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Wednesday, Oct 15, 2008


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It may seem a bit implausible that anyone would be reading PM (let alone this blog) while the presidential debate is going on, but on the off-chance that there is someone out there doing same, I thought I’d give a shot at live-blogging the debate. It sort of fits the Peripatetic Postcard theme, as I am on the other side of the world at the moment that Barack Obama and John McCain are squaring off. Tuning in thanks to the Internet—on MySpace. This is how we peripatetics get our political fixes.


Keeping with the PM theme, while this is a political event, I will try to keep it all focused on the popular cultural dimensions (as if I can ever keep the politics out of my life…)


Well, just started so here we go…


 



 


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Wednesday, Oct 15, 2008

Robert Reich makes an important point in this post. Most Americans’ failure to save is not because of extravagance and impulsiveness and greed for material goods, as tempting as that logic is. And the housing collapse and the credit crisis is not the fault of overreaching consumers. (Schadenfreude is always tempting; it feels good to think that people are getting what they deserve rather than being puppets of forces beyond their control.) The current downturn is not some kind of cosmic payback for being too preoccupied with blandishments of consumer culture.


The “living beyond our means” argument, with its thinly-veiled suggestion of moral terpitude, is technically correct. Over the last fifteen years, average household debt has soared to record levels, and the typical American family has taken on more of debt than it can safely manage. That became crystal clear when the housing bubble burst and home prices fell, eliminating easy home equity loans and refinancings.
But this story leaves out one very important fact. Since the year 2000, median family income has been dropping, adjusted for inflation. One of the main reasons the typical family has taken on more debt has been to maintain its living standards in the face of these declining real incomes.
It’s not as if the typical family suddenly went on a spending binge—- buying yachts and fancy cars and taking ocean cruises. No, the typical family just tried to keep going as it had before. But with real incomes dropping, and the costs of necessities like gas, heating oil, food, health insurance, and even college tuitions all soaring, the only way to keep going as before was to borrow more. You might see this as a moral failure, but I think it’s more accurate to view it as an ongoing struggle to stay afloat when the boat’s sinking.


Stagnating wages—and they will probably continue to stagnate, as David Leonhardt details here, prompted consumers to take on debt; it can’t entirely be blamed on Americans adopting a standard of living that was beyond them. One of the struggles, I think, about complaining about consumer culture is figuring out a way to argue that a transformation in spending habits is not tantamount to taking a step backward in terms of living standards. The voluntary simplicity movement, when it is forged with a sense of righteous snobbery, seems the most viable option right now.


Of course, with rapidly declining consumer spending pitching us toward a nasty recession, there will be calls for stimulus packages to increase consumer spending. And giving the money to consumers to spend immediately, rather than save for the long-term and improve their overall economic position, will only exacerbate consumerist ideology—the marketing and the advertising and the belief that owning more things is the good life and so on. This doesn’t mean we should fall into the neo-Hooverite trap Matthew Yglesias warns of —it means that falling aggregate demand should perhaps be countered not by increased spending by individual consumers but by government investment in projects that provide better life opportunities for us all.


Added: Ezra Klein linked to this Demos study, which used a survey of credit-card debtors to conclude, “Quite simply, what distinguishes low- and middle-income households with relatively high levels of credit card debt from those with lower levels of debt is chance and misfortune.”


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Tuesday, Oct 14, 2008
This seems as good a place as any to put a Gears of War 2 chainsaw battle pic.

This seems as good a place as any to put a
Gears of War 2 chainsaw battle pic.


Perhaps it seems a bit ridiculous to lament the embarrassment of riches we have in the next two months as far as video game releases go.  Looking at the release schedule right now, there are a ridiculous amount of great games that have either been released recently or will be in October and November. Here’s the murderer’s row of releases: Guitar Hero: World Tour, Rock Band 2, Fable 2, Left 4 Dead, The Last Remnant, Dead Space, Gears of War 2, LittleBigPlanet, Fallout 3, Far Cry 2, Resistance 2, Prince of Persia and Wii Music. I’m sure there are others I missed, but the bottom line is that this is arguably the best season ever for gaming.


