Taking Issue

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"Taking Issue"

Now, my admiration for my Atlantic colleague James Parker’s writing and vision of pop culture is a matter of public record.  But I’ve got some issues with his list of the top popular culture moments of the decade, which seems to me like a fairly good example of why lists like these are more a window into an individual critic’s psyche than into any given set of experiences in any given period of time.

First, only one of his choices, the rise of Jersey Shore and The City, is about women artists, or performers, or whatever.  Leaving gender aside for a moment, it seems to me that if you want to single out reality television about the young and aimless, it makes more sense to pick Laguna Beach, which kicked all of this nonsense off. The show may be less aimless or offensive than either of Parker’s choices, but it’s an origin, a turning point, rather than a culmination.  But the gender stuff does matter.  Especially given that this has been a fascinating, problematic decade for women in popular culture.  What about Britney Spears’ meltdown, the coverage of which was a popular culture phenomenon in and of itself, breaking new ground in invasive coverage of a clearly disturbed woman, and a major transition point away from late 90′s-early aughts mass-produced pop?  What about Helen Mirren conquering the United States and rising as a viable alternative to Meryl Streep, herself in an astonishingly productive period of her career, both of them symbolizing a path to aging into grandness?  What about the absurd genius of Lady Gaga, who may be a late entrant into the aughts, but emerged as the first viable heir to Madonna in two decades?  The fact that black actors and musicians are left off this list bothers me too.  No Kanye West, no matter how ridiculous he may have become over the course of the decade?  The bridging of the gap between indie and hip-hop, and between black audiences and white audiences, seems to me to be a significant hallmark of this decade: thus, OutKast’s B.O.B. topping indie record site  Pitchfork’s songs of the aughts list.

Second, I have no idea how the rise of cable and premium television as not just a viable site but the critical incubator of astonishing entertainment is entirely left off this list.  Grizzly Man may be a good movie, but while James resonates to its pastoral awe, the depictions of urban centers and suburban tension in The Sopranos, The Wire and Mad Men say a great deal more about where our society is at today and how it got there than a fiercely individual movie about a suicidally individual man does.  I don’t mind some of the smaller entrants on this list–the rise of things like tribute bands and fan culture more generally is certainly one of the important developments in popular culture of this decade.  But Grizzly Man just strikes me as too small.

But the thing is, who am I to say this list is entirely wrong?  Or any other critic?  We all see influences and progressions differently, and developments in different garden patches of popular culture register as more or less important on our respective radars.  I understand the urge to define canons: it gets pageviews and sells magazines.  But I actually think best-of lists are more useful as a way of individual critics explaining what they value and why as a service to the readers who rely on them year- and decade-round than of actually establishing definitive bests.

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