TEMPE, Ariz. — There’s not a lot going on here at Tempe Diablo Stadium right now, so let’s talk about cultural garbage, shall we?
Yesterday when it was announced that Will Ferrell was going to do the play all nine positions thing, my first impulse was to engage in some mild grumping. I hate that that was my first impulse.
That sort of grumping is an impulse a lot of us have about anything related to celebrities, P.R. stunts and, especially, anything that is perceived to be less-than-totally-cool. My post earlier today about Guy Fieri was in that vein. Most of my Rush comments are goofing around and trying to bait Rush fans, but yes, there is at least a small element of this sort of grumping with that too. Will Ferrell is no longer considered totally cool, see — he probably already reached his high point a while back — so our impulse is to register some sort of mild annoyance with it, be it an eyeroll or an actual complaint. We do it with music and movies and any bit of pop culture that has either gotten too popular or has become somewhat passé.
I think it’s a particularly strong impulse among people my age and older. People who grew up with a somewhat less-fragmented and thus somewhat more polarizing cultural scene. A lot of us felt it socially necessary to choose sides, culturally speaking, be it with cliques or music or what have you. To mock or deride that which we don’t care for. To engage in the same sort of judgmental game we did in 1992 if people were still listening to Warrant instead of Nirvana or 1978 if someone preferred Grand Funk to The Clash. You were with the cool kids and the cool things or you weren’t. Talk to any group of people between 40 and 50 and you can identify this pattern, even today.
I hate that. I hate that such impulses remain so strong among certain people, myself included. Not the impulse to like or dislike something — we all have our tastes and preferences — but the impulse to take things one step further and cast our preferences as some objectively culturally superior choice. To be really frickin’ culturally judgmental.
For a couple of reasons having to do with life and career changes, in the past few years my base of friends and acquaintances has become much younger. I tend to interact with more millennials than Gen-Xers like myself. And, thanks to being on the Internet all day, people even younger than that. These people are different. I mean, yes, there is still cultural garbage and the whole dance in which people signal to one’s tribe, but it’s far less pronounced with people 30 and younger than I’ve observed among people my own age. It’s not as unusual to find people who like bubblegum pop and indie rock. Young adult lit and stuff short-listed for the Booker Prize. Big dumb action movies and Oscar bait.
Most significantly, there is not as much of a social need for these people to apologize for their tastes or to explain away their enjoyment of that which is perceived to be less-than-high culture. There is always a need for people my age to do that, it seems. To say we don’t love Bruce Springsteen, but we love the “Nebraska” album. To say we hate country music, but Johnny Cash is cool. To very consciously and conspicuously label our pleasures either guilty or legitimate, rather than merely acknowledge and own our pleasures. And to make damn sure that people know, deep down, we’re cool.
I sometimes think I’m too old to shake this bad habit of cultural snobbery. It’s so deeply ingrained. But when I do manage to shake it and to simply enjoy fun things which are supposed to be nothing more than fun and goofy things which are supposed to be nothing more than goofy, it’s liberating. To appreciate a kickass pop hook, even if it comes from a 20-year-old pop starlet. To laugh at the oldest fart joke around. To appreciate a bit of mass culture for what it is, rather than to either mock it or appreciate it only on some arch, ironic level.
Which brings us back to Will Ferrell and the backlash I have seen to his baseball stunt, however mild it may be. I don’t think it’s about the fact that baseball’s integrity is being messed with. I mean, Billy Crystal and Garth Brooks have taken spring training hacks before, and lord knows that these games don’t matter all that much. I think it’s more about it being Will Ferrell and most people believing that Will Ferrell’s last truly good comedy movie was several years ago and that he’s past his sell-date with this sort of thing. I have a sneaking suspicion that if some younger, hotter comedian was doing this, not as many people would be grumbling. Or, alternatively, that if someone with greater cool kid credentials who approached this with a greater sense of irony was doing it, it’d be cheered on loudly. If Bill Murray were doing it everyone would love it, right?
Anyway, I’ll stop with my little cultural rant now. I don’t want to oversell it. I still love certain things and hate other things and I always will. And I’m still going to go for easy jokes because that’s sort of what I do. But I’m trying hard to not be that humorless guy from 1992 who hadn’t merely moved beyond Warrant and liked new things, but actively groaned at and judged people who didn’t make the same choices. To try to open myself up to new things, even if they aren’t things normally in my wheelhouse.
And I’m going to watch Will Ferrell play center field here at Tempe Diablo Stadium later and laugh at if it’s funny and smile at it either way.