Posts Tagged ‘culture

12
Aug
09

Have You Ever…

…seen anything like this on a late night talk show before?  You may have seen this before (it is over two years old), but I just discovered it today, and thought it was worth sharing.  I argued in this post that celebrities are simply normal people, and should be ignored just like any other normal person we’ve never met before.  Craig Ferguson had an opinion on how our society treats celebrities, and thankfully he had a forum to share that opinion, because it was worth hearing.  It’s marvelous to see that there’s someone out there on television that is actually sharing a worthwhile opinion, and not just trying to please their boss, or their viewers, or themselves.  Anyway, on to the video.  Take some time, and watch this:

19
Jun
09

Sam’s Choice

If there’s one thing Hollywood loves, it’s— well, it’s probably money.  If there’s two things, it’s money, and a good inspirational teacher movie.  Think Dead Poets Society, Mr. Holland’s Opus, Freedom Writers, even Sister Act 2 had that “if you want to be somebody, you better wake up and pay attention” song, and it inspired the heck out of Lauryn Hill.

There’s a reason these stories are so popular, and it’s because they’re at least somewhat relatable.  We’ve all had a teacher or two in our lifetime that has helped us realize that maybe we’re able to do things we didn’t know we could do, so while we watch Mr. Keating talk about seizing the day, or Mr. Holland beat quarter notes onto the helmet of a well-intentioned but rhythmically challenged football player, we see that teacher who took special interest in us, who made learning geography more like learning real life, or who encouraged us to pursue things that were bigger and better than we thought we could.

But there’s one thing that I promise you you will never find in any inspirational teacher movie, and that’s the inspirational teacher taking a day off.  Correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t remember any scene from Stand and Deliver where Kimo needs his bi-annual dental check-up, but the only appointment he could get was right in the middle of third period, so he decided he might as well take the whole day off and call in a sub.

There is a reason that scene is omitted, and that’s because generally, it is assumed that nothing inspirational happens when the substitute shows up.  There’s nothing inspirational about math word searches, silent reading, or movie notes on Bill Nye the Science Guy.  Let the inspirational teacher be inspiring, the substitute can… babysit.  The inspirational teacher is Coca-Cola, the sub is Sam’s Choice.

This post is about what it’s like to be Sam’s Choice.

Growing up, going to Fourth of July parties and summer backyard barbecues, I opened a lot of coolers to disappointment.  Nothing takes a party down a notch from absolute perfection like a can of Dr. Thunder.  Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing terribly bad about Dr. Thunder, and a deep swig of Mountain Lightening can give you just the right jolt to get through that next round of chicken fights, but the message that a two-liter of Sam’s Choice sends is “you’re not getting the full experience.”

This past year, as a substitute teacher in a typical school district north of Denver, I spent most of my time trying to fight that stigma, trying to prove that I could be the full experience.  Substituting, typically, is not taken seriously, in the same way a bartender might not take you seriously if you asked for a rum and Sam’s.  Normally, substituting is something old ladies do because bridge club only meets once a week and their fingers get tired if the only other thing they do is knit.  Because of this, and a number of other reasons, students refuse to accept, respect, or pay much attention to substitute teachers.  For the past year, this was my challenge to overcome.

Quite frankly, the biggest problem is the title.  The term “substitute,” a term which over the course of the past year I came to repudiate, implies inadequacy.  To substitute is to replace with something that is, more often than not, inferior.  “We have a sub today” really means “Don’t worry, it’s not a real teacher.  We’ve got nothing to worry about.”  Which is why over the past school year, I was never a substitute, I was a freelance educator, an alternate teacher.  I would not allow myself to be a substitute.  I’m no Mountain Lightening.

The problem is, convincing the world you aren’t Mountain Lightening when that’s exactly what you’re expected to be is a lofty task.  A note from a teacher like “sixth period can be a handful, but try and get a list of the kids that mouth off, and I’ll deal with them” might as well say, “Hey, Sam’s Choice, I know you can’t handle it, but at least remind them who the real authority figure is, and that should hold them off until tomorrow.”

