Tuesday, December 8, 2009

all anthropologie apologies: what else should I be?

I've been alerted to a TV show called "Man Shops Globe" about the guy whose job it is to travel the world in search of wares to duplicate and sell at Anthropologie. Racked, Jezebel, Salon, the Washington Post, the New York Observer, and Effortless Anthropologie have all written amusingly about it, and about the kind of person who admires Anthro stuff (wants to be Zooey Deschanel; would name her baby Emma).

I didn't know, before this, what machinations led to the production of the stuff at Anthropologie. I knew they weren't the literal items found at flea markets in the French countryside, but it also seemed unlikely that some designer in New York was just sitting there dreaming up this stuff, whole cloth, based on an inner understanding of what antiques from Provence, or whatever, look like. So it makes sense that how it happens is, this guy finds an actual ceramic ear of corn in China, he brings it back to HQ, and developers develop ersatz versions of it to sell in the stores for high prices.

So the main difference between you and this guy is he gets paid to travel the globe and look for this stuff, but you would have to take time off from work AND pay to go on the same kind of trip, which isn't really feasible for you, so therefore you would maybe deign to buy something at Anthropologie. This is true even though the dude claims you can get a ceramic ear of corn for $1 in China, and you would probably pay $40 for it at Anthropologie, so in that way, if you bought enough stuff, the trip might save you money. Ultimately, Anthro is the closest you can conveniently get to the real thing.

It's widely looked down upon to buy mass-produced copies of one-of-a-kind, "authentic" items, as illustrated in the episode of Friends (which itself is undeservingly looked down upon, just by virtue of being a sitcom with a laugh track) where Rachel buys a coffee table from Pottery Barn and pretends it's from a flea market because Phoebe would be horrified if she knew it was from Pottery Barn. And yet, it isn't considered quite as gauche to have faux-authentic things decorating your living room as it is to have things from a chain store that don't even attempt to look like they're from a flea market (for example, the perfectly serviceable Room Essentials 6-Drawer Dresser from Target). One would think that if actual authenticity were the goal, and your authentic life didn't give you enough free time to tour international bazaars, then the not-even-trying, mass-produced stuff would be like the pinnacle of awesome, but sadly, it just communicates that you don't have as good "taste" as someone who would recognize a good copy of an authentic coffee table when she saw one. (You will always be safe with Ikea, however, because although it's both cheap and mass-produced, Ikea stuff has a contemporary-design look that keeps it in the realm of "taste.")

Two cultural tropes associated with elite liberalism always dominate this discussion of authenticity. One, that those who seek "authenticity" seek it because they want to imagine themselves connected to the calloused, leathery hands of "indigenous peoples" who wrought (not just "made," but "wrought") the original stuff, because then they can feel worldly and also philanthropically supportive of these "peoples," who are defined by how underprivileged they are. Two, that buying stuff (especially at a store, but also just in general) is stupid and meaningless, and only those neanderthals who have been duped by the corporate ad industry think that there's any meaning in the act of buying anything, implying that a well-educated, urbane sort of person would never decorate their living room with anything that can be bought in a store, whether hand-wrought by indigenous peoples or factory-made. You can maybe make things yourself, but if you're not a talented artist, displaying those things in your living room might not meet the demands of taste. (see also: Regretsy.) Utilitarian stuff, such as a wine rack, is exempt from this ban. As are gifts bestowed upon you directly by indigenous peoples after you stayed for a week in their village, if you have the luxury of taking such vacations.

(This is linked to using the word "find" as a noun. "It was a real find" implies that you just found it on the side of the street, and isn't your life marked by an enviable sense of childlike whimsy and wonder unmarred by the daily slog of adult life, indeed like Pippi Longstocking when she declared herself a "Thing-Finder." It implies more serendipity and experience-orientedness (rather than commerce-orientedness) than even a flea market. But whether you find a "find" at a mall store, or a one-of-a-kind-handicrafts store, or a flea market, or an antiques shop, or eBay, or on your travels to distant lands, you didn't just find it, you shopped for it. There is just no way around the fact that you shopped. Sorry.)

But let's leave aside, for a moment, that people are aiming to look like they're (a) worldly philanthropists and (b) somehow above buying things in stores, and let's focus on the psychology of why we love things that have the qualities Keith Johnson, the Man Shops Globe guy, is looking for in his travels. After all, he doesn't come home with just any item from the Avignon Fair; it has to be the right item. From Salon: "Johnson wants 'things that let people know more about this very
extraordinary country' and 'things that have real resonance' but not
things that are in every craft market or import store in New York City,
but 'just the right thing has been eluding us.'"

So what provides that resonance?

I've been rereading Little Stalker by Jennifer Belle, a great novel about a 33-year-old New York City woman obsessed with a 60something neurotic Jewish NYC film auteur named (heh) Arthur Weeman, who comes out with a new film every year that she ritualistically goes to see at the Ziegfeld the day it opens. Rebekah, the woman, has no furniture in her apartment, because she hasn't found any furniture she likes. But then she gets wind of an Arthur Weeman prop and costume sale, filled with furniture that was used in all his movies! She hires a van to take her to the sale and spends $22,000 there to furnish her apartment with things like a gondola. She rationalizes, "You would pay that much for a few ugly things at a horrible store like Crate & Barrel."

Rebekah's shrink tells her she's "obsessed with symbolism," that she needs everything, including furniture, to symbolize something: "You want the couch to represent something else. Sometimes it's okay for a couch to just be a couch." The stuff from Arthur Weeman's movies is perfect, then, because they reference the movies and symbolize her obsession and decades-long identification with them. The furniture is about her life story. She's also obsessed with the idea of a life story, or "timeline," like the timeline she made when she was a kid, for a school project, of the important events in Paul Revere's life. "What's his timeline?" she asks another woman who tries to set her up with a guy. When the woman responds, "You mean his schedule?" Rebekah quips that she and the woman have nothing in common.

This made me feel like I had everything in common with Rebekah. How many times have I expressed some abstract, meaning-laden concept to a person who interpreted it as something flat and banal because they just didn't have the depth or whatever to get what I was talking about? I think Rebekah is an N, like me. N for iNtuitive, as defined by the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator personality test, as opposed to S ("Sensing"). S people are concerned with the facts, the schedule, what is said; N people are concerned with what is meant. If something doesn't mean anything, an N considers it worthless. The kind of resonance that N people are looking for in a home decor item is some sort of personal meaning, that it's tied to something from your life story. If it's just some square-shaped plain old thing from Target or even Crate & Barrel that anyone could have, it's too random, too impersonal. So when something seems special, beautiful in just the exact way you like, poignant (or at least evocative of something else that's poignant), it has that resonance.

