It’s not a good thing to be a trainwreck. The term implies destruction that’s equal parts tragic and gripping. It’s the thing you can’t look away from, even though you repeatedly tell yourself that it would be best if you did. Morbid curiosity often draws us in. There are some things you can’t help but stop to take note of. That’s the constant appeal of the trainwreck: The thing you can drive past and gawk at while tutting of the sadness of it all. So, applying the term to pop culture is inherently kind of messy. There are guilty pleasures and then there are the things that are just beyond spoiled.
For me, I try to think of a true pop culture trainwreck as something that’s more rooted in laughing with the story in question than laughing at it. There’s no point in consuming something if we don’t get at least something positive from the experience. I can barely stand cringe comedy so I’ve no idea how anyone can willingly watch something truly tragic.
This is one of the reasons I sit out most reality T.V. shows, particularly the singing competitions. We know these series are fake. We know how hard producers work to create the picture perfect scenarios that will capture the next day’s headlines and craft the ideal narratives of winners, losers, villains and trainwrecks. I’ve never been able to stomach stuff like The X Factor, wherein naïve wannabes with no discernible talent are built up by the crew, their delusions inflated, only for them to be put in front of several hundred booing audience members and a panel of judges spewing the most hurtful rehearsed one-liners. You’re supposed to laugh and question why on earth these fools ever thought they were good enough to be on T.V. Even some of the viewers who know how the set-up works still play along.
The term ‘trainwreck’ as it pertains to pop culture is all too often one used to describe a certain kind of woman. Everyone can think of at least one tatty newspaper headline proclaiming the bright young starlet of yesterday as the disaster of tomorrow. Miley Cyrus’s knowing theatrics of sexual camp and black appropriation were those of a trainwreck; Britney Spears was given the title during her public downfall into mental health issues and paparazzi attacks; the addictions and struggles of Amy Winehouse made her the favourite trainwreck of the British tabloids until her death, when they all tried to wipe their own slates clean out of shame. Basically, any vaguely unruly or transgressive action can lead to a woman being derided as a trainwreck, but more so in pop culture spheres where the narrative is just too juicy to drop. Nothing seems to entertain the masses like a woman in distress.
So, when I talk about pop culture trainwrecks, I want us to look at it in terms of communal enjoyment. Whenever we dislike or mock something in pop culture, the chances are it’ll hurt or rub at least one person the wrong way. Movies and music and games and such are hard to make. They take many years and can cost more money than most of us will earn in a lifetime. Critics get enough flack for honest opinions without anyone having to get into the topic of deliberately snarking it.
I used to be a book blogger and everyone knew of the books you reach almost exclusively for their glorious badness. Some were self-published oddities from the depths of Amazon while others were major best-sellers whose popularity baffled us. The fun came from the communal experience of it all: Laughing at ineptitude is one thing, but it’s special when you share it with friends. We always argued about where the line was in terms of what to laugh at: It never seemed as fair to focus such energies on smaller or self-published authors, whereas the E.L. Jameses of the world were too cushioned in money to feel our mockery. Still, it wasn’t always so clearly defined. Sometimes, you just wanted a laugh.
A trainwreck is easier to laugh at when it’s the folly of a fool who won’t truly suffer. Think of those bonkers vanity projects like the recent John Travolta vehicle Gotti. Nobody outside of the Travolta household could have possibly thought such a film - with music by Pitbull! - was a good idea and yet he managed to wrangle literally dozens of producers into giving him money to make his dream a reality. We must treasure these trainwrecks when they appear because the current system of Hollywood allows for fewer risk and mid-budget movies that aren’t franchises. Old school vanity movies just don’t happen as much as they used to.
For me, the pinnacle of pop culture trainwreck - and one of my favourites - is Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark. It breaks one of my cardinal rules in that people did get hurt making this one - oh so many broken bones and safety violations - but the entire context within which it was made is too mind-boggling to pass up: A $75m budget, directed by Julie Taymor (until they fired her), with music by Bono and The Edge of U2, based ostensibly on the comics but mostly taking beats from the Sam Raimi films, and chock full of intricate high-wire work. Taymor’s original version of the show included a meta-narrative in the form of a geek chorus (GET IT?), the Greek spider goddess Arachne trying to bone Peter Parker, and an entire musical number where her minions steal her a bunch of shoes. Alas, that number didn’t make it into the final cut but we did get A Freak Like Me Needs Company. The reason the development of this show became such a prime pop culture trainwreck was because it seemed like literally anything could happen: The actors could quit, the stage could crumble, the money could never stop pouring in. When the final show ended up being mostly okay, if a bit boring, it was almost anticlimactic. Where was the shoe song when you needed it?
So, what are your favourite pop culture trainwrecks? What folly was so expensive and foolish that you couldn’t help but get some pleasure from its awfulness? Was there a book so staggeringly inept that you couldn’t put it down until the last page? Or does the idea of a pop culture trainwreck simply not appeal? Let us know in the comments.