It’s probably one of the most tiring and old debates in a variety of areas. Music, literature, sports, art, history. We are always asking who the greatest of all time is (Who is the GOAT?). Where I land on the debate is that really there is no greatest ever at anything. There are far too many subjective elements involved in deciding and bestowing such a title. Where I can say I am rather opinionated though is in the area of people overemphasizing cultural/historical impact and not actually considering the actual quality of a certain individuals body of work as much as they should. I believe there are certain talents or great minds that came along with a perfect storm of cultural events that lend to an inflated and distorted view of how great they actually were. I could drop a few names and I’m almost positive people would think me blasphemous. And that’s probably why the debate is so frustrating and ultimately not that interesting, because people are somewhat delusional or biased when it comes to the formation of their opinion. An opinion which they will often give as fact.
We get in a frenzy when a decade comes to an end, or even a century, and major publications create lists of “most influential”, “greatest album of…”, “best athletes”, and so forth. Unfortunately people take certain media entities so seriously that these lists often shape the discourse going into the future and if you make your own list or someone else does further down the line, you almost feel like you have to reference or use a Rolling Stone, Time Magazine, or New York Times something or other to be sure you don’t leave anything out. But in that case, the debate seems a bit tainted. I myself have used these references to refresh my memory on things I may have forgotten, but to what degree are we missing something and just piggy backing off of what we were told to consider great. And I believe as time goes on this becomes more and more problematic, particularly when looking back at pre-internet culture where almost certainly our perceptions are shaped by a considerable amount of revisionist history.
This could lead me into discussing our obsession with creating heroes and the need to place them on pedestals, but this is a much heavier issue. To keep it a tad lighter, I think a good microcosm of the human obsession for bestowing greatness to individuals can be seen in Hip Hop and Basketball. I don’t think there is anywhere else that the debate is rehashed more. Ego plays such a huge part in the culture and it’s rare to go a month, let alone a year, before some new kind of argument is being raised about who the best rappers and basketball players are. It can be a lot of fun but the rhetoric and bloviation is often outrageous and fallacious.
Certain purists are so wrapped up in memories of a golden age that existed in their youth they will often ignore a new golden age happening right in front of them. There is a desire to downplay the new and remember the “good old days”. As basketball and rap personalities have become more mainstream, people complain how it’s just not “street” enough anymore. People complain about hip hop being emasculated and hoop stars are now softy prima donnas that travel to much and the bad boy Pistons could teach them a real good lesson.
But ask some of these people who the GOAT is in these respective areas and often the names given are the reason the art forms have been completely altered. The heroes of a culture are often the destroyers. Dr Dre gave you Eminem…rap was never the same. Jay-Z, once a street king and many peoples GOAT, is the harbinger of corporatized hip hop music and his protege Kanye West has created the link to things purists likely abhor (high fashion, visual arts, Kardashians, consumerism, sensitivity and self consciousness). Michael Jordan is largely the reason basketball has become a global phenomenon and is why big personalities are what is marketed heavily in the NBA. But people complain ad nauseum about cocky Kobe, disloyal Lebron, etc. We are in a such an incessant search for who the new greats are that we prematurely crown an Allen Iverson, Gilbert Arenas, and a Vince Carter only to see them sputter out; in terms of rap we have Lil’ Wayne, The Game, and 50 Cent, among others. So some of us contemplate who the new greats are but are easily not impressed because it always seems like they can never live up to how awesome someone or something was when we were younger.
I think a few lessons can be learned from acknowledging humans love of lionization. First, when we see it present in areas such as art and sport in a less contentious manner we can, discuss the delusional elements of declaring greats. Then we can guard against it in arenas where it might be more problematic (politics, media, science, academia). Secondly, we can reexamine history. Not that I think we should destroy our idols, but maybe we should destroy our idols. I think we would be better off with an appropriately humanized perception of the people who changed the world. A disparaging term like “overrated” can be changed to “they were human like everyone else”. And lastly, by knowing better who these people were, we can be more willing to acknowledge greatness in ourselves and other people living today instead of overemphasizing the past.
Music listened to while writing this: Bjork
Last Movie Watched: Oblivion….definitely a pass
People on GOAT watch: Kendrick Lamar, Steph Curry (barring injury issues), Ryan Gosling, Louis C.K., George R.R. Martin, Kathryn Bigelow, Tina Fey, Arcade Fire, Mastodon
Prematurely being or been called GOAT’s/Misplaced GOAT worship: Lena Dunham, M. Night Shyamalan, Stefan Molyneux, Malcolm Gladwell, Glenn Beck
GOAT’s we don’t like to call GOAT’s: James Cameron, Richard Dawkins, Mark Zuckerberg
GOAT meltdowns: Alex Rodriguez, George Lucas, Johnny Depp
Names I’m purposefully ignoring for GOAT categories: Political figures/World leaders
Note: there are certainly more names that could go in these GOAT categories, if I’ve made egregious oversights please mention them in the comments
Overdue Music Discovery: Spoon (Divine Fits is to thank for that)
Current Gripes: Edited rap music on Spotify, articles that begin with “in defense of” and go on defending unpopular/indefensible things because that’s the trendy to do, or articles that say “why you should be doing this NOW!”, and moral outrage that oversimplifies the complicated and affords too much significance to trivial things.