At the tail end of the fourth episode of Dawson's Creek's first season, Dawson says to his friend, "I'm mad at the world, Joey. I'm a teenager." I nearly went blind rolling my eyes into the back of my skull—not because that's a ridiculous line of dialogue (though it sort of is), but because I intoned that sentiment repeatedly during my puberty years.Read More
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Despite my commitment to Dawson's Creek, it turns out I'm a complete idiot. I have seen "Kiss," the third episode of Creek's premiere season, plenty of times, and only on this viewing did I notice that the fake name Joey uses with strange new gentleman Anderson Crawford is a variation on the name of the star of From Here to Eternity, which Dawson and Joey watch to kick off the episode.Read More
Dawson Leery wants to be a filmmaker. His drive to pursue his dream is at the center of a lot of his decisions over the course of six seasons, and though the show sometimes forgets about Dawson's grand ambitions, it always manages to circle back to the idea that his dearest dream is to make movies (and in fact the very last scene of the finale is a revelation about his career). The pilot presented Dawson as a celluloid obsessive, what with his urge to get into the one film class at his high school, his carefully curated Spielberg obsession, and his yen to get himself into a junior film festival in Boston with a horror movie whose shoot is interrupted by the arrival of Jen.
So we know that the hunger is there, and that Dawson has acquired plenty of study in his obsessive re-watching of E.T., but what about his actual skills as a storyteller?Read More
In the midst of all the celebration about the return of Mystery Science Theater 3000, I posited that no other piece of pop culture has been more responsible for my personality than that show.Read More
1. What's one question you wish an interviewer would ask you?
Anything, honestly. I've spent most of my adult life interviewing other people, and I like to think that I'm pretty good at it. But in the few times when I've been on the other side of the microphone, I've been terrible at it. I suppose I'd rather be in control of the conversation (that's true in most of my life), but I would like to give myself over to somebody else's agenda once in a while. That's why I'm going through this exercise. So I guess the answer to this question is "Why are you so bad at this?" and the answer is "I'm a lunatic who wants to get better."
2. If you could ride a giant version of an animal to work every day, what would you ride?
My instinct would be some sort of cat (and not a jungle cat either—I'm talking about a giant, saddle-able version of one of my house cats), but I worry about the logistics of that. After all, my cats would probably only get about a block before curling up and grabbing a nap. Am I allowed to mount a giant bird? Because in that case I want to ride to work on a Kyle-capable falcon.
3. What movie have you seen the most?
I regret not having better statistics about my movie watching over the course of my life. There were a bunch of films that were in heavy rotation in my childhood: My brother and I inexplicably watched Clue on repeat (it was a VHS copy rented repeatedly from our local library). I've re-watched my favorite movie of all time, Dr. Strangelove, quite a few times, but I can't imagine it's the one I've watched the most. If I were to venture a guess, I would think the movie I have seen the most was one of the videos I got from my one shipment from Columbia House back in my teenage years. Columbia House was a mail order video service that gave you a handful of VHS tapes up front in exchange for tethering you to an overpriced monthly selection that you had to have the wherewithal to cancel. (They did the same thing with music—all the magazines I read in my youth were full of inserts touting "12 CDs for 1 cent.") I can't remember everything that arrived in my Columbia House box, but I do know that a copy of Men In Black was in there. I like Men In Black enough (and probably liked it slightly more in the late '90s), but the thing that likely puts it at number one on my list is the fact that I used to put Men In Black on in the background while i did homework. It was a pleasant movie that I could reasonably ignore, and it was the soundtrack to filling out my college applications. (Considering I only got into one school, perhaps I should have just worked in silence?)
4. What's a stupid thing that you incorrectly believed for a long time?
I thought for a long time that the only real way to win a woman's heart was to smother her. That was my modus operandi for the better part of my dating life. I finally figured out how to play it cool just in time to meet the woman who would become my wife. I think back at how I treated old girlfriends (or, more particularly, women I pursued who wanted nothing to do with me), and I cringe. I was unfit for human consumption then. I'm glad I figured it out just in time. How I still got laid, I'll never know.
