Monday, May 16, 2011

More Thoughts on Grantland

By The Pour Curator



Narrating the Pre Apocalypse

Bill Simmons' new Grantland, which promises to be an Interwebs shrine to the unholy union of pop culture an professional sports, is probably anticipated by its detractors more than its likely supporters. The fact that we already know who the detractors are, before it even exists functionally, tells a square most of what he or she need know about it. The most eloquent disemboweling of the not-yet-site was launched by African dictator-cum-blogger Mobutu Sese Seko. It was given the stamp of approval by one of the many excellent vaguely anti-Simmons sports blogs, The Big Lead, and so it is now more widely read than Dostoevsky. In his evisceration, Mobutu even acknowledges that one of the articles on the pilot page is superlative, but somehow this in no way dissuades him that the project must be a total waste of time. That's the level of response Simmons brings out in smart people.

So he's a lightning rod, because he's famous and his fame is now tied to who he is. As Mobutu writes, this lends his old "just-another-guy" tone a level of insincerity, but that's only if you assume he ever wanted to be a serious writer, instead of just a very well-read blogger. Some of the criticism of the new Grantland site seems to be that the star-studded lineup (Eggers, Klosterman, Gladwell) and the lofty title (a reference to a revered early 20th Century sportswriter) implies a gravity befitting of the early ESPN.com Page 2, which featured writers like Wiley, Hunter Thompson and David Halberstam. I instead see it as a celebration of all of pop culture's facets, including the ugly ones, on which these writers are uniquely qualified to comment.

All that said, here are a few points I think one might consider before writing off Grantland before it has actually published things. They lack the passion of Mobutu, but perhaps their simplicity will make up for it a little.

I used to love Simmons's writing, and now I do not, and that is mostly, I believe, due to a combination of two things: 1) Like basically every sportswriter not named Joe Posnanski or Ralph Wiley, he got lazy at a certain level of fame and, rather than seeking to continue improving, just played the hits because he knew people liked them and would sing along. 2) He clearly got more interested in other forms of media. His Podcasts are very good when they are not very bad, and I think his work on 30 for 30 was undeniably great. When he focuses, he is capable of producing insight, and I think he will focus on a multimillion-dollar enterprise that is his baby.

Say what you will about Simmons, he has totally defined how a writer can become a socially relevant, important person in the post-publication age. He started as a blogger, and is now the most popular sportswriter on the planet. We may not like him, but that is the prototype that I, Dr. Carey, and everyone under the age of 60 is following. Possibly even Mr. Mobutu is following this model.

Klosterman is alternately great and terrible. For that matter, so is Simmons. For that matter, so is Gladwell. So the fact that Mr. Mobutu found on the site one great story and one terrible story is not really surprising. I expect this site to be 100% chaos and inconsistent in quality, just like (wait for it...) pop culture. Sometimes you get Two and a Half Men, sometimes you get Justified, sometimes you get Jersey Shore.

Perhaps most importantly, I believe Mobutu's response is guilty (as so many of our online missives are) of forgetting the cardinal virtue of the Internet, which is choice. Can we please stop acting like we are somehow obligated to read/watch/listen to people we hate? If you really hate Klosterman or Simmons, please, feel free to go read one of the ELEVENTY BILLION OTHER THINGS ON THE BLAGOSPHERE. Seriously. I run a niche blog about niche art in a niche part of the beer industry, and I have readers. There's good stuff out there, and the Internet's too big to ever read all of it, so go read something you like. Of course I disagree with the Disney practice of forcing writers to adulate Disney, but if you're not familiar with ESPN, and that Disney does not allow self-criticism, then you have larger cultural awareness issues than can be solved here. We can read things and still consider the source.

So onto the question of whether a larger, star-studded, certain-to-be-obnoxious celebration of pop culture is warranted.

I have no research to back this up outside of a personal anecdote. If you hate Simmons, you probably hate personal anecdotes, so feel free to stop reading (see? I practice what I preach.).

Today, a friend sent me the Mental_Floss list of 10 versions of Rebecca Black's "Friday," including versions by Stephen Colbert and Meat Loaf.


Narrating the Pre Apocalypse

Etewaf: reconstituting all cultural units into processed nuggets

Now, it's worth pointing out that I am having a bad week in the middle of an all-time bad month. It happens and, like most men of my age, I've developed the necessary stoicism to experience this stuff while still functioning and waiting for the simple laws of large numbers to even things out a bit and resume my comfortable, treasured mediocrity. I don't deluge others with what's going on because I want them to think highly of me, and I don't like wasting people's time. But, you know, it still blows. As with said stoicism, the only real way to rock it is to just assume that all which is in one's near future is likely to suck, and there is little to be done about it. So I hoped for no great salvation, just the healing march of days. Streetcar named Resignation, all the way til the end of the line.

Then I get this email, with 10 versions of a song so unspeakably bad that just thinking of it makes me feel worse. I actually responded to the email with irritable hate about "Friday," but was politely told to just watch the Colbert version.

I thought nothing could make me feel better, and I was wrong.

Then I listened to the "Meat Loaf" version:

Okay, but what does any of this have to do with Simmons and Grantland?

Simmons is nowadays a pretty bad writer. He used to be great, then he decided he cared more about other media, and he largely phones in sports columns filled with the same lame pop culture and Boston sports references. They're painful because they lack any originality... they're in many ways like Rebecca Black's "music."

But the beautiful thing about terrible pop culture, the type of stuff that makes guys like Simmons and Klosterman hard, is that it can lead to unexpected, inspired brilliance. It provides a challenge to those who are so good at what they do they sometimes need to make it a bit harder (Simmons would call to mind here the times Larry Bird would shoot left handed just because). It can remind us that there are people so dedicated to doing things that make us feel good that the importance we attach to ourselves is, in a tiny way, not totally invented. The single best thing about this smaller world we now inhabit is that we're constantly an audience, and being a part of an audience is hugely empowering. Stephen Colbert heard the worst thing that a completely artificial pop culture can crank out, and decided that it could be the basis for something between high comedy and an actually moving performance. Some people heard it, and decided they could Meat Loaf-ify it enough to the point where his signature maudlin, mourning power ballad style would lend it an emotional resonance and weight only heightened by its absurdity.

Pop Culture often sucks and Grantland's writers are Pop Culture's absolute though champions, so, yes, they often suck, too. I expect there to be tons of garbage on this site, like the idiot piece up there now. There was lots of garbage in newspapers back when they existed, too. There's multiple ways to get to greatness, though (and on this I absolutely agree with Klosterman et al): There is "so good it's good," and there is "so bad it creates good." They are different, and, I can totally respect Mr. Mobuto's view that we should only strive for the good-good.

But no poem by Rainer Maria Rilke or song by Warren Zevon or painting by Jackson Pollock was going to make me feel better today. It took Stephen Colbert and the Roots covering the absolute worst fucking song in the history of music. And if that isn't worth celebrating on a Website, I don't want to be on the Internet.

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