And I got plenty of those notes.  But thankfully, every once in a while I had the chance to show my stuff, to prove that a little Dr. Thunder doesn’t have to ruin the party, and it can even have its advantages at times.  Students at the school where I did probably 70% of my subbing eventually got to know me, and they started to realize that they couldn’t pull the same stuff with me that they had with other substitute teachers.  I learned that the most powerful word you can use when talking to a student is their name, and I made darn sure to use them.  All of the sudden something as simple as “Auburney, come in and sit down.  You’re already two minutes late for class” held even more power than if it were said by the teacher I was subbing for.  Now not only were they doing something wrong, but I knew who they were, and they had to account for that.  I was still the same person, still a “substitute” in their eyes, but all of the sudden I had power.  The label was gone, now it was just a blind taste test, and without that stigma of “Sam’s Choice,” I was suddenly just as refreshing, just as bubbly, and perhaps even a bit more cost-efficient than that Coca-Cola we all seem to think is far superior.

Of course, there are some disadvantages to removing that stigma.  When people have expectations of you that you don’t meet, no matter the reason, they get upset with you.  When students are used to being able to be late, to sit wherever they want, and to waste time all period listening to iPods when there’s a sub, they start to look at you as the bad guy for not allowing them those luxuries.

And if there’s anything I know from being a high school student myself, it’s that high school students pretty much only consider one perspective, that being their own.  A high school student rarely looks at a substitute and thinks, “the more I’m distracted, the more difficult his job is,”  the high school student thinks, “I should be able to get away with more than this.  This deal is not fair to me.”  And the (sometimes) great thing about high school students is they almost always say what’s on their mind.  And because of that, I have a notebook filled with comments and exchanges that prove this point.  Like this one:

“Omar, I don’t get it.  Why won’t you finish the work that I assigned to you?”

“I shouldn’t have to.”

“Really?  Why not?”

“Because you’re just a sub.  We never do anything when there’s a sub.”

“Well unfortunately for you, Omar, I’m a different kind of sub.  And what that means is yes, you do have to finish your work.  And you can choose to do it now, or you can choose to come back and do it at lunch.  But don’t think that just because I’m not Mr. Fitzgerald that you get a free pass.”

Excuses like “because you’re just a sub” are commonplace, and you can allow them to sting, or you can deal with them head on.  It took me a couple tries, but I learned how to deal with them, and I learned that with some kids, that was going to come with the cost of them not liking you.

“You know what Mr. Graham,” one well-intentioned, good student told me once as he was leaving one afternoon.  “No offense or anything, but I thought you should know: a lot of people think you’re one of the worst teachers here.”

I’m sure I quickly came up with something to say to move him along, but it was difficult for me to hide the emotion that was building inside me.

He called me a teacher.

09
May
09

Adam Lambert, J.J. Abrams, and Mystery

As previously mentioned here, I have occasionally found myself part of the conglomerate of Americans that weekly find themselves lingering on the every word of the well-groomed and omnipresent alien being that refers to itself as Ryan J. Seacrest.  And as an American Idol viewer, I am keenly aware of the three contestants remaining in this year’s contest, and have formed my own personal opinions about the outcome of the competition.

For the uninformed, here is the general rundown of the three gentlemen who have yet to be eliminated from the program: (since there are only three contestants remaining, it should be assumed that all are talented vocalists, which they are.  If we assume the playing field is even in the talent department, then the contest will be determined, as it typically is, by the persona each contestant has created, the demographics they appeal to, and the way they style their hair rather than pure musical giftedness.  This will be a discussion about those particular nonmusical qualities.) Danny Gokey is the odds-on, overwhelming favorite, as long as the only people you’re asking are white, Christian, and middle class.  He’s a church worship leader, he wears trendy glasses, and he’s a widow, which in an eerily morbid way, makes him more likeable.  Kris Allen is a guitar-strummin’, aww-gee-shucks southern heartthrob, and his style lies somewhere between Jason Mraz and John Mayer.  Whenever Ryan Seacrest says Kris’ name, hundreds of pubescent girls scream like his last name was Jonas and hold up signs that say “Marry Me Kris,” while Kris’ clearly visible wife smiles on adoringly.  And then there’s Adam Lambert.

