Didactic Synapse is proud to present a new feature: Through the Shades. Using the metaphor of the 1988 movie They Live, I’ll be deconstructing popular media to expose the festering putrescence beneath the veneer of consumerist fulfillment.
Walgreens has been running the “Dance Team” commercial in regular rotation recently on Hulu (a paid service which still forces hideous ads down our throats). I don’t really recommend watching it, but here it is anyway:
There are so many things that nauseate me here, but it’s taken me a while to sort through them. Let’s start with…
Walgreens’ slogan: “At the Corner of Happy and Healthy”. No one in Walgreens is healthy. That’s why they’re in Walgreens! If my health were good, why would I be standing in line to fill my acid reflux prescription? And no one in Walgreens is happy, either. I live two blocks from a Walgreens, and everyone always has horrible desperation painted on their faces. Whether feeding their nicotine fix, stuffing chocolate into their craven maws (my usual purpose), or purchasing cheap sunglasses to ward off UAV blindness, we’re all stumbling around in a discontented daze under fluorescent misery.
Lest anyone think I’m a total sourpuss, let me confess to some positives in this spot:
The dance team is profoundly multicultural. African-American, Asian-American, white-American, all bouncing around with each other and gettin down on stage. Dance Mom is a strong black woman who’s able to problem-solve and “never miss a beat”. She’s adaptive, supportive, and joyous.
It’s a fun 30 seconds. The girl on the sidewalk is into it. The music is peppy and the expressions are filled with enthusiasm. These adorable kids are not just having fun; this is the best weekend of their lives so far. They take 6th at the competition, but they couldn’t be happier.
Old and new technologies are blended seamlessly. Dance Mom is snapping pictures with her phone (while dancing, which must have resulted in some blurry shots that got deleted), but she gets them developed into 4 x 6 glossies. Tweens and middle-aged folks all get what they want.
Ironically, it is this relentless positivity that sickens me the most. So let’s explore the negatives already.
The goal is for us to buy more stuff we don’t need. Like all commercials, this ad works in service to a blind fanatical consumerism, tied bone-deep into an affiliation with joy and happiness. We’re supposed to take those fun, peppy sensations and transfer them into our Walgreens schema. Just as we all get warm fuzzy associations with Disney starting at age zero (to the point where some of us just move into corporate HQ), the goal of modern advertising is not merely to convince us to buy one laundry detergent or athletic shoe. Instead, we’re meant to rearrange our entire psychology to link permanently the fun of these young people with the Walgreens brand. Kids can’t just be dancing to have fun anymore — they must do so for the benefit of a huge corporate ad blitz.
The flip side is a gut-level rejection of joy. Those of us who hate being manipulated by this kind of advertising reflexively make angry faces and roll our eyes when it begins. The more pervasive and ubiquitous this advertising is (and it gets more so every day), the more we make these faces and feel our stomachs churn. The danger is that we might eventually associate all instances of cute kids dancing and having fun with corporate manipulation, and then we become sour, bitter, cynical crankypants weirdos. (Or, in my case, more so.)
Three trips to Walgreens!? As soon as Sidewalk Girl gets in the minivan, her friend announces her Hair Disaster, which we’ll be generous and accept as a legit problem because they’re going into a competition. (It’s another example of advertising telling young girls that they never look good enough, but let’s give Walgreens the benefit of the doubt on this one.) Dance Mom assures her that it’s not a problem, and proceeds to pull a cache of hair products from her canvas Walgreens bag. (A not-at-all-subtle conflation of the corporate brand with environmental thinking, which is absurd and offensive, since Walgreens tosses every tiny thing we buy into atrocious plastic bags because they’re inexpensive.) Then, the whole team must go en masse and en danser into Walgreens again to buy makeup. (Lipstick? Mascara? Blemish remover?) Then, after the competition, they’ve got to swing back into Walgreens to get the developed pictures (sent from the phone, I imagine?) and buy some bags of snacks for the celebratory ride home. What nonsense.