The first time I went into an Anthropologie store, in 1998, I didn't know it was owned by Urban Outfitters or that the company donated money to anti-choice politicians or anything. I knew it was a corporate store, because it was in the Third Street Promenade mall-thingy in Santa Monica, CA, but the feeling I got from it was that everything was so beautiful. Just so rich in details and sweetness and poignancy. It spoke to me. I bought a skirt. Actually I became obsessed with the skirt that day and waited till I got home to New York to buy it at one of the Anthropologies there. I still have the skirt, 11 years later, and I still think it is beautiful.

What the beautifulness (as opposed to beauty) of Anthropologie says to me is, YOUR life is better than all the fast-fashion-eating-disorder-cube-farm drabness of the everyday. Life can be fanciful! Like a movie! Like Amelie! And as insufferable as it is to listen to people rhapsodize about that feeling, actually feeling the feeling feels great. Twee aesthetics make me feel happier about my circumstances. As if actual life were more about the things that make your heart go pitter-patter than the mundane limitations that your circumstances place on you. And I'm also shameless enough to buy something from Anthropologie instead of the original antique or indigenous artifact that it is a replica of, just because it's beautiful in the same way. The fact that it's a fake, mass-produced copy just doesn't trump the beautifulness factor. Objects from that store make me feel like I have a timeline and everyone else just has a schedule.

However, it's not just that I'm a romantic, sensitive, poetic, semiotics-crazed, insufferable solipsist. There's still an element of class-conscious one-upmanship going on here. Because not only does the Anthro fantasy make you feel elevated above mundane concerns, it also tries to make you feel elevated above OTHER PEOPLE who are mired in those concerns. They all have to wear suits to work and I can wear a big fluffy skirt festooned with pinwheels! They are ordinary, while I am special! Those who decorate their homes in the manner of Anthropologie, then, could be cultivating the mythology of being special rather than ordinary, having an interesting life. If these people were merely interested in owning things that were nice and appearing rich, they wouldn't go the Anthro route, they'd be more attracted to "luxury" items from purveyors even more expensive and snooty than Anthro. If you go to any wealthy suburb of New York City, you'll find that most of the houses are decorated more in this "luxury" way than in a way that tries to convey brilliant, frothy whimsy, and the owners seem to be cultivating a mythology of wealth rather than of specialness. And wealth is intertwined with specialness (Anthro costs more than Target; a life of serendipity and beauty implies not being overworked and poorly paid at an unglamorous job, unless it's a type of unglamorousness that can be glamorized, like bartending; the matter of "taste" is wholly bound up in class/education), but each of these two mythologies is a separate subculture.

So I guess the answer that Keith Johnson is looking for, in my opinion, to the question of which things are the right things that provide the right resonance, is: Things that suggest the owner's life is an aesthetically gorgeous, lush one replete with breathtaking interestingness. And that the owner has to have a certain type of elite education, a sensibility, that has to do with foreign travel ("worldliness"), in order to recognize the wonderfulness of the objects—they're not some Ugly American who thinks the height of sophistication is a pastel metallic patchwork Coach handbag with little C's all over it.

Still, any act of buying something at Anthropologie involves shopping in an engineered, corporate store—a mundane, unsophisticated, unwhimsical act, to be sure. Wouldn't it be better just to focus on living the most aesthetically exciting, serendipitous life of mind-opening cultural experiences that you can? Is it a problem that I feel like that experience would be incomplete if I weren't wearing the right outfit for it?

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

the Facebook disconnect

A couple of years ago, I participated in the Cringe Reading Series, an event where you get up and read your diary from when you were 14 years old to a bar full of strangers. It was great fun and I have happy memories of it; the only reason I stopped doing it was that I ran out of material. I have a handful of screamingly funny diary entries from my adolescence and hundreds more that are just depressing, and not in the "so bad it's good" way either. When I first read about the event, I had an unstoppable desire to participate in it, and the interviews I did with Paste Magazine, NBC News, and the LA Times were also fun.

But I didn't mention anyone's first and last names when I read my diary out loud. Two of the three entries I shared, in my three appearances on the Cringe stage, concerned a boy I'd been romantically obsessed with who had a very uncommon first name, and I didn't say his name aloud when it was mentioned in those entries—I shortened it to just his first initial. The last time I talked to this guy was 20 years ago, and I felt like there was something unkosher and creepy about saying intimate things about him while naming his name, especially since one of the diary entries was filled with colorful epithets condemning both him and the girl I suspected of making out with him (though I knew only that the girl had made out with someone on the gym steps, and I was afraid it might be him because he often hung out at the gym after school, but had no evidence that it was). If he heard about it he might think it was funny, because he had always been a good-natured sort, but I still felt uncomfortable with it.

Lots of the other people who read at the Cringe Reading Series were a lot more forthcoming with the first and last names of the people they were in love with as teenagers. And I didn't understand it. Those first and last names could have ended up on TV, in news articles, and in the Cringe Book, a compendium of scans of people's real diaries with ironic commentary.

Of course, the ideal situation is that you're still friends with those people, and the two of you have grown into such angst-free, well-adjusted adults that you can just laugh and laugh and laugh about it together now, plus you have the miraculous good fortune of still being enough the same kind of people that you can speak to each other as adults and understand each other. Like when Stephanie Klein, author of the fat-camp memoir Moose, appeared on a talk show with the guy who had been her boyfriend at fat camp 15-20 years earlier. Or when one girl at Cringe gave a shoutout to one of the very guys she was reading about, who was sitting in the audience that night. But a lot of us aren't still friends with the person we were obsessed with. Too often, we kinda NEVER WERE friends with them, which means that if we wrote a memoir about them and then contacted them to be on a talk show with us, they would be like, "Jenny WHO?" and possibly even be skeeved out. Maybe we had had one conversation with them, which we analyzed to death, but knew in our heart of hearts was completely meaningless. And, maybe even more to the point, that shit from age 14 was painful, even if the diary entries are funny now. A lot of us have no desire to laugh with the person we scribbled anguishedly about, in the days when our self-esteem and taste in music and clothes were not as good as they are now. The past is in the past. Moldy old first and last names, forever etched in black and white on the Grecian urn that is your eighth-grade yearbook.

