Volume 3, Issue 94: One and a Half Stars
"I can't escape my domain."
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One of the most Generation X things I do is trying to explain to my children how insanely lucky they have it that they can just push one button to, in a matter of seconds, listen to essentially any song that has ever been written and performed. That there was ever a time in human history that you could not, in fact, carry around a device in your pocket that would instantly play whatever Radiohead song you wanted it to—or, for that matter, that you could not just yell, “Play Radiohead!” to the sky and have the sound not immediately surround you—is outside their comprehension. Music is not something you wait in line at midnight at the record store to pay 20 bucks for, so that you could put a piece of shiny metal in a Discman that sits on the floor of your 1993 Toyota Camry, connected to a cassette player adapter, with each song stopping any time you go over a bump. Music is simply conjured from the air.
(Absolute all-timer of a line read from Will Arnett there, by the way.)
I once wrote that Generation X would end up being known as the last people in the world who remembered adult life before there was email—Chuck Klosterman hits on this idea particularly well in his upcoming book The Nineties—but, as tends to happen to Generation X, no one will end up caring about that either. Email (and Internet browsing) no longer looks like the revolutionary leap forward as it once did, now that social media and streaming video have taken over. YouTube was invented in February 2005 and didn’t really explode until a year later; I remember, when Deadspin launched in September 2005, being frustrated with the lack of reliable online video players. That was 16 years ago, and there is basically nothing about the Internet, or really much of American life, that is that same as it was then, for better or for (mostly) worse. The basic infrastructure of our culture has been entirely rewritten since then. And you never quite realize just how much until you see it through the eyes of your kids.
My son William and his buddy—they’re back cool again, don’t worry—were in the backyard throwing the football around after school this week while I was upstairs writing some more dumb words on some dumb thing. I went downstairs to check on them at one point and discovered they were listening to music on YouTube, streaming from his friend’s laptop that he’d brought over to the house with him. I vaguely recognized the song: It sounded a little familiar, but discordant with the two 10-year-olds rocking out to it. Like all parents, I’m increasingly embarrassed by the music my children listen to—you can tell someone’s kid is screwing up the algorithm by the Imagine Dragons and “Astronaut in the Ocean” in their Spotify 2021 Wrapped playlists—but this was different. This song was terrible in a way that I knew, intimately, but had tried to suppress. Hearing it was like having a hazy recollection of one of those dreams where you’re three credits short of graduation and have to take a final in your underwear.
It finally clicked what they were listening to. I couldn’t believe they were listening to this:
Now, to be as clear as possible: They had not accidentally clicked on the link. They had not been Rickrolled. There in fact was a resurgence of Rickrolling at the beginning of the pandemic, specifically involving people disguising their “Never Give You Up” videos as Zoom links. I had thought this might have been what happened with the boys. Lord knows they sure spent enough time on Zoom during the nightmare of virtual schooling.
But nope. They were just listening to it. It was their Jock Jams.
Now, ordinarily, I’m very You-Do-You about music. I have not always been like this: Like many people, particularly white dudes in their 20s and 30s, I used to be a huge music snob, mainly because sneering at music that other people liked made me feel like I was more cultured and sophisticated and cool than I really was. Saying that you were dumb for liking a song or a musician allowed me to feel superior because I wasn’t actually comfortable with who I was as a person and needed to tell myself there was something special about me when there wasn’t. (I can admit this now. It took a while.) Even if I think a song is horrible—and there are songs that will make you want to pour sulfuric acid in each ear—if you like it, hey, good for you. It’s tough to find joy in this world sometimes, and if you get it from listening to Sam Hunt or Creed, hey, who am I to stand in your way? Music is inherently personal. I’m really into Meat Loaf. We all have our kinks.
But Rick Astley was, I’m sorry, a step too far. Discovering my son and his friend listening to it wasn’t quite as bad as stumbling across them pulling the wings off insects or setting ants on fire with a magnified glass, but it was close.
“What in the world are you listening to?” I asked them both, bounding through the back door like one of them was being attacked by a bear.
My son’s friend chimed up. “Never Gonna Give You Up!” He had a huge smile on his face.
“This song … this song is horrible,” I said.
“No it’s not,” he said.
“This song is objectively terrible,” I said. “I don’t even think the guy who sings this song likes this song.”
“That’s not true,” he said, and I began to wonder how my father would have handled it if my best friend when I was 10 came into his house and constantly, and cheerfully, contradicted him. I haven’t figured out yet if my lack of a rebuke indicates evolution or regression. He smiled for a second. “Look, I can prove that it’s a great song.”
He then took me over to the computer and showed me the YouTube page.
“More than a billion people have watched this video,” he said. “It’s obviously a great song. More than a billion people! It’s proof!”
He was right, of course: The official YouTube video for “Never Gonna Give You Up” has more than one billion views, one of, reportedly, four songs from the ‘80s to reach that number. (The others are “Thriller,” “Sweet Child o’ Mine” and A-ha’s “Take on Me.”) The reason the song has reached a billion views has nothing to do with the quality of the song itself, of course. The reason the song has reached a billion page views is that people have been Rickrolling each other for more than a decade now. But neither William nor his friend had any idea what Rickrolling was. (I made sure to ask.) They just saw this song that had more than a billion views, which meant it must be a good song, which meant they should listen to it. Next thing you knew, they knew all the words.
