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

 
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Sunday, Aug 14, 2005

If there’s one thing sure to ruin my lazy Sunday equipoise, it’s the Sunday Styles section of The New York Times. With the status-mongering wedding announcements, the spot-the-trend pieces, the ultra-shallow Modern Love column about the love foibles of the terminally narcissistic, the photo collage of lame fashion styles that the lemmings have all adopted, it’s a concertrated compendium of all the things that are lousy about living in New York; all that’s missing is the pungent smell of summer garbage.


It isn’t enough for it to ruin New York, now it’s trying to ruin Philadelphia, too, by claiming it as “The next borough” of New York, the new destination for hipsters now that they’ve started to get priced out of Brooklyn. (Thank God they’re not coming to Queens.)  On the front page of the Sunday Styles today is a picture of more or less central-casting hipsterfolk who make my entire life feel like a cliche. They have all moved to Philadelphia to liberate themselves from high rents to concentrate more on their dream lifestyles—producing more art or starting their own businesses doing what they used to do for someone else in New York.  Personally, I love Philadelphia; it’s the city closest to where I grew up, I lived there for a few years in the 1990s, and I know lots of homeowners there now—people who could be lumped in with the Sunday Styles profilees. But what made it a great place was its skepticism for the kind of self-conscious hipsterism that ex-pat Williamsburgers will likely bring, the smug sense of the righteousness of their avant lifestyles. These people will turn the elements of old-style Phila into kitsch while teaching the current inhabitants how to take themselves too seriously. Anything hyped as “edgy and creative” would have been laughed out of town in the old days; it would have made people paranoid, if nothing else. All such designations do is raise the level of expectation people feel obliged to keep up with. This infiltration of T-shirted post-Brooklynites undermines what fragile core of identity Philadelphia once had by raising the standard of comparison to what is au courant in New York. As many studies of consumption from Duesenberry on up point out, the comparisons we make with those we consider to be our average peers are the ones that determine how content we are with what we are consuming—the New Yorkers bring with them a higher standard that makes what Philadelphians have long been content with seem lame. As everyone adapts, the regional flavor will disappear, and my childhood memories will continue to vanish into trendy restaurants and condo buildings. That’s progress.


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Friday, Aug 12, 2005

Like cargo pants and Dickies and running shoes and a host of other forms of apparel, aprons began with a humble function, to help organize tools and protect the clothes underneath for someone working in a kitchen. But an article in today’s Wall Street Journal reports that they are now fashionable for their own sake, ordered and worn by women who have no intention of cooking at all. Here’s a choice quote from an nouveau apron wearer (beware if you are easily nauseated): “I wear them almost every night. They’re sexy. I wear them to the mailbox and people honk at me.” The photo with the piece presumably intends to illustrate the sexiness of aprons; current models have Gucci-style colors and swirl patterns, and are cut to form-fit around the waist and “show off curves.” The reporter purports that these “represent women’s new embrace of domesticity on their own terms, combining practicality and sex appeal.” That sounds like straight out of a PR release blather to me. But it’s a creepy statement, especially the more you think about its assumptions. What, exactly, is “new” about this domesticity to make it on a woman’s “own terms”? The servile sexuality? The constricting design? The trendiness? The bringing of fashion-oriented self-consciousness, the need to conform and be hip, into the most intimate and pragmatic of spaces? It seems as though women are supposed to feel gratified that they can compensate for the circumscribed world of domestic life by sexualizing it. Some compensation. That making yourself beautiful is somehow something you do for yourself is one of the ripest pieces of ideology going. Nothing about styling yourself as a hypersexualized servant seems to be on a woman’s terms; it seems to have everything to do with accomodating oneself to a man’s terms, to his particular fanatsies. The apron, as Joyce Cheney, an apron collector (is there anything uncollected?) argues in the article, can be mark of professionalism for the career homemaker, dignifying her role with a uniform. But uniforms denote one’s being subject to disciplinary control as much as they signify dignity; it’s this aspect of the apron that makes it, with slight modification, into part of the fetish wardrobe. Sexy aprons are ultimately about sexual fantasy, about games of dominance and submission whose voluntary nature doesn’t make who adopts the roles become arbitrary.


