Sorry Ma, Forgot to Bring in the Trash: Tom Carson Talks Straight
By Scott Woods and Steven Ward (April 2002)
Despite being “recruited at the last minute” as a replacement, and just 22 years old at the time, Tom Carson’s Rocket to Russia essay in Stranded is one of the three or four best essays in that much-lauded book, and among the best–certainly, the most vivid and loving–writing on the Ramones, period. (I love Carson’s description of Joey and co. as “zero-based rock ‘n roll,” and the paragraph he devotes to Leave Home–particularly to its key tracks, “I Remember You” and “Oh Oh I Love Her So”–is, to steal his own words, “very funny, but genuinely evocative.”)
Carson first made his mark as a critic freelancing for the Village Voice and Rolling Stone in the late ’70s. He still sometimes contributes to the Voice, though he more or less abandoned music writing in the mid ’80s–or rather, transferred his energy into politics, television, and movies.
In the year 2000, he won a National Magazine Award in the “Reviews & Criticism” category for his Esquire column, “The Screen” (specifically for columns on on Saving Private Ryan, “The Simpsons,” and Being John Malkovich). [2013 note: none of which appear to be available online.]
Carson answered some e-mail questions from his home in Northern Virginia, completely oblivious to the funny smell emanating from up the street.
rockcritics.com: How and why did you make the transition from music critic to TV/movie critic?
Tom Carson: One simple answer is that most music critics are pretty committed to music as a subject, and I’m a dilettante. If someone doesn’t like my work, that would be the obvious put-down for the whole wad. I don’t mind calling myself one because I think it’s the right descriptive term. Anytime one of my interests starts to dominate the picture, I usually get lucky enough to write about it–music from ’77 through the early ’80s, which was a great time to be a rock critic if you were on the punk bandwagon, then TV just around when people stopped thinking it was smart to call TV a vast wasteland. I also got to write a lot about politics a lot in the Nineties. Given my bent or lack of one, my biggest break has been not being ghettoized by a specialty.
In practical terms, though, what happened was that James Wolcott had bagged his Village Voice TV column to go work for Tina Brown. M. Mark, who was the arts editor then, asked me and Tom Smucker to take over his page on alternating weeks. Smucker was better than I was, but I’m the one they kept. I think that ended up souring him on writing about television, not to mention for the Voice, and too bad on both counts. It’s one thing to more or less consciously argue with the conventional wisdom, which is what I do a lot of the time, and much rarer to be genuinely, truly indifferent to it. I mean, you don’t know what you missed. But he went, I stayed, and presto: that became my main gig.
rockcritics: One of the clichés or truisms (take your pick) about music critics is that they are forced to confront the Big Question at some point in their thirties: Why am I doing this? Did you face this yourself, and did it have anything to do with your change of direction?
Carson: You know, I’m starting to understand why, when I look at somebody else’s interviews on your site, I sometimes think, ‘What is this? So-and-so sounds so self-important, and that’s not like him.’ It’s simple. It’s because we’re not famous and nobody ever asks us this stuff. If it weren’t for you guys, to find somebody to listen to our thoughts on our careers, we’d have to own a parakeet.
Anyway, for rock critics my age and up, yeah, I think that is or was a big question to face, because about 15 years ago the whole ballgame changed. The stuff that had made rock and roll seem consequential enough to devote your life to it just obviously didn’t work that way anymore, and even though what replaced it is just as consequential, it involves all these different vocabularies and attitudes and guiding premises. I mean, I thought it was very funny, in a wishful sort of way, when critics started saying “transgressive” instead of “subversive.” It’s like new, improved Dr. Pepper. But it’s just ridiculous to treat upsetting the apple cart as a central value in music now, certainly if your basic orientation is toward white-guy guitar bands–which I think it was at the outset for pretty much all the crits in my age group. Kurt Cobain really was the end of the line and also sort of a fluke, and I think it didn’t make his life any easier that he was smart enough to know it and just be bedeviled by it. Ever since Madonna, unless you’re reviewing hip-hop, you’ve had to learn to take pop phenomenons seriously in a way critics didn’t back then. I dunno, should we really have thought long and hard about Olivia Newton-John? Probably.
