Pop culture is everywhere. It’s the music we listen to, the books we read, and the fictional characters we print on our body pillows. And I’m deeply fascinated by it, which led to my current career in which I attempt to shout over the whirlpool of the internet about why my opinions about Superman are the best ones. I also kind of owe everything to pop culture — not just because it pays my rent, but also because it saved my life at two points.
When I say that pop culture saved my life, I don’t mean in the sense of “He told me he’d shoot me unless I listed my top five Rolling Stones albums.” See, I’ve battled with depression for a long time. A longer time than any actual amount of years that I can mark it, as depression has a tendency to spread itself out across your life, so that you’re not quite sure of what it was like before a mixture of sadness, anxiety, and hopelessness draped itself upon you like a pile of wet sweaters. Pop culture saved my life because, at those two points of my life, it was all I had.
When I was a sophomore in college, all of the things that I’d once thought were definite about myself seemed to dissipate. I was in the middle of an on-again, off-again long-distance relationship, and surprisingly enough, “Hours away and breaking up all the time” isn’t the best recipe for romance. It was one of those relationships where you actually feel lonelier when you get off the phone with them because rather than be excited that you got to talk to the person you care about, all you can think is “What did they mean by that? Why would they say that to me? Do they know how words work?”
My brother, who had been my best friend for the last 17 years, was hours away, dealing with school and his own friends, so I couldn’t lean on him as much for support. For a long time, he was like the bouncer to Club Daniel’s Mood Swings. People would come up to give me shit, and my brother would block the door and tell them that there was a cover, and when they asked how much that was, he’d tell them “Fuck off dollars and suck my nuts cents.”
I also got turned down for the program that I wanted to get my major in. This basically put me in the position of looking for classes that sort of dealt with that major, in the hopes that the dean would see my effort and say “I know that we turned you down for the broadcasting program, but ever since then, you took a class in Performing 18th-Century Poetry On the Stage, so you can just graduate now if you want.” I felt trapped by my own inadequacy. I was the RPG character that no one had bothered to level up, surrounded by the characters that God had been playing with for hours.
When you’re depressed, the silence is thick and omnipresent. You could buy a pair of rubber waders and fucking slog through the silence of depression. And it was on one of those very quiet nights that my roommate asked me if I’d ever watched a show called One Piece, which I knew two things about: 1) It was an anime, and 2) Yes please, anything that will distract me from this. Now, for those that have never heard of it, One Piece is a show about a dude who has the power to stretch his limbs, and he uses that power to better punch people. And I kind of fell in love with it immediately.
More important than the plot was the fact that One Piece, along with its themes of standing up for yourself and against those who would prey on the helpless, is based around the idea that there are no useless people. You might be surrounded by people who are remarkably strong in comparison to you, but you have things to contribute as well. Basically, it was Everything Daniel Needs To Hear Right Now, And Some Japanese Pop Music: The Show.
There were around 300-plus episodes to watch by the time I started, so there was no chance of me ever going back to the well and finding out that the One Piece had all dried up. And that was important because for the first time since I started college, I felt like I had a place that I could go to whenever the aloneness began to crush me and all of the noises around me turned into that horrifying anthem that starts playing whenever Sonic the Hedgehog begins to drown.
You often hear other people describe their loved ones as “their rocks,” but for a certain span of time, One Piece was my rock. It’s a goofy adventure show about a supernatural pirate crew, and I can honestly say that it might be the reason that I’m around to talk about it right now. It gave me something to cling to when my entire being felt invalidated. And this would happen again once more in my life.
About six years later, I found myself in the wonderful position of being able to make my living writing. And then, an email later, I found myself not in that position anymore. This would’ve been alright if “making my living” translated to “Saving up money while still eating out of my parent’s refrigerator.” Unfortunately, it translated to “I have to pay rent and buy dog food and possibly more people food if this jar of peanut butter takes a vacation.”
The woman I was dating and living with, the woman who would later go on to be my wife, encouraged me as my bank account begged for mercy. And while I could tell her that I was having money problems, I didn’t want to tell her about the fact that I was spiraling again. My wife is a masterpiece of a human being, and I can recite sizable portions of the Return Of The Jedi movie novelization. Everyone has job troubles, but I couldn’t reveal to her that I was pathetic. That I was on a constant search for self-worth, and sometimes, when I think I’ve found it, I blink for a second and it’s gone.
In college, I considered suicide because death wasn’t as scary as the inevitability of waking up the next morning feeling like I didn’t have a purpose in the world. There was no set amount of depression from day to day, or from month to month. It was just going deeper and deeper. I found myself in the bathroom between classes, sobbing, because I didn’t know where the pit ended. There was no bottom. There was just more.
I didn’t do a big cannonball into the pool of despair and instinctively reach out for some kind of entertainment. Instead, one day I watched Tim Burton’s Batman, and then I watched it the next day. And the next day. And the next day. I watched it every day for more than a month. I had it on in the background while I applied for jobs and while I washed dishes and while I played with my dog. Because, like One Piece, it was there. It gave me something steady to hold onto. I was OK, and the earth wasn’t crumbling beneath my feet, and eventually I’d find work again, because for two hours during the day, I could breathe.
Luckily, that work would end up being me analyzing this movie too much.
I’ve mentioned Batman in my columns a shit-ton of times, and I’m sorry about that (not really). I’m trying to pull the reins on it a little bit, I swear. But it’s hard to not go back to that two-hour tribute to Jack Nicholson’s dancing talents. It propped me up. I needed it. And if you’re wondering where my wife was during the emotional affair that I was having with Michael Keaton, eventually I told her about what had been going through my head, and she understood, because she’s just the fucking best, you guys.
I can’t tell you that pop culture is any kind of substitute for professional or personal help. Doing that is the equivalent of those assholes who tell you “Feeling depressed? But have you tried camping?” And if you feel like you need help, and you feel able to find it, please do. But if you’re a fan of something, whether it’s a comic series or a particular band or whatever, and it helps you through stuff, there’s no shame in that.
If binging ten episodes of Gilmore Girls is going to assist you in increasing some aspect of your happiness, binge the fuck out of it. If you do a mean cosplay of any of the characters of Yuri On Ice and dressing up is going to make you feel like you belong, cosplay away. And if you think that recording an all-flute cover of the score of Banjo Kazooie might just be the thing that gets you to tomorrow, go for it.
His name is Banjo and he has a banjo? Aww. That’s kind of cool, actually.
The point isn’t “Pop culture will save your life.” It’s “Passion will do you wonders.” That passion spurs motivation, even if the motivation is just used to clear your head and concentrate on Michael Keaton screaming “YOU WANNA GET NUTS?! Come on … let’s get nuts.” Maybe your passion is cooking or landscaping or juggling cats. Mine just happened to be these admittedly goofy movies and TV shows, and I think that since most people view those things as silly entertainment, it’s hard for them to imagine them carrying enough importance to pull someone out of that bottomless pit of dicks.
I think we don’t really talk about pop culture improving lives, because a majority of it is fictional and everyone has different opinions on it. It isn’t real, and we can spill our hearts out about it, only to hear “You’re dumb, because Christian Bale is definitely the superior Bruce Wayne.” But if it’s important to you and helps to make life worth living, that’s what matters. And it matters because you matter.
And now, here’s Jack Nicholson dancing: