The Big Rewind: a Memoir Brought to You by Pop Culture, by Nathan Rabin, Scribner, 2009
Pop culture as filtered through the eyes of Generation X can be a difficult subject to navigate, even if it’s the one thing, other than ourselves, we like to talk about more than anything else. For one thing, other than the Baby Boomers, no other generation more than us has had a harder time admitting that we’re rapidly becoming irrelevant. Hell, we barely got a chance to be relevant before the new Ice Age of the internet came, freezing out our Jurassic asses before we even left footprints behind. The face of pop culture is changing so fast that stuff we enjoyed doing just twenty years ago, such as making mix tapes and going to the library to use an encyclopedia are now considered twee at best, but mostly archaic. So when we of a certain age, that age being 30 to 40, talk about stuff we liked during our childhood and teenage years, it tends to be with a rather self-important reverence that is usually unwarranted, mainly because we’re trying desperately to prove that today’s young folks, with their sparkling vampires and their Miley Whateverhernameis, just don’t know what real entertainment is.
Because of this, I’ve heard, or at least read, people my age trying to argue the merits of such plagues upon society as Saved by the Bell, insisting that it was an underrated comic gem with a subversive anti-authority message. I’ve heard Jem and the Holograms touted as feminist icons. Howard the Duck has been described as “ahead of its time.” I’m not sure if any of these people genuinely believed what they were saying, or just said it to get a rise out of someone. As much as the 70s and 80s were a neon-lit, light rock FM, Jean Nate-scented wonderland for me, I hold no illusions about the TV programs and movies I watched and the music I listened to as a kid. Most of it sucked. The only ones that didn’t suck were those that were long ago established as being good: Star Wars, Jaws, Bugs Bunny, the Clash, Night Court, WKRP in Cincinnati, David Bowie, etc. The rest of it? Crap, generally speaking. In fact, much of it is worse than I remembered. How did I sit through nearly ten years of Happy Days? What in my eight year-old pea brain convinced me that The Love Boat was something that I needed to watch every week without fail? I wouldn’t try to seriously convince someone that these programs were good anymore than I would try to convince someone that eating an entire pound of bacon in one sitting is a wise idea. They weren’t good, they were dreck, but we’ve made ourselves believe they were good because we want our generation to be better than yours, goddamn whippersnappers.
But here I go, being all self-absorbed and Gen X-y again. When I picked up Nathan Rabin’s The Big Rewind, a book in which he discusses notable songs, movies and books and how they relate to certain events in his past, I was somewhat more enthusiastic than I normally would be about such an endeavor. This was mainly because Rabin is the head writer for A.V. Club, which to my perception appears to be the only major entertainment website that does not yet appear to be in the pocket of a film studio, although I say that and on the front page there are three ads for Judd Apatow’s latest Funny People, plus a review of the film itself, plus a separate discussion about it, plus interviews with Apatow and co-star Eric Bana. All that aside, it’s still a website maintained by writers who aren’t afraid to criticize what another writer on the same site may be shilling, and I respect that (and if you need another writer, call me!). I’m particularly a fan of Rabin’s column My Year of Flops, in which he watches such notorious stinkers as Bonfire of the Vanities and Cutthroat Island to determine if they really are that bad or if they’re merely underappreciated diamonds in the rough. Enjoying what I like to think of as bad movie endurance tests myself, I’ve seen many of the movies Rabin discusses, and though he tends to be a bit more charitable than I am (as exhibited in the fact that he never once used the phrase “unforgivable crime against society” in his review of Speed Racer), I like to think we’re on the same page with a lot of things. Still, part of me went into reading The Big Rewind convinced that it was going to be yet more “get off my lawn” flailing about how mp3s will never have the same sonic quality as a scratched up 45 of ‘Rock Me Amadeus,’ and how he stood outside of a theater for three hours to see Return of the Jedi, which pretty much, oh, everyone did back in 1983, because we didn’t have this computer ticketing nonsense, and it’s just not the same.
Let me say first that I was wrong. The Big Rewind is not a typical “let me tell you, for the 745th time, how important Generation X was” memoir. It’s an intelligent but unpretentious read, it’s surprisingly touching and it is probably one of the funniest damn books I’ve read in a long time. And let me tell you, when I say that I’m on the same page as Nathan Rabin on a lot of things, I mean I’m on the same page. I don’t often read books that mirror my thoughts and opinions on something so closely it was like I could have written it myself, but there were parts in The Big Rewind, particularly those dealing with Rabin’s complicated relationship with his mother, his experiences growing up poor and his thoughts on polyamory, that I had to stop and wonder if I wasn’t having some sort of Chuck Palahniuk moment, where I had just discovered that I was a construct in the imagination of a film critic named “Nathan Rabin.” And perhaps only Chuck Palahniuk existed in my imagination, which means that Fight Club never existed, which means that pretentious hipsters wouldn’t sneer at someone anytime they talk about buying something at IKEA. Or did I just blow your fucking mind?
But I digress. I titled this review “Pop Culture: It Can Save Lives” because much of Rabin’s book, funny as it is, hinges on his miserable childhood, growing up motherless and poor, spending time in a psychiatric hospital and living out his teenage years at a group home for problem boys, being made just slightly more bearable by such things as reading The Catcher in the Rye and watching Reservoir Dogs. It seems like such a simplified notion, that the mere act of listening to an album or watching a movie can make you feel better about your shitty existence, but the fact is that it’s true. I listened to the Cure’s Disintegration every day my senior year of high school. Every day without fail, on my way to school in the morning on that rattletrap bus, I’d put on my headphones and listen to Robert Smith groan his way through ‘Pictures of You,’ ‘Lovesong, ‘Lullaby’ and ‘Fascination Street’ until I knew that album forwards and backwards. If you’re in the right (0r wrong) frame of mind that album will make you want to blow your fucking brains out, and yet it never failed to make me feel better somehow. It drowned everything out for a little while, it made me feel removed from my unhappiness, absorbed in the swell and the drama of whatever it was that was bothering Robert Smith, which seemed to be everything. A couple of hours of escape into a book or a movie theater or through a pair of headphones can sometimes make the difference between getting through another day and just giving up entirely.
Some of the chapters also deal not so much with how a certain nugget of pop culture helped Rabin through a hard time, but bore some relevance to his own life, such as discovering for himself after reading The Great Gatsby that it’s impossible to try to change who you are entirely without disastrous results. Rabin’s great love for movies, books and music comes through on every page, and it’s not a distant, hipsterish, ironic love, which is refreshing. Despite the hard knocks life has given him, and despite his profane, hilarious cynicism and self-denigration, there is still a bit of a charming idealist in Rabin, which must be difficult considering the sheer number of godawful movies he must see every year for his job. I watched the remake of The Wicker Man once and I was ready to give it up and wander into the woods until I dropped dead of starvation, because clearly if such a movie was allowed to exist that meant there was nothing right and beautiful left in the world. Having related so much to Rabin’s personal experiences, even despite having different plumbing, reading The Big Rewind made me glad I’ve spent a ridiculous amount of money on movies, books and music over the years, glad that I’m reluctant to get rid of most of it, glad that I’ve not yet given up on the idea that a lot of it might suck right now, both life and pop culture, but it will always get better.