In my case, though, the decision was sort of made for me, because my interest in writing about music started waning when it got unmistakably clear that the Great Punk Revolution, which I had been so obsessively pushing for in print, had gone kerflooey. To stay a rock critic and be at all useful at it, I would have had to start getting some real depth of knowledge about other genres. I was a good punk critic because its cultural context was something I understood and just thrived on, and its musical roots weren’t what you’d call unattainable. If you knew the Velvets, the Dolls, the Stooges, the Nuggets compilation and had a fondness for the early British Invasion stuff, all of which I did, then musically speaking you had about ninety percent of what punk came out of at your fingertips. Other than that, you just had to get off on the attitude, which I also did. But I think my parakeet just keeled over, so let’s move on.
rockcritics: Do you think that television, particularly in the last decade or so, has ventured further–pushed its own boundaries more–than rock and roll? (i.e., with shows like The Simpsons, Sex In the City, Buffy, The Larry Sanders Show, The Sopranos, etc.)
Carson: The obvious thing is that television had a lot more boundaries to push, and it’s kind of interesting that it was just around the time rock and roll started running low on new barriers to take a hammer to that TV started getting more adventurous. Especially from the corporations’ point of view, rock and roll has always been about trying to put the genie back in the box. TV has been a bunch of people looking at a box and saying, “Gee, do you suppose there’s a genie in there? Should we try to get her some food or something?”
Another difference is that the innovations on TV didn’t come from rule-breakers that the networks were trying to restrain, because they didn’t have to try–they could just restrain them. The partial exception to this was Steven Bochco, who I basically can’t stand but who in the Eighties really was the breakthrough in terms of network shows with a producer’s distinctive signature and a recognizable style. Even so, what really made TV expand and get interesting was the rise of new networks and cable, from Fox to HBO to the WB and so on, that had to sell themselves by saying they were different from the old broadcast networks. To some extent, they had to put their money where their mouth was, but different mattered more to them than good.
rockcritics: Let’s go back to your formative years before you became a rock critic. What rock mags or rock critics influenced you or made you want to write about music in the first place?
Carson: It’s embarrassing to admit how little rock criticism I had really read when I started doing it myself. I think I went through most of college not really knowing that there was a lot of difference between Creem and Circus. That was when Lester Bangs was editing Creem, too, so I clearly wasn’t paying much attention. I had read a lot more literary and movie critics, especially Pauline Kael, and started out imitating her and Greil Marcus, because I had just devoured Mystery Train in college. But I had to wean myself off that, and I also got less attracted to Marcus’s outlook as his work went on. Both because of being edited by Christgau and then devouringAny Old Way You Choose It, I ended up being much more permanently influenced by him, but it was on-the-job training.
rockcritics: Is pop music still a central experience in your own life–or is that simply not possible given that your time is more focused on movies and TV? And do you ever hear new music and wish you could still delve into it in print?
Carson: One way it stays central is as a way of looking at things–a set of attitudes, or maybe sympathies. I still have much more sense of professional fraternity around rock critics than I do around movie critics. We make the same kinds of jokes. On the other hand, I like the Movie Geek on Beat the Geeks better than the Music Geek, but that’s because the Movie Geek seems like a little bit more of a rock guy. Smarter, too. The TV Geek just disturbs me: “Yikes! I didn’t know Tom Shales had a son.”
I think I still have a sort of firehouse-dog response to music. You know, you hear the alarm go off, and you’re next to the truck with your tail wagging. If a song or performer catches my attention, there’s nothing I like better than getting into a big, insanely detailed discussion of what’s going on in that tune or that video or that career. I’m also pretty sure that I’m smarter about music than I was when I was a critic. I hear more, and I can make a better argument for why something that sounds negligible is a good song or why one that seems sort of plausible just reeks. But I haven’t made a consistent, determined effort to keep up, and that’s fatal. It’s not just that you have to hear the records. You have to know the context, either by living it as a fan or appreciating it as a critic, and now the context has just mushroomed. More and more, you can see even working critics giving up–just saying, “Screw it, I’m going to go on pretending that knowing something about Paul Simon is information worth sharing with you people, because I’ll go insane if I have to wake up every morning telling myself I care which one in N’Sync is Justin.” But I do like it whenever I get a chance to talk about music or rock performers from the vantage point of my current turf–in connection with TV or movies, or just as pop presences.
rockcritics: In the time since you’ve stopped writing about music on a regular basis, who do you think has made the most consistently interesting music?
