My entire teenage life was spent pursuing some mythical normal.Everyone else seemed so effortlessly comfortable in their own skin, while I was riddled with pimples and insecurity. While the pimples faded, the feeling never did. For years I had this idea that ‘normal’ existed and that if I just made the right money or wore the right clothes or thought the right things I could be it. And it was constantly receding.
There remains this idea of ‘normal’ and that other people have it. We talk about ‘average’ incomes, ‘ideal’ weights, ‘healthy’ relationships. If we just get all these settings right we’ll be set for life. The media speaks in the voice of an omniscient narrator, a monotone through the cacophony of experience.There is a correct way to understand the modern world, and correct products for modern living.
Indian ads still resurface my original adolescent trauma. They show dark, pimply women struggling with life in general, then applying a facial cream which makes them white and glowing (Fair & Lovely, now rebranded to Glow & Lovely after complaints). Once they apply this cream they can walk out in public and twirl their shopping bags and go to meetings smiling. I would have killed for such a magic cream as a teenager, and Unilever is certainly making a killing. But they might as well be magic beans.
The paradox of normalcy is that it somehow means extraordinary. We have the idea that the average person is above average. We are so inculcated with stories of Jack and the Beanstalk and Chotta Bheem that we expect to be heroes. We are so inundated with ads for elite athlete shoes and sports cars that we think this excess is the minimum. We think that middle class means wealthy and that to be a peak athlete is to be healthy. The bell curve is, mentally, yoinked to the right while, in reality, we’re all sliding down the left end into debt peonage and poverty. As Paul Simon sang,
We work our jobs
Collect our pay
Believe we’re gliding down the highway
When in fact we’re slip slidin’ away
As a teenager, I thought ‘normal’ should mean being the quarterback of the (American) football team (I was 100 pounds lol) and getting the girl, but this was of course impossible. There’s only one quarterback and one girl, by definition this would not be an average outcome. And yet the idea of normal is that it is normal to exceed, and you’re somehow failing by not doing it. So buy something.
We hold this contradiction in our heads and it’s tormenting or, more accurately, tantalizing. Tantalizing means ‘tormenting or teasing with the sight or promise of something unobtainable’ and this is openly used in advertising. Tantalizing deals, hot wings, Coca-Cola.
The perfect shoe, the iciest drink, the optimal skin cream, they’re the unobtainable domain of the stars, but then those stars appear on TV to tell you that it can be yours. It can’t, of course, at the point that elite goods become mainstream they are, by definition, not elite anymore. This is of course the opposite of Andy Warhol’s observation about Coke:
“What’s great about this country is America started the tradition where the richest consumers buy essentially the same things as the poorest. You can be watching TV and see Coca-Cola, and you can know that the President drinks Coke, Liz Taylor drinks Coke, and just think, you can drink Coke, too. A Coke is a Coke and no amount of money can get you a better Coke than the one the bumon the corner is drinking. All the Cokes are the same and all the Cokes are good.”
This is in many ways a distillation of the American Dream. The idea that equality can come from markets and commodities. When Warhol said this in the 1960s it must have felt true. At that time, writing a magazine article could cover the down payment on a house. A summer job could pay university tuition. The equality of Coke felt meaningful, it felt symbolic, it felt real. But now, 60 years later, education and housing are unaffordable, and the rich are buying $700 on juicers and transfusing young blood directly into their veins.
We are not in a situation where we can have a house and education and money in our pockets and sit around sipping a Coke, feeling up there with Presidents and celebrities. Now we need a million dollars to have a house, a million dollars to raise our kids, and yeah, a Coke costs a few dollars, great. Consolation prize, diabetes.
All that’s left is the appearance of normalcy. The accessories for a lifestyle that’s just not normal anymore (insomuch as it ever was). At the time I grew up in the suburbs, all of those massive houses weren’t ‘normal’, but they seemed possible. I had no idea how, but it seemed to happen for those people, so it could happen for me. Now, increasingly, young people know that it’s just not happening. The gap between a normal life—feeling safe—and possibility has just grown too cavernous.
I used to carry around this idea that there was a normal world and I just wasn’t adapted to it. But that idea is increasingly threadbare. The world itself is falling apart, one last orgy of greed and speculation before the empire falls.Anybody well-adjusted to this is an asshole. Feeling sane at this time is crazy.
The hegemonic power structures of White Empire, its seemingly inexhaustible energy, its consumer abundance, its cultural productivity, these changed our internal sense of reality. The 1990s was, as Francis Fukuyama wrote, the end of history. All that was left was a civilizational mopping-upoperation, killing a few recalcitrant commies and delivering VCRs and color TVs to everybody else. But just 20 years later energy supplies are toxic and expensive, supply chains are shuddering, and both internal reality and hegemony are crumbling.
To me, honestly, the crumbling of ‘normal’ within my generation is a bit of a relief. I never felt normal. I always felt a mess. Now that the world is obviously a mess, it feels more like home to an Oscar The Grouch like me. As Oscar said: “Grouches of the world unite! Stand up for your grouchly rights!” As that bin-dwelling muppet said:
Don’t let the sunshine spoil the rain
Just stand up and complain (heheheh)
Let this be the grouches’ cause:
Point out everybody’s flaws!
Something is wrong with everything
Except the way I sing!