Jon of All Trades

Nostalgic Pointlessness

some…BODY once told me…

As someone who founded a website that featured pop culture criticism and analysis virtually every day, it pains me to write this: So much of pop culture writing is pointless.

Whether this is by accident, or whether marketers are brilliant, it seems that since I’ve turned 35 and aged out of the 18-34 demographic, I’m relating less and less to writings about pop culture (particularly in the realm of nostalgia) and the tastes of the masses in general. I have two examples that will prove illustrative.

First, a two-month-old article from The AV Club showed up on my Facebook timeline last week with this headline: “Millennials are wrong: Space Jam is bad.” My first thought was, “Wait… was there ever an argument that it was actually good?” I thought it was pretty much universally accepted that the movie was a poorly-disguised, 90-minute commercial, and, as the article notes, a “capitalist perversion of the Looney Tunes franchise it was, the filmic equivalent of tees depicting ‘hip-hop’ Bugs in backwards jeans.”

That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy it enough at the time, but, as someone who spends way too much time revisiting shitty movies from my youth, not even I’m clamoring for a sequel, live script readings, or midnight screenings of this piece of shit, which are all evidently things that exist.

Granted, most actual critics recognize this movie is objectively not good, but as young pop culture writers continue to grow up and their voices emerge more and more, I suspect we’ll see more essays come to its defense and ask for a re-evaluation from its audience.

And that’s, I suppose, my central thesis: Just because you have nostalgia for something you liked as a kid, doesn’t mean it’s actually good. This brings me to my second example.

In an article I’ve thought about off and on for the last seven months, The Ringer asked its staff to name its “All-Time Best Song of the Summer.” This list is largely butt and populated with garbage taste, but what dumbfounded me most was not one, but two separate writers named “All Star” by Smashmouth as their ultimate summer songs.

If you’re in the mood to laugh, check out some of the pertinent pull quotes from their appraisal:

Ben Lindbergh: “‘All Star’ is the rare summer anthem off an album that’s better than the song. I know this sentence makes me sound like Smash Mouth’s Sisyphean Twitter account, but Astro Lounge is legitimately strong from start to finish.”

Ahahahahahaha!!!! Legitimately strong from start to finish! Man, this album is the sonic equivalent of the ’96 Bulls! Just up and down that roster, not a weak link!

They say to assess the strength of something or someone, it can be instructive to look at its associations. So let’s take, for instance, the song “Come On, Come On,” one of the big hits off Astro Lounge. According to Wikipedia, the song was featured in a Gap commercial, and the films Big Fat Liar, Dude Where’s My Car?, Snow Day, and Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo. Classics, every last one of them!

Let’s move onto the other defense of “All Star” as the ultimate summer jam:

Julie Kliegman: “I have very few specific memories of summer camp that year. They basically all involve blasting “All Star” and belting the words with my socially awkward and constantly sweaty new frenemies. As with any Song of the Summer worth its salt, the lyrics are virtually impossible to mess up. They’re also a huge ego boost. Regardless of how uncool you actually are, you can’t sing this song and not feel like a rock star, which is the biggest song-of-summer prerequisite.”

Look, I’m not interested in arguing about someone’s very specific, and what seem to be happy, personal memories, but she is absolutely wrong about one point. And that’s the idea that “you can’t sing this song and not feel like a rock star.”

On the contrary, I can’t sing this song and not feel like a silly doofus. And why? This song is shitty and dumb. It’s basically a Kidz Bop song that needs no one to cover or modify it in any way. Its message and presentation are sub-preschool. Musically it’s terrible and sounds like Steve Harwell farting chili into a saxophone.

I write this as someone who was two months shy of his 18th birthday when Smashmouth released Astro Lounge. If I were say, 10 or 12 when it came out, I’m 100% positive my memories would be different and I’d probably love this album just like Mr. Lindbergh and Ms. Kliegman above. But I wasn’t, so I recognize this album, and in particular, the song “All Star” as the garbage they are.

The shitty thing is, I realize I have burnt a lot of calories talking about the obsessions from my youth like “Saved by the Bell,” “Hey Dude,” and “Salute Your Shorts” among too many others to name. Jesus, I even named my first website after the main character in the movie RAD. That’s not a great movie, but it’s one I unabashedly adore and will defend to my death.

And that’s where mainstream pop culture writing is largely pointless, particularly as it pertains to nostalgia. Too much of our consumption is rooted in memories forged during our formative years, rendering an objective analysis not only impossible, but irrelevant as well. It’s Sisyphean to convince others of the merits of a particular pop culture text when the defense mounted is rooted almost entirely in personal feelings.

I’m reminded of arguing with Baby Boomers (something I do with way more frequency than is probably healthy) about music. My mom in particular will make insane assertions like, “Our music really is the only music with substance. It’s the best music.” Ignoring for now the assertion of superior value that cannot objectively be quantified, let’s focus on that first sentence.

While in the car with her and my dad, I switched the satellite radio station to “60s on 6.” The song playing at that particular moment: “Surfin’ Bird” by The Trashmen. Manna from heaven. So, like an asshole, I teed her up with this line, “Boy mom, y’know, you’re ultimately right. Your era of music TRULY was the only with substance.”

She replied, “Well, some of it was really good, but some of it wasn’t so good.”

I said, “You know what other era of music that’s true of? LITERALLY EVERY OTHER ERA OF MUSIC EVER.”

We haven’t had that argument since.

Nostalgia is fun, and nostalgic writing is a larf for your peers, but please don’t use it as a platform to proclaim your superiority.

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