Call for Essays About Any Aspect of Popular Culture, Present or Past


Latest Posts

Bookmark and Share
Tuesday, Jul 11, 2006

The new documentary Who Killed the Electric Car? prompted this contemptuous response from TCS Daily, an online business journal sponsored in part by GM. It’s hard to argue with the facts here—batteries don’t allow cars to travel the range Americans expect or carry the load Americans occasionally carry, and the recharging time is prohibitive to a generation weaned on convenience. The writer, Ralph Kinney Bennett, explains, “I can drive my wife’s big Lexus 55 miles on two gallons (about 16 pounds) of gasoline that cost me six bucks. An electric car like the one featured here could travel the same distance by exhausting its 1000-pound battery pack (lead-acid, costing $2000) which would then have to be recharged. The recharging would take about four hours. I could replace the two gallons of gasoline in about 30 seconds, but I wouldn’t have to because my wife’s car can easily go another 450 highway cruising miles on a tank of gas.” But I don’t understand why he feels more threatened by organic grocery stores and people who don’t want to drive SUVs than he does by climate-driven catastrophe. His attitude is right out of the red-blue culture war handbook; it’s as though David Brooks was looking over his shoulder. He uses the classic libertarian argument that conservation inhibits personal freedom, and then he throws in the populist angle that no real Americans—the ones raising kids and building additions on their houses, and tailgating at NASCAR races, etc.—would regret a single carbon-spewing moment of their lives. He casts anyone who can’t relate to this as an effete snob and secret totalitarian zealot who resents other people’s ability to enjoy life.

These votaries of the EV religion get real heartburn when they see people barreling around in SUVs and pick up trucks that appear to be empty most of the time. They don’t seem to grasp the fact that millions of motorists do not see their cars as spare and ascetic tools to get them from point A to point B. Like it or not, American motorists see their cars as full of potentialities and possibilities, some of which may seldom or never be fulfilled.
Yes, some of them may only make short trips from their townhouse to the organic food store or that global warming seminar at the university. But many, many more of them will more likely pick up a load of drywall at Home Depot or take the guys to a football game with all the impedimenta for a tailgate party piled in the back. They will drive 300 or so miles searching for an antique or a quaint place to eat. They will revel in the freedom of the road and the ineffable ‘feel’ of a big sedan or a rugged truck.

I guess what sums the blinkered short-sightedness up for me is this statement: “Like it or not, American motorists see their cars as full of potentialities and possibilities, some of which may seldom or never be fulfilled.” Because some Americans need to consume their cars as dreams, as fantasies of the life they will never live, because they are so acclimated to living by proxy through inanimate objects and their ephemeral connotations, their grandchildren will likely get to enjoy a new ice age and half of Florida will be underwater. To the babies being born today, the Hummer driver says, “Screw you, my fantasy of being a quasi-militaristic macho man who is bigger than everyone else is far more important than your reality. I don’t care how many species die out forever. I want my big-car ‘feel’ ” The outside chance one might want to drive to Alaska and carry enough lumber to build a survival shack of one’s own, or the flimsy pretense that a big tanklike Escalade is somehow safer to drive, is far more important than social virtues like consideration, moderation and conservation. Social virtues? Who needs them when we can dream bigger, dream harder, dream more wastefully, trapped in the solitary pretend world of our own ad-driven imagination. Far better to live in puerile fantasy, and for that let’s thank the corporations who make our infantilism possible and plausible and justifiable to ourselves.

John Kenneth Galbraith, defending his much-derided theory of the producer’s sovereignty in the economy in “Economics as a System of Belief,” has some insight into what Bennett is up to here: “By emphasizing consumer sovereignty, economics makes itself a shield for the exercise of producer sovereignty by the automobile industry. For by making questions about too many automobiles an elitist and undemocratic interference with consumer choice, it effectively excludes questions about the power of the automobile industry to impose its preference. It gives scientific and moral sanction to social indifference.”

Billmon, mulling over Al Gore’s film about global warming, also explains Bennett’s cretinism well: “But if extinction, or a return to the dark ages, is indeed our fate – or our grandchildren’s fate, anyway – I think it will be a Hobson’s choice as to which cultural tendency will bear the largest share of the blame: the arrogant empiricism that has made human society into an instrument of technological progress instead of the other way around, the ignorant prejudices of the masses, who are happy to consume the material benefits of the Enlightenment but unwilling to assume intellectual responsibility for them, or the cynical nihilism of corporate and political elites who are willing to play upon the latter in order to perpetuate the former, which is, after all is said and done, their ultimate claim to power.”

Bennett is quick to protect the ignoble selfish dreams the SUV represents to its drivers, but he refuses to recognize the dreams and potentialities the electric car embodies for its devotees. Because that dream doesn’t line the pockets of his journal’s sponsors, apparently, it doesn’t really count. The only sanctioned dreams for consumer goods are the ones that further individual isolation and status competition—you can only dream about being better than someone else and rubbing their nose in your freedom.