So my suspicion is that most of the people who name names are not still friends (if they ever were friends) with those named. And this goes not only for the tiny cross-section of the population who has performed at the Cringe Reading Series, but also for the much larger group of people in early-to-mid-adulthood who blog about their adolescence using the first and last names of people who loomed large. In fact, their current lives seem so many lightyears away from that era of pegged acid-wash jeans that it almost doesn't seem like those people are real. They achieved a sort of folkloric otherworldliness during the era in question, one that can be bestowed only by an overwrought teenage girl given to dramatization, and this status as more mythological character than just, you know, some guy has only grown more stable in the years since you've seen the person and the memory of them becomes ever more mysteriously hazy. This idea is reinforced by movies about people who used to be teenagers, who moon up at the ceiling and go, "Bobby Riley...oh, he was so dreamy..." and maybe there's a time-travel plot involving bobby sox. (I'm thinking equally of Peggy Sue Got Married and the sock-hop episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.)

My other suspicion is that it's easier to imagine that the people aren't real if the coastal, cosmopolitan city where you live now is very far away, both geographically and ideologically, from wherever you grew up. If you grew up in some work-at-the-mill-until-you-die town where you were the only person in your high school class to go away to college, and everyone else had babies and found Jesus the second they graduated from high school, it's easier to imagine them living in a totally separate universe from you where they couldn't possibly Google themselves and find something you wrote about them (because in their world people don't use the Internet?). I grew up in the New York City area and am still here. People who grow up here don't tend to leave. They are alive, doing their thing, and you might run into them anytime. Even if they moved away, they're in touch with plenty of people who are still in the area. And plenty of them grew up to inhabit the same cultural milieu as you, where marriage is optional but college is not, where it's considered normal for someone in their 30s to spend a weeknight at a bar reading out loud from an old notebook, where the irony of such a practice is understood. They might even be at the bar on Cringe night.

But what's extra strange is that, concurrent with the upsurge in blogs and stories that name names, Facebook has grown to such proportions that, if you wanted to find someone from your past there, you probably could. There's a page where you can look up the entire graduating class of any high school in any year. Not everyone in the whole class will be there, but most of them will. And even if you choose not to actually contact any of them, lots of them will have contacted each other, and you will feel tempted to join in. You'll be able to look at most of their pictures and see which of them are friends with each other. It will all seem real again, both in the same way and in a different way than before: It'll seem the same in the sense that all the clique ties that were so important are in evidence again now, when you look at the friend lists. That the juxtaposition of certain names with one another conjures memories that you thought were long buried. That if Jessica and Nicole are friends on Facebook now, you should probably be friends with them both or else it's like getting excluded from their party just like in sixth grade. But it's different too, in that the folkloric quality that the people have come to have, in your mind, is shattered by the receding hairlines, unattractive spouses, flat-footed status updates. (If you hear every other day that the person you once kissed during a game of Spin the Bottle is "tired," you too will become tired.) You start to feel like the girl in the Meryn Cadell song "The Sweater" who realizes "love made her temporarily blind" when she reads the label in the Sweater Belonging to the Boy of Her Dreams: 100% Acrylic.

If you're especially unlucky, your old crushes may use your Facebook connection to proselytize their religious beliefs to you or try to sell you Amway products. It'll appear in hideous HD how much wittier and brighter your current, real friends are than these shmoes. You'll make the connection between your erstwhile worshiping of them and the fact that, at that time, you also worshiped the song "Against All Odds" by Phil Collins because it was so beautiful and sad.

I'm in a better position than average, with respect to the uncommonly-named boy. For one thing, I know he's still a nice person. He was visiting his parents in our hometown one weekend four years ago, right before my wedding, and saw my parents outside when he happened to drive by their house. He stopped to say hi to them and ask after me, which was sweet in the same way he always used to be. (Of course I had a zillion questions for my parents about how he looked/seemed; it was semi-exciting that they'd told him I was about to get married.) For another thing, I actually was friends with him for a time, before I went and ruined it by making him my "boyfriend" for two months in seventh grade. (Then he dumped me, and I pined after him for years.) In childhood he spent lots of time at my house. So at least there'd be no "Jenny who?". I could still send him a Facebook friend request. It's not out of the realm of possibility.

But I still kind of prefer to think of him as not quite real, and this goes double for the countless other crushes I had who I wasn't really friends with, who never came to my house or met my family, who I barely talked to but thought about constantly. And I think I have plenty of company in that, based on all the bloggers and performers who name names so cavalierly that it's as if they were talking about a soap-opera character. Facebook is shattering all that. I don't know how we're going to reconcile those two realities. In the future, will we all be privy to the mundane day-to-day trivia of everyone we've ever known, in their dull adult lives? Will the phrase "I used to know him" become obsolete, because now a classmate is forever? Will there cease to be any distinction between the past and the present? And how will this impact the angst of future teenagers if they know they will never, ever really be able to leave their hometown?

Earlier this year I went to a talk by Chuck Klosterman, one of my favorite pop-cultural writers/speakers, where he put forth the theory that "people believe that things are going to happen that aren't really going to happen, and the reason for this is technology." He meant that technology lets you very clearly see unrealistic things happen to other people, on the Internet and in movies and on TV, and it starts to seem likely that those same things will happen to you, even though they almost definitely won't. Like maybe you'll cover Michael Jackson's "Black or White" before a national audience, like Adam Lambert did on American Idol, or Clinton and Stacey will make you throw out all your harlequin-print stockings and replace them with structured cotton twill blazers like on What Not to Wear, or you'll slay vampires like Buffy or carjack cars like the guy in Grand Theft Auto or blow up enemies like in any action movie or maybe get whacked by the Mob. People think fantasies are closer to reality than they really are because they seem so real on video. Right now I'm fantasizing that Chuck Klosterman will see this blog post and respond to it. I'm probably friends on Facebook with someone who's friends with one of his friends, so maybe someone will pass along the message.

So I wonder how Chuck would apply this theory to the Facebook disconnect. Are we to conclude that the Facebook connections we make with people from our past aren't really real, we just fantasize that they are, and that Facebook is sort of a video game about our own life where unrealistic things happen? There is some truth to that. If the only connection you have with a person is from junior high, you're kind of kidding yourself if you think you really know them. The type of interactions we have on Facebook—"liking" people's status, etc.—are so trivial and 2-D that they don't really constitute a relationship all by themselves. But on the other hand, Facebook resurrects these people. It puts you back in touch with them, either directly or just by virtue of your being listed with your high school class. All you have to do to talk to them is hit "send a message." And if you do, you'll soon be brought unceremoniously back to earth from your fantasy-driven perceptions about them. You're uncomfortably aware that these people still live and breathe, and if you spoke in public or blogged about them by name, they might find out and have a reaction that you don't like. Does Facebook coincide with Chuck's theory or oppose it?