Adam Lambert, in many ways, defies description.  He wears eyeliner and lots of jewelry and leather, and has a vocal range that would make Steve Perry wet himself with jealousy.  The only thing the public really knows about Adam Lambert is that he’s a theater kid, and was in the Los Angeles cast of Wicked before he became a contestant on the show.  We don’t really know where he came from, we don’t know anything about his family, we don’t know who taught him to sing like that, and we never know what he’s going to do next.  Moreso than anything else, however, we don’t know whether or not Adam Lambert is gay.  And that’s where J.J. Abrams comes in.

J.J. Abrams is the man behind such T.V. shows as Alias, Fringe, and Lost, and movies like Star Trek and Cloverfield.  J.J. Abrams knows the power of an unanswered question, as evidenced through this article he wrote in Wired Magazine, or his Ted Talk here.  He has revitalized suspense in a way we haven’t seen probably since Alfred Hitchcock.  What J.J. Abrams knows is that an integral part of human nature is our inquisitiveness.  Going all the way back to Socrates, we have been a society that questions. As humans, we seek truth, it’s just part of who we are.  What happens after we die, who would make the best president, and what the hell is that smoke monster thing, and why did it kill Mr. Eko?  And now, added to that list of unanswered questions is the question on every American Idol fan’s mind: is Adam Lambert gay?

I think I know what J.J. Abrams would answer if you asked him whether or not Adam Lambert was gay.  I think J.J. Abrams would probably say, if we knew, wouldn’t that just make it less exciting?  The truth is, if Adam Lambert told America he was gay, it wouldn’t change the fact that he’s still a talented singer, and I don’t think it would change anyone’s vote for or against him.  The kind of person who would only vote for Adam Lambert if he wasn’t gay is likely already casting their vote for Danny or Kris.  If Adam Lambert told America he was gay, the only thing he’d be changing is the mystery that surrounds him, and that might just be the reason we don’t know yet.  The reason people keep watching Lost week after week is because they expect that eventually, all their questions will be answered (even if forty-seven new questions show up every time you answer one).  Isn’t it possible that, aside from his obvious talent, Adam Lambert is still on American Idol for the same reason?  We figure if we keep watching, if we keep voting him to the next week and the week after that, he might just answer some of those pesky questions.

I’m not saying Adam Lambert left his sexuality in question intentionally, but he might have.  If he didn’t, he’s probably realized by now that he’s stumbled into something that’s keeping the public’s attention, which is why he hasn’t just flat-out said anything about it yet.  As Abrams points out in the Wired article I linked to earlier, we live in an age of immediacy, where the answer to literally any question we may have is only a mouse click away, and that truth has enhanced the way we look at questions that don’t seem to have obvious or easy answers.  In other words, in a world where we can have all the answers, we’re intrigued only by the ones we don’t have.

And that’s why I think Adam Lambert is going to win American Idol this year.  Or, if he doesn’t win, he’ll end up more successful than whoever does.  It’s apparent from the itty-bitty-nobody-to-all-powerful-cultural-icon path of previous Idol winners like Carrie Underwood and Kelly Clarkson that twelve weeks of being on that show is the equivalent of an upper division master class in becoming a celebrity.  And judging by the way in which he has captured the public’s attention (he hasn’t even won yet, and he’s already on the cover of this week’s Entertainment Weekly), it’s clear that Adam Lambert is at the top of that class for this year.  Whether or not they deserve the attention they get, (and that’s another story entirely) the celebrities that capture the public’s attention do so by utilizing Mr. Abrams’ favorite concept of mystery.  Who are they dating, where are they going, what will they do next, and yes, are they gay?

