16
Nov
2011
My Year in Lists: Interlude
Contemplations on Completism
Jordan
My Year in Lists chronicles one blogger's quest to understand why music matters to us and what makes it a lasting aspect of our existence. To facilitate this examination, three music fans have contributed a list of 52 essential albums. Each week this year, one album off of each list will be analyzed in an attempt to understand why some music sticks with us and what it means for our lives.

My Year in Lists: Interlude is an intermittent addendum to the feature that takes a step back from the quest to examine music from other perspectives.

I have a problem. Ok, if we're being honest here (and if we aren't, we're wasting our time), I have many, many problems, but there's a specific one I want to talk about for this, the last My Year in Lists: Interlude I may ever do (I guess never say never, as there's a chance this feature will somehow be revived again in the future, but for now, this is looking like it). I am a completist. When I watch, read, or listen to something I really like, I want to have access to all of it, and if possible, I want it all right now.

This is why I own Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, even though I really hate that movie and probably won't ever watch it until someday I show my child Terminator 2: Judgment Day and he or she doesn't believe me about how bad the next movie is (don't ask me why my future child never trusts me, but I imagine he or she won't believe me about the new Star Wars films either. Growing up is going to be hard for that kid). This is why I haven't watched Doctor Who, in spite of the fact that everyone I know assures me I'll love it. I know that the series really dates back decades, and that some of its episodes don't even exist anymore, and the idea of seeing only part of the story drives me insane.

Don't try to tell me that it isn't necessary to watch the whole show, either. One of the reasons I never read super hero comics until the last year is because I knew I could never read them from beginning to end (though you can bet your ass I have found every single issue of Uncanny X-Men and Detective Comics using the power of the Internet, a phenomenon I'll get back to in a bit). In the fifth grade, when I discovered James Bond, I watched every movie in the series in chronological order, in spite of the fact that there is almost no continuity between the films (except the S.P.E.C.T.R.E. story that flows through Connery's run and the interconnected Daniel Craig's installments, which makes me very happy). This is not a new problem.

What is a new problem, for me at least, is my discovery that pretty much everything exists somewhere on the Internet. A few decades ago, if you loved, say, David Bowie you had two options in life: hope he played somewhere near you or scrounge through record stores looking for every Bowie album you could find. I can still do either of those things (though both are getting harder these days), but I can also just open iTunes, search David Bowie, and get all of his albums with a few clicks. Or, if I'm so inclined, I can probably find Bowie's entire discography, including deep cuts, live shows, and rarities, available to torrent in about five minutes. To most sane people, this isn't a problem. Most people don't have nearly 500 Elton John songs on their iPod. I am not most people.



My Year in Lists has done a lot of great things for my life, but it definitely hasn't been good for my tendency towards completism. Every week this year, I have listened to at least three albums (not counting my attempts to get on top of 2011 in albums for year end list purposes), and the vast majority of them have been really good. Often times, this leads to me either trying to track down the complete discography of the artist in question, or forcing myself to show some restraint and hold off for a while. When I do battle with myself, I always lose (but also, I always win. It's a very confusing system).

On the bright side, I haven't had as much time to fill in the musical gaps this year as I might otherwise have. The best (and worst) thing about My Year in Lists is that it is a weekly feature. By the time I finish listening to, thinking about, and writing up the music from one week, it's time to jump into the next, and the journey has been so propulsive (and at times completely overwhelming) that it can be hard to even find the time to pour over an artist's entire discography with the laser-like focus I usually dedicate to the task.

So, what, you may be asking yourself, is the virtue of completism? Why do I strive so mightily to experience every single song written by an artist I like, every film made by a director I admire, or every single episode of a television series I might enjoy? The answer is fairly simple, and this is both a good thing and a bad thing, depending on your perspective: I don't want to miss out on anything great. As a fan of pop culture, and as someone who devotes a large portion of my time to criticism, there's something alluring about the idea of possessing complete knowledge of a subject. Somewhere deep inside my head, I wonder how valid my opinions on Paul Simon's new album, this year's So Beautiful or So What, are considering I have not heard all of his other albums post-Simon and Garfunkel. And the worst part about this is, I'm completely correct, even though that makes me completely insane.



Think of it this way: if you could talk to a person who had seen literally every movie ever made, and hear their thoughts on the medium, its greatest successes and most trenchant failures, you would almost certainly do that. Now obviously seeing every movie doesn't mean that his opinions on them are all correct. This person could have seen every movie ever and still have horrible taste, and you might quickly learn that you don't trust his outlooks or his criticism. That's all well and good. But the sad truth is that some opinions are better than others. This is something a lot of people don't believe, but I think that's mostly because deep down they know it's true. When you look at something simple like whether you prefer chocolate or vanilla ice cream, there is no real way to differentiate; it is a simple matter of taste (though let's be honest here. Chocolate is better). However, certain opinions are leant credence by the experience that backs them up. If you asked two people to weigh in on how the Supreme Court will rule on a civil rights case, one of whom had been a legal scholar for 50 years and had written several books on the current Supreme Court and the other of whom was an acclaimed artist who had never paid any attention to legal history, one person's opinion on the subject would necessarily carry more weight.

Completism allows a person to have the necessary knowledge to back up their opinions. Again, this does not mean that anything that person says is obviously correct, and certain things will always be a matter of taste, but credence is rightly given to those with more knowledge of a particular area. When I say that Hunky Dory is my favorite David Bowie album, that doesn't mean all that much. I might as well be saying that chocolate is my favorite ice cream flavor. Nothing is in controversy. However, if I was to mount the argument that Hunky Dory is the best Bowie album, that's a different question entirely (I could make an argument for that being the case, but not even I am convinced that it would beat The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars). I can argue why something is better than something else regardless of my knowledge about either of those things (that may be why I go to law school), yet to make a convincing case, I need knowledge of the subject to back my viewpoint up. If you don't think that's the case, ask yourself how you define criticism. My bet is that part of any complete definition you come up with will involve the ability to write well, to express thoughts on a subject cogently and to argue for its merits or lack thereof. Yet to say that something is "good" is to say that it is better than something else, and to do that with any level of respectability, you must have knowledge of both of the things you are comparing. Extrapolating this to its natural conclusion, the person with the most complete knowledge of any given subject is going to be fairly likely to have interesting things to say about it, whether or not you ultimately agree with their assertions.





As this year winds down, I've been thinking a lot about this feature and its effects on my entire life (and trust me, you'll hear plenty about my thoughts on that in the feature's Conclusion in December). If anything, this has been the worst year for my compulsion to completism, but I'm left wondering if that's such a terrible thing. Ultimately, any quest for pop culture completism is a quest in vain, but that doesn't mean it isn't a little quixotic all the same. I will never see every movie ever made. I will never read every book ever written. I will never see every episode of television ever broadcast. And I will never listen to every album ever recorded. There won't be enough hours in my life, and even if there were, I don't know that I could dedicate every hour of my existence to pop culture (though the idea is sometimes very compelling). I might never experience all of the art this world has to offer. It might be foolish to try. I will never get to everything, after all. But isn't there something at least a little bit beautiful about trying?

Read more My Year in Lists here

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