American Unoriginal, 501 Blues

The United States of America has always embraced its individuality.  Our land, after all, represents an award for having proven our independence from the European imperialists, and for having developed our own voice, our own style, our own civilization.

After that, we developed blue jeans.  We had been rebels, and having won our independence, we no longer had a cause.  Now we celebrate our independence on Independence Day, then spend the rest of the year discouraging various dependencies exhibited by our children and the so-called co-dependent relationships engaged in by our friends.  We like our independence so much that we invented baseball, basketball, and football to avoid playing soccer with the other countries.  ‘Cause, you know; like, fuck those guys.

We do work together in our 501 blues as a begrudgingly unified American people, too, but this is not the side of ourselves we wish to emphasize.  We want to stand triumphantly alone on mountaintops, shaking our fists in defiance of the global status quo — and why not?  Seems more fun than following others on a well-traveled rail all our lives.  Our rails have naturally (or unnaturally) converged in some ways, however, and some leaders have admonished us to retain our differences and revolt against pressures to homogenize.

Those leaders who champion our individuality become cultural heroes, such as Henry David Thoreau (Mr. March-to-the-Beat-of-a-Different-Drummer, himself) and Thomas Jefferson (“The pillars of our prosperity are most thriving when most free to individual enterprise”).  The punk rock movement, led by iconoclasts like Jello Biafra and Iggy Pop, embodied the Western youth’s violent rejection of the mainstream.  Mr. Paul, who wrote that we ought not conform, happens to represent America’s favorite enthusiast of America’s favorite religion (Romans 12:2).

Mr. Paul, Henry David Thoreau, Jello Biafra

For awhile it seemed we might make these leaders of ours proud, proud of our ambitious creativity, proud of our cultural accomplishments, and proud of our devil-may-care disregard for the world’s opinion of us, but look at us now: our disregard for global opinion has alienated us, our cultural accomplishments have been largely surpassed, and our red-blooded creativity, once symbolized by riveted, indigo, serge de Nimes overalls, has become a sad, poorly-manufactured-in-Indonesia parody of itself.

American Individualism, look upon the blue face of your stillborn spirit, and despair.

There was a time not so long ago when a fella could dress as colorfully as he liked.  Plenty of guys wore blue jeans, sure, but could also step into bell-bottoms, plaid pants, coveralls, or any manner of matched slacks.  Trousers were high-waisted, waist-high, hip-hugging or standard, and could be held up with a belt or suspenders.  Even during times of extremely prevalent trends (trends, plural, mind you) we managed to assert our own personalities through the clever juxtaposition of numerous possible garments.  Look at the variety expressed in this typical ad from thirty years ago:

Bells and whistles. The former garnered the latter, I imagine.

It may be surmised that these clothes came from the same season of the same line, and that the fashion designer had intended the outfits to somewhat coordinate with one another.  These similarities notwithstanding, the variety of colors and fabrics and styles makes modern America look as uniquely fashionable as dental-office wallpaper.

I mean, look at that bad-ass motherfucker on the right.  Have you seen anything like that pilgrim-style collar in your life?  More pertinent to our conversation about American creativity, though, are their pants: endlessly more more fun and imaginative than those merely acceptable blue jeans.  The bell-bottoms apparently came checkered, plaid, or plain with cuffs, and you can bet there were more colors than those offered here.  I’m guessing these fabrics were wool, polyester, cotton, and corduroy respectively, far beyond today’s usual variety of cotton, nylon, or cotton-nylon.  The fedoras are a nice touch, too, but I’m focusing on trousers, here.  And why, you ask?

Because — if modern American creativity could be measured in trousers, my friends, it would look like this:

What color were the socialist overalls in Orwell's 1984, again?

This was merely one of a score of images I could have chosen from (I selected this for the flag waving, which I consider a bonus).

Hypothesis: the American public does not exhibit the level of independent thought of which it seems so proud.

Conclusion: for all our independence and rebellion, we can’t even choose our pants uniquely, anymore.