And that’s why Adam’s going to win.  Like all the contestants, he’s got the talent to deserve the spotlight, and perhaps more importantly, he’s got the mystery to maintain it.  And as long as he keeps America guessing, he’ll be at the forefront of the public eye, and he’ll preserve our attention.  That is, until some bigger mystery comes along to distract us.

01
Apr
09

Deservitude

Do me a favor, and take four minutes to watch this clip:

What you just watched, if you took the time to do so, is the 80th-highest ranked video on all of YouTube.com.  That’s YouTube, where 15 hours of footage is added every minute of every day (63 hours of footage were added to the site in the time it took you to watch that clip).  YouTube, a site that currently consumes more bandwidth than was consumed by the entire Internet less than ten years ago.  It’s a whole lotta videos, folks, and somehow, this one fluttered up towards the top of a giant pile of babies doing funny things and handheld camera phone footage from the forty-seventh row of a Jonas Brothers concert.

Why?  As YouTube clips go, it seems tremendously average.  All it consists of is a semi-well-known comedian doing some shtick on an episode of Conan.  I don’t know about you, but that doesn’t scream “Charlie The Unicorn” to me.  It’s funny, but it’s probably not the funniest thing you’ve ever heard, and it’s not something that cries out, “share me!”  But what it does, and this I believe is why it’s rated so high, is it strikes a chord with a concept that is so inherent in our current collective mindset, and examines that concept in a new, unusual way.

I call that concept deservitude.  Louis CK, the comedian in the clip, calls it “everything’s amazing, and nobody’s happy.”  You might call it taking the privileges of this world for granted.  It’s the idea that once we acquire something, anything less than that thing is inadequate.  It is the rarely examined down side of progress and innovation, and it’s relatable, because we see it in those around us, and we see it in ourselves.

But I don’t think that’s the entire reason this video became so popular.  This appearance on Conan took place on October 1, 2008, yet it was the fourth-most watched video for this past month of March.  Why did it take five months to catch on?  To answer that question, I say look at the stock market.  On the first of October, when Louis CK was on Conan, the Dow Jones was at 10,831.  Today, and for most of the month of March, it’s dropped more than 30%, and that’s why I think this video has become so popular.  The correlation is obscure, but I promise you it’s there.

On the surface, the video simply says that we’re all spoiled, and we don’t recognize it.  It’s an observation that could be made any time, by any comedian, and might be worthy of a chuckle or two before moving on to the next joke.  But we’re watching it now, amidst news of forclosed houses, AIG bonuses, economic stimulus packages, and rising unemployment.  Every time we turn on the TV, we feel like our country is going to hell in a handbasket, and Louis CK is slapping us in the face and saying, “Chill out, no it’s not!”

Now admittedly, we are in a recession, and it has certainly hit home for a lot of people.  But the average person hasn’t lost a job or a house (at least not yet), and they likely still feel like the walls are crumbling down all around them.  I know, I’m one of them.  But the reason we see those walls as falling down has a lot more to do with this idea of deservitude than we might like to admit.  Louis CK is just asking us all to put things in perspective, and acknowledge that we aren’t in hell just yet, in fact, we’re far from it.

Consider this: as I previously mentioned, the Dow Jones is today around 7,600.  The very first time that number was ever crossed was only twelve years ago.  Twelve years ago we were rejoicing at 7,600, and now, it’s a sign of the apocalypse.  I’m sure if I were a banker or a financial analyst or had some other fancy “plays with money” job I’d have a different opinion, but could the reason we think this is so awful at least have something to do with the fact that we just got too comfortable with things when they were going well?

Need proof?  Look at this.  Turns out, some American women would rather see themselves objectified than try to find a more affordable apartment or switch off the cable TV.  Can’t we live without the little luxuries we’ve become so accustomed to, or do we really need to go to such painstakingly desperate measures?

