The 4 Reasons We Fall in Love With a Piece of Pop Culture


In ancient times, a trip to the video store was all it took to see that people love to arrange stuff in categories, and so it is today as well -- if it exists, and particularly if it exists in the world of arts or entertainment, we've broken it down into groups based on even the most trivial differences. Play your guitar in a slightly different way and you're sent careening into an entire other genre with its own set of rules and misconceptions. That's just the way it is, BECAUSE CATEGORIES. So let's just do it. Let's just go ahead and take this to its logical conclusion and break entertainment itself into a list of categories (NEXT WEEK: THE SEVEN KINDS OF LIST), and perhaps in some roundabout way remember why we liked entertainment to begin with ...

The 4 Reasons We Fall in Love With a Piece of Pop Culture

The Distracting

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Winston Rowntree

This is the most obvious form of entertainment -- that which is sought out for being entertaining, and for no real other reason. It's neutral, and it's fun, or funny or compelling, or it's just a display of sheer craftsmanship, and it dulls the pain of modern life. It's distracting. It lets you fantasize. It's escapism. It's your favorite stuff, probably.

There's a fifth pseudo-category of entertainment, and it's the Instructive, but that's more a love of learning dressed up as a love of being entertained (or vice versa??), so it's only a subcategory on this list (and does not include the dreaded "Edutainment" that ruined so many Christmases in the mid-'90s. "Oh boy, a new Mario ga- NO!! OH GOD NOOO ...!!" It wasn't entertaining, and nobody learned a damn thing). Distracting entertainment is primarily not educational -- that's why it's distracting. Yeah, it can unexpectedly slip in little lessons here and there, which can counterintuitively work quite well, but primarily the Distracting is the domain of shutting off one's mind and having your problems become those of the character on screen for 22 minutes a week or 180 minutes a year or 40 hours a week until you can't even remember what your own name is. Sometimes you don't want to remember (or you're just bored as fuck).

The Inclusive

The 4 Reasons We Fall in Love With a Piece of Pop Culture
Winston Rowntree

Sometimes you like something because you like the experience of liking it. This is the Inclusive. This is when you like something because of the feeling of being part of a community, because of what it tells the world when you wear the T-shirt -- because we all like feeling not alone and being part of some special little exclusive group, and there's a ton of entertainment that caters directly to that. Entire genres that are otherwise dubious succeed by harnessing inclusiveness, and many things that are amazingly well-crafted have seven fans because they just don't relate to anyone in a personal enough manner -- and that's fine, because a world where the popularity of punk music and Christian Petzold were reversed would be a little too pleasant. Punk's technically not that good, but it fosters a powerful sense of meaning and togetherness and spreads a positive message too. So maybe it IS that good.

Subcategory: The Dark Side

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This is when you remove critical thinking from the equation. To some degree everyone is powerless to resist the innate human love for opinions that reflect our own, and we all latch on to some stupid shit when we're young. The key is to not take it too far and one day look up to find yourself reveling in an echo chamber of utter shite just because doubling down was easier than questioning your life choices. At some point it stops being entertainment and starts being a cult, literally, and if you can name one good cult (that isn't led by Ian Astbury), then be my guest.


It's vital to note that most entertainment overlaps more than one category here ...

The 4 Reasons We Fall in Love With a Piece of Pop Culture
Winston Rowntree

... and just as important to note that, when it's the primary, Porn is the one that needs to overlap the least. Porn is not just the naked people and their various insertions (CAREFUL WITH THAT AX, EUGENE), it's any entertainment that you seek out to animalistically fill a specific need. It's not about quality or enlightenment, it's about hole-filling.