Carson: Going all the way back to when I first fell off the trolley, one band I’m sorry I didn’t get to weigh in on is the Pet Shop Boys, even though I don’t know if I would have gotten them right back then. I’m probably lucky that there isn’t some huge piece of mine putting them down that would just look bone-stupid today. I did get to weigh in on Madonna, who ironically enough did more to turn my head around than the Sex Pistols ever had. Overnight, I became a pop devotee. She was sort of my last great passion, in the sense of being somebody you actively root for. And she stayed good for so much longer than anybody would have thought possible. She’s even still pretty good, but in pop terms she’s practically Marlene Dietrich by now.
More recently, one band I flipped for was Cornershop, because in a non-expert way I love Indian pop and hearing that groove all mixed up with Britishness made me realize just how much Salman Rushdie is a journalist. Even before O Brother, Where Art Thou?, which in my case was a treat but not a total revelation–I mean, I’d heard “O Death” in college, thanks to my friend Cindy Read–I also like a lot of the whole pre-rock roots Americana thing. That’s partly because, the older I get, the more I think the ‘Great Divide’ idea of rock and roll changing everything is a myth. Rock and roll changed the audience and mass communications changed the context, but the music was always just bonkers. That’s why I kind of like Gillian Welch, even though she’s humorless even when she thinks she’s being funny and, to the exact extent she presents her music as the real deal, full of shit. In some ways, the evolution of rock and roll is always somebody saying, “Yeah, but you know he”–or, more recently, she–“is a complete fraud.” Well, they usually are, but after a while it starts mattering less and we’re on to the next stage of the cycle.
rockcritics: Your Bowie essay in the Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll is an almost unusually (and, in my view, well-earned) sympathetic overview of Bowie, at least a) given the year you wrote it (Bowie had yet to be canonized), and b) for an American critic (most of whom had mixed feelings–at best–about Bowie). Did you write this piece with any sense of critical opposition in mind? That is, in opposition to prevailing critical feelings about Bowie? Were you chosen to write this essay because of your sympathetic attitude toward him?
Carson: I don’t know why they picked me, but I would guess that their sense was that Bowie didn’t much matter and therefore which writer they got didn’t much matter either. I was very much small fry at the time. I don’t mean to fault Jim Miller, but in any Rolling Stone publication great rock is always going to mean Sixties rock, and I don’t think that’s at war with his taste. One big exception is Christgau’s piece on Elton John, which said he was important a long time before Rolling Stone was ready to sign on. If you want to talk about someone who hadn’t been canonized yet, his piece is much more of a gauntlet thrown down than mine is. Also one of my favorites of anything he’s written.
I also don’t know which edition you’re talking about, because we all got to revise our pieces when they reprinted it ten years later–the only time I’ve ever gotten to do that. By the time I got my second crack at it, Bowie had been canonized, and as a result, I was more aloof. My opinion of his Seventies work hadn’t changed, but my opinion of the stakes involved had. There’s an undertow in the second version–sort of an “Oh, come on, don’t kid yourselves about how important this is.” Too much of one, because at the time I was feeling fed up with all the champions of how much rock and roll still, quote unquote, mattered. It was sort of like Bill Clinton calling that press conference in ’95 to announce that the Presidency was still relevant.
