Ten Reasons Why American Culture Didn’t Suck in 2002 . . . And Ten Reasons Why It Did

While this list is not meant to be comprehensive, if there’s something you feel has been unfairly ignored, it is possible that it didn’t deserved to be included in the first place. Let’s get serious: 2002 was a very good year. But as much as The Osbournes was a riotous romp through a soulless Reality TV landscape, it was still part of the problem and probably won’t make it to a third year. And if it does, I’ll take Vegas odds that it’ll heavily suck. So without further ado, here’s 20 watershed moments of the past year whose impact will most likely be felt long after Dick Clark’s balls drop on New York City and Los Angeles.

Lord of the Rings, dir. Peter Jackson
Ok, Fellowship of the Ring came out in 2001 and The Two Towers entered 2002 a bit late in the game to thoroughly assess its overall impact. But that’s the beauty of Peter Jackson’s vision of J.R.R. Tolkien’s canonical, 1000-page, ever-prescient masterpiece of eco-criticism, unrelenting conflict and Paradise Lost: its considerable success is already guaranteed (as is its $300 million and upward investment) by the kind of production that Jackson and Co. have built from the immeasurable pressures of a built-in fan base over half a century old. Jackson not only hit a home run, he tore down the stadium. The three-hour Fellowship was a thunderous success (although it was unfairly snubbed by the Academy — see the second half of this piece for more), and its ensuing DVD releases were fairly-priced researcher/collector wet dreams. Indeed, by inserting another (arguably indispensable, at least according to Viggo Mortensen and about a trillion Tolkien hardliners) half-hour into his theatrical release, the box set release of Fellowship was the DVD release — Spider who? — of the year. The DVD releases were no shell game: both were packed with enough relevant materials — including National Geographic documentaries, biographical materials on Tolkien, behind-the-scenes glimpses at WETA’s revolutionary FX, the list goes on — to confirm to popular culture what Tolkien fans have known for years: no one should forget to thank the Oxford professor of philology and linguistics for inventing a continually relevant and invaluable narrative of imagined cultures and languages out of the recesses of his own World War-torn imagination. And Jackson’s reverential treatment of Tolkien was made manifest in everything from his choice of actors (the openly gay, activist Sir Ian McKellen; the poetically-artistically-musically-politically motivated Mortensen; the ridiculously talented Cate Blanchett, etc.), his relentless Tolkien research, his almost single-handed exploding of New Zealand’s film industry, and more. In a year when Hollywood heavyweights like George Lucas and Steven Spielberg revisited their own sci-fi standbys and failed, Peter Jackson and his multitalented friends manufactured a colossus that will most likely make everyone forget that Skywalker Ranch ever existed. That, friends, is no small feat, especially when he had to make three pressure-soaked films in one fell swoop. Bitch all you want about slow scenes, weepy Hobbit dialogue and too-crowded battle plains, but when the smoke clears in the next few years, Jackson will have emerged as the most relevant director on the block. And New Zealand will most likely have become the New (or at least better) Hollywood.

Spirited Away, dir: Hayao Miyazake
Ok, you might think that this is a cheat. After all, Hayao Miyazaki — the intimidating brains behind The Castle of Cagliostro, Nausicaa: Valley of the Wind, and Princess Mononoke — is Japan’s, not America’s, de facto animation genius. But lest you forget, it was Disney — America’s favorite whitebread, historical revisionist multinational — that bankrolled the introduction of the auteur’s splendid exercise in nightmare, childhood and cartoon excess into the states. Besides the fact that Spirited Away was one of the finest films of the year, it was the type of revolutionary kids’ movie, Lilo and Stitch aside, that Disney needs to make itself relevant again to people over the age of seven. Its stateside subsidization was enough to almost make you forget the lamely revisionist Pocahontas, the borderline racist Aladdin, or the just plain lame Hunchback of Notre Dame ever existed.

Sleater-Kinney, One Beat
Turn on your TV and just see what you get if you want to watch women making music: copious amount of tits and ass. Which is par for the course if you’re watching anything on Fox — but music? Is there really nothing else out there besides Christina’s shrinking clothes collection and Britney’s tanned rack? Sleater-Kinney knows there is, which is why their exceedingly topical 2002 release slammed everything from the image industry that keeps pop culture well-fed (“When the lights are shining / Will you see my skin / Or just the shell / That I’m packaged in” asks the hard-hitting “Hollywood Ending”) to rampant post-9/11 jingoism (“The good old boys are back on top again / And if we let them lead us blindly / The past becomes the future once again” reads the daring “Combat Rock”). When the Madonna clones are all moving onto their inevitable nude layouts (a la the Material Girl’s Sex), SK will still be rocking speakers and motivating political girlhood who’ve decided they’ve seen quite enough of low-cut jeans.