Remember life before the iPod?  I do, barely.  I remember going on field trips and everyone wishing the bus wasn’t so bumpy, because all that skipping on our Walkmans was interrupting Billie Joe Armstrong’s latest angsty rant.  Then the first kid at my high school showed up one day with an iPod, which was about the size of a cinder block, and it was the coolest thing we had ever seen.  The original iPod, introduced in 2001, held 1,000 songs, which when it was first introduced by Steve Jobs was estimated as the size of the average person’s entire music collection.  Today, my current iPod (which is far smaller than the original version) has 10,500 songs on it, and that takes up about a third of its capacity.

This is interesting for a couple reasons.  First, obviously, the growth in just eight years is tremendous.  But secondly, Apple has, along with increasing the capacity of its product, increased our capacity and our “need” for music.  Whereas in 2001 our entire music library was 1,000 songs, today it’s increased tenfold or more.  The current iPod on the market that holds 1,000 songs is the size of a AA battery, and is marketed as, essentially, the “workout iPod,” because nobody in their right mind would make that the only iPod they owned.  A thousand songs isn’t our entire library anymore, a thousand songs is the kind of number that delivers just enough variety for a three mile run on the treadmill.

All of that goes to say, maybe if we could remember the attitude we had when we first heard about the iPod, wide-eyed and amazed sitting around the lunch table or huddled in the break room, we wouldn’t be turning to porn just so we could maintain our 30,000 song lifestyles.

This isn’t an anti-progress statement, it’s a pro-gratitude statement.  Progress is great.  The fact that we can acheive such mind-boggling things through technology, innovation, and hard work is phenomenal, and it is a cornerstone of the American culture.  What we tend to be lacking, however, is genuine appreciation of that progress.  Rather than appreciating it, we tend to feel like we deserve it because we’ve become so used to growth and progress in our lifetime.  Don’t get me wrong, that is a good thing.  The problem is, when we reach a point in the story where that growth stops, or heaven forbid, declines, we end up taking it that much harder.

18
Feb
09

The Rise of Captain Hopeandchange

There is a movie you probably haven’t seen called “Idiocracy” that you really don’t need to see, because I’m about to tell you all about it.  The premise of the movie is that a completely average guy from 2005 is cryogenically frozen, and wakes up 500 years later to discover that American society has become so dumbed down that he is the smartest man alive— by a long shot.  While the movie isn’t necessarily laugh-out-loud hilarious, it features incredibly biting satire, and is probably the kind of movie I’d write, if I were the kind of guy who wrote movies.

In the future that “Idiocracy” sees, the secretary of state is “brought to you by Carl’s Jr.”, you can get your college degree at Costco, and the most popular thing on television is a channel devoted to looped clips of men getting hit in the crotch.  And in this future, the president of the United States is a former professional wrestler named Dwayne Elizondo Mountain Dew Herbert Camacho, who makes most of his public appearances at monster truck rallies.

You might expect from having read previous posts on this site that I’m now about to go into some long discussion on how we as a society are closer to this being truth than we think, and we need to blah blah blah before our brains turn into whatever, which doesn’t matter because you stopped caring three sentences ago.  That’s not what I’m getting at.  While I think the movie is witty, I don’t think society is on its way towards anything close to resembling that future.  That being said, I do think the character of President Camacho requires further examination.

In the film, Americans love professional wrestling, and Americans are stupid, so Americans vote a vastly unqualified professional wrestler to be their president, just because they can.  In real life, anyone who saw this on a t-shirt last October knows that while it’s obviously tongue-in-cheek, voting someone into political office on account of their celebrity isn’t so much of an outrageous thought these days.

And that brings us to this, this, and this.  Yes, our current president, whether he intended to or not (and I tend to think he didn’t), has blurred the lines between politician and celebrity even moreso than Ronald Reagan, who need I remind you was an actual celebrity.

