Q: What do you call someone who looks just like you, who you’ve never met?
A. A stupid fucking hipster.
Yes, the hipster has long served as a convenient scapegoat for people who aspire to be hip without the “-ster”. Onto them, we project our insecurities about our own superficiality, inauthenticity, and even insecurity itself. What better way to spackle over one’s embarrassing desire to be cool, then to point at some guy wearing pants a millimeter skinnier than one’s own and say “see that guy? He’s obviously desperate to be cool. Sad, really.” But hipsters aren’t just a collective figment of our neurotic late-capitalist imaginations; they’re also a trend. Since hipsters are defined by trendiness, this represents a meta-trend, a trend in favor of trendiness itself. In “The Hipster Trap,” Steven Kurutz grapples with the contradictions and Derridean aporias created by his own internally incoherent mental conception of the “hipster.” Continue reading “Trend of the Week: Hipster Ubiquity”→
Everyone always makes such a big deal about search engine optimization, but I don’t see anything impressive about it. Search engine optimization is easy. For instance, let’s say you’re a blogger, and you have a target audience who is interested in a variety of topics, such as “David Brooks idiot,” “David Brooks stupid,” “David Brooks hack,” “David Brooks asshole,” “David Brooks dickhead,” “David Brooks imbecile,” “David Brooks sucks,” “David Brooks wack,” “worst David Brooks,” “David Brooks waste of organic matter,” and “fire David Brooks.” Just create blog posts about those topics, using those words, and internet success will be yours! Continue reading “The Two Stupid Faces of David Brooks: David Brooks Is an Idiot, Part III”→
This trend piece comes to us from Teddy Wayne, bestselling novelist and author of one million mildly to somewhat amusing one-sentence articles for McSweeney’s. (For those not familiar with McSweeney’s, it is an online humor site for people who hate dick jokes and love those Yelp reviews that are in the form of an open letter to an abstract entity, but wish they were a little edgier.) But he’s not just a disarmingly quirky observer of modern mores; he’s also a concerned and judgmental observer of modern mores. For instance, one day Wayne was on Amtrak, and overheard four debutantes conversing. He found their discussion to be humorous, so he began typing what they said and posting it on Facebook for his friends to laugh at. I know what you’re thinking: “That’s a really cool story. It’s a shame that only Teddy Wayne’s Facebook friends got to see those posts, when they should have been made available for everyone to read. Teddy Wayne is too modest, making fun of teenage girls on Facebook and then trying to get out of taking credit for it.”
American culture abounds with knee-jerk displays of patriotism. Fourth of July fireworks, Presidents’ Day, elections, baseball games, football games, gun shows, the Country Music Awards, pep rallies, NRA conventions, even the state fair — all come with flag-waving, anthem-singing, and the implicit belief that America is the best because we have the most “freedom.” But does this assumption comport with facts, or is it a reductive, even jingoistic oversimplification? The naïve citizen would claim that freedom means the ability to choose the direction your life will take, or a lack of undue burdens like oppression and bigotry. These definitions create a false binary, putting freedom in the “good” category while consigning so-called “evils” like slavery, totalitarianism, unjust laws, bigotry, poverty and lack of opportunity to the “bad” category. That kind of black-and-white thinking might fly in kindergarten, but it simply won’t do for the sophisticated readers of the Paper of Record! They demand nuanced, rigorous thought.
Picture an educated, culturally literate member of the upper middle class. Someone who’s in touch with art, cuisine, music, literature. This person has a professional job and lives in an urban center. Overall, her or his lot in life is a fortunate one. But this person isn’t getting any younger. The carefree undergraduate days of doing drugs and staying up until the dawn are over — five, ten, maybe even twenty-five years in the past. This person could slide gracefully into obsolescence and let the younger generation have their outlandish trends, but that option isn’t too appealing. After all, in Today’s Globally Connected World of Social Media, each vicissitude of taste is on display, vulnerable to critique by people who are skinnier and go to more parties. Any evidence of lameness will be immediately noted and remembered forever. This person feels painfully exposed! In these circumstances, keeping up to date feels essential — even as it becomes more unattainable with each Pitchfork Music Festival that goes by.
Does this sound familiar? Yes, New York Times reader, it’s a description of you! Or so the typical New York Times culture writer appears to believe. Maybe it isn’t. But it’s definitely a description of the typical New York Times culture writer. And these authors’ thoughts on the issues of relevance, timeliness and hipness are instructive. Because they are offered up to the gaze of millions of readers, their struggles for cool are those of the average social media user, writ large. In the case of these beleaguered scribes (though hopefully not the rest of us), the result is a hideous vicious cycle of self-conscious navel-gazing, ironic quipping, defensive posturing, and counterintuitive trend-prognisticating designed to make the writer feel ahead of the curve.
