Why We Make Lists

Welcome to Apollo, our review section’s new regular column. Named after the Greek god of the arts, this will be a space where we run comment and opinion on arts-related questions above and beyond our individual reviews. If you have an article for Apollo, please email reviews@woroni.com.au with your submission.

It takes no particular insight to recognise that modern popular culture is addicted to lists. By now there can be barely a topic that hasn’t been subjected to a “top ten greatest” feature by some publication or another. In the arts, while this phenomenon is pressingly evident in the spheres of film and gaming, it is with music that it has become truly inescapable. This is partly because music fandom, even more so than movie or game fandom, is overwhelmingly centred on the internet, where most people’s attention spans are assumed to be minimal. It also helps that December and January are the music industry’s graveyard months, when almost nothing significant gets a release; and so there’s nothing to distract you from the annual ritual of “Best Songs” and “Best Albums” from any and every site that you care to visit. Film lists aren’t so much obsessed over, because they’re inevitably overshadowed by the Oscars. As for books, well, who nowadays has the time to read enough new books in a year that such a list could be meaningful?

Ultimately, of course, none of these lists are meaningful. It’s a hopeless exercise in quantifying the unquantifiable. But they can be relied upon as fun conversation material, and they also reveal a lot about our attitudes and tastes, and how these vary between social groups. Looking at various people’s best album picks for 2012, for example, we see that Rolling Stone lived up to its stereotype as the bastion of old-fashioned rock music, by honouring Springsteen’s Wrecking Ball. British magazine NME led the indie sector in choosing Tame Impala’s Lonerism, which caters nicely to the typical alternative-leaning listener. A sound majority of mainstream-ish papers and websites agreed on Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange, which is an album that offers rich rewards to pretty much anyone. And Pitchfork, the online capital of elitism, predictably decided to go far left of field and lionise Kendrick Lamar’s Good Kid, m.A.A.d City – exactly the kind of admirable but not very enjoyable record that a small minority can feel themselves superior for liking.

That is a small sample, within one art form, of the way in which different lists reflect differing values and perspectives on what exactly qualifies as great, original or important cultural produce. When film critics make the traditional claim that Citizen Kane is the “greatest film ever made,” they are usually referring just as much to the influence it has had on subsequent filmmaking as to any inherent property of the film itself. Within this framework, greatness is effectively defined as being relative to the state of the art form at the moment of a given work’s appearance or publication. Citizen Kane was streets ahead of just about anything anybody had previously seen in 1941 – significantly more imaginative, more complex, and more entertaining. Thus it is remembered and recognised as a great film largely because the impact that it made on filmmaking was so massive. Of course, this does not change the fact that Citizen Kane is a genuinely awesome film (and if you have not seen it, you should get around to that). But we should recognise the irony that while we talk in the absolutist language of “greatest film ever made,” the criteria on which most of us base our selection of that greatest film are distinctly and explicitly relative.

Last year, the British Film Institute’s Sight and Sound magazine published the seventh edition of their extremely prestigious critics’ poll, which they run once every decade. For the first time since 1952, Citizen Kane was not the number one. Its place was taken by Hitchcock’s Vertigo, which is an immensely interesting and finely designed work of art, but which most of his fans will tell you is not his most satisfying film. It’s the kind of film you can enjoy thinking about and puzzling over for days, but how many people can honestly say they would rather watch it than watch Rear Window or Psycho? Nonetheless it’s good to see that even what was seemingly the most fixed of critical fixations has been shaken from its pedestal. The discussions we can have about exactly why Vertigo might be preferable to Citizen Kane will enhance our appreciation and understanding of both films. And that, in the end, is easily the most worthwhile thing that our obsession with listmaking can bring us.