Bookmark and Share
Tuesday, Jul 11, 2006
by PopMatters Staff

Cansei De Ser Sexy
“Let’s Make Love and Listen to Death from Above” [MP3]
“This Month Day Ten” [MP3]
multiple songs [MySpace]
video: “Meeting Paris Hilton” (live) [quicktime]
video: “Metal” [quicktime]

Cansei de Ser Sexy - Alala

Shapes and Sizes
“Islands Gone Bad” [MP3]
“Wilderness” [MP3]
PopMatters review: Shapes and Sizes

“Talk to Her” [MP3]

“Up with People” [MP3]

Art Brut
“Moving to LA” (live) [MP3]

Jason Molina
“Get Out Get Out Get Out” [MP3]

Bookmark and Share
Monday, Jul 10, 2006

Chris Anderson’s idea of the long tail—the flat asymptotic line on the far end of the power-law-distribution curve that represents everything that’s not a hit on a book publisher’s list or a record company’s back catalog—has received blanket coverage in the business press lately. Anderson argues that the Internet removes the storage and distribution costs that make it prohibitive to maintain a large inventory of items that appeals to a very select few people, and companies can now make a profit selling small numbers of a great stock of things, rather than millions of a limited stock. No esoteric taste will go unserved, nothing will fade into total neglect and disappear entirely from culture. The good folks at Tunes are just as happy to sell you Justin Timberlake’s new album track by track as they are to sell you songs by Fat Mattress and Fever Tree. And it doesn’t hurt Netflix much to stock every documentary available on DVD even if some of them rent only once a year. Thus no one will be forced to consume entertainment hits, and non-conformists will be able to satisfy their taste for unpopular things much easier. Of course, for many of those people, the thrill of the hunt was a large part of the reason they became fascinated with obscurities. It wasn’t so much that Lazy Smoke’s album of John Lennon-inspired inanity was any good; it was more that it was so hard to actually find someone who had a copy and would let you hear it. The rarity of the physical object once lent fascination to otherwise mediocre relics. Long-tail marketing (which makes copies of ultra rare stuff available immediately to whoever hears of it—which itself is easier through search engines and the Internet’s harvest of links and filters) ultimately will destroy the significance of the content of collector’s items; make them more like baseball cards or beanie babies—objects with no relevant use value. As bigger companies begin to market to the niches, the small players who used to service that market—little record stores and book stores and antique stores and so on; Dave Hickey’s cherished cultural underground—will be squeezed.

Paradoxically, the vastly increased access to underground cultural goods may make the cultural underground itself disappear altogether, since people will need no longer such stores to buy these things, stores that also served as places to congregate and swap interests and develop networks that fostered the emotional support required to resist the mainstream. The Internet makes such resistance easy and trivial. It also isolates you in your rejection rather than unite you with like-minded malcontents. So rather than find an alternate society where people are more discriminating and demand more and bring more intellect and passion to the things that inspire and entertain them, you end up alone in front of your computer, gorging on loads of esoteric information suddenly made meaningless. You can turn around a blog about the cool, rare things you’ve discovered (obviously no longer an arduous process but a matter of a few idle clicks and maybe an ingenious search or two), but everyone else who might have been interested will be so busy writing their own blogs that they will never see yours. So the ubiquity of long-tail ephemera may disintegrate the fragile sense of community that once unified the resistance to hegemonic culture, and drive more people to the mainstream hits, as they long to participate in the few remaining chances to belong to something.

The shared culture, for better or worse, may not even include ads anymore, as they no longer blanket a population but are instead increasingly targeted to appropriately receptive audiences with surgical precision. (Funny how we use the same language for advertising and bombing—companies at war with their consumers). An Economist survey notes that advertising itself benefits from long-tail logistics—every niche can have its own ad tailored to it—there are as many web pages available as there are angles one can come up with to sell whatever product to whatever customer. These ads cost next to nothing to maintain, and will cost little to generate once the ad can be mechanically made in response to the specific context that evokes it. Ads thus become less obtrusive and more useful to the individual who recieves them, who feels more than ever that the ads are calling out to him specifically, acknowledging his uniqueness, making him aware of his ineffable individuality. MySpace profiles, etc. are really tailormade for this—what you do when you define yourself publically on one of these sites, you allow advertisers to craft ads precisely pertinient to your needs, your vulnerabilities. You become your own niche of one. The perfectly targeted ads won’t even seem like ads anymore; it will seem like just-in-time information for the consumer. Conceivably, as one’s “online presence” becomes more integrated, the more things one does online,  and the more well-defined and singular that niche of one will become. Some will be attracted by this, as it will seem to provide verifiable proof of one’s individuality—one can measure just how unique one is by seeing the niche develop—you’ll see the trail you leave grow richer with you-specific data. But this also means the ads directed toward you will become much more sophisticated, much harder to resist; you’ll increasingly paint yourself into a corner with your own preferences until you are sealed in by them.

