Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Making a Virtue of Being Low Class

In 2011 Groupon’s IPO was $15 billion. It was terribly popular, and still is doing OK, with a good showing in 2014, but, like stock in beanie babies, been declining ever since the initial bubble.

I never understood the Groupon thing. It was coupons. And growing up, I learned that coupons were for people who didn’t have the cash. Heck, even Weird Al, in his ‘Happy’ parody, ‘Tacky’, says: “Bring along my coupon book whenever I’m on a date” because of course that’s tacky. Coupons are lower-class.

Saving and sales are fine. Who cares if the rest of the world looks on with horror as we literally kill ourselves for Black Friday deals?

Since the recession we have begun, as a society, making a virtue of being lower-class. Black Friday was, not coincidentally, not a big deal until 2008 – before then it was growing, but not catastrophic. That was the first year someone died. And, like Groupon, it has been easing off, last year down 11%.

But it’s not just our shopping trends that have made America more low class.

Zagat, presumably attempting to be BuzzFeed, wrote an  article ’30 Awesome Grilled Cheese Sandwiches Across the US’ back in 2013, just around the time I’d noticed this same unusual trend. Gourmet grilled-fucking-cheese sandwiches. A lot of the food crazes in recent years have been low class comfort food, from Mac n Cheese, to bacon on Epic Meal Time; cupcakes to food trucks. We’ve made comfort foods and high-fat foods cultured.

One of the condescensions leveled at the hipster set was that they drank shitty, cheap beer like PBR. And bought their clothes second-hand. Thrifting became virtuous as well. Macklemore’s ‘Thrift Shop’ not only got the Grammy, but went to the top of the charts in 2013. Thrift shops, and Goodwill, used to be either ironically visited or shamefully visited by the middle class. A sign of being middle class was that you made donations to thrift shops – lower class people shopped at them.

And how many times, on online dating, have I seen “I just like to stay in and watch Netflix”? Sure, some people are just basic. But there’s more to it than that, because this social trend is often combined with an unpleasant dichotomy. You see, besides staying in, these potential mates also like to go out! It's true! And they say so! But no one can afford to do that anymore, so…let’s stay in and watch the new season of [whatever].

Thank God television is in a golden age now, because if it weren’t people might sit up and realize that if they wanted to go out they couldn’t afford it. Unless, perhaps, they go out for a grilled cheese sandwich…

Reality television is still going strong, although no longer the phenomenon it once was. Again, on the bilious world of online dating, you will often see a caveat-confession that “I also like some reality T.V. shows! Don’t judge! It’s a guilty pleasure!” And it should be guilty, because it is lowest common denominator television, most of the time. (Yes, I recognize that 'This Old House' is also reality T.V. – I get that it’s gradational.) But Reality TV once used to be looked down upon, consistently. And this brings us to the overlapping worlds of upper and middle class/lower class (which are economic definitions) with highbrow/lowbrow (which are cultural definitions).

There’s a marvelous chart from 1949, by Russell Lynes, that defines the differences between highbrow, lowbrow, and everything in between:

Where are we now except defiantly low-brow?

Note the pulps and comic books on the chart. Fantasy, comic book movies, and sci-fi have been the top-grossing films each year, every year, since 1998, with one exception (2000 – Mission: Impossible II). From Jaws (1975) to Titanic (1997), there’s still a lot of these movies as top-grossing offers, but they’re not every single year, and there’s variety in the movies that break this mold (1976 – Rocky, 1978 – Grease, 1986 – Top Gun, 1987 – Fatal Attraction, 1988 – Rain Man, 1995 – Die Hard with a Vengeance). Now what makes money in the film industry is low brow, low class.

Pride is the source of this.

Most Americans define themselves as middle class. But there is no more middle class – those who would actually qualify are vanishingly few, and getting smaller.

With less disposable income, more debt, and working lower-paying jobs, guess what? We’re all lower class now; and low-brow tastes, defined by our economic condition, have become the new ‘middle class’ virtues.

In other words, we have made a virtue out of being low class out of desperation, as an attempt to salvage our trammeled pride. We can still go out and have a good time. If we bring a coupon for Mac n Cheese. We still take a Saturday to go shopping and see a movie. If the movie is from a comic book, and the store is Goodwill. We still engage with Art. If it is a television show.

We’ve redefined pleasure, friendship, art, and culture to match our new economic straits. We even made a fashion out of poor grooming with beards being ‘in’ and ‘lumbersexuals’.

Which, as a frequently bearded fellow, I'm more okay with.

At the start I noted that a number of these trends are shifting. In part the pain of the recession is wearing off, and with it, trends and phenomenon are easing off. But don't be fooled - the middle class is still being extinguished. We're still not, in 2015, back to 2007 levels of income, levels which had only just then gotten back to 1999 levels. And the trend is not going up.

Much of it is out of our control. The initial passion for being lower-class is wearing off, but where does that leave us? Will we even be stripped of our pride?

So let’s be proud of being lower class! Let’s make sure our biggest purchases are in entertainment, not our future. Let’s cover ourselves in tattoos (once almost exclusively a lower-class distinction), instead of covering our expenses. Let’s make crafts, instead of investments.

To quote Aldous Huxley:

Now–such is progress–the old men work, the old men copulate, the old men have no time, no leisure from pleasure, not a moment to sit down and think–or if ever by some unlucky chance such a crevice of time should yawn in the solid substance of their distractions, there is always soma, delicious soma, half a gramme for a half-holiday, a gramme for a week-end, two grammes for a trip to the gorgeous East, three for a dark eternity on the moon; returning whence they find themselves on the other side of the crevice, safe on the solid ground of daily labour and distraction, scampering from feely to feely, from girl to pneumatic girl, from Electromagnetic Golf course to …”

To where we are today. Distracting ourselves and re-branding ourselves to try and keep smiling as we drop another notch down the scale of the global middle class.

Here’s to being lower-class! Let us take our soma, distract ourselves from our fallen state, and rejoice in the proud virtues and traditions of the penny-pincher, the tacky, and the poor.

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