Knee-Jerk Middlebrow Reactions I Have Now That I’m Thirty-Five: A Manifesto

I’m not entirely sure if writing this will gain or lose readers, and it’s certainly not what I expected to write today, as I’ve promised a small essay about my middle daughter, but I’m tired from a two-day conference in Columbus and a morning spent catching up with stuff after being gone for two days, so here we are.

I was driving my Kia Sedona, two kids—my seven-year and four-year-old–in tow, to pick up my oldest daughter from an overnight at a friend’s house.  I was flipping through my iPod to find something to listen to and, without thinking, settled on Demi Lovato.  I wanted to listen to Demi Lovato, and I think her song “Skyscraper” is fantastic.

There, I said it.  Hi, my name is Matt and I love Demi Lovato.

This feeling has happened before, like when I opt for Lady Gaga over St. Vincent or Pitbull over Bon Iver.  I try to explain it, or rationalize it, I suppose, as just a mood thing or maybe even an ironic “guilty pleasure” except, at heart, I realize that at my age the words “guilty pleasure” are useless.  You like what you like and that’s it.  There’s not time enough in your day to like something ironically.

At thirty-five, the only “pleasures” you should feel guilty about are child pornography or crystal meth.  Demi Lovato is just music that bourgeois people dig.

Time, in general, plays into this equation.  I feel that a three minute pop song that makes me smile without working too hard is in fact worth my time.  Now, I am able to smile at Tom Waits just as easily as Colbie Caillet, but I’ve stopped worrying about whether I feel cool when I do it.  Read the first six words of the second paragraph again.  “I was driving my Kia Sedona.”  I could have the windows rolled down and bang out The Carter IV and it wouldn’t change the fact that I am driving a soccer mom’s dream ride.

Movies are trickier.  They’re two hours and therefore more of a time commitment.  With that in mind, I can say with some authority that films I may have enjoyed when I was younger and “hipper” are just not going to cut it anymore, while films I would’ve avoided will work just fine, thank you.  I am not going to snort my way through Attack the Block, for example, because no matter how good it may be, I just don’t want to watch aliens and gangbangers duke it out, wink-wink, tongue-in-cheek.  The Help, however, was quite nice and I’m glad I saw it.

It pains me to read that last sentence, but I’m opting for complete honesty here.  I still love films, and difficult films especially.  But I’m not going to run down every Lars Von Trier movie anymore.  I can’t.  I need to mow the yard and walk around the house like a mental patient making sure lights aren’t left on.

Books are the biggest deal I have, in terms of culture-to-time-commitment ratio, so if I’m reading a book, it better bring it and rock my face off, or I’m done.  I used to clean my plate every time, but if I’m given the choice between a snarky, small-press offering (The World in Miniature in Miniature, say) or Dickens, I’m going to go with the Dickens.  I read once about a college professor who wouldn’t read a book until it had been in print for at least ten years.  He figured there was so much printed every year, that it was a fool’s errand to try and read everything that looked good in the New York Times.  Better to let time thin the herd, and go from there.

A friend of mine had a similar breakthrough: if a show on his DVR started to give him stress, if the episodes were piling up and he felt guilty about it, he’d erase it and stop taping it, no matter how good everyone said it was.  “Entertainment should not stress you out,” he said to me.

Too true.

With that in mind here’s a list of knee-jerk reactions I have to different things, and I’m sure there will be disagreements.  I’m also sure some of the things are simply wrong, even politically incorrect.  Please let me know.

1.The new Kelly Clarkson album is MUCH better than the new Coldplay album.

2.I have found it increasingly difficult to listen to Radiohead after OK Computer, and don’t bother anymore.

3.Dane Cook is not funny.

4.Skinny jeans are FUCKING STUPID looking.

5.The Justin Beiber haircut makes everyone who has it look like a lesbian.

6.James Franco is really not that good of an actor (though he was great in 127 Hours and I respect his industriousness).

7.Taylor Swift is excellent, as is Brad Paisley, Dierks Bentley, and Miranda Lambert.

8.Steven Soderbergh is not that good of a filmmaker.

9.Rob Reiner is a much better filmmaker than anyone gives him credit for.

10.If you take the album L.A. Woman out of the equation, The Doors are a shittier band than Journey.

11.Green Day has made a bigger cultural impact and remained more effortlessly  relevant than Pearl Jam.

12.I really can’t stand Eddie Vedder’s voice anymore.

13.I find most hip-hop repetitive and discomforting.

14.I think Elmore Leonard does the same things Cormac McCarthy does, and I think he does them more intelligently and without the pseudo-philosophical bullshit.

15.The Road was not a very good book.

16.Neither was Freedom or The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen.  Freedom was in fact the same book as The Corrections.

17.I love Andy Griffith.

18.Opera is cool.

19.It never occurs to me to see live music, I have little-to-no interest in the hassle, and I will be exponentially more willing to go with someone if I know I’ll be able to sit for the performance.

20.I think Animal Collective, Panda Bear, Grizzly Bear, Deerhunter, TV on the Radio, and Battles SUCK.

I shared the car ride to and from Columbus with two colleagues; at one point, one of my colleagues said that when she was in college, she a friend went by the collective moniker “Intellectual Sluts” and cut their way through vast swaths of post-structuralist and feminist theory, Barthes and Derrida and Foucault and Lacan, among others.   She mentioned the power she felt radiate off of Cornel West when she was lucky enough to shake his hand.  She can still rattle off philosophical rhetoric when the mood strikes her, but anymore she’s more than happy to watch the MLB Network with her husband, so, an infant daughter.  The other mentioned that he’d dedicated the first part of his life to the theater and could recite and synthesize the general and specific antecedents that gave us Tony Kushner, Stephen Sondheim, and Susan Lori-Parks, but all he really wanted to do now was go home and play Wii with his son.

