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"There's no capacity to rebel through the precepts of cultural expression anymore. And so when people try to do that, they become very, very frustrated. Today's punk band is just not gonna shock anybody and if they want to shock somebody they'll have to all get into the basement and shoot each other with shotguns. And even that is now just another pop trope."
Hal Niedzviecki is reading at a bookstore in Vancouver. Those that have come to hear him speak sit like supplicants: the few chairs are filled and the balance of the group mostly sit at his feet, crosslegged or with arms hugging knees. At a glance, those attending are very much Niedzviecki's market -- though he wouldn't put it that way himself. There are a very few who are over 30, but even these wear the uniform of youth: Loose-fitting clothes, sensible shoes, close-cropped hair in interesting colors or long locks pulled back in sensible styles. One look at this particular crowd says it all: these are the people who want some, too. The readers who have an interest in "underground desire and the reinvention of mass culture." Hal Niedzviecki is here to help them understand it.
His reading isn't sonorous. It never soars. His style is more low-key, perhaps even more grass roots. He stops his reading once in a while to make a joke. Make a connection. He reads well, but not brilliantly. His reading is almost shy; almost vulnerable.
The book, however, is anything but vulnerable. In We Want Some Too, Niedzviecki's voice is almost always soaring, though the more conservative among us would certainly correct that to "grating." The words become a mantra; a text. In some ways, the words he's sharing are a new spirituality, a new religion. Pop culture sliced down to a place where it can be understood, digested and acted upon. Or something: the conclusion is not definite, but the path Niedzviecki takes us on to get there is worth the price of admission.
Niedzviecki's take on pop culture at the beginning of the 21st century is sometimes difficult to parse. At times he seems like a pop booster; at others like modern pop culture's toughest critic. If a single message comes through from We Want Some Too it's that, no matter what you make of popular culture, it's better to take a proactive role. An educated -- especially self-educated -- view of popular culture and your place in it. Taking part in some creative way, Niedzviecki says in different ways throughout the book, is better than sitting by passively and letting it happen to you. Whatever it is he really means, it's a fun and eye-opening ride. Niedzviecki is a sure and elegant writer with a lot to say. We Want Some Too is a landmark that -- quite simply -- couldn't have been executed in the same style by any other writer.
In promoting We Want Some Too, the publicity machine has taken to calling Niedzviecki an "alternative culture guru," though he shies from the description. "I think I prefer underground culture guru," he laughs, though those same conservatives might amend even that to "slacker." Still, for a writer who -- if judged by his growing body of work -- might almost be a poster boy for slackerism. Except, of course, there's the irrefutable work itself: just 29, Niedzviecki is the author of four books, the father of the widely read alternative culture 'zine, Broken Pencil, and has written several stacks of articles for such respected publications as The Utne Reader, The Globe and Mail, Adbusters and The National Post.
The author lives in Toronto with his wife who is currently doing her PhD in psychology. "She's very busy and mostly ignores me," jokes Niedzviecki.
Linda Richards: Where was the market for this book?
Hal Niedzviecki: For me? Everybody. I don't think there's any single person in North America who is not affected by the issues in this book. Though I would never want to think about writing in terms of market. I know that when I write I kind of have Perfect Reader in mind. There's a person that I'm speaking to. It's not usually that defined, but I have a general idea.
Obviously I'm hoping that I Want Some Too will resonate with my generation and the people who are doing the things that I write about in the book who are primarily now in their late 20s, early 30s. But I think the ideas in the book will resonate with a whole lot of people. I didn't really exclusively try to make a generational manifesto or anything like that. I just kind of put it out there.
Are you a little bit, with this book, creating yourself as the poster boy for slackerism?