Hence all the articles about “New Speakeasy in Bushwick” and “Meditation is the New Botox” and whatnot. This discourse’s ostensible purpose is to help us understand the trending topics of today, so we can feel like the stylish young things we once were. But cultural phenomena are ephemeral, appearing and disappearing like the wind. And no one really cares about a new line of cruelty-free fountain pen ink or artisanal baking soda, anyway. Paying attention to the pieces’ actual subject matter does us no good. If we wish to grasp the essence of New York Timesian cool, we must get beyond the minutia to the “deep structure” that underlies it.
Frank Bruni’s accession to the position of New York Times editorialist was announced in May by Andrew Rosenthal (no relation to former chief editor A.M. Rosenthal) (just kidding, he’s his son). The op-ed page editor suggested that Bruni was qualified by virtue of his ability to provide a “sharp, opinionated look at a big event of the last week, from a different or unexpected angle, or a small event that was really important but everyone seems to have missed, or something entirely different,” presumably involving a medium-sized event. Further lending gravitas is that fact that the former restaurant critic’s NYT career has “spanned…part of a papacy.” (This is true of many events, but it does sound impressive: “We’ve been sitting here for part of a papacy, waiting for our appetizers! This service is atrocious!”)
But I believe he does. Oh, he knows it all too well. Whatever his faults of relevance or coherence, Bruni’s work is distinguished for its firm grasp of the New York Times house style — that mélange of dad-joke whimsy, inspiring truisms, fake sociology, celebrity snark, magnificent scorn for the lowbrow, and horse-race election reporting, all united by a pervading tone of NPR blandness and upper-middle-class obliviousness. Frank Bruni’s writing could appear scrawled on a bathroom wall, or crumpled in a bottle that washed up on the beach, or blazoned in the sky in letters of fire, and you’d still be like “is that from the New York Times?” (Although you might mistake it for Gentzlinger.)
So by understanding Bruni’s literary techniques, we’ll understand the essence of the Times editorial page. In no particular order, here they are.
It may sometimes seem like women face an impossible task: Whether it’s motherhood, professional life or just walking down the street, ladies are vulnerable to the conflicting demands and judgmental expectations of society. A woman is liable to be judged on tiny details — of speech, behavior, even the clothes she wears — and must negotiate the conflicting dangers of being labeled too butch or too feminine, too assertive or too timid, too prudish or too sexy.
But if you think that sounds hard, it’s nothing compared to what New York Times writers have to deal with. Just look at the first sentence of Ruth La Ferla’s article “Women Enjoy the Cool Comfort of Summer Dresses“: “Trends come and go, but the dress persists, secure in its status as a metaphor.”
The New York Times has a strange idea of fun. They seem eager to give me, the reader, tips on enjoyable things to do with my free time. But the activities suggested aren’t always so relevant to my interests. I could become an influential industry bigwig, then spend years befriending club promoters and buying $1000 “bottle service” to earn myself a permanent spot on the guest list at a trendy night club. I could go to an exhibition of designer nightstands featuring such artists as Sting. (“I liked the idea to let men conjure up their story for the nightstand. It’s almost role reversal,” says the curator.) Or stop in at a racist country club to sample a delicacy called a “frozen tomato” that consists of “essentially tomato ice cream (except, instead of cream, it’s got cream cheese, cottage cheese and mayonnaise), served in a round scoop on a lettuce leaf with a dollop of more mayonnaise on top).” I could collect Victorian taxidermy, or knit Brobdignagian cozies for public statuary.
Still, for every bizarre activity that they praise, there is another relatively harmless pastime they disparage. Why? Maybe it’s too lowbrow. Maybe it’s because the fans of said pastime are presumed to be illiterate proles who don’t understand the consequences of their actions. Or maybe it’s for the opposite reason — the pastime is question has gotten too popular with the hip, trend-chasing urbanites whom the writers fondly imagine comprise their core readership. There must be something dangerous about it. But what? In a selection of recent articles, we’ll explore how Times scribes find fear in the benign.
“About 2,310 results for ‘I respect David Brooks'”
“About 7,360 results for ‘David Brooks is an idiot'”
David Brooks is an idiot. His writing is terrible, and his “ideas” (insofar as he has any) are horrible. But analyzing the badness of David Brooks is a tricky proposition. There are three reasons why. First, because it’s been done before. Unlike such previous targets of my blog as Pamela Paul, Neil Ganzlinger and Philip Galanes whose writings are simply ignored by most readers with normal-range cognitive abilities, Brooks is often actively denounced by serious thinkers. His work, while no more thoughtful, logical or well-informed than that of the average Styles-section celebrity profile hack, nonetheless draws many times more commentary and debate simply because it appears in the Opinion section. However copious his lies, evasions and self-serving half-truths, political bloggers debunk them as soon as they appear.
But some people must like his forays into film review and cultural satire. And indeed, some people do — just look at his Facebook page or the sales figures for his dumbass books. The veneer of likeableness is working. In fact, that’s the third reason that Brooks is so difficult to write about. The reasons why he’s horrible are indistinguishable from the reasons why he’s admired and praised. He’s the go-to conservative for liberals who want to feel open-minded, the guy they can “respect” for his apparent intelligence and moderation.
