My Pop Culture 2021
I started to give things away this year. Slowly, and not in the kind of quantities that impress people when they visit your house. But for the first time, I’m confident that I wrapped up a December with slightly less stuff than I had at the start of January.
The amount of stuff we’re talking about is still unsightly, with more shelves than books, and a few piles of un-read material in common areas. What’s missing are a bunch of books and films I was confident I wouldn’t read again, and a bunch of classics that I’m sure will never go out of print. After two decades of toting “The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” around, in three ugly Penguin paperbacks, I realized: This book will exist so long as libraries and the Internet exist, and if those things stop existing, I’m going to be too busy to read this.
Repeat that thought process about a hundred times. Because I was chucking books into Free Libraries, I forced myself to go offline and read anything that wasn’t going to belong to me anymore. Philip Short’s Mitterrand biography “A Taste for Intrigue,” Barry Miles’s unromantic biographies of William S. Burroughs and Frank Zappa, Neal Gabler’s just as unsentimental portrait of Walt Disney: All great, shouldn’t have left them on the shelf. So was “King of Comedy,” Shawn Levy’s insightful and cutting biography of Jerry Lewis, and “Deep in a Dream,” James Gavin’s biography of Chet Baker, which is fair to the artist while interviewing seemingly everybody who hated him. Only the Zappa biography left me wanting more, and Gavin I found to be uncommonly good at explaining how Baker’s music worked, and what separated his schlock (“Albert’s House”) from his transcendent work (the 1987 concert at Hitomi Memorial Hall). “Begin Again,” Kenneth Silverman’s biography of John Cage, helped me appreciate music that I could happily never listen to.
I read a lot for work. The 2020 election books were part of the beat: “Frankly, We Did Win This Election,” by Michael C. Bender, “Battle for the Soul” by Edward-Isaac Dovere, and “Lucky” by Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes. I really didn’t get much out of “Lucky,” but was probably too harsh on it — everyone covering 2020 as a traditional campaign had their usual access cut off by March. My Post colleagues produced two of the best 2020 books, “I Alone Can Fix It,” and “Peril,” but I thought Jonathan Karl’s “Betrayal” was the most poignant, capturing the shock of the old media establishment at how far Trump actually went to attack the election. David Freedlander’s “The AOC Generation” captured a political movement that seemed over by the time I read it. Sebastian Payne’s “Broken Heartlands,” his study of Labour’s fallen “red wall,” was the freshest stuff I’d read on a topic everybody’s tired of hearing about. (One of my regrets as a poster is making so much fun of “diner safaris.” Some of the reporting on white voters without college degrees is fantastic, and too many people now reflexively hate all of it.)
Point is: I made time to read more, but focused more on histories and stuff I was already interested in than in Great Books or Classic Stories. A nice little bridge between the two was “A Swim in a Pond in the Rain,” by George Saunders, with its wonderful exercises for deconstructing stories. “It Never Ends,” by Tom Scharpling was my favorite memoir; Ray Padgett’s “I’m Your Fan,” a 33 1/3 book about tribute albums, my favorite quick read; “Reign of Terror” by Spencer Ackerman, my favorite book about the state of things; “Billion Dollar Loser,” the best business book; “Harrow,” a post-cataclysm novel by Joy Williams, my favorite new novel. I don’t know how to classify Nathan Rabin’s “The Joy of Trash,” but I’d recommend that, too. The one thing I hated? “The Ministry for the Future” by Kim Stanley Robinson, which surprised me because the interviews he did on the junket for that book were phenomenal. Just didn’t work for me as a translation of climate realism into sci-fi drama.
I didn’t keep as up to date on comics, apart from a dozen or so nights or plane ride when I was craving graphic art over text. I’d waited until Alan Moore’s “Providence” got compiled to finish it, and didn’t fall in love. It felt like a decent TV serial, with a winking Lovecraft story reference in every episode. “Crisis Zone,” the new Megg and Mogg book, didn’t unlock for me until I sat down and ignored everything else, reading the stream-of-consciousness story in one go. I finally picked up “Upgrade Soul” by Ezra Clayton Daniels after finding a signed copy, and got the good kind of fear — the encystment of a new nightmare in your brain, the terror of thinking through its implications. Dave Sim’s “Strange Death of Alex Raymond” was obsessive and beautiful, with no easy way in, the book I most often looked back at to see if I could translate another piece of it.
