The Worst of 2013

kevin-spacey-in-house-of-cards

“Standard installation (recommended)”
-any program that is trying to cripple your computer

I didn’t go there that night to fall in love.
-Airplane!

“I didn’t move here to fall in love.” But as I said it, I felt he’d set a trap of some kind. Because I didn’t move here not to fall in love.
-Rachel Kushner, The Flame-Throwers

The worst of 2013 was a moving target; it was a weird mix of worrisome trends that will probably get worse, and huge fiascos, amidst many positive developments. There was a lot of interesting stuff happening in pop culture, and a lot of good books went to print. The economy improved. The Republicans talked themselves out of jobs at every possible opportunity.

The fiascos: Obama’s website. Zimmerman’s acquittal. Mayor Ford. Governor Christie. I couldn’t possibly say anything about these awe-inspiring fuck-ups that hasn’t already been said by Jon Stewart.

Like the Nobel Peace Prize that went out to the whole EU, I could give an Epic Fail Medal to the whole Eastern seaboard for nearly drowning in terrifying storms that deposited…2-8 inches of snow. (To quote a Canadian friend: “Do Americans realize what happens during winter?”) I want to save that one, though, because that is only going to get better each year, like a fine wine. We can’t even get basic forecasts to work. Sometimes I’ll open a weather app, and will see this: “Today: weather. Severe unpleasant cold, ice, wind, and freezing hail, sunshine, clouds — definitely those — lots of clouds, warm spells, droughts possible, crickets, zephyrs, discouraged blizzards, and patches of fog.”

THE WORST OF 2013

1. Beyonce and Jay-Z

It is agonizing to write those words. This is the greatest couple I can possibly imagine — or rather, they were, and then 2013 happened.

Kanye West is like the Ned Stark to Jay-Z’s Robert Baratheon. When Ned’s in the room, Robert seems dangerous, larger than life. Alone, he slouches towards ruin. Holy Grail has none of the relentless hunger that makes Jay so formidable. (Well, we’ll always have “N***** in Paris.”) Of course, the Barney’s sponsorship was a disaster. Jay was handed a perfect opportunity to stand on principle. He didn’t care. It would have been one thing if he’d been offended. He could have defended his right to make money, I suppose. Instead, he blithely continued bragging about his wife and his nouveau riche stuff. Meet the new Kevin Federline.

Beyonce isn’t quite as tragic, but her album was a brilliantly marketed flop: all B-sides, no winners. I can’t believe she’s gone from “Single Ladies (Put A Ring On It)” to shooting music videos in a roller rink. “Pretty Hurts” wasn’t anyone’s anthem — it was an anthem signified. It was the kind of song that we think a person like her should record, on behalf of girls everywhere, or something. It was a mission statement for the What’s Going On-esque, socially conscious album she might have made. What we got instead was so unrealized you couldn’t even soundtrack a spinning class with it.

2. AMC and Netflix: original programming

Television without pity: it’s the name of a website, but it should be the AMC tagline. Television without joy. Television based on an absurd version of “moral” gravitas in which the most profound experience in life is doing something bad, and, like, knowing it’s bad, and doing it anyway — for the grim satisfaction of telling oneself, “at least I’m not enjoying it!” The worst part is that it’s contagious! I went to a dinner party, and one guy said, “What am I doing tonight? Well, you know. I have to watch the new Walking Dead, of course.” “Of course”? Why? He sounded like he was going to a court hearing.

Godard was right. It’s unreasonable not to pay people for watching television. We feel so badly for those folks in The Walking Dead, for Walter White, and for Don Draper, that we watch them compulsively. If they’re going to suffer unnecessarily, we reason, then they shouldn’t have to do it alone. In fact, to hell with Godard. I feel a little like the mercenary guarding Walter’s cabin — no payout is worth another ten minutes with Walter, or Hank…or Pete Campbell…or any of the other zombies.

