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Monday, Aug 8, 2005

If you were born after 1971, you probably don’t care about this, but oldies stations are disappearing. This is, of course, inevitable, as what constitutes an “oldie” must evolve with the passing of time. When I was a little kid, the oldies station in Philadelphia was EZ-101, which played the music that was, by the time I had become a teenager, banished to AM 950, the “Station of the Stars”—Frank, Dean, Ella, Glenn Miller, Johnny Mathis, Paul Anka, etc. You’d be hard pressed to find this stuff anywhere on a radio today.


What I think of as “oldies” is the pop music from the 1960s and very early 1970s, up until FM killed the AM top-40 format. I was a nincompoop as far as pop music went until I mastered the oldies repertoire; I knew nothing beyond the music I listened to in high school—from the 60s I barely knew anything beyond the Beatles. But in college I worked/lived in a diner where they piped in a Central Pennsylvania oldies station, and my tastes underwent a revolution as I became acquainted with the source material for the 80s music I was into. When I moved West, my knowledge base expanded, on long drives across the desert back and forth from Tucson to Las Vegas, as I tuned into stations out of Phoenix, Kingman, Laughlin and Vegas. Oldies stations have regional biases, even though regional scenes (a staple of 1960s pop) have entirely disappeared in the wake of cable television and the development of a more centrally controlled culture industry. The regional biases of oldies stations had nothing to do with where the music originally came from, it apparently had something to do with the population in regions now. In Philadelphia, oldies stations are dominated by Motown. In Central Pennsylvania it became more obscure, more garagey—you’d hear left field tracks by The Bubble Puppy mixed in with the Byrds and the Lovin’ Spoonful. In the Midwest, on cross-country trips, I would hear Gary Puckett and the Union Gap, Paul Revere and the Raiders, Gary Lewis and the Playboys.  In the West I heard Johnny Rivers, the Buckinghams, the Five Americans, Gallery.


Anyway, that’s all disappearing. In New York, CBS-FM, the longstanding oldies station here, switched to an idiotic format called “Jack,” in which a robot Max-Headroom voice introduces random songs and makes irritating cracks. The whole point of the format seems to be to annoy you, which is odd, because I thought people generally didn’t like to be annoyed. The other ingenious concept is that they play “trainwreck” segues of songs from different decades and different genres, Dan Fogelburg into Grand Funk Railroad into Teena Marie. This is supposed to be really great because it simulates that effect achieved on the iPod of someone with indiscriminate tastes. American culture is so fascinated by iPods that they seem to forget how mundane many of its features really are. We seem to want a new hyperdesigny, ultraindividualistic, superrandom culture based on the promise implicit in the iPod. What astounds me about this is that radio programmers act like the technology for this kind of shuffle play just came into existence with the iPod when in fact it has been around for a very long time: It is called a radio dial. When I turn mine I get a crazy “trainwreck” of Kelly Clarkson into some badass merengue breakdown on one of the Latin stations. Neato!


Why people would think this is a good thing puzzles me. Diversity is great, but that doesn’t make total randomness desirable. Randomness seems like a radical strategy to thwart real diversity, to hollow out the notion of all its meaning. Randomness simulates diversity while exploding the idea that any culture could have any pertinent qualities that are specific to it. It’s all just another song, another cool, unpredictable trainwreck.


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Monday, Aug 8, 2005

The way passionate love is sold in novels and films and pop music has a lot in common with the way shopping is celebrated by the more narratively inclined forms of advertising. I used to think about this alot when I read 18th century novels as a graduate student, tracing the connections between a nascent consumer-goods-advertising industry and the organization of one of the first national culture industries in England, the book-selling business. Not only did early advertising appear in front and backs of novels published then, but they frequently borrowed rhetorical strategies and tropes from the novels, which were fixated on ill-fated love. Why the connection? Once a society shifts to a capitalist consumer culture, consumption becomes a matter not of satisfying wants but of maximizing profits inherent in branded goods. A branded good derives its value from an implicit story about the brand; its value is literally a matter of well chosen words. (This is why branding experts are paid thousands of dollars to name deodorants and fruit punches and the like.) At the same time, as goods become more widely available, they become a means of self-definition, so that we consume them not for their inherent usefulness but for what they can communicate about ourselves to others. So acquiring the right goods becomes a way of showing the world who we are, and ultimately, of revealing to ourselves who we want to be. Consumption becomes a kind of quest for identity, for fulfillment on a much different level than keeping one’s belly from grumbling. In this way, it mirrors what the myth of romantic love. Romantic love often appears as a quest for a soul mate who will complete us, who will allow us to become who we truly are. A lover is presumed to complete us the way we expect goods to also complete us; the two often end up competing for that role as we balance our private obsessions and collections and compulsions with attempts to integrate a partner into our lives. A lover can seem like a possession (trophy spouses) and possessions can become like lovers as both are carefully honed to make for the best display of how one sees oneself.


