otis was simply doing his job. He was an entertainer: he entertained. You blow an audience away by showing up and putting in an effort to connect. And after the narcoleptic self-indulgence of the San Francisco bands, whirling about the stage in their own private ecstasies in which the audience was grudgingly allowed to participate, this was some kind of blinding revelation. Fuck inspiration; that stuff is cheap. Doing The Work, man — that’s where it’s at.

The continuing influence of Simon & Garfunkel is much more pervasive than anyone these days cares to admit.

Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker comes perilously close to fulfilling every braindead reactionary stereotype about insufferable European art movies. I mean, I know it’s the work of a certified genius — but I think that if I hadn’t known that going in, I would’ve hated it. And I generally like long, slow movies. I found Andrei Rublev utterly absorbing, and Solaris had a grim fascination, but Stalker — man. By the end, I could hear Johnny Rotten’s voice in my head: “Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?”

As I have theorized elsewhere, the template for the electropop duo traces back not to Suicide, as is commonly claimed, but to Captain & Tennille.

Tim Burton is a terrible filmmaker and a horrible person — an idea-free hack, and in fact hostile to great ideas. His recent string of remakes and “reimaginings” represent an attempt to retroactively obliterate the great art of the past by dragging it down to his level. His films are proof that he hates humanity and wishes to destroy us, and they will be used as evidence when he is, inevitably, put on trial in The Hague.

Man, it felt good to let that all out. Now, DUKES!




  • James B

    So much for a fight, I actually think that I agree with you more than anything but these are all of my responses in the order that they were asked.
    1) Sonic Youth – I totally disagree, I can think of several other bands that simply never lived up to their (imagined) promise. Granted some of the songs that SY make are near impossible to listen to, but there is a real unique pop sound that they have created and maintained. Maybe not your cup of tea, but certainly not OVERrated.
    2)Yeah I don't much care for Seinfeld anymore either, I think the fact that Kramer came out as racist and not like the janitor in UHF is what killed it for me.
    3)MLB sucks
    4)Agreed
    5)There are minor league racing groups that groom you for NASCAR, but until it is a legitmate NCAA approved sport I can see your point.
    6)Agreed
    7)While I love the violence and spectacle that is boxing; it's hard for me to disagree with you
    8)Agreed
    9)Agreed
    10)Well except for Million Dollar Hotel…and he directed Willie Nelson's Teatro which was gorgeous and badass
    11)agreed
    12)See my response to Q3 (oh yeah and Juice!)
    13)agreed
    14)agreed
    15)I don't know about that, I think that they influenced a lot of folks that are now the influences for modern music. But it's not like it's a conspiracy to hide that they were good song writers.
    16)Never seen or heard of it
    17)um sure
    18)Finally I do not care for the films that he has made more recently, but Beetlejuice, PeeWee's big Adventure, and Batman are all awesome well crafted movies. He may now hate humanity, but in the late 80's he was electric.

  • http://www.popdose.com DwDunphy

    You're actively looking for a fight? Eh, whatever floats your boat.

    I respect Sonic Youth but sometimes find it extremely hard to listen to them. M*A*S*H died for me when Frank left. From there on, it was a endless stream of explosions suddenly stopping with one asking, “Do you hear that?” the other responding, “I don't hear anything”, then the first saying “That's what I mean!” Simon and Garfunkel deserve a lot more credit than they get, but trapped inside the folk-music box it gets hard to breathe. Otis? Otis rocks.

    Eddie Van Halen needs his band more than his band needs him. I love what he does with a guitar, but David Gilmour does so much more with so much less. Tim Burton – guess I have to agree. I love his early stuff (re: pre Helena) but have been worn out by the recent (re: post Helena.) Maybe Lisa Marie was his true muse? Seinfeld? When I finally realized how disgusting the characters were as plain ol' human beings, yeah, I lost the love. Never mind the talk that it's only a sitcom – their sitcom souls suck.

  • http://sansdirection.blogspot.com/ Sans Direction

    Sonic Youth: most overrated band ever I admit I feel off sometime after Goo, but I think there's still something to 'em, and as long as there's bands where there's nothing to 'em but the reputation, there's more overrated bands.

