Critic’s Notebook: Unpopular Causes, Part IV
Nathan Rabin and the Countercanonical Critique
The AV Club has carved out a niche of reputable pop cultural criticism. Nathan Rabin has been profiled before in the Art of Reviewing. It focused on his unique style and examined his ongoing series My Year of Flops. Rabin’s bombastic style plays off his subject matter, whether it is a movie that bombed at the box-office or a hip hop review. Rabin has expanded his critical eye to include country music (Nashville or Bust!) and pop ephemera (THEN! That’s What They Called Music).
Movie flops, the NOW That’s What I Call Music! compilations, and country music constitute a growing countercanonical critique of pop culture. Each has a distinct relationship with “the popular.” Rabin dissects the commercial flops, placing them in three categories: Failure, Fiasco, and Secret Success. The categories are terms lifted from the agonizingly whimsical rom-com Elizabethtown. Box office receipts are misleading values, since film is a collective collaborative art form. A work of genius (say, 12 Monkeys) could succeed in technical execution, but flounder from a mishandled promotional campaign. Other works, like Bladerunner, become genre gold-standards even though they did not reap major box office sales. Time has rewarded Bladerunner, it has not rewarded Battlefield Earth, a badly executed trainwreck whose only appeal lay with cinema fans with a masochistic streak. Bladerunner could be considered a Secret Success, while Battlefield Earth is a Fiasco. A work that lacks campy outrageousness is simply a Failure. Fiascos have the morbid appeal of a car crash. Failures are just boring.
In Nashville or Bust! Rabin brings his critical acumen sharpened by listening to hip hop and translates it into fascinating profiles of country music stars. The connection is not an obvious one, especially since hip hop and country music suffer from being caricatured by mainstream pop.
Rabin explains his aims in THEN! That’s What They Call Music:
So I thought it would be interesting, edifying, and, yes, even a little arousing to listen to the entire NOW That’s What I Call Music! series in chronological order to see what the albums say, individually and collectively, about the way music has evolved and devolved, and to explore some of the weirder and more obscure nooks and crannies of pop culture. …
A strange spirit of musical democracy pervades the CD. It’s a curious world where one-hit wonders like Marcy Playground breathe the same rarified air as Janet Jackson and Radiohead. For a brief period, they were peers, at least where Billboard and NOW That’s What I Call Music! is concerned.
Part of the train-wreck fascination of NOW That’s What I Call Music! involves seeing familiar songs in bizarre new contexts. To cite volume one’s most extreme example, Radiohead’s “Karma Police” is sandwiched between Aqua’s “Barbie Girl” and Everclear’s “I Will Buy You A New Life.”
(“Introduction,” February 16, 2010)
THEN! That’s What They Call Music! provides a countercanonical critique of pop music. The NOW! series resembles a new Windows or Apple product, engineered for immediate obsolescence. Rabin gives these disposable products a critical reading, albeit one loaded with jokes. Unlike the movie flops, the NOW! CDs consistently sell out and remain popular. The critique does not simply exist to attack and belittle, but is used as a means to parse the random assemblage of the ephemeral and the eternal in pop music.
The three series have Rabin championing unpopular causes – country music, movie flops, and NOW! CD compilations – and using the criticism as a means of examining the vagaries of aesthetics and industrial capital.
Up next, two personal favorites!