I’m not much of a popular culture guy. Really, I don’t like most of what you could fit under the umbrella of popular culture. Television programs. Radio songs. But I don’t want to take too much credit for this. Or, rather, I would like to take credit for this, to suggest that I’m not much for popular culture because I’m a bit more discerning, a bit more culturally advanced, but in reality the biggest reason I’m not much for popular culture is that I’ve effectively banished myself from it. For example, I don’t own a television. Or, rather, I do own a television, but it gets no reception. I use it for watching VHS tapes and DVDs, and the movies I watch have nothing to do with popular culture. I’m stuck on the French New Wave and, because I spend a lot of time in Spain, movies from Spain, and in particular movies set in Madrid, since that’s my favorite city in Spain. The sound of Castilian Spanish comforts me when I’m holed up in Los Angeles writing very long books and teaching irrelevant classes in creative writing at a community college. I don’t even care what the movies are about. I do my best to forget the plots as I’m watching them. I just want to hear the Castilian Spanish, to think about places far away and the summertime, when things are supposed to feel simpler, and in my experience usually do.
I don’t turn on the radio in my car or, rather, I do turn on the radio, but I only listen to sports talk radio. It’s a matter of policy, and policy very quickly becomes superstition. It’s all very Freudian: If you make your own rules for yourself, then you can never get away with breaking them; or you can always get away with breaking them, since they’re your rules, but since you can always get away with breaking them, it becomes extremely imperative not to break them. It’s the same way that when the son becomes the father he imposes all of the unjust rules that his father imposed upon him upon himself and his own son. Go figure. So, in the car, nothing but sports talk radio. Which I suppose is a form of popular culture, but it’s a very particular and limited form of popular culture.
One of my roommates has a subscription to Star Magazine, unfortunately, and this is probably my primary exposure to popular culture. Every week it happens the same: I swear to myself that I won’t read it, but at some point I encounter it, either dangling through the mail slot or sitting on the dining room table, and my resistances break down. In a panic, I grab it and start flipping backwards, reading everything, and believe me, there’s not much to read in a Star Magazine. You can practically read without slowing down in your flipping. My heartrate accelerates. I don’t know what I’m so afraid of finding in there—maybe that one of my old rivals, or worse yet one of my friends, has become a star—or maybe I’m afraid that the part of myself that wants to read Star Magazine will take ownership of the part of myself that does not, and then who knows what will become of me? And I don’t really read everything, even if it feels like it. I read what you can read of a Star Magazine in about two or three minutes. Maybe that’s all of it. I don’t know. It bothers me, though, that despite having exiled myself in this fashion from popular culture, I can’t quite lose my ties to it. For example, I know very well who Paris Hilton is. Why? I guess you can’t flip through a Star Magazine and not learn who Paris Hilton is, but I knew who Paris Hilton was before the roommate with the subscription to Star Magazine moved into my apartment.
Whenever some friend of a friend—and since I have only one friend in Los Angeles almost everyone I come into contact with socially is a friend of a friend, and usually a more distant connection than that—introduces some tidbit from the realm of popular culture into the conversation, I want to be able to say that I have no idea what she is talking about. In fact, I usually do say that I have no idea what she is talking about, but I’m usually lying. Somehow, despite my self-imposed exile from popular culture, nothing gets past me. Or, for example, the only time I find myself face to face with crap Hollywood movies is on trans-Atlantic flights. Despite the fact that I don’t enjoy flying and am eager for the time to pass, I refuse to accept the headphones the airlines provide. As it turns out, I don’t need them. I always end up watching the movies anyway, and I follow the stories just as well without the sound. Last summer I actually got choked up, despite the fact that I hadn’t actually heard a word of it, toward the end of a movie starring Pierce Brosnan and Julianne Moore called The Laws of Attraction. I know who those people are. I knew who they were before I ever got choked up at the end of a movie they starred in together. Pierce Brosnan starred in a number of James Bond movies, none of which I have seen, and Julianne Moore has red hair. How do I know this?
Why did I get choked up at the end of a romantic comedy starring the two of them? Was I really that surprised that, despite the fact that they faced so many obstacles, they ended up together? Did I ever entertain the notion that they would not?
And why did I know enough about the story for it to choke me up without hearing a word of it? Isn’t audio supposed to be an indispensable element in cinema?
I guess what I’m getting at is that things like television or celebrity culture or crap Hollywood movies or pop music—the things we could fit under the popular-culture umbrella—make it so easy for us, we don’t have to do anything at all to get them, and that’s part of the reason that I, and many other people, have decided to go in other directions. Because we don’t trust anything that makes itself so easy for us. Because we want to do the work of confronting the unfamiliar and the unpredictable, perhaps because we think we will grow from doing that work, or because we think we will learn to love more kinds of people, which is a thought that occurs to me from time to time.
I was thinking all of this after I saw Merce Cunningham’s current dance production, Split Sides, at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in downtown Los Angeles. The production, which combines Cunningham’s typically complex choreographies with musical scores by the pop rock bands Sigur Rós and Radiohead, has attracted a good deal of attention, and not surprisingly: it sounds awfully sexy. I like modern dance—the kind of dance that people like Merce Cunningham have pioneered—for more or less the same reasons that I do not like that which fits under the popular-culture umbrella: because it makes you come to it. It does not accommodate your expectations. It does not soothe you with symmetry or predictability. It does not play into or against the patterns that, from the moment of your birth, have been etched into your cortex. Because, in short, you do not know it instinctively. I want to do this work. It pleases me. It helps me grow. It gives me a sense of accomplishment and self-importance. I hope these last are the least compelling reasons I like this kind of work, but I doubt it.
