Get Rich and Die Trying

Hollywood’s worship of apathy isn’t very surprising, why would the corporations that own the studios want us to take action against our increasingly advertising-saturated culture.

The sycophantic approval of Hollywood is usually a red light for me. When an industry that promotes vapidity over virtue bows its drooling, collective head in reverence, I tend to shake my own in disgust. When the word-of-mouth buzz surrounding a film is overwhelmingly positive, I’ll occasionally put my antipathy in check and give mainstream American cinema a shot at redemption. But Lost in Translation proved once again that “genius” is synonymous with intellectual mediocrity in moviespeak and that following the majority opinion on arts and entertainment is a really, really shitty idea.

Lost in Translation is about rich, white people feeling sorry for themselves in Tokyo. Beautiful photography, superb acting. . . revolting plot. Bill Murray plays a philandering, alcoholic, washed-up actor with a $2 million contract to promote a Japanese whiskey. Scarlet Johannson is a Yale philosophy graduate who skulks around a luxury hotel looking for the meaning of life while her inattentive husband travels the country photographing rock bands. While being served and pampered by an anonymous parade of Japanese servants, these two lost souls become intertwined through cocktails, karaoke and bad late-night TV and end up forming a sentimental bond over which Murray offers the young girl such profound insights as “when you have children. . . you’ll love them, and they’ll be the most delightful people you’ve ever known” (in the DVD interview, he called this scene “challenging”).

All the reviews I read applauded this movie for its pensive exploration into loneliness and alienation, but none of them focused on the obvious conclusion: That advertising is unfulfilling and disposable, even for those getting paid for it. The street scenes of Tokyo show a city plastered and overflowing with advertisements. Whiskey billboards featuring Murray’s solemn face simply more clutter the 3-D, neon-lit marketing hurricane engulfing Tokyo’s hyper-stimulated 20 million residents. There’s enormous potential in developing this theme, but, instead the main characters hang out and get drunk. They remain shallow and filled with ennui, resolving nothing, and making no moral progress. What a touching moral: It’s better to be crippled by spiritual inertia with someone you love.

Breaking the self-perpetuating cycle of psychological lethargy so entrenched in modern culture isn’t impossible, it just requires a little imagination. Instead of merely wandering the streets, like the aimless protagonists of Lost in Translation — reclaim them. Instead of succumbing to the glut of advertising that is turning your mind into a pop-culture garbage bin, flip the script — subvertise. And instead of pitying yourself — DANCE! Witness what happens when people turn off the TV and take action. . .

Pirates and punks, hippies and ravers, babies and bums, all smiling. The subvertised Lion King billboard overlooking the Golden Gate Park says it all, “Reclaim the Streets- Feb. 14-Noon-Be Here.” We’re here, with no sponsors, no celebrities, no headliners, no permission and no worries, and we’re ready. The impromptu marching band starts the clatter and then the mobile sound system brings the beat. Rows of cops stand to the side, in front of McDonald’s, as we scream at the cars and busses to get the fuck outta the way and we march up Haight Street. The sun shines on hundreds of partiers, united behind the “Dance into the Revolution” banner, as patrons pour out of hipster boutiques and tourist nooks lining the street to join the procession. At Haight and Ashbury, symbolic birthplace of 60’s counterculturalism, current home of The Gap, a Pirate-ship van pulls to a halt on its flat tires. Heart-shaped skull and crossbones flags are planted, proclaiming the street to be ours again, ours to do whatever we want. We dance, play soccer, draw chalk murals, set up couches and give away food and little kids jump on trampolines and it’s all totally free. A spontaneous and agenda-free celebration of life. An event of the people. Brought to you by no one.

This was a rarity, because usually when a group of people get together to have fun now, somebody’s trying to make a profit. Unfortunately, the relationship between free, unsponsored public events and the omnipresence of advertising is an inverse correlation. Corporations don’t want us having fun without their approval. Marketers are ditching the traditional channels and mediums of reaching their “targets” and evolving to become more subliminal and pervasive. Instead of reflecting culture, advertising is becoming culture. Advertising and entertainment are 69ing each other, and it’s getting tough to figure out where one starts and the other begins. In fact, the more I examine this voracious entanglement, the more it looks like they’re not just fulfilling their needs-oh shit- their trying to swallow each other whole. Meanwhile, everybody just stands around gawking with their hands in their designer jeans playing pocket pool by the open bar.