But I think what your question misses out on is that there was, at the time, a very distinct generational cusp. In the late Seventies, when I was in college, people my age called the boomers “they.” To us, boomers meant the Sixties people, and we were all enraged that we’d missed out on it. That’s a big part of punk, one that I don’t think gets talked about enough. It wasn’t father-son; it was big brother/little brother. Now we’re all going gray and getting fat together, and I think it’s really wonderful that, as far as history and the AARP are concerned, Paul Kantner and Richard Hell both belong to the same bunch of jackasses. But anyway, my point is that it was still the Sixties guys who were calling the shots in rock criticism, and they all hated Bowie, no question. But to people in my bracket, he was the man–or the coke-addled goldfish bent on world conquest with our support, anyhow. So I wasn’t reacting against those critics so much as I was expressing the consensus of my immediate contemporaries, without that much sense of going against the grain.
rockcritics: You wrote some scathing commentary recently about Pauline Kael in your Esquire piece “McCabe and Mrs. Kael,” while acknowledging what a big early influence she was on you. Perhaps the sentence that best describes your contradictory feeling is “No way around it, folks; that evil old bat is the reason I do what I do.” Obviously, you must know a lot of people who both knew Kael personally and cherished her as a writer–did your piece strike any severe chords among your peers?
Carson: I actually don’t know anybody who was close to Kael, except for one critic who was one of her many protégés. But I only see him once in a blue moon, and he’s not real big on venting. I know a couple of people who were at least acquainted with her at one point, and had ended up in the same position I was–disappointed admirers. Those first two books of hers were like the Bible to me when I stumbled across them, but once she got to the New Yorker, she started acting like a Mafioso. It’s just lunatic to act like a Mafioso when your button men are younger movie reviewers. I wonder what Andrew Sarris made of finding out that she was the Corleones and he was Bruno Tattaglia, when he just thought he liked movies.
I did write a piece saying some of that in Entertainment Weekly when she retired, and I heard at least some of the Paulettes were ticked off about it. Probably because I went after them for letting her turn them into a bunch of teacher’s pets, and EW wanted me to name names, so I did. You see, one reason her dying didn’t set off this big wave of reconsiderations was that everybody had already done their big Pauline piece when she left the New Yorker. I imagine she’d have liked that–treating retirement as the real death. She got to live out that fantasy of reading your own obituaries.
rockcritics: Ken Tucker–who, interestingly enough, came to print roughly around the same time and in some of the same publications as you, and who abandoned music criticism for TV criticism–actually drew a comparison in Salon between you and Kael: “Nevertheless, Kael’s influence is everywhere and lasting…Her finest adepts are critics who have borrowed not her self-created slang and rhetoric–the so-called ‘Paulettes’–but who have developed a stubborn independence of opinion and an original manner of expressing it. Here I am thinking…of writers as disparate as Dave Hickey, Mim Udovitch and Tom Carson.” How do you feel about this comparison?
Carson: Are you kidding? I was incredibly flattered, and I knew I didn’t deserve it. I mean, he’s obviously right about Hickey, who’s genuinely original and totally fearless, and Mim Udovitch is somebody who’s really created her own turf too. One thing she does that I wish I knew how to do is that even when she’s being provocative, she never sounds like she’s trying to start a fight. She just implies that you’ll get more fun out of life if you agree with her, and who wouldn’t want that? But I bet she was as pleasantly surprised as I was, because neither of us usually gets talked about that way.
One reason it was so gratifying was that giving up their intellectual freedom of movement to stay in Kael’s good graces was exactly why I was so disgusted by the Paulettes. Then again, it’s not like Pauline ever invited me into the treehouse, and I don’t know what I’d have done if she had. She liked to get them young and dazzled, at at one point I would certainly have qualified on both counts. Other than that, I thought it was amazingly generous of Tucker, because he had no special reason to be well-disposed toward me. We don’t know each other, but our non-relationship had managed to have an awkward side anyway. It’s something I’m really good at, and sometimes I wish I weren’t.
rockcritics: Tucker again [from the same piece]: “Carson has been writing tough, funny TV reviews for the Village Voice for years, but suddenly people are talking about his deft eviscerations of, say, news anchors because he’s now also writing for Esquire. Like theNew Yorker for Kael, establishment publications confer weight on critics’ judgments–it ain’t fair, but it’s true.” Is Tucker right–are you taken more seriously in Esquire than you were in the Village Voice?