One respondent to BothEyesShut’s American Trousers Study reported, “Hell yes, we’re independent.  We think fer ourselves, sure do, and if a pair of blue jeans just happens to be the most American piece of clothing we own, don’t y’all blame us for looking uniform.  Just because we wear the same style pants as everyone else, don’t you go thinkin’ you’ve got some sorta creative edge on us, or nuthin’.  Blue jeans were good ’nuff fer my pappy, and they were good ’nuff fer his pappy, and by God (big G) they’ll be good ’nuff for me, my son, his son, and the dog, too, if’n we decide to haul off ‘n buy him a pair!”

Cletus has a point.  As a nation, our creativity does capture the globe’s attention with our radical, unpredictable, freedom-waving manner of dress.  We’re just as edgy and innovative as any of those other countries, like Japan. . .

Gomen nasai.

or France. . .

Frenim-Clad

Or the United England Kingdom. . .

The United England Kingdom

So, OK, I admit it — I admit that we denizens of the United States are not the only ones who forgot how to sew fabrics other than denim, but as anyone can see, we aren’t becoming more interesting by learning from the innovations of other countries.  We aren’t trying to decide whether we’ll wear our awesome Scottish kilts to the party or our dashing Spanish sailor’s slacks.  Rather, we’re destroying whatever cool fashions may have existed in these places before the stonewashed blue plague set in.  We’re not doing it on purpose, though.  Like carriers of a cultural disease, we became victims ourselves before spreading it around.

Levi Strauss, pragmatic inventor of what he insisted on calling, “Levi’s overalls,” did not advertise his way to the top of the fashion charts, however; his product had undeniable merit.  The machine-spun fabric withstood months of laborious mining, and the copper-riveted pockets did not tear out at the corners when laden with rocks, bolts, and other detritus toted by the miners.  In 1890, Strauss added a watch pocket for pocket watches (that little rectangular one at the right hip) because men generally carried their watches on chains in vest pockets, and vests, of course, could not be worn in the mines without becoming torn and soiled.

So we non-miners bought them, too.  Our wives were tired of patching and darning our trousers just as much as Mrs. Strauss had been, and what do you know?  By the time James Dean wore them in “Rebel Without a Cause,” the United States Navy had been issuing them to sailors for over fifty years.  Then theatres, schools, and churches banned them in a last-ditch effort to contain adolescent interest in rebellion, an effort which backfired, of course, and by the sixties they had become commonplace.  Then stonewashed.  Then cut-off.  Then ripped.  By 2004, the average American owned seven pairs of blue jeans.

Seven pairs.  Seven.

Forty years ago, guys could go ladykilling on Main St. on a beautiful Saturday afternoon and expect prospective marks to decorate themselves from the waist down, rather than default to the best-fitting of their seven pairs of blue jeans.

Liberated elegance, from a time when people had to know how to match their clothes.

Yeah, so old Levi isn’t at fault.  Jeans are ubiquitous because indolence is human.  We’re too damned lazy to exercise our character, and fuck, jeans “go with” everything.  They really do look nice, too; I like mine boot-cut with a dark, royal bleu de Gênes color, and always wear ankle boots with them to look less casual.  There’s nothing wrong with them — they aren’t the problem.  If it were up to our jeans, I bet they’d rather not be worn as a matter of course, either.

We don’t have complete control over our fashion proclivities.  Marketing and thought control are synonymous, and even more commonplace than the clothes sold thereby.  In spite of this assault on the American freedom of choice, few high schools in the United States still teach media, leaving teens (and their hard-won pocket cashola) defenseless, unaware that they are always someone’s target audience, victims of omnipresent psychographic advertising.

These mind vipers love us all dressing alike, eating the same foods, listening to the same bands (who all sound alike now, anyway) because it’s child’s play to advertise in generalities when the general public is generally going to like anything that fits the general description of what they generally want to buy.  How can a budding fashion designer build a name for himself?  Why, advertise a logo on magazines and bumper stickers, then slap it on a pair of blue jeans and charge enough money to ensure only affluent people can afford to flaunt them.  Sold.

Do people purchase things they might regret as a result of mass marketing? Oh -- sometimes, I suppose.

