Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Quirk: Oh, How I Hate It.

I listen to Brian Lehrer and Leonard Lopate on WNYC regularly. Both have interesting shows about a broad spectrum of topics; you can find their archives off of the WNYC site.

Today, Brian Lehrer had Michael Hirschorn, contributing editor at The Atlantic Monthly and executive vice president of original programming and production at VH1, on to talk about “Quirk”, something he discussed in his September, 2007 Atlantic Monthly article entitled “Quirked Around”. Though I subscribe to the Atlantic(thanks to Amanda!), I missed the original article. After the show, I hungrily read it, because what Hirschorn had to say resonated deeply with me.

One of the reasons I feel so strongly disconnected from society is my inability to find something to sink my teeth into in today’s media market. American Idol does nothing for me. Nor does CNN or Fox News. I do not subscribe to the ideology of the Bible Belt, but likewise, hipsters frustrate me beyond belief. Where do I fit in? Part of Gen-X? No thank you and here is why:

Quirk is associated closely with Gen-X and Gen-Y. To quote Hirschorn, Quirk is: “an embrace of the odd against the blandly mainstream. It features mannered ingenuousness, an embrace of small moments, narrative randomness, situationally amusing but not hilarious character juxtapositions…and unexplainable but nonetheless charming character traits. Quirk takes not mattering very seriously. Quirk is odd, but not too odd. That would take us all the way to weird, and there someone might get hurt.”

And that is why I dislike Quirk, though I am surrounded by it due to my age and peers. First and foremost, as Hirschorn mentioned, Quirk focuses on a narrow demographic--middle/upper-middle class white/Jewish, with nary a face of color. Second, for the most part, Quirk is either about nothing, or in my opinion, disingenuous in its attempts to have meaning(but it is important to not have much more than a sliver of meaningfulness, because that would be uncool or fake). I often hear from the Quirk apologists that if you don’t like Quirk, you don’t get it(read: you aren’t smart enough to get the coolness that is Quirk). No, buddy, I get it just fine; I think its stupid.

Hirschorn talks about different examples of Quirk and I find myself disliking most of them. On the positives, he generally places: This American Life(positive and negative in his opinion), Rushmore, and Everything Is Illuminated. On the negatives, he lists: Flight of the Conchords, The Royal Tenenbaums, Little Miss Sunshine and Arrested Development(unless I am misreading his analysis of it).

I might add(mistakenly, since some of these may not fall completely into Quirk): Seinfeld, Beck, David Eggers, The Producers, etc.

My friends alternately embrace or reject Quirk and I suspect part of it is environment. Bryan and Mathangi both seem more pro-Quirk than I and I think it is partially because they were schooled at the University of Texas, which along with Oberlin, is certainly one of the bastions of Quirk in a city(Austin) that can certainly claim to be a central nexus of Quirk. Neither of them, as far as I can tell, embraces Quirk wholeheartedly—neither are hipsters(thank God!). Mathangi shifts between worlds and differing ideologies, though she indulges in Quirk. Bryan pushes Quirk to its limits and beyond; in his movie Dear Pillow(which will be available on DVD on November 13th, I believe), he moves from the comfortably odd to the uncomfortably provocative(which is why I loved the movie and which is why, I suspect, it wasn’t fully embraced by the Quirkophiles—that and he didn’t have a big marketing machine behind him).

On the other hand, Amanda’s self-imposed hermitage has most likely immunized her from the allure of Quirk. HB is too divorced from Quirk due to her background and culture. And Michael, I think, tends to accept and consider all ideologies, trends, attitudes, etc for a time—then rejects them if he finds they do not fit him.

Don’t be offended if I named you here and you didn’t like my analysis—just my passing thoughts on my friends and their relationship to Quirk.

As an aside, I think Quirk has its cultural peers which I also do not generally like: The ethnic novel/movie(which is all about being, well, ethnic). I’ll save my issues with this genre for another day, however.

Quirk in small doses is fine. I’ll admit to my guilty-Quirk pleasures: Flight of the Conchords, Donnie Darko, the occasional Beck song, etc. But Quirk has permeated our culture so much as to be the flip side to the American Idol/Britney Spears coin and that is why I don’t like it; it is equally empty and nourishes nothing but a sense of superiority. In the end, Quirk fails us, fails our generation. There are some incredibly talented people putting out Quirk and that is a shame. Instead of rising to the times, times that desperately call for action, the creation of something of substance, they have fallen into the trap of showcasing style. The emperor has no clothes; let us knock Quirk off of its pedestal.

I hunger for something more. I hunger for weighty television shows/dramas, news programs, books and music. I want to be provoked and pushed, forced out of my box. I desperately desire something that means…something.


Moab said...