I think the answer will lie in how memoirists and bloggers evolve into this new reality where everyone we've ever known is available online, neatly catalogued, reachable with a click. Maybe it'll become the norm that if you're gonna read old diary entries about someone in a public forum, you have to message them, and interview them, and have a whole horrible conversation about what went on between you all those years ago, and consider their point of view as well as your own, and hope they think it's as funny as you think it is, and invite them to come hear you read as if you felt nothing but affection for them and no dread. I hope that doesn't happen. Or maybe people will just start using pseudonyms more, or first initials, or nicknames, or just "he," because they're wise to the fact that dreamy Bobby Riley is alive and well and owns four delis in the Pittsburgh area, so they're not as carefree with the naming of names.

Your story is your story, it's a piece of creative writing about how you feel, informed by your memories. A pseudonym may be a lie, but so are your memories. They are fictionalized by the passage of time, as a story you tell with ironic distance.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

musical taste and the pleasures of shamelessness

In high school I was quite a crusader against the whole phenomenon where people say they like something because it's just their personal taste, but it's totally obvious they only like it because a certain group of people likes it and they want to be seen as part of that group. Even more obnoxious, I felt, was when people talked about how much they hated something as if it were just a random personality quirk of theirs, but conveniently the thing was something you were "supposed to" hate, as deemed by the cognoscenti. Since high-schoolers are immature, people around me were constantly making grand gestures to this effect, like when this girl who idolized Jim Morrison and always wore ripped old flannel shirts exclaimed "blasphemy!" and ran to shut off a boombox in the school gym that was playing Paula Abdul.

I'm known now among my friends as one of the more shameless people out there, as regards this whole practice. I will bellow it from the rooftops if I have just downloaded "Genie in a Bottle" by Christina Aguilera. I don't feel guilty enough to call anything a guilty pleasure. (And anyway, it's more shame than guilt.) I'll occasionally use the phrase "guilty pleasure" in polite conversation just to grease the wheels of sociability, but deep down I really don't feel it. However, lest you think I'm making some sort of post-hipster claim to authenticity and fearlessness, I have to admit that I am also highly—maybe even overly—attuned to which choices are considered cool and which are not. And I'm aware that my tastes are influenced by society in a huge number of ways.

But I don't feel guilty about that either. In fact, I want it to stay that way. Because I kind of feel as though some of those social influences are more meaningful and more authentic than what happens when you are put into a vacuum with some piece of music or clothing and asked to judge, independent of where it fits into your world, whether you like it.

Last weekend's New York Times Magazine had an article about Pandora, a website where you type in names of musicians you like, and it plays you other songs you might not have heard of that have musical qualities in common with what you like. It talked about how Pandora attempts to decrease the influence of other people's tastes on your taste, and how that sometimes results in recommendations you wouldn't want your friends to know about, like when someone who liked Sarah McLachlan was horrified that Pandora thought they would also like Celine Dion, since Celine Dion is ground zero for uncoolness among female pop artists. There was even a pretty good book that analyzed why Celine Dion is so uncool ("A Journey to the End of Taste"), part of the hipstery 33 1/3 series of books about albums, but even that book seemed to consider it a huge revelation that "uncool" is why people hate Celine Dion. I liked the parts about Bourdieu but felt they didn't go far enough.

Ironically, this week there was also a piece in Double X about the same phenomenon, only in this piece Sarah McLachlan herself was used as the example of the "music you're not supposed to like." A new band called Florence and the Machine, which produces harder rock than Sarah, was nonetheless likened to Sarah in that both have "a certain melodramatic ambition, a taste for organs, yearning and soaring, highly-produced, multi-layered, heartsick tracks likely to put an ache in the back of a 14-year old's throat," even though Sarah is "treacly" and associated with "angels," bringing to mind old ladies who collect Precious Moments figurines, not anyone who would listen to music that was edgy or controversial or subversive.

So is this a contradiction? Is Sarah McLachlan cool or isn't she? Not a contradiction—it's just that Sarah McLachlan exists in a certain spot along the coolness continuum, cooler than Celine Dion and less cool than Florence and the Machine, maybe cool in the mind of the average 48-year-old suburban New York Times Magazine reader and less cool in the mind of the 30-year-old city-dwelling Double X reader. I also think that Sarah has become less and less cool over the years—her pre-Lilith Fair stuff (my favorite Sarah McLachlan song during my main fanhood years, 1994-96, "Black," off the album Solace, begins with weird creepy cello tones) seems far less treacly to my ears than the stuff she produced after she launched the Lilith Fair. When her 1998 album "Surfacing" came out, I remember feeling that palpable letdown you feel when a musician you thought you were a fan of comes out with an album you hate. "Arms of the Angel," a single off that album, clinched it for me. Sarah never used to sing about angels, at least not literally. Even "Ice Cream," one of her pre-Lilith songs that the Double X article specifically calls out as being treacly, is practically 9 1/2 Weeks compared to "Arms of the Angel." (Your love is better than ice cream, but a similar consistency when melted.) Not that, like, 9 1/2 Weeks is hip; Adrian Lyne is no, um, Cassavetes. But he's no Chris Columbus either.

Yeah, but. You also have to take into account that that was 1998, and my fanhood of "Solace" and "Fumbling Towards Ecstasy" had occurred in '94-'96. And a certain terrible thing happened around 1998. A certain shift in how music sounded and in the culture at large, specifically the way culture perceived "alternative" and "edgy."

In the 90s (most of it), people participated in poetry readings. They had long, flowing curly hair, not "big" like 80s-style "big hair" but far more voluminous than anything considered hip today. They wore roomy-cut, but somehow not "slouchy," flowered dresses with Doc Martens boots, which have always had a sort of awkward-looking toe shape (I even thought so at the time, and preferred Fluevogs for that reason), and not only was that kind of awkwardness socially acceptable in the 90s—it was also aspired to, if you considered yourself "alternative," because, as per the whole Soundgarden "Black Hole Sun" mentality, angst (with attendant awkwardness) was the antidote to sunny Stepford superficiality ("mainstream"). Also, people used the word "alternative" and it didn't sound ridiculous.

Lots of things seemed non-ridiculous that seem ridiculous now. It was okay for people outside MFA programs to say they were "into poetry." People called themselves "passionate." You could even use the word "erotic," or (remember this?) "erotica." It was all part of being Artistic, which was related to being Romantic. The mid-90s sound of Sarah McLachlan embodied that aesthetic, and it wasn't thought of as treacly. Celine Dion, on the other hand, was considered treacly, even in the 90s. The difference was, as Double X puts it, that Sarah was "heartsick." Her melodrama didn't have anything to do with how wonderful Christmas is; it had to do with how she would be the one to hold you down, kiss you so hard she'll take your breath away. The ululations were about sex and angst, not love and happiness. For this reason, Sarah was included in the description "alternative," and Celine never was.