Still, there are two major problems with this.
First of all, with so many triple-A titles coming out in such a short period of time, there are bound to be great titles that slip between the cracks. Last fall’s deluge of games like Mass Effect, The Orange Box, Halo 3, Bioshock, Super Mario Galaxy, Assassin’s Creed, and Call of Duty 4 meant that titles like Conan and Kane and Lynch were overshadowed and underrated. I know personally that I didn’t even get around to playing some of these games until this spring. Sure, Hollywood has their big summer blockbuster season in which a lot of the big budget movies are sandwiched between May and August, but the difference is that you can pay $10 to watch a Batman movie and be done with it in two hours. With games, there’s much more of a time and money investment.


Could something like Mirror's Edge get left behind?

Could something like Mirror’s Edge get left behind?


The second issue is that the big game release season is coming at a time when the economy is looking a little scary. Though we don’t know all the ramifications right now of the whole mess, it’s possible that unnecessary entertainment purchases like video games will suffer (Of course, an argument could be made that escapist entertainment will actually increase in popularity because people are trying to not think about the economy). In that case, with so many titles to pick from this holiday season and less money to buy them with, we could see some big budget titles disappoint and others go by the wayside.


I predict, though, that Rock Band, Guitar Hero, Gears of War 2 and anything Wii-related will do fine. It’s some of the other, lesser known games I’d be worried about.


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Tuesday, Oct 14, 2008

This Economist article updates the music business’s evolving relationship with the subscription model, in which users could have all the music they wanted indiscriminately, as long as they paid a regular fee. For a while it has seemed to me that such a model was inevitable, given the ease of digital distribution and the fact that music can no longer be played without being, in a sense, copied. But reading this article I started to wonder how it’s possible for record companies to compete with each other if all their goods are available for one lump sum. I suppose the intermediaries who run the subscription service would track which songs were acquired and pay the companies accordingly, or one would need to subscribe to each record companies library individually, in which case it would be easier to go on pirating.


But overall, does the existence of all-you-can-eat subscription services eliminate the record companies’ incentive to pick and choose the best music to try and sell? Can’t they overwhelm us with quantity rather than work for quality, since we end up getting it all anyway? It seems like the fruits of A&R efforts accrue to the artists themselves, who can leverage their brand better, rather than the companies themselves. I wonder if the record companies, recognizing the hopelessness of their moribund business, will effectively give up, become a cabal that collects residuals on its past accomplishments—just collect the steady income that can be had leasing the use rights to recorded music, 1900 to 2008.


Of course, someone will have to take over the promotional duties for pop music, otherwise it will cease to perform its function of uniting people in the excitement of hype and giving fresh and relevant-seeming expression to common and quotidian feelings. Not sure if individual bands will be up to it, given their tradition of fueling their fires by complaining about commercialism, though they will learn if they want to make money. But maybe if we are lucky, the world will revert to a culture of amateurism with regard to music.


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Tuesday, Oct 14, 2008

His book is the best of the lot, and so is his smile. Just look at Aravind Adiga. He’s the second youngest Man Booker Prize winner, so states the Guardian, but can we make him the first cutest? A happy man with a bright future who’s entirely unafraid to show some teeth—it’s that face that makes me want to go out and grab his book. That and his passion for his subject ... of course.


Adiga, who’s just 33, won the prize for his first novel The White Tiger, about an Indian cab driver who winds up a swindling businessman. Over at Untitled Books, Adiga fires up about his home country and the issues and injustices that led him to write the novel. Here’s a sample:


What is important for Adiga is that the stories are told. Having the advantages of education and financial security is merely ‘an extra obligation to write about people without those benefits’. Repeatedly described as angry by the press, he counters ‘there is a lot to be angry about.’ He returns again and again to the big questions of education, healthcare (hospitals are ‘mind-bogglingly bad’) and legal protection, and he has been accused of betraying his country by focusing on India’s corruption and problems. ‘I can’t see what could be more patriotic than making a passionate plea for the better treatment of two thirds of my countrymen,’ he retorts. His anxiety to protect his country is palpable and his great fear is that crime and social unrest will explode to South African proportions unless reforms are carried out.


The Mail Online has a great and detailed story about Adiga and his work. There’s a wonderful interview with the author on Book Browse, in which he discusses his influences, his career in journalism, and India’s difficult future.


And a basic Google Image search will get you more pictures of that smile.


The White Tiger is published by Free Press.


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