Critiquing the Critiquers

I maintain in my thesis that the only people really talking about the arts--as in created works meant for audience consumption--are fans. Academe seems vaguely embarrassed, as intellectuals so often are, by the whole thought of people actually liking--as in enjoying, as in willingly partaking of without complaint--television or popular books. There seems to be this general idea, which one encounters initially amongst teenagers, that anything REALLY popular must be simply dreadful--as in filled with conservative, pro-establishment, capitalistic statements. Unfortunately, this leads many academics who want to explore popular culture to create unbelievably convoluted justifications for doing so. I recently read a book about romance novels by a professor who evidently enjoys said novels; however, she spent several chapters-worth arguing that just because a novel ends in marriage doesn't mean it is anti-feminist; the marriage actually represents a new beginning and a new state of society, etc. etc. She's right, but it would be so much easier if she'd just said, "I'm sorry you detractors think marriage stinks. I don't. Get over it."

Basically, to return to my thesis, I argue that while fans occasionally get caught up in this kind of foolishness, they are principally fans. That is, while they make hurumph noises about the media industry and all the greedy corporations, they are mostly interested in the WORK.

And this is enormously refreshing.

Take for instance, Jacob and Joe R. who critique American Idol for Television Without Pity. I confess, I watch American Idol now mostly so I can read the critiques. They vary considerably from week to week. Jacob is more poetic but less grammar conscious (lots and lots of run-on sentences). He also swears a lot more, so if that sort of thing bothers you, don't read him. Joe R. swears less and is more pithy. In general, although they both utilize sarcasm like a sledgehammar and are more than a little self-aware, making references to their own status as viewers as well as to other shows (academics call this "intertextuality" which means, well, making references to other shows), they do talk about THE SHOW. They talk about how well Ryan Seacreast did that night. They talk about the singers. They talk about the judges. They reference the audience's reactions. They dissect what the Idols wore. They make fun of the Idols' commercials.

Like any kind of in-depth, relentless dissection, it gets a bit tedious after awhile, but then so do academic treatises and said treatises get tedious much faster. And Joe R. and Jacob, without tying themselves into convoluted knots, take themselves much less seriously than your average popular culture academic.

And they often reach heights of perception and poetry. Regarding Sanjaya's release? dismissal? Joe R. writes, "When the time comes [for Sanjaya's last song], Sanjaya changes a lyric to 'Let's give 'em something to talk about, other than hair!' Man, that's so...he is very, very seventeen, is he not? That whole attitude of 'Let me try to deflect your criticism of me by wearing my hair in outlandish and frightening ways, but don't talk about me and mind your own business!'? Very seventeen. As if to prove my point, seventeen-year-old Jordin loves it. Even Simon has to give it a smirk. Hey, he's someone else's problem now."

And Jacob wrote the following concerning a young woman who, during try-outs, wanted to win approval from her mother. I happened to see this particular tryout, and I completely agree with Jacob's assessment.
[This] is really upsetting, for some reason, to watch. I think it has to do with the anger. She's kind of a goober, this girl, and the 'TV pretty' speech is one of the few times she focuses on anything, and it's so sad because she's totally cute, with a strange deep duckly voice and dorky ways, and it just gets worse. 'Um, it did hurt a little, but [my mother is] coming around and supporting me a little bit.' [After the audition, which she bombs] Ryan Seacrest is this close to crying . . . and it's a strange little collage of things that shouldn't make you cry, like Ryan and Taylor Hicks and this weird girl, adding up to something pretty bleak, emotion-wise. I still don't think I've nailed it down exactly, but I think it's the sincerity of her, and the anger . . . and the complete lack of talent, and the fact that the four judges don't get it, but Ryan totally gets it, so there's a whole inside the room/outside the room issue, and no way to protect her.
Uh-huh. And again, all this analysis is coming about because these two guys watch THE SHOW and comment on THE SHOW and have opinions about THE SHOW. They do use their insights to jump off onto other topics, particularly Jacob who knows more about music in his pinky finger than I do in my whole life ever (I'm with Joe R. on this one who writes, "All this time I felt like a fraud because I was recapping this music show, and I have terrible taste in music, but now? I realize that I'm the perfect person to recap this show because everyone on here has terrible taste in music, too! It's like a weight has been lifted."). But principally, the two critiquers are concerned with THE SHOW--whether it is good or bad; what they don't like about it; what they like about it; what works; what falls flat, etc. etc. And I think, really, this is what academics don't get, humanities academics particularly who are SUPPOSED to care about literature and poetry and character development and such: you can't write about stuff, really write about stuff, that you don't love, and you can't love it if you're attaching "imperialistic-ideological-the-underpinnings-of-liminal-culture-ooh-are-we-supposed-to-like-this?-how-class/race/sex-conscious is it?" labels to it.

Which is why, in the long run, television and the fans will win.


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