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Thursday, Aug 11, 2005

It would seem self-evident that the point of reviewing pop music is to provide some description of what the music sounds like. But frequently what you get is a sense of how important the reviewer thinks he is—his subjective impressions conveyed through his pet adjectives (“a thoroughly funky beat”), his expansive range of musical reference (“it’s definitely Krautrock influenced, but less Faust-like and more like Amon Dߟl before they went space-prog”), or his nimble way with a tightly-coiled phrase (“measuring his words and notes out in half-teaspoons, masking cruelly honed existential witticisms with a vicar’s calm.”) Given a constricting enough word count, music criticism approaches hypercompressed poetry, imagistic and impressionistic with no hint of argumentative reasoning or of the criteria being used to draw conclusions. These would be bad things if readers actually wanted to know what music sounded like, but most people already believe that words can’t do music justice. So despite what some readers will say, they don’t care if they get a sense of what music sounds like from a piece of criticism. If they are looking to buy something, they want the reviewer to make them feel like they will become cooler, will belong to a more elite or more fun-loving group, by buying it. The reviewer’s job is to perform coolness, to make his prose redolent with a sense of hip knowingness. That is why inferences and asides and in jokes (the things that set up the exclusionary boundaries of cliques) are de rigeur in pop criticism, and deliberative logic and justification are exceedingly rare. A description must first be snappy and cool-sounding—startling, surprising, allusive in a neat way. If it happens to be accurate to the music, well, that’s a nice bonus, but more or less irrelevant. This is why the criteria for pop music critics isn’t necessarily an understanding of music, which you would think is the fundamental prerequisite. But it’s not; the fundamental prerequisite is an unflaggingly self-confident sense of one’s own taste being cool, a snobbish certainty that anyone who can’t relate doesn’t deserve to sit at one’s lunch table in the high-school cafeteria of life. Pop criticism’s main function is to make us feel like we belong, and just as important, that other people don’t.


We read music reviews because we require a social context to enjoy pop music—it is not often enjoyed for its own sake but for the sense of belonging it fosters. Ordinarily we get context from the people we spend time with, our tastes are in dialogue with theirs and it points the way to what we listen to and what we get out of it. In the absence of that, we buttress that context by reading reviews, preferably by someone who seems like a person we would want to hang out with. (Editors sometimes look for what voters allegedly look for, someone who sounds like he would be cool to have a beer with.) Reviews in lifestyle magazines are not meant to be informative; they are meant to make you feel like you are hanging out. I sometimes find myself reading reviews of albums I already own; it’s not because I want to be told what to think about them (though that is part of it) and it’s certainly not because I need to know what they sound like. It’s just that I’m starved sometimes for a meaningful conversation about the culture that adorns my life. (Culture in general serves to generate conversations that link people together, be it one to one or an entire folk.) Reading reviews is one way to try to assuage that hunger. Writing reviews for amazon.com is another. And writing a blog, too.


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Wednesday, Aug 10, 2005

The Wall Street Journal reported yesterday on a device that is just rich with metaphoric potential, the Transcend II gastric stimulator, a device surgically impanted in an obese person’s stomach that zaps a person’s stomach nerves with electrical currents to make a person feel as though he is full. This device points the way toward the ultimate consumer good, the one which you consume to not consume. This would leave no way out of the consumer system; you have to consume to maintain the illusion that you’re not, even to yourself.


What the Transcend II epitomizes is the way overconsumption has become medicalized—it is viewed as a kind of disease that a person can’t help, similar to when compulsive shopping is viewed as an addiction akin to alcoholism. Consumption is moved out of the realm of rational decision-making and is seen as a pathology. Presumably you “Transcend” the rational mind by putting this thing into your stomach. Be that as it may, there’s an irony in regarding consumption as irrational, as uncontrollable, since economists have tended to view it as the necessary arena for exhibiting perfect rationality, the means by which one demonstrates the inherent ability to maximize utility.


