Thursday, June 12, 2008

Embracing the disreputable

I'm just back from the presentation to the incoming Honors students, and we had an excellent (if inconclusive) conversation about how to assess film quality. I'm too bushed to write much about it, but I just want to note that the strongest reaction was to "The Start Of Something New" from High School Musical -- and it was a huge groan as soon as it came on the screen, followed by a chorus of "no" to my question "is this good?" after it was over.

I remember what it was like to be 18 -- liking the right things and disliking the right things was a matter of life and death. It was almost impossible to have taste of your own. You borrowed your taste from other people -- at that age, from peers that you looked up to. And clearly, despising Zach Efron and Disney tweener culture is de rigeur among those who have recently left the target demographic. I'm not denying that people genuinely dislike High School Musical, but I sincerely doubt that the unanimity and public vehemence of the reaction spring entirely from individuals making their own independent judgments.

More and more, I want to push students to look for quality in unexpected places. I know it's embarrassing for academics to mount serious classes on popular culture -- "The Semiotics of Madonna" and all that. But if academia does nothing but reinforce the ironclad distinctions between high and low culture that are so real to students at their age, then we haven't helped them develop taste at all -- we've simply become the new place from which they borrow.

If a student made a good argument for the quality of something I've dismissed -- Adam Sandler movies, Alan Jackson songs, Rob Liefeld comics -- I'd consider that the definitive proof that the message had gotten through. But at this age, all you can do is plant the idea that the line between what's worth experiencing and what's not might not be as bright as they thought -- that the imperative to expand one's taste goes in both directions, higher and lower.

And then you get to work helping them to appreciate what's already widely accepted as having quality, which is the main line of work for a couple of years, at least. These smart, ambitious students at least accept the premise that there's something to high culture, that they should know about it and be able to analyze it, that it's not all an elitist conspiracy to keep people from having any fun. That makes it easier. (Well -- at least until they become sophomores.) I think it might be possible to get back to the idea of embracing the disreputable in their final semesters, and I'd dearly love them to go out into the world with that spirit. I hope that when they write their seminal defense of the music of Britney Spears, they send me a copy.

1 comment:

Jenn said...

I've started returning back to the "pop" stuff I've dissed and have found some comparisons to the "high" art that I'm studying. Plus, it helps to have a professor who is hopelessly addicted to really bad movies, yet manages to make something interesting of them anyway...