This is the boondoggle of cultural theory: where does purposeful deconstruction end and abstract masturbation begin? Beyond what boundary does analysis dissolve into self-serving shit-talking?
The more time spent pursuing a given subject, connections will be made to, and curiosity will be invested in, tangential areas of interest. I've yet to meet a graphic designer who wasn't also an impeccable dresser, or an archeologist who preferred the confines of the classroom to digging in the dirt. This is how hobbies become careers and how nerds become critics & cultural theorists.
Post-modernism was given popular currency by Generation-Xers who made a fetish of their mass-media-steeped childhoods. More recently, the portmanteau hauntology has been claimed by counter-cultural early adopters in England, as it invokes a spectral, analog, left-leaning potential they glimpsed during their childhoods, subsequently trampled under thirty years of digital & neoliberal hegemony. Meanwhile, the current proliferation of horror-movie & black-metal theory is the obvious product of an early-'90s adolescence locked in basement bedrooms, losing sleep to John Carpenter flicks & Cannibal Corpse albums.
But at what point do the questions become excessive? Is Watchmen actually just fairly crap science fiction? Is The Big Lebowski really "about" anything? Wasn't G.G. Allin just a raging asshole? "Sometimes a pig is just a pig."
This month, I'm working on the sound design & musical score for a zombie movie by some friends of mine. Brief mention of this endeavor prompted an acquaintance to wax philosophic about how Japanese horror films, with their ubiquitous onryō, attest to a culture irredeemably haunted by a past from which it's been traumatically severed. By the time he unfurled his interpretation of Versus as an elegy for bushido, I had to meekly explain that, actually, the film I'm working on is just a slapstick punch-up between zombies having a picnic.
But I'm more often on the receiving end of such conversational shut-downs. My latest micro-screed about The Arcade Fire caught the attention of a former high-school classmate, who closed a decade-plus gap in correspondence with the following communiqué:
don't you think you're getting a little old for this "my opinion is the only opinion" crap?Clearly, she's never heard of Robert Christgau. But to be fair, why would a margin-walker like myself care about mainstream rock stars receiving mainstream acclaim? As I elaborated in the comment thread, my problem specifically with The Arcade Fire has to do with their histrionic populism & pseudo-dissident posturing. Their pose as a "true alternative," as an irreverent fringe element convinces their audience that they - both the band and its fan base - are far more artistically fearless & politically radical than they actually are. The Arcade Fire are musical Soma, tethering listeners' imaginations to a beige middleground.
Mind you, the audience often doesn't care to be fooled into thinking themselves audacious or unconventional - they're perfectly happy with a toe-tappin' beat and a karaoke chorus, thank you very much. It'd be silly to expect dogmatic vanguardism of everyone, given that most people have concerns more pressing than music. It's disappointing, though, to see those who have as much as (if not more than) I invested in music being lazy as listeners to the point of belittling the sonically inquisitive. I was surprised, for example, to see Simon Reynolds chuck the following barb at cult icon Scott Walker:
I thought, yes, yes, a campaign petitioning Walker to stop recording angst-wracked avant-garde Masterpieces (that you never feel like playing) and write/sing/release an actual, you know, tune...which is a silly complaint, not the least because we already know what Scott Walker courting the mainstream, dutifully trend-hopping, adopting & discarding musical personae, would sound like: David Bowie. And is anyone particularly pleased with the self-impersonating mediocrity into which Bowie and so many other over-50 rockers settled? Worse still, what sadist would doom Walker to spend his autumn years grudgingly running through the Belgian bagatelle "Jackie" for the millionth time? (Besides Marc Almond, of course.)
I also feel there's a slight double-standard at work, hinging on the Scott Walker brand. Let's imagine The Drift had been released as the new Swans album, exchanging Walker's honeyed croon for Michael Gira's croakier baritone. Walker's always been framed as a wounded bourgeois romantic and consequently never had much rebel cachet, whereas Gira has long been cast as one of rock's great primitivists. Thus, my guess is that those who wish Walker hadn't stretched conventions any further than "Plastic Palace People" would absolutely puke superlatives over The Drift, were it released under the Swans imprimatur.
I also suspect one of the reasons that Reynolds dislikes Scott Walker's recent work is that it's "inside baseball": the only people who will listen to a song from the perspective of Mussolini's dead mistress are the kind of people who actively seek such esoterica. Put another way: the only people who listen to Einstürzende Neubauten are the ones who can spell the band's name. Junk culture, on the other hand, can potentially infect a larger audience than any deliberately high-minded art-house fare. Most people don't know what "post-serialist composition" is, but many of them have heard it in The Shining, Shutter Island, even Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
This is why junk culture is such a potent target for criticism. Art is never apolitical, ergo within even the most apparently banal & crass cultural detritus lurk multiple meanings & encrypted themes. Critical overreach can imbue easily-dismissed dreck with radical portent, as in Zizek's famous rendering of They Live! as covert Marxist screed. Intellectual rigor can also guard against more dangerous & reactionary subtexts: the Saw series, for example, was clearly an attempt to anesthetize American audiences to scenes of gruesome torture so that when Abu Ghraib blew up, it was met with raised eyebrows instead of shrieking outrage.
Critical overreach will not always produce useful or true results, but critical underreach never will. The only caveat is to temper evaluative exercise with a healthy heap of self-skepticism. As I've mentioned before, obscurantist indulgence is often a smokescreen for personal fancy, "a far more noble & ego-inflating position for a writer, rather than have to admit that, for reasons as inarticulable & irrational as emotions, they just don't dig something."