Dancing inside Walgreens. This is the most horrible absurdity in the entire commercial, because suspension of disbelief breaks down completely. (And if it doesn’t break down for you, then your brain has been overtaken by the alien propaganda machine and you need serious help.) The only people dancing inside a Walgreens are people suffering from chronic irritable bowel syndrome who are having trouble waiting to buy diarrhea medicine.
There’s more, but that’s enough complaining for one afternoon. You’re a terrible company, Walgreens, and I urge you to stop running this commercial immediately. Thank you.
Matt Taibbi’s new book The Divide is superb. Everyone needs to read it right away. He oscillates from heartbreaking descriptions of people arrested for “blocking pedestrian traffic” (these arrests are purely done to meet police quotas) and enraging explanations of white-collar criminal activity that’s never investigated, let alone punished.
What emerges is a devastating critique of dysfunctional American injustice, especially for those on the top and bottom of our economic system. Toward the end he explains beautifully:
This goes far beyond the oft-quoted liberal cliché about how we now have “two Americas”, one for the rich and one for the poor, with different sets of laws and different levels of punishment (or more to the point, nonpunishment) for each. The rich have always gotten breaks and the poor have always had to swim upstream. The new truth is infinitely darker and more twisted.
The new truth is a sci-fi movie, a dystopia. And in this sci-fi world the issues aren’t justice and injustice, but biology and mortality. We have a giant, meat-grinding bureaucracy that literally alters the physical makeup of its citizens, systematically grinding down the losers in a smaller, meeker, lower race of animal while aggrandizing the winners, making them bigger than life, impervious, super-people.
Again, the poor have always faced the sharp end of the stick. And the rich have always fought ferociously to protect their privilege, not just in America but everywhere.
What’s different now is that these quaint old inequities have become internalized in that “second government” — a vast system of increasingly unmangeable bureaucracies, spanning both the public and private sectors. These inscrutable, irrational structures, crisscrossing back and forth between the worlds of debt and banking and law enforcement, are growing up organically around the pounding twin impulses that drive modern America: burning hatred of all losers and the poor, and breathless, abject worship of the rich, even the talentless and undeserving rich.
In 1999 the Indigo Girls released a song called “Go”, on their album Come On Now Social. It’s got awesome lyrics about fighting for a better world and what we owe to those women and men who fought for us to have so much. Once upon a time I made a video for it, but I never put it on YouTube. If there’s any noise here, maybe I’ll upload it.
Anyway, there’s a line in the song that has always given me pause:
Feed the fire and fan the flame
I know you kids can stand the rain
I know the kids are still upsetters
‘Cause rock is cool but the struggle is better
It’s a good point (and it suits my point made in Creative Writing about building to the fourth line in a quatrain), but I want to pick up on the final concept there. I think one reason why so many kids find their way into rock (and not the struggle) is because it’s easy to find one’s place in rock. Especially today, when the varieties of music — and easy access to them — are at our fingertips, there’s a seductiveness that’s built into our social lives that protest and political activity doesn’t cater to. (This doesn’t even account for the massive industries organized around music, which we’ll take as a given.)
The truth is that taking action for a better world isn’t usually fun, and the vast majority of the population doesn’t take part. As a result, being in the struggle is often a lonely activity, and it can be exhausting. This is unfortunate, because (as Abbie Hoffman once pointed out) we need young people in the front, since they’re impatient and they haven’t grown jaded like so many adults.
As I’ve said elsewhere, however, being part of the struggle can provide a sense of history and purpose like nothing else in our fractured, chaotic world. (And it’s how I met my wife, heh.) More to the point, however: The struggle needs to happen, and there are plenty of people making rock a reality. Who among us is willing to step up and move the struggle forward?
Today I showed my Creative Writing classes Sarah Kay’s fantastic TED Talk “If I Should Have a Daughter”. (If you’ve never seen it, please take 20 minutes and have a look.)
At one point she mentions how nervous she is and how much trouble she’s having keeping it cool. This got me thinking about how much I love being on stage, and how envious I am of her ability to talk to such a huge crowd. (Then I listened to the 60 Minutes story on the history of TED itself and got even more envious of all the people who have been invited to present there.)