I don't know about that. [Laughs] I don't know if I really have anything to say to that. The ideas in the book, for instance the "Work" chapter, which is the major sort of "slacker" -- and probably the most manifesto-like -- chapter in the book, came out of an article I wrote for This magazine that was called "Stupid Jobs are Good to Relax With." And that was pretty much a sort of slacker manifesto. The response I got from that article was pretty big. I got letters and e-mail and conversations with people who really found that that article had resonated with them. Those responses informed the sort of bigger idea of a lifestyle culture of people looking through the prism of pop culture at their own lives. At what they work, how they play, what their relationships are with people. I don't see it as people being "slackers." That they don't want to do anything. It's just that what they want to do is very intangible and hard to grasp. It's not so much a slacker agenda as it is a different approach to work and life. An approach that is more about that it's more important to work on your 'zine about the punk bands of Saskatchewan than it is to work your job.
How is that different?
How is that different from what?
From anything. Like, is that a new concept?
I don't know.
Because that particular concept doesn't strike me as such.
You know, I'm not really worried if it's new or not. That was one of the conclusions I made in the book. That there are a lot of people who feel this way. If that's not new, I'm not worried about it. But it struck me as something interesting that certainly applied to my larger theory. I think it is something that a lot of people find repellent. But I say that there's a lot of people now who find it more important to have watched every episode of Seinfeld than to have done a good job in the office. I personally don't have a problem with that, but there are a lot of people who look at that idea and go: It's the end of society. What are the kids up to? What are they coming to? But for me that's sort of the legacy of pop culture.
And your life is more important than your lifestyle?
Or vice versa. That your lifestyle is more important than your life.
What's your take on how pop culture is affecting us? Are you disappointed with the way people are becoming sheep? Or do you want people to become rebels again?
Well, both. [Laughs] There's never an easy answer. Because on the one hand you are disappointed with the immense capacity of pop culture to really colonize so many aspects of our perceptions. On the other hand, you also have to acknowledge that this has occurred, it has occurred in my life. I have very special formative memories in which pop culture is forever intertwined and I can't deny them. I can't deny their primacy and their importance in my life, so I can't condemn people for the way they live. You know, the guy who obsessively collects Tarzan memorabilia in the basement of his mother's house. You want to say: what an idiot. But on the other hand, you can also see yourself doing that.
In your own small way.
In your own small way, or in your own big way. And, in the book, when he says: But I'm not some kind of weird fan, like a Trekkie. When he says that you can certainly understand because, for him, he sees this as his passion. His fulfillment. And, of course, he doesn't want to be identified with what he sees as the Trekkies. As idiots. So it's very complicated: this relationship we have with pop culture is not so easy.
We all see what we do as either unique or important. So I guess in a way that's what you're saying: that however we deal with pop culture is the valid way. It's OK.
That's what you'd like to say. You know, you'd like to say whatever people do they're finding a way to bring pop culture into their lives and make it work for them, so they don't end up these passive sheep sitting on the couch watching the same TV shows. At least they're collecting Star Trek shit, you know? That's somehow one step better, for me. But then the book goes farther and says that this is also very sad. That this image of the Tarzan guy and all these other people is not one that I want to propagate as really reaching new heights of humanity. So the book then goes on to say that there are other, more substantive, ways we can encounter pop culture. Better languages we can speak that don't deny the validity of the pop culture experience, but don't necessarily wholeheartedly mimic corporate entertainment.
The saddest image for me is the people -- and they do exist. I know they do -- that work their little job and then go home and eat their little dinner in front of the television set and then sit there and watch television until they go to bed and then they sleep until they get up and go back to their job. That seems to me like a hamster existence. I mean, collecting Tarzan memorabilia has got to be so much more fulfilling than that.