Carson: Esquire‘s name is probably more helpful with publicists when it comes to something like lining up an early screening of something. But whether I’m taken more seriously or less probably depends on who’s doing the evaluating. In some quarters, after all, the Voice carries infinitely more weight than a men’s mag like Esquire. As for which place makes me more influential, or if I have any influence at all, I wouldn’t have a clue. For one thing, I live in Northern Virginia, pretty much out of the loop, and nobody in the nabe reads either the Voice or Esquire. I think they think I’m unemployed. Which is okay, because either half of them are too or we’re all secretly culture critics. You know, the guy on my block that I think is just a happy-go-lucky pot dealer is really down in the basement, writing the definitive book about Britney. It’s in flawless eighteenth-century French, too. I think it’s called Ou Est Le Plume De Ma Britney.
rockcritics: Also, how has writing for the Esquire audience–a vaster, possibly more diverse audience–changed your writing, if indeed it has at all?
Carson: At any publication, you try to get a sense of what you can do, ideally before you take the job but usually by doing it. One reason I admire Tucker–and I did way before he said nice things about me; he just got there first–is that a magazine like EW is basically designed to express the conventional wisdom with pizzazz, and his take on TV isn’t conventional. He’s got no sacred cows, and most ofEW couldn’t exist without sacred cows. But he’s figured out how to have his say and put his idiosyncrasies across and really stake out a critical position there. The thing is, in some ways it’s relatively easy to persuade a specialized audience, so long as you share their terms. Convincing the general reader, who doesn’t have any pressing reason to be intellectually invested in this stuff, is much harder. That’s the real test for a critic.
In my case, I’ve had a lot more freedom to write in my own tone at Esquire than I would have necessarily bet on going in, and that’s increased as we get used to each other. There’s obviously a whole range of references that I could take for granted most Voice readers would either know or refuse to admit they didn’t know, and that meant I could take a lot of inside-y, artsy short cuts to make an argument. Now I’ve got to spell things out more, but I’m not complaining. I mean, I want to be of use to the reader, and one way to be of use to Voice readers is to act as if we’re all up to speed on who Guy Debord is. Besides, I don’t think it hurts my writing to know that there’s a layer of preciosity that now automatically qualifies as self-indulgence. Probably at least some people wish I thought there were two or three.
rockcritics: In the post-punk era, you wrote for Rolling Stone and the Village Voice. Those publications cater to different readerships. Is it difficult to maintain a personal voice of your own when writing for two different publications like that?
Carson: Again, staying aware of who your readers are is part of a freelancer’s job. If you look down on them, or if you don’t think the magazine that serves them will let you talk to them honestly, you probably shouldn’t take the gig. At Rolling Stone, though, you didn’t have to just take the readers into account. You had to take Wenner into account, and the path to success at Rolling Stone is to assume he’s your only reader. Not that I ever met him face to face, but you still sort of felt like a plane circling King Kong. I did love that five-star review he wrote of Jagger’s last solo album, though. After all these years, even Jann couldn’t find someone whory or desperate enough to kiss up to Old Leatherface for him, so he had to sit down and tap it out himself with those pudgy fingers.
rockcritics: What editor or editors did you work for at Rolling Stone, and were there notable differences between how that person edited you and how Christgau edited you at the Voice?
Carson: There was no comparison, but you have to understand that there’s no comparison between Christgau and anybody. What people don’t know unless they’ve written for him is that Christgau would be a legend as an editor if he’d never written a word of criticism. He’s fanatically dedicated and incredibly sharp about the bad spots in a piece, and more patient than you’d ever believe about putting in the work to make it better. He sort of edits by the Socratic method, in that he will not put words in your mouth. Or impose his own ideas about whoever you’re reviewing, even if he thinks your take on somebody is pure hooey. He just keeps prodding you–for hours if need be, and you know it’s messing up his schedule more than it is yours–to come up with your best. Plus which, you’re watching his mind at work, which is an education in itself.