What he offers are the same talking points most other conservatives spout (cutting taxes for the wealthy, cutting social programs for the poor, old-fashioned family values because the new ones make you feel kinda weird). But he wants you to think he came to these conclusions all by himself, through pure logic. So: Every column considers the liberal point of view, then reluctantly concludes that it’s wrong (and laughably soft-headed) yet again. Every column contains watered-down criticisms of the Republican party, thus showing that he’s willing to criticize the Republicans, even though they’re on the right side of every major issue. Every column contains allusions to important-sounding authors and philosophical concepts, which grant an air of learning to his Limbaugh-isms and demonstrates that anyone who disagrees with him just doesn’t understand federalism/the Enlightenment/cognitive science/whatever. Most importantly, Brooks doesn’t come right out and say anything that would grate upon the ear of the affluent Beltway insiders who read Brooks’ column and attend Brooks’s cocktail parties. So his points are garbled, vague, and written in a kind of pundit-ese that prevents Brooks from offending subscribers and from making a coherent point alike.
The Times, the Atlantic, and (alas) even the New Yorker may be fooled by this sort of thing, but I’m not. I can see through him. Below, I’ll go through a recent Brooks piece and translate it into regular human words.
“The Missing Fifth” concerns a crisis affecting America’s job market and causing untold suffering to thousands — of business owners! They can’t find anyone to work at their companies, because the government keeps giving everyone free money to stay home in bed. That’s the basic idea of this piece, but let’s take a look at the details.
“In 1910, Henry Van Dyke wrote a book called ‘The Spirit of America,’ which opened with this sentence: ‘The Spirit of America is best known in Europe by one of its qualities — energy.'” Who’s Henry Van Dyke? Is he an important figure in intellectual history, and on what did he base his conclusions? Why should we listen to NO TIME FOR THAT NOW! David Brooks has read a book, it’s from the past and written by a person who, based on his name, is a white dude. It’s probably a classic of the Western canon. You probably can’t even read! While David Brooks was reading a book, you were out getting jailhouse tattoos, listening to Insane Clown Posse, drinking Four Loko, huffing ether from a jar, pissing on the lawn, shooting at a lawnmower with an assault rifle, and recklessly conflating “democracy” with “republicanism” in your understanding of America’s founding institutions. David Brooks knows that about you. That’s the sort of person you are, if you disagree with him.
Okay, I just looked up The Spirit of America. The quote Brooks cites doesn’t appear until page 113, the opening of Chapter 4. Maybe when Brooks said the book “opens” with that sentence, he meant that one of the middle parts of the book opens with that sentence. I know when I read a book, I like to skip right to Chapter 4, where the meat is. The first three chapters are usually just filler anyway. (He totally didn’t read the book.)
“This has always been true.” Your method of proving something has always been true is to just tell us it “has always been true”? You shouldn’t be writing for the New York Times, you should be getting a C Minus on your first freshman English paper. Anyway, the argument here is: One writer says Americans are energetic; because that was considered true one hundred years ago, its has always been true; because it was considered true, it must be true; because it’s true, it’s the right way for things to be. That seems like an awfully tenuous intellectual edifice to build, based on one quote from a book nobody’s ever read.
“Americans have always been known for their manic dynamism.” We have? I thought we had always been known for our passionate, sensual natures, love of wine, high fashion and existentialism, and penchant for debating philosophy. No wait, that’s the French. Hang on a second… haven’t we always been known known for our huge wigs, flamboyant attire, transgressive, gender-bending personae, and double-entendre-laden public performances? No, that’s drag queens. Well, fuck! I wish you got to pick your country’s ultimate unchanging essence, instead of just being stuck with one. “Manic dynamism” doesn’t even sound cute. We sound like a bunch of methheads at a Marketing Strategy Optimization seminar.
“Energy has always been the country’s saving feature. ” Fuck, again. I though our saving features were democracy and the Bill of Rights and shit. Now I find out it’s people’s willingness to stand up, walk around, and perform actions — any actions at all? I’m moving to Jamaica.
“Thus, Americans should be especially alert to signs that the country is becoming less vital and industrious.” Even if you accept the freakishly deformed syllogism with which Brooks opened, that doesn’t make any sense. If we started out more vital and industrious, shouldn’t we need to be less alert to declining levels of vitality? We could lose, like, 78 percent of our industriousness, and we’d still be better off than Greece or Italy. They’re the ones who should be “especially alert”! Ba-zang!
“In 1954, about 96 percent of American men between the ages of 25 and 54 worked. Today that number is around 80 percent. One-fifth of all men in their prime working ages are not getting up and going to work.” They went from “manic dynamism” to not even getting up? They sound bipolar. Maybe in they’re just in a depressive phase right now. The good news is, they’re going to feel great when they swing back the other way in 55 years. All staying up until 4 in the morning, scrubbing their apartment with a toothbrush, going on $5000 Ebay shopping sprees, drunk-texting their resume to all their LinkedIn contacts, rebuilding the nation’s infrastructure just for the hell of it. Forget about a “missing fifth,” it’s going to be more like a missing gallon of vodka! The U.S. economy is going to be off the chain!