Exactly. If you're looking at the sort of blank stereotype of North American life, even that small derivation, in such an empty spiritual existence, how can we condemn that? How can we say that's bad? And yet we have all these critics and these people saying: Pop culture is stupid and it's bad. It's this and that. You know? And then they'll further say that exhorting people to take the next step and produce their own pop culture is not a good idea, because then we'll just have more pop culture which is stupid and bad. And I say, that that's the only solution that we can take. The only way out of this trap is to say: We don't have to sit around watching that TV show. We can make our own TV show. We have the technology now. We have all the pieces in place. And we certainly have the pop culture knowledge. We all have incredible amounts of knowledge stored in our minds of what a sitcom looks like and what a movie looks like and what a comic book looks like. And so you have all of these people who are starting to do these things. Finding meaning in their lives that's the next level past just collecting. But in fact, making their own collectables. A lot of people will say: that's very bad. Because pop culture is for the experts. For the celebrities and the anointed superstars.
But even if you're anti-pop culture and it becomes something that everybody follows then it immediately becomes popular. So whether it's pro or con -- anti-pop culture or pro-pop culture -- it's all part of the pop culture. You can't separate them.
Exactly. I think that's very true. And one of the big arguments in the book -- a whole chapter of the book -- is this argument that says there is no such thing as an underground culture. It doesn't exist. There's no capacity to rebel through the precepts of cultural expression anymore. And so when people try to do that, they become very, very frustrated. Today's punk band is just not gonna shock anybody and if they want to shock somebody they'll have to all get into the basement and shoot each other with shotguns. And even that is now just another pop trope.
Like the guy you talk about in the book. The Rainbow Man?
Yeah. The guy who went to all those games and he was on David Letterman and everything and finally [the media] got sick of him. So what did he do? He took hostages and demanded to be on TV.
And we laugh, but that's pretty serious stuff. And it's also like a Seinfeld episode.
Very much. And he's also one example of all these different things that I just kept coming across -- though usually in much less extreme variations -- but I kept coming across all these people and I thought to myself: this is something that's happening. And, like you said, I don't really know if it's new or if it's been happening since the 60s, when we really started to solidify the death of rebellion through the arts.
But, as you say, we're getting jaded. It's harder to shock us. Because of that jadedness do you think that something less subverted will creep into pop culture and make us a little more exuberant?
I don't know. I think we're incredibly jaded but I think that just sort of confirms our own feeling that we should be our own superstars. What has happened is that the level of self-referential capacity for us to be cynical and sarcastic about everything we see on television no longer allows us to believe that the news is actually the news. It's all just entertainment for us. And if it's all just entertainment, then we'd rather be our own entertainers. If there is no credibility -- if you don't have to be an expert to talk about the news, to be the talk show host, to be the celebrity -- then why can't we be our own celebrities? I think that's where jaded comes in. The more jaded we get, the less we believe in pop's primacy as, you know: These are the best movies and these are our superstars. And the more we start to think: Well, fuck this, I wanna be the superstar.
If he can do it, why can't I?
Exactly. Because these guys are not great. Peter Mansbridge is not this incredible, amazing newscaster. He's not the only guy who can give us the news. You realize that the only thing you can do is to start your own things. We're sort of at the highest level of self awareness. I think the Tarzan collector is hopefully gonna reach that at some point and fulfill his dream to not just collect Tarzan memorabilia but open his own Tarzan museum and be the real expert on Tarzan. Because why not? Why shouldn't he be? We are a threat to the sort of powers that be because if you can do it, other people can do it and then all of a sudden who is the expert? Who is going to pronounce what's good?
So what's the difference between someone who is an expert on political science and someone who is an expert in Tarzan memorablila?
Surprisingly little. And it's especially difficult in pop culture because some 15-year-old kid who has been watching movies and TV since he was two months old has the right and probably the knowledge base to comment quite interestingly on TV and movies. He doesn't have the right to be a brain surgeon. But he does have the right to be his own pop culture critic. That's very frustrating to the guy who writes the movie reviews in the daily newspaper. [Laughs] You've gotta start feeling a little threatened and their response is to kind of solidify their hold and to just deny anything that threatens it.
Their own tenuous existence is threatened?