At Rolling Stone, I mostly wrote for Paul Nelson. Once he wasn’t there to stand between Wenner and the reviewers, I didn’t see much future for me there. Not one I wanted, anyway. What was wonderful about Paul wasn’t his editing skills–one of his favorite moves was to change “the band” to “these guys,” mainly because in Rolling Stone style a band was an “it,” not a “they.” Half the readers probably thought the biggest rock stars on the planet were a band called These Guys. What Paul did have, in his unassertive way, was one of the best characters of anybody I’ve ever known. There was a sort of unwavering bedrock of knowing what he cared about that made him a rarity at Rolling Stone. He was so mild that you’d never think someone like this would go to the mat with Wenner, especially since there had been times, I think, when Paul had had very little money and this was obviously a berth worth protecting. But he did it over and over again, when some piece of mine or somebody else’s had pissed off the great Jann, usually by being too complimentary about punk. I think he would have really loved to be in a John Ford or Howard Hawks Western, and instead he was stuck in this sort of grim Anthony Mann one where nobody’s motives are pure but you do what you can. So Paul did what he could.
rockcritics: What’s the most important lesson you’ve ever learned about your own writing from an editor?
Carson: One is to always be prepared to defend every line–and with something better than, “Because it sounds good.” Another would be that, if you do have good reasons and the line’s important, fight for it, because good editors don’t respect pushovers. But bad ones love them, so pick your poison. Another, which could raise a few eyebrows coming from me, is that you shouldn’t be clever just for the sake of being clever. I know that’s my rep, insofar as I have one, but I think part of my job is to keep readers entertained. I’m hoping to give them a snort or two along the way, not amuse myself. Not only would that alienate them, they’d be right to feel alienated.
rockcritics: Do you read any rock mags today and are there any newer music writers that have caught your eye in recent years?
Carson: Basically, I like my friends. I like Lorraine Ali, who I think is–to quote George W. Bush–very misunderestimated. It’s got to be very tricky to write about rock music at a place like Newsweek, where the basic orientation has so little to do with your turf. But I like how totally unimpressed she is with hand-me-down wisdom and the Great Rock Crit Hierarchy. It’s also just a trip to see her walk into a roomful of rock critics–you know, all these nebbishes with a highly developed sense of their own importance, and suddenly they’re up against five-foot-nine of half-Iraqi California girl who acts like she’s laughing at them all the time, and knows why. It turns them into a bunch of stuffy Rotarians on the spot. If Lorraine were four inches shorter, she’d probably be beloved by now.
I also really like Joe Gross, who I think is just a whiz. Almost his only failing used to be that he was too prone to looking up to all us old dudes, although he’s getting over that in my case now that he’s catching on he’s better at this than I was. I don’t mind that so much when he’s doing rock criticism, but it really burns me when he’s writing about TV.
rockcritics: In light of Joey Ramone’s recent death, have you gone back to reread your Ramones essay in Stranded, and do you think your words still ring true?
Carson: I was something like twenty-two when I wrote that, and being reminded of what I thought was effective writing back then makes me wince, so no, I didn’t reread it. I’m really glad the Ramones got in that book thanks to me, because they sure belong there and it did kind of stick out from the list. But I didn’t really deserve to be in Stranded. I got recruited at the last minute because, what do you know, Jim Wolcott dropped out. For a guy who basically can’t stand me–or couldn’t back in the Seventies, which was when we knew each other–Wolcott’s done me more favors by bailing out of jobs. If he ever quits Vanity Fair and the phone doesn’t ring, which I’m pretty sure it won’t, I’m not going to be able to avoid thinking that this particular Poe story has had kind of a flat ending.
