Friday, October 30, 2009

Making a List, and Checking It Twice

The end of the year is approaching fast. Actually…the end of the entire decade. And we all know what this means.

Well, it means the inexorable passage of time as our lives slowly fade away before our eyes and we progress toward the inescapable culmination of the human experience that is death. But, looking at things in a more upbeat (and pop culture-y fashion), it also means that we're going to be swimming through a plethora of "best of the decade" lists in the next few months.

Ninety percent of the time, we are only privy to the far inferior "best of the year" lists. But now, for the first time this millennium, countless writers and bloggers are going to try and quantify the top products of this decade. The best songs of the 00s? Movies? Books? Political scandals? From now until the end of the year, I'm sure that the discussion will be relentless, and countless readers and writers across the Internet will take this sort of thing very seriously.

One on hand, of course, these lists are rather silly. Can we really sum up the crowning points of the decade in a pithy top ten list? On the other hand, I'm a sucker for these sorts of lists. I think they lend themselves to great discussions, and are worth our time, as long as we don't take them too seriously. And it's that last caveat that brings us the most problems. When lists start defining themselves as "definitive", and people think that they represent some sort of holy canon, that's when we start to have issues.

I'll be honest - I love a good "best of" list, especially pertaining to pop culture. As I've been trying to teach myself the fundamental pillars of popular music, Acclaimed Music's amalgamation of critic's "best of" lists has been an invaluable resource. The annual Oscar nominations, while usually met with all sorts of criticism from across the Internet, has still pointed me toward several very good films that I would have otherwise missed entirely. And the New York Times' yearly "100 Best Books" list is usually pretty good for giving me titles to put on my Christmas list. At their best, these sort of lists can function as a pop culture road map, guiding the novice toward titles that, if not objectively the best, are at least the ones that are affecting the conversation in meaningful ways.

At the same time, these sort of lists make me worry. Are these lists too influential? I am sure that there are all sorts of great titles that they are missing. I worry that people will take these lists too seriously - at some point in the future, I imagine a future civilization digging up the remnants of America in 2005 and observing that we named Crash the best movie of the year. I hope they don't take our word for it. It's an embarrassing legacy to leave behind. Too many times, the "Best" is mistaken for the most inoffensive, or the work with the broadest appeal, regardless of quality.

Most of these lists are so broad, so intent on being "objective", that they just end up being bland and predictable. How many times have you read a "best of" list that concludes with "Stairway to Heaven" as the best song of all time or Citizen Kane as the best movie? These works might be deserving of the top spot, but it's always sort of an anticlimax to reach the end and realize that the same title that has topped lists for years is still on top.

Of course, the "best of the 00s" lists we're going to be getting here at the tail end of 2009 are going to come with their own set of problems. How do we objectively compare a movie that came out two months ago to one that we've had nine years to think about and assimilate into the cultural consciousness? On top of all this, the "aughts" have been curiously devoid of all-encompassing, decade-defining cultural moments. The music scene has become ridiculously fragmented, and there hasn't been a movie or TV show this decade to compare to the Titanic or Seinfeld crazes of the 1990s, for instance. Now, more than ever, "best of" lists have become a matter of personal opinion and subjective taste. The last ten years have been the decade of the 9/11 tragedy and Harry Potter. Other than that, any culturally relevant phenomena have been largely localized among a certain fraction of the populace.

So are these "best of" lists just a joke? Can they accomplish anything? Can any critic, or group of critics, claim to be able to definitively name the best works of a certain medium? Or are these lists just an inevitable circle jerk, as writers get another chance to parade their critical darlings to an all too accepting readership?

Well, I think it's important to keep in mind that no one, really, believes in these lists. Does anyone really think that the five (now ten!) movies nominated for Best Picture by the Academy are the five best movies of the year? That Rolling Stone's 500 Greatest Songs of All-Time are, in fact, the 500 greatest songs? That the Encyclopedia Britannica's Great Books of the Western World is the definitive list of the greatest books of the western world? I don't think so. But that's the point. These lists provide the grounds with which to begin a conversation. It's a good way to start a discussion, to get the reader (and the writer) to think about what qualities, exactly, are important for a work. Trying to determine if The West Wing is a better 00s show than Mad Men might seem like a fruitless exercise, but I think that this sort of thing is a positive exercise, even if there is no right answer. By considering the positive qualities of a work, as well as it's reception and influence, we start to think about what makes these works worth spending time with in the first place.

So, no, I don't think that any list is going to definitively sum up what, say, the best albums of the decade are. But I think that, by reading a few of these lists, we can begin to triangulate the cultural zeitgeist. And, certainly, reading a list that you disagree with is just as fun as reading one that conforms with your views completely. It gives us the opportunity to formulate our own opinions, to consider why we liked (or disliked) a specific work, and reflect on why a certain work somehow became wildly popular.

Just don't take these lists as written law. Read them, reflect on them, and argue with them. Hell, even make an attempt to write your own. It's a fun exercise. But remember that, in the end, there's not a good way to quantify comparative opinions. Take the lists with a grain of salt, and remember that there's probably loads of quality works that never made the cut.

Will we ever definitively determine what the "Best ___ of the Decade" were? No, of course not. But it's still a hell of a lot of fun to try.