At the beginning of this year, I started a pointless experiment. In a Google document I made a note of each book, movie, TV show, comic and video game I consumed. Inspired by Steven Soderbergh’s annual tradition of sharing the movies he watches in a given year and Nick Hornby’s longrunning “Stuff I’ve Been Reading” column, I wanted to get an idea of how my tastes have evolved, a time-benefit analysis of stuff I laboured through versus content I actually enjoyed, and probably most constructive and disturbing of all, just how much of the one life I will ever live has been thoroughly wasted.
To wit, 6 months into 2019 I had apparently taken in 43 books (plus 8 started and not finished), 202 episodes of 33 TV shows, 27 movies (7 at the cinema, one of those seen twice), 804 issues of comics from 73 series (499 in trade paperback form, 305 digitally), 24 video games, 2 concerts, 4 plays read and 1 seen live. This does not include content on YouTube, or music, which are too complicated and messy for me to easily keep track of.
Just looking at that makes me want to scarper to the mountains at the first opportunity and do one of those extreme cultural detoxes where you water the same plant for two weeks straight and find zen through the majesty of boredom. I don’t know if I’ve directly learned anything significant about my entertainment habits from this exercise so far, other than that slamming through six Kingdom Hearts titles in a few months is a good way to resent the concept of language, and that the Marvel house-style circa 2004 is a drag to look at.
Hornby states in his latest column that his ultimate goal is “to break the link between literature and grim duty” and I’ll admit to falling into this cultural obligation hole quite a bit in recent years. This was compounded by a few years submitting freelance work as a music writer for a publication’s last 2 years. I was a bit out of my depth, reeling and raw from a recent mental health breakdown that threatened my life. Though I learned a lot from writing reviews of music I had an interest in on a regular basis, it soured a significant part of my approach to media and I left it with a severely depleted faith in my abilities to write, critique and keep my perspective in check (this is entirely on me, the editors and colleagues I had were wonderful and I’m grateful to this day for the opportunity).
I noticed that in the wilds of Internet Talk About Pop Culture in this decade past, it’s rare that a piece of media gets a hearty recommendation from the algorithm lords without being saddled with unwieldy moral importance that’s unfair to the work, audience and creators and conversely not remotely unfair enough to the corporate mandate that’s invested in such passioned praise. When Beyonce released Lemonade (which I enjoy a lot) in 2016, I saw a tweet by a fairly popular film critic that said that he still didn’t enjoy her music, but that this was his own failing and he was clearly wrong. As tempting as it is to mock the obsequiousness, he surely isn’t alone in falling for that line. If I had the ability, patience and time to make a point-by-point breakdown of the entertainment content I took in since I began college, I’ll bet a substantial portion of my intake got the Beyonce effect. I know for a fact that I did some mental gymnastics over the suffocatingly average Ghostbusters reboot just to sick it to the misogynerds, and three years on I feel duped by falling for corporate-flavour student politics.
I honestly don’t think enough time has passed for me to recognise what exactly this malaise is or where it came from bar speculation, but I’ve noticed some rattlings of perspective since I took on my Masters degree and moved into adult life. I was halfway through the latest seasons of Bojack Horseman and You’re The Worst and it dawned on me that I kind of hate them, the concept of the recent Chernobyl series strikes me as exploitative and vulgar, I’d rather one hundred more average superhero movies than another biopic/celebration of 70s musicians or ripped from the headlines Oscar bait, and I almost don’t want to bring those up in polite conversation because to do so seems transgressive in an almost obscene way. That’s obviously a ridiculous thing to believe. Granted, I’m not naturally a person who delights in hot takes or contrarianism. I’m a sucker for good pop songs and blockbuster movies as much as anyone. However, as much as it makes me sound like a South Park character, I do have a deeply ingrained contempt for conformity, and for too long my attempts to run along at speed with the cultural conversation put that on the backburner and left me disproportionately annoyed when certain sites treat the latest #GoodTVShow as the universally hailed peak of artistic achievement and we are now living in a post-[X] Show era. Wait, what?
It’s almost like a sizable contingent of fandom want to turn art into sport, or to marry one’s cultural taste and aesthetic with their moral character, both concepts I can’t truck with. Whenever a critique of popular media feels the need to say that the product in question ‘matters’ or is ‘the [X] we need right now’ I cringe, not just for the boilerplate terminology but because part of the joy of art for me is specificity, its ability to pierce one person’s circulatory system while utterly failing to make an impression on others. Art’s vitality and futility are welded together in a way that I find compelling, but vitality is all that gets clicks, and that can get exhausting to sit through, if not outright pious.
I’m aware that my argument sounds eerily close to those toxic morons who think white males are being erased from their precious Star Wars and the like. I don’t think anyone’s approach to media is wrong, the absolute last thing I want to do is make people feel bad for how they enjoy art, and I certainly don’t think my views on this are ‘objective’. I think that anyone alleging an ‘objective’ critique of popular media, with dogmatic axioms and splenetic disaffection, is trying to sell you something and are better avoided. I don’t think art can be truly apolitical, cultural commentary is a great and precious tradition, and the push for diversity in entertainment is overdue and should be encouraged at every opportunity. I also don’t think it’s a contradiction to cut slack sometimes and not treat all downtime as a culture war battleground, since I think it’s a form of low-level conformist pressure to turn passion into the ‘grim duty’ Hornby laments.
More than should be necessary I’ve privately resented that my pile of ‘to read’ books were largely made up of stuff I wouldn’t normally be interested in, or been frustrated by testing the thesis that bingewatching mediocre TV somehow ameliorates the tedium. I’ve started and abandoned with a completionist fervour many lists of books, movies and tv shows I ‘need’ to have seen in order to fit some pre-packaged notion of being well-versed in the subject; the joy of taking in art, of researching and learning, of finding truth and resisting bullshit, of creativity, had been siphoned away. Entertainment became work became a grind became irritating, and I don’t blame anyone other than myself really, my own tendency to obsess, a neurotype that had been accustomed to figuring out and taking notes from the rhythms of others that went into overdrive for a period of five years and zapped out like a slam into a brick wall.
So this project, if anything, is my passive attempt to reformulate my own specificity, my willingness to experiment and try new things, and to follow my nose where my interests actually lie. Especially if it means 500 pages of exploding spaceships or dense social theory about a factor of life I find genuinely fascinating instead of suffering through another Booker Prize doorstopper about a philandering knob with metaphysical monologues on the narrative potential of an onion or some shit. Stuff that’s as interesting as a cardboard sandwich just because some self-righteous Graun twit, canon-obsessed Buzzfeed Quiz, fart-sniffing Film Twitter bro or poptimism zealot tell the world that no good informed citizen can do without. I don’t think those approaches are without their merits, but right now it’s as though the entire planet is overestimating culture’s external impact, and underestimating its internal one. I’d rather be left alone.
Anyway, what now then?
The next post in this series will go through some of the stuff I enjoyed in the first few months, because negativity is boring, as well as other stuff I may or may not have thoughts on. For example, I decided to jump back on a project I abandoned last year by going through recent Marvel history thanks to their Unlimited app (hence the horrifically large amount of digital comics I’ve read in a short span of time) and who knows, I may have something to say about Game of Thrones that hasn’t already been ground into dirt and snorted up Google’s API. I highly doubt it, but weirder things have happened.
The Google doc hasn’t included music, as that is one field that’s a bit too vast for me to catalogue without going mad. I may relegate that to a separate series, but I have not made that decision just yet. In any case, here’s a Spotify playlist with songs representing releases I’ve enjoyed from the year so far.