I have always been uncomfortable with the term “cultural critic.” What is it supposed to mean? What comes to mind is a person of reasonable intelligence who watches too much television and is addicted to the internet and expects we should listen to his opinions, and even more outrageously, that perhaps he should even be paid to express them. About three years ago, a writer from New York named Mark Dery passed through Mexico City, to give a conference at the Festival de México en el Centro Histórico. We met and, aside from being a very bright and likeable guy, he wrote a sympathetic article based on our interview.
Dery is a “cultural critic” por excelencia — he has written about media, pop culture and technology for a formidable roundup of august publications, such as The New Yorker, Wired, Spin, the Village Voice and Rolling Stone and a book of his about cyberculture was translated into eight languages. So when he sent me the galleys to his new book, I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts: Drive-By Essays on American Dread, American Dreams, I was nervous about whether or not I would get into it.
I need not have doubted. It’s a dazzling performance, with Dery compulsively trawling the garbage-strewn shorelines of the U.S. to examine its dark and rancid center: the homosexual panic behind the Super Bowl and George Bush’s cowboy pronouncements; the eros of severed heads and facial come shots on the internet; the dubious value of blogging and Facebook; the supposed intelligence of Lady Gaga and — I am not making this up — the significance of Madonna’s big toe in a Versace ad. He writes in a breathless and witty style, engagingly full of glib word play.
As someone who left the U.S. years ago, at least in part to escape such manifestations of “culture,” Dery’s book is a special treat. For example, away from my home country, I have been able to completely ignore the ascendance of Lady Gaga (and only by chance realized that she played Mexico City last year because a young friend told me she had tickets). I have never listened to one of her songs or seen a video, never read an article about her, never even looked at her photo. After reading Dery’s essay about her — highly opinionated and absolutely damning — I am certain I’ve made the right choice. In this and many other instances, I am grateful to Mark for doing my dirty work.