Winston Rowntree

Sex Porn is the traditional example (Y'ALL DURN PREVERTS AND YUR SEX PORN), but anything can be pornified if you have some huge need to look at it. There's architecture porn and real estate porn and food porn and abandoned building porn and emotion porn, and I think sports IS sports porn but we just call it sports. Porn is when you need to stare at something purely because of what it is. There's no subtext -- there's just that preprogrammed Thing You Like, and you want as much of it as possible until you're so inured to it that the only way you can get off is having it presented to you by vomiting amputees in underwater vacuum beds. Porn is about MORE, on a primal level, and there's probably more of it than anything else. Earth itself is probably just species porn, come to think of it. Hot.

Subcategory: The Surrogate

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Winston Rowntree

This is when a more substantial need is unfulfilled in real life and thus you must get it from entertainment instead -- not in a pejorative sense, just in the sense that people need things (EXCEPT FOR BONO, WE DON'T NEED HIM). Porn instead of sex, TV instead of parents, MMORPGs instead of friends, music that accepts you when nobody else will, stories that give you hope because ain't no hope. Humor websites instead of doing your homework doesn't count, though, so stop reading this before you end up writing Internet humor instead of having a life.

The Beautiful

The 4 Reasons We Fall in Love With a Piece of Pop Culture
Winston Rowntree

In the same way that when we say we like movies we mean we like GREAT movies, this list is basically an excuse to talk about the Beautiful. It's just that -- the more otherworldly stuff that gives you goosebumps and in the moment actively makes things right. I can convey exactly why I like RoboCop, but if you ask why I like my favorite songs, I just stammer moronically because music is the art form that absolutely owns the Beautiful and it's the category that's hardest to describe. I'll try, though, and although I could do it with videos of stirring piano solos or that flash mob that relentlessly plays "Ode to Joy" until you collapse in a blubbering heap, I'll instead go with ... a Jackson 5 song.

It's "I Want You Back," and in this video right here it's about to be performed by singer-songwriter KT Tunstall on some kind of Gallic music show. Tunstall's all about the live looping (accompanying herself by recording bits of audio live and playing them back as she goes), and as the video starts the lights go down and she starts laying down a percussion loop by tapping on the body of her guitar. Oh, except she completely fucks it up, and the whole thing crashes to a halt after about 10 seconds and suddenly it's the opposite of beautiful -- it's that feeling of being mortified for someone else as they blow it IN FRONT OF EVERYONE and the house lights come up and there's some Pity Applause and the host is saying something in French and he sounds annoyed and YOU SUCK TUNSTALL THIS IS EASILY THE WORST VIDEO EVER. But this is what makes it so perfect.

Because the lights then go back down and she gets it right this time, and then she starts in with the opening chords and everyone who hadn't recognized the song from the title starts cheering, and that builds, more people are recognizing what song it is, and then she starts singing and now everyone knows what song it is and everyone likes that fuckin' song, and holy shit their expectations were low a second ago but here are the vocals and they're incredible, it's a goddamn Quality Ambush, and there's something particularly beautiful about a cover song because when it's good, it's beauty on top of itself, it's like when a tyrannical father in the '60s literally whips his children into performing pop songs and it's evil as fuck but thanks only to those kids some beauty at least escaped all that bullshit, and then 40 years later a few hundred French people are sitting in a darkened room watching some Scottish chick they've never heard of doing a solo version of one of those songs and it's a beautiful version of a beautiful song, and it's beautiful how she's using looping to accompany herself because it's unusual and tricky and she sounds like four people, and it's beautiful how unmistakably genuine and reflexive the roar of applause is when she finishes, and it's beautiful that a song can sort of exist outside of time as its own entity of shared experience and through musicians we tap into it and get a lump in our throat without even knowing why, and it's beautiful that for the duration of the song you can't think about anything else, everything is right, you forget there's tyranny in the world, you forget there are categories, and you stop caring forever that the performance started with her fucking up and the house lights coming on and everyone being embarrassed for her. Because that's in the past now. But that song will still be making things right another 40 years from now, and our need for such distractions brings us together, and that's why entertainment is a beautiful thing.

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Winston Rowntree is also available in webcomic form. Like me on Facebook too or I'll get you ...

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