But Brooks isn’t concerned with these men’s mental health problems. He’s also not concerned with other reasons for not having a job, such as being a full-time dad or not being able to find a job. No, he’s got his eye on a different reason for slacking off: disabilities. “The number of Americans on the permanent disability rolls, meanwhile, has steadily increased. Ten years ago, 5 million Americans collected a federal disability benefit. Now 8.2 million do. That costs taxpayers $115 billion a year, or about $1,500 per household.” Brooks The American taxpayer is being forced to give his money away to a bunch of layabouts whose legs, arms or spines aren’t appropriatedly dynamic.
“Part of the problem has to do with human capital. More American men lack the emotional and professional skills they would need to contribute.” “Emotional skills?” Are we hiring them to talk about their feelings? If we were hiring men based on their emotional skills, a hundred percent of them would be unemployed — amirite, ladies?! JUST KIDDING.
“There are probably more idle men now than at any time since the Great Depression, and this time the problem is mostly structural, not cyclical.” “Structural, not cyclical” means the jobs they used to do welding cars or building railroads or whatever have disappeared. The “cycle” (recession) isn’t to blame, so everyone should shut up about fruity liberal stuff like stimulating the economy and creating jobs. It sounds counterintuitive if you say it like that, though. That’s why Brooks has fancied it up with the phrase “structural, not cyclical,” which sounds like a classical epigram or something. It’s like the “If the gloves don’t fit, you must acquit” of trickle-down economics.
“Sectors like government, health care and leisure have been growing, generating jobs for college grads. Sectors like manufacturing, agriculture and energy have… not been generating more jobs.” Hey wait a minute, why are we talking about job skills and college degrees, when this article started out pinning the blame on disabled people? I don’t think David Brooks knows what a disability is. David Brooks thinks “disabled” means the head businessman of big company calls you up and says “Hello, sir, I’d like to offer you a prestigious job,” and you’re like “I’m sorry, I’m ‘not able’ to come in to work, because I’m too tired to get out of bed, plus I don’t have a college degree!” And that’s how you get on disability! No wonder he’s sick of giving them money!
“These men will find it hard to attract spouses.” Men only “attract spouses” by being rich and powerful. David Brooks must have learned that by reading his half-assed book that he based on a bunch of half-assed evo-psych articles. More on that in my next post. Anyway, I think if these guys are really having difficulty attracting “spouses,” they should be like “baby, my disability may be costing your household $1500 a year, but I’ve got manic dynamism in my pants! My tool is at its prime working age! Wanna help me find my missing fifteen inches? We’re all vital and industrious when you turn out the lights!”
“It can’t be addressed through the sort of short-term Keynesian stimulus some on the left are still fantasizing about. It can’t be solved by simply reducing the size of government, as some on the right imagine.” This sentence shows that Brooks is fair and balanced, because he says one bad thing about the Republicans for every bad thing he says about the Democrats. But he always uses a worse verb or adjective for the Democrats. Like, they’re always “navel-gazing” or “hand-wringing” or being “pedantic” or “elitist” or, in this case, “fantasizing.” Yeah, I really wish the left would stop “fantasizing” about stimulating the economy, what a bunch of escapists. Why can’t they see that this job shortage isn’t cyclical, like a menstrual cycle? The economy is nothing like a menstrual cycle! It’s “systematic,” like a manly pair of testicles! Or something.
More about “reinvigorating the missing fifth.” “If this were a smart country, we’d be having a debate about how to shift money from programs that provide comfort and toward programs that spark reinvigoration.” This means David Brooks wants to take away people’s unemployment and disability benefits, and give them a case of Five-Hour Energy. Problem solved!
“Discretionary spending, which might be used to instigate dynamism, is declining.” It might be used to instigate dynamism?!?! Here I’ve been pissing away all my discretionary income on exacerbating ebullience. Of course, the liberals probably want to spend it on optimizing amelioration, those hippies.
“Health care spending, which mostly provides comfort to those beyond working years, is expanding.” This is the second time he’s mentioned “comfort.” I think “comfort” means food, shelter and medical care. Fuckin’ disabled people, unemployed people and (apparently now) retirees! Always wanting to be coddled with the basic necessities of human survival! “Ya know, when I get down in the dumps, the one thing that cheers me up is putting on my sweats, sitting down in front of House reruns, maintaining sufficient caloric intake to sustain life, and not going blind from macular degeneration!”
“Democrats have gone into demagogic overdrive calling premium support ideas “privatization” or “the end of Medicare.” “Demagogic” means means it’s not fair that one of the Democrats’ policies is popular, and they’re talking about it. Also, they didn’t make up obfuscatory new jargon to describe it. For instance, “premium support ideas” isn’t demagogic, because no one could figure out what it means in a million years. “Overdrive” means bitching about something one tenth as much as Republican politicians bitch about abortion, gay people, or the Ten Commandments. Anyway, when I think of “demagogic overdrive,” I think of like, ancient Athens, and politicians goading people into starting wars with Sparta and putting people to death and stuff. “Privatization” might be the most abstract concept about which the masses have ever been whipped into a frenzy.