Corporations know that consumers, weary of the constant and blatant advertising assault, can tune out much of this blitzkrieg by channel surfing, flipping through the first 20 pages of most magazines, putting on headphones or simply going off in a daze as we walk past countless posters and billboards on the street. Faced with this dilemma, marketing departments now focus on selling “the brand” instead of specific products by associating themselves with the lifestyles of their target markets. For example, the goal of a corporation like Nike becomes not to convince people that they make the best shoes, but that Nike is the embodiment of all that is noble about sports. They accomplish this by sponsoring events, product placement and such generous acts of benevolence as repaving inner-city basketball courts with Nike logos (for a much deeper and far more shocking account of this phenomenon, read “No Logo” by Naomi Klein). It’s transparently obvious that these wildly expensive ad campaigns are funded by profits derived from sweat shops and domestic wage slavery, and that corporations have no loyalty to the values they espouse, only greed, but society is being so thoroughly indoctrinated with corporate ideology that consumers have become completely apathetic and/or oblivious to the machinery behind the logos. An entire generation has grown up with corporate-sponsored music tours, art exhibits and even school curriculums. Unmarketed cultural space is endangered — and people don’t even realize it.

New technology is changing the very definition of advertising. As digital video recorders (like TiVo and DirecTV) gain popularity, corporations have an even greater incentive to integrate themselves into the shows on which they advertise. Since DVR technology allows viewers to skip over commercials, marketing investment in product placements has soared. According to Businessweek, Coke spent an estimated $20 million to put cups with its logo in the judges’ hands during Fox’s American Idol, but how many people who watch the show are aware that they’re sitting through an hour-long Coke commercial?

TV isn’t the only medium where content is being encroached upon by ads. One of the most popular trends in the magazine industry is completely forsaking non-commercial editorial content for catalogue-style articles promoting fashion and high tech products. Following this “all mock-article ads — no intellectual stimulation” formula, Conde Nast’s Lucky reached a circulation of almost a million in only three years and (surprise) was voted magazine of the year by Ad Age in 2003. Rushing to duplicate this brainless success is a slew of new men’s magazines, such as Complex, Sync and Cargo, designed to appeal to today’s “image conscious male.” According to Cargo e
ditor, Ariel Foxman, these magazines are serving a necessary purpose, because “Guys are somewhat overwhelmed by their many options.”

This contradiction is the crux of the issue — as corporations expand their power and consumers are presented with a wider array of products and channels, the result is less options, not more. As media conglomerates merge and corporations destroy the competition in every field from prescription drugs to food, our choices as consumers disappear. Go to Foot Locker and you may have dozens of styles and brands of shoes to choose from, but try finding a pair that was made by someone earning a living wage. You may have 500 channels to flip through, but try to find a show that’s content hasn’t been influenced or perverted by its advertisers and its corporate-owned network. There may be a ton of great concerts to choose from, but try seeing a show in a venue bigger than an outhouse without supporting the Ticketmaster monopoly. Many people don’t live in cities with organic or independent grocery stores or restaurants; ask them to buy produce that wasn’t sprayed with chemicals and picked by an exploited, immigrant farm laborer getting paid well below minimum wage or to buy a fast-food burger from someone getting full benefits. Ask them to survive without Wal-Mart.

The process by which corporations promote consumer-centric entertainment is simple and logical. Recording stars are created through vigorous ad campaigns, media hype and heavy radio and video rotation, and as media conglomeration increases, there is literally no possibility for dissenting voices to be heard on a widespread level. One example of the “Big Five’s” empire is the $26.6 billion media spider Viacom (the other four are Comcast-Disney, News Corp., TimeWarner, and NBC). By owning CBS, UPN, MTV, Nickelodeon and BET, as well as Paramount Pictures, publishing giant Simon & Shuster and the massive Infinity radio network, Viacoms’s power to cross-promote it’s “talent,” and spread it’s agenda is inescapable. They even own a billboard company and, in its insatiable quest for media dominance, is looking to purchase EchoStar, a satellite TV operator with over 9 million subscribers. These corporations hand-pick the people they want you idolize, and whose ideas do you think they’d rather saturate the airwaves with: Jay-Z or Dead Prez?

“Selling out” used to be a mark of shame for entertainers, a label that musicians bitterly branded upon those who forsook the voice of struggle and pride in their culture to make a quick buck. This was before Run-DMC started selling Sprite. Now they vie to see who can be the biggest sell out. Once someone has transcended music to become a corporate spokesman, they’ve “blown up.” Media conglomeration is the reason you don’t hear anybody complaining about it (they own the newspapers, too).

Like the acid rain created by their industrial counterparts, the unceasing monologue of homogenous over-consumption propagated by the mass media has seeped into the “underground.” Air pollution leads to cancer of the respiratory system, airwave pollution results in cancer of the value system. The shorter our attention spans become, the easier it is for corporations to brainwash us. By keeping us disoriented and off-balance with quick shots and jumpy, MTV-influenced camera-work, broadcasters reduce the chances of viewers forming complex, critical thoughts and maybe reaching conclusions like, “Hey, wait a minute, this show fucking sucks!”

This is why “Lost in Translation” was so disappointing. With pensive directing and patient, luxurious cinematography, it slowly built up to the reality that there’s a problem eating away at out souls. It simply failed to deal with it. It allowed the main characters to walk away from the friendship that briefly reaffirmed their faith in humanity and return to their mechanical, unfulfilling lives, and for this, it was rