Underrated Vs. Unpopular: A Discussion of Pop Culture Lingo

Published 7/27/13 by:




A few weeks ago I had the absolute pleasure of meeting Chuck Klosterman at a reading for his new collection of essays, “I Wear the Black Hat: Grappling with Villains (Real and Imagined)” at Porter Square Books in Cambridge, Massachusetts (see photo of Chuck above – photo credit to my iPhone). Chuck is one of my favorite authors for a multitude of reasons, but mostly because he writes about pop culture trends, which is something I’m equally as passionate about. “I Wear the Black Hat” explores the ideas of who we, as a culture, identify as a villain, why we label them that, and how our perspectives and emotions towards villains have changed over time. Chuck references people’s adoration of Tony Soprano or Walter White as a distinct change in how we perceive evil, and how (occasionally) we’ve come to embrace and root for these characters. When Chuck finished his reading from the book he opened up the conversation to an hour long Q&A in which he entertained any type of question people wanted to ask. The inquiries ranged from “What will Metta World Peace’s legacy be?” to “Why isn’t Elliott Smith more popular?” It’s this second question that led to a very intriguing discussion which altered my point of view of a phrase we use frequently: underrated.


When the audience member asked Chuck this very specific question, it was one of the few that he required more information about prior to responding. Chuck asked, “Do you mean because he killed himself he should be more popular?” to which the person responded (paraphrasing here), “No, I mean, he’s pretty underrated, and he’s one of my favorite artists – I kind of thought he’d become more well-known and liked after his suicide.” This is where (in my opinion) Chuck’s most compelling argument came to fruition. He told Elliott Smith’s number one fan that there is a vast difference between underrated and unpopular. Chuck said that if you surveyed five people in the room who knew of Elliott Smith’s music, they would all probably say that his music showcases talent and that it’s a shame that Elliott is gone. Chuck noted that if all the people surveyed agreed that Elliott’s music is excellent, then he cannot, by definition, be “underrated.” He can, however, be unpopular. Chuck’s distinction of people confusing popularity with praise was an idea that hadn’t occurred to me, but I knew to be true. I was shocked that given all my pop culture aptitude this notion had not been originated by me. In other words: I was slightly disappointed in myself, but enchanted by the conversation just the same.

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    I thought about this underrated vs. unpopular debate for days. I considered it in multiple contexts, and realized that it best applies itself to television shows. If you google “shows canceled too soon” you will inevitably come up with oodles of lists from different magazines, TV critics etc. in which they categorize all the television shows that were critically acclaimed, but not receiving enough viewers for the networks to renew. The two shows that are the most recurring on these lists are: NBC’s “Freaks and Geeks”  and ABC’s “My So-Called Life,” both of which were canceled after one season. These shows are beloved, and have been noted as excellent family dramas by some of the most revered people in the Television Critics’ Association. So could one say that “Freaks and Geeks” and “My So-Called Life” are underrated? No, but people do, because they’re confusing it with unpopular. Network television is driven by how many people in certain demographics watch a show live when it airs. In recent years this has been altered to include people who watch it on DVR, but in the early 90s, they didn’t have that luxury. ABC and NBC knew from reviews, articles and interviews that both of these shows had the esteemed label of being “critically acclaimed,” but they couldn’t justify renewing these shows because the revenue from commercials and viewership wasn’t there. Essentially, something can be outstanding, but it’s popularity in mainstream culture affects its livelihood. This should not be news to anyone, but it’s still depressing, especially in the context of this discussion.

After considering all the justifications of something being underrated, my thoughts wandered to things being overrated. Can/do we define overrated as something very popular, but not worth it? Would the musical antonymic equivalent of “Freaks and Geeks” be Britney Spears’ “Oops, I Did It Again”? A song that debuted in 2000, and upon the music video’s arrival to YouTube in 2009, has since received 41 million views? No critic likes this song, and most people would argue that it’s annoyingly catchy. No one wants to like this song, and yet here it is, making oodles of money thirteen years later. Does it irk other people that overrated things receive much more attention? Am I over-thinking this, or do other people ponder these ideas as well? Do you agree with Chuck’s assertion that we, as a culture, confuse underrated and unpopular on a regular basis? Is it possible for pop culture to stop endorsing the overrated, or did America buy a one way ticket on that front?

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