Many entities benefit from transmogrifying a free-thinking, unpredictable people into a cowed and colorless one.  Politicians, far from pandering to liberals or conservatives, have aimed at median voters for decades.  We owe this trend to the tendency of most Americans to contradict themselves on the ballot.  Most Americans, for example, call the torture of terrorists justifiable, yet insist on federal investigations into the torturing of terrorists.  Most Americans back abortion rights, so long as women do not abort their pregnancies for certain reasons — gender selection, for instance.  This tendency lets interested parties market to the broadest, largest group of people with a single advertisement, and for this reason interested parties work to make us as similar to one another as possible.

It is, of course, human nature to prefer what does not surprise us, as well, so we shirk the shocking and reject the revolutionizing.  Hippies dressed differently, so they were terrorized.  Punk rockers dressed differently, so they were terrorized.  Women who wear burkas in the U.S. dress differently, so they are terrorized.  The most dangerous thing to a way of life is a new, fresh idea, and many people can’t help but hate the guy with the wacky hat.

The wacky hat is distracting.  It isn’t simply fear that causes us to attack everything creative and unique in our midst.  High school administrations that adopt a “No distracting hairstyles” clause for their dress code know well what independent thought can do to a “sit down, shut up” curriculum (more on this in Part I of “How to Refrain From Being a Dick”).  When we stop worrying about our hair, we also free time from our mind’s busy schedule to think about something else — like how we’re going to afford a three-hundred-dollar pair of Sevens brand blue jeans.  We’ll need the trousers if we want to attract that blonde who makes us hard by packaging her ass in a three-hundred-dollar pair of Sevens brand blue jeans.

Creativity: securing seats in the gene pool since the dawn of time.

Originality is powerful.  Unique traits fuel evolution, command attention, and map uncharted territories in any given scenario.  Best of all, exercising one’s individuality today is easier than ever.  One could, for instance, boycott blue jeans.  The last American Levi’s factory closed in 2003, anyhow.

Levi’s blue jeans: Not Made in U.S.A.

So, go ahead!  Have waffles for dinner and ride a pogo stick to work.  Go apeshit, America!  Take the plunge.  Spend an hour looking for trousers at the mall; look for pants that are neither denim, beige, nor black.  Good fucking luck!  It’s far harder than you think, and if you’re anything like me, it’s going to piss you off to see how few possibilities the market allows you.

There’s nothing wrong with national trends.  Trends become traditions and traditions become culture, and culture’s one of few things differentiating us from dust mites.  When trends control our thoughts and curb our options, though, it’s time to trim them back.  When everyone loves Twilight, it’s time to take a second look at Dracula.  When everyone has a pair of those retro Ray Ban Wayfarer sunglasses, it’s time to switch up to neon blade-style Oakleys.  Do it.  Let’s see your face behind a K-rad pair of those fuckers.

I’m not kidding myself, bytheway.  I know there’s no escape.  But there’s an important difference between the guy who goes gently into that good night and the guy who spits and cusses and brawls all the way down.

Or — I’m imagining that, and we’re all just as boring as everyone else.

No way.  I saw a forty year old man in a swell black tuxedo and pink bow tie slam dancing at a Vandals show, once.

And there was nothing boring about that.

With Great Reprobation, Condemnation and Fulmination,

-BothEyesShut

Stale Loaves, Gamey Fish, and Feeding More than Five-Thousand

How exactly does one appeal to the masses of humanity?  What’s the secret recipe to make culture go pop?  Is it a common ingredient, a hermetic principle, or what?  I mean, it can’t be all that complex; just look at the people who’ve accomplished it.  In this week’s “In  a Real World, This Would Be Happening,” I want to attack the glamor of being the name on everyone’s lips.  Let’s see what the experts have to say.

Andy Warhol

“In the future everybody will be world-famous for fifteen minutes,” said the man, and boy was he right.  If you haven’t been world-famous yet, then you haven’t wanted to.  Andy Warhol learned how to do it more than three decades before Internet fame was available.  His magic trick involved taking images most people were already familiar with and painting them numerous times on a single canvas.  He raped popular culture, using everything from movie stills to canned soup labels, and when people decried him as a charlatan, a fake painter, he laughingly agreed with his detractors, saying that his paintings had absolutely no artistic value, that art itself had no value, and that an artist is someone who makes things people don’t need.  He said finally, “I’ve decided something: commercial things really do stink.  As soon as it becomes commercial for a mass market, it really stinks.”

