Hello, I’m Special: How Individuality Became The New Conformity by Hal Niedzviecki

My girlfriend and I bought some tickets to a rock concert not too long ago, and when we got the tickets in the mail from Ticketmaster, I noticed there was one of those ubiquitous “Front of the Line” ads for American Express on the package. This one featured a young woman grinning slaw-jawed in a state of near ecstasy, as she stood bathed in a spotlight in front of a row of backlit, faceless silhouettes; the ad obviously was conveying someone enjoying front-row seats at an awesome pop spectacle.

Ordinarily, this promo item itself wouldn’t have been all that special or worth bringing up alongside the mass of other media messages worth commenting on. But in light of seeing it mere hours after filleting the latest book by Toronto alt-culture commentator Hal Niedzviecki, it nearly left me confined to my living room chair with a wet towel over my head from thinking way too hard about the state of popular culture, and our place in it.

Hello, I’m Special is the second non-fiction book from Niedzviecki (not counting a couple of other tomes that he’s co-authored), and is his ‘sort of’ follow-up to 2000’s We Want Some Too: Underground Desire and the Reinvention of Mass Culture. I say sort of simply because Hello entirely pulps the main conceit that he brought forth in the previous book — written in the heady days of the dot-com revolution — that there is no such thing as an underground or a mainstream pop culture, but a global pop culture comprised of both Hollywood A-listers and marginal ‘zinesters. And, naturally, part of his thesis was that, one day, the latter would rise up and take its rightful place in the pop pantheon alongside Julia Roberts, Brad Pitt et al.

Almost five years later, Niedzviecki pretty much admits that he was perhaps a bit over-optimistic with that prognosis. Despite the fact he writes for the Canadian arm of Penguin Books, he now feels that the alterna-stream and mainstream will never meet so long as the pop culture industry keeps its most radical cultural producers under its thumb. Taking a cue from George Lucas, would you please enter… We Want Some Too: The Special Edition.

To give Hello a lot more credit that that last line probably does, Niedzviecki excellently charting out how and why the pop dream is such a sham, even though most of us probably already know this by now — or should. Sure, there’s nothing here that hasn’t been written about elsewhere in recent years, but it’s the persuasiveness of most of Niedzviecki’s arguments and the conclusions he draws that basically plot a society on the downward spiral, sucking pabulum from the IV tube of Simon Fuller and other pop producers all the way down on a long journey back to the middle. And it’s quite the trip, I assure you.

According to Niedzviecki, the failure of pop culture is linked with the allure of big money going around the world, which sucks up and stomps out all creative rebels seeking to challenge the status quo. (He wonders aloud at one point why there are more than 37,500 movie screens in the U.S., but only 500-odd movies — and pretty much the same types of movies at that — shown on these screens each year.) In other words, the reason we don’t need another hero simply because it is no longer possible to even lead the way. Niedzviecki remarks early on in fact that he, in fact, was encouraged to write Hello as a response to a couple of birthday cards sent by his parents celebrating his non-conformity as an indie-culture maven: “If I’m a rebel sanctioned by society, encouraged by my parents, and cheered on by Hallmark, what is left to rebel against?”

Niedzviecki pins the blame for this apathetic lack of rebellion on an entire global culture industry that endlessly spits out reaffirming Sly Stone-esque “Everybody Is a Star” and “You Can Make It If You Try” platitudes in its music, movies and TV shows. This, of course, creates a whole self-help industry (stand up, Dr. Phil) to make us consumers feel special and empowered about our entertainment purchasing ways. We are now nothing but a selfish, mass audience of clones (the author calls us the “I’m Special-ites”) whose sole purpose is to crave a never-ending array of interactive technology and all the games and programming to go with it.

The problem is that for every person who might be content to vote for their favorite American Idol, there are probably another five or six thousand longing to be the next Kelly Clarkson or Ruben Studdard. Pop culture, in Hal Niedzviecki’s mind, is something that doesn’t empower mere passive consumers, but millions to be active performers who, paradoxically, want to be heard by millions. That might explain why, at the concert I talked about going to with my girlfriend, the annoying pothead standing to my immediate right was signing shrilly in my ear in a pathetic attempt to be heard over the headlining act.

