The First Kid to Write of Hearts, Lies and Friends

This article is part of the What Pop Punk Gave Me series. Previously, a deep-dive on the image of the car in pop punk


Fall Out Boy are (for me, and precisely no-one else) a band uniquely burdened by history. There isn’t a band I’ve written about more – in MySpace bulletins and Tumblr text posts and diaries that I inevitably abandoned and destroyed – and there isn’t a band I find harder to write about. I can’t be objective: I mean, I don’t really believe in looking at music “objectively”, because art is about subjectivity, but to the extent that objectivity is a possible and desirable thing in criticism, here I have none. Every time I listen to a Fall Out Boy song, it’s the hundreds of times I’ve listened to it before – on the CD player in my childhood bedroom, on MP3 players and iPods and phones, on my laptop in the apartment where I lived in my first year of college – compounded.

Nothing sounds like being thirteen like Fall Out Boy. Nothing sounds like being eighteen like Fall Out Boy. Nothing sounds like right now like Fall Out Boy.

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The Rise and Fall of Last Week Tonight

This article is part of the Rise and Fall series, taking a look at shows that were once great and are now not. Previously, Brooklyn Nine-Nine


Every week, a new Last Week Tonight video shows up in my YouTube subscriptions page – the main story John Oliver covers in the show is uploaded to YouTube the next day – and every week, I dutifully watch it. It’s always disappointing. Sometimes because it seems like a waste to focus on something ultimately trivial or obvious, like his recent piece debunking psychics. Sometimes because it seems like a waste to cover something important but without a point of view or anything to illuminate, like his recent piece on automation. Sometimes because it’s so frustrating that it makes me genuinely angry, like his recent Brexit update that in twenty-plus minutes tossed off the Irish border in a line.

I ask myself all the time if Last Week Tonight changed or if I changed. The answer is a little of both, I’m sure, but I can pull up one of his old segments from 2014 or 2015 every so often, and they’re so, so much better than anything Last Week Tonight is doing now that I can’t understand how anyone can talk about John Oliver like he’s still the king of late night – unless it was a comment on the barrenness of the field, I guess. Last Week Tonight may have always been flawed, but it once was entertaining and informative. It once felt like a thing of value.

Now it sucks.

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I’m Not Even Supposed To Be Here Today

Whatever you now find weird, ugly, uncomfortable and nasty about a new medium will surely become its signature. CD distortion, the jitteriness of digital video, the crap sound of 8-bit – all of these will be cherished and emulated as soon as they can be avoided. It’s the sound of failure: so much modern art is the sound of things going out of control, of a medium pushing to its limits and breaking apart. The distorted guitar sound is the sound of something too loud for the medium supposed to carry it. The blues singer with the cracked voice is the sound of an emotional cry too powerful for the throat that releases it. The excitement of grainy film, of bleached-out black and white, is the excitement of witnessing events too momentous for the medium assigned to record them.

– Brian Eno, A Year with Swollen Appendices


Kevin Smith shot Clerks in black-and-white because black-and-white film was cheaper than colour. You could probably guess that, because it’s not lit properly for black-and-white. It doesn’t look like a classic Hollywood movie: it looks like security camera footage, particularly because the film’s camerawork is so simple and basic, consisting mainly of static medium shots of characters talking to each other.

If some established and acclaimed auteur with money to burn made Clerks, deliberate and purposeful, it would be easier to recognise its brilliance. Even if I’m not talking about the people who actually made the film and made the decisions, I still find myself reaching for the language of on purpose, as if the artist has to consciously put something into a piece of art for it to be really there. Clerks looks like security camera footage, and that’s perfect for a film set almost entirely in a convenience store and a video store: it both makes everything seem relentlessly ordinary and makes us feel like we’re seeing something we’re not supposed to. But since it only looks that way because it was cheaper, it’s harder to talk about. The shutters are closed because they could only film at night, when the store was closed, and accounting for that within the story both creates one of film’s most striking images – “I assure you, we’re open” written on a sheet with shoe polish hanging on the storefront – and contributes to a feeling of claustrophobia in what is basically a bottle-movie. They weren’t able to film the scene Smith had written where Randal knocks over the coffin at a wake, and it’s so much funnier just to hear Dante describe it after it happens.

Clerks is a film made brilliant by limitation and circumstance. It’s an accidental masterpiece, and the accidental part doesn’t diminish the masterpiece part.