Netflix is the logical complement to AMC. They’re the other side of the Puritan coin. They promise enjoyment, but it’s all so deliberate, so rarified. Netflix is that guy who says, “Well, here we are!” the second he enters Disneyland. “Here we are!” In Washington, DC, where power changes hands overnight. In a women’s prison, where presumably things are both very “real” and very hot. In Norway, with Dante from The Sopranos. But then Kevin Spacey tells us, pre-emptively, every single trick in his book. Just imagine, as a point of reference, Michael Corleone turning to the camera and explaining to us that he’s guarding his father by pretending he has a gun. “Watch this — they’ll think I have a real gun, but I don’t.”

Prison? Prison is a large, greyscale version of high school, complete with school lunches and bad first dates. I don’t blame these people for not being good. I blame them for abstracting desires into matters of fairness: I deserve a good meal from the prison cafeteria. I deserve to revenge myself on the President. I deserve success as a journalist. I deserve to cheat on my juice cleanse. I deserve to be invited on power walks with Russian mob wives.

Who cares if they succeed? They won’t be happy. Deserves got nothing to do with it.

3. Inside Llewyn Davis

There were soft, intriguing, sepia tones in this film, and nice little scenes. It was sometimes beautiful, in a misty way. If only it had been a real film, with a plot, and music, and everything.

It had music, but the music wasn’t hot or cold. Only once, during a song about the moon landing, did it get bad enough to be funny. Only once was it good enough to be moving. The whole effort was so incredibly unnecessary. A Mighty Wind was much funnier. O Brother, Where Art Thou? was a better version of Homer’s Odyssey as imagined by the Coen Bros, and it had better songs. Llewyn Davis has no substance at all; the film calls him an asshole, but he’s not. He’s not even a jerk. How sad is that? If he’d merely been a real jerk, that would’ve helped: we could have been surprised by his integrity.

4. The Flame-Throwers, Rachel Kushner

Sometimes, when something is a self-evidently bad idea — leftist acts of terrorism, for example — you can read a whole book about it, and at the end, it’s still a bad idea. The characters have talked about it, been seduced by it, become disillusioned with it, and remembered it fondly, but the silliness of their whole endeavour is unblemished, unaltered, throughout. This is why The Master, with Philip Seymour Hoffman as L. Ron Hubbard, didn’t work.

Accordingly, many artists branch out. They cannot, they realize, concern themselves exclusively with Politics. They must also speak frankly about Love, which is to say, modern Love. How passing, how pale, it is! It slippeth away, a shadow, on a moonless night!

Here’s my rule: If a novel is going to include an entire line from the film Airplane!, that line better be “I am serious, and don’t call me Shirley.”

5. Remora software

The best thing we could hope for, in new generations of Firefox and Chrome, would be even stronger protections against remoras. That’s the best word for them, I think: I mean the toolbars, the extensions, the pop-ups, and all the other bloated spamware that installers weld onto your other applications, and even to your OS, either for royalties or for the sake of visibility.

This is a vast field of unregulated, malicious software that targets and damages computers. I’m not even talking about classic spyware and malware. Big sites like Sourceforge, CNET, and Adobe, all use “bundled” installers, and once a “helpful” program has been grafted onto your device, it wastes no time digging in. If you want your computer back, and an uninstall fails, then what? Reinstall the whole system? It’s a nightmare, and all it takes is one bad “standard” installation. Why should anyone do a “custom” or “advanced” install of a program they’ve never used before? It’s dishonest, and it starts with the big companies. The search engines pay the royalties; the big software suites install their own branded remoras (e.g. Norton Toolbar, Microsoft’s Lynx Browser Extension). Most people’s browsers started off normal, but now appear to be some version of Netscape Navigator from 1994.

****

Why did everyone go wild over Beyonce’s album? Because it was a huge, benevolent surprise, even if it wasn’t that good. In 2013, we got exactly what we wanted — e.g. House of Cards and Inside Llewyn Davis — and we could hardly stand it. Meanwhile, the surprises, like the polar vortex and the spamware, were bad ones.

We need better surprises this year. It’s like Justin said. Gimme what I don’t know I want.

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