This conversation is part of The Ringer’s look at the year in entertainment so far.
Rob Harvilla: Shea! Hello! I hope this finds you well. What a dumb thing to say. I say it all the time these days. I never know what else to say. I hope you’re not pissed that I said “I hope this finds you well.” But I’m wondering how you and your family are holding up these days, at basically the halfway point of a year that has already lasted 15 years at least, and what movies/music/TV shows/video games/narrative podcasts/Quibis, if any, are helping hold you up.
I felt extra isolated, in my first few weeks of self-quarantine, by my utter indifference to the Verzuz Instagram Live beat battles. Great idea, great “content,” and a great feeling, genuinely, to watch that li’l viewer count in the upper right-hand corner shoot up into the hundreds of thousands, giving you the sense, at least, that we were all alone together. But the sound sucks, man, even at its best, and watching the RZA fumble with his aux cord or whatever is not my idea of a good time even when there is literally nothing else to do with my time.
One glorious exception: Erykah Badu vs. Jill Scott in early May. Watched the whole thing, on my stupid phone. Got over the audiophile shit. Reveled in the camaraderie. Wistfully recalled that time in 2001 or so when I saw a Badu show in Columbus, Ohio, and she ripped off her giant Afro wig and spiked it onstage, midsong. Still the most punk-rock thing I’ve ever seen. Tried not to think about when I’ll physically go to a concert again. Tried to make the best of it, and mostly succeeded. This is still the fuckin’ jam, too.
There is no way not to make this jarring, but I also wonder, in the wake of the killing of George Floyd and the uprisings that followed, whether “self-quarantine content” is still a thing anybody gives a shit about at all. It feels naive for us to talk around this. The celebrities are baffled. Rap music is, as always, rising to the occasion of the dissonance of this moment: I loved this Pitchfork thing on Pop Smoke’s “Dior” transforming into a protest anthem. But frivolity, of any sort, lately feels like an offensive luxury.
Did anything in particular—specific self-quarantine content or otherwise—do it for you in that first month or two, in terms of taking your mind off things? Are you a Ben Gibbard guy? And is anything at all doing it for you now that taking our minds off things is maybe the last thing we should be doing?
Don’t bother with Quibi, by the way. It takes like five Quibis for Most Dangerous Game to get to anything resembling action. It turns out that the most dangerous game is exposition.
Shea Serrano: This most assuredly did not find me well, Rob. It found me in … I’m not sure. I’m not sure how best to describe the state I am in. All I know is that there is an abundance of sucky stuff happening in the world right now.
Larami and the three boys and I are good, inasmuch as anyone can be considered “good” right now. She recently started a reading club for them. The way it works is: She ordered books for everyone, and once a day they all sit together and read for 30 minutes. Then she asks them questions about the books afterward. It’s really a charming thing to watch. I don’t participate. Mostly I just sit on the patio with my computer and type things into it, much like I am doing right now.
You know what I miss a lot right now? A few summers ago, the twins (who are now 13 years old) and I made this thing called the Summer Movie Club. It was our own special little group where the three of us would go to the movies each week and watch whatever big new movie was out. It’s one of my favorite family traditions that we have. The three of us have watched, I would guess, something like 40 movies in the Summer Movie Club. And since they’re older now, I feel much less guilty about taking them to see something like John Wick: Chapter 2 or Crawl or whatever. I hate that we can’t be in movie theaters. I miss their smell and the way they sound, and I even miss entering my number into the little keypad when we would order snacks so I could get my AMC member points.
Did you (or have you) (or do you) ever jump in on the DJ sessions that happen on Instagram? Those are really great. It’s always a fun way to spend some time. That’s one of the things I like to do.
I think I disagree with you on the Versuz thing. I have found them to be largely entertaining. Even when things fall apart for a bit, it’s always funny to see all the jokes and whatnot about it on Twitter. I hope they do more of them. And I hope everyone revisits the conversation around the Mannie Fresh and Scott Storch battle. Mannie won that.
Have you ever watched that show Alone? That’s my main thing I’m on right now. I fucking love it. Please tell me you’ve watched it. Have you watched it?
Rob: Yeesh, this Alone show looks incredibly stressful, Shea. I’d never heard of it. I just watched a clip of it entitled “A Bear Charges at Wayne.” Look out, Wayne! I was very concerned for Wayne. What the hell is this show? You’re into this, huh? Do you find it … soothing? For you personally, when there’s an abundance of sucky stuff happening in the world, does that make you more or less enthusiastic about watching sucky stuff happen to people in movies and such? (Wayne’s fine, though keep in mind I watched only one clip.)