(A wee disclaimer: the remainder of this post will be about everyone’s favorite new president, Captain Hopeandchange.  However, this will be a discussion on Obama the celebrity, not Obama the politician.  There’s a difference.  Keep that in mind should you decide to comment.)

I’m not about to suggest that President Obama and President Camacho have all that much in common.  The character of Camacho is, obviously, the extreme.  What I’ve been pondering is whether or not Obama is a step towards that extreme, and a lot of that, I believe, is up to the man himself and how he deals with the fame that has been thrust upon him.

Most people will point to his keynote address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention as the moment when his fame began to rise, and I wouldn’t argue that point.  In order for him to become president, 2004 Obama needed to tenderly cultivate that fame, fertilizing it with equal dashes of political opinion, general handsomeness, and yes— hope, until he had grown into the massive cultural icon (and oh yeah, president) he is today.

And whether or not you choose to believe it, at least a handful of the people who voted for our president did so not because of his ideology, but because of the massive cultural icon he became.  In simpler terms, he was the cool kid in the student council contest.  Many voters (especially those in my generation) may have convinced themselves they were voting Obama instead of McCain, but what they were really voting for was Dr. Pepper instead of Mr. Thunder.  They were choosing a brand, not a president, and quite frankly, anyone who worked on Obama’s campaign is totally okay with that (Don’t worry, though… I’m not talking about you.  You voted for him for the right reasons).

There’s a reason many pundits called Obama’s campaign the greatest in the history of politics, and there’s a reason voter turnout was at its highest in 40 years, and while not all of it has to do with Obama being a celebrity, a lot of it has to do with Obama being a celebrity.  In a perfect world, every four years we’d vote into office the person whose views best aligned with the majority of Americans regardless of what they look like or the quality of their jump shot, and while that certainly is the intention of the electoral process, it has, in today’s culture, become a far too idealistic thought.  Last year, 148.3 million people watched the Super Bowl and we spent north of $530 million dollars on tickets to a movie about Batman, and while that sort of thing shouldn’t have anything to do with our choice for president, it certainly says a lot about what we think is important.  Obama realized what captures America’s attention, and he became just that, or rather, he allowed himself to become that.

That’s an important point to note— Obama didn’t necessarily seek out the fame he has; rather it seemed to be thrust upon him, and he just rode it all the way to the Oval Office.  Now, though, I would argue that if he knows what’s good for him, Obama needs to prune that fame back a bit.  To be a successful candidate, you need to be the first person everyone thinks of when they think “president.”  And now that he has attained that title, he needs to switch gears from gaining popularity to properly representing those that gave him his popularity.

In the most basic terms, I’d say for the first hundred days (at least) of his presidency, he needs to do just one thing: his job.  That means get busy workin’– no appearances on The Colbert Report, no surprise visits to high school basketball practices, just sign bills and do all the things that go with acting presidenty.  Let us see your hard work, not your crossover dribble.

So far, he hasn’t done half bad, and whether you agree or disagree with the work he’s done, you can’t deny he’s been working.  And that’s a good thing.  His road to the presidency, as successful as it was, will most assuredly be emulated in the coming elections.  He’s now set the new standard for campaigning, let’s just hope he also sets the new standard for funneling campaign success into effective governing, rather than just continued celebrity.  Just like Kennedy was the first “television” president, Obama will be known as the first “Facebook” president and the first “YouTube” president, and the last thing he needs is for that exposure to affect his actual presidency.

04
Dec
08

Plaxico Burress and the Culture of Celebrity

I committed a cardinal sin of manhood today.  I, in a bout of frustration and disappointment, turned off SportsCenter.  This, to the stereotype that has come to constitute “man” in America, is unacceptable.  The American man, if he watches no other program on television, still watches SportsCenter religiously.  I typically fall into this demographic, but as of recently, I’ve started to become put off by the way in which sports is presented in today’s culture.