But so far as Joey goes, I met Rob Sheffield for the first time not long after he died, and Rob told me that when he heard the news, he thought of that old essay. I was just incredibly touched–it was such a generous thing to say. He told me a really nice story, too. He’d just moved to New York then, and he said that wherever he went, people had their windows open and were sort of defiantly playing “Sheena Is A Punk Rocker” at full blast. And there’s Rob, new in town and walking along and hearing “Sheena” everywhere, and thinking to himself, “Wow–New York City really does have it all.” So now that’s what I think about when Joey comes up, and you know, it’s probably for the best that I live in Virginia. Being in Manhattan and hearing “Sheena” all over the place might have been a little overwhelming. I don’t know how much it comes through in Stranded, but in my Ramones, Joey was the one.
rockcritics: Craig D. Lindsey in the Philadelphia Weekly wrote of your work in Esquire: “Carson is one of those junk-loving ironist critics, like Armond White and Greil Marcus, who peppers his columns with flowery words and classical literary references to coverup the indecipherable, boneheaded accolades he gives a movie or TV show.” He brings up the irony charge later in the critique as well. So…talk about irony–as it relates to his critique, to your own writing, and to criticism in general. Are you the “junk-loving ironist” that he claims you are?
Carson: I’m probably going to give you a long answer, but not because I’m especially stung. You know, so much for being universally adored. But I’m not very impressed with any writer who uses “ironist” as a term of abuse, and calling Marcus one is just gaga. Whatever else you think of his work, it’s all about rapture and getting transported. I mean, this is someone who preferred Bryan Ferry to Bowie because he thought Bryan Ferry was more in earnest. He was, too, but Bowie’s insincerity was part of what made him more important, and Marcus has no use for that argument. As for Armond White, calling him an ironist is like saying that Lenin was too flaky. You may not like the guy, but find another put-down.
I’m guessing that what Lindsey means by “ironist” is what you could call the David Letterman version–adopting a sort of winky superciliousness as your basic reaction to things. Well, that’s obviously a hateful attitude, and it’s something that’s always bugged me about Letterman, but it’s got nothing to do with real irony. Real irony is a coping strategy with a moral value, because it lets you stay true to your point of view when you can’t do anything to affect the situation. It’s a useful tool to have in your emotional repertoire, and I’ve always just been sort of puzzled by people who think it’s an end in itself–whether they’re criticizing it or doing it. People forget that what really put the whole Age of Irony in the saddle was that Ronald Reagan was president. You had to become an ironist just to retain some sort of belief in your own sanity.
People also forget that if critics had the same reactions as everybody else, they wouldn’t be critics, which means they just wouldn’t have a whole a lot to contribute to the party. You know, don’t count on them to lead the conga line. Most of them can’t even order pizza without dropping the phone or getting something ghastly on top by mistake. They can tell you there’s better pizza somewhere else, so why do you keep calling Domino’s? I have plenty of bones to pick with intellectuals myself, and most of them would be as appalled to hear me call myself one as I would be depressed to be in their company. But the only way to justify anti-intellectualism is to demonstrate that you’ve come up with something smarter, and nobody ever has. Otherwise, it’s just more of this Chris Matthews, Bill O’Reilly shit, and I think Matthews, at least, should be ashamed of himself. You know he wrote a good book about Nixon and Kennedy once, before he turned into the screaming fathead he is today.
As for “junk-loving”–well, that’s someone else’s point of view. But if I love something, it means I don’t think it’s junk. I really don’t have any patience with the trash aesthetic; I think people who dig stuff because it’s crap are wasting their time. Or mine, anyway. I won’t deny that there’s a thrill in finding good qualities in something everybody else thinks is ignoble, but that’s my reaction as a writer who likes to stir things up, not as an audience. I mean, I saw good things nobody else did in that David Spade movie Joe Dirt, not because it was a defense of white trash but because it was an informed defense of white trash. But I wasn’t looking for that, and you could have knocked me over with a feather, because up to then I’d never liked David Spade. I’ve probably seen less quote-unquote junk than a lot of the people who knock me for praising it, because I think life is short and I’d rather read as many good books as I can. But when you see something that has a whiff of whatever you define as The Good, you praise it.
You know, what does “junk” mean? Thanks to Stranded, the band I’m most identified with celebrating is the Ramones. The TV shows I was boosting when most critics didn’t have a good word for them were The Simpsons, Roseanne, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I wouldn’t call those bad picks. I should have been a race-track tout.