Absolutely. They'll staunch the idea that you can have an independent periodical. They'll stanch the idea that it could be credible. And they'll also stomp right on the idea that you could have an independent movie that could be good, too. You couldn't have that. Every newspaper in North America every Friday reviews the same four movies. And that doesn't bother anybody? Meanwhile there's all kinds of independent films -- every city has independent filmmakers that are releasing films -- not even one article. Not even a little corner is devoted to them and I think that's part of the same process. Because if you say that independent film is OK, then you'll have to say that independent film criticism is OK and then you'll start showing people that the daily newspapers are not the be all and end all of cultural expression and this subverts that system. It doesn't subvert the system of brain surgeons. They're still experts. They're still geniuses in the world.
I say this because a lot of curmudgeonly critics have said to me: Yes, but then you have all of this terrible stuff. You have all these horrible films and horrible 'zines and horrible self-published books. This is a bad thing, because then you'll have all of these people doing this and you won't have experts anymore. You won't have geniuses. And I say: No, you'll still have geniuses and you'll still have experts. The only difference is, people will feel fulfilled and they'll feel like they can participate in their own culture and if you're telling me that all these movies that are out are great -- are the works of geniuses -- and that's why they're out. Or all the books published are so fantastic -- you're deluding yourself. You're more likely to produce something great by letting people make their own creative material. I think that's where this all ends up. We start with the Tarzan collector and we end up with independent everything and just a total subversion of how we make and relate to pop culture.
It's amazing how many people are resistant to these ideas. They have all of these arguments which basically come down to: Only the experts should be making culture. Whether it's pop culture or high art. And that includes cultural criticism and journalism and the book [We Want Some Too] exists because all these other people are starting to want to really be part of this pop promise which is, you know: You're the individual. Just do it. You're special. You can do it too. And people try to do it and then they realize they can't.
Pop promise. I like that. Is that the pop promise?
Is it an empty promise?
It's a totally empty promise, yeah. It's the insidious empty promise at the heart of mass culture because that's what every billboard promises you, that's the subject of every sitcom. You don't ever see a sitcom where the cute little black kid doesn't overcome his adversity, right? That's what every Hollywood movie is about. The little person takes on whatever, it's the same story. It's also in all the pop culture novels and that's the pop promise. And, of course, when you actually try to fulfill the pop promise you realize that you can't be the celebrity. You can't make your own stuff.
But you can!
Well, you can but you can't in the Hollywood way. You can make your own movie, after 30 years of scrimping and saving and then maybe you'll get a couple of hundred people out to see it once in your town. It won't get distributed. It won't get reviewed in the New York Times. You'll just end up with a huge bank debt and a whole lot of suffering.
But that's horrible. And it does happen. I think the pop promise sounds pretty positive. I mean, it's better than: Well, you're oppressed and you have to stay in the salt mines forever. It's happier.
Well, it is. That's the irony. That the promise itself is one that is actually kind of good. But everything in society is sort of designed to prevent you from achieving it and nonetheless, many still give it a go. I have a whole chapter in the book about marketing and how marketing basically exists to suppress independent creative action. That's where the pop promise runs into the reality of focus groups and style consultation and independent film making companies that insert products of fanatic relevance into their movies for a fee. That's where you realize that the pop promise is not as easy to grasp as it seems. There can't be an independent success. It's a giant corporate success always.
The message of Blair Witch [Project] is not so much that these kids made a movie and got it out and everyone thought it was really cool. The message is that a big company saw the movie and said: Ooh, we can buy this and market it and make tons of cash. The message is not go out and make your own movie. It's go out and find the right company to market your movie. Still a little bit comes through in the experience of going to that movie and watching people walk out because they were offended by the style and the techniques of the movie which are not Hollywood techniques. People walked out, and yet they were exposed to just a little sliver of something that is all over the place.
It's a dichotomy, though. Because you've made something and the only way to get it shown is by selling it off. Is that a contradiction or is that taking advantage of the situation?
