In Defense Of Pop Culture

I ingest way too much pop culture. It doesn’t matter if it’s movies, video games, music, books about how to survive zombie apocalypses, or podcasts about all of the above, I always find the time to cram that goodness into my feeble brain.

It’s not a habit that’s particularly easy to defend. A gym rat may end up with glorious abs and a chef rat could seduce a life partner with their delectable soufflés, but a pop culture enthusiast seems to add very little to society.

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It’s only been in the last three months of my life that anybody has been willing to pay me to write about the stupid movies I watch. Everything before that I did pro bono out of the goodness of my heart.

In general, most people tend to write off the most recent King Kong movie or book about a robot uprising as something “less than.” That is, that those cultural artifacts have nothing to do with real life, and true cultural engagement should involve dipping one’s toes into the sublime word pools of your James Joyce’s and Eddie Poe’s. Diggin’ into the meatier things of culture.

On the one hand, I totally agree that we should be engaging with “serious” works of cultural achievements if only to stretch ourselves intellectually. But I also think pop culture has been derided for far too long. It deserves a champion. A hero, even. It’s a mantle I accept graciously.

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There’s a phenomenon I’ve discovered relatively recently that I wish to discuss here briefly. That phenom is “small talk.” It’s not something I’m particularly good at, but it used to be something I feared worse than being stabbed in the taint. I approached the dance of trying to come up with new, exciting ways to ask about jobs and family history with both left feet forward. I hated it. During conversations, my awkwardness was all I could think about. As a result, I never learned anyone’s name. I’m sorry, brown-haired sister and blonde-haired sister. I’m sure I’ll learn your names eventually. You’re so very dear to me.

But then, one day in college, I stumbled upon something beautiful. That thing was fantasy football.

I’d never before cared much for sporting skirmishes, and my knowledge of professional sportsmen was limited to about seven baseball players in the late 90s/early 00s. As far as I was aware, Chipper Jones was the quarterback/primary dunker of every professional sports team. Fantasy football changed all that. It’s the missing link between sports and nerds.

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Suddenly, football wasn’t about arbitrarily rooting for a certain pack of wild men to crush another pack of wild men, it was about me kicking the crap out of my college roommates. I had a personal stake in the game. And, as such, I learned an inordinate amount of players who didn’t play third base for the Atlanta Braves, their positions, their stats, the makeup of their teams. And then I used that knowledge to humiliate my opponents on the (virtual) field of battle. But the benefits didn’t end with making my roommates cry. I quickly realized that fantasy football massively opened up the possibilities of my small talk.

A few years ago, I was sitting at the front desk of the office where I worked watching the front doors to make sure that no murderers came through. Of course, if one had, I probably would have run away screaming, clutching my butt as I went. Thankfully, that never happened but, unfortunately, several people I didn’t know would come through and be forced to stand around awkwardly while I stared at them, drooling slightly. There wasn’t a lot to talk about, so I’d pretend I was trying to meet some important deadline and type away furiously at my computer as if hacking the Pentagon’s mainframe.

But one day, I noticed somebody wearing a Bear’s jersey. Immediately my mind jumped to my starting wide receiver Alshon Jeffrey who I’d just watched lose a game to the Packers. Without hesitating, I said, “Tough game for the Bears last night, eh?” And just like that, the man, who had been there several times before, opened up like an angry flower blossom. Suddenly, we had plenty to talk about. I knew all about his team, and the other teams in their division, and the ten minutes he was standing there flew by.

The time didn’t just fly by either, we actually got to know each other a little bit and enjoy each other’s company. That’s something that as a generally unfriendly small talker I’d never really experienced before. I decided to further test this. I found that this newfound knowledge allowed me to connect with people all over the place from a family hosting our band in Tennessee (how about that Mariota, right? He’s shifty.) to the random people I would drive when I was a shuttle driver (how about those 49ers? Worst team ever, right?).

But football knowledge can only get you so far. If I was to survive more small talk in the future, I’d probably need to arm myself with more. That’s when I realized I could use my vast, utterly useless knowledge of pop culture.

Almost everybody loves movies, music, video games or something pop culture related. The kids I teach guitar like me infinitely more when they realize I’ve played Call of Duty and am at least vaguely aware of what Minecraft is (it’s stupid, mostly). Everybody claims to be a Star Wars fan (though all pale in comparison to me). The ability to make a Zoolander reference or intentionally misquote Iron Man becomes invaluable when trying to survive an awkward and forced conversation.

But it can also be more than that. Some of the best conversations of my life have stemmed from shared experiences with a film. The act of sharing in, and then discussing, pop culture with people can be a highly rewarding and worthwhile endeavor. Not every movie has something to say, but frequently there is something worth discussing if you’re willing to take the time to look.

Pop culture can be applied to our real lives because it’s made by real people. Just because the monkey in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is actually a strange little man in a motion capture suit pretending to be an angry simian doesn’t mean the movie doesn’t have something to say about real world relationships and politics. Wrapped up in a movie ostensibly focused on monkeys shooting assault rifles is a film that speaks about “diplomacy, deterrence, law and leadership.” The monkey machine guns are just to get you into the theater, and to make sure that you enjoy yourself while doing so.

andy-serkis-motion-capture-performance-in-rise-of-the-planet-of-the-apes                             Pictured: Art.

Pop culture, at its core, is meant to bring people together. A cynic will say that’s to generate more money for the film, and that’s certainly part of it. After all, the Marvel movies ride on a wave of collective, cultural excitement. But I’ve seen the value pop culture can have in bringing people together. Whether it’s something as simple as making small talk at a party bearable, or something as important as finding common ground with a girl you’re hoping to marry one day, pop culture matters.

So who wants to go see War of the Planet of the Apes with me? The monkeys have horses now.

Let’s talk about it.

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