Friday 31 October 2014

Soapbox: The popular vs good debate over pop culture

Dubbed a thick for liking The Kardashians and feel like a fool for enjoying Mrs Brown? Rory John looks at the snobbery involved with high v low pop culture

Rory John

Published 11/07/2014 | 02:30

Mrs Brown

'The critcs slated it" "Ah yeah but it's number 1 at the box office so what do they know?". Once Mrs Brown tugged up her floppy tan tights and slapped on some lippy for the big screen, it was obvious she would both divide and conquer. The phenomenal success of the Moore Street mammy has once again made apparent the wide gulf between what is considered 'good' and what is popular, what elevates the mind and what is purposely mindless.

Popularity doesn't necessarily denote quality – billions of burgers are sold around the world each day, it doesn't make them steak. Half the world tucked into Fifty Shades of Grey or The Da Vinci Code, yet few would argue they were modern classics. So is a film, TV series or book's eventual worth decided amongst the general populous or from the critics' pulpit? And if someone finds a bit of entertainment entertaining, isn't it good enough?

The immediate response to Mrs Brown's bashing was a repetition of the (somewhat aptly) tired old cliché that critics are just frustrated wannabes, sneering at popular entertainment from the sidelines – a notion Brendan O'Carroll seems to share. "There will always be critics, there will always be donkeys telling the racehorse how he should have run the race, always."

But the bashing hasn't hindered the foul-mouthed matriarch appealing to the masses, with spin-off How Now Mrs Brown Cow descending on the O2 this December for five nights. Donkeys, you have been warned.

Having recently dipped into the world of film criticism myself, I can vouch that when you spend four mornings a week sifting through half-arsed Hollywood clichés for any redeeming feature, you don't revel in being disappointed, rather you desperately want to be entertained.

There's also the idea that critics are predisposed to loathe certain types of film anyway; they'll lap up anything 'artsy' and scoff at fart jokes. Director Michael Bay and producer Lorenzo DiBonaventura came out swinging when critics dumped all over Transformers: Age of Extinction (which, somewhat inevitably, has proved to be a box-office smash). Lorenzo outlined his problem with the haters to ScreenCrush, "It's like they're locked into like, 'OK, let's compare this to a Marty Scorsese movie or a two-hour drama... I don't think they understand the form of entertainment and I don't think they appreciate the form of the entertainment."

I think that's a little unfair. While there are genres that naturally appeal to some more than others, most critics are able to step back and fairly judge something for the type of thing it is – assessing whether or not it's a good example of a popcorn blockbuster, a lightweight romcom, a silly comedy featuring a man in drag, or a CGI fest where robotic aliens ride into battle on the backs of robotic dinosaurs.

We also have to remember that simple entertainment isn't always the goal of what we call the entertainment industry. Cultural output can be uncomfortable, or confrontational. Not every film, TV series, or book is intended to give us an easy ride. Few would say they actively enjoyed the bleak Requiem For a Dream but fewer still would say that makes it a bad film.

On the other hand the idea that something is superior simply because the critics hail it has proven to be false. Film history has proved that critics frequently do get it wrong. The Godfather Part 2 was deemed "a Frankenstein's monster stitched together from leftover parts" upon release and The Wizard of Oz was called "a stinkeroo" by the New York Times. James Agate, writing for The Sunday Times, said of Citizen Kane, "I thought the photography quite good, but nothing to write to Moscow about, the acting middling, and the whole thing a little dull". At the time Psycho was not Hitchcock's masterpiece but rather a "blot on an honourable career" and "obviously a low-budget job".

The idea of the critics or "serious fans" lauding the obscure and deliberately difficult for the sake of it is perhaps even stronger in the music arena. We've all been cornered at a party by a 'serious muso' who drones on about how pop music is crap while simultaneously insisting they never listen to it. I'd rather have a bop to a bit of cheesy pop thanks. If having a shimmy in my car to Girls Aloud makes me dumb, that's fine, at least I'm enjoying myself.

Not everything has to be high-brow, high-art or highly unlikely to make it on to Joey Essex's lust list to be worthwhile.

Returning to the burger metaphor, maybe we don't have to have 'guilty pleasures' but instead we should savour our junk food treat as long as we recognise it for what it is – delicious, easily devoured, and of little nutritional value. The problem is when people become convinced that junk is the only type of food available and anyone who tries out an unpronounceable vegetable is a pseudo-snob. If you overload your brain with nothing but unfiltered junk you become lazy and creatively undernourished. There's nothing wrong with spending a Sunday afternoon accidentally mesmerized by Kardashian catfights, but there may be something wrong with thinking it is the most stimulating drama in television history. Every soap, reality TV, or vampire series fan I know will insist on the caveat "oh I know it's absolute shit, but I love it". When it comes to what's deemed 'good' or 'bad' we should try and get a balanced diet of the innovative, surprising and challenging along with the best of the mindlessly fun popcorn fluff. There's no shame in enjoying junk, but make sure you get a few vitamins in the mix too.

First published in INSIDER Magazine, exclusive to Thursday's Irish Independent
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