Brooks goes on about “reinvigorating the missing fifth.” He asks, “should we be using our resources in the manner of a nation in decline or one still committed to stoking the energy of its people and continuing its rise?” That means if we give money to losers, we’res loser too. But if we spend money on nebulous concepts, our great nation David Brooks’s penis will rise, because abstraction gives him a boner.
Let’s be honest: I don’t care what Brooks proposes to do about this vaguely-defined, ever-shifting network of problems. No one does. The function of a Brooks editorial is to sound erudite and intellectually valid, without alarming anyone the way the fruits of actual erudition might do. It’s a branding exercise. Its purpose is to sell the idea of Brooks as a balanced, moderate conservative. Like most branding efforts, it is vapid. Nothing in a Brooks column will ever be really new, but nothing will ever be down-to-earth and commonsensical, either. Brooks may be employed — indeed, overemployed, with jobs at the Times, Weekly Standard, Wall Street Journal, Newsweek, and more — but his lack of interest in real people and reliance on high-flown abstractions means that he’s the one who lacks dynamism, energy and vitality.
In part II of my Brooks series, the top 10 worst David Brooks columns! And coming up soon, why do Manohla Dargis’s sentences read like they were badly translated from Old Norse?
Jersey Shore had been coming up a lot in my posts lately. But it’s not just because I’m so interested in the subject (although it is fascinating!). And it’s certainly not because I went looking for Jersey Shore references in the New York Times. I don’t have to — I read the paper, and they just come up. Constantly. We’re told that it is the worst show on TV, that it resembles “the most unrepentant, obviously guilty serial killer or multimillion-dollar defrauder,” is the “most appalling show of 2009,” and features “eight young people of dubious intelligence and accomplishment,” who are “insufferable” and might not really even be Italian. We’re informed — repeatedly — that a new SAT question might force unwilling youths to pen essays on The Situation’s abs. The show is compared unflatteringly to a musical someone saw at the Algonquin Hotel, and inexplicably to Beavis and Butthead. When Mike comes out with his own vodka brand, we even hear about that. We’re told in hushed and reverent tones about people who don’t know who Snooki is, but no such fate awaits the regular Times reader, who receives constant updates about their plans, their ratings, their brawls and benders and hookups.
But why? It’s clearly not because the writers like the show (or at least they’re not admitting it). One might argue that it’s just because the Shore is popular, and that is doubtless an element of the obsession. NYT writers love to make guesses about which things imaginary trendy young people care about, then lard their copy with references to those things in hopes that such readers are actually reading it. Philip Galanes is the master of this tactic. But the show’s popularity is not enough to explain the references. Many things are popular — from Larry the Cable Guy to Oprah, from Ugg boots to the Olive Garden, from Shrek to Glenn Beck. Horrible though these individuals and institutions may be, the outrage directed that them is far surpassed by the vitriol reserved for the antics of the tawny-skinned octet.
Rational explanations have failed. Is there a way to make sense of this bizarre fixation that’s less rational, and more psychological? Does the solution lie in the dark corners of the journalistic psyche? Could it be that the writers are projecting their anxieties about intellectual inadequacy and cultural irrelevance onto the characters, deriding them as foolish and contemptible in order to bolster their own fragile self-image? Yes. I’m no Freudian, but this problem calls for one of his theories if anything ever did. And Freud’s concept “narcissism of small difference” fits the situation state of affairs perfectly.
Narcissism of small differences is all about erecting psychic defenses against people you perceive as threateningly similar to you. It’s defined by “sensitiveness to… these details of differentiation” that separate groups. As this book explains, “We compare ourselves carefully with those who are like us–yet in some way different. According to Freud, small differences are an implied or potential criticism of ourselves. Therefore we note carefully what the difference is… and evaluate the situation, usually in such a way that it comes out in our favor.”
How does one make a comparison “in such a way that it comes out in [one’s] favor”? It looks like this: I drink artisanally infused vodka, you drink Ron-Ron juice. I go to lounges, you go to clubs. I buy my clothes at Ann Taylor, you buy your clothes at the Hustler store. I do pilates, you lift weights at the gym. I cook free-range turkey meatballs; you cook chicken parm. I wear self-tanner and bronzer, you wear too much self-tanner and bronzer. I enjoy looking my best and appreciating the finer things in life, you’re a narcissistic hedonist.
And so it goes. What makes it worse is, look who we’re talking about. Lifestyle journalists. People who write thousand-word essays about “vooks,” do their research on Wikipedia, and don’t know what a “percent” is. Their own grasp on highbrow intellectualism is tenuous at best. No wonder their assumed contempt for the Shore gang’s flimsy intellect can seem a little overheated. No wonder they’re “sensitive,” in Freud’s words, to “details of differentiation.”