I really miss movie theaters, too—my boys are 9 and 6, and the last movie we saw in a theater together was Onward, and I miss the Cherry Coke, the Reese’s Pieces, the too much popcorn. (That’s all just for me.) I’m not a purist or a hard-ass about this, but I am wondering if I’d have liked Trolls World Tour or Scoob! any better if I’d gotten to spend like $40 to gorge myself in a separate location. Maybe not. Is there a home version of the Summer Movie Club? If your kids are already dealing with Crawl and John Wick: Chapter 2, I gotta say my single best viewing experience of this whole shitshow thus far was Da 5 Bloods, which is a great way to get impressionable young people into Spike Lee, Delroy Lindo, Marvin Gaye, and (this gets pretty sucky) land mines.
I am grateful that you’re sitting here typing things into your computer with me, though I feel bad it’s keeping you from the reading club. What books are they reading? In this house we’re heavy into Captain Underpants, Dog Man, Big Nate, Diary of a Wimpy Kid, and The BFG. I tried to get them into the The Hobbit, but there’s like 12 fuckin’ songs in the first 10 pages and a little too much about Hobbit interior design. (Sometimes I imagine I’ll use this time to get them into all sorts of sophisticated cultural shit; sometimes I’m signing up the 9-year-old for a remote Minecraft camp.) Keeping the kids relatively calm and stimulated is an awfully daunting task these days: Like you, I’m dismayed that their universe basically ends at their backyard. But it’s apparent they’re holding up better than I am.
I agree that Mannie Fresh won. I am very grateful to D-Nice and Robyn for their self-quarantine DJ sessions, though I need to expand my horizons: Who’s doing it for you? Does Rich Boy do Instagram DJ sessions? Should I do a set myself that’s just “Touch That Ass” playing on repeat for two hours?
Shea: I find Alone incredibly soothing, yes. The way the show works is they pick ten people who describe themselves as survivalists and drop them off at various parts of an uninhabited location somewhere on earth that looks pretty but is absolutely miserable. The twist, though, is they let them bring whatever 10 items they want. So, like, you can bring a ferro rod or a big tarp or shovel or whatever. And there’s no time limit on anything. The contest is simply: Whichever one of them can stay out there the longest wins $500,000. It’s great. That one clip you watched is from Season 1. There was actually a guy on that season who gave up as soon as he saw a bear. He was like, “Oh, no, no, no. This bear is hunting me. I’m going home.” There’s one season when a guy gives up in—and I swear this is true—something like four hours. It’s wild.
And listen: Yes, part of the allure of the show is watching someone talk all kinds of shit about how great they are at surviving and living off the land but then as soon as they get dropped off and are left alone they panic and call for the rescue team to come get them. But really what makes the show special is when you get to Episode 7 or Episode 9 or whatever and these people have been out in the Arctic for 60, 70 days. It’s so impressive, and inspiring. (It’s also crushing when someone makes it that long and then the medical team has to pull them out against their will because their body is shutting down.) That’s the part that’s soothing to me. It makes me feel, at least for a moment, that maybe there’s a certain kind of strength in me too that I don’t know is in there. Likely that’s not the case, but maaaaaaaaaybe.
Onward was really fucking good. We watched that one at home. It’s almost unfair how good Pixar is at twisting your insides up.
You mentioned the Reading Club. That’s a thing that Larami started. She’s reading a book called Such a Fun Age, the twins are reading Dear Martin and Born a Crime, and the baby is reading one of those Dog Man books. The three boys all bucked back at first, but now it’s part of their schedule and so they not only don’t hate it, but I think they might actually secretly like it. That’s probably one of the tricks to surviving the quarantine: Larami and I are trying to build up schedules for everyone in the house. For me, it’s easy. My schedule is I just go on the patio at 8:30 a.m. and then look at my computer until about 6:30 p.m. With the kids, Larami has them doing morning pages (they have to write words on a piece of notebook paper until the page is full), and then she has them doing chores, and then there’s an exercise time, and then there’s an activity time. They don’t hit all of the things every day, but the days when they do are the days when everything feels the least terrible.
There’s probably some comparison to draw between the way that the contestants on Alone figure out ways to stay alive and reasonably sane while out in the woods and the way that we’re all having to figure out what works best for each of our families during the quarantine, but I’m not committed to that particular bit enough yet to make it. I don’t know. This all sucks. But at least I got to rewatch Upgrade and Ex Machina again the other day. That was fun.