But around 1998, things changed. You started hearing the words "hipster" and "ironic" everywhere you went, much more pervasively than before. Nick Hornby came out with the novel "About a Boy" in 1999, in which a vacuous, independently wealthy hipster dude helps out the hapless junior-high-age son of a 90s-style "artsy" woman, who is never a romantic prospect for him because she's just not his type. He likes women whose style owes more to fashion magazines; this woman wears a sweater that looks like a yeti. Our hipster instructs the young boy on how to be cool, and he and his mother, meanwhile, educate him on the benefits of "singing with your eyes closed."

Sarah McLachlan is music you sing with your eyes closed. Which is why, after 1998, it sounded uncool. Singing with your eyes closed was cool until 1998 and then it wasn't.

I'll grant you that Sarah herself probably aged into syrupy oversentimentality around the time she did "Surfacing," but I think her earlier albums would also not have been as well received if she had released them after 1998. When I first heard "Possession," the first Sarah song I ever heard, I heard it within 1994. And I heard it with the ears of a 21-year-old.

Which brings me to my other point: That when I hear "Possession" in 2009, with 36-year-old ears, I still love it. I'm not sure I would love it if I heard it for the first time now. Part of why I love it is that it reminds me of 1994, and of being 21, and of everything that was going on with me then, and the people I knew and listened to it with.

And isn't that also a way our musical tastes are affected socially? I've never listened to music as a completely solitary activity; I've always listened to it as part of life. In fact, when I was in high school and all self-righteous toward people who claimed that their taste was based purely on the "quality" of the music, this was the argument I used to give: Don't you have any sentimental attachment AT ALL to, say, "Hold On" by Wilson Phillips? The people you worked with at that summer job, the diner you went to with the person you were in love with, where it was playing? Top 40 music has that facet to it that "cool" music doesn't have: You hear it everywhere, not by choice, and it seeps into you. Plenty of the top 40 music I liked in my youth crept into my life that way, in non-music-oriented situations. No one gave it to me on a mix tape or said, "Hey, you have to hear this." I didn't read about it in a music column. So I grew to like it because of the non-music associations it had. And for that reason, I've always felt like it had a certain kind of authenticity that music you listen to only in the context of "music" doesn't have.

The most extreme example of this is top-40 songs I hated when they were popular but love now. For instance, "Born to Be My Baby" by Bon Jovi. If you want to know how little of a music snob I was at the time, know this: When I hated "Born to Be My Baby," I loved Debbie Gibson's second album. But I hated how Jon Bon Jovi's vocalizations were so exaggeratedly guttural. I hated the silly over-the-top macho-ness. I hated Jon Bon Jovi's hair. I hated the people in my community who were big fans of Bon Jovi. (Maybe this is music snobbery of a type, but my snobbery was more of a defense against those kids' assholishness.) But now when I listen to it, all I can think of is 1989, and being 15, and all the things I did while the song was playing. I have a sentimental attachment to it.

The kids I knew when I was a teenager who were given to pooh-poohing songs like "Hold On" by Wilson Phillips nearly always said it was because they were musically unimaginative. That they only used "two chords." Usually, these kids were into classic rock—which, in New York City hipster circles, isn't considered particularly cool. But I'm reminded of a Chuck Klosterman essay that posits that teenagers, contrary to popular belief, don't actually want to be COOL the way 18-to-40-year-olds (some of us) do; they merely want to avoid being lame. They're not going to want the most cutting-edge stuff out there; they want the safe stuff. To teenagers, top 40 isn't safe, even if it is bland, because top 40 is the domain of littler kids, and if you seem younger, you're not safe. Classic rock also has the advantage of having come out before you were born, so it gives its fans a certain air of world-weariness that teenagers want. Therefore, teenagers in both 1991 and 2009 love "The Joker" by the Steve Miller Band. They love the Beatles and the Stones. They (especially the boys) refer to it as "real music" when discussing it vs. Wilson Phillips. These types were also into jam bands like Phish, which featured plenty of musical variety but, as Time Out New York once put it, being a fan of those bands is a liability if you want to get laid in the vicinity of East Houston St.

I'm reminded also of the time in Sassy Magazine when someone wrote in to opine that Billy Joel's "We Didn't Start the Fire" was a rip-off of R.E.M.'s "It's the End of the World As We Know It," and then someone else wrote in to say the R.E.M. song was a ripoff of "Subterranean Homesick Blues" by Bob Dylan, and I got mad, because everyone was just being soooo predictable with their transparent little games of social one-upmanship, since everyone knows that Dylan trumps REM and REM trumps Billy Joel in the social hierarchy. That classic rock/high school thing again, where Dylan trumps REM. The music-snob jam band fan kids I knew also accused the Violent Femmes and the Ramones of having only two chords; this one super-ultra-blasé girl condemned those bands as the music she'd liked in seventh grade, during her oh-so-unsophisticated punk phase. I've heard that this whole hierarchy shifted after grunge hit, pretty much right after I graduated from high school, and also that today's teenagers deem anything non-rap to be lame, but that just goes to show ya, ever further, how temporal these hierarchies are. And of course, nowadays hipsters make fun of Rush, which was a darling of the music snobs in 1990. (It seems true that part of hipster snobbery is making fun of how unenlightened we as a culture were in the past; maybe that's why the Modern Lovers sound so ahead of their time, because they sound like something that would have come out post-1998.)

So what I find curious, ultimately, is that these articles are accusing music snobs of being too socially influenced in their alleged tastes, but I differentiated myself from them by saying I was even more socially influenced than they were. Sure, they played that whole obnoxious game of pretending they weren't doing it just to be cool, but they somehow managed to avoid what I felt was the unstoppable pull of top 40, which was a completely social phenomenon. Maybe you aren't supposed to like it, but in another way, you totally are supposed to. How can you really lap up the tastes of the elite so unquestioningly while full-on rejecting the tastes of the masses? The same mechanism, really, is involved in liking both.

Well, maybe personal taste can factor into your relationship with "bad" music. I certainly have plenty of opinions where it's concerned. I'd much rather listen to anything by Britney Spears than anything by N*SYNC, although Justin Timberlake's solo stuff is kinda good. I've always felt that the Samantha Fox hit "Naughty Girls (Need Love Too)" is far superior to her follow-up, "I Wanna Have Some Fun." And since there's no social incentive in liking any of this music, I can feel pretty confident in my belief that these are my actual tastes. Or maybe my life was just going better during the time that "Naughty Girls" was in the top 40 than when "I Wanna Have Some Fun" was. Or maybe I, personally and socially, was in more of a "Naughty Girls" kind of place when it became a hit (Spring '88) than I was in an "I Wanna Have Some Fun" place during its heyday (Christmas vacation '88-'89, when I was listening a lot to the Ramones and to Prince's "Sign 'O' the Times" album, which had come out over a year before but hadn't really pulled me in until then).

