The Wisdom of Late Adopters [On the Contrary]
Everyone wants to be cool. Everyone wants to feel like they’ve got things figured out, that they fit into their chosen niche. Even if that niche is to define oneself as “uncool,” it’s still the same impulse. That’s how we had the boom in pop culture of cool “nerds.” It’s how this website exists.
But one of the hallmarks of being cool is the sense of being in the know, of being ahead of the curve when it comes to pop culture, be it movies, music, or literature. I’ll admit it, there is a tremendous surge of inflated self worth when you discover a little indie band and listen to them just before they get popular, or see a film months before it becomes a phenomenon. If you’ve ever had that feeling, you know how empowering it is, that sense of wise superiority you lord over those lesser people who didn’t have a friend to get them into an early movie screening, or hadn’t put the time into figuring out the right bar to patronize to hear the next great band. You also probably remember that the feeling was fleeting.
That’s because by its nature, being the first one in on something is only great until the rest of the world discovers it. Then you cease to be special. Who cares that you read the script to AVATAR three years before it came out? Everyone’s seen it now. Who cares that you were on the Jeff Tweedy bandwagon in the 90s—anyone who would care has gotten into and gotten over Wilco by now. When something you were first to love becomes loved by the masses, all that sense of personal ownership vanishes, and suddenly you can start to resent the very thing that had made you feel so special.
Here is a not uncommon exchange between a savvy early music adopter and a an uncool music fan:
JOE COOL: Oh man, did you hear the new Kurt Vile record?
(Note that a “cool” person will always use the antiquated word “record.”)
JOE RUSIN: Yes I did, isn’t it great?
JOE COOL: Uh, yeah, it’s ok. I don’t think it quite matches up to his earlier work, though. Do you know his earlier stuff?
JOE RUSIN: Not really.
JOE COOL: Yeah, his early stuff is the way to go.
(Full disclosure: I have not heard the new Kurt Vile album, but I hear it’s terrific, which would suggest the people that would tell me about it will probably be turning against it by the time I’m getting into it.)
It’s really a full time job to keep ahead of the pop culture trends (and if you write about it you can actually make a living from being “cool.”). It’s too much for me now. Particularly with music, but also with books, and to a degree even with movies, since you can’t really be ahead of the game unless you attend all of the film festivals. Maybe it’s because I’m getting older, but I find it’s actually much easier and more rewarding to lag behind things.
Look at it this way. Once a piece of art is released—be it music, movie, or book—it is going to stay essentially the same. Time and social shifts might change how it is interpreted, but the underlying material will not actually change. Still, there is tremendous social pressure to experience a new work as early as possible. While there is validity to this, there is also much that can be gained by waiting. Obviously for the theatrical experience, you have to see a movie while it is still in the cinemas, or to get the feel of a live band you have to catch their tour (you never know when they’re going to break up or die). Also, to keep the industry going with ticket sales, obviously a large amount of people need to spend their money to keep the industry profitable. That being said, sometimes waiting something out is not such a bad thing.
I will never possess the energy or inclination to stay on top of the cool new bands out there, but I love music. If I come to it late, it actually affords me the opportunity to experience something fresh. I might have waited years to pop in a White Stripes album (my mother actually was onto that band before me), but then when I did there was no pressure for me to like them immediately. I could take them or leave them, and that made it feel like I was discovering them fresh—like the toned down version of being first on the bandwagon but without the eventual backlash when other’s jumped on.
To take it in another direction, television is perhaps the best medium to come late to. In the world of Netflix, it’s easy to catch up on a show any time—they’re like books now where it’s just a matter of getting around to watching (or reading) them. When someone tells me they have never seen THE WIRE, I actually envy them, because they still have the experience of discovering the greatest show in television history in front of them.
On the other hand, waiting a show out can save you the bother of wasting hours of your life on something that doesn’t add up to much. Recently I made the mistake of watching every episode of AMC’s series THE KILLING as it aired. The show started to lose its way midseason, with lazy writing, convenient red herrings, and poorly drawn characters. It committed the cardinal sin of being boring while attempting to be a thriller. I still stuck it out because at least, as everything I read assured me, the season would end with the solution to the mystery. When the season did the exact opposite, answering nothing and raising more confusing (but uninteresting) questions, I wasn’t angry, but a little sad that I had devoted 13 hours of my life to something so meaningless. If I had waited instead of trying to experience it all from the start, I would have been warned off by the tremendous Internet backlash that followed the season finale.
Late adoption is an often-advised policy for purchasing new technologies. Let Apple work the bugs out first before you grab that new iPhone. The same can hold true for popular entertainment. If the material is good, waiting a little while won’t hurt your enjoyment of it, and it might even let you get beyond the backlash.
Obviously there are some things you shouldn’t wait on. You shouldn’t wait to tell someone you love them, provided its true and you’ve known them for a more than a month. You shouldn’t put off medical exams, oil changes, or purchasing copies of 32 CANDLES or HELL HOUSE: THE AWAKENING. But not being on the front lines of popular culture should not be something to be ashamed of. The next time someone gives you shit for your ignorance to a band, or for not having read a particular book or seen a movie, just realize that deep down they’re really just jealous that you still have a choice that their hipster, early-adopting selves never had.
featured image credit: Dean Terry