Pop Culture in its Native Habitat

I find it very difficult to be bored when engaged in conversation with a knowledgeable person on the topic of their enthusiasm.

Just as the best way to see a country or region or neighborhood is to stay with someone who lives there and knows it intimately, one of the best ways to experience pop culture is through the eyes of someone who loves it. This is not so that you absorb their view of it – for people who love something may be blind to its flaws (though they may well have eyes wide open to the flaws and love it, anyway – which can make for some very interesting discussion), but so that their enthusiasm can be a prism through which you gain a greater understanding of the way the piece of culture is viewed.

Part of this can be getting a hint of the deep contextual nuance of what makes or made a piece of art feel relevant to people at its popular height.

I have a friend who, though she is similar in age to me, missed a lot of the pop culture I grew up with. She likes seeing it through my eyes or through the eyes of her other friends who show her things that they love. There is a lot of talk in my circle about ‘catching her up’ on movies or TV or music, though that’s really not what’s happening, of course.

She is a tourist in the pop culture realms I am a native to. In spite of the fact that we were born in the same country and grew up speaking the same language, she has a completely different contextual framework than I do.

Frankly, it’s a lot of fun to introduce her to things I love, be they music, comics, movies, TV or just strange, small pieces of ephemera. She gets to see them through my lens, and I get to see them through hers.

Watching something with her that she is seeing for the first time is an absolute blast. It can also be uncomfortably revealing. All the stuff that I didn’t really pay attention to because that’s what we all did, then or because I was just a kid come into sharp relief as I am forced to look at them with fresh eyes.

It’s such an education, even with things I’ve experienced so many times before that I can recite them.

I was there, for instance, the first time she watched The Thing. It’s an older movie — considered by some (me) to be a classic and considered by many others to be a bit too schlocky with too cheesy of special effects to be taken seriously in this day and age.

But imagine watching a horror film with someone who doesn’t know any of the tropes and likely twists of the genre. Imagine not knowing any of the meta-syntactic filmmaking cues that can give away the direction a story is headed. Imagine seeing a story truly for the first time and having no clue what was going to happen and living and dying with every breath.

I hope it doesn’t make me a sadist how much I enjoyed seeing her entwined helplessly in the film moment-to-moment.

It honestly put me in mind of when I was a middle schooler and read Pride and Prejudice the first time, knowing nothing about romance tropes (I was, predictably, a scifi/fantasy nerd). I was genuinely shocked when Mr. Darcy proposed. I was further shocked at what went on between Lydia and Wickham. I had no precedent for what went on in that well-worn story.

It’s a feeling I think we eventually assume is impossible to recapture. Generally when something shocks me that way at this point it’s either something extraordinarily rare and well-crafted, or (far more frequently) it’s something truly awful. The joyous storytelling river that swept me away is largely closed to me now.

It’s nice to feel I can take short rides on it, now and again, with a friend.

So she and I were talking, over the holidays, about this phenomenon she’d experienced multiple times, where she’d experience a song or a film or whatever and not like it much, but then if a friend showed it to her again, some of their enthusiasm may rub off. Or she would see its better qualities because the filter of a friend could show them to her.

This is not to say that she replaces her own opinions with those of other folks. She is a thoughtful and engaged consumer of art. She’ll mull it all over on her own terms, but she recognized how much easier it is to appreciate something when its in its home context, as it were.

She and I get together every few weeks to watch movies together and chat. It’s quite a rewarding exchange (for both of us, I hope). My knowledge and enthusiasm for her intelligence and fresh eyes.

I hope we get to keep doing it even if she gets as jaded as I am, though I honestly doubt that’s entirely possible. In the meantime, I hope she gets as much out of experiencing things with me as I get experiencing them with her!