So I think that music snobbery and top-40 populism alike are ways of allowing your musical taste to be filtered socially, but I guess I still agree with my teenage self that music snobbery is a more artificial, undesirably self-conscious version of that social filtering, where instead of letting your social experiences define you, you fudge your own social experiences or even engineer them to result in a socially desirable personal playlist. Don't want to like Sarah McLachlan? Dump your friends who are fans of hers. (Do people do that? I wouldn't want to be friends with them.)

But the mere existence of a hierarchy itself alters the experience of the music listening, in some cases. When you listen to music you know is high status, that feeling of "then I must be cool" is a pleasurable rush that adds to the enjoyment of the music. Rock music is already about a sexy, adrenaline-ish feeling, a stylization of emotions; this effect on the ego fits in seamlessly with that overall listening experience. Seriously, I owned three White Stripes albums before I realized that I wasn't all that into the White Stripes. I mean, they don't suck, but they're not one of my favorite bands.

However, when I list my favorite bands I am acutely aware of being "safe" in doing so, i.e., that they're high enough status on the social music-o-meter that my coolness won't be jeopardized. My top three are 1) The Hold Steady, 2) all of Greg Dulli's projects (Afghan Whigs, Twilight Singers, Gutter Twins, and his solo stuff), 3) Belle and Sebastian. Now, none of these are on the absolute bleeding edge; they're not obscure enough to please some 20-year-old art student who lives in the MacKibbin Street Lofts; they've achieved a level of popularity that hard-core snobs would use to dismiss them. But they're also no Sarah McLachlan, and certainly not Celine Dion. I feel perfectly comfortable admitting to the people around me who I consider cool (none of whom are 20-year-old art students) that these are my favorites and thinking that this means my taste is pretty decent. But another thing that plays a big role in how comfortable I feel in declaring these as my favorite bands is that I genuinely love all of them. I love them in different ways, which makes it extra magical. It's sort of like the Hold Steady embodies all the most beautiful aspects of summer, Greg Dulli fall/winter, and Belle and Sebastian spring. I have separate playlists on my iPod for each of the three, because I so frequently am in the mood to be saturated with one of them. I also love some classic, unassailable stuff, for example, Tom Waits (another fall/winter artist, along with Dulli).

Contrast that with Panda Bear's "Person Pitch," an album that emusic.com, a subscription service that offers a lot of indie stuff, convinced me I had to download, it was just that great. I had a hard time listening to it; it wasn't exciting or catchy or relatable enough. It was very conceptual, oriented toward noises and sounds, not toward melody and lyrics, which makes it more difficult but not impossible. Sure, I've enjoyed experimental, wordless electronic music; it can be great, when it's evocative of something, when it makes me feel something—and that's extra important when you're listening to it absent of any personal context. But this was too self-consciously experimental. It struck me as the kind of music that someone (probably a guy who didn't get laid often enough) would put on after deciding, "Now I Am Going To Listen To This Album." Some would say that because it's less "accessible," it's for people with more sophisticated taste, so if you don't like it, you must not be very sophisticated. But here's my theory on that: There is a level of sophistication past which you become less cool. Isn't "cool" about living from the gut, not from the head? About spontaneously and charismatically relating to the world around you, not living in your head? About having rip-roaring, The Fonz–ish encounters with your peers? If it's too "difficult," you can accuse music of having failed to achieve that personal reach that, to me, is essential to cool.

It's like this dorky guy who once tried to seduce my friend. When she agreed to spend an evening in his company, they went to Sixth Street, the block of the East Village with all the Indian restaurants, and he insisted on looking at the Zagat rating of all of them before picking one. Walking up and down the whole goddamn block. Whatever your opinion of the social status of Zagat (some would say it's too middlebrow and behind-the-curve to be considered sophisticated), that act, of checking out the Zagat ratings, was a cerebral-ified attempt to make a sophisticated choice instead of a random one (and this would be true even if he had been relying upon a more bleeding-edge source of restaurant reviews than Zagat). And it would have been cooler, evening-wise, to make a random one. The coolest would have been to go to the one your friend recommended, if you had a friend who recommended one, but failing that, as our dork obviously did, you should just fucking pick one.

So maybe what it is is, there's enough different cool-enough music out there, that speaks to different people in different ways, that anyone can have a socially acceptable favorite band that genuinely is their favorite, that truly moves them and makes them happy, and since there is so much diversity there, no one has to resort to listening to treacly angel-pop, ever, unless you don't know any better, and only then are you a real member of the Great Unwashed. Even I stopped listening to top 40 at some point. Somewhere along the way, the number of commercials on top 40 radio made it hell to listen to. MTV stopped playing videos. As I got older, I had fewer and fewer jobs that involved listening to it against my will. It doesn't speak to me anymore—mostly. There is the occasional exception, like Carrie Underwood's "Before He Cheats." I got that song onto my iPod and listened to it over and over again. I just love the sunny, friendly way she describes exacting revenge on her ex. Love it! And the wonderfully true depictions of what goes on in a bar, the silly props people use when they flirt. And OMG, "Shut Up and Let Me Go" by the Ting Tings! As used in Gossip Girl, The House Bunny, and I Love You, Beth Cooper! Sooooo transporting! But mostly I hate top 40 on the occasions when I have to hear it, like when I go into Forever 21 at the mall.

Still, I love the top 40 music of my preteen and teen years, and the swooning, hysterical romantic-artistic ululations of the 90s coffeehouse-girl artists. They are a part of me, and I can't bear to deny it. "Possession" 4ev.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

friday night video fights:I Love You, Beth Cooper vs. (500) Days of Summer

One of the most pernicious ideas out there about women is the Billy Joel "She's Always a Woman" ideal. Did you know that thinness is actually NOT the #1 quality that The Culture touts as essential for feminine appeal? No, thinness is a mere #2. The absolute sexiest quality is coldness. (Perhaps hard bodies and hard hearts are linked in the cultural imagination.) Attractive woman = utterly opaque and without a trace of vulnerability. Manipulative, "fake," fickle, calculating, guarded. She can ruin your faith with her casual lies, and she only reveals what she wants you to see. Never even slightly messy, always perfectly pulled together, no sweat, no tears, no blood. Oh, she takes care of herself. She can wait if she wants. She's ahead of her time. Nice only "when she wants to be," with a gratuitous smile-that-ends-below-the-eyes. And the man who loves her? A doltish slob who can't help himself, as she's so irresistible that she lobotomizes anyone who dares to look at her. The constant lying and dissembling is always forgivable. Blame it all on yourself 'cause she's always a woman to me. As if someone who was sweet and genuine and sometimes messed up and had feelings and insecurities lacked some basic woman-ness.

