I once had a friend question how I could possibly like Bon Iver’s debut album For Emma, Forever Ago when I’d never been through a breakup. (That isn’t strictly true, but I’ve been with the same person for my whole adult life, so it’s much of a muchness.) I can’t remember exactly how I responded, but it was something like: just because I haven’t been sad over a breakup doesn’t mean I can’t relate to being sad. He seemed sceptical but didn’t push the point.
Roughly six years later, I have a better answer.
Now, admittedly, I don’t think relatability is a totally useless concept. I think, for example, there’s value in being able to see yourself reflected in art, especially for marginalised people. While a lot of writing on “representation” sometimes overstates the problem – or, more often, gives too much blame/credit to individual works of art rather than pop culture in aggregate – it really does distort people’s perceptions of themselves and society when the world is represented in the vast majority of stories as wealthier, whiter, straighter, more able-bodied, etc. than it is in reality. It’s generally a bit more complicated than “women can’t imagine themselves as ghostbusters, so they’ll never grow up to be ghostbusters” or whatever, but a more just society would definitely make lots of different kinds of art featuring lots of different kinds of people widely accessible to everyone. I also think, regardless of its value, that the phenomenon of people relating to art is interesting and worth thinking about as a way to learn more about art and people.
But contemporary pop culture discourse puts way too much emphasis on relatability, to the extent “relatable” is constantly used as positive with no further context or clarification. The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) “might not sound like much fun to sit through” intones one review after describing how it’s kind of sad, before reassuring the reader they’ll enjoy it anyway, because it’s relatable. Everything from the past needs an article explaining why it’s “still relatable” to reassure people it’s still good – see Jon Heder explaining how Napoleon Dynamite is “still relatable” to the “new generation” just twelve years after it came out. Good stories have relatable characters, good songs are about relatable experiences and feelings. That’s bad for lots of reasons, not least of all that most people who get paid to write about pop culture are, in fact, wealthier, whiter, straighter, more able-bodied, etc. than the general population, so they spend a shocking amount of time describing the particular problems of well-off urban professionals as if they’re the human condition. But even when marginalised people manage to slip past the barriers, hell, even if we imagined some sort of crazy world where the demographics of pop culture criticism reflected the actual makeup of society, there’s a deeper problem with putting such a high premium on relatability, namely that it creates its inverse: art that’s not relatable is bad. Relatability is not just a good quality, it is the quality of goodness itself.
Ira Glass, host of NPR’s This American Life, spurred a kerfuffle of thinkpieces (that’s now the official collective noun) back in 2014 when he declared “Shakespeare sucks” because he went to see King Lear, Richard III and Twelfth Night and found they were “not relatable”. It’s almost beyond parody, to the extent I almost feel bad referencing it, especially since he admitted he can’t really defend that opinion, but I’m sure Ira Glass can take it. There were a lot of responses to Glass’s comments, some of them very bad (this New Republic piece that says the only way someone could not enjoy King Lear is if there’s something deficient in them as a person) but the best, like Rebecca Mead’s in The New Yorker, recognised it as an issue of lazy, arrogant narcissism: “to reject any work because we feel that it does not reflect us in a shape that we can easily recognize—because it does not exempt us from the active exercise of imagination or the effortful summoning of empathy—is our own failure”.
I find the argument that a premium on relatability is an obstacle to empathy particularly compelling, because it’s so easy to see people using “unrelatable” as an excuse to not engage with art about people who aren’t like them, or to only engage about art with people who aren’t like them when it bends them into familiar shapes. That might seem innocuous enough, but when you consider most people overwhelmingly spend their time with people like them – e.g. eighty percent of white people in the US have four or fewer non-white friends, and forty percent have none – art is one of the main ways we learn and develop ideas and perceptions about people from different backgrounds to us. Its capacity to teach us empathy for people who aren’t like us – to see them as human in not just a well, duh kind of way but as human in the same way that we ourselves are human – is one of its most important and powerful qualities. It’s pretty fucked-up to think of people closing themselves off from that with a ready-made excuse, endorsed by the culture at large, that means they don’t have to think about it too much or justify it to themselves, so they don’t have to imagine anything outside their immediate field of vision, anything beyond themselves.