Time for some examples. New York Times Jersey Shore paranoia began after the show’s very first episodes. In “The Jersey Shore Handbook,” Joshua David Stein shows us that even though he’s writing about reality TV, he’s not an airhead like people who watch reality TV. Why, just listen to the words and concepts he knows! He calls MTV “the music-cum-social-anthropology network.” The what? I knew Skins was raunchy, but I didn’t think things had gone that far. I thought I was the only cum-social anthropologist around here. Just kidding! Seriously, though, I hate when people use “cum” to mean “with.” It’s like in old novels, when the writer uses “ejaculated” to mean “exclaimed.” “Great scott!’, he ejaculated.” Latin fanciers, it’s time to let “cum” go its own way.
He continues, “‘Jersey Shore’ resembles nothing more than American Kabuki theater, a refreshingly solipsistic aesthetic world, a temporary coastal community that’s a bulwark against normative American youth style.” Why does being non-normative make it like Kabuki theater? No time for that now! An intellectual reference has just been made! If you’ve heard of Kabuki, then congratulations: YOU GOT THE REFERENCE. You are now part of a rarefied intellectual community. Those dum-dums on the TV probably think “Kabuki” is a brand of motorcycle.
To construct his piece, Stein uses a popular comedy humor format that you’ve grown to love from old Dave Barry columns, Playboy Magazine‘s “unabashed dictionary,” and your college’s short-lived “satire” publication: Funny definitions. A list of wacky fake dictionary entries could absolutely never, ever become tiresome, especially not when Stein is hilariously telling us what “Jacuzzi” and “Guido” mean. For example, in defining “nickname,” he wittily points out that many of the characters on the show have nicknames. He illustrates this principle with a quote from Mike: “‘The Situation’ is indescribable. You can’t describe ‘The Situation.’ — Michael, ‘The Situation,’ describing the situation, Episode 1.”
Okay, that was funny… because the character said something funny, and Stein quoted it. What else has he got?
He shows himself a true social anthropologist (no “cum” necessary) with his observations about the characters. “During the day, [women’s] hair is usually worn long and straightened, often dyed black or highlighted.” Imagine! long straight hair with highlights! Highlights! This world of Jersey Shore is like stepping through the looking glass into a nightmarish dystopian bizarro world… with flat irons!
It is further revealed that the cast members are tan, sometimes go shirtless, enjoy hooking up, and are known to become inebriated by consuming Ron-Ron juice. The male characters use “lip balm and lip gloss.” All of this is sure to horrify New York Times readers, who have never removed their shirts, engaged in casual sex or consumed alcohol, and take pride in enduring cracked, dry lips with the stoicism of true American patriots. But Stein’s most relevant commentary is reserved for the then-raging controversy over the word “Guido.” “The term has been reappropriated, Judith Butler-style… and now refers to a complex of aesthetic and moral choices made by young Italian-Americans.” Hey, I know who Judith Butler is! But you may wonder: Do any of his readers get the reference? Well, wonder no more. You need only read the comments to find out how many of Stein’s readers know who Judith Butler is. It starts right at comment #4, where reader Emery observes: “Nice Judith Butler reference.” After reading that sentence, how can you continue to doubt Emery’s awareness of Judith Butler? The man knows who Judith Butler is!
In “Surf and Turmoil,” Neil Gantzlinger also has a tried-and-true comedy joke format in which to corral his loathing of the fact that “young people of dubious intelligence and accomplishments” are enjoying a “hormonally charged, alcohol-fueled summer.” Despite the failure of their accomplishments to impress him,* he is willing to give them the benefit of the doubt with his “five reasons to love the show.”
*I’m going to assume he didn’t know at the time that Snooki once delivered a freakin’ calf from a cow. I find this pretty impressive, too.
Actually, the reasons are kind of confusing. He says that the show is making the actual Jersey Shore interesting again, or something (???), and that because its characters are “brash” and “bawdy,” its popularity might cause the Kardashians’ show to be cancelled (????). Then he starts saying how it will provide a good cautionary example for today’s sheltered young people. “They have no idea how much ignorance, narcissism, predatory sexism and hair-gel abuse lurk out there in the real world.” Neil Gantzlinger is really impressing me with his moral gravitas here… he just equated sexism, a millennia-old form of bigotry that has caused incalculable human misery, with bad grammar and a predilection for going to the gym. And he slipped in a Randy Cohen-esque joke about hair gel. Bravo!
Because the characters are so bad, he goes on, people will be moved to take decisive action against whoever’s to blame. “The schools, if any, where they were educated can now be located and shut down…. The gyms and style salons that seduced them with the lie that physical appearance is more important than personality can be picketed and boycotted.” “Style salons”? I’m guessing the person who wrote this sentence has been telling himself that personality is way, way, way more important than physical appearance for a very long time.