5. What's the most interesting thing you've ever heard about yourself that isn't true?
Everything I've ever heard about myself has mostly been true, and the untrue stuff has always been exceptionally boring. ("Hey, that guy is from Manchester!" when it turns out I'm from one town over—that sort of thing.) I suppose that during my freshman year of college, I remember hearing whispers among people who were also in my acting studio that I had a large penis, which is not really true. I mean, I'm not John Holmes or anything, but I'm doing fine. And in reality, that rumor was pretty common among that group. Not to lean into stereotypes, but there were very few heterosexual men in my music theater classes in college, which made the dating pool significantly small. When you add the fact that we were often walking around in dance clothes, it was easy for the women in the studio to let their minds run amok. So though I heard that rumor about myself, I'm pretty sure I heard that rumor about every other boob-loving dude around me.
6. What's the weirdest thing you've ever eaten?
It's probably something that remains relatively exotic to most people but would seem pedestrian to foodies. I like to think of myself as an adventurous eater, and as a result I don't consider a lot of what I've consumed over the course of my life to be all that unusual. But of course, there are plenty of people who cannot comprehend sushi, which is pretty boring (but delicious!) at this point. My answer is probably escargot, which I have only eaten in Paris and I count as a course within one of the most perfect meals I've ever had. (The main was some sort of duck that I've been chasing like a heroin spike ever since.) I've never eaten anything that was still alive (to my knowledge) and am not into chomping on bugs, so I feel like the truly adventurous in the food world would turn their noses up at this response. And I have attempted to eat durian, the Southeast Asian fruit that smells like a diaper-filled dumpster fire, but since I never actually got it past my lips I don't think it counts.
7. What's the first concert you went to?
In the fall of 1994, Tom Petty put out an album called Wildflowers. It was credited as a solo release even though most of the Heartbreakers played on the tracks. The first single was a song called "You Don't Know How It Feels," which featured the immortal bridge, "Let's get to the point, let's roll another joint." I had decided that it was my favorite song of all time, which is why I purchased Wildflowers and Petty's Greatest Hits on the same day. Petty was probably the first artist with whom I was fully obsessed, and I hungrily sought out interviews and documentaries and old footage and bootlegs to compliment my obsession. So when Petty arrived at the Meadows Music Theater in Hartford in the Spring of 1995 to tour behind Wildflowers, I had to go. My dad took me, along with my cousin Chris and his father Fran. We sat on the amphitheater lawn and joked about opening act Pete Droge (whose records I later adored), and left before the encore to beat traffic. Since Petty's songs were played on pop radio next to Jon Secada, I had no idea that Petty's followers would be such a hippie-centric bunch. That show was my first exposure to marijuana smoke, white guys in dreadlocks, and those goofy Cat in the Hat-style chapeaus. It was great.
8. What's the most interesting opportunity you've gotten through your work?
It's strange because it's another job, but the fact that I have my own radio show is only because of my work as a pop culture writer. My entire career has been more or less accidental: I took an internship at a magazine because it was paid and I was looking for something to do that didn't involve music theater, and that started knocking down the dominoes that led me to Spin, Rolling Stone, MTV, and Entertainment Weekly. I've learned and honed my skills along the way, and I'm deeply lucky that I found something that I like to do. But it does sometimes seem like all of that was leading up to my talking for a living and ultimately performing again.
Of course, all those jobs have given me the opportunity to interview and spend time with some of the people I have idolized the most, like Iggy Pop, Billy Corgan, the members of Sleater-Kinney, and George Clinton. And all of my favorite shows I have ever been to have come because of work that I have done: Nine Inch Nails in a small club in Paris, Bruce Springsteen at a tiny theater in Austin, Metallica at the Apollo, Van Halen in the basement of Cafe Wha, and the bulk of multiple Lollapalooza performers from backstage.
9. What embarrassing phase did you go through?
I've gone through countless—after all, I was in a fucking ska band for a while in my youth and was deeply into Phish for a while. But honestly, the period of my life I'm most embarrassed about is my freshman year of college, when I tried on a whole bunch of personas all at once in a bid for universal coolness that ended up being painfully asinine. I dyed my hair black and started wearing a leather trench coat everywhere, probably in a bid to look like Keanu Reeves in The Matrix? But I was also getting into techno music and writing wannabe New Yorker short stories and reading Proust and drinking a lot of tequila and betting on football. It was an amalgam of nonsense that I'm glad is behind me. It's telling that I'm more embarrassed by that than by anything I did or wore during the ska phase.