How could I possibly like For Emma, Forever Ago if I’ve never been through a breakup?
How could I possibly enjoy a piece of art that didn’t simply reflect my own experiences back at me?
How could I possibly enjoy a piece of art that wasn’t just a mirror?
I’ve replayed that conversation in my head over and over for years, coming up with better answers I wish I’d given.
First, I came up with a more developed version of the answer I’d given. I could relate to For Emma, Forever Ago despite not going through the same kind of experience as Justin Vernon because I’d been through similar experiences and experienced similar emotions. I may not have had a breakup, but I’ve experienced betrayal, loss and grief. I listened to “Skinny Love” while thinking about a family member who was in intensive care, the desperate plea of “come on, skinny love, just last the year” transformed into a prayer for their survival rather than the survival of a romantic relationship. In a bitterly amusing twist, I’ve even thought about the friend who asked me that question, and who I later fell out with, while listening to “For Emma”: “go find another lover/to bring a, to string along” is a really cathartic way to say fuck you to a toxic friendship, it turns out.
But though that’s a fine enough explanation for For Emma, Forever Ago, there’s lots of art I love that I don’t relate to at all. The first example that springs to mind is Queen Sugar, a show about a black farming family in rural Louisiana whose members include an ex-convict struggling to put his life back together, a black community activist secretly dating a white cop and their biracial half-sister who’s married to and manages a professional athlete. Not only do I love Queen Sugar, it’s one of the shows I cry at most frequently. That brings us back to the argument from empathy – I might not be able to relate to the characters in Queen Sugar when our experiences are so vastly different, but I’m still invested in the characters because I can relate to them as representations of human beings. But even that’s just a more abstracted version of my first answer that leaves relatability as a virtue unquestioned. The temptation is to reach for more and more unrelatable characters – Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver, Nomi Malone in Showgirls, Reynolds Woodcock in Phantom Thread – but I’ve realised the best answer to the question is actually another question.
Why don’t people who’ve been through breakups like every piece of art about breakups?
It’s a dumb question, I know. But it’s also basically the same question my friend asked me. The brother of “how can you enjoy something you don’t relate to” is “how you can you not enjoy something you do relate to”. And the honest answer to the latter – that some art about breakups is bad or otherwise not to everyone’s taste – is the inversion of the honest answer to my friend’s dumb fucking question.
How could I possibly like For Emma, Forever Ago when I’ve never been through a breakup?
I like how it sounds.
It sounds good to my ears.
When the vibrations that emit from a speaker playing For Emma, Forever Ago travel through the air and hit the sensory membranes on the inside of my ears, stimulating nerves that carry information to my brain, it makes me think “ah, that’s nice” and “good job to all involved”.
More than anything, what’s frustrating and shallow and destructive about the cult of relatability in pop culture discourse is that it’s one of the major things completely eclipsing any appreciation of the actual aesthetic features of art in much modern critical writing, especially on the Internet. Too much critical writing is about how well art represents real people and their experiences, whether it’s pieces about what it “gets right” about marginalised groups or critical essays that are really just personal narrative or memoir that use art as a prop. Meanwhile, there’s a dearth of critical writing about the formal aspects of art, the very things that make art art. I think those things are better than some other kinds of pop culture writing – they have more obvious value than articles like “What THAT Twist Means for the Future of Sofia the First” or “Seven BIG Predictions for Season 35 of Jeopardy!” – but, in their dominance, they also often model a poor standard of what critical writing should be, especially since so many of them are also just badly-written and badly-reasoned, even within their genre. It makes me really worried about the future of criticism that the primary diet for people my age and younger consists in writing that ranges in sophistication from “relatable af” clickbait to thinkpieces about how Blockers is a masterpiece because it really gets what being a parent is like to long elegiac personal essays about how The Big Bang Theory helped someone with their depression, all of which say shite all about art, even if some attract more prestige than others.
And I’m not advocating for some kind of pure contemplation of beauty in the absence of personal response. But just as a narrow-minded obsession with form would produce criticism stripped of any reference to the world, so too has the cult of relatability created a glut of criticism that barely refers to art at all. If there comes a day when pop culture critics are writing too much about aesthetics, I’ll say fuck aesthetics. But the current state of pop culture discourse demands only one response.