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Digitally Reanimated Corpses

In the second season of Bojack Horseman, Bojack is cast as the lead in a film: initially it’s a serious drama, but it’s changed significantly to test better with audiences, and so Bojack ends up going AWOL from production for months. When he returns to LA, he discovers the film has been finished without him: they created a computer-generated version of him based on a full-body scan he was made to take at the start of filming. Not only was the CGI Bojack used in additional scenes filmed when Bojack disappeared, but it was inserted into every frame filmed with the real Bojack to replace him. In the end product, Bojack doesn’t appear at all, just a digital copy of him.

The critics call it the best performance of his career.

When I first watched this episode in 2015, it seemed like comic exaggeration. When actors sign up to big movies, they often sign away much more than just their performance – like their likeness to be used for toys and merchandise – and have no recourse when the film they thought they were making turns out to be something else entirely. It was funny because, like most of Bojack Horseman’s best jokes, it was absurdist with a current of real-world melancholy underneath.

A year later, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story came out.

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In Defense of the Canon

Pretty much the only time you’ll hear someone mention the canon in the year of our Lord 2019 is to explain why it’s bullshit: the canon is a bunch of stuff made by old or dead white dudes that a bunch of other old or dead white dudes decided was important, and everything outside of the canon is deemed, by implication, not important or worthwhile or particularly good. The canon is the epitome of cultural elitism; any English undergrad can tell you all about it.

The idea of a canon comes from the Bible, with the books deemed good, important and true being preserved and assembled as part of the Biblical canon, and other writings – like the gospel where the cross is a character that talks, or ones about Jesus as a kid – getting left on the cutting room floor. The idea of a literary canon is a kind of outgrowth from this: collecting the good and important works of literature – Homer, Dante, Chaucer, Shakespeare – as the ones worthy of study, the ones any educated person should be expected to have read. The literary canon is the stuff you’re supposed to read in school or college, but probably didn’t. There are tons of very legitimate criticisms of what makes up the literary canon: it tends to be disproportionately male – Jane Austen, the Bronte sisters, and Virginia Woolf would be the big exceptions when it comes to novelists – and almost exclusively white, and the people who decide what gets deemed canonical (academics and critics) have similar demographic problems. But the big difference between the Biblical canon and the literary canon is that there is no official list of classic books, with everything else likely to be lost or destroyed. The literary canon is necessarily in flux. When Herman Melville died, he was an obscure writer living in poverty, but a few decades later some hip literary types in New York realised no, wait, Moby-Dick is really good, actually, and now here we are.

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Saint Lady Bird of Sacramento

I have a very hard time articulating why I’m (still) Catholic. It’s a question that other people ask me not infrequently – it’s a “do you mind if I ask you a question?” question, an inexplicable part of myself that does not seem to vibe with my weirdo androgynous socialist persona – but nowhere near as often as I ask myself. The Church has committed legions of crimes, and besides, preaches lots of things I don’t believe – that I find positively repugnant, particularly when it comes to teachings around gender and sexuality. Of course gay people should be allowed get married; of course trans people are the gender they say they are; of course women should be ordained as priests. Traditionalist Catholics and the non-religious alike are quick to write off my Catholicism as more or less bullshit: maybe it’s a lie I tell to please my parents, maybe it’s a lie I tell to please myself, a pathetic refusal to admit that all it amounts to is a cultural affiliation. But it’s not bullshit, I know it’s not. I’ve tried not being Catholic, but it’s something I can’t shake, something deep down in the bones of me.

The only answer to the question of why that feels like the full truth is a tautology: I’m Catholic because I am Catholic. My religious feelings – that seem to resonate right in my core, that seem as real as any part of me – are so hard to articulate, even to myself, that I don’t know how to even begin to express them to someone else. And so the best I can do is a kind of scrapbook religion, pointing to other people’s articulations in the hope that a collage of all of them will make me understood: Franny and Zooey and how everyone is Christ; Leo Tolstoy and the Christian imperative of nonviolence; how deeply, impossibly I believe that ‘Anarchy, My Dear’ by Say Anything is a hymn. Most of the best and brightest entries in my scrapbook, the ones that set my heart on fire, are Catholic – more or less. Liberation theology, St. Francis, St. Joan of Arc, St. Oscar Romero, The Exorcist and The Omen, Flannery O’Connor’s short stories, Brighton Rock, Gerard Way scrawling Catholic across his neck and his arm, Dogma, The Blues Brothers, stained glass windows and Gregorian chanting and what Stewart Lee once described as Catholicism’s love of inane seaside tat. Hitchcock for guilt, Ford for redemption, Rossellini for saints. That I think making fun of transubstantiation is hack when it is so much funnier to make fun of consubstantiation. My favourite director is Martin Scorsese, and a big reason is that no artist’s work has ever resonated quite so strongly with the religious part of my heart: felt Catholic in all the ways that I am Catholic, saturated in everything from The Last Temptation of Christ down to his most secular-seeming genre pictures.

