Yay! It’s that time of year again. Time to take stock of the year behind us. Time to celebrate the best and brightest our culture and society have had to offer in the most recent calendar year.
Yeah, but fuck that. Here’s 10 things that have to go, in no particular order.
Springsteen is to middle-class white people as Jay-Z is to inner-city black people. He’s the reason the revolution never happened. He is the conduit by which legitimate rage and fear and despair was channeled into T-shirt sales. He is the soothing balm slathered on the guilty consciences of David Brooks and Chris Christie and Barack Obama. He is, as Leon Wieseltier described him in the New Republic, “the least dangerous man in America.” I’m no revolutionary, and I believe that stupid people generally get what they deserve, but bad songs are bad songs. Springsteen didn’t always write bad songs. He started writing bad songs right about the time that goopy Southern drawl appeared in his voice and he started doing that gospel shouting thing from the top of Roy Bittan’s piano. Somewhere between 1988 and 1992. (Some would date Springsteen’s sell-by date to 1984-85, but that doesn’t allow for Tunnel Of Love.)
Anyway, listen to “Racing in the Street.” Then listen to “Shackled and Drawn.” Both are protest songs, of a sort. The first is written and performed by someone recognizable as a real person. The second is written and performed by a well-meaning fathead who clips song ideas from the pages of a copy of Mother Jones on the waiting room table in his therapist’s office. Springsteen is reputed to be a big fan of Elvis Presley. He is said, by those close to him, to have learned much from watching Presley’s decline and fall. He has, to his great credit, never become Elvis Presley. Instead, he’s become Colonel Parker, anthemizing his fans’ grievances and re-packaging them in $75 Super Deluxe Editions.
This is a real thing. Hasbro has entered into a partnership with a film production company called Emmett/Furia to develop Hungry Hungry Hippos into a feature movie, along the lines of Battleship. There was a time in this country when smart people cynically sold stupid things to stupid people. Harry Cohn, Louis B. Mayer, Samuel Goldwyn. Whip-smart, unscrupulous Jews who got their start selling tin-plated utensils and tomato seeds from the backs of wagons. That golden age is over now. Today’s Hollywood executives grew up with GameBoy and Teenage Ninja Mutant Turtles and PC caches full of porn jpegs. They’re not selling Hungry Hungry Hippos: The Movie to people because they have nothing but contempt for the hapless consumers who make them rich. They’re selling Hungry Hungry Hippos: The Movie to consumers because they genuinely believe Hungry Hungry Hippos is a good thing.
Top 10 / Top 40 / Top 100 Lists
Regular readers of this feature (yes, pay attention, both of you) know that I like to close out the year with a list of Top 15 Songs. You should feel free to ignore this year’s edition of that list. (If I get around to it.) Because it’s a bunch of shit. The year’s best songs never appear on that list because I haven’t heard the year’s best songs. You haven’t either. The year’s best song was probably written by some guy with a guitar and a drum machine in Gainesville, Florida who played it once on stage at Loopy Lou’s Bar & Grill but threw it away after he got booed for not playing “Free Fallin”.
Soon Pitchfork and Consequence of Sound and Slate and whoever the fuck else are going to publish their Top 100 Songs / Albums / Videos / TV Ads / Whatever of 2012. Here’s the thing about those lists. They’re all going to be the same. They’re going to cite the same items in minutely varying order. The consensus has already been arrived at and no one’s varying from it one iota’s worth. The same publicists are sending the same books / movies / records to the same arbiters of taste. Those arbiters don’t have the time or inclination to read / watch / listen to anything else. This state of affairs is endemic to the institution even when the time frame being considered is fairly large. (The #4 record of the Rock Era is always My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless. The #23 record is always the Replacements’ Let It Be.) Compress the time span being considered to twelve months and what have you got? Dirty Projectors and Grizzly Bear.
How can something exist for 150 years and have no identifiable characteristics whatsoever? The Rutgers University football program has no discernible history. In 1869, four guys went out onto the campus green and kicked a pig bladder around for twenty minutes, an event which qualifies as the first-ever college football game. Since then? Nothing. No traditions, no big wins. They’ve never been the champion of anything. They have no rivals, bitter or otherwise. It is a testament to this utter historical vacuum that their recent season-ending loss to Louisville (for the championship of a laughing-stock conference that has already been abandoned and left for dead by every halfway-viable member, including both Louisville AND Rutgers) was widely billed as Rutgers’ biggest game ever. This is a team that once erected a stadium atrium monument to its 10 Biggest Games Ever … and five of the games were narrow losses to major college programs that had committed the sin of looking past Rutgers to some other much more important game on its schedule.
The Rutgers Scarlet Knights wouldn’t even merit inclusion on this list if the program wasn’t so damned expensive. The Rutgers football program has been so incredibly unprofitable that it costs every Rutgers student $1,000 per year in extra college costs just to support it, making it by far the poorest return on investment among major college sports programs in the nation. The good news is, Rutgers is now moving to the Big Ten. They’ll continue to lose on a regular basis, but each loss will cost a lot less.