I think it's pretty much both. Obviously, I have that in my own life. I published this book with Penguin and I write for The National Post and I'm a sort of unwilling slave to corporate culture. But what choice do I have? People will say: Oh, you're a hypocrite. And I'll say: These are the strictures of society that I'm allowed to communicate through. If I'm a hypocrite for using them to say what I want to say, that reveals a lot more about mainstream publishing and newspapers than it does about my desire to want to hear my own voice and want to be able to have my own ideas and see them the way this business book about, you know, how to make a million dollars in five days, can do that.
That's what came across when I read that article you wrote about slacking off at stupid jobs. I thought: Well, here's a guy who has written four books, writes for The National Post and yet he's talking about slacking off at stupid jobs. It seemed very much a contradiction. You work very hard, it seems, because you're a working writer.
Well, in 1998 when I wrote that article I was not making a living as a writer. I was making a living as a van driver and an usher and a security guard. So I had these perceptions, but I was also working really, really hard at my writing and I was meeting all these people who were working really, really hard. Not at the ushering job that we were all at, but on their own creative endeavors. Most of which never succeeded and which they eventually gave up because the pop promise just does not contain the capacity to invite us all in.
You're such a cynic.
I am a cynic. I'm very cynical about what we have out there. But I'm also optimistic. I end the book with this optimistic hope that we can have a new cultural renaissance where the incredibly smart masses of North America who don't even know how smart they are -- who don't even recognize that the thousands and thousands of movies and TV plots and pop song jingles in their heads form a kind of knowledge. I think they can harness that knowledge and make their own creativity a real thing. I end the book with that hopeful image because you have to be hopeful. I believe that people have, not just the trivia, but the technical information.
I write about the language of plunder in one of the chapters in the book, which I see as sort of the new language of mass culture creativity where we plunder pop and use it to create new works. We plunder not just the images or the sound bytes, but we also plunder the techniques. So if I'm writing a film script and I want to make reference to the jungle or something I know that I can do certain things based on our collective movie image of the jungle.
Like a cultural shorthand.
Yeah. Exactly. I can do these things. And I don't have to go to film school to know this, I just know this. I know that there are certain techniques I can use to evoke certain things that everyone in North America will use. I think that's very interesting information for us to know. It was once specialized knowledge and now it's not. Any kid can make a pop song now. Any kid can probably make a fairly interesting movie, at least based on the very low standards of TV and Hollywood.
But there's a lot about pop culture that people get wrong. Quotes for instance. A lot of people insist that Bogart said "Play it again, Sam." And he didn't. Things get twisted somehow. Misused. What's that about?
I think it shows that popular culture is a very dangerous medium and that it's not just sort of this dismissive fun and games. It leads to substantive errors about how we view our lives and some are quite harmful. You have how many kids who are gonna blow their heads off like Kurt Cobain? A lot. And they're getting it wrong. But they're gonna do it. And those kids in Columbine who thought they were going to be celebrities because they were going to take out their class. They were right. But it's the same error. Pop culture promises that, and yet it's wrong. But it is true that you can do that. So, it's a dangerous medium. The way it is now with so few voices and so few people believing that they have access to their own capacity to dialog about pop culture is even more dangerous. It would be far better if there were more voices and fewer people were kind of duped by these ideas. If those kids were able to put out works of creative expression that were actually listened to, that would be good. They maybe would have found another way to articulate their frustration. Maybe not. It's an extreme example, and a hard one too.
I've heard you referred to as a pop culture guru.
I think I prefer underground culture guru. [Laughs]
Are there things you see in pop culture that especially disappoint you?
I'm always disappointed with the media. Always. I'm consistently disappointed by our inability to use what should be a great medium to say things that never seem to work out. And that's certainly a big part of pop culture.
You have a Superman collection of your own in the basement.
That was the Charlotte's Web book you did.
Oh yes. The Lurvy book. That came out in 1999. It's my pastiche novel. [Laughs] If you look through it, you'll see it has a comic strip, it has sort of pseudo pictures. It has a great film poster: Bride of Lurvy Part III. A film poster for a movie that never existed. And the coloring book pages and a table of contents in the middle somewhere. And an index and all these kinds of things.
