Thursday, November 17, 2011

Our Obsession with Simulacrum and How We Got There

The Kardashian family: portrait of a group of people
who represent literally no one you know, nor will you
ever know. Futureworld Androids, the lot of them.
Even as we all decry "reality television" (one of the most ironic oxymorons, ever) and the eternal parade of mediocre celebrities that are constantly on display through every single media outlet known to man, and even as we all secretly watch a handful of shows "because they are all so bad," and make remarks about the our nascent schadenfreude-ian tendencies...nothing ever changes. Ryan Seacrest continues to make more televsion that is rabidly consumed by sixteen year old girls, twenty four year old mothers, and thirty four year old gay men. I don't know when those groups became the dominent demographic of our culture in this country, but I think I know when it started.

What follows is an exploratory essay based on my life experience. I have no hard data to back this up. But I think I've got something, here, and I think that if I'm not a hundred percent right, I'm also not a hundred percent wrong, either. Feel free to disagree with me or educate me as needed.

When MTV first appeared in 1981, it was not allowed in our home. The reason, I was told, was that it was "communism." I didn't understand it. I thought my step father was being faceatious. After all, if he was suppressing it, wasn't THAT what Communism was about? It bothered me that there was a television channel I didn't have access to, but all was not lost. HBO had a show called "Friday Night Videos" that showed most of the cool videos I was missing out on, so I didn't feel too out of the loop. As a result, I learned to simply not mention the current musical trend, lest I be subjected to another diatribe about "propaganda." Inevitably, several years later, when MTV was added to our cable package, I became a regular consumer. This lasted through the rest of my teen years and right up to about 1990. More on that, later.

It's widely known that the first song played on MTV was "Video Killed the Radio Star" by the Buggles. It was played, without any trace of irony (because that didn't exist, either, until 1994 when Chandler Bing from Friends couldn't form a sentence without invoking it), and it was a doomsaying, of sorts. Video did, in fact, kill the radio star. If you don't believe me, then you need to hear the cautionary tale of Romeo Void.

The California-based band rode the New Wave crest with ease, and they got a lot of college airplay for a song called "Never Say Never." The combination of provocative lyrics and a catchy hook, delivered in a kind of "Come-hither Valley Girl" pout, was dynamite. For about three weeks, everyone was singing the song and chatting it up.

Until the video came out, that is.


The most flattering picture of Romeo Void ever taken.
Let me say up front that what happened to the band was wrong, so very wrong. But everyone took one look at the band and promptly, spitefully, lost interest. The lead singer did not look like how any of us pictured her looking. Instead of looking like Annebella Lwin from Bow Bow Bow, she was short, Ruebenesque, and apple-cheeked. I’m being nice now. Back then, no one was being nice. The video wasn’t on MTV more than three weeks. She just wasn’t what we wanted to look at. Not in the age of Madonna, the Go-Gos, and the other various waifs, trollops, and succubi that now regularly appeared in the midst of these new music videos.

These guys look like a Hall & Oates Cover Band.
And that’s how it all started. But it’s not really surprising when you consider that the network was founded on Beautiful People. The executives who built MTV wanted rock bands to host the shows on the channel, but none of the ones they asked wanted to come in from the road, touring, etc. and give up four to six hours a day for months on end. So, they did the next best thing. Instead of getting some rock stars who looked like regular people, they got some regular people who looked like rock stars.  And it changed the music industry forever.

 Meatloaf, circa 1978.
Before MTV, rock and roll didn’t have to be pretty (and it frequently wasn’t). It just had to be good. Musicianship and singing ability was all that was required to be a rock star. If you were pretty, it was a bonus. It helped. But it wasn’t a requirement. Sure, Fleetwood Mac had Stevie Nicks, but it also had Mick Fleetwood. Have you ever seen Steely Dan? Dire Straits? What about Meatloaf? I’m not talking about older Meatloaf, after he lost someweight for Bat Out of Hell II (and suddenly was making appearances on MTV). I’m talking about young, corpulent, 70’s heyday Meatloaf, singing “Paradise By the Dashboard Light.” Can you imagine seeing him tucked between Duran Duran and Adam Ant? Of course not, because it didn’t happen. Nor would it have.


Suddenly, in order to be a rock star, you had to have “the look,” too. You had to be a beautiful person, or at the very least, not ugly. The music took a back seat to the image. Look at the major bands of the 1980s. They are all gorgeous. Some of them were so pretty, we thought they were women. All of the headbangers wore make-up, for Pete’s sake. Boy George was so dolled up, he actually fooled a few young men for about a week. Whenever “Do You Really Want to Hurt Me” came on, most of us thought to ourselves, “yes, yes we do,” and a small number of teenaged boys thought to themselves, “Hey, that tall chick is kinda cute.” Funny, when you think about it. I’m sure at least one of those easily confused boys is now a republican congressman.

MTV became arguably the most dominant influence on my generation, and also to the generation right behind me. I’m at the end of Generation X, and MTV dutifully courted us for most of the 80’s. They were the first network unafraid to change up what they were doing to appeal to the youth market, and it’s always been thus. In the 1990s, most of my peers tuned out, because we’d moved on, but not MTV. They were right there, still in the thick of it, perpetually adolescent in their tastes, and eager to sell to the teens whatever they thought we’d all buy.