    Seinfeld hasn’t aged well. I hated watching it when it was still on.

    Eddie Van Halen is in no way a great guitarist, let alone the Greatest Ever. I think there's something to that, although I'm not sure I'd go as far as you do. I would suggest that it's at least possible that Van Halen got as big as he did in part because of his solo on “Beat It”, hanging his popularity on Michael Jackson a little…

    (And he singlehandedly justified the synth in hard rock.)

    And, about he needing his band more than they need him, yes and no. Half his 5150 band is in Chickenfoot. My thought was that you have DLR, possibly the biggest dick in entertainment circa 1983, but he can fill an auditorium with his persona. Van Halen has Eddie's name, but Dave's the face. He's introspective, so he has to fight himself, medicate himself insensate to overcome his nature and blow Diamond Dave off the stage, or off the track. He's never had to do that with Hagar (and while I hate Van Hagar, I always loved his pre !55 solo stuff) and even less with ex-Extreme. Thus even Fair Warning is more appreciated by me than OU812

    And while there may be faster and more tappy guys out there, very few can get their speed to sound as musical as Eddie Van Halen.

    Although it is a cultural moment that comes in for much mockery, the 1980s were, in fact, an excellent decade for music. I have to agree. Well, maybe not about the Simple Minds album….

    M*A*S*H was probably the best American sitcom ever. WKRP, man! And Frank was the point where they jumped the shark, because Charles was never the pure negation of Hawkeye that Frank was.

    The myth of the holy innocent, of the purity of the primitive, is so much sanctimonious bullshit, invoked to justify the continued exploitation and mockery of the mentally ill and the socially maladapted. I find it harder and harder to swallow the early Pink Floyd stuff, and yes, there's a huge amount of real creepiness to it. But let's face it. Jonathan Richman has some great songs. Brian Wilson has some great compositions, including “Good Vibrations”. I feel much the same about idealizing drug use, but can you seriously argue that SRV's post-sobriety work held a candle to Texas Flood and Couldn't Stand the Weather?

    I would rather watch one of Wim Wenders’s batshit-crazy artistic failures (i.e. everything after Wings of Desire) than an artistic success by nearly anyone else. Exception: his music-related documentaries (Buena Vista Social Club, his segment of Martin Scorsese’s series on the blues), which come off as tone-deaf, patronizing, and borderline racist. Haven't seen Buena Vista, but the Blues bit? I could not stand that and haven't seen more than half.

    Whatever you may think about Sting’s solo career, the Police were probably the best band of the last 30 years And they imploded just when they started getting good.

    In terms of melody, mood, sophistication, and daring, the “dance” music of the last half decade or so beats the pants off the “rock” music of the same era; there’s more sheer tunefulness going on in any random track by Lindstrøm than in an entire album by, say, Okkervill River or the Fiery Furnaces. Because everyone wants to get in on that SY thing or the Holy Innocent schtick rather than generate good songs.

    The most underrated virtue in music, among fans and critics alike, is professionalism. Here goes to the Holy Innocent thing again. I'm thinking of George “No Show” Jones in particular. I'm also thinking of a hip-hop show I saw in 1989. Slick Rick, De La Soul, Too $hort and LL Cool J, and I have to say I went for De La, but at the end of the night, he had put on a solid show while nobody else had.

    The continuing influence of Simon & Garfunkel is much more pervasive than anyone these days cares to admit. Notice that there's no Essential Art Garfunkel. Paul Simon is another one who does the work. Nobody ever got caught up in the tabloid story of Paul's life. I think his influence is a great thing.

    As I have theorized elsewhere, the template for the electropop duo traces back not to Suicide, as is commonly claimed, but to Captain & Tennille. That makes me laugh and is probably true.

  • David_E

    “Do you hear that?”

    “I don't hear anything.”

    “That's what I mean!”

    My usual reaction to Sonic Youth.

  • slappyfrog

    RE: Baseball and the designated hitter…if being an all-around athlete is the criteria, doesn't your argument fall apart because most pitchers absolutely suck at hitting?

