Just How Fashionably Detached Do You Need To Be?

by Joe Berkowitz


This has happened too many times: you pretend not to know anything about some item of zeitgeisty detritus that you, in fact, know plenty about. Whatever subject your friends or coworkers are discussing-Ke$ha, Shia, Padma-it’s just too pedestrian, too downmarket, too… well, it’s actually not you! So, even though you’ve somehow managed to absorb numerous nuggets of information about whatever the silly pop thing is, you feign ignorance. Unfortunately, a true lack of awareness is difficult to fake, and everyone probably guessed you were bluffing anyway.

It’s a rule that the more aloof one is toward popular culture, the more noble and/or interesting one’s life pursuits must be. (After all, one’s life is the most noble and interesting when one does actually know nothing at all about pop culture.) And if by early June of 2010 you haven’t yet had a keen comprehension of Justin Bieber thrust upon you, then clearly you’ve got multiple fingers invested in multiple artistic pies and a dual-ended candle burning, etc. And that’s fine. Some people are legitimately too busy to risk distraction, so they purposefully tune out all of the continually emerging nonessential information. Such souls do exist, and you can tell who they are because when these people say they haven’t heard of, like, Twilight, the affectless disinterest in their eyes rings absolutely true. They’re not pretending; they just genuinely do not know or care.

On the other hand, most of us do have certain nonessential pleasures or even obsessions that require frequent nourishment. We’re open to receiving data from the various info-streams into whose paths we wander again and again each day, slaking our thirst for What’s Going On via the myriad glowing rectangles surrounding us always. We watch, we read, we listen, and in the process we pick up things we wish we hadn’t. For instance, anyone who got their gulf oil spill breaking news from CNN that first week would have unavoidably learned the exact state of Bret Michaels’ medical condition on a more-or-less hourly basis, whether they wanted to or not.

Of course it can be embarrassing to admit some of the things you have nonconsensually come to know! The mere fact of that accidental knowledge, once exposed, might suggest to others an interest that simply does not exist, potentially putting you in the awkward position of explaining the very roundabout way you learned who Lauren Conrad is dating. And since such explanations tend to come off as nakedly defensive, they end up producing the exact opposite of their intended effect-i.e. everyone now assumes you are The Hills super-fan numero uno. It’s much easier, then, to just pretend you’ve never heard of LC at all. Depending on the company you keep, it’s also, obviously, much cooler.

And yet some people try too hard. Fashionable detachment carries that certain cachet, but only if this distance is organic and if you are not condescending about it. Some people cannot wait to inform you, for example, that they don’t own a TV, which is never not an annoying thing to hear, whatever your personal thoughts are about television. These folks miss the point entirely about what awareness and ignorance communicates.

Having seen Transformers 2: Revenge of the the Box Office doesn’t automatically mark you as “being way into Transformers 2” any more than reading the work of Marcel Proust marks you as “being a pretentious d-bag.” Does the Proust reader wear a natty brown ribbed sweater and absently pick at his patchy beard? Is the Transformers 2 viewer also necessarily super-psyched about J. Crew and gonzo pornography? No. Character judgments cannot be accurately made based on one’s aesthetic tastes alone. And likewise, the strategy of brushing off the “low brow” has no actual implications about what its deployer is really like (or really likes) on its own.

But people seem to think it does, so fashionable detachment has become the new version of name-dropping, except you’re known for what you say you don’t know. It becomes impossible to decipher who is authentically out of the loop, who just wants you to believe as much, and then, in the case of the latter-why?

In order to make sense out of all this, here are a few fashionably detached claims that people might make, and some methods for interpreting them:

“Modern Family? Isn’t that basically what most sitcoms are called?”

FD Level: Decidedly Low

Analysis: Between traditional networks, cable, Netflix Instant, Hulu and Youtube, there are so many shows available that it’s impossible to keep track, let alone watch them all. For the first time in television history, we are suffering from an overabundance of quality content. If someone hasn’t heard of Modern Family or whatever other new show is getting raves, they are more than likely telling the truth, and not conveying a Kill-Your-Television sense of militant non-conformism. Also, you can tell they’re not kidding around if they think its a 1970s BBC documentary.

“Who’s day off from what now?”

FD Level: Slightly Elevated

When anyone between the ages of 25 and 40 pleads ignorance to a beloved 80’s classic like Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, the reasons are fairly limited. One possibility is that the person’s parents believed in limiting the amount of television their children watched per week, and this very important film somehow never made it onto the docket. Another likely case is that a now-adult person expends most of their cinematic energy rabidly anticipating Takashi Miike’s next release, and hence looks upon commercial films as the folly of their youth, with all prior viewings summarily disavowed.

“Is ‘The Balloon Boy Hoax’ some kind of new dance move?”

FD Level: Elevated

Analysis: A professed lack of familiarity with any large-scale media spectacle of the last year could be a signal of one’s extremely fast-paced or outdoorsy job-working arrangements not at all conducive to communal gatherings around the pantry TV or laptop. Avid political junkies and even casual current events enthusiasts are probably not telling the truth, though, when they claim that a story like Balloon Boy eluded them. Rather, they are intimating an exclusive interest in actual hard news (whatever that is) and a total disdain of fluff.

“To what ‘situation’ are you referring?”

FD Level: Decidedly High

Analysis: The cast of Jersey Shore was among the most savvy to ever vomit on (and some would say onto) national television. They emerged fully formed as tabloid personalities, complete with nicknames and catchphrases. The true triumph of this very popular reality show was that during January of 2010, it was difficult to navigate the Internet, the TV or even just your office without a mental introduction to The Situation and Snooki. It was so difficult, in fact, that claiming unawareness even now comes across as dubious; an attempt to convey one’s contempt for the whole enterprise of reality television. There are few legitimate explanations for having never heard of these people.

“‘Gaga’ is a totally inappropriate name for a lady.”

FD Level: Off the Charts

Analysis: Nope. She’s inescapable; a fully galvanized phenomenon, and arguably the most popular performer on the planet right now. Most sentient beings have some opinion regarding Lady Gaga, and as weird as it is to believe, it would be ridiculous to claim otherwise. You’d have an easier time denying gravity.

We have all pretended not to know certain things before, and we all have certain gaps in our knowledge base that take others by surprise. While a comprehensive grasp on the nonessential information of the day may never be seen as a sign of genius (and for good reason), the lack of it, whether by design or otherwise, will never be seen that way either. As for ‘essential information,’ the jury is still out on what that even might be, let alone what a firm grasp on it conveys to others. People who don’t know the name of Obama’s latest nominee to the Supreme Court look neither coolly distant nor ill-informed-they just look like an alarmingly broad swath of Americans.

Joe Berkowitz is an assistant editor and freelance writer living in New York City