You would think this boatload of recent college graduates with worthless communications degrees from SUNY would at least be capable of communicating a coherent message. Here’s the message: A tiny consortium of billionaire bankers and venture capitalists, working in tandem with bought-and-paid-for politicians, have gamed the system to create a permanent underclass of underpaid, debt-ridden Americans. These overlords used to steal the occasional million here and there, and sometimes they went to jail. Now they steal billions every day, grinding every worthwhile institution in America down into dollars, which they ship off to tax-free off-shore havens. And now you can’t sue them, you can’t arrest them, you can’t even question their actions. Here’s the message we got instead from Occupy Wall Street: an ironic hipster with a tiny beard, a droopy Dr. Seuss Cat in the Hat hat on his head, holding a sign saying “Fuck the Rich.”
Have any two writers working in the English language ever fallen off so suddenly, precipitously, and catastrophically? Everybody complains that popular fiction is so utterly crappy, but let’s face it, if 50 Shades of Grey was better written, it would just annoy its intended audience. Same with each year’s Stephen King or James Patterson best seller, most of which are ghostwritten at this point, anyway. But what are we to make of Martin Amis and Russell Banks? These guys have written at least four of the canonical works of 20th-century fiction (Money, London Fields, Continental Drift, Affliction) and nowadays they’re handing in the literary equivalent of Expository Writing 101 term papers cribbed, slapdash, from random Wikipedia entries. Actually, I guess you could make a tired post-modernist argument for books cribbed, slapdash, from random Wikipedia entries.
There’s no excuse whatsoever for Yellow Dog or Rule of the Bone or Lionel Asbo: State of England or Lost Memory of Skin. You can’t read these things. You can’t even skim them. Amis appears to be perversely thumbing his nose at every reader who ever cared about his work, becoming the real-life equivalent of one of his thuggish London louts. And Banks? I have no idea. After tossing his Lost Memory Of Skin into the garbage, half-read, I went to YouTube to watch an interview with him, looking for signs of Alzheimer’s. What does Russell Banks’ editor say to the other editors at the NewsCorp Christmas party? I guess he just keeps his head down and assumes unexpressed sympathy on the part of his colleagues.
Professional Sports Testing for Performance Enhancing Drugs
It has been suggested that certain performance enhancing drugs (PEDs) may have a detrimental effect on the future health of athletes. You know what else is dangerous? Slamming your fool head over and over, thousands upon thousands of times a year, in hundreds of meaningless PeeWee league and high school and college practice sessions, on blocking sleds, tackle dummies, brick walls, and opposing players. There are enough celebratory head slaps and chest bumps in a typical endzone celebration to put you or me in an emergency room. Why do players play football when they clearly know it will destroy their health? Because they like to fuck cheerleaders. Because they might get on TV. Because each and every one of them would gladly trade forty healthy years as a tax accountant for five years in which they get to walk into the VIP area of Steve Wynn’s nightclub of the month in Vegas and have every model and every TV actress know who they are. That’s why.
But what about baseball and soccer and chess? Don’t these same PEDs confer upon athletes an “unfair advantage” in competition? You betcha. These PEDs — stimulants and pain killers, testosterone and human growth hormone and Adderall — do indeed provide such advantages. That’s why roughly 100% of elderly male owners of professional sports franchises fill and refill personal prescriptions for exactly these PEDs forbidden to the players who work for them. All the time. That’s why middle-aged Hollywood actors and actresses take them, too. It’s why Sally down in data entry got that big, ungainly boob job. It’s a competitive edge. That’s how science works.
The Afghan War
Here’s a secret about terrorism you might not know. If terrorists wanted to attack us, they could attack us every day, with impunity, no matter where the U.S. Marine Corps 3rd Battalion is currently deployed. On Monday night, they could ease a rented panel van onto the tracks of a passenger rail line as the 9:15 approached and walk away. On Tuesday night, they could take a shoulder-mounted rocket launcher (about $5000 retail on the weapons black market), trudge into the swamps south of an international airport, and shoot down a plane. On Wednesday, they could empty a test tube of plague into the pool at Caesars Palace Las Vegas. (Lindsay Lohan would be so pissed.) On Thursday, they could disrupt the Internet with technology and know-how common among disaffected teenaged 4chan hackers.
You see what I mean? You can’t guard everything, everywhere, at every time. You certainly can’t guard against it by using a colossal, unwieldy military armored group the size of a small city, with its own Taco Bell franchises, TV stations, and golf courses. We, as Americans, should be glad that there aren’t very many people out there who want to kill us, just because they hate “Freedom.” On the other hand, we should also wonder at our inability to stop a war that nobody wants and nobody believes in.
The 18-to-49 Year Old Demographic
I am 50 now and my opinion no longer matters. It stopped mattering last year. (That’s why I write this blog.) Forty-nine is the cut-off in terms of meaningful statistical analysis of popular trends and products and services. Everywhere you go, that’s the demographic parameter that matters. People eighteen to forty-nine years old determine the shape and purpose and very existence of everything we have here in America. They’re the target audience that TV advertisers are seeking. They’re the clientele prized by the proprietors of every nightclub and shoe store and pet accessories outlet. They’re the focus of every focus group. You know why? Because there’s no future in old people.
Remember Mitt? He ran for president of the United States for six long years. From February 13, 2007 until November 6, 2012. He was in the news every damned day. And now he’s gone. The dog on the camper roof. The income tax filings he never shared. That weird Mormon underwear he never mentioned. The “Faith in America” thing. The binders of women. That little wince he believed was a smile. I wake up every day and I think, Hey, it’s okay, all that shit is gone now. Feels good, doesn’t it?