Frank Black, Black Letter Days and Devil’s Workshop
For all the relentless hype on MTV and elsewhere (Krist and Dave vs. Courtney! Ten-year anniversary! Now more than ever!) about Nirvana’s pseudo-comeback, let’s not forget that their newly-released, self-titled compilation album going for around $20 at your nearest megachain contains only . . . one . . . damn . . . song. That’s right, one $20 song. Somewhere Cobain is turning over in his heroin-soaked grave, especially considering that the guy he idolized and copied released two (!) albums of 29 songs on one day and no one else except Frank Black’s die-hard audience seemed to give a shit. Remember, Frank Black (Black Francis of the seminal Pixies at the time) is a guy that made Seattle’s grunge icon run scared from a hotel lobby out of nervous anxiety at the prospect of shaking hands. And this is the thanks he gets? Something’s rotten in Denmark (and everywhere else), all right. Especially considering that, after a slew of solo albums, Black came into his own with this potent blast of Stones worship, On the Road-like ruminations on geography and selfhood, and bracing, raw rock the likes of which made AOR radio listenable before duds like Def Leppard and Van Halen ruined it forever. From dual versions of Tom Waits’ creepy “Black Rider” and poignant mind-trips like “Bartholomew” and “His Kingly Cave” to straight-up Neil Young-ish barnburners like “Fields of Marigold”, Frank Black’s double-barrelled salute to two-track, zero-edit songcraft takes the prize for the most underrated release of the year. He deserves better than this, and I can’t wait until the day (coming sooner than you think) that I can buy Strokes and Vines discs from the bargain bin, while Black’s impressively growing body of work only appreciates in price. That’ll be fun.

The Dallas Mavericks
Say what you want about energetic Mavs owner, Mark Cuban — publicity-seeking boor? spoiled rich bastard? AOL snake-oil salesman? — but his Dallas Mavericks are the greatest show on the NBA’s money-grubbing earth. With triple-threat players from Germany, Canada, Mexico, Israel, Chicago and onward who move the ball unselfishly and often (as well as thrive on a zone defense older than Michael Jordan’s knees), coach Don Nelson’s latest concoction is a poster-child for new millennium multiculturalism. As well as the only NBA squad that’s still fun to watch against sorry teams like the Denver Nuggets and Memphis Grizzlies during a yawning 82-game regular season. And even though they gave away a recent historical comeback win to the Lakers after slapping them silly for two quarters, Dallas is still the team to beat in the NBA, Shaq or no Shaq. Just check the standings. Better yet, watch their offense. See how they’re not standing around as some 300-plus pound genetic freak with no game pounds the ball inside? See how they actually move without the ball in their hands? See how they don’t bitch about not getting enough shots (sorry, Kobe)? It’s all part of the game, a team one, and they know how to play it well. Hopefully enough to win it all. Even after the Bush administration had successfully razed it to the ground, the Mavericks are single-handedly doing their best to make Texas cool again.

DJ Shadow, Private Press
You can keep your snoozy Paul Oakenfold, your hypocritical Moby (nice job crediting your gospel samples on Play, small fry), and your soon-to-be-passe Neptunes (anyone remember Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis?) — DJ Shadow is global culture’s most compelling electronic visionary. Mostly because he eschews conventional electronic music altogether in favor of meticulous sampling from source material more archaic than Strom Thurmond. And unlike Moby, he usually tells you where it came from. More than any artist working today, Shadow seems to understand — as his basement crate-digging scene from the excellent turntablist documentary, Scratch, illustrated — that success, fame and/or a good rep are simply temporal blurs based on a confluence of forces that are usually beyond an artist’s control. So he stays unswervingly true to a personal vision the way most time-worn auteurs do, and his 2002 release had more in its scope than most. From the addictive, noirish thump of “Fixed Income” to the tongue-in-cheek humor of “Right Thing/GDMFSOB” (which resuscitated Information Society’s hilarious Mr. Spock “pure energy” sample), Shadow’s high-pressure follow-up to his already canonical backlog touched all of pop music’s bases before rewinding the run in order to do it his own damn way. It can’t be said enough: this guy’s the real deal. And while Private Press might not be his finest work, it was better than 99 percent of the releases heard on Earth this year.

Mike Davis, Dead Cities
We tend to think of our cities as Earth itself, while ignoring the reality that lies beneath their increasing sprawl and construction, something City of Quartz author Mike Davis tried to localize for Los Angeles in his hysterically panned Ecology of Fear. But ever the relentless researcher, America’s sharpest urban theorist has turned his eye to 9/11 and the destruction of the Twin Towers and found that its downfall was predicted not by some faux-religious egomaniac like Osama bin Laden but almost 100 years earlier by H.G. Wells. Yet Davis is not interested in color-by-numbers prophecy as much as he is in dissecting monumental assumptions like civic integrity, ecological symbiosis and self-righteous development. He’s spent years trying to wake America up to the ravages it has visited on natural landscapes, how they will someday exact a price human culture won’t necessarily be able to pay. And Dead Cities is his latest missive locating Freud’s familiar uncanny (the unheimlich that signals the return of the repressed, or sometimes oppressed) in the destruction of cities, the proliferation of human (mostly toxic) waste and thoughtless pollution. If you think that you’re somehow innocent to the degradation of Earth, read this book and think again.