A friend of mine used to be a sports reporter for a local sports radio station here in Denver.  He had a press pass to the locker room for every home Rockies game and Broncos game, and would spend his days at work hanging out with professional athletes and coaches talking sports, and getting paid.  This, to the stereotype I previously described, is the ideal career.  But when I pressed my friend to tell me more, he said something to me that has changed the way I view the sports media:

“Honestly, Andy, I got tired of it really fast,” he said to me. “Covering sports, when it’s all said and done, is really only about one thing: criticism.  These guys go out and lay everything they have on the line every day, they’ve been playing this game since they were little kids, they’re living out their wildest dream, and now I go in there and pick at all the things they do wrong?  That’s not something I want to do as a career, and that wears on you, physically and emotionally.”

I thought about this as I turned off the television today during hour 122 of the great Plaxico Burress watch.  This saga, in case you aren’t familiar with it, involves a scenario in which a star wide receiver from the New York Giants took an unregistered and thus illegal weapon into a nightclub and proceeded to accidentally shoot himself in the leg with it, ending his playing season in both the physical and legal sense.

This, admittedly, is news.  It also is news that pertains specifically to the sports world, which makes it the perfect fodder for the number one sports news program in the country.  So why was I upset enough by the perfectly logical covering of this news to turn it off?  Well, quite simply, I don’t care.  I couldn’t care less about Plaxico Burress’ legal troubles.  And when you put something on television that I don’t care about, chances are I’m not going to watch it.

Please don’t misunderstand my apathy.  This doesn’t mean I don’t care about Plaxico Burress all together, it just means that I don’t care about this particular aspect of his life.  To put it quite simply, Plaxico Burress provides a service for me, that service being that he catches a ball on television while I watch and am entertained.  My interest in his life both begins and ends there.  What he does outside of that is of little to no interest to me, because that is all I pay him to do (and yes, I pay Plaxico Burress.  I pay my cable bill, and part of that money goes to the various networks that broadcast the NFL.  Those networks pay the NFL for the rights to those games, and the NFL takes that money and pays its players, ergo, Plaxico Burress is, in a convoluted way, providing a paid service for me).  I wouldn’t want to hear about my dentist’s custody battle, I just want him to clean my teeth, tell me to floss more, and send me on my merry way.  Now, if I have a relationship with my dentist, something that extends beyond him putting a metal hook in my mouth and me paying him for it, then I might be interested in hearing about his legal and family troubles.  But I do not have a relationship with Plaxico Burress, so quite frankly, his life is his business, and I don’t care to hear about it.

And herein lies one of the greatest conundrums in American culture, that being the question of why we care about celebrities beyond the roles that they play in movies, or music, or sports.  I spent a great portion of one summer in college picking up and putting away stray magazines in a bookstore, and that summer, just from reading magazine covers I could tell you more than I’m comfortable to admit about what celebrities were dating, cheating, having babies, getting married, getting divorced, shaving their heads, or anything else.  Following the everyday lives of famous people is a multi-billion dollar industry, and yet the people who primarily pay for this news, who buy the magazines and read the gossip columns and watch Entertainment Tonight, have never met the people they seemingly admire (or despise).  It says a lot about me (and arguably, about the culture in which I live, but that’s passing the blame) that I know the name of Tom Cruise’s baby, but I don’t know the name of the guy who lives downstairs from me.

The somewhat fascinating part is that I didn’t actively seek out any information about Tom Cruise’s baby, I just gained it by participating in everyday American life, by standing in line at the supermarket or by reading the newspaper.  Logic and free market economics tell us that no product is going to exist if there isn’t a market for it, so the question that I have is about the existence of that market, and the people that allow it to flourish.  Grocery stores exist because people need food to survive, the post office exists because of the need people have to mail things.  Every industry fills a need, so what need does the gossip industry meet?  Why does ESPN think it’s a good idea to spend hours and hours talking about Plaxico Burress’ personal life?

