THE NEW YORKER MAGAZINE – March 30, 1998
We’ve come a long way from “[expletive deleted]” and “[barnyard epithet].”
FOR BETTER OR FOR WORSE, America has always been a place devoted to the literal, the unambiguous, the explicit. In all the verbatim details of the Clinton sex scandals, amazing as they are, there has been something consistently, recognizably American. Remember Lyndon Johnson spontaneously exposing the fresh surgical scars on his belly in 1965? The Jones-Lewinsky-Willey episode is to politics and the media as extreme sports are to sports—wild and dangerous but not unfamiliar.
Americans are eager to judge and to be judged by outward appearances. This is the land of the passionately blatant—of Christian fundamentalism, Hasidic Judaism, flower children. This is the land of the plainspoken Yankee and the scream therapist, of Las Vegas and the twelve steps, of Howard Stern and Joe Friday, of shameless revelation and unembellished facts. “It would be well,” Dickens wrote in 1842, if Americans “loved the Real less, and the Ideal somewhat more.” The commitment to obviousness, to transparency, is what makes both the Shakers and Donald Trump so profoundly American: ’tis a gift to be simple, but it’s a kick to give Matt Lauer a televised tour of the fantastic penthouse you’re trying to unload for twenty million dollars, too.
For a few mid-century decades, America, in its maturing young adulthood, seemed to be moving toward European civilization’s embrace of the elliptical and the difficult, of connotations and subtexts: important painting became abstract; serious buildings abandoned decoration as corny and primitive; significant fiction got murky (Faulkner, Pynchon, Gaddis, Barthelme); religion turned vague and metaphorical. Particular meanings, such as they were, had to be sussed out. Opacity was cool.
But there has been a change. Since the late nineteen-seventies, literalism has been gathering force. The renaissance of figurative painting, biographical theatre, narrative history, and postmodernism of almost every stripe is about a surrender to unapologetic literalism. Modernist architecture seldom announced its meanings, but then, in the sixties, along came Robert Venturi, who celebrated both Las Vegas and familiar iconic buildings. Now we reflexively see buildings as billboards geared toward high-speed glimpses: architecture that gets right to the point.
This renewed embrace of explicitness has lately spread all over the ur-American realms of merchandising, TV, the mass market. A new line of women’s shoes called Wannabe seems like a joke (why not just call them Behind the Curve, or Loser?), and two of the more thoughtful younger designers—Tom Ford and Marc Jacobs—have lines featuring logo-wear: Ford is happy to affix big Gucci “G”s to belt buckles and shoes, and Jacobs has spattered his first collection for Louis Vuitton with the familiar “LV” symbol. While this season’s stylish woman may resemble a piece of luggage, she will unmistakably resemble a piece of very expensive designer luggage.
The fragrance industry, adjacent to fashion but wholly propelled by marketing voodoo, and thus an even purer litmus test of the zeitgeist, has gone wildly, thoroughly literal. The big perfumes of the past, the classic brands—Shalimar, L’Air du Temps, Chanel No. 5—became successful by merely suggesting, and almost never explicitly asserting, their romantic auras. Connotation was everything. Now fragrance nomenclature is blatant, direct. There are two ways to go. A majority of the new perfume names consist of a simple, very specific nice word: Beautiful (Estée Lauder), Pleasures (also Lauder), Modern (Banana Republic), and, inevitably, Happy (Clinique). The other option for naming a new fragrance is to appropriate nouns from the dark side, perfume as psychopathology: Obsession (Calvin Klein), Longing (Coty), Contradiction (also Klein), Egoïste (Chanel), and, most remarkably, Envy (Gucci). (The fragrances Acquisitive and Delusion do not yet exist, as far as we know.)
One view of this development is that it marks a return to good old American candor. The hugely successful line of “. . . for Dummies” how-to books (“The Internet for Dummies,” “Fly-Fishing for Dummies,” and so on) is an example of this: simple, practical advice for pragmatic people too busy to bother concealing their ignorance. But most of the current manifestations are not exactly Norman Rockwellian. If you want to open restaurants where the main attraction is young waitresses with large breasts, you call the restaurants Hooters. How about a chain of discount tobacco outlets? You call it Cigarettes Cheaper. Nuance has never been the strong suit of show business, and film is a literalist medium, but thirty years ago only a tiny minority of Americans had ever seen a pornographic movie; last year the average American household watched six porn videos.
Happy perfume and Hooters’ fries undoubtedly appeal to different audiences, as do William Bennett’s “Book of Virtues” and Beavis and Butt-head’s “This Book Sucks,” but what makes all of them big sellers is the same impulse. Sentimental or vulgar, revelling in the straightforward and the brazen is their common denominator. In 1993, when “Beavis and Butt-head” premièred on MTV, it was shocking and funny to hear the animated stars say “This sucks” over and over again. Now, on “South Park,” the Beavis and Butt-head for the second half of the decade, it requires a singing turd and the line “Kyle’s mom is a big fat bitch” to generate the same pop attention, and it isn’t as funny. We’re all Beavis and Butt-head now. What was too coarse for polite conversation a few years ago has become the mainstream’s vernacular.
In the last few months, a casual scanner of the media could have happened upon Conan O’Brien and a radio d.j. saying the Spice Girls suck, G.Q. saying soybeans suck, Fortune saying Disney’s animated movies have sucked, and the buttoned-down chairman of Intuit software telling a conference of C.E.O.s that his advertising sucked. The word “fuck” recently appeared in a piece of fiction excerpted on the Web site of the New York Times—the New York Times! The Wall Street Journal reported that, according to Howard Kurtz’s new book on the White House propaganda machine, the President’s press secretary described the First Lady to reporters as “the mummy [Clinton]’s been fucking.” The most talked-about new plays this year are “ ‘Art’,” which is about art, and “Shopping and Fucking,” which is about what you’d expect.
On “60 Minutes” a few weeks ago, Mike Wallace, interviewing Sally Quinn about the Clinton scandals, used the word “pussy,” but the show bleeped him—an interesting, awkward, real-time moment in the transition to the new explicitness. What is the appropriate response to the epidemic of stark obviousness, high-concept literalism, rude candor? Is it thumbs up or thumbs down? Neither. Some of it is refreshing; some of it is appalling; a lot of it is amusing; most of it is just the American way. By definition, therefore, it doesn’t totally suck. ©