I’ve learned this, too, but it’s only recently that I’ve begun to suspect that perhaps this is more than a simple opinion, that perhaps widespread acclaim really does harm a thing.  However, not all things seem susceptible to this form of corruption, only works of art.  I say so for the simple reason that non-artistic things like tools and such are used by everyone in proportion to their usefulness.  Nobody uses washboards anymore, because washing machines are much more efficient.  Everyone uses wheels to move things around, because wheels are exquisite at rolling.  In fact, they are experts.

But wouldn’t it be cool to use a washboard to clean clothes in the sink?  It kinda would, yeah, but our crappy modern clothes wouldn’t stand up to the scrubbing.  And wouldn’t it be chic to have a working bicycle with square wheels?  You bet.  Jean Paul Gaultier would have his brand stamped on one overnight if it were possible, and then he’d charge $15,000 for it, and you know what?  It’d sell.  So it seems that living contrary to popular culture has artistic merit.  Andy figured it out as a painter in the 1950s and made an entire career out of thumbing his nose at the rest of the artistic community, merely rendering silly commercial icons and symbols into fine art, and now he’s revered as one of the most important artists of all time (though not with art history intellectualites).  He’s the biggest pop-culture painter in the history of pop art.  In fact, he’s sometimes called the father of it.  Goddamn, irony can really make me smirk.

Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde

Oscar Wilde said the same thing Andy did, that “All art is really quite useless,” and also that, “The only excuse for making a useless thing is that one admires it intensely.”  Well done, Sir, well said indeed, but what signifies good art if it is all useless?  The number of its admirers could gauge the quality of our art for us, couldn’t it?

Marketing giants sure want it that way.  They would have us believe that popularity is the barometer by which all art should be measured, but not because they have a solid, philosophical reason or honest, subjective opinion on the matter, but rather because they do want to sell as many of their products as possible, and since any one product is going to look and act precisely the same as the others once we get them home, advertisers want it to be a sign of quality that we all have one, rather than evidence that we haven’t been thinking on our own.  They say that Britney Spears is a genius; they say you can tell by the millions of albums she’s sold.

On the other hand, making money is a rather obvious purpose, a typically modern use for a thing, wouldn’t you say?  And if Britney is useful to the corporations, then Oscar says she is not art.  What about Andy, though?  Andy said to the media once, “Making money is art and working is art and good business is the best art.”  Yeah, but Andy painted Campbell’s soup cans and laughed at his buyers to the media.  His joke on the art world was his true art.  His lifestyle was his true art.  His paintings were like the stage magician’s wand, which when waved about would distract the audience from what the other hand was doing — namely, anything it (he) wanted.

Wilde’s “intense admiration”

The other half of Oscar’s quote could be true, though.  What if excellent art could be measured not by the number of its admirers, but by the intensity of its fans’ admiration?  It’s possible.  If it were true, the corporations sure wouldn’t like for it to get out.  Could you imagine?  Imagine legions of soccer moms and old ladies taking down their Thomas Kinkade paintings and re-framing various images they found at the local bazaar, and why?  Because they like the way they look hanging there on the wall, that’s why, and because nobody anywhere else has got one.  It’s unique.  It’s unique, and for some reason, that’s a good thing, but you sure can’t sell it.  It’s hard to manufacture unique.

I’m not here to figure out exactly what makes good art, though.  That was Aristotle’s thing (the nature of quality, I mean) and he never really nailed it down; I’m arrogant, but not so conceited that I think I’m going to define it in a Wednesday morning web log.  I wanted to find out what it takes to produce mass appeal, and so far I’ve only figured out that people have been fooled into buying things based on their popularity.  This is not going to work.  Quickly, let’s go, let’s go.