His final reason is:
“5. UM, LET’S SEE, THERE’S,
well … All right, so maybe ‘five reasons to like “Jersey Shore”‘ was setting the bar too high. In truth it was hard enough coming up with four.”
OH FOR FUCK’S SAKE. If you’re going to use a hacky, obvious “concept” for your piece, you can at least be an energetic hack and commit to the concept. Come up with five reasons to like the show, and make the fifth one the funniest one. “LOL I couldn’t think of any more examples… because I hate the show so much!” doesn’t actually qualify as a joke. It’s lazy. That’s like if instead of beating up a beat, you sort of pawed at it gently from a supine position. Like if instead of going to the gym and doing laundry, you just put on a pair of Shape-Up shoes and sprayed yourself with Febreze. Like if you pranked somebody by putting, like, one piece of cheese in their bed. In other words, you’re not entertaining. You’re the grenade grundle choad of humorous prose. There’s a reason why you’re not a reality star, Neil Gantzlinger, and it’s not just because your abs look like the underside of a Jacuzzi coated in mozzarella. YOU SUCK.
The show has even prompted Ross Douthat to dip his a tiny, wizened toe into the hot tub of topical humor. “Advertising tonight’s address, the White House opted for ‘the situation in Libya,’ which sounds less like a military intervention than a spin-off vehicle for the famous musclehead from MTV’s ‘Jersey Shore.'” It is funny… because the character calls himself “The Situation.” These people have nicknames. Nicknames!
In an article from July of last year, Cathy Horyn starts with a bang. She begins, “Flake, cow, loser, slut, idiot, airhead, trash, penguin, creep, moron, midget, freak, Oompa-Loompa, nobody.” This sounds like some sort of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poem, or the opening of Sapphire’s latest novel, but it’s actually list of epithets that have been applied to Nicole “Snooki” Polizzi, the profile’s subject. I applaud this writerly decision; debates about a woman’s attractiveness, height, and sexual history are the very lifeblood of intellectual discourse. But after acknowledging the valuable contributions of internet commenters who think Snooki is an ugly slut, Horyn is frustratingly vague about her own philosophical position on these issues. It’s almost as if she wanted to remain above the fray, critiquing Snooki’s body, intellect and choices while masking her contempt in a register of highbrow detachment that would set her apart from the vulgar muck of bloggers and Youtube trolls. See if you agree!
First, an interview with her dad, Andy Polizzi. (I don’t know why Horyn talked to Snooki’s father before Snooki herself… maybe she thinks it’s more polite? Is she trying to emulate a nineteenth gentleman caller about to propose marriage?). Mr. Polizzi ascribes his daughter’s fame to the fact that she’s a “likeable person,” an opinion that Horyn characterizes as a “worn rut of relatedness and just-folks-like-us celebrity bunkum.” This is why I have nightmares that someday the Times will send a reporter down to Tennessee to interview me. I might make some offhand remark about how people like ice cream because it tastes good, and be described for all posterity as a “bumpkin cornpone hick with gingham Spanx, a raccoon for a pet, and a car that runs on moonshine.”
Anyway, now that we’ve dismissed the “people like her because she’s likeable” hypothesis as a foolish dream of childlike naivete and prelapsarian optimism, it’s time to discuss the show. Apparently some people find it uncultured. “”The adventures of the most irrelevant people on earth,’ as someone wrote recently on a gossip blog. And even viewers who claim to love ‘Jersey Shore’ usually find it hard to say why.” I can only assume this absolutely does not mean Horyn asked a bunch of people why they watch that horrible show, they gave her perfectly lucid answers, and she tossed the answers down the ol’ memory hole right away because they didn’t sound smart enough. Cathryn Horyn would never do that. She seems… humble.
“Everything about this show is super-sized — from the over-the-top hair to the over-the-top nature of the comments,” said Robert J. Thompson, a professor of television and popular culture at Syracuse University. If you can’t tell, he’s an avid fan. ‘”Jersey Shore” is brilliantly cast and, of course, Snooki is the star,’ he said.” This person sounds perfectly capable of explaining why he likes the show. But he’s a professor, so that’s why. Don’t try this at home!
For her part, Horyn isn’t burdened by the crippling inarticulateness that afflicts the MTV-addled American masses. She has many strong opinions — on Snooki’s looks. “She’s short, drawing our attention like a berserk windup toy.” “That Snooki is not conventionally attractive — ‘A spray-painted Chihuahua,’ Mike (The Situation) said when he first saw her — has a lot to do with why she is the breakout member of the cast. She is busty and short-waisted with small legs; sort of like a turnip turned on its tip.” Now, that is high-class journalism. I wish more people would follow Horyn’s example. Paul Krugman hardly ever uses his column to poke fun at how funny-looking short people are, and he’s only won one Nobel Prize. Coincidence?
Next, the discussion turns to styling choices. “‘With a blank look, [Snooki] shrugged. ‘Me, I like the pouf. I’m still going to rock it.'” To be fair, she was probably looking “blank” because a someone with a Master’s Degree in journalism just asked her a probing question about a hairstyle. I don’t know if this “blank look” problem is a common occurrence in Horyn’s life, but here’s a good rule of thumb: If people respond to your questions by staring at you in horrified incomprehension more often than, say, once a week, it’s not because they’re all really dumb.
