Welcome back to AVQ&A, where we throw out a question for discussion among the staff and readers. Consider this a prompt to compare notes on your interface with pop culture, to reveal your embarrassing tastes and experiences, and to ponder how our diverse lives all led us to convene here together. Got a question you’d like us and the readers to answer? Email us at email@example.com.
This week’s question is from commenter “Mayonegg”:
What’s your personal one-hit wonder? For example: Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove is one of my absolute favorite novels, but nothing else I’ve read by him catches my interest. I haven’t even been able to finish any of his other work. So, your personal one-hit wonder: You adore a song/book/movie, but everything else that musician/writer/director has done leaves you cold.
At a time in my life when I really needed a new Weezer record (but there wouldn’t be another Weezer record until the hated Make Believe), along came Ben Kweller and his solo debut Sha Sha. Eleven tracks of unassuming pop from the kid who previously fronted major-label casualty Radish, Sha Sha hit all sorts of suburban high-schooler sweet spots: Chunky guitars left over from the great alt-rock gold rush; piano ballads that guaranteed a future collaboration with Ben Folds; a “zany” cover photo in which Kweller wears a hunter’s cap and brushes his teeth. With Sha Sha carrying me through senior year and on into college, I recall picking up Kweller’s follow-up, On My Way, in 2004—and then I remember never buying another Ben Kweller record again. Scrappier and looser than Sha Sha, On My Way felt like a betrayal of its predecessor’s idiosyncrasies, a “live in studio” affair that hit my untrained ears like an ill-advised attempt at plugging into the then-hot garage-rock revival. (The shaggy instrumentals certainly didn’t do anything to mask Kweller’s shortcomings as a lyricist.) I’ll put Sha Sha on once or twice every summer, and it still manages to sink its hooks into me. Maybe it’s just nostalgia for a time when I could be so serious about a single that lifts dialogue from The Doom Generation (as “Wasted & Ready” does), but Kweller’s way with a tune and a solid riff holds up. I just wish he wouldn’t have given up on those skills so quickly.
This is a slight twist on the original question, but I think it still works: Any time I want to rag on Woody Allen, I have to remember that he wrote and directed Match Point just shy of a decade ago. I readily admit that Annie Hall and Hannah And Her Sisters and even more recent entries like Vicky Cristina Barcelona are great films, and I can see the enormous influence Allen has had on filmmaking in other movies that I love. But all of them have left me a bit cold, even when I’ve been laughing along at a giant boob chasing innocent civilians in an open field. Meanwhile, Match Point was the first film I saw by him that really shook me to the core. In my opinion, it’s a masterwork. It’s done more for me than anything else I’ve seen by him. And it might be the only role that Jonathan Rhys Meyers is actually good in, so hey! That’s two one-hit wonders for you.
My favorite quote comes from Alan Bennett’s play The History Boys: “The best moments in reading are when you come across something—a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things—that you’d thought special, particular to you. And here it is, set down by someone else… And it’s as if a hand has come out, and taken yours.” That’s exactly how I felt when I read Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway. A woman who lived and died decades before I was born captured thoughts of ennui, fear, family, war, and love that I had thought unique to me. Reading it in high school was the first time a piece of classic literature connected with me in such a visceral way. It was with admittedly high expectations that I approached the rest of Woolf’s oeuvre, and while I enjoy and appreciate her other novels, I’ve yet to find one I connect to as strongly as Mrs Dalloway.
One of my all-time favorite albums is the Silver Jews’ American Water. The Jews are the band David Berman formed with Stephen Malkmus before Malkmus left to form Pavement, and he returns for this one glorious album of indie country folk. Berman’s lyrics are wonderful throughout, from couplets like, “Windex tears stream down the robot’s face / He never felt his mother’s embrace” to truisms like, “All my favorite singers couldn’t sing.” Best of all, there isn’t a skippable track in the bunch—every song has some irresistible turn of phrase or a melody that gets lodged in your head for basically the rest of your life. So why isn’t the rest of the Jews’ output any good? Silver Jews And Nico is an unlistenable mess; The Natural Bridge is so mellow as to be sleep-inducing; Malkmus returned for Tanglewood Numbers, but the magic just wasn’t there. Lucky for me, I can keep playing American Water again and again without ever getting tired of it.
