Monday 16 June 2014

The Parable of the Ponderous Parallels

or, Be Careful What You Wish For

The football World Cup has begun. You can tell this because both social and mainstream media can now be divided into three broad groups: people talking about football; people griping about people talking about football; and people who insist on continuing their discussions about less pressing matters such as conflicts in the Middle East, American gun massacres, child abduction, and so forth (this last is by far the smallest group).

It should come as no surprise to any of us that this quadrennial kick-fest begets a certain amount of tribalism – “war minus the shooting” and all that. What has taken me slightly aback though is exactly how this tribalism has manifested in groups that I, if not participate in, then hang around the fringes of, making sarcastic comments and snide observations all the while desperately hoping that one of the cool kids will notice and ask me to join in. Why won’t they notice? What’s wrong with me? Is my antisocial irony not enough? Notice me goddamit! NOTICE ME!

Ahem. So people want to belong to something bigger than themselves (patently). And this process of belonging appears to axiomatically involve a process of rejection. It is not enough that I win, other must lose. It is not enough that I like what I like, I must denigrate that which I don’t, and by extension those who do. Clear? I think this is especially true in areas which aren’t especially ‘mainstream’, or at least that don’t perceive themselves as such, and is in part a defensive posture: if you’re not one of the cool kids, one of the majority, then the easiest way to protect your ego is by talking them down. We’re all special snowflakes and there’s none more special than me. I mean you. (No I don’t). If many people like a thing then that, paradoxically, means that the thing must not be worth liking; this thing which is only liked by me and my friends is extra special, and, by extension, so are we.

And yet this belittling of the mainstream seems to directly correlate with a desire for acceptance by it. Every time a major ‘literary’ shortlist is announced it’ll immediately spawn a flurry of pieces about which genre novels should have been nominated, because the mainstream literary establishment who have hitherto lacked the taste or openness of mind to appreciate the epoch-defining brilliance of The Massive Sword of the Brooding Protagonist are somehow simultaneously possessed of the necessary credentials to confirm its unquestionable quality (and by extension yours for liking it). Those idiotic snobs who hand out the Pulitzer and the Booker clearly have no idea what they’re talking about if they’re willing to dismiss some of the most vibrant, essential material being produced today, so they must be the perfect people to validate it if only they’d pay attention properly. Look you idiots! Look! Here! PAY ATTENTION TO THE STUFF I LIKE! NOTICE ME! IT, I MEAN! NOTICE IT!

Here’s the thing though: mainstream acceptance ain’t all that. Once something becomes popular with a lot of people then it’s not yours anymore. And this is very much a double edged sword, massive or otherwise. I’m old enough to remember when football in the UK was not the shiny all-conquering marketing mega-cudgel that it is today (other points which may be of interest: all this used to be fields, and kids these days, eh?). In fact, throughout much of my early childhood football and its fans were treated as little better than cattle by the powers-that-be, and I mean that literally, not figuratively: cadged, prodded, herded and ultimately, disgracefully, seen as possessing lives worth less than those of ‘normal’ people.

But in the Nineties this changed, somehow. It got a glossy veneer of respectability though admittedly dubious associations with ‘Cool Britannia’ and ‘lad culture’. Football got adopted by the mainstream and now look at it; a transnational supra-state with enough clout to compel national governments to change their own county’s fucking laws. And it turns out that FIFA, the body which governs a sport now worth $20 billion and whose fourth-term president has been elected either unopposed or by majorities that would make Kim Jong-un blush for the past three elections, might just be a little bit dodgy, ethically speaking. What were the odds?

Arm the "laser"

It is, admittedly, an extreme example, but this is what happens when the niche stuff you used to like goes mainstream. The mainstream will take it and make it palatable to as many people as it can – that’s what ‘mainstream’ means (and oh, incidentally, this will be incredibly profitable for a few people as well). That’s usually going to end up in a blander, less provocative product, which to be honest might well be an improvement, but the important point is that if you want other people to take hold of what you like then you must necessarily loosen your own grip a little. What you like won’t be the sole property of you and your mates any more, though it never really was in the first place. The solution? Don’t define people by what they like. Taste is entirely personal and liking one thing or another doesn’t make you a better person, or anyone else a worse one.

Unless it’s West Brom of course. Fuck those guys.


  1. In high school, liking Metallica was extreme. It was still categorized as 'speed metal' or 'thrash metal'. About 7 years later, after seeing them become much more mainstream, 'Nothing Else Matters' came on the radio and my mother turned it up while uttering the following: "Oh, I really like this song."

    It was then and there I realized nothing was nor will ever be sacred...

    1. That's a beautiful story. It also distils about 800 words of waffle into three sentences, so I'm not entirely sure how to feel about it ;)

  2. When your mum is posting about it on facebook it is officially not that cool. Bring back proper hooliganism would be my preferred solution, but I'll settle for a Suarez-led Uruguay win to get up the pompous nouveau-fan noses. Look Im still cool

  3. Also I recommend battle rap if youre looking for a cultural movement, very enjoyable it is. It's a sign of my age that no one knows except for my girlfriend