Maybe we get dumber when we get older.  Now that I’m thirty-five, and the wisdom I expected has revealed itself to be just a deeper and more unsettling sense of confusion, I need my entertainment to deliver pleasure in more concentrated, more easily digestible doses.  Call it milk vs. meat.

I came to religion young, but not that young.  I was around twelve and able to discern the basic philosophical underpinnings of the Southern Baptist faith—Calvinist faith, epochal/ritual/archetypal sacrifice, the essential mystery/paradox inherent in the trinity.  My mother came to it later, when I did, but thirty-five, not twelve.  We had a lot of talks about not only the theology, but the way the information was disseminated.  Finally, my mother believed that like an infant who grows into a toddler, we need the easy stuff first before the protein, the hard to understand and process, the meat.

So I’m regressing?  Is this the opposite of growing in faith?  The reality is I just don’t feel like working as hard for my entertainment.  I have other stuff that needs to be done.  It’s probably the same reason that uprisings are for the young, that for the most part, consciously or unconsciously we all turn to the central tenet of Candide: tend your own garden.

Or maybe we realize something integral to being a human being, something the protagonist of High Fidelity had to discover: It’s what you’re like, not what you like.

So, there you go.  Comments?



Filed under Essays, Film, Justin Beiber

2 responses to “Knee-Jerk Middlebrow Reactions I Have Now That I’m Thirty-Five: A Manifesto

  1. “Now that I’m thirty-five, and the wisdom I expected has revealed itself to be just a deeper and more unsettling sense of confusion, I need my entertainment to deliver pleasure in more concentrated, more easily digestible doses.”

    This passage struck me, in particular, the word “concentrated” resonated and popped out from among the rest of the others.

    I always think about my two halves. The half of me that spends most of the day playing devil’s advocate to my inner-cynic, and the other half that loves to have fun and often throws caution to the wind to do so. The pseudo-intellectual half loves the company of those essentially “existential questions”, and lambastes people who place more value on their fun half than the half that works endlessly on expanding the mind. That half that asks all the questions and has none of the fun is just tired of being lonely on top of the mountain that overlooks the sunny pastors.

    But the two halves are one whole, and you can have both. Things like entertainment need not be dull and repetitive, which is where I find discomfort and distress in the point you make about Radiohead and the fact that you listen to Pitbull. Discomfort because of the monotony of the simple (Pitbull), and distress because experimentation can often lead to the same monotony (Radiohead).

    As a result, I work even harder and dig even deeper to find what I like. I spend a good hour or two lying in bed in the early hours of the morning browsing through youtube videos of songs I’ve never heard just to find one that I can put on repeat that will raise the hair on the back of my neck. I love that feeling.

    After reading this, I find myself asking what makes those artists and their songs raise the hair on the back of my neck. I still don’t know. I find more comfort in music without lyrics than music with lyrics, and I’m not formally trained in music and couldn’t tell you what it is that makes my ears perk.

    So I made a list:

    (1) The song reminds me of a spectacular moment. The easiest way to fall in love with a song is for it to remind you of a part of your life. But what made me keep listening to that song enough for it to reflect that way on my life? Well…

    (2) The lyrics motivated me to work hard. I find motivation difficult, this sticks out to me as one of the most important parts of the music I love. Keep me ticking.

    (3) That one part of that one song you wish you could rewind a hundred times is the sample on the beat. Flip it! It’s sick! The melody is so sweet you wish you could take it to bed. To quote a friend, “This jazz is like the embrace of a beautiful woman.”

    (4) The subject isn’t monotonous. Songs about going out and having fun at the club have nothing to offer me and I often find the bass and beat to be far more enjoyable than the bullshit singer with simple words and even simpler meaning.

    (5) Lyrically, the song has to flow from start to finish without relying on the hook to dictate the mood of the song.

    Regarding number 5, the song that made me think of that is Nas’ N.Y. State of Mind. The hook is simple, and taken out of context, is in step with the monotony that most hip hop faces.

    “I think of crime, when I’m in a New York state of mind.”

    But the rest of that song is an illicit and lengthy diatribe on the life of a twenty-year-old within the confines of the inner-city. What does a twenty-year-old have to offer in terms of wisdom? Most people would scrunch their eyebrows and say, “nothing, they’re not old enough to be privy to the wisdom of the world,” and yet Nas, even in his youth, was able to make observations and points about the pitfalls of the socio-economic ladder that he faces as an inner-city youth that most of his kin still haven’t emulated (it is, after all, the greatest anthem hip hop has ever known).

    You can still take that song and get from it what you want. It offers a hundred avenues for you to fall in love with it. DJ Premier’s beat is incredible and holds up even after two decades of dating. The verse, holy cow, I wish I could flow from thought to thought like that. The meaning, the lyrics, poignant and yet very hip-hop, a very unique quality.

    The best music, the best anything, is not so simply a spoon full of sugar. The medicine is there. That is, you take the smiles with the frowns, because the most beautiful music is tragic, and the funnest music is loud, bubbly, and pop-infused. You need both, not one or the other. And it exists. It’s out there. And, for the love of God, it’s not Pitbull!

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