  • Eric S.

    Sonic Youth – Never did anything for me

    Seinfeld – To me, it was the original show about nothing. Now, that describes every reality show ever done so Seinfeld has lost its uniqueness.

    Baseball rules – This is your own answer to why football is more popular. Baseball has continually shot itself in the foot with rules, player strikes, ignoring the drugs, etc. On the other hand, football, especially the NFL, has done a much better job marketing itself. Go to NFL.com and look at the way they have embraced fantasy football. Know what your audience wants and give it to them.

    Van Halen, NASCAR, 80's music – Agree, agree, agree

    Boxing – Have you seen ultimate fighting? It makes boxing look civilized.

    MASH – Overall, probably the best, but as noted by others, the later years don't measure up to the early seasons

    The Police – All great albums, went out on top, came back and toured and still sounded excellent. I often wonder how much more terrific music they would have put out had they gotten past the personal differences.

    Music in the past half decade – Little to none of it will be remembered into the next decade

    Tim Burton – I give him credit for the first Batman, but then again the only other thing of his I liked was Beetlejuice so maybe it's Michael Keaton that should get the credit.

  • http://elibolin.net ShalimarBojangles

    Is Jonathan Richman considered mentally ill…?

  • http://marcmaronrules.blogspot.com/ Michael

    2 words..

    Allan Holdsworth !

    **
    Sorry,Eddie..

  • http://jackfear.blogspot.com Jack Feerick

    The original Modern Lovers certainly thought so, when he unilaterally decided that the band was going all-acoustic because – I swear I'm not making this up – he was afraid they might damage the hearing of babies and small children. He wanted David Robinson to abandon his drumkit in favor of smacking a rolled-up newspaper with his palm. Jonathan's a sweet guy, by all accounts, but he's pretty out there.

  • JE

    I have no love for NASCAR, and really couldn't tell you anything about it, but I do know someone who drives in what seems to be basically an amateur circuit. Of course, he's only able to do so because he wealthy father is able to shell out $100K a year for his hobby.

  • Elaine

    Can't fight with someone that you share agreement with in 15/18 statements. That's 83%. I'll add that I think Stewart Copeland really is a better musician than other people think Eddie Van Halen is. MASH, and Alda & Farrell in particular, got WAY WAAAY too preachy.

  • http://outsidethelaw.blogspot.com/ outsidecounsel

    I'd go along with most of these. I disagree about the Police– they are not that interesting on any level. They were a Brit reggae band– who cares about Brit reggae bands?

    Seinfeld hasn't aged well because it never went away. Since it is always on it is no longer novel, which is important for comedy. Television series in general don't age well– try watching Twin Peaks some time.

    The interesting thing about M*A*S*H is that Robert Altman took a slight novel and turned it into a terrific movie. The series was a return to the trivial. The greatest sitcom of all time is probably I Love Lucy.

  • Juancho

    The Police were always horribly overrated – whatever chops Summers and Copeland had were overshadowed by Sting's nasal whine and pretension. That's why their songs continue to grate. His solo career revealed the emperor with no clothes. Chicks dug them just because they were blond British guys.

    MASH – b o r i n g…

  • Steven M

    I can't really fight you on this list. Especially on Tim Burton… He is especially frustrating because his visual sense is so promising but his storytelling is so awful. He consistently falls apart late in the second act. I'd like to say that he is, like Joel Schumacher, a filmmaker that is so caught up in the visuals that he forgets the story, but then I remember that Schumacher made Falling Down. Burton doesn't compare.

  • deltaslide

    Although it's music to my ears to hear someone say what you have to say about Sonic Youth ( a true triumph of hype over talent-thanks) I have to disagree about Eddie. You forget that in his day he single-handedly re-invented rock guitar and introduced a whole new vocabulary to the game. His influence is pervasive. In addition, as a live performer he is endlessly inventive, improvising constantly and never playing the same thing twice. His rhythm playing is also VASTLY underrated and you only have to listen to hear something very unique and complex that livens up even the lamest songs in the VH catalogue. Everyone's has their personal taste but to say that he's “in no way a great guitarist” is laughable.