One of the problems with the Transcend II is truly ominous: It may not work in some because, as a surgeon notes, “We have many people who don’t listen to the signals of fullness.” What that suggests is that the combined pressures of the ad industry and the social conpulsion to consume drive people to ignore the biological triggers of their own body—ads can make you reject your own nervous system in favor of their blandishments. Madison Avenue must be so proud, but really this is nothing new; they have been getting us to reject the signals from our brains for a long time.


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Tuesday, Aug 9, 2005

Because the neighborhood I live in is predominantly Greek, the local grocery stores typically carry some Hellenic specialty items: the deli case will be stocked with different feta cheeses, the olive-oil section takes up half an aisle, there’s a shelf of thyme honey from Crete and a shelf of paximadi and flat bread, and in the health and beauty products row, alongside the Dial and the Dove and the Ivory are a few different brands of olive-oil soap. I’m partial to Abea rather than Oliva, which bills itself as “aromatic” (which probably translates to “it’s chemical-smelling odor will eventually give you a headache”). In general, I like olive-oil soap because it’s hard (it won’t melt in a wet soap dish) and it’s mild (you can wash your hair with it everyday if you wanted) and because it’s deep, earthy green is one of my favorite colors.


But my real interest in it may be assimilation. My use of it deludes me into thinking I’ve shed some layer of ethnocentricity and American provinciality and embraced some larger transnational identity. I think I’m adopting some integral piece of Greekness, and thereby making my presence in a Greek neighborhood less anomalous and offensive. I semi-consciously believe I am at once transcending the ethnicity they cling to in one magnanimous gesture; they must inevitably remain Greek, while I can pick and choose like a cultural magpie, cobbling bits from different traditions to make something unique to me and altogether cosmopolitan. Of course, in believing that, I’m a fool. The only reason I think that is because as an American I basically have no traditional ways of my own, no ethnic identity that’s visible to me (no matter how blatant it must be to others). Is this because the bland denatured suburban upbringing I underwent seemed so generic and featureless? It may be the only American tradition is just this: buying products to attain an identity of some sort. Consumer goods lose what ethnic significance they have once detached from a deep-seated, lived tradition and become just another interchangeable sign, no different from the flood of other products saturating the American marketplace. In fact, when I use olive-oil soap, I am robbing it of whatever meaning it has for my neighbors, and acquire none of its Greek meaning for myself. And at the same time I contribute to the way America reduces ethnic groups to the products they can bring to market—the way a people become to other Americans, for all intents and purposes, their nation’s cuisine. Everything I know about Ethiopian culture, for instance, I have learned from the menu and place mats I’ve read in Ethiopian restaurants. If I really wanted to participate in Greek culture, I’d have to actually talk to my neighbors and hang out in the cafes with them, I’d have to risk a bit more than simply daring to use their soap in my shower. I’d have to offer more than my dollar in the supermarket.


An unrelated point: I used to make my own olive-oil soap from scratch, which was enormously satisfying but inefficient, akin to making one’s own bread. Soap is the perfect example of something that economies of scale makes perfect for industrial manufacture and insane for making at home. You pay much more for the ingredients to make soap then you ever would for soap itself, and the homemade soap will never really be as good as the mass-produced bars unless you dupe yourself with the ideology of artisanship. (If it has been made by an individual craftsman, a person who I could meet, the product is as unique and special as I am!) The joy of making soap has to come from the making of it, not in the using it or the thrift of it. In a way, it’s more fun to make it once you are aware of how impractical it is. It as though you are thumbing your nose even more at the technological rationality that rules society. (Adorno would be proud.) And not only is it irrational, but the lye involved makes it dangerous as well, so it has daredevil appeal. It’s Xtreme. Next, I might start trying to make my own Mountain Dew.


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