Jackson Pollock

This is Jackson Pollock’s work.  It’s called “Galaxy,” and I think that’s fitting.  It looks — something like that.  There are two immediate reactions to a Pollock piece.  Sometimes people say, “Say, that’s a pretty thing,” and other times they say, “Hell, I could do that.”  You know what?  It’s true.  Even a 4 yr. old can do it.  They can do it and make thousands upon thousands of dollars.  This approaches an answer to our problem, which was, how does one go about garnering mass appeal?  How does one snare the positive attention of millions of common people?  The answer lies in a suggestion.  I’m putting it in bold so it stands out to my casual readers.

What if people are commonly of bad taste, whereby corporations sell things of bad taste to satisfy an enormous consumer demand?

Were it true, then it would cause a tailspin of poor taste and reprehensible artistic values after a decade or so.  Consumers would allow marketing geniuses to tell them that mediocre artists produce works of enduring quality.  The public would come to believe that every new thing that everyone purchased had intrinsic benefits because everyone had purchased one.  That’d make selling things to the people even easier, because excellent things are much more rare than commonplace things; it’d be far simpler to convince people that auto-tune makes a song more fashionable than talented vocalists can, whereby great singers wouldn’t have to be found in great supply; it’d be much more straightforward to make splatter paintings more fashionable than, say, expressionism or pre-Rafaelite art, because then big business could have toddlers create a steady stream of high-demand products, pre-framed and ready for their place on the living room wall; it’d be a cinch to sell children’s books to full-grown adults if the adults were convinced that adults everywhere were already reading them.

The real cover of Harry Potter VII, and the pretend cover for adults.

On this last score, one wonders, “Is it necessarily so that great children’s books are poor literature for a man or woman?”  It’s a fair and fine question.  I think that if the reader’s comprehension of the literature is at a child’s level, then children’s books are perfectly appropriate to help him or her learn to read books which deal with mature ideas and circumstances, books written with magnificent poetry and masterful turns of wit and cleverness.  Is it too harsh of me to suggest that adults who read children’s books should be ashamed of themselves unless their reading comprehension is at a child’s level?  Nope.  Here, look: Rowling’s publisher released a second edition of Harry Potter VII, one with a big-boy grownup cover on it, so that mature fans wouldn’t have to be embarrassed for reading baby books in public.  If they’re ashamed of themselves, why should I go easy on them?

Alright, then, we have seen that corporations produce second-rate, mock-up, or ill-suited art for the ignorant masses, and that they manufacture ignorance to boost sales.  Rowling’s people know Harry Potter is not suitable for adult reading, so they facilitate the retardation of adult literacy by disguising consumers’ laziness as a respectable literary endeavor.  Fine.  I believe now that I have an answer.

In order to appeal to the masses of humanity, one need only produce something as near as possible to what most people are already interested in.  The largest number of people is the most homogeneous; the largest number of people is the most average and mediocre; the largest number of people is the most unsurprising, the most unoriginal, the most lacking in ingenuity.  In other words, in order to appeal to the lowest common denominator, one need not trouble oneself; one need only have something truly unimpressive to offer — and the truly unimpressive are sure to snatch it up.

Can it be said that mass appeal actually harms an otherwise quality work of art, then?  Certainly.  Many great works of art stunned and offended audiences because they were innovative and ingenious.  If everyone had accepted the punk rockers, the movement would have been dismantled.  If all the Thomas Kinkaid sort of fans had suddenly found an interest in dadaism, the dadaists would have had to try something else.  If the people who dress unfashionably suddenly donned Gucci and Prada, guess which designers wouldn’t get invited to the next show in Milan.  Can it be said that popularity actually harms art?  Why not, when things like fine art, influential music, and classic literature are continually thrown over for cheap, flash-in-the-pan imitations?  If the people of mediocre taste, values, and education find something irresistible in a certain thing, then the art itself becomes an accomplice.  It’s guilty by association.

This brings us to the final irony, and to me, the funniest.  I’ll let our pop-culture authority close this chapter by elucidating:

“What’s great about this country is that America started the tradition where the richest consumers buy essentially the same things as the poorest.”

-Andy Warhol

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