I always meant for this blog to be a kind of literary batcave, a dumping ground for my ideas, a place to vent without consequence whenever I was pissed off (so much better than road rage).
Because I have to be conscious about everything I’m saying in my other work… other blogs designed for public entertainment, other freelance projects where I help a non-creative shill their wares… this blog was originally meant for nothing beyond lancing whatever artistic boil was swelling somewhere in my consciousness.
Written under an assumed identity, I could be profane without caring if it upsets delicate sensibilities (AKA those who are more offended by blue words than ugly beliefs). Here, I could write without having to apply magic formulas to garner an audience: put your conclusion right up front, break up your paragraphs because everyone is lazily scanning your work, use enough enough search-friendly terms to be picked up by Google without making it crassly obvious, and most importantly, dumb it down because no one will like you if you make them feel stupid.
These rules, especially the last, are paramount in advertising, which is how I get paid. Because people who understand buying and selling, who believe anything that isn’t a priceable commodity is worthless, often don’t write very well. Why would they?
I have also found they don’t have a ton of respect for our craft, unless we are raking in buckets of cash with it. They only understand tangible benefits. They conceptualize our product like a well-dug ditch or properly-filed record: something they pay us to crank out. They pay us to help them seem more human to the walking dollar signs they live amongst.
And so we have guidelines, the rote 123 formulas that pull in buyers and trigger search engines. Readability is key, and making your message approachable is key, unless you’re selling the kind of luxury product that seduces its buyer by whispering invitations to exclusive clubs. Psst… howdja like the chance to feel better than everyone else?
I’ve been writing real estate articles lately. I should be grateful for any opportunity to convert my talents into cash, really, but can’t seem to walk away from these deals without feeling like I just pimped out my talents on the street corner. It leaves a dirty taste in my mouth and makes me long for my literary batcave where I can write something truly pointless again.
That’s so pretentious of me, I realize… as though one’s creativity can be too elite for honest work. But you can’t help feeling this way when you consider artistry the pursuit of deeper understanding, a Quixotic attempt to answer the eternal questions, yet find yourself mostly using it to trick Person A into handing more money to Person B.
We’ve been being bought and sold for as long as we can remember. Every brightly-colored cartoon we’ve seen since infancy was littered with catchy tunes and images of the seductive playthings we hassled our parents into buying. Every show we feel nostalgic about once went in front of test panels, meant to convince advertisers that its engaging tales were the perfect consumer leaf-trap.
Every newspaper, every website, every bus we ever passed was smeared with ads.
Every insecurity we’ve ever had has been marketed to: if you stink, no one will love you and you’ll die alone. Buy our deodorant. It works better than the rest. You’ll probably even get that promotion at work after your boss gets a whiff of your shower-fresh armpits.
Our society eventually built up better sales resistance, however. We grew suspicious of anything too slick or flashy, forcing marketers to step up their game by making their lures more grainy and accidental. Flawed, like us.
You get cheap-looking commercials with real-looking people in them. People with bad grammar, so it doesn’t look scripted. People who look rigidly uncomfortable in from of a camera, so they don’t look like professional actors.
Those people aren’t real at all. I knew a drama major at USC who used to make pocket money by pretending to be a genuine customer in psychic hotline ads. “Yeah, uhh,” he would say, looking inexperienced and awkward, “It’s amazing what she knew about me. I mean, she just knew stuff she couldn’t know.”
“I’m not an actor,” he would stammer, shrugging nervously and having trouble meeting the camera’s eye, “I’m a guy who called up 1-800-SUCKERS one night and the psychic blew my mind. It was amazing.”
Then he would drive back to USC and practice his lines for that evening’s theater piece with finesse. Shambling nervous guy ends where Horatio begins.
We felt the surge in reality TV. Survivor hit the scene and suddenly you’ve got real people facing real issues while stranded on an island, fighting for a million dollars… they could be us. We’d like a million dollars. This thing wasn’t scripted and we could’t wait to see what happened when an abrasive redneck was thrown together with a trust fund snot and an ex-marine for a fireless evening in a hurricane.
These shows scorched across the scene like an ill-fated Christmas tree until we could slowly start to sense the inauthentic marketing formulas guiding them. Maybe they began as a true experiment, but producers couldn’t help smelling blood as the dollars stacks grew into towers. Savvy participants had watched enough episodes to learn the winning strategy, and talent scouts slowly began replacing more and more salty characters with anyone who looked hot enough half-naked.