The Player Of Games, the second novel in Iain M. Banks’ sci-fi utopia Culture series, was pretty much tailor-made for me. It’s got intrigue, weird alien sex, the success/failure/renewed-success rhythms of a good sports movie, and a bizarre society that treasures games almost as much as I do. Heck, it’s even got a smart-but-not-as-smart-as-he-thinks-he-is protagonist, perfect for me to identify with. But even as the book ostensibly focuses on the brutal empire of Azad (and the board game that governs almost every aspect of its culture), it also implies and shows all sorts of fascinating things about the Culture, the benevolently underhanded civilization that protagonist Jernau Morat Gurgeh hails from. Which makes it a real shame that I’ve never been able to get through any of the other books Banks wrote about that collection of idly wealthy humans and the vast computerized Minds that act as their caretakers. I’ve been warned by people I trust that the first Culture book, Consider Phlebas, with its morally suspect, identity-shedding protagonist, can be a hard row to hoe, but even the supposedly more accessible Culture novels leave me cold. I’ll probably try again in a couple of years, in the hopes that the seeds planted by The Player Of Games can finally blossom.
Chalk me up as another person whose personal “one-hit wonder” also wrote one of my all-time favorite books. I’ve tried on several occasions, and none of the other books by Chuck Klosterman have ever come even close to hitting the same sweet spot for me that Fargo Rock City did. I’ve given it the old college try, and I still have hardcover copies of Sex, Drugs, And Cocoa Puffs and Killing Yourself To Live sitting on my shelf as proof, both of which I bought new because I loved that first book so much, and both of which I always keep telling myself I’m going to try again one of these days. When I dove into them for that initial read, though, I just didn’t find the same instant adoration of the material that I found with Fargo Rock City. And, no, it’s not because I’m a huge heavy metal fan. Frankly, I don’t really know why I liked it as much as I did. I just know that I’ve yet to find anything else by him that I’ve liked nearly as much.
My first instinct was to go with music, but picking one of the many singles I prefer above the rest of an artist’s output (like, say, Katy Perry’s “Teenage Dream” or Taylor Swift’s “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together”) seems a bit disingenuous; the combination of me not being the target audience for a lot of Top 40 songs and their merciless drive to make everyone their audience actually seems likely to produce that single-hit result, at least once in a while. It seems less inevitable that I wouldn’t care much for any Todd Phillips movies except Starsky & Hutch, which I pretty much love. Though it has a few of the hallmarks I associate with other Phillips movies (most notably an utter disinterest in the idea that a female character could be more than a scold or eye candy, much less be actually funny), it’s the only one where his much-vaunted commitment to shooting his comedies like “real movies” (which basically means avoiding junky sitcom-style over-lighting) actually pays off with visual gags. The Hangover movies often look “cool” without ever bothering to frame any jokes with the camera, but Starsky’s climactic shot of Ben Stiller’s beloved car soaring into the bay makes me laugh every time. The movie also gets a lot of mileage out of somehow being the only full-on Ben Stiller/Owen Wilson buddy comedy. Stiller and Wilson are an inspired comic duo who somehow tend to perform together more in short bursts—parts of Zoolander, a few scenes in The Royal Tenenbaums, a set-piece in Meet The Parents, maybe enlivening the Oscars for a minute or two. In Starsky & Hutch, they’re center stage, and the chemistry between prickly, angry Stiller and laid-back Wilson gives Phillips’ movie both the laughs and the warmth that his other features lack. So if I ever call one of his future movies a “return to form,” what I’ll actually, confusingly mean is that it’s more like a Stiller/Wilson buddy comedy that no one seems to hold in very high regard.
I spent a lot of time racking my brain for this answer, because it would be so easy if this were a question about what “one-hit wonder” you love even if others don’t. Then I had to think about the one thing I like from an artist I don’t particularly care for elsewhere, but I quickly remembered I’m actually a curmudgeon who doesn’t tend to let up on things I dislike. Thankfully shuffle exists, and I was able to figure out an answer to this question. This is a peculiar answer, because it’s really a low-stakes mystery plot in some ways. It’s a one-hit wonder of sorts mostly because, for the longest time, it was the only song that existed from this artist. It’s Kim Ferron’s “Nothing But You,” which was on the first Buffy The Vampire Slayer soundtrack, even though its Buffy legacy only comes from being played in the notorious episode “Beer Bad.” While I listened to that soundtrack religiously, for better or for worse, I always found myself drawn to “Nothing But You.” It was the one song I could see myself listening to outside of the confines of soundtrack. The kicker, however, was that Kim Ferron had no other songs. She had no EP or LP, and based on any Internet search, it was as though she literally fell off the face of the Earth. No matter how long and how hard I searched, I couldn’t find more. Eventually, she resurfaced in 2010 to appear on a Forest Rangers song for Sons Of Anarchy and has since appeared for guest vocals on some electronic-music pieces. But it wasn’t the same. I’ll always have “Nothing But You,” though.