This is all ego, of course. Were I properly humble, I would shun the spotlight and insist that other people get the attention and microphone time. But I’m not, so I don’t.
Bring the Ruckus
One of the best moments of my life — along with marrying Diane and presenting at the Writers’ Institute (which was itself a glorious opportunity for public speaking) — was a training camp held by the Ruckus Society in cooperation with Students for a Free Tibet. This must have been in 2000 or so, in some ashram about which I was woefully ignorant. (My zen-happy 2015 self would be giddy to spend a weekend at such a place.)
I was invited to discuss the lessons I’d learned in my years of activism in solidarity with East Timor. My talk came at the end of a long day of training related to nonviolence (in which I participated, and at one point was asked to pipe down so others could participate), climbing ropes to prepare for hanging huge banners (which I didn’t partake of, since it looked too much like physical activity), and outdoor living. (For some reason I remember vividly the kitchen committee playing ACDC’s “You Shook Me All Night Long” whenever a meal was ready.)
When the sun set and dinner was done, we all moved to an impromptu stage that had been erected near the campsite. Tiki torches burned hither and yon, giving the area an odd Lord of the Flies vibe. And there, under a beautiful moon, in front of 150 enthusiastic young activists, I gave a speech of incredible passion and power. I got down with my message, sparing no detail about the horrors of the Timor occupation, nor the strength I had drawn from the Timorese people. I remember ending with these words: “The question is not whether Tibet will be free, but when — and how many people must die before it happens.”
The crowd went nuts. I know I can’t trust my memory, but it was electric. I could tell this was a message they needed to hear, and I was euphoric to have the chance to bring it. Being a loudmouth had always been my thing, but in that moment it felt like a force for pure good. I was giving lifeblood to people who were changing the world, and it was simply glorious.
The evening afterward was great, too. I had been on the periphery of the training — clearly I knew about nonviolent protest, but I’d never risked arrest like the people leading the training. I didn’t climb the ropes or learn about tying knots. And I desperately dislike camping out. But after my talk, people were giving me dap and telling me how much they enjoyed what I’d said. It was rare then — and is still kinda rare now — for me to hear such things.
Director, Star, Fascist
This is a huge part of why I love teaching. It’s performance as much as any one-man show or standup gig. The difference is the compulsory nature of the audience; most of them would rather be in a dozen different places, and many of them will never enjoy the show, no matter how much I refine my stage presence or performance skills.
On the plus side, I get to be in (near) total control of the show. When the bell rings, the curtain goes up and I’m on. This can be intimidating, but after fifteen years I pretty much know the stuff and how to do it. I have to bring all my own props, but most of mine are electronic (I showed the students the weird Red Room scene from Twin Peaks, recently, for example) and it’s a smooth process.
The problem is that the teacher’s not supposed to be the star of the classroom, not really. But when I open the floor, I get silence. So if I don’t perform, we all just sit around being bored.
The other reason I work so hard on stage is that I have to get the students to behave and pay attention. The simple truth is that I prefer to use humor and energetic presentations over punishments and repression. Of course at a certain point I can ease off, but by then the patterns of classroom process are established, and besides I love being the center of attention.
I started wondering today about an alternative approach — suppose I started each class in the usual fashion, but then made it clear that over the course of the semester I would recede more and more into the background of the class. Would the students step up more, if I moved away from the limelight? Or would we have more awkward and annoying silences?
The other reason I’m reluctant to take this approach is because many students have let me know how much they enjoy my lively and extroverted performance teaching style. (I once had a student take the exact same class twice, because he enjoyed it so much.) And when I know I’m reaching lots of kids with messages they need to hear (like today, when I discussed some Things I Know To Be True, pursuant to Sarah Kay’s talk), it seems like my duty to keep hold of that microphone.
(I don’t actually use a microphone, by the way, although the school has seen fit to provide me with not one but two audio amplification devices. Let it never be said that our public schools don’t have money for what’s most important.)