Top 5 All-Time Favorite Pop Culture Things

Welcome to Top 5 Fun Friday, a regularly-occurring blog feature where I give you a list of extremely specific pointless shit from my life no one asked for. Why? Because it’s now 2022 and I still find myself BEGGING the internet for fun little diversions to read, so I have to create some of this shit myself. This week’s list…

Top 5 All-Time Favorite Pop Culture Things

https://www.amazon.com/Buyartforless-Framed-Parks-Recreation-Greatness/dp/B013CZTMNK

New year, let’s make some new lists! And why not start big? Here are the things in pop culture I love the most. The most what? Exactly. Just the most. Every one of these things represents something important about my worldview, my taste, or my overall sensibility. You’re not here for the intro, you’re here for the list. Let’s do it!

The Wizard of Oz

This is my all-time favorite movie, a fact that often surprises people. It is, after all, a lavish musical made more than 80 years ago, descriptors you probably wouldn’t immediately associate with me. But here’s the thing… in my heart of hearts, the only place I ever really want to go is home. If I’m going anywhere, it’s back to my incredible house to be with beautiful, brilliant wife and my delightful children. That’s it. That’s all I really want.

I will grant you that’s a bit different than Dorothy’s situation, which Futurama hilariously skewered by helping Dorothy return to “live in poverty with her dirt farming, tee-totaling aunt and uncle.” The Land of Oz seems about a zillion times better than the Dust Bowl dreariness of Dorothy’s real world, but I choose to take the sentiment of this movie in the spirit with which it was intended.

Besides, the lavishness, the songs, the delightfully terrifying, scene-chewing villainy of Margaret Hamilton as The Wicked Witch of the West, the over-the-top vaudevillian charm of the Lion, Scarecrow and Tin Man… well, they all fucking rule. They fucking rule so hard. There’s not a bad performance in this movie. Judy Garland is magnetic. The songs will get stuck in my head for days at a time, and I somehow don’t mind that in the least.

One time on a long trip to visit family in Chicago, I ended up watching this movie over and over again simply because it was the late 1980s, and video-on-demand was limited to whichever VHS tapes any person happened to have. I suspect that many viewings so close together influenced my taste in ways I don’t fully understand. I love the level of kayfabe required to enjoy a musical. I love the opulent set design, which now manifests in my love for incredibly ostentatious music videos (more on that next week). I love the huge performances. This movie has everything I want in an experience.

Siren Song of the Counterculture by Rise Against

Buy it here: https://www.amazon.com/Siren-Song-Counter-Culture-Rise-Against/dp/B0002KQOGW

If you ever amuse yourself and your friends by playing “desert island,” this is the first album I take with me. For reasons both personal and aesthetic, if you had to distill my musical taste into one album, it would be this one. It’s an aggressive punk aesthetic, politically charged lyrics, and ideal for blasting at maximum volume while bombing down the highway really fucking fast.

I listened to this album dozens of times while writing my master’s thesis and never once got tired of it. I even have a part of the album cover now tattooed on my left arm. Rise Against serves as the nexus of so much that I adore. They’re unimpeachably punk, and a former part of the Fat Wreck Cords family, which is where my love for punk rock started and still lives in many ways. They’re hard enough to hang with metal bands, which I also love, but poppy enough to earn mainstream radio play. They’re politically active about causes I don’t always 100% agree with, but honest and forthright in their beliefs.

I think the most underrated thing about Rise Against is an ethos of always keeping people guessing, one I always seek to embody myself. I suspect it would surprise people who don’t already know that the singer of songs like “State of the Union” and “To Them These Streets Belong” that harshly criticize the United States government also sang the national anthem at Opening Day for the Chicago White Sox. He’s a huge baseball fan, which, when viewed through the lens of my bullshit 1990s jocks vs everyone else binary, feels shocking. But it is just that – bullshit. Rise Against can like baseball. Why couldn’t they?

But it keeps people guessing and throws them off-balance. In Dan Ozzi’s excellent book SELLOUT, Rise Against drummer Brandon Barnes talks about the popularity of their single “Swing Life Away,” a tender, acoustic ballad I don’t particularly care for that brought a whole new demographic of listeners to the band who might’ve expected a whole album of lighter acoustic rock. He says, “I was always entertained by the thought of someone buying that record for ‘Swing Life Away’ and unwrapping the CD in the Target parking lot and putting it on in their car and the first song is ‘State of the Union.’ Maybe they’d almost wreck their car. I always found that amusing.” Me too!

Rad

Taken from my seat inside that movie theatre during the screening of Rad.