Is Darko and Flight of the Conchords Quirk? It doesn't seem so if you are defining Quirk as having little meaning.

In my mind Conchords is very meaningful using its subversive humor to poke fun at pop culture while Darko is very complex and a quick search on the Interrub will show that many people have come up with many and different ideas about what the movie means.

I think, at least in these two items we see a very post-modern, very complex presentation of issues and thus don't fit into "Quirk" as I have understood it to be defined by you.

I also admit I've never heard of Quirk until I read this post.

Btw - interesting Darko link:
(The Stainless Steel Rat)


The way you (or rather, the VP of VH1) describe/s Quirk it sounds like a bad Seinfeld rip off. And who likes Beck anyway, bleh.

Moab said...

I have to add - after reading, twice, the article to which you referred that I do not understand exactly what the author is getting at.

Yes, I understand what he is saying, but after carefully reading his commentary on This American Life (TAL), even he notes the stores have depth. He may not see it all the time, but it is there and he admits often.

Further, this "permanent 70 degrees, moderate humidity" does in fact shows that everyone has "a flaw, then is revealed as a pretty all right person in the end" which is pretty much what reality is, after all.

Hirschorn may have a problem with a lack of passion that he sees, but the passion is there - it is a passion for people.

Last I checked, we needed more empathy, more concern and more interest for our fellows.

The lack of meaningful media content is a great topic for discussion but this article isn't engaged in that at all.

Anonymous said...

I think the author didn't want to go one way or the other because that's just a symptom of the times: that horror that your gut instinct is somehow "wrong" when you call it like you see it....and then nobody agrees with you because "the way you see it" doesn't mesh with the current trend. I think American society now is so neurotic and frenzied that no one is sure what to do. About anything. At any time. Everything is so unstable that today's garbage almost always becomes tomorrow's most popular trend. Watch...now that some blogs have mentioned "The Backlash Against Quirk", there will actually BE a backlash against "quirk".

In other words, everyone is so self-obsessed, yet at the same time so horribly self conscious, that they'll buy into any new trend, any new "backlash", any new "opportunity". So the "quirky trendoid hipsters" (that every quirky trendoid hipster hates) will now run from quirk and embrace...I dunno...absolute literalism? Who knows? All I know is that this same pathetic, annoying, media-borne and media-based push and pull has gotten out of hand. If people would stop reading so much garbage and stop spending so much time on things like myspace and facebook and all that other "self-promotion" crap, and instead actually created things from the heart, regardless of what visual trends or cues or verbal catchphrases are in vogue, everything would even-out and we'd have *gasp!* GENUINE ART.


Ajit George said...

Mike, you should listen to the NPR interview with Hirschorn; he expands on the original article and it may answer some of your questions.

As for Quirk, I honestly do not see it as empathetic. If anything, it relishes the disconnect. I also don't find it to be passionate; rather, it is lazy in how its approach and humor(though it can be witty at times). Now, TAL may be different, but I haven't listened/watched it. Whenever I've heard ads for it, it always came across as trite to me(which may not be a fair analysis). But that's my problem with Quirk--its trite.

As for Flight of the Conchords and Darko, well, ymmv. While I love both, I don't have the same view of them. I don't really find Conchords to be subversive humor or a commentary on pop culture. It is humorous, yes, very much so at its high points, but mostly due to situational oddness. As for Darko, I own the movie, but I have to admit, I find it more an exercise in mental masturbation(in terms of its supposed depth) and a "mood piece"(done exceptionally well). Sure, lots of folks have gotten meaning out of Darko and that's all fine and well; it is their perogative. I just think they are looking for meaning when really, the movie is more of a mental game that invites the viewer to do, well, precisely what Darko forums have done.

As for not being exposed to Quirk, it is an urban and media phenomenon; you've avoided big cities for the most part and you don't watch a lot of tv. I, on the other hand, have been overly satured, unfortunately.

Still, neither Hirschorn or I am saying all Quirk is bad. Rather, I think we both are saying: We have too much Quirk. Quirk in small parts is fine, but please, please lets have a little less of it in the "alternative culture".

Stu--some good points and I agree for the most part. I am not sure if Quirk will disappear quickly, however--"It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia" is up for another season, for instance. That said, I remember thinking when I heard the NPR piece: I wonder if this is the death of Quirk.

One can only hope.

Moab said...

I'll make one last comment before leaving the topic alone.

The Flight of the Conchords' song "Business Time" is a poke in the eye at male machismo playing on 70s soul and done with humor. This is a song most definitely full of meaning. It also toys with the idea that people living together fall into routines that may impact their relationship "happiness" (if you know what I mean).

As for the looking for meaning and finding it (as in Darko) that you mentioned, then it seems to me your problem is solved.