10. Have you ever stolen anything, and if so, what?
You know what's weird? I always seemed to have a friend (or multiple friends!) who were avid shoplifters, though I never actually engaged in any of that myself. I did try a little petty larceny one summer, though. If I deemed a CD in Lechmere too expensive, I would replace its price sticker (which were very generic) with a sticker that was slightly cheaper. In doing this, I was often able to buy multiple albums in one sitting with my limited funds. I snagged a bunch of terrible records this way, mostly alt-rock also-rans from the mid '90s (Collective Soul's self-titled sophomore release and Better Than Ezra's Deluxe were definitely copped using this method). I ended up getting busted once because I thought Siamese Dream was too pricey at $13.99 and decided it should be $10.99. I still feel shitty about it.
11. Who is the most famous person you have ever met?
There have been a ton of famous people I've encountered over the course of my career, but it's hard to tell who I've truly met. Like, I've introduced myself and had interesting conversations with countless celebrities, some of them really truly huge. But even though I've interviewed Jerry Seinfeld multiple times, have I really met that guy? So I'm going to keep this answer away from my work and just focus on famous people I have met outside of the context of a brief, agenda-soaked interview. With that in mind, the answer is probably Joss Whedon, who I've had multiple non-work-related conversations with for some reason. He's a nice guy, and he almost certainly doesn't remember who I am, but I first approached him as a fan and have run into him several times since, and he always seems down to talk about whatever. Plus, I've seen him dance at parties. Dude is a good dancer.
The danger in writing about trends is that no matter how precise the reporting or accurate the adjudication of the subject, there's always going to be something hilariously wrong following a decade or so of hindsight. This is especially true of any piece that declares the worries about the future of an institution or downright declares it deceased, because the risk is not only in seeing said touchstone continue to exist but also find fresh ways to hit what appears to be bottom (and then still finding ways to plummet after that). Wide-ranging, long-lasting, ever-evolving pop culture monoliths—rock music, independent film, Saturday Night Live—have all survived to simultaneously defy the naysayers and also discover new ways to disappoint devotees.
MTV has been officially dead no less than a dozen times over the course of its 34 years on Earth, but like a Time Lord, it manages to change its face and direction just in time to thrill newcomers and turn passionate fans into cynical wonks. People were deriding MTV's approach to programming less than a year into its launch, complaining that the video playlist was too narrow, too focused on legacy acts, and not innovative enough. A version of that complaint has surfaced regularly since, often announcing that MTV's newest innovation—the VMAs, The Real World, MTV 2, Jackass, Jersey Shore—represented the downfall of the network and a violation of what they fundamentally represented.
The age of the protestor tends to dictate the specific nature of the complaint, but they all tend to boil down to a singular idea: MTV used to be better. For the first few waves of watchers, that tended to mean that the network no longer played music that you enjoyed; as time marched on, the issues became more about the quality of the reality programming; nowadays, in its current YA-obsessed identity, it's more about the abandonment of issue-based programming. It's a useful shorthand for aging, though: the second you start complaining about MTV is the second you enter a world in which it is possible you are too old to properly consume youth culture.
So all essays about the endtimes at MTV are wrong-headed on some level, but this piece from a 1997 issue of Spin is particularly hilarious in its wrong-headedness, both from the perspective of author Katherine Dieckmann (a director responsible for the not-terrible 2006 feature Diggers and the disastrous Uma Thurman vehicle Motherhood, as well as the two worst R.E.M. videos) and the people who were running MTV at the time (longtime MTV matriarch Judy McGrath comes across pretty well, but the rest of the executive class saddle themselves with buffoonish quotes about advertiser synergy that were anathema in '97 but are par for the course today). At the time, MTV was seemingly answering its critics by launching a strategy that re-committed the network to music-based programming that resulted in a handful of new video shows in primetime and shifted non-music programming like The Real World and Road Rules to 10 PM (MTV still uses "The 10 Spot" moniker to identify that block). The article touts a handful of shows that revolve around videos (including the clunkily titled Popular Videos People Prefer) but seems mostly obsessed with Amp, a series dedicated to showing clips from then-ascendent crossover dance acts like Daft Punk, Chemical Brothers, Moby, and the Prodigy. If you've never heard of Amp, it's because it was pretty short-lived (the last episode aired in 2001, though it frequently disappeared over the course of its five year existence) and also hard to find (as noted in the piece, it tended to air weekends around 1 AM, exactly when the theoretical audience of people looking to watch drugged-out rave videos were at actual raves doing actual drugs). While none of these shows did much for MTV's outlook or bottom line, the shift back to focusing on music was successful in a roundabout way: the dual rises of Swedish teen sugar-pop and mookish nu-metal helped morph a lazy MTV request show into TRL, perhaps the last true musical juggernaut the network produced.
