One of the difficulties of diagnosing contemporary US culture is that we lack perspective. Here’s a helpful ichthyological fable I heard somewhere: Two young little fish are swimming around and they come across a big older fish who asks, “How’s the water, boys?” The little guys are unsure of how to respond and they swim on away from the big fish, befuddled. Then one little fish says to the other, “What’s water?”
I’m aware that stone-age people probably didn’t sit around the campfire discussing what their “culture” was and whether it was any good. Also, one of the major problems of our culture might be that we’re individually self-absorbed and -important enough to spend time explaining its collective characteristics and wondering whether these characteristics are admirable or stupid or inevitable or embarrassing or all of those.
I can quickly respond to such objections, then move to my more important point. 1) We are not stone-age folks, 2) our culture has spent a good deal of $ educating us and perhaps introspection is the price of the ticket, 3) plenty of empirical data suggest that our popular culture is unique in its scope, ubiquity, and velocity, and 4) many “counter” voices (in literature, film, and other arts) suggest that our culture more often retards life than fosters it – it offers not purpose but diversion, individuality and loneliness instead of connection and collective meaning.
One vector to attend to is our culture promising much more ecstatic fun than it can ever possibly deliver. This broken covenant, the world’s cruel gift to those of us born after around 1960, makes it awfully difficult to flourish as individuals. Here in the US there seems to have been made for us, sometime in the not too distant past, a Faustian pact—you’ll be endlessly entertained and all it costs is your soul. Which is why those little fish probably have all the right in the world to tell that older fish exactly how the water feels—whenever they figure it out what water is.
It used to be you could sell your soul for rock and roll, now they don’t even bother asking, for we have nothing left to give. The devil has left the rock arena, and the toothy corporate confidence man has taken his spot. I’m referring now to Motley Crue’s 2009 “Saints of Los Angeles Tour,” which begins February 2nd right here in San Diego (buy tickets), is brought to you (I shit you not) by American Express. But first back up.
In the 1980s, Motley Crue made news by putting out top-selling albums and going on the road as a travelling circus act, playing music and finding time to abuse drugs and alcohol, urinate on fans, beat up concierges, exploit women, and etc. A Rabelaisian romp through the back alleys of our country is what it was, several metaphysical worlds away from button-down Reaganomic officialdom. They were an anti-everything, f the world dervish that gave full throat to and foregrounded, and thereby caricatured, the excesses of US pleasure-driven culture. They served as our soul’s conscience. Whatever line they crossed, they could say, and be correct: “You want us. You need us.”
Aside from being “brought to you by” American Express, the venues the sinister rockers will play on this ’09 tour include Cox Arena (right on San Diego State University’s campus), Quest Center, Alliant Energy Center, Wells Fargo Arena, Bi-Lo Center, Scotiabank Place, Mohegan Sun Arena, and Verizon Wireless Arena. The thing to notice, and why this is the “water” that’s tough to see, is that this isn’t really selling out at all; it’s just what happens. Absurd commercialism is no longer odious; worse, it’s not even funny.
We no longer need Motley Crue; nor do we want them. But they need us. They’re reborn, Phoenixly sober, and now they too genuflect before the great true God who demands nothing, knowing that voluntary fealty is inevitable and forged of far greater stuff. Their smiles have the sheen of snake oil, not the real mischief.
Have you ever worried about something for a long time then realized it already happened? Is that the worst kind of nightmare? Vu déjà? Instead of “I been there before,” (what Huck Finn said in the middle of the 19th century), the 21st century American picaros ask: “What did you expect?”