At first glance, the combination of Cunningham’s modern dance and the music of a band like Radiohead makes a lot of sense. You tend to think of Radiohead in those same terms: asymmetrical, unfamiliar, jarring, shocking, troubling, challenging. But to see the piece is to discover that, when we apply these terms to Merce Cunningham and to Radiohead, we are applying them in two very different ways. When we apply them to Merce Cunningham, we are operating at a sort of degree-zero level, an experiential level, but when we apply them to Radiohead, we are simply characterizing Radiohead, which is a pop rock band, in relation to pop rock music, and indeed if Radiohead’s music is asymmetrical and unfamiliar and jarring, shocking, troubling, challenging in relation to its bedfellows, all of those other pop rock bands, it is not fundamentally all of those things. Fundamentally, it is still pop rock music, and pop rock music is fundamentally symmetrical, familiar, and easy. My best friend Jesse, who is about to finish his doctorate in history, is a big fan of a television show called The Wire, and after a lot of cajoling I finally watched an episode of it with him. I think Radiohead is probably something like The Wire, which despite being more interesting than most other hour-long television dramas, is still a television show. It still comes to you. It is still achingly familiar. You cannot lose it even if you try.
So what I’m trying to say goes something like this: Radiohead, which is a pop rock band, is asymmetrical and unfamiliar in relation to every other pop rock band in the history of pop rock, but a Merce Cunningham dance piece is asymmetrical and unfamiliar in relation to pop music on the whole, as a genre. It is all of the things that pop music is not, whereas Radiohead, for everything else it might be, is pop music.
And I like Radiohead. Two years ago I saw them play the Ventas, the Plaza de Toros in Madrid, and it was fantastic. Ventas, with that bullring shape and all of the people smoking hashish inside of it, was like a giant bowl, and I caught quite a contact high. Two years before that I saw them play the Plaza de Toros in Bilbao, Spain, and that was also great, although that time I watched from the sand—still, stained with blood from bulls earlier in the evening—and caught no contact high. All of the smoke kept billowing in tendrils above my head. But Radiohead is pop music.
And this was confirmed by listening to Radiohead while I watched a Merce Cunningham dance piece. The difference assaulted you. What I can tell you is that the Radiohead soundtrack was recognizably Radiohead. You knew instantly that it was Radiohead, and although I would imagine that plenty of people in the audience had never heard a Radiohead song, I would nonetheless insist that all of those people instantly recognized Radiohead, if not as Radiohead then, more generically, as recognizable, in the same way that I can turn on a television program I have never seen before—maybe one I have never even heard of—and instantly place myself. The Merce Cunningham piece was recognizably Merce Cunningham in that it was asymmetrical and jarring, starting and stopping, smooth and then awkward and then awkward again and then smooth, or something like that, unbalanced and overweighted until suddenly it wasn’t, but I can only speak of the piece—the dance portion of the piece, anyway—in those generalities, because that is all I remember of the piece. Even during the half-standing ovation, that was all I could remember about the dance portion of the piece, and so I was forced to conclude then, as I am forced to conclude now, that despite the fact that I looked at a dance piece for the better part of an hour, I never actually saw it, and I think the reason I never saw it was that Radiohead drowned it out.
I like Radiohead, but Radiohead does not interest me nearly as much as Merce Cunningham. And I am saying, essentially, that I did not see the dance piece because of the Radiohead piece, which played simultaneously, but why? Why would the one exclude the other? What I am saying is that I could not see the Merce Cunningham over the din of the Radiohead, and what I suggest is that the reason I could not see the Merce Cunningham over the din of the Radiohead is that the Radiohead was pop rock music—symmetrical and familiar and all of the things that popular culture is—while the Merce Cunningham piece was the opposite, difficult, not iconic but iconoclastic, all of the things that popular culture is not.
That’s the question that troubled me then as it troubles me now. That night I thought about how it is that Wal-Mart has succeeded in pretty much putting every small-town local business in this country—and plenty of big-city local businesses, as well—out of business. I thought about the fact that despite the existence of a Mexican grocery store two blocks from my apartment, which could satisfy all the grocery needs which can be satisfied at a big chain like Ralph’s, I always drive a half-mile to the nearest Ralph’s when I need a loaf of bread or milk or a can of beans. It’s not so much a choice as it is a reflex: I don’t even see the Mexican grocery store. Occasionally, on occasions such as this, reflective occasions, I remember it, and then I wonder why I never go there. I did once, on a reflective occasion such as this, and found all of the things I would ever want to find at Ralph’s. It occurs to me that Ralph’s drowns out the Mexican grocery store in my consciousness in much the same way that Wal-Mart drowns out God knows how many local businesses, in the same way that Radiohead drowns out the Merce Cunningham dance piece, even as it occurs in space and time before my very eyes; blinds me to it even as I look at it.
The name of the piece, Split Sides, is a misnomer, insofar as it suggests two simultaneous presences, almost like a television screen split in two. There are not two frames in Split Sides, Cunningham on one side and Radiohead on the other. Rather, the one, the Radiohead side, eradicates the other, the Cunningham, like invagination, like autophagy, and then it is gone, lost forever in the din of symmetry and predictability.
I don’t know if the dance portion of the piece, then, was a failure, because I basically didn’t see it, or a success because it succeeded in destabilizing my sense of what I prefer and what I reject, my certainty that I choose what I choose because it is what I choose. What I do know is that what I have been calling “popular culture” doesn’t make it easy on us, as we would tend to suspect, but rather makes it immeasurably hard on us, almost impossible, because when it is there, it is impossible to look away. And when that happens, how much do we miss? How much do we lose forever?