Of course, TRL was never a bastion for artistic adventure or cultural discovery, and according to Dieckmann, the writing was already on the wall by the time 1997 rolled around. One of her other points is that the music video had run its course as a medium, and that a handful of big name dudes had colonized the entire landscape for video production. MTV's early business model was always pretty brilliant: since record labels footed the bill for videos, the network never had to pay a dime for the bulk of its programming. That same model continues more or less unabated today and was the same in '97. Though MTV's impact on music sales had diminished by then, it was still a key component in making or breaking new artists, particularly in the pop realm. So if a label wanted to give somebody a push, that artist had to make a video, and in order to get the right level of airplay necessary to move the needle, that artist had to make a certain type of video—one that tended to be directed by Samuel Bayer or Mark Pellington or Hype Williams or McG. That narrowing of the field had essentially turned music videos—a format wherein young filmmakers tended to be free to experiment, particularly during the alternative era—into empty tentpole blockbusters that brushed aside the personalities of the artist in favor of visual effects. Dieckmann does call out Michel Gondry and Spike Jonze, both of whom were playful and innovative in a way the bulk of their peers were not (and, not coincidentally, ended up making the best feature films when the time came). Dieckmann singles out heavy rotation clips like Bush's "Greedy Fly" and Spice Girls' "Spice Up Your Life" as examples of flatness in music videos (and she essentially predicted the empty high-concept clips that Britney Spears and Backstreet Boys would supply through the end of the decade), but MTV has always operated in between the mainstream schlock and indie innovation. Surely it's worth stomaching well-executed junk like the Wallflowers' "One Headlight" for the sake of underwriting all that awesome shit Bjork was doing, right?
There's also the issue of people pulling their hair out over the quality of MTV's original programming. The Spin piece seems particularly offended by The Jenny McCarthy Show, an unwatchable low-rent sketch show that was even more terrible than its reputation but mercifully only ran for six episodes, but the rest of MTV's programming was a wonderful cauldron of weirdness that included the cerebrally silly sketch show Apartment 2F (starring Randy & Jason Sklar), the Greg Fitzsimmons-hosted comedy game show Idiot Savants, and the iconic animated series Daria. Though it was beginning to lose its way, The Real World was still essential programming, though the 1997 season was the relatively dull trip to Boston. (Road Rules had a much better year, as '97 saw the airing of both Europe and Islands, two wildly entertaining pieces of reality TV nonsense.)
At the time, MTV was also briefly airing an exceptionally weird talk show called Oddville, which traded on the unusual obsession with carny culture that popped up a couple of times in the '90s (the most famous manifestation of this curiosity was the Jim Rose Circus Sideshow, which used to be a key component of many of the Lollapalooza tours of the era). Hosted by a guy named Rich Brown (playing a character named Frank Hope), Oddville began as a public access show, and its early incarnation is not that much different than the version that ended up on MTV, with a rapidly revolving door of celebrity guests, animal acts, stupid human tricks, and a live band. Oddville was a lower-rent show but was still on MTV, so they were able to book a multitude of on-the-rise groups (Blink-182, Hanson) and indie stalwarts (Guided By Voices, the Frogs). Most often, though, they relied on bands that they took chances on but became nothing, like Manbreak, Skeleton Key, and Madder Rose, the latter of which performed on the show to promote their third album Tragic Magic. They were a New York-based act that played a brand of shoegaze-inspired Britpop-tinged alt-rock who I saw open for Bush in 1996 and were inexplicably signed to a major label deal despite the fact that they were not radio-ready even during the modern rock gold rush. But their middle two albums (Panic On and Tragic Magic) are both stellar, and "Hung Up in You" was a peach of a single. The idea that MTV was airing a goofball sideshow clearinghouse and giving a deeply uncommercial drone band a chance to play while a guy in a monkey costume danced along stuck in the collective craw of music critics seems like the kind of problem you want to have.