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Don’t You Want To See What Happens Next?

American Animals is a documentary. It’s built around interviews with four men who robbed a university library in Kentucky in 2004, interspersed with the most elaborate, well-made recreations you’ve ever seen.

American Animals isn’t a documentary. Its structure is basically the same as I, Tonya: a narrative interspersed with after-the-fact interviews, but in the case of American Animals, the interviews are with the real people, not the actors portraying them.

Whether American Animals is a documentary is irrelevant. It’s a film that collapses any difference. It’s a film about the relationship between reality and the representation of reality: reflecting and refracting through each other, as we watch a heist movie about a group of teenagers who rent out Reservoir Dogs and Point Break and Rififi to learn how to do a heist, as what they (and we) remember, or choose to remember, makes reality contentious, as the lines between the film’s documentary and fiction elements blur and break down.

“So, this is how you remember it?” Warren (Evan Peters) asks his real-life counterpart, Warren Lipka, who has suddenly appeared beside him in his car.

“Not exactly,” Lipka – who thinks this conversation that’s about to happen took place at a party, not in a car – says, “But if this is how Spencer remembers it, then let’s go with it.”

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bell hooks is wrong about The Piano

In 1994, feminist writer bell hooks wrote an article about gangster rap. She both condemns the misogyny and violence of gangster rap and the hypocrisy of its white critics, who treat that misogyny and violence as unique to young black men. Gangster rap, she says, is not an aberration or subversion but a reflection of mainstream culture’s values. I don’t really agree with a lot of her points – the part where she describes the cover of Snoop Dogg’s Doggystyle as pornographic seems over the top, and she makes no room for genuinely subversive racial politics in gangster rap – but I get where she’s coming from. To make her point, she wants to draw contrast with another popular piece of art, made by a white woman, that also reflects the mainstream valorisation of misogyny and male violence but hasn’t received the same backlash. She picks a terrible example.

bell hooks is wrong about The Piano.

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Radical Empathy and the Prison-Industrial Complex

Spoilers through to the end of season 5 of Orange Is the New Black.


Orange Is the New Black has become a cautionary tale of the streaming era of television. When it first debuted in 2013, it quickly became hugely popular, one of Netflix’s most watched and acclaimed original series. It was at the forefront of that brief moment when “Netflix original series” meant something: ground-breaking television, exploding our very conception of what television could be. With its sprawling, diverse ensemble cast, binge-friendly structure and mixture of comedy and drama, Orange Is the New Black was the kind of show that was regularly preceded by a “I can’t believe you haven’t seen” and followed by an exclamation mark.

But not anymore. The show’s fourth season was polarising, but its fifth was widely disliked, to the extent it made any impact at all. It’s become just another show in Netflix’s bloated catalogue, just another past-its-prime show that you’ve forgotten is still on the air.

Orange is the New Black seems destined to remain in a sort of TV purgatory,” The Guardian writes, “It has more than enough fans to sustain itself on Netflix and the streaming site is keen to back it considering it’s still one of its most-loved originals. But does it feel as vital as it did when it was first released?”

The answer is supposed to be no, so obviously that it doesn’t need to be said. But here’s the thing: in its latter years, Orange Is the New Black has become something more important and much more radical. I tend to rag on Peak TV quite a bit – if I say something “could only exist in the streaming era” I usually mean that it’s bloated, incoherent and insufficiently concerned with making individual episodes high-quality or enjoyable. The second season of Jessica Jones could only exist in the streaming era, and it fucking sucks. But Orange Is the New Black, too, could only exist in the streaming era: a beacon of light guiding the way to all that streaming television has the possibilities to be.

At what other point in history could a TV series get made – and become hugely popular – that argues, full-throated, for the abolition of prisons?

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Westerns: A Take

I can name for you every western I’ve ever seen. It wouldn’t even be hard. That’s not even close to true about any other genre: I always feel I came relatively late to horror, but the idea of listing all the horror films I’ve seen seems absurd, a job it would be impossible to finish. But I’ve seen, like, fifteen westerns – I’m a total novice, fumbling around in the dark in a genre in which I have yet to grow roots.

But as I slowly, stumblingly get into westerns, I’ve become acutely aware of the gap between the way people talk about westerns and what they’re actually like. The western – especially for people my age, who didn’t grow up watching them on Saturday afternoons – is treated less like an artform than a rhetorical device, and this means, necessarily, reducing a huge, varied film genre to a static set of characteristics. It means assuming that everything westerns were, are or can be fits in a little box.

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