The Onion's Nathan Rabin

  • Share
  • Read Later

As head writer of the Onion's A.V. Club, Nathan Rabin is charged with both skewering pop culture and sanctifying it — and often does both in the same sentence. Rabin's book, The Big Rewind: A Memoir Brought to You by Pop Culture, released July 7, is a look back at his troubled childhood, which included bouts of depression and time spent in group homes after being abandoned by his parents. TIME talked to Rabin about his love of the rap game, how he got started at the A.V. Club and how pop culture emerged as his savior.

You have very eclectic taste. You write about Godard in one sentence and Dr. Dre's The Chronic in the next.
The first two pieces I ever wrote for the A.V. Club were reviews for the video section: Tromeo and Juliet, and Seconds by John Frankenheimer. Tromeo and Juliet was a good example of something that mashes up high culture and low culture in a deliberately provocative way, in that they implemented a fair amount of the actual Shakespeare and added a lot of sex with mutating cows. I think one of the reasons I started "My Year of Flops" was so that I could review Steven Soderbergh's remake of Solaris one week, and then write about The Real Cancun the next, and apply the same set of criteria and rigorous standards to both.

You write a lot about rap both at the Onion and in the book.
I really identified with hip-hop growing up. There was this incredibly pure anger, sort of free-floating rage towards everything and everyone. And growing up in a group home for emotionally disturbed adolescents, my God, we just inhabited that space. We were able to take the hip-hop tropes — hating authority, and hating the police — and use it for our own lives. It felt so empowering that you could come from nothing and become a god. Like all fantasies, it was an illusion. If you look at Death Row Records, everybody on that label was just viciously exploited. But it was such a beautiful lie.

Do you think you realized that at the time?
I think I sort of did and sort of didn't. One of the truest things ever said about hip-hop, I think, was by Busta Rhymes: "Rap is funny. If you don't get the humor, it's terrifying."

How did you get to be the chief M.C. of the A.V. Club?

Like so much of my life, it all happened in a very half-assed fashion. The A.V. Club didn't have a hip-hop reviewer, and I felt like I could do a passable job. When I started at the A.V. Club, I was not a good writer. I was a year and a half out of the group home. So I had to figure out ways to make myself indispensable. I would do things that were insane; I had a lot of chutzpah. I started a series called "Critical Beatdown," where I would ask people insulting questions. People really liked it, but it was discontinued because I just couldn't keep mustering up the courage to call up somebody and say: "You suck, and here's a list of reasons why you suck."

Siskel and Ebert play a large role in the book, and I see that Roger Ebert has endorsed it enthusiastically.
I think anybody who grows up a cinephile is going to be touched by Robert Ebert. I remember watching Siskel and Ebert as a kid in Chicago and going, "Oh my God, they've cracked the code. This has to be the single greatest existence in the world." In the first couple years I worked at the A.V. Club, I'd tell people that I was a critic. My family members would say, "Your cousin Lloyd wanted to be a film critic. Now he's a hot dog vendor at Wrigley Field." But then after a few years, my life kept having these strange parallels. I grew up in the same neighborhood as Siskel. I decided to go bald just like him. We went to the same elementary school.

I auditioned to be a guest host on Ebert and Roeper, and although I failed miserably, I sent him an e-mail saying I wrote this book, and you're featured prominently. And Ebert, God bless him, wrote a blurb for the book. I think his blurb is actually longer than the book itself.

You're 33. Why write a memoir now?

Growing up, I always thought, "Someday I will be able to turn decades and decades of personal pain into professional gain." I feel like I almost have to apologize for writing a book this young, but secretly, it's a serious book about depression. When I was younger, I read a lot of David Sedaris, and it made me feel like if this guy could go through all this crazy stuff and come out a great writer, then maybe I could too. So that was my goal: to be a less gay David Sedaris.