And you always have this trope of a "nerd" being obsessed with this kind of woman. Men can be "nerds," but women can only be beautiful and unattainable. And for a very long time there was this unspoken rule that you were supposed to root for the nerd because he was the underdog. You were supposed to identify with him, think of him as "one of us." But it's been a long time since I've felt any warm fuzzies toward him. Because really, he's the worst perpetrator of She's Always a Woman. He's the one who makes her out to be this fantastical being and sets that as a standard for the rest of us.

So when I first saw the preview of I Love You, Beth Cooper, I felt that familiar punched-in-the-gut feeling. A high school nerd, the valedictorian of his class, is giving a graduation speech in which he embarrassingly (because nerds do embarrassing things) announces to the whole school how long he's pined after head cheerleader Beth Cooper (Hayden "Clairebear" Panettiere). When I saw the preview I was angry that it even existed: inculcating a whole new generation of middle-schoolers with the notion that Nerd Boy drools over Perfect Girl, and Imperfect Girl is not in the movie—definitely not a main character, a valedictorian unrequitedly in love with anyone. I felt no need to go see it, and I cheered when magazines started panning it. Ordinarily I don't pay even that much attention to teen comedies, but this one was based on a book, which lent it more legitimacy.

But then (500) Days of Summer came out, packed with signifiers of legitimacy and also packing what looked like equal She's-Always-a-Woman punch to its high school counterpart. (500) Days (gotta love those parentheses) is Quirky! It stars ultra-precious Zooey Deschanel dressed all ModCloth! It's supposedly "subversive," turning the traditional love story on its head (in the same way as it's "subversive" to cheat on your spouse). And I would like to consider myself quirky and subversive, so I got the sense that 500 Days (I'm going to dispense with the parentheses because I just don't feel like typing them out every time) was Designed For Me in a way that Beth Cooper wasn't, that liking it would imply I was cool in a Zooey kind of way. So it wasn't as easy to write off, though it stars a doofusy guy (not quite as doofusy as the nerd in Beth Cooper) fawning over an inscrutable, impenetrable, perfect girl who always keeps a part of herself cordoned off from him, and is the quintessential "guy's girl" (it's been well documented how hateful the whole "guy's girl" stereotype is) because she's Afraid of Commitment, while her boyfriend wants love. I bet she also eats red meat when she goes out on dates to show how down-to-earth she is!

(This is "subversive" because men are supposed to be the commitmentphobes, not women. When is the collective consciousness gonna realize that "turning the tables" on stereotypes doesn't subvert them—it just reinforces them?)

So that was when I knew that Beth Cooper and 500 Days were gonna have to go head-to-head in a battle to see which movie wins for more gruesomely horrible perpetuation of She's Always a Woman: Would it be the lowbrow kiddie flick or the stylish quasi-indie? How would the two differ in their take? Would Beth beat us over the head hamhandedly while Summer manipulated us insidiously by appealing to our egocentric notions of intelligence and artsiness? How would the fact that Beth Cooper was supposed to totally suck figure in?

To see Beth Cooper I had to trek to the old-timey Pascack Valley movie theatre in Westwood, NJ, because that was the only place where it was still playing, in the tiniest little auditorium you've ever seen. I was the only adult there who wasn't chaperoning a posse of 11-year-old girls. The whole scene just emphasized, like, tenfold, how much I was slumming it even being there, like I was an overgrown Jonas Brothers fan. At least they charged me only $7 and let me bring my Starbucks Vivanno into the theatre. I got out a notebook (yes, Zooey, it's Moleskine) and pen to make notes for this post during the movie, and to show the rest of the audience that I was probably some sort of film critic and not just there for the sheer enjoyment of it.

(Did you ever read Sex and the City, the book? Where the original Carrie Bradshaw is a whole lot more prickly than her Sarah Jessica Parker incarnation? There's a scene in that where she goes to see, I think, "The Last Seduction" at the Angelika and the clerk tells her it's started already and does she really want to see it anyway? and she gets all "fuck you, do you really think I'm seeing this for pleasure?" like her intelligence has been insulted. That's the vibe I was going for.)

Anyway. On one level, the reviewers are right when they say Beth Cooper sucks. The way in which it sucks is just the usual movie-aimed-at-sixth-graders way of sucking, the cinematic equivalent of how cheaply made the clothes at Forever 21 are. Ridiculously dumb jokes based on ridiculously oversimplified and exaggerated stereotypes. Cringe-inducing reliance on teen-movie cliches, the type used in parodies but this isn't a parody. Popular girl as seen through nerd's eyes appears in slo-mo with wind in her hair and two henchwomen closely trailing her, in dresses and heels. Jock boys endlessly bark and use violence. Dapper gay boy has habit of quoting movies and then naming the movie he just quoted, which would be cute except they also have him cite the year and the director of each movie, in this singsong repetitive way that changes it from cute to stupid, as though the character were like Cookie Monster, with his signature silly bizarre behavior. It sucks in just the banal way that going to the mall sucks; if you don't want it, don't go to the mall.

(It all made me so happy to be 36 and not 11 years old that I couldn't help smiling at the two gigantic YOU ARE OLD signifiers in the movie: (1) Beth Cooper reveals that she was named for the Kiss song "Beth"—"my parents were headbangers," she says, and you realize that headbangers are something parents are, the way our generation says "my parents were hippies;" (2) the nerd's dad is played by ALAN RUCK!!! Let my Cameron go! Gotta take a stand! Ferris Bueller, you're my hero! And he totally looks like a dad, more than he looks like Cameron. I was in 7th grade when Ferris Bueller hit theatres; the death of John Hughes, a few days after I saw Beth, just underscored how much time has gone by.)

But here's what I was not expecting: The nerd gets his comeuppance. He and his best friend, the movie-quoting gay Cookie Monster, spend a wild, hijinks-filled night running around with Beth and her two henchwomen, and he learns that Beth is vulnerable. He doesn't get to ride off into the sunset still believing that she never gives out and she never gives in, she just changes her mind. When we first spend a little time with Beth, it's immediately obvious that she is filled with rage. Sweaty, frustration-borne rage, of the type that the sweetly sadistic she's-always-a-woman woman would never stoop to. She's a reckless and aggressive driver, which I think is just supposed to be funny, but it comes across as "get out of my fucking way, assholes" anger, hell hath no fury like a woman scorned. Head cheerleader, scorned? By whom? By her meathead boyfriend who abuses and cheats, for one, and for another, by guys in general—whom she's learned she can manipulate using her sexuality, but resents that she's constantly called upon to do that. When nerdboy apologizes for being so pathetic after one of his countless spazzing-out episodes, and Beth goes, "All boys are pathetic," it doesn't come across in the imperious I-have-them-all-wrapped-around-my-little-finger way of She's Always a Woman; it comes across sad and disappointed. Beth Cooper is someone who's been hurt by the tawdry world around her, even if she's found ways to make the tawdriness work in her favor.