  • http://www.drcastrato.blogspot.com drcastrato

    I really like this posting, although you sure crammed a lot of fightstarers in one post. Fightstarters should be it's own weekly column, with maybe 2 or 3 topics.

    Sonic Youth kinda sucks, but there are even more overrated bands out there. I'm thinking The Doors, for one.

    Seinfeld is still hilarious. There's some really clever writing in there, and aside from Jerry, the acting was trendsetting (I didn't say “great.”)

    I disagree on EVH. Eddie is not the greatEST, but he's pretty awesome. Solos are one thing, but his combo of riffs and noodling is a joy.

    And I LOVE the Police, a TON, but come on. The best band of the last 30 years is clearly Rush.

  • http://jackfear.blogspot.com Jack Feerick

    Dude. UB40 were “a Brit reggae band.” The Police – something else again.

  • http://jackfear.blogspot.com Jack Feerick

    You're actively looking for a fight?

    I live only for the thrill of battle. You know. Like Conan the barbarian.

  • http://www.ooblick.com/weblog/ arensb

    Are they still around? When “Pass the Dutchie” came out, I figured they were a one-hit novelty act.

  • http://www.popdose.com DwDunphy

    Oh so you want to crosh de enemeez, see dem driffen before you and hear da lammentesshon of de wimmin.

  • http://jackfear.blogspot.com Jack Feerick

    Get out your Rush albums from the mid-80s – let's try Grace Under Pressure. Listen to “Distant Early Warning,” to pick an example. Does it… remind you of some other band? Might Rush have been… modelling their sound on some other act? Say… the Police?

    Now. Are there any Police songs where they're trying to sound like Rush? No. No, there are not. Advantage = Police.

    And the Doors were only ever highly rated by stoners. The critical establishment and the smart set always hated 'em – you know, the same people who drool all over Sonic Youth.

  • http://guildofscientifictroubadours.com/ grant

    I will kill you, for Lee Ranaldo's sake. There are a lot of Thurston headbangy songs that don't work for me, but “Mote” makes me cry. In the GOOD WAY.

    I also see Jonathan Richman as being more like Otis Redding than Syd Barrett, possibly because I saw him live a few times before hearing him on record. Also, because I am childish.

    Captain and Tennille, though, is dead on. Good interview with the Captain and his brother in a recent _TapeOp_. His brother founded the Surf Punks, which were far too much of a novelty band, but still. They have many tentacles in South California music, as well as providing a direct line of transmission between the Beach Boys (Cap toured with, was invited to become “full member” whatever that means) and Jodie Foster's Army.

  • grantimatter

    I will kill you, for Lee Ranaldo's sake. There are a lot of Thurston headbangy songs that don't work for me, but “Mote” makes me cry. In the GOOD WAY.

    I also see Jonathan Richman as being more like Otis Redding than Syd Barrett, possibly because I saw him live a few times before hearing him on record. Also, because I am childish.

    Captain and Tennille, though, is dead on. Good interview with the Captain and his brother in a recent _TapeOp_. His brother founded the Surf Punks, which were far too much of a novelty band, but still. They have many tentacles in South California music, as well as providing a direct line of transmission between the Beach Boys (Cap toured with, was invited to become “full member” whatever that means) and Jodie Foster's Army.

  • grantimatter

    I will kill you, for Lee Ranaldo's sake. There are a lot of Thurston headbangy songs that don't work for me, but “Mote” makes me cry. In the GOOD WAY.

    I also see Jonathan Richman as being more like Otis Redding than Syd Barrett, possibly because I saw him live a few times before hearing him on record. Also, because I am childish.

    Captain and Tennille, though, is dead on. Good interview with the Captain and his brother in a recent _TapeOp_. His brother founded the Surf Punks, which were far too much of a novelty band, but still. They have many tentacles in South California music, as well as providing a direct line of transmission between the Beach Boys (Cap toured with, was invited to become “full member” whatever that means) and Jodie Foster's Army.