Rob: I guess I should’ve mentioned this before, but I’m actually the Alone contestant who bugged out and asked to be rescued after four hours. It was all terribly embarrassing. But I get the appeal of watching someone persevering under ridiculous conditions and tapping reservoirs of hidden strength and triumphing over bear-type adversity. My wife watches Top Chef, which is a more benign and less requiring-medical-evacuation version of that idea: mastering chaos and emerging victorious with your Hong Kong Milk Tea Tiramisu. Granted, I only half-watched parts of the most recent season on the couch with my wife while reading a book about Elvis or some dopey Maximum Dad–type shit like that. But hopefully I absorbed a little of that strength, if only by accident.
Is there anything you particularly want from music in this moment? Do you want to be inspired? (What is the Houston rap equivalent of “Fight Song”?) Are you looking for pure escapism? Or are you hoping for something super-current that’s raging against all the suckiness and at least aspires to the idea of “protest music”? My favorite music video of 2020 is “Rascal,” by this weird semi-anonymous industry-plant-type dude named RMR: It’s theoretically a cover of a ’90s pop-country megahit called “Bless the Broken Road.” (Rascal Flatts did the definitive version; I referred to them in print once as “manscaped doofus nesting dolls.”) Except here the lyrics have been run through a “Fuck the Police” filter (“I came up and so could you / And fuck the boys in blue”), and also the dudes in the video are wearing ski masks and holding machine guns. This went viral back in March or so, back when everything was just starting to get weird. I’d never been so confused in my life, though of course now I’m this confused all the time.
My idea when self-quarantine started, and the world was clearly going to be very fucked up for a very long time, was that art would, well, not “save” me, but actively help me make sense of things, and “empower” me, and help me transfer some measure of that empowerment and serenity to the kids, etc. etc. I’m not exactly climbing the walls over here—we’re healthy, and fortunate, and like you guys just trying to make a schedule and keep things moving and keep the kids stimulated but not, well, climbing the walls—but I can’t say that any one movie or album or whatever has been The Exact Thing I Needed. Which is of course too much to ask from a movie or an album, especially when nearly everything I’ve absorbed in these past few months was created and finished long before any of this shit happened.
I guess a reasonable question to ask, in closing, is whether you personally, five years or so from now, will have any interest in watching movies or listening to albums or reading books about 2020, about all this suckiness and how (presumably!) we overcame it. COVID-19 rom-coms! COVID-19 action flicks! COVID-19 mumblecore movies! COVID-19 vampire novels! COVID-19 Rihanna albums! I can’t work out if this period of time will be a godsend for creativity or a very stern reminder that “creativity” is not always the most important thing. It might be enough, right now, to distract and amuse ourselves with whatever works, however silly or pointless, and get back to Art That Matters later, when a few other things that matter a little more are taken care of.
Shea: I find myself wanting to listen to (a) music that momentarily erases the entire world and lets me feel good and safe and like I am peeking in on a completely different timeline (in almost all cases this ends up being music from the mid- to late-’90s that I listened to when I was a teenager; music that is attached to extremely specific memories and moments); or (b) music that directly addresses the unruliness and the turbulence I feel in my spirit. It’s always only one of those two things. Same with movies or TV shows or whatever. I either want to be completely removed or all the way activated.
I’m sure I’ll have an interest in revisiting art from this year in the future, but likely only if it turns out that all of the uprising currently taking place leads to a victory; any victory, really. The system—a system that has largely regarded nonwhite lives as something less than—is being inspected and investigated and confronted in a way that we have not seen for many decades. If in five years things are better because of it, then yes, I’ll jump back and listen to, I don’t know, RTJ4 and be like, “This is what I was listening to a lot during the period when all of this was really picking up.” Philosophically, it’ll be like how it’s fun to rewatch a basketball game in which your team came back from some great deficit to win an important playoff series. If all of this does not lead to a great change—if, for example, Black people are still being murdered by police or Latino children are still being torn from their families at the border and other horrible things—then, likely, no. No, I won’t revisit the art from this particular time period. Or, if I do, it’ll be in that same way that I do now with music that allows me a momentary bit of relief. What about you?
Rob: Yeah. That’s it. Pick an arbitrary date—November 4, say, or the day it’s safe to all be around each other in public again, or the day the cops who killed Breonna Taylor are finally charged—and then decide how the art of 2020 strikes you, frivolous and otherwise. The new Run the Jewels is indeed fantastic, and makes for a fine soundtrack to a long, agonizing summer most of us will spend worrying and seething and tweeting and extra-awkwardly parenting. I keep going back to Killer Mike’s verse on the RTJ4 track “Pulling the Pin”: “Fuck the political / The mission is spiritual / A murderous miracle that was sent here to just punish the terrible.” It’s a threat with the authority of a promise. There’s so much terrible shit going on right now, and the best thing you can be watching/reading/listening to is anything at all that helps you survive it. And a miracle or two doesn’t seem like too much to ask for.