(Written in November 2007)
Today I looked at the posters on my walls and I started to cry.
As far as openings go, that is probably among the more jarring and cringe-worthy. The reader groans, dreading the onslaught of an angsty teenaged exposé wherein the narrator espouses her unwelcome views against materialism, superficiality, and sexism. Yet another armchair philosopher creeping out of the la-z-boy on up onto a pedestal they mounted themselves. I try my best to avoid clichés, and in that, fall prey to them. Perhaps it is better to embrace the cliché and attempt to express it well rather than to subvert it. Perhaps it is better for me to carefully peel the posters off the wall and place them in a neat pile for later review, rather than lashing out at them with an Exact-o knife.
It is one thing to realize that objects don’t matter and it’s another thing to have them make you angry. I tend to be a relatively mellow person, despite my assertive disposition and tendency to break into song and dance. This weekend, however, I have revisited popular culture after months of crouching below my precariously placed pebble, hiding from the permutations of pop.
The fact that mainstream media glorifies the vapid is well documented. Many who mention this seek refuge among the alternative, which they grow to regard with more leniency. If it is not mass media, it is already a step ahead of the game.
If I watch a music video of French neu rave indie-pop band The Teenagers that voyeuristically presents teenaged girls cavorting on a bed with exposed flesh, I will make excuses and assumptions for the video. The band was making social commentary, I will say. The fact that the women are dressed in unconventional colours with a hipster chic fashion sense supports my argument. The video is stylistically superior to that of the mainstream; the artfulness only emphasizes the intelligence behind its production. The band is recontextualizing the stereotypical with its individual stylistic vision to criticize the mainstream in a visually interesting manner. The problem is, however, that they are using the superficiality they are making a statement against to sell the video. The hypocrisy is pungent, and perhaps even intentional. Afterall, what does the alternative love more than irony? It is an excuse for everything. Every group has its own rationalizations for its follies. Academics will analyse and the mature will state this as matter-of-fact, but to we naive it is somewhat of a revelation.
I had to watch the video twenty-three times before I realize how much it offended me. It’s amazing how intelligence in style can excuse ignorance in substance. Upon first viewing, I was identifying more with the superficial side of myself, not choosing to consult myself as an objective observer. By later viewings, I realized the importance of substance in media, especially that with which one identifies. Because to me, at this exploratory age, a video was not just a video. A poster was not just a poster. A shirt was never just a shirt. What one likes is a reflection of what one is. I saw them as extensions of myself. What we like is what we buy, and in our society, what we buy defines us.
And buying something not that not many other people purchase should not be a Get Out of Jail Free card. Materialism is materialism, self deception is self deception, and your personality is your identity. No matter what style tries to sell you.
Writing on the day (nay, the hour) of an epiphany can be dubious. The ideas are fresh as are the wounds. I look at the posters now and I see illusion. In an effort to be cool I pinned images of pure style without substance. On one wall are the following items: a package of “stylish moustaches” (one for everyday of the week!), a postcard imprinted with the cover of a Nancy Drew book, a poster with a print of a piece of steak, a package containing breath spray that promises to help the user “understand modern art instantly” and an old vinyl record that has been painted to advertise an “Old School Party.” The affect is rather aesthetically appealing and mildly entertaining, but it is little more than that. Design is not a crime, but buying into the illusory identity is. Can the two-toned print of a hunk of steak define me? The question is laughable, and at the time my actions would have answered with a resounding “yes.”
I look back and imagine the glint in my eyes as I handed over the money for the print. What did I hope to achieve? I had pictured pinning it up on the walls of my future residence room, announcing to the building that here slept someone who savvy, sassy and sardonic. I wanted to let the poster speak for me. I did not buy the product simply because it was pretty; I wanted to harness its image to forge an identity.
The fact that commercialism caters to fill our void is not a new concept. Companies look to what we’re missing and attempt to supply it, or at least to convince us that this is what they are doing. It is when the void-filling goes beyond the singular act that we run into difficulties. The cultural context can become the framework on which we hang ourselves.
A weekend spent entirely indoors can be challenging. At times, this is necessary for reflection. Recently, I have been blind to everything examined in the preceding paragraphs. For months I have avoided television and shopping malls in a scorning of mass media, and lately have extended this to my old favourite websites, magazines and podcasts. I have replaced image with people and concepts. This made re-entering the realm of rampant superficiality a jarring experience. When the room is re-entered with an eye for objectivity, the results are unsettling. The realization clicks, and the physical manifestation of it slides down my cheeks. The tears tasted salty and I was afraid.
I put the transition in terms that I could understand. I was “crossing-over” to the other side, I told myself. The objects were only empty now and so I turned to a vague haze of potential promise. I drummed my fingers on my desk, entering all the enticing possibilities that I could experience. The concepts I could harness to give a new belonging. I related this to someone important with fervour, not realizing that it contained less hope than desperation.
Then he told me something I needed to hear. That the romanticization of crossing-over was but a last grasp for the drama that wouldn’t come. That the beautification of maturity was but another attempt to glorify the everday, a secondary exercise in self-deception. I was trying to replace the fabricated identity I was leaving behind with a new one. The illusory walls crumbled around me, leaving only reality. A skeletal figure that left as much room for emptiness as potential.
I wish I could make this a Chicken Soup tale and tell you that I harnessed the elements, rose to the challenge and rode on into a sunset that symbolized the end of long day. But this is a quiet resignation. The true change doesn’t happen with a bang, but a whimper. Perhaps the true tragedy is that I cannot find a poetic means of instilling hope in the reader. In all honesty, it can go either way.
The beauty lies in the choice. You can re-create the delusion, insert blocks of lost innocence that will never truly settle and shift them back into place again and again whenever they fall. Or you can stare down the barebones and listen to the whisper in their marrow. You can shut your mouth and start opening your eyes.
I need to accept who I am, and the inevitable evolution away from the easy. I’ve realized that there is little more to it than quiet resignation: the biting of the lip, the swallowing hard, and the steeling oneself for failure. There is little more frightening than the silence of growing up.