Simply look for the meaning that you are missing.

You haven't mentioned one show or program in which I can't find a deeper meaning.

I'm not familiar with the TV show that you mentioned (obviously - no TV) but what did you expect from cable, anyway? Isn't that all just an advertising dissemination tool?

Frankly I'm surprised that you would complain about the lack of meaning in TV shows. *smack*

Moab said...
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Moab said...

(This is really part of the previous comment, but since I can't edit, I have to add - and had to delete previously due to a massive typo. I suck.)

Is "finding the meaning" less valid than if it were presented too you or offered intentionally by the creator of the art/movie/whatever?

I'm not sure that "meaning" is impacted by the artist's efforts.

I was thinking about this the other night - I wonder if the process of deconstruction of a work is worthwhile at all?

The meaning we get out of a piece can be separate from the what the author meant and a unique experience for the viewer.

For me the test of art has always been "does it change the way you think?" we don't have to embrace the artist's message if we find our own in it.

Bringing this back to "Quirk" (which cant be a real thing as there was no wiki entry the last time I searched) - perhaps it functions like abstract/modern art (which I seem to recall, Aji, you also dislike)in that you are required to insert your own meaning into the piece?

Perhaps - and now I'm on a roll here - this topic tells us more about us then Quirk.

Are we searching for ultimate and final truth? Perhaps we'll become uncomfortable in the presence of ambivalence?

While intellectually most of us understand there are no good/bad outside of our own perspective and as the Marquis de Sade said "Morals are a matter of geography" our pattern-seeking mind still struggles to find some ultimate pattern or final truth.

Ok. Now I'm done.

Oh - wait - one more thing. (Writing on your blog is almost as fun as writing on mine...) I remember a couple of friends in art school who put up an abstract art show and had titled their 60+ pieces the night before by going through their CD collection and picking the titles of various tracks.

Later one of the artists confided in me that she was amused when people would look at a piece and nod their head sagely and murmur, "Rock and Roll High School, I see, I see." (ok, they were a little more subtle than that)

But if the viewer did get some message from the amalgam of title and work is the meaning less valid? Not to the viewer, certainly.

Now I believe this artist suspected that the audience was pretending to get meaning out of the work to keep up appearances and that might be so, but that's another topic entirely.

Ok. Really done now.

(PS - while fun, this would be more fun over scotch!)

Ajit George said...

We're on familiar ground here--our long-standing argument whether everything and anything is valid; in the past, you've said all things have validity, while I've had a somewhat differing point of view. That said, all things may be "valid" (depending on your definition of the word), while still negatively contributing to society.

I didn't say I found meaning in Darko. I don't--I find it to be a mental game. Unless you define "meaning" as finding "anything"--then, yes, Darko's meaning is...a mental exercise for the viewer.

As for Flight, I haven't heard that song, so I can't comment. But a number of them are silly, zany and amusing--with little more to them than that.

As for modern/abstract art--I like some, I dislike a lot. I sometimes wonder if it were borne out of the need to try and find new ways to create art, rather than imitate the old masters. I don't mind that idea, but the end product with at least a portion of modern/abstract art is, well, empty to my eyes.

The example you gave of the artist/titles is a perfect one: Quirk feeds on people giving it more meaning than it deserves. As I've said before, I don't mind some Quirk, but a lot of it is sheer nonsense and has permeated our culture for years now and people keep nodding their head as if it supposedly has depth.

I do not mind ambivalence. I don't think art or literature or film needs to arrive at the big truths. But it has to ask questions and provoke thought and in 9 out of 10 cases of Quirk, I find it does neither--my thoughts are neither provoked nor do I remember much about Quirk five minutes after it is done. It is little more than fast-food for my mind.

And yes, I am grilling some steaks next Friday for my b-day! If you were a meat eater and in the area, a fine glass of wine and some delicious food would be a great counterpoint to this discussion!

Moab said...

Since I'm waiting for another post, I decided to contribute a bit more.

When you say that modern art is empty to your eyes, does that say something about the art or about you?

I remember not liking jazz very much, but when I opened my eyes I found a whole new rich and interesting world out there.

When you say that Quirk does not provoke thoughts or that you don't remember much of the experience five minutes later - is that you or Quirk that is at issue here?

Some people do find meaning or things of great interest in modern art and things that you've labeled Quirk - so is the meaning there? Are they making it up or are you not seeing it?

If it is you, then do you change the art form or do you change the you?

Anonymous said...

It would take too long to read all this to come up with an interesting response. At the end I would feel self-absorbed and ashamed.

Anonymous said...

Being anti-quirky is kind of quirky. You can not escape the society of the spectacle, no matter how hard you try.

Anonymous said...
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