It was November 30, 1985 in the late afternoon. I recall that it was a cold day, and the almanac gets my memory’s back here. My birthday earlier in the month was the second-latest of all us sixth graders. (Ryan Lockwood’s was, of course, just before Thanksgiving). I sat with the Swell Guys and Ryan—and probably Bill Butler and Tom Clemons, and maybe a few others—in the center of a theater at the Chicago Ridge Mall watching two muscular, hairless men—one black, the other white—pummel each other on a giant screen. It could have been Friday, the 29th, but… I guess it doesn’t matter.
For this brief period, before the December and January birthdays began, we were all 11 years old. All the same age. All on the cusp of our teenage years. Yet one of us was quite different.
As the American lay dying in his manager’s arms (our titular hero), the victorious and disturbingly even-keeled Soviet told reporters that as far as, you know, Apollo’s health goes, “If he dies, he dies.” Fortunately he said this in English. Otherwise, viewers in the Chicago Ridge Mall would have had no idea just how indifferent to human life Drago was. And, by extension, all Soviets.
That’s when my unwelcome epiphany arrived. Just as I rolled my eyes and thought to myself, “Oh, please,” the Swell Guy beside me said, “What a jerk.”
I will not name the Swell Guy who said it. Let’s call him Octavius. Almost 28 years have passed, but my embarrassment for Octavius has not abated. (I should mention that the Swells were so named since they not only wanted to go to Marist High School, which is bad enough, but wore Marist T-shirts and hats from pretty much birth on. You recall the timeless dis “Marist is the fairest,” right? Or better yet: “You hear Marist is going co-ed? They’re letting guys in!” That shit never gets old. “Swell Guys” played off of the well-known delicacy of that school’s student body, and is thus a truly classic insult that I will never let go.)
Now, I am not saying that at 11-and-one-month I was some prodigy. I will not say, (like some do), that the spirit that drove William Hazlitt, Oscar Wilde, and Pauline Kael to critical glory had already awoken within me. And I am not saying Octavius was particularly dumb or anything. I’m just saying it was a bullshit and manipulative scene and I knew it. And I also knew that if I wanted to stay friends with the other guys, I should probably keep my mouth shut on the ride home. I am pretty sure I did not since I rarely shut up and we did not stay friends.
It’s been a painful lesson that I have failed to learn again and again. It is not in one’s best interest to openly dislike Rocky IV, Top Gun, Bon Jovi, the Eagles, the TV show “Friends,” American Beauty (at least not right when the audience at Webster Theater in Chicago was still clapping), Radio Lab, TED Talks, or the more insultingly simplistic episodes of Planet Money. No one wants to hear you say a song is derivative if they already like it. No one wants to hear that an uplifting This American Life piece was precious and simply reinforced the modern bourgeois prejudices of us educated liberals. And no one wants to be told that, actually? Ivan Drago is not a jerk but an actor named Dolph, and he is just reciting a line sorta badly so that you react the way you are supposed to react, and not with the true surprise and real feeling that quality art excites in you.
Now, I could not articulate all that on November 30, 1985, but I already had in me a distaste for shitty art and a hunger for awesome art. Plus an inability to just shut up. Most people are not like that. To most people, art is…
OK, first of all? “Art” is not something most people ever think about at all, and if you say the word “art,” most people are gonna think “paintings.” A movie is a movie and a song is a song. “Don’t read so much into it,” they will say whether you praise or pan too vigorously.
Anyway, to most people, art is best when it is a kind of wallpaper. A background they only barely detect and that tells them they are Home. The song they’ve heard a million times, even a bad one, is safer than the unfamiliar one they might enjoy more. The two-decade old movie they already laughed at, or the new one full of people who used to be funny, is safer than the movie with a bunch of unknowns. To most people, it would be unwelcome if Ivan Drago turned out to be human that early into the fourth entry of The Rocky Pentalogy, if he had cried in the ring, maybe became so disturbed by the violence he had wrought that he actually vomited right there in the clutch of reporters, if he had cried out, “What have I done! Apollo! APOLLO. Wake up!!!” in a high-pitched whine, not in English but in Russian, if we had to go to the effort of reading the subtitles to get the true emotional heft of the moment… Well, the Octaviuses of this world would not be very keen, funding would have dried up, and the series would have ceased before Scene One of Rocky V (admit it, your favorite) could even be shot. Rocky IV would have spent maybe a weekend in the theaters, (assuming the impossible happened and such a movie could get studio backing), and then been shuttled off to the art house where it belongs. And no, "the art house" does not mean "a house with paintings."
It’s hard to blame Octavius for reacting the way he did. It is fun to just enjoy the story, however silly, with the rest of the audience. There have been times when I envied him. There have been times at weddings when, getting another beer to avoid dancing to a song I hate, I wished that I could be out there with my friends shouting, “Ohhh! We’re halfway the—ere! Oh-Oh! Livin’ on a prayer!” There are times when I wish I could just shut off my brain and have fun. But, “Oh-oh! At such a co—ost!”
Is it snobbish to assume/think that the tremendous joy I get—every day—from the art I actually do like would be compromised once I lowered my standards? Because that’s what I am implying, that my standards are higher than Octavius’s and that I reap more enjoyment from the art I select. And since “higher standards” semantically here may as well mean “better standards,” at least to most people, eventually that S-word must come out. Snobbish. Snobby. You think someone is wrong for liking the Eagles' music? Then what kind of a snob are you? It’s the harshest accusation you can level at an educated person in a demotic age. Well, I guess “vicious racist” is a tad worse.
I’m wrestling with this today because I told another Octavius—not a Swell Guy, but a good fellow all the same who I’ve also known since the 1980s—that a song he liked sucked. Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines,” if you must know. I spent a good 800 hundred words proving my thesis in what, I thought, was a thrillingly brillant email, yet much to his evident annoyance.
In wrestling with this, I’m in good company. Christian Wiman wrote that an editor, “once asked me to tone down the rage I’d written into a review of what I thought were complacently mediocre books.” He allows the editor was right, “in a way. In criticism as well as in poetry, it is our truest tones that most deeply betray us…” He allows that the editor wanted him to act “within a certain range of decorum.” And yet he thinks the editor was wrong too. “The egomania and the self-loathing and the rage of the young poet are all qualities that no artist can afford to completely outgrow… It’s not always pretty.”
No one has yet asked me to blurb a writer I secretly despise, and no publisher has yet asked me to change a story’s ending to appease The Authorities. So I play my acts of cultural defiance where they lie. When Bon Jovi comes over the loudspeakers, I leave the dance floor. When Radio Lab come on the NPR stream, I dive for the stop button. And when an Octavius asks what I think of “Blurred Lines”—or does not ask—I take a deep breath and tell him. It’s not always pretty.
I can hear a sage right now telling me of his own struggle with his gut reactions and his prejudices, how he overcame them, and how, “If I can change, then you can change. Everybody can change!” The truth of the sentiment gives me pause, until I realize —-wait. That’s Rocky Balboa’s speech to the Soviets at the end of Rocky IV, after he avenged Apollo Creed’s death and put the hated Drago to the mat.
Nah, I’m not taking that advice. 'Cause man, that movie sucked.