There’s a number of possible answers, but none really satisfy me.  The first is that the average person needs an escape from their actual life, that they don’t see their own life as thrilling, but they see the life of Plaxico Burress, or Britney Spears, or whoever else as exciting, and thus they somehow attempt to live vicariously through those people by following their lives.  Another possibility is pure schadenfreude— that somehow people are better able to deal with the stress in their lives by watching the lives of those who are far more stressed than they are, i.e. gun-toting wide receivers with impending court dates.  It this twisted yet plausible scenario, people somehow take joy from watching other people (people they specifically do not know personally) fail.

Both of these may be explanations, but to me, they aren’t logical or sensible explanations.  If I have two apples, and someone gives me three apples, it makes sense that I now have five apples, which is more apples than I started with.  But if I am feeling stressed or depressed about my life, and I look at pictures of celebrities in unflattering swimwear, or watch three hours of Plaxico Burress walking to a courthouse, nothing about that equation should sensibly equal me feeling better about my life.  Nothing in my life has changed, other than the fact that I have less time left in my day.

This is why I say this question will baffle me the rest of my life.  There is simply no logical explanation for anyone to watch or discuss the personal life of someone they do not personally know, and yet there is no doubt in my mind that the trend will continue, and grow exponentially, as it has over the past few decades, with absolutely no sensible explanation.  As long as there are famous people, there will be non-famous people who care too much about them, and I will remain confused.

04
Nov
08

November 4, 2008

Realize something:

No matter what you believe, no matter who you voted for, or what you think about the future of America, know this: you have witnessed history.  The election of Barack Obama is perhaps the most significant and important presidential election in American history since the very first one.  Whether or not his presidency becomes one of the most significant in American history remains to be seen, and with the expectations placed in front of him he certainly has an uphill climb, but the mere fact that he was elected provides a crucial, definable moment in United States history, a moment that decades from now, history teachers will point to and inform their students that it was on this day in this year that a dramatic shift took place in the collective American mindset.  History lives in those moments, and you just lived through one.  It was on this day that the culture began to shift.

At about this point you’re probably starting to think that I’m overreacting.  I don’t believe I am.  People who know me and have read this blog know that I frown upon the fact that my generation is devaluing our language by overusing superlatives and lacking true sincerity in the things that we say.  That is not the case for me in writing that previous paragraph.  Electing a black president, whether or not you agree with him, is something this nation needed desperately.  Now, more than ever, we can unify as a nation, should we take advantage of that opportunity, and I certainly hope we will.

Please don’t misinterpret that last sentence.  I don’t mean that we unify under the beliefs of a Democrat or a Republican, or that we become unified under any political belief at all.  In fact, I would ask that you please, please, please, look at this day, this moment, this election through eyes that are not clouded by any political belief.  We all have political tenets that we hold to, and while they are important and help us define the people we are, it is all too easy to interpret history through the tunnel vision those beliefs create for us, whether our beliefs be Democratic, Republican, or otherwise.  What I would ask is that you take a step back.  Look at what this election has done for the people of this nation, not for the Republicans or the Democrats of this nation.  Barack Obama is a politician, yes, but tonight he became a symbol, and I believe it is possible he will be remembered more for that than any decision he makes in the next four or eight years.

Now, more than ever, we are all Americans, we are not white Americans or black Americans or Hispanic Americans or any other kind of American.  We are just Americans, and though it has already become cliché to say it, any one of us can become president.  Equality has reached a new level tonight, and I sincerely hope it continues down this path.  If we are to genuinely agree that all men are truly created equal, then we should applaud the election of Barack Obama no matter what we think politically, because it takes a crucial step towards making that statement all the more true.

As for the next four years?  Well, feel free to make your own speculations about what will happen to America with Obama at the helm.  If you staunchly disagree with all the decisions you assume he will make in the next four years, well, there’s always 2012 for you.  But I believe that what happened tonight couldn’t wait another four years.  I believe it needed to happen now.

And it’s nice to get some color in there anyway, don’t you think?