Marketing to teens is, of course, nothing new. The tactics were invented in the wake of Elvis Presley and the Beatles and perfected with bands like The Monkees, the Partridge Family, Donnie and Marie, and even Leif Garrett. But that was always considered “teenybopper music.” As Elvis got older, so did Elvis’ fans, and his music changed and matured accordingly. Elvis never really made full use of television the way that MTV was able to drum youth culture and the things that matter to youth culture, incessantly, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. This was something new, and it was different, and it didn’t take long for it to transform from a privilege to a right.

More than a decade after they first came on-air, videos had ceased to be wildly inventive experiments in storytelling and become largely formulaic marketing tools. There were exceptions, of course, but why think when you can just pull a video template out of the “tried and true” handbook? Just make sure you get enough close-ups of the lead singer, and you’ve got a gold record on your hands. No, MTV needed to expand its offerings if they wanted to remain viable in the eyes of the kids. And that’s how we got to “The Real World.”

The Real World's First Cast. Beautiful and Void.
The show’s producers originally wanted to produce a soap opera aimed at their younger audience, featuring people in their twenties. When the cost of hiring actors proved to be too exorbitant, they did the next best thing: they hired ordinary, if beautiful, people, and shoved them into a giant loft that they could have never afforded on their own, and asked the pointed question, “What will happen?  Will these seven strangers get along?” And the answer, of course, was “Pretty much, yeah.”

I’m sure it must have been a bummer for the producers. They were expecting—well, I don’t know what they were expecting. But they initially sold the show to us as a kind of social experiment, and I admit it, I was just as interested as the rest of the world. But aside from a couple of minor dust-ups, such as the white girl from Georgia asking the black girl from Brooklyn if she was a drug dealer because she had a pager (a cultural gaff—hilarious!) and a half-captured argument between two roommates, everyone else got along, or at least, tried to, because it’s miserable living in a house with people you otherwise hate.

As it turned out, those two incidents were the audience’s favorite moments from the show. Mostly because they were the two episodes where something actually happened. You didn’t have to tell the producers twice. Starting with the second season, they deliberately tried to find the biggest, most disparate group of assholes possible, and by the third season, they were actively inveigling and fomenting discord and filming the inevitable slap fights that followed. NOW it was “real.” It was the birth of reality television. And it was aimed squarely at teenagers. 

It wasn't long before every would-be actor was vying to get on the show, and in fact, they did hire actors in later seasons. Even when they didn't have actors to help the "plots" along, the producers were able to stir up enough trouble to keep everyone fighting...because that's how real life would be, if it were a soap opera aimed at teenagers. But it's never billed as that, is it? It's always "reality tv." And so a generation of kids grew up thinking that life after high school was just as epic and angst-filled as life in high school. Especially when dealing with strangers.

Here they are: the fake people you love to hate.
You can draw a straight line from those early episodes of “The Real World” straight to “The Jersey Shore.” This latest cultural embarrassment is no less disturbing because it’s now being watched by adults who think it’s awful, demented fun, and they think the rest of the world is laughing right along with them. But even as Snooki and The Situation are fighting because they all went to the club together, but didn’t talk to one another, and spend the rest of the episode working it all out, we are culturally dying a little bit inside, because this is what we’re replacing Shakespeare with. Sure, there was backstabbing, deceit, and discord in the Bard’s plays, too, but at least there was more at stake than missing a tanning bed appointment. There was a commentary inherent to the material that spoke to the human condition. “The Jersey Shore” is just bread and circus fare. It’s feeding gladiators to the lions.  

We're living in it. Or at least watching it.
It's all fake. None of these geletin-heads are from New Jersey. They aren't real people. They are simulacrum, artificial constructs. They are really pretty Chucky Cheese robots to dance and sing for our amusement. The same goes for the "Real Housewives of Fill-in-the-Blank" and all of the other rich and famous people like Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian, who we'd never heard anything about until their sex tape got "leaked." And they didn't even do THAT convincingly, either. 

Think about it: do you know ANYONE who has anything close to approximating their lives? Pick a show, any show, and see if you can duplicate it with your friends and family. You can't. And it's not because you're not rich, famous, and spoiled rotten. It's because you're a real person with a job, hobbies, interests, and actual relationships. So many of those shows seem like they are put together by Martians trying to approximate our culture. When did ANY of this become any kind of standard for life, entertainment, or culture?

We're worshiping the androids from Westworld, who are programmed to fit a specific need and nothing else. 
It's not enough that we routinely reward mediocrity, but now with reality television, we celebrate it. These animated shells that perform for us, that get into fights, and dress like Barbie dolls, and do their level best to make their lives interesting, are what passes for celebrity in the 21st century. Famous for nothing except looking good (and not necessarily charismatic, either--just pretty), exalted for things like perfumes and clothing lines that they did nothing more than select, and of course, constant fodder for the 24-hour news cycle and endless spin-off tv shows. Who asked for this? The easy answer is, "We did," but I don't really think that's true. I suspect someone is pitching to the lowest common denominator in our society, and they are throwing strikes.

What can we do about it? I'm not sure. But I'm not done talking about this.
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