“Snooki has a way of putting herself together that while in some ways is atrocious, is completely identifiable to her and consistent with her attention-seeking personality.” That sentence “while in some ways is atrocious,” too. Here’s another rule of thumb: If you’re going to critique someone for being attention-seeking, only do it in a publication with a circulation of less than 30 million. It’s less ironic that way.
“She wears short, clingy dresses in a pattern or with some metallic trim, huge enameled or bejeweled hoop earrings and glittery high heels.” The hoop earrings would be bad enough, but a pattern? Of all forms of trim, metallic trim is known to be the most slatternly, and rightly so. Who would seek to inflame the vile lusts of man with such gaudy attire? Don’t women veil themselves in modesty and shamefacedness anymore? Say, what kind of Quaker meeting house is this?
“Lots of 22-year-old women wear revealing clothes, but they may not have her body shape, and it’s a safe bet they’re not rocking a pouf.” I’m confused. Do you mean “may not” as in, it’s theoretically possible to have a different body shape than Snooki, while also wearing clothes? Or “may not” as in, it’s not permissible for someone so fat to wear those clothes? This article is like a Perez Hilton blog post written in code. Whatever the high-class version is of drawing a penis on someone’s face in MS Paint, I fully expect to see it next.
“Trying to hold a conversation with Snooki is a little like getting down on your hands and knees with a child. You have to come down to her level, and sometimes you almost think you need to bribe her with a piece of candy to coax her to be more responsive.” This is like the “blank look” dilemma, part II. I can’t imagine why Snookki didn’t want to get into an intense philosophical discussion with you, after the insightful ideas you’ve been sharing with her. It reminds me of a famous quotation by Samuel Johnson. “Last week, I saw a woman flayed, and you would hardly believe how much she was shaped like a turnip turned upside down, except with tiny little legs.” Isn’t there a part in Kant’s Metaphysical Principles of Virtue where he talks about the proper types of attire for apple-, pear,- and turnip-shaped body types? Or am I thinking of Schopenhauer?
Anyway, Snooki is taken to task for having poor self-control and (again!) wanting attention. “Not surprisingly, Snooki is an only child, adopted when 6 months old.” These are some astute psychology diagnoses! If I do a phone interview with you, will you guess my zodiac sign? How about Tarot readings?
Then, shocking journalism scoop: Snooki is spoiled. “Her parents do everything for her — her laundry, her cooking.” The show’s producer is saying it’s normal for Italian-Americans to rely on their parents. “Talking to Ms. Salsano, who is from Farmingdale, on Long Island, made me more sympathetic about the cast.” Well, I can see how you’d have been unsympathetic at first. It’s easy to be resentful of all Snooki’s privileges when, like Horyn, you’ve spent years ekeing out a hardscrabble existence as a Barnard college undergrad, Vanity Fair editor, and NY Times fashion reporter. Hey wait a minute, don’t you like, get into Marc Jacobs shows for free? And get invites to Diane von Furstenburg’s exclusive parties? And you’re bitching about someone else getting a free load of laundry? These critiques are getting weirder and weirder… is this some sort of gonzo journalism?
Another source of complaint is Horyn’s continuing befuddlement about “Snooki’s strange appeal.” “Part of the problem is that she can’t explain it herself. She simply isn’t capable of serious introspection.” She’s supposed to explain why other people like watching her on TV? I don’t think you know what “introspection” means.
“She told me she has read only two books in her life, ‘Twilight’ and ‘Dear John.'” Well, that’s damning. Part of being a sophisticated intellectual is that you only can like other sophisticated intellectuals who have lots of degrees and read a lot of books. I know that from reading George Eliot. In one of her finest essays, she observes: “A really cultured woman, like a really cultured man, is all the simpler and less obtrusive for her knowledge…. She does not make it a pedestal from which she flatters herself that she commands a complete view of men and things, but makes it a point of observation from which to form a right estimate of herself…. She does not give you information, which is the raw material of culture — she gives you sympathy, which is its subtlest essence. Just kidding, sympathy is for fatties!”
Meanwhile, Horyn has gotten her token Jersey Shore fan, the professor, to waspishly state that “I certainly wouldn’t want to be stuck in an elevator with [Snooki].” “‘We don’t even know how to define what Snooki is so good at,’ he said.” These people sure do love to be mystified! Nicole Polizzi defines definition… I GUESS WE’LL JUST NEVER KNOW why the originator of quotes like “I think I broke my vagina bone,” “I hate the ocean, it’s all whale sperm,” and “I look like a hot drunk baseball player, and I’m loving it!” is considered likeable in the public eye. In the spirit of the Times, I’ll conclude by saying: I don’t even know how to define what is so bad about this article. And I wouldn’t want to be stuck in an elevator with Cathryn Horyn.