As Niedzviecki so rightfully and painfully illustrates here, this pull between competing interests creates other bizarre contradictions between consumers and pop-culture-at-large. For one, it’s all fine and dandy for George Lucas to slash his own canvas with ill-conceived, magic-destroying Special Editions to his original Star Wars trilogy, but when a fan does it — as one did with The Phantom Edit, a radically reworked, bootlegged version of the first Star Wars prequel that all but wipes the cloying Jar Jar Binks from the picture — the legal cease-and-desist papers start flying.

Niedzviecki chillingly charts the fracturing of pop society into two separate, unique camps. There are, he says, those who’ve turned away from big-budget Tinseltown-like spectacles and have turned into relatively cloistered “neo-traditionalist” Bible thumpers who dream of living small-town pastoral lives and seek authenticity through sacred rituals. “Though fewer and fewer in number,” Niedzviecki writes, “those who seek out tradition … give meaning to their lives not by seeking to attain control of their (personal) narrative and reshaping it as pop (performance) fodder, but through the opposite: by relinquishing it.” Niedzviecki falls a bit hard on his knees when he writes off religion as kitsch — he obviously wrote the book prior to The Passion of the Christ and the 2004 U.S. Presidential Election — but his comments are interesting, nonetheless.

There are also those, he says, who, in a world where nothing is shocking, turn to the most extreme measures to get the slightest attention from the media. The latter naturally includes serial killers who drop notes hoping to be empowered by press notice, and, more recently, audience members who’ll throw chairs presumably to gain public notoriety during a Pacers/Pistons game. Niedzviecki’s got a really point or two here. When was the last time you were truly shocked by an Eminem song or a Paris Hilton sex tape? And if you answered “I don’t know” like I did, you can’t help but wonder where does the envelope-pushing line of bad taste end? (In Hello‘s most out-there example, a Toronto art student kills a cat on videotape for his class project to protest animal cruelty.)

Niedzviecki presents a way out for the middle-grounders by ending the book with an intriguing visit to a few artist/hippie communities dotting the Pacific West Coast, proclaiming the old souls that populate these hamlets the last true rebels. Here, we met people who’ve literally lived in caves for years, suffering over crafts and carvings in pod-like island communities with like-minded anti-social misfits and individuals. In Niedzviecki’s world, it seems like the true individual is the one who has unplugged him or herself from The Grid. Perhaps this might seem a little too close to the plots of The Matrix or even The Village on first blush, but the notion is romantic enough. Perhaps true “pop culture” will be defined by like-minded individuals more interested in working together alongside his or her peers to create an authentic community, or a sense of sharing and belonging, whether it be on Web message boards or through some other medium.

On this point, Niedzviecki really might have stumbled onto something big: that people are abandoning the mass pop culture promise and the hope of ever becoming an idol. In fact, the Internet Movie Database recently reported that, “Reflecting an international decline in the appeal of pop music, the BBC announced today that it is moving its Top of the Pops variety show from its more popular BBC One channel to its niche culture channel, BBC Two…. (The program) currently attracts an audience of just three million viewers, less than half the size of its audience 10 years ago.” But even in this piece of refreshing news, there seems to be a warning as well: When pop culture appears to be in decline, those who control it seeks to redefine it by shuffling it over to a “special” market in a bid to reclaim its tentative hold over our collective interest.

That’s what makes Niedzviecki’s groundbreaking new book so refreshing: he reminds us that pop culture itself isn’t an absolute means to an end; it’s the people who exchange it and want to be a part of it all that remain its most fascinating components. When we entirely lose sight of this fact, we risk being reduced to smiling, slack-jawed spectator caricatures that wouldn’t seem out of place shilling plastic AmEx cards. And how special would we be in our front-row seats then? Perhaps very special, indeed.