Critical Questions: Nathan RabinBy Anna Graizbord
Rabin in the raw.
Full disclosure: A.V. Club critic Nathan Rabin's work has been a major influence on me and was a crucial component in inspiring my pursuit of pop culture writing. From his brutally frank and pop culture nerd-friendly memoir The Big Rewind to his regular film and music A.V. Club columns, Rabin covers a dizzyingly broad spectrum of pop culture items and yet consistently discovers something interesting and compelling no matter what he's writing about. The level of accessibility, the personal and honest connection he conveys in his writing is rare and beautiful in a world of holier-than-thou snark-crazy critics. I was truly excited then, to be able to dig deeper with Rabin here into the specific works I've enjoyed the most and to take a peek at his numerous upcoming and current projects such as a Weird Al Yankovic coffee table book and his experience being immersed in the world of Phish fans and Juggalos.
CM: As you might recall, I'm a huge fan of your now defunct column "Nashville or Bust" on The A.V. Club. You made all sorts of amazing musical discoveries, but what was your absolute favorite discovery writing that column?
NR: Thanks. I fell in love an awful lot while writing "Nashville Or Bust" but never more dramatically or profoundly than with the music of Gary Stewart. I stumbled upon him by accident: I was researching another artist on YouTube, accidentally clicked on a video of his and was instantly mesmerized by the beautiful pain in his high lonesome vibrato. He was the ghost in the machine, a hopelessly troubled spirit who managed to transform a lifetime of heartache, drinking and loneliness into exquisitely cathartic art in songs like "Drinking Thing", "10 Years Of This" (a favorite of Bob Dylan's and arguably the single most depressing anniversary song ever written) and "She's Acting Single (I'm Drinking Double)", a song whose novelty-song title masks a core of almost unbearable sadness and betrayal. The more I discovered about Stewart, the more fascinating and tragic his story became. Stewart sings repeatedly about the blood-splattered intersection of love, alcoholism and infidelity so it seemed at once apt and bitterly ironic that a man who sang so unforgettably about the suicide-inducing anguish of being cheated on by an unfaithful partner committed suicide by shooting himself in the neck less than a month after his wife of forty-three years died of pneumonia. In Stewart's music, love and its myriad dark mutations have the capacity to kill, not just wound: that seems to have proven true of his life as well.
You don't talk about TV that often, or at least I haven't read much you've written about TV. Do you watch TV? What are some of current shows you like?
I was absolutely addicted to television as a child. As I wrote in my memoir The Big Rewind, as a kid television was so much more than just a way to kill fourteen to eighteen hours every day but when I went to college I read Neal Postman's Amusing Ourselves To Death, which completely changed the way I saw television and entertainment as a whole. I watch a lot less television these days but there are a number of shows I'm passionate about, beginning with Louie, which has completely reinvented television comedy over the course of its run. CK is operating on a higher evolutionary plane than just about anyone else in comedy and I cannot wait to see what he does in the show's third season. I loved the fuck out of Eastbound & Down and think Parks and Recreation is both the funniest and most boldly feminist show on television. Other favorites: Community, 30 Rock, The Daily Show, The Colbert Report and Delocated. I've also inherited an addiction to Teen Mom 2 from my soon-to-be wife that I show no signs of shaking. It's not like I'm doing anything better than watching television (or playing video games) these days: I merely switched my addictions and compulsions over to podcasts and checking my Twitter feed every several seconds.
How does it feel to have coined the term/cinematic type "Manic Pixie Dream Girl" and do you think film critics who use that term are using it accurately?
I'm not sure even I'm using the phrase accurately these days. It is very surreal to have coined a phrase and concept that has captured the public imagination the way "Manic Pixie Dream Girl" has. Just this week I discovered that Random House is publishing a young adult novel next year called Manicpixiedreamgirl. That is really bizarre. I'm flattered by all the attention Manic Pixie Dream Girls have received but at this point I feel like it belongs to the culture more than it does to me. It's not really my baby anymore, if it ever really was. I didn't really create anything: I just noticed something prevalent in pop culture and put a name to it that stuck. In that respect, I have been lucky more than anything else. That's true about so much in my career, really. On my tombstone it really should read: One lucky motherfucker.
You've recently written a coffee table book with Weird Al Yankovic. What was that like to have him as your copyeditor? I know the book is about him, but what's the focus exactly? Can you give us a little sneak peek into what to expect?
