I had been reading a collection of essays by Nick Hornby, one of my favourite writers. He was talking about the sheer accessibility of Internet music, and, by extension, the elimination of the need to purchase a single bit of it.
“If the music I like stays out there in cyberspace, as it does on Spotify, then somehow it cannot indicate character and taste in the same way [as owning it],” Hornby wrote, “although I doubt that younger generations will feel like this, and good luck to them.”
Yes, yes, so true, I thought, that’s exactly what I think. I’m just like Nick Hornby. And I was moved to paste the quote on my Facebook wall.
Minutes later, my eldest daughter chimed in: “This need to own things in order to indicate character and taste is why younger generations need luck.”
She’s right, of course. A smart-ass, but right. For generations, we have defined ourselves by the stuff we own. When civilization was first established, people owned a horse for travel and labour. Today, I can’t think of anything quite so impractical as owning a horse. It’s like owning a pleasure boat, except slower and not so good on a lake. You own a horse because a horse is fun and defines you as a salt-of-the-earth country type who can afford stabling fees.
We own things not simply to survive but sometimes just because. The post-Christmas hangover is a good time to look at this proliferation of stuff, much of which we really don’t need, a lot of which is plain crap. The only purpose it serves is to define who we are, both as givers and getters.
For example, I bought my wife a corkscrew for Christmas because that’s the crazy romantic I am. Like a horse in the middle age, a corkscrew is necessary for survival. Any argument? No, didn’t think so.
But it wasn’t enough for me to purchase a basic twist-in/lever-out corkscrew. The one I found was fancy! It had a ratchet arm that you used to ease the cork out of the bottle. Just pump, pump, pop! Rather than simply getting to the wine (survival), it was equally important to do so with style (identity).
The problem was that the corkscrew was so poorly designed that the ratchet couldn’t overcome the resistance of the cork without slipping, rendering the corkscrew impractical and virtually useless. In short, the corkscrew was a piece of ratchet.
Fortunately, we own a simply designed backup corkscrew. All is well.
Another example: If ever there was something no one really needs (besides a horse), it’s fabric softener dryer sheets. Somewhere along the way we decided that woven cotton wasn’t soft enough. But to itch his own. And I immediately regret that pun.
But it isn’t enough to have dryer sheets – sickly scented, toxic dryer sheets, but, hey, I don’t want to cause any static. (That’s IT!) We need to define ourselves by the type of dryer sheet we use.
Apparently, if you’re a man, you shouldn’t be using any old floral-scented dryer sheets, not because they’re wasteful and bad for your clothes. No, because they’re not manly enough. How do I know this? Because the other day I came across Bounce For Men: dryer sheets “For Men and Those Who Smell Them.” You know what else is for men and those who smell them? Showers.
Instead of flowers on the label, the package depicted a football. I don’t know if you’ve ever smelled a football; it doesn’t smell that great. Balls generally don’t, and you knew I was going to go there, didn’t you?
Regardless, the message is that, as a man, your identity is on the line if you don’t use the product targeted to your masculinity. What this really means is that Axe-drenched teenage boys around the world are yelling, “Mom! You made my clothes smell like girls again! I want manly, super-soft, cuddly clothes. So you need to do two loads of laundry, Mom!” Bounce for Men is a bad day all around for gender politics.
Dove for Men, Nivea for Men, Head & Shoulders for Men (it doesn’t just fight dandruff; it gets into a drunken brawl with dandruff). And we fall for it. We let all this stuff define us.
Perhaps with my smartypants daughter’s generation, this identity consumerism will end, and with it all the waste and needless crap. Self-identity, of course, is part of human nature. If not with stuff, how will future generations indicate character and taste? Probably by posting brainy quotes on social media.