Very bad thoughts

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.

7 thoughts on “Very bad thoughts

  1. sarah - April 9, 2012

    I have only been in Mexico City for three years, however i beg to differ on the Lady Gaga issue. I hear her songs in cafes stores and even buses more here in DF than I have on any visit to the US.

  2. Dominique - April 10, 2012

    Very interesting subject and cool picture on the book cover.

    Don’t throw Gaga out with the bathwater quite yet though, David. Just because she’s a mega-pop star who favors raw meat couture, travels around in an egg, and resembles a poor man’s Madonna is no reason to pre-judge her. I too managed to ignore her rise to stardom for a time, merely dismissing her as yet another pop commodity that has contributed to our rapid cultural demise.

    Very recently, though, I relented and found myself watching a couple of her videos and to my horror, discovered that I actually liked her. (Trust me, I didn’t wanna). For one thing, I don’t find her to be stupid, and for another, she is not not talented…at least in my opinion. I actually found her work to be quite artistic. You may very well come to agree with Mr. Dery’s assessment of her, but since you brought her up, I am surprised as a journalist that you wouldn’t want to do your own dirty work and decide for yourself. I would be interested in hearing your opinion.

  3. James - April 12, 2012

    Come on David! I usually agree with you, and am now eager to read this book, but if you were one of my Wellesley students, I’d say: restate your argument, please. What we don’t pay attention to (Gaga or whatever) and what we don’t see or hear are two very different things! And, come on, you are the quintessential cultural critic!

  4. Judy - April 12, 2012

    I’m sure you have heard Gaga’s songs wafting loudly from algún puesto de tacos de suadero. They are so bad, they go in one ear and out the other. Stay proud and Gaga-free forever.

  5. barry sigel - April 12, 2012

    David,I went to the reading by the Mexican author Sergio Gonzalez Rodriguez you had noted. It was disappointing. Given the dificulty of understanding his reading of the forward to his book, the page was projected up on the wall. Fine. When it came to the question & answer, the questions were so long, the translater who had waited for the end was forced to recall what was asked. The whole business was so slow. He seemed like a nice, intersting man, but he was undone by the boring format. I was hoping he would talk about his experiences which he mentioned only briefly. It all seemed academic. Packed house by the way. Oh yeah, Artist Space uses a new location for events…nearbye.

  6. Fred Z - April 16, 2012

    I live in the United States and “I have never listened to one of her songs or seen a video, never read an article about her”. I have seen the photo though.

  7. Paul - April 28, 2012

    David, you must not have taken the Metrobus much last year. Lady Gaga’s music videos were on regular rotation…I wonder if they still are. Maybe her music is something you have heard but don’t know it is her. I heard it constantly in Mexico, including streaming out of car windows. Her Rolling Stone cover, in which she poses in a machine gun bra, was made into an enormous billboard on the Santa Fe expressway in promotion of her DF concert. I’m not sure if you’re ignorant of Gaga or actively going out of your way to avoid her. As for the United States’ “dark rancid center”, it would be nice to hear you spell out why you harbor such resentment instead of simply alluding to its “garbage-strewn shorelines”. With regards to the Internet and social media, it is what you make of it. Of course, it’s a good idea to bring it in real life, offline.

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