Bowling for Columbine, dir. Michael Moore
For the last decade, it’s been like clockwork — just when you thought the world had lost its champions of the poor and underrepresented or turned into a bunch of wimp-ass pushovers, Michael Moore comes along and smacks you upside the head with his camera, his wit and his cojones. An Everyman if there ever was one, Moore’s quest to find out why Americans just could seem to give a shit less about each other reached its apotheosis with Bowling, a sobering study of our country’s gun addiction. Whether taking the raw nerve of the Columbine massacre and exposing its defense-industry roots or exposing hollow American icons like Dick Clark and Charlton Heston (while in the process restoring our much-maligned Canadian neighbors’ integrity — it’s about time!), Moore’s film was easily the most relevant picture of the year. Remember that when the Academy snubs him for Best Documentary. This film should be required viewing in every high school on earth; too bad most parents will hide it just like their bullied teenagers hide their Skinny Puppy or Marilyn Manson discs in their trenchcoats.

Adult Swim, Cartoon Network
It may have started slow, but like any winner, it finished strong when it counted. Forget MTV, forget Must-See TV, forget Reality TV — the best show on television is found in a dead-end weekend time slot on a kid’s channel, Cartoon Network. Just like real life, not everything on the two-day, three-hour (which will be expanding to a weekly stint come January) Adult Swim is worth taping. But almost all of it is. Harvey Birdman: Attorney at Law is a side-splitting, flawless exercise in postmodern pastiche, reimagining the Hanna-Barbera backlog for the 21st century: Johnny Quest‘s Dr. Quest and Race Bannon as gay lovers, Fred Flinstone as a Mafioso, Scooby and Shaggy as busted potheads, the original Neptunes as copyright thieves, the list truly go on. Mission Hill is probably the only show (to say nothing of cartoons) that features a horny gay couple as landlords, but definitely the only show featuring the words, “MTV sucks” on a naked ass hanging out of a car window. Who else but Adult Swim would give Ren and Stimpy-creator John Kricfalusi — a guy who almost single-handedly resuscitated Mad Magazine-type humor (say thank you, Spongebob Squarepants) for cartoons — another shot at television? His Ripping Friends is simply scary funny, featuring villains that take away friction, fire noxious fart bombs, or (like my favorite, the Indigestable Wad, who hilariously screams his name every five minutes) deprive humans of moisture. Adult Swim‘s gifts go on. Cowboy Bebop, a cyberpunk anime worthy of William Gibson’s seminal Neuromancer finally has a home there. So does the riotous Home Movies, which was unfairly cast adrift by UPN. And while Adult Swim might miss sometimes (Aqua Teen Hunger Force is weaker than week-old coffee), when it hits the mark, it hits it hard.

And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead, Source Tags and Codes
You’d think the cool-as-shit moniker would make everyone remember that this Austin-based riff factory released what I would argue was the best rock album of the 2002. But no, according to the mainstream media, that distinction goes to the weepy, weightless Coldplay. Or worse, the deeply derivative Vines (I’m sorry, but “Get Free” is just Nirvana’s “Negative Creep” — check the chord progression and phrasing, it’s all there). And as much as Trail of Dead get unfairly slammed for onstage antics and overall Gothic gimmickry, there’s no doubt that Source Tags and Codes is the type of album you have to turn down sometimes because it just rocks so fuckin’ hard. Which is funny considering that the majority of its ass-kicking arpeggios come not as many argue out of Sonic Youth but R.E.M., the subject of one of singer Conrad Keely’s impressive rock journalism. Peter Buck should be (hell, he probably is) proud. Like R.E.M., they’ve got a gift for guitar melody and like Sonic Youth, they’ve got a gift for sheer noise. But unlike both, they’ve got a surround-sound gravitas informing everything from hook-filled masterpieces like “How Near How Far” and straight-up punk like “Homage” to their in-between filler and eye-popping artwork. Trail of Dead are multimedia rockers the likes of which we have rarely seen or heard, and it’s gonna be a damn good time watching their meteor slam into the earth again.


>Regardless of his bullshit pose in 8 Mile, Eminem wrote these lyrics , Eminem wrote these lyrics for “Criminal”: “My words are like a dagger with a jagged edge/That’ll stab you in the head/whether you’re a fag or lez/Or the homosex, hermaph or a trans-a-vest/Pants or dress – hate fags? The answer’s ‘Yes'”. And these: “While getting dropped off in the real back street/where somebody black sees/five little rich white boys lookin like faggots/with the ‘N’ word painted on the back of their jackets.” And we’re supposed to stomach the clown that wrote all this coming to the defense of a homosexual in a movie based on his life?