Suddenly, we’re seeing the same tired characters we’ve always seen…the hot-but-dumb-girl, the likable underdog, the vulnerable person overcoming their fears for the sake of the team, the wisecracking punk making occasional low-brow dick jokes, the arrogant ass we can’t wait to see taken down a peg or two… all seemingly drawn from the pages of “Character Creation for the Beginning Hack Novelist.”
And when Survivor players got really worn, tired, and dirty, we’d see a reward challenge where they’re offered a bath with an array of Herbal Essences bath products, all shiny, colorful, and clean. Their eyes would light up like a kid’s on Christmas morning at the chance of getting their grimy hands on a bright pink bottle of Herbal Essences Shower Wash. No acting required.
We’ve seen so many commercials of ecstatic people singing the glories of various products that we’ve become desensitized to how utterly ridiculous it truly is, like seeing a stupid fashion trend long enough that you start to think it’s cool.
I had a moment of clarity about this while working as a waitress in Germany one summer, as part of a student exchange program. Before going to bed, I’d often watch German television, because it helped me learn German and it was really fun to see loads of beloved American sitcom characters shouting auf Deutsch (they dub a lot of American shows over there).
I’ll never forget seeing this German commercial about crackers one night. Cheerful music surrounded a beautiful spring day as all of these beautiful people jumped into a hay wagon, held up boxes of some German brand of crackers then rolled in orgiastic ecstasy while eating them. Smiling like lunatics, they gave each other furtive sideways glances, these knowing looks about the special awesomeness of eating these crackers. Der Alpha Crackers were the best thing that ever happened to these people. Crackers Uber Alles cure diseases and remove self-doubt. No one in the entire world has ever been as happy as these seizuring Germans were at that moment in the hay wagon, eating the best crackers in the known universe.
It all looked so… incredibly, unbelievably, stupid.
No different than most American commercials, really, but the German language distanced me just enough to break that spell of suspended skepticism that marketers have been sedating us with over the years via sheer repetition. Seriously, no cracker could ever be so fantastic, and taking one cultural step back made the lunacy of such a suggestion painfully obvious.
My job, lately, has been convincing consumers how awesome their life would be if they would just by a house in X neighborhood. X neighborhood ist Der Cracker.
It’s how the world works, how we get things done.
But I’m experiencing a vague sense of agenda-fatigue at the moment, a longing to work with frivolous ideas that aren’t designed to convince anyone of anything. I desire pure, college-grade, bohemian pointlessness… I want to talk about how My Little Ponies is actually an allegory for Donald Trump and Isis, or something similarly philosophical and academic. I want to waste everyone’s time.
Because artists are completely self-indulgent and insufferably arrogant. We like to believe the ideas randomly bouncing throughout our heads are audience-worthy. We challenge the status-quo with fresh perspectives and self-created rules.
Most of us were creative as children, because children are, by nature, fairly self-centered. I’m not saying they’re mean, though some undoubtedly are, just wrapped up in their own heads. Only a child would throw an hours-long, public tantrum about the tyranny of having to wear an orange shirt instead of a blue one, and be enraged when anyone didn’t immediately see his point.
That kid lacks perspective, which makes the child pretty self-centered yet blissfully unconcerned about the judgment of others. It sparks creativity, because the child is free to imagine anything he wants without the sobering influence of social disapproval or the party-busting laws of physics.
As we grow up, we learn to think about other people too. We learn about contributing to mundane tasks, to question whether our idea for a show about flying dinosaurs with laser pistols is really as awesome as we thought. We start to doubt we really have what it takes to become president, an astronaut, or a fairy princess that lives amongst unicorns.
And we creative types, moody overgrown children that we are, are unable to give up our childhood fantasies that what we say is special in a world with billions of other people in it. Though regularly crippled with self-doubt, we’re still convinced, on our good days, that we can say something in a way that no one has ever thought of before.
We only have a few paths in from of us: we can perfect the audience-pleasing, bland variety of entertainment mastered by the likes of Dane Cook and Dave Barry. Not that they aren’t brilliant, mind you, but they live in a prison of creative rules… don’t offend anyone. Don’t swear. Don’t make anyone uncomfortable. Never make anyone feel stupid or challenge their world view.
Or we can go the self-indulgent route, making everyone wonder if we’re being weird just for the sake of being weird, or saying something obnoxious just for its shock value. We can create the literary equivalents of Jackson Pollock paintings, splattering enough paint to make half our audience call us geniuses while the other half insists their five-year-old could create work of similar value.
Or we can become talented con men, schlocking one product after another for corporate hacks who grift with the left hand while patting themselves on the back with the right, proud to consider themselves Job Creators while smirking at their cleverness for having enough “vision” to subcontract the grunt work.
I’ve chosen the latter, pausing only occasionally to howl at the void.