I know intellectually that this isn’t that terribly different than how music was when I was growing up. It’s not like filters were great when I was a kid. Just because a song was played on local pop radio did not mean it was a good song; I’m pretty sure “Ice Ice Baby” was No. 1 on Champaign’s WLRW 94.5 FM radio Top Five at Nine for weeks at a time, which is why I listened to it and ultimately saved up my corn-detasseling money to buy “To the Extreme.” (You are reading the words of someone who once owned a cassette single of Nelson’s “(Can’t Live Without Your) Love and Affection.”) Heck, I’m sure you the way music was marketed, packaged and consumed as a kid is the precise reason I heard “Never Gonna Give You Up” when it first came out in 1986, when I was nearly the exact same age as William and his friend are right now. Terrible music always makes its way to the surface, somehow.
But there was something about the explanation that killed me. It has a billion views. So obviously it’s good. There was something so coldly logical about it, the result of a whole generation—multiple generations—of kids who haven’t been able to experience any sort of new art without a number attached to it. The beauty of listening to, say, the Flaming Lips, or Jurassic 5, or even, like, watching “The Larry Sanders Show” was that you legitimately had no idea if you were the only person on the planet who cared about this shit. Maybe everybody liked it, but also maybe it was just you. I’ve always fought against publicly available pageview counts, or follower counts: You should express yourself as if you have a million people watching, and also as if you have, like, three people watching. Knowing the number leads to everyone being performative at all times. It makes it all a big show, and it makes it so no one can have a real exchange of sincere ideas. It’s like being at a party and having a conversation with someone who is always looking over your shoulder for someone more important to talk with.
But this was an aspect of viewing counts that I hadn’t considered. To my son and his friend, there was no context to the song, no history, no reason it might have a billion pageviews. It was just a fact, and that was all that they needed: It was popular, so therefore it must be good. And boy is that a depressing concept.
We play all the dumb games, from listicles to OMG CAN'T BELIEVE WHAT COLIN COWHERD SAID to "I Can't Stop Watching This Video Of A Dog Hugging A Cow." Because we can see the numbers, and everyone has collectively decided that this is what we should be doing, that this is the point of all this. The sad part isn't that so many people dreamed of telling stories and having their voices heard and now load in slideshows about "Strikeforce vs. UFC: Battle of the Ring Girls, who is sexier pound for sexy pound.” The sad part is that we all reward them for it: We make them think this is what they should have been doing all along. … We have all lowered the bar for ourselves. There was a time we didn't give a shit how popular something was, by the way; there was a time that "selling out" was considered the worst thing you could do. There was a recognition that you should at least try to follow your own muse. But why would anyone do that now? The pageview counter and Twitter followers and Nielsen ratings tell what is Working, and what isn't. Quality and passion, there's nothing wrong with them, necessarily ... but they're sort of beside the point.
The sad thing is that even then I knew I sounded old. And I know. It is old to say things like “there was a time” to a bunch of people who were not around during that time and therefore do not care. The past is just a bunch of shit that only people who don’t really matter anymore remember. Just because I recall things being better doesn’t mean they actually were. Nostalgia is poison. I get it.
I nevertheless find it hard to make the argument that a media ecosystem that leads two 10-year-old boys to make the soundtrack to their football paying in the backyard “Never Gonna Give You Up” is a media ecosystem that is working correctly. I am an accepting father who will love his children no matter what they do, no matter who they become, no matter what paths they follow. I will support them throughout their lives, even when they make bad decisions, even when sometimes they break my heart. They are the center of my world, and whatever direction their lives take, I will love them and stand beside them.
But I will confess, kids: Rick Astley is pushing it.
Here is a numerical breakdown of all the things I wrote this week, in order of what I believe to be their quality.
School Shootings Finally Have Villainous Parents, Medium. I cannot wrap my mind around the parents in the Oakland school shooting.
It’s Time to Stop Paying Attention to Enes Kanter Freedom, New York. He had his moment. But it has passed. Lots of John Rocker talk in this one too.
Steven Spielberg Movies, Ranked and Updated, Vulture. Updated with West Side Story.
Joe Biden Desperately Needs You To Start Paying Attention, Medium. I get why you’re not, though.
This Week’s Friday Five Lists, Medium. I have begun to find this a perfectly pleasant way to end my week.
The Long Game With LZ and Leitch, discussing the baseball Hall of Fame, Enes Kanter Freedom and Hard Ass Coaches.
Grierson & Leitch, discussing “The Power of the Dog,” the incredible “The Worst Person in the World” and “Benedetta.”
Waitin' Since Last Saturday, we recapped that awful SEC Championship Game. We’ll be previewing the playoff game after Christmas.
LONG STORY YOU SHOULD READ THIS MORNING … OF THE WEEK
“Why We’ll Never Stop Mourning the American Mall,” Lili Loofbourow, Slate. Loofbourow might be my favorite essayist working right now—you can spend all day getting lost in her archive—and this sad, funny, super-smart piece is a perfect crystallization of why.
ONGOING LETTER-WRITING PROJECT!
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CURRENTLY LISTENING TO
“Barrier Reef,” Old 97s. These guys are playing in Athens in February and I’m deep diving on their catalogue. Listening to these guys makes me very much miss drinking alone in bars.
Remember to listen to The Official Will Leitch Newsletter Spotify Playlist, featuring every song ever mentioned in this section.
I’m heading back to New York City next week. Here is a picture of me climbing a water tower in 2006 like a big stupid idiot. (I will not do this on this trip.)
Have a great weekend, all.