This was the year that I finally dug into Junji Ito, speaking of horror comics. I’d read “The Enigma of Amigara Fault” in 2020, and didn’t seek any more of his work out, before stumbling across his “Cat Diary” and buying it for the s.o. The next time I went book shopping, I got discounted copies of “Dissolving Classroom,” “Deserter,” and “Fragments of Horror,” which weren’t his best work. “Black Bird” was extraordinary. The story cycle about a Satan-worshipper whose apologies melt victims’ brains into a goo for his sister to eat — look, it isn’t good, but didn’t you have fun reading that sentence?
Only a few superhero comics fell into the pile, almost all of them on the Marvel Unlimited and DC Universe apps. After a few friends warned me that the “X of Swords” crossover was disappointing, I dove in, and thought Jonathan Hickman had written my favorite “cosmic” X-Men story. “Spider-Man: Life Story” had a terrific hook, with Chip Zdarsky starting the story in 1966 (“I’ve been Spider-Man for four years”) and letting his hero age. Peter Parker’s self-reflective enough already - imagine the guy looking back on his mistakes as a senior citizen.
But I’m sure I spent less time reading comics than hearing about them on podcasts. Connor Goldsmith’s “Cerebro,” with its ludicrous mandate of profiling every single X-character, was my favorite pure distraction on long drives. I hyped “Hell of Presidents,” the Chapo spin-off history podcast, in The Trailer, and I’ll do it again now. “Bizarre Albums” remains the best podcast I never hear anybody else talk about, and it’s mystifying — Thaxton has now profiled *two* Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle cash-in records. Try to listen to the episode about “All Ears: CB Songs” without pulling over to the side of the road and heave-laughing.
Any day now, I’m expecting to fall completely out of touch with pop music, like I’ve fallen out of touch with celebrity. It hasn’t happened yet. Thanks to the s.o., I saw a new band live for the first time in two years — Khraungbin, thanks to tickets that sold out so fast we briefly thought about scalping them. “Screen Violence” was the best CHVRCHES record yet, and the first one I liked more as I replayed it. I’d never really listened to Halsey at all, but the new album, the collaboration with Academy Award Winner Trent Reznor, was a good win for the poptimists. And because I’m being honest with this recap, I probably watched the video for “5 Ways” thirty times.
Still here? Okay: I followed new music just a little this year, and otherwise kept sinking into the Jazz Hole I dug in 1979. Nobody wants to read about a white yuppie discovering Don Cherry and Fats Navarro this year. I barely want to write about it. But it happened, and I never got bored digging into those catalogues.
I don’t get bored in general. At this point in my life, I consider that a fault, because it would be healthier to spend some chunk of time that went into all this reading and listening and went outside again to do something physical. For a long time, I looked at the multiplicity of things to read, watch, and hear, and never imagined running out of time to enjoy it. Then I spent most of a year mostly inside, mostly not traveling, with lots of time to absorb pop culture — to overload on it and imagine dropping dead with a pile of unfinished books behind you.
Can’t do anything about dropping dead one day, but can do something about the pile. Next year I’ll break it down further and give more away.
In the meantime, fine, here’s a listicle. I’ll write up my look at the movies I saw this year tomorrow, unless enough subscribers — all of whom are getting this for free, all of whom I love — tell me not to.
Best Video (Any Format): Internet Historian’s “Cost of Concordia.” The best thing he’s ever done, turning a disaster story I’d maybe spent 10 seconds thinking about into a study of fraud, crime, hubris, media manipulation, and bumbling Italians.
Best New Publication: The Reveal, the latest team-up by the movie reviewers behind “The Dissolve” (RIP) and “The Next Picture Show.”
Best Single: The first time I heard “Don’t Go Puttin’ Wishes In My Head,” I texted three friends a link to its music video, asking them if they also felt their minds expanding as Torres sang. They did not, and I can now listen to this song without immediately re-playing it, but it’s immaculate.
Best Album: Low’s “HEY WHAT.” Thank you to Sylvan Esso for playing this in its entirety while their stage got set up at the Greek.
Best TV Show: “How To With John Wilson.” Just going to wave my hands and point to the Times profile.
Best Web Series: “Channel 5,” the heroic return of Andrew Callaghan after grifting and jackassery killed “All Gas No Breaks.”
Best Host: Joe Bob Briggs, always and forever. His digressions on “The Last Drive-In” calm me the way I imagine Peppa Pig calms an anxious toddler. I don’t know how much longer AMC is going to keep pumping quarters into “Shudder,” especially because “The Walking Dead” franchise is winding down, but I hope it’s forever.
Best Hike: Vasquez Rocks, but I promise to do better next year.
Best Sandwich: The fried chicken shwarma at Dune. As I’ve told anyone who’ll listen: It’s chicken shwarma, fried, on a bun. Isn’t it strange that you haven’t eaten something like this before? Who’s been keeping it from you? Whose agenda do they serve?