I’ve spilled plenty of ink about Rad all over the internet, so I won’t rehash my love for this fairly corny slice of 1980s underdog cheese too much further. I will divulge two larger points about my taste in 2022 that can be traced back in some way to Rad.

First, I absolutely adore this movie’s lack of cynicism. Enduring the execrable personal manner of our former Commander-in-Chief whose animating principle seems to be equal parts self-aggrandizement and belittlement of one’s opponents has contributed substantially to my exhaustion of snark. Further, living in a pandemic has drained my tolerance for conspiracy theorists. Believing in large scale conspiracies necessitates both an unhealthy level of self-regard and an abhorrently cynical view of the world in general. Watching an earnest cornball story like Rad is like a small bowl of sorbet in its palate-cleansing effect.

Second, Rad is likely the origin of my love of extreme sports. I worked on my own flatland BMX routines as a kid in my driveway. I sucked at it, but tried all the same. I later got into inline skating, was friends with all the skateboarders, and counted fringe athletes as some of my biggest sports heroes. To this day, one of my all-time favorite sports memories is watching Tony Hawk try again and again to hit that 900 in 1999. I wanted him to hit it so, so bad. I was alone in my basement, palms sweating, just aching to see him do what we thought was impossible. And then he hit it, I jumped up, screamed, and marked out harder than maybe I ever had. He’s an absolute hero of our generation. I just watched it again, and damn, my palms are all sweaty again. Hulk Hogan eat your heart out, indeed.

Bret “Hitman” Hart

Hey, speaking of Hulk Hogan, here’s a professional wrestler I like about a billion times more than him! The very first wrestling event I remember watching over and over again was WrestleMania 2 because my dad had taped it off of Showtime, something I’m sure he ended up regretting given just obsessed I became with professional wrestling in the ensuing years. There was one guy I came out of that event loving more than all the others. It was Bret Hart, and the reason for my adulation was twofold.

1. Bret Hart wore sunglasses to the ring, and therefore looked cool.
2. Everything Bret Hart did looked like it mattered.

Enjoyment of professional wrestling hinges entirely on your ability to suspend disbelief and lose yourself in the story of a match. Hall of Famer Jeff Jarrett talks about wrestling’s inherent phoniness with relation to its fans thusly, “To those that believe it, no explanation is necessary. To those that don’t, no explanation will do.” Every single thing Bret did in the ring had stakes. His moves looked crisp and impactful. His selling was always note perfect. Bret sucked you into a match unlike anyone else, and if I can time travel to my youth, I can feel the excitement of a Bret Hart match with more texture than just about anything from my childhood.

I love that Bret (along with his partner Jim “The Anvil” Neidhart) wore pink in defiance of the acceptable masculine color choices of the 1980s and 90s. I loved Bret’s Doc Brown at the end of the Back to the Future style shades. And I love that he and Neidhart would subtly work heel when facing another babyface team. Bret could drag a great match out of just about anyone, which is why it’s a uniquely painful experience watching the rare occasion when Bret was phoning it in. It’s a good reminder of why I don’t half ass any interviews I do.

Parks and Recreation

https://www.nbc.com/parks-and-recreation/photos

Hilarious. Pitch perfect performances. Civically minded. Relentlessly optimistic. Engagement with issues without being too preachy about them.

This show is the intersection between the part of me that loves, loves, loves comedy and the professional part of me that has to navigate thorny issues and simply hopes the other players in the issue aren’t a bunch of craven fuckfaces. My dad once told me that if you can successfully do government relations at the county level, you can succeed at any level of government thereafter. Local government is where the rubber actually meets the road and things get done, and he’s right about that. They play with live ammo at that level in a way that has real and direct consequences for their citizens, and, paradoxically, the average citizen does not give a half a shit about local politics. Most people can’t even name their city councilperson, nor a single member of their board of county commissioners.

Parks and Recreation, while undeniably a comedy, strikes a chord of verisimilitude in terms of the garden variety lunatic that attends council hearings or public forums. To anyone reading this who hasn’t attended a meeting or forum of your local elected officials, I dare you to attend one sometime. You will hear the most outlandish shit you could never in a million years dream up, and you will be doubly unnerved when you realize you share a community with these wackadoos.

I have my problems with government. I’m not some doe-eyed 4th grade teacher trying to educate children about civics. But in my experience, the majority of people who work as public servants genuinely want to help and believe they can make a measurable difference in people’s quality of life. That’s what this show captures. And it does it with a big, beating heart and some of the funniest fucking comedy I’ve ever seen in my life.

Work hard and be nice to people. That’s my entire ethos. Parks and Recreation adds an important third pillar: If you’re going to be funny, be really fucking funny.

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