It took me a long time to write that book. One of the reasons was that I had no idea what the hell I was trying to do when I started it. I started it -- I don't know, must have been a good five years ago. I thought it was going to be this straight novel in the spirit of reclaiming fairy tales or whatever. And it was horrible. It was just terrible and was going nowhere. But, for some reason, the people who had read it, kept asking me: What's happening with Lurvy? It really stuck in people's minds: the idea and sort of the plot. Even though the writing was terrible. There was this mythic retelling of Charlotte's Web in which the deranged farm hand returns to the farm and goes after the pig and the spider and the kids. People were very into this.
One friend of mine said: OK. If it's not going to be a novel, then maybe I'll make a movie out of it. He was a filmmaker. So I started writing the film script and the film script was also terrible. It was almost as bad as the novel. But, the funny thing is, what I realized was that the film script juxtaposed with bits from the novel and other little weird Charlotte's Web things that I had been collecting was actually working really well.
So I finally found the voice for Lurvy. That what I was writing was less a straight tale, but a sort of post modern detournement of this weird idea of a book that never existed; of a character that never existed but could easily have. So while I was finishing this up, I was also starting to work on We Want Some Too and it all sort of formed a bridge in my mind. I was using a lot of the ideas in the book for my own attempt to kind of reclaim the story of Charlotte's Web. I actually have the book [Charlotte's Web]. It was given to me by my parents' good friends on the day of my birth. So it was the first book I ever owned. So, obviously, it was a very important book to me which I hadn't quite acknowledged. This pop narrative of the book and the movie Babe and all these things were kind of made possible by Wilbur. [Laughs] So it all came together in the thing that is Lurvy. I think one day someone is going to pick this up and think that there was once a Lurvy play and Lurvy novels and a Lurvy comic strip and all this Lurvy stuff and it'll be really interesting.
And you're creating your own pop culture.
Exactly. It's an interesting little goofy experiment. I think when people look at something like that they also realize how much we have in our minds that we can screw around with and have fun with. It doesn't have to be so passive.
Are you working on anything right now?
Well, I've got a novel that's almost finished. An actual, real novel: it sort of has more of a plot and stuff. [Laughs] And I've also got a book of short stories that is nearing completion. The novel has been in the works for a couple of years now. And then I'll work on the short story book.
You're writing all the time. You're a very disciplined writer.
Well, I slack off a lot. What's funny is that I write very, very quickly and I write in bursts. So I'll sit down and write a 20-page story and it'll take me three or four hours and that'll be it for the week or I might not do anything else for a couple of days. Then I'll feel like I'm really being lazy, but I guess that's just the way I work. So I never really perceive myself as this hard worker. Because I'm basically usually watching TV or sitting around. And yet in the end I produce a lot, just because of the way I write: which is quite quickly.
Where are you from?
I was born in Brockville, Ontario and lived there for about half a month. I grew up in Ottawa and the suburbs of Washington, D.C.
Writers in the family?
Oh no. My brother is a lawyer and my dad is an engineer type and my mother is the social coordinator for the Canadian ambassador in Washington. So it's very un-writerly. And they all have particular takes on my work, which is usually in the realm of: I don't like it. What is this shit?
My parents are great and they're very supportive and they love the fact that I have books and they can tell the neighbors and that I'm a real writer now. But they haven't been big fans of the actual contents. But one shouldn't write for one's parents, I suspect. [Laughs]
Yes. My wife is doing her PhD in child psychology and works at the hospital for sick children. She's very busy and mostly ignores me.
Do you gain any insights from each other?
Yeah, we do. We exchange ideas and argue quite a bit about our various endeavors. She hates it when I read her textbooks. I'm always saying: This is bullshit. And she reads my books and says: No, this is bullshit. So it all works out in the end. | May 2000
Linda L. Richards is the editor of January Magazine and the author of several books.