And at the end, when Beth and the nerd have a heart-to-heart, she admits that she's scared about the future now that high school, which was so great for her, is over. And what's really nice after all this is that the nerd likes her even more. She shattered his fantasy but he realized he prefers reality, emo road rage and all. You get the sense that Beth was popular not because she's this exalted, godlike being but because she figured out how to play the game and decided it was worth playing despite all the depressing truths about humanity that it revealed. The She's-Always-a-Woman would shrug off those truths, saying things like "face it, that's just the way it is," basking in the opportunity to sound tough. Beth's not shy about showing her resentment, which is what makes her vulnerable and likable.

For bonus points, one of Beth's henchwomen is fatter than "hot girls" are usually portrayed as. No mention is ever made of her weight (by Beth or anyone else), which implies she isn't fat enough to be Fat, that she's pretty enough to be Pretty. This little breath of fresh air contrasts sharply with the moment when the character of Summer is introduced toward the beginning of her movie: a funny little 1950s-style voiceover (reminiscent of news clips about early space travel) states that she's of "average height and average weight," and these stats are then displayed onscreen: 5'5" and 122 pounds. Three pounds below the very conservative standard (even compared to BMI!) that I grew up hearing from doctors for what one should weigh—100 pounds plus 5 for every inch of height over 5 feet—and significantly thinner than average, according to what I've read about the average woman, but blatantly claiming to be average, in a classic passive-aggressive move that will be familiar to any woman schooled in the ins and outs of body competition. (Because the movie is Quirky, the voiceover says next that her feet are slightly larger than average). This sequence is definitely a harbinger of the story to come.

If I Love You, Beth Cooper is Forever 21, 500 Days of Summer is Anthropologie, an exquisite shopping experience with so many clever, lovable little details. Did you know that the owner of Anthropologie is a big-time donor to far-right anti-abortion antigay politician Rick Santorum? I know, it doesn't make sense. But that's 500 Days of Summer at its heart. Not in a literally right-wing sense, just in the sense of edgy on the outside and conservative on the inside.

The 50s voiceover leads into a description of how Summer is somehow magical, how she never misses a bus and gets called back about jobs 9.6% more often (or some charmingly irregular number like that) than everyone else. (It reminded me of an ex-boyfriend who I idealized, who always seemed to find a parking space in Manhattan without ever having to drive around and around the block, or a different ex-boyfriend I idealized, who found his dream job two weeks before college graduation without sending out even one resume anywhere else.) She probably also doesn't have an anus and so never shits or farts, but no, she has to have an anus to be an edgy sex partner. (There is an anal sex joke that Summer delivers in a demure deadpan, ladylike in all the important ways while still being a guy's girl.)

And since it's a disembodied voiceover giving this history of Summer, you get the message that it's not just her puppydog-eyed boyfriend who believes she is this way—she really is the Billy Joel song personified, complete with passive-aggressive refusal to "define the relationship." She can do what she pleases, she's nobody's fool.

And she keeps on being this way. It never changes. The movie's central gimmick—showing random days of the 500-day relationship out of order, with the breakup at the beginning—just emphasizes this all the more: It doesn't matter whether it's day 3 or day 273. Summer will always be Summer, somehow superhuman and always out of reach. Tom, the guy, gets all excited the first time he's invited to her apartment, thinking that now more of her private world will be revealed; what's revealed is origami birds hanging from the ceiling. In an Alan-Ruck nostalgia moment, he says the 1988 Patrick Swayze hit "She's Like the Wind," from Dirty Dancing, reminds him of her. He lists the things he loves about her, and all of them are physical, yet they're delivered in a rhapsodizing tone that suggests they hint at vast and mysterious inner amazingness.

If all this weren't enough for you, there's also this little girl who appears out of nowhere to give Tom blunt advice about love. She looks about 11 years old and speaks like a 25-year-old boarding-school alumna, which is supposed to be cute but is horribly obnoxious. The children-who-are-wiser-than-adults thing is really a variation on She's Always a Woman: Kids, especially girls, are not sweet or innocent (read: vulnerable); they're sassy, cynical smartasses who understand all of life's ugliest truths and feel fine about them. I can't be the only one who, for instance, would have liked Coraline better if she'd been more wide-eyed and less of a sarcastic brat, but pop culture loves kids who are sarcastic brats. I'm really not endeared.

One of the few Anthropologie-like button trimmings in 500 Days that I liked (um, apart from Deschanel's wardrobe) was the part where the screen is divided in half and one half shows Tom's fantasy of what happens when he goes to a party thrown by Summer, and the other half shows what really happens. It does nothing to dispel the Summer Mythology, but it does show in a nice subtle way exactly what Tom wants from Summer that he isn't getting: a certain type of intimacy. One gets the sense that Summer's magical qualities stem from this very unwillingness to give that intimacy—or, at least, that that's how she manages to give the impression of magical qualities. Haven't I read that before in some pink book about how to emulate Audrey Hepburn? Keep them guessing! If you're an open book, how will you ever appear mysterious and alluring?

But you have to admit, 500 Days of Summer is good-looking. If it were a restaurant, you'd want to be seen eating there at one of the outdoor patio tables. I saw it at an ordinary Multiplex where they charged me $11 and there were plenty of other adults in the full-size auditorium—it wasn't the ghettoized moviegoing experience that Beth Cooper was. And you don't have to deal with the stale french-fry mall smell of all those stupid jokes; it's a perfumed, aesthetically pleasant environment, humor-wise. But as far as portraying women in a way that serves us well, Beth is the clear victor in our Friday night video fight. Screw the hipster; save the cheerleader. Save the world.

So the next question worth asking is, what defines "good" and "suck" here? Is it that aesthetic consideration, whether it has indie-licious lowlights or the uncomfortable hot fluorescent fast-food glare of Mass Culture? I can't condemn that point of view; Moleskine in hand like an amulet or shield, I was skeeved out by the dumbness of Beth Cooper, I felt all bloated and gross like I'd spent a month eating only McDonald's. Watching Summer is like flattering yourself, playing house in an IKEA kitchen the way Tom and Summer oh-so-adorably do together. But if we didn't think people would like us better if we were the woman in the Billy Joel song, we wouldn't have to flatter ourselves.