But viewed through Denis de Rougemont’s assessment of the myth of romantic love in Love and the Western World, one can see another similarity. Rougemont argues that the essence of passionate love, as it’s delineated in the West, is its self-created obstructions. One loves not the beloved but the idea of being in love itself, and all the obstacles that prolong that feeling. He quotes a piquant passage from Chretien de Troyes to illustrate: “My ill is what I want, and my suffering is my health…it is my willing that becomes my ill; but I am so pleased to want thus that I suffer agreeably, and have so much joy in my pain that I am sick with delight.” Such desire seems comparable to the desire advertisers seek to instigate, the pleasure of wanting that is never sufficiently satisfied by the pleasure of having. Sociologist Colin Campbell argues that the “spirit of consumer capitalism” turns on just this dynamic, on daydreams inspired by wanting goods that are inevitably disappointed by ownership. That disappointment returns us to the market to daydream about some new goods, to buy some other ultimately disappointing thing, and thus we keep the industrial growth machine moving. So the twin myths of love and shopping work symbiotically to promote a mutual ethos: It is more pleasant to want than to have, that love and shopping are fun for their own sake independent of the relationships they achieve, that disappointment is actually more satisfying than satisfaction, that daydreams are always better than real-life activity. When we live in daydreams, shopping can work as an acceptable proxy for actually doing things. Not getting your money’s worth, viewed in the glow of thwarted romantic passion, becomes glamorized as a kind of romantic disappointment, just another necessary intermediate stage on the quest for the ideal, for that moment (that only comes with death, de Rougemont argues) when you truly feel like you have it all, that your collections are all complete and you are truly, finally loved.


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Friday, Aug 5, 2005

Welcome to the new location of the blog I’ve been writing at http://marginal-utility.blogspot.com. You can expect to find what will hopefully be daily comment on various aspects of consumerism. Lately I’ve been letting what The Wall Street Journal reports on set my agenda, but my subscription has run out, so I may be left to my own devices. That is, if the paper ever stops coming to my apartment. Despite having allegedly run out last week, it’s still there on my doorstep when I leave in the morning. Presumably this is because the Journal‘s subscription service expects my renewal form any minute now, and it doesn’t want to inconvenience me with any interruption in service. The nice people at the Journal wouldn’t want me to miss out on any Forex reports or any breaking news in the credit markets or the latest from the courtroom in the never-ending “Executives on Trial” column. Maybe I’m supposed to feel guilty or be so impressed by the paper’s magnaminity, by its faith in me as a reader, that I finally break out my checkbook and do the inevitable. But I’m currently hewing to a run-out-the-clock strategy, daring them, as it were, to stop delivering it.


Not that the entreaties to renew haven’t been entertaining. They’ve come disguised as surveys. They’ve tried to be pleasant in e-mails, and stern in very official-looking letters, and they’ve tried to bribe me by reminding me how I can deduct my subscription as a business expense, providing receipts prepared in advance for my tax records. Their pleas often revolve around how much more powerful I’ll be then the poor saps who don’t read the Journal—it’s all very pragmatic, no sense that anyone would be stupid enough to read it just to remain informed, for the sake of it. Of course, the plan is to make money, to dominate, to weaponize information and use it to smite one’s financial enemies. This is one of the lessons for which I am most grateful to the paper: that information is always leverage, and if you haven’t sensed the profit angle inherent in a piece of data, then you don’t really know it. You don’t even have to read the noxious opinion page to feel like yo uare seeing through the dead eyes of capital itself as you read the B and C sections. It is, as they like to say, “Capitalism’s user’s manual” and indeed, it shows you how to become capital’s instrument, to think with its cold, dead brain, reinforcing the stultifying manner of corporate thinking required to manage a capitalist system; it encourages you to think in the reductive “rational” thought processes presumed by neo-classical economists. The utter lack of sympathy with consumers, who are routinely rhetorically evoked as wily enemies if not fickle children, is palpable and instructive. So maybe I should be insulted that the renewal service tries those same tricks on me to sell me the very paper that tries hard to convince me to view such things from a lofty height, to make me feel immune to them. In the slew of flattering advertising and pandering pleas for your money, (well dissected in the semi-regular Advertising report in section B) it can be easy to forget what corporations really think about you.


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