What's Making Me Happy: Pop Culture Recommendations From A Lazy Weekend / by Nasri Atallah

Anxiety. There’s a lot of it going around at the moment. Not huge paralyzing anxiety, but just a constant low-level anxiety that you’re not taking in as much as you should be. Mass FOMO. We have to watch everything, listen to everything, share everything. It’s anxiety-inducing. What if I miss a trend? What if I don’t know what the latest meme is or what the photo comments on the LADBible mean? How can I live down the shame? Have you tried Meerkat? Do you have an opinion on Tidal? In the contemporary trend-heavy, algorithm-driven cultural landscape you’d be forgiven for going loco.

One way to make sense of the pop culture consumption environment is through recommendations. Some are algorithmic, some are organic (ie human). One of my favourite ways of getting the latter is through Pop Culture Happy Hour (an NPR podcast with a pretty self-explanatory name), that incorporates a great segment at the end of each show called What’s Making Us Happy. A kind of freestyle recommendation after the structured programme. So in the same spirit, and if you’re in need of some pop culture guidance, allow me to go into what made me happy this weekend. It’ll be a bit narrative, a slight departure from the kind of habitual copy pasting of a link on a social feed with the word “This.” appended, as if it is some form of universally applicable contextualization.

First off, some algorithmic recommendation from our friends at Netlfix. Normally, the platform’s recommendations are a bit off-base. I have no desire to watch Suits, yet the Netflix gods seem to think I should. I am still unsure why. However, this weekend, and in the wake of a The Killing binge over the last two weeks with my significant other, it pulled up the BBC miniseries Luther, which ran for 14 episodes between 2010 and 2013,  as something I should dig into. I finally clicked on it on Friday evening, and have been finding it hard to tear myself away from the screen to do anything else, like shower. It is a staggeringly brilliant show. Idriss Elba’s performance as the emotionally volatile sleuth is engrossing, and he’s got a presence unlike anything I’ve ever seen on the small screen (not since Stringer Bell anyway). The show lives in that kind of liminal Britain that exists in narratives such as Charlie Brooker's Black Mirror. Set five minutes in the future, but retro-feeling (without the kitsch), a dystopian wasteland, a reflection of a London glimmering and fast losing its bearings. The seasons are short and brisk, made up of hour-long chapters, like most blistering English television.

The second recommendation isn’t really a specific show, but rather a person, documentarian Louis Theroux. I’ve been aware of Louis Theroux for as long as I can remember, growing up as I did in the UK with his Weird Weekends on the BBC. But I’d never bothered to actually watch anything he’d done until now, my only connection having been a hasty reading of Paul Theroux’s The Great Railway Bazaar, followed by some googling that led me to realize they were father-son and some internal ruminations on the state of nepotism in British culture. However, having watched some documentaries from various bits of his career, I can safely say he is a brilliant storyteller in his own right, and nepotism has nothing to do with his success. Very early on, with the aforementioned Weird Weekends in 1998, he crafted this on screen persona of a naive, deer-in-the-headlights shaggy reporter. As a viewer, you know he’s intelligent and educated, but his earnestness on camera is disarming, and he leaves all these pregnant pauses all over his interviews, that the subjects start to fill with their innermost thoughts. It’s an interview technique that’s been widely adopted since then. For example, without Theroux, there’d be no Vice Guide to the Balkans (although that is a highly banalised version of his genteel gonzo journalism).

On the literary front, I finally picked up a volume that’s been lying on a shelf in my line of sight for a month, entitled The Henry Miller Reader. You could say it’s an indirect recommendation from my father, since he just kind of left it laying around. Anyway, the volume was published in 1958 and pulls together some of Miller’s writing on his travels, some of his fiction and some profiles of acquaintances. Not that the distinction makes much sense, as the line between fact and fiction in the literary canon got very blurry thanks in great part to his efforts. My favourite piece (so far) is probably The Ghetto, an extract from his seminal Sexus, as it describes a part of New York City that I’m particularly infatuated with (the Lower East Side), and seems prophetic now in its warnings against over-gentrification.

But I guess the thing that made me the happiest this weekend wasn’t a matter of consumption at all, but rather a conspicuous lack of it. Thanks to my Jawbone UP I’ve been obsessed with hitting my daily walking targets for the past couple of years (I highly recommend this hilarious piece by David Sedaris in The New Yorker on his absurd relationship to his fitbit). So yesterday, after I was done reading some Miller over a bite to eat in Parmentier, I walked home along the banks of The Seine. For the first time in a long time, I decided to do this with nothing in my ears. No podcasts. No Spotify KCRW playlists. Nothing. Just the sound of the river lapping up against the cobblestones. No one was really walking along the banks in this area, save for a lone jogger every 15 minutes. Until I came across a guy playing his saxophone and I got to listen to that for a bit. As I kept walking, a Bateau Mouche went by. By now the sun was setting, and the boat had the purpose-built lights along its side blaring to show tourists the details of what was going on along the banks. A group of clearly inebriated teenagers waved at me. Free from distraction, in that moment, I decided to connect fully with the world around me. I stopped solidly, turned fully towards them and gave them the most enthusiastic wave I’ve ever given a seafaring vessel. And they lost their shit, started jumping up and down and suddenly the waving on their side expanded from a group of 10 guys to a hundred people on the windswept deck. Then they continued cutting through the water heading away from me, and the scene quietened down suddenly. Again, the water next to me and the faint rumble of cars in the distance were the only sounds. In a way I was alone again. But in many more ways, I’d never been less alone.