Sure. It's a coffee table book so it's driven primarily by images (and of course the public's enduring and richly merited love of Al) but in writing the text for the book I posited Yankovic as both the pop-music answer to Mad Magazine-that is, its official unofficial parodist-and a great American satirist whose wholesome persona masks both a deep and pervasive critique of the rapaciousness and materialism of American consumers who deeply believe that true, permanent happiness is just a purchase or two away and an awful lot of darkness, lyrical and otherwise. This is, after all, a man who answered his record company's demand for a Yuletide single with "Christmas at Ground Zero", a cheerful ditty about a nuclear apocalypse. Al contains multitudes. I just tried to do justice to the man and his wildly unlikely but glorious career.
You have another book coming out soon about the time you spent with Phish and Insane Clown Posse fans. What was the most surprising insight you gained or learned in terms of the crossover of those two sets of fans?
Though the groups themselves are as dissimilar as their respective, much-caricatured and mocked fan-bases, Phish and Insane Clown Posse fandom both serve similar needs psychologically and emotionally by providing a sense of belonging and community to people who often desperately need both. There's something weirdly beautiful about the idea that people will accept and embrace you solely based on the kind of music you enjoy; for people like myself who grew up feeling alienated and alone, that's enormously appealing. I was also struck by how non-homogeneous both groups are. When we think of a Phish fan or Juggalo, a certain mental image pops to mind but the truth is there's enormous variety in both subcultures; there are gay Juggalos and geek Juggalos and Christian Juggalos and transgendered Juggalos and just about any other kind of Juggalo you can imagine. Phish fans are the same way: if you want the stereotype you'll be able to find it at every show but there are also a lot of people who love Phish whom you'd never peg as Phish fans based on their external appearance. Another area of overlap? They both really enjoy MDMA. Oh yes they do.
From reading both of your books The Big Rewind and My Year of Flops, it seems like you've been able to successfully achieve great perspective by not dismissing the things you're paid to criticize and also in being able to calmly and rationally handle criticism towards yourself and your work pretty well. What's your secret?
I don't know that I have any secret beyond not prizing my own opinions too highly. I am eminently fallible in every aspect of my life. Why should my opinions be any different just because I get paid for them? I take what I do seriously; I try not to take myself seriously. I also try to always realize that reviews and essays and columns are essentially just one person's subjective, malleable opinion at one particular moment in time, not a profound objective truth that needs to be defended to the death.
I go into every film or album or TV show wanting to like it. I try to invest everything I do with a certain generosity of spirit. It's been illuminating and sometimes a little terrifying being on the other side of the occasion when my books are reviewed. That's something that's helped me empathize with the people who create the art and entertainment I write about. I try to never forget that TV shows and movies and music are created by flesh and blood human beings with emotions and histories and families and are not merely the product of faceless corporations, though sometimes it's a struggle. It's cheap and easy to pick on pop culture rejects but it's much more rewarding and soul-enriching to try to understand them.
Aside from the two books you have coming out, what's next for you? Is there something new you're going on to tackle that we'd be surprised to hear about?
It's only a slight exaggeration to say I went a little crazy trying to write two books and travel extensively around the country with no car (one of my many charming eccentricities is that I don't know how to drive and have no desire to learn) without taking a sabbatical from The A.V. Club. At the end of the year I told my higher power that if he just allowed me to make it through the whole process relatively intact I would never try to do anything as crazy as try to write another book without taking time off ever again. Now that I have finished those two books and reclaimed some of my sanity, I'm a little more open to the prospect of writing more books. I have a few ideas, the least practical of which is a coffee table book in the vein of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men called Voices Of Juggalos, Faces Of Juggalos that would combine stark black and white images of Juggalos with matching oral histories chronicling their fandom. This is such a ridiculous and ridiculously non-commercial idea that I've never brought it up with my agent or my editor but it is something I'd like to do if the universe were somehow kind enough to make it a possibility (heaven knows the universe has been kind to me and my ridiculous ideas before). Eh, maybe I'll try to do a Kickstarter for it. That is the dignified, classy way to beg strangers for money these days after all. I also recently began a series on 1990s hip hop on The A.V. Club that promises to consume much of my time and energy for the next year in addition to continuing my work on A.V. Club columns like "My World Of Flops", "Silly Show-Biz Book Club", and "Dispatches From Direct To DVD Purgatory". I'm lucky to have an amazing job I find incredibly satisfying creatively and professionally. I really just hope to continue my decades-long ruse that I'm somehow qualified to write about pop culture at all, let alone professionally and for such an esteemed and awesome organization.
|Nathan Rabin’s My Year of Flops book trailer|