But with perfectly targetable near costfree ads (they will be priced into the product directly rather than indirectly), everything will be marketed—ad budgets won’t be restricted to hit products; everything can have its ad. So one won’t be able to escape the sense that everything he wants has already been sold to him, that no desires originate from inside (if that’s not already true). The illusion that you have resisted marketing by buying this instead of that will become even more untenable. Maybe this will end up pushing people out of the market for individuality and into the realm of actual activity. Once anyone can be a niche of one and be found out by the advertising world—once there can be no illusions of “authentic shopping” —we’ll have to earn our sense of uniqueness by doing things rather than being a target for the sale of things. In his book, as The Economist notes in its review, Anderson suggests that the very end of the long tail will be made up of amateurs exchanging their self-made works outside of the monetary economy. If that world could be sealed off from the infiltration of ads, it may become the last refuge of authenticity.

Bookmark and Share
Friday, Jul 7, 2006

The Consumerist has a link to this site, PayPerPost, which hopes to match companies with bloggers willing to shill for them for cash—without anyone else needing to knowing about this arrangement, of course. (Media columnist Jon Fine wrote about this site in the July 10 BusinessWeek too.) God bless the Internet. How else would the people with no integrity be able to find each other? “You’ve been writing about Web sites, products, services and companies you love for years and you have yet to benefit from all the sales and traffic you have helped generate. That’s about to change.” Hell, why should professional editors at lifestyle magazines hoard all the benefits of belching out disguised advertorial copy? Everyone should be able to dirty their hands in the corporate slush pile. Perhaps people will be able to leverage their MySpace friend lists into earning better rates for doing a little word-of-mouth for whatever product needs pimping. “Hey friendz, just want 2 let u know this Raid roach spray is 2 die 4!!!!” According to the site advertisers should take advantage of money-hungry bloggers “to create buzz, build traffic, gain link backs for search engine ranking, syndicate content and much more.” The image of bloggers on the site is worth a click-through—a bunch of attractive young people hanging out,  with a line pointing to one girl that reads “She wants to make money.” (It’s a glamorous life, blogging.) She’s looking into the camera with an expression that seems to say, “Duh, can’t you see I’ve got these chumps right where you want them?”

Maybe the new generation of young self-exploiters really does think of friends as nothing more than a marketable commodity, a deliverable demographic, but the whole premise behind this scheme seems off. I think most people don’t want to turn their friends into bargaining chips. It’s not as though people are out there writing screeds about their favorite TV shows or laundry detergents on spec, waiting for Madison Avenue to discover them and start paying them for their efforts. Promoting something one sincerely enjoys can feel like a gift one’s giving to whoever will listen. You do it because having people finding out about something that’s good is its own reward; you can believe (perhaps erroneously, but still sincerely) that you are making the world a better place by letting them know which stain removers have really worked for you. If there is any calculation about it, it’s that the advice is a kind of currency exchanged in building up friendships, in building up trust. Introduce a cash incentive, and you invalidate this other currency. After all, the only reason what you might say about consumer goods would mean anything to anyone is that they know you are not getting paid to say it; and if people find out you’re taking money to offer advice, they won’t take that advice as sign of your good intentions and friendship (no matter how much you really mean it) but as an indication that you are eager to exploit your connections and that you have little use for people otherwise. It would be like selling a friend’s contact information to direct marketers and timeshare brokers.

To say something because we actually feel it is becoming harder, ever more rare and valuable as ads infiltrate more and more of the available public space. People, I think, cherish the oppotunity to have non-commercial exchanges more and more as ads become more and more invasive. In a consumer society some of this conversation will be about shopping, and products, but that doesn’t mean we want to commercialize it. This lack of sincere discourse in society makes our earnest exposition of our preferences even more sacrosanct, even on blogs, which are ostensibly public domain but in most cases are a way of making a social group tangible, of carving out a space for a friend group to exist. Who would want to sully that space, make it just another place for sale, like the side of a bus shelter or a diner place mat? Because friendships are occurring in the seemingly manageable and controllable and numerically measurable space of Internet, companies are tempted to commercialize the entire process, make friendship a brandable product. This scheme is a small part of that larger cultural effort to let no refuge from the rationale of entrepreneurship and mutual exploitation for profit stand. The message: Why have friends if they don’t help you earn anything? Have friends through whatever Internet-driven system you want to name and get paid for being friendly! The point is that you are always ever out for yourself, even in friendship, and this is how it should be—it’s what provides “happiness” and “freedom.” This is what happens when unfettered individuality as a moral value is turned into an advertiser’s hook.



Bookmark and Share
Friday, Jul 7, 2006
by PopMatters Staff

Thom Yorke
The Eraser full album [streaming]
PopMatters review: The Eraser
PopMatters feature: Into the Cupboard: Thom Yorke Goes Solo

Thom Yorke - The Eraser Interview

Senor Coconut and His Orchestra
“Behind the Mask” [MP3]

“Straight Is the Gate” [MP3]

Leeroy Stagger
“Beautiful House” [MP3]

“Baltimore” [MP3]

Joan of Arc
“You (Single)” [MP3]

“Commuter Etiquette” [MP3]

Now on PopMatters
PM Picks

© 1999-2014 All rights reserved.™ and PopMatters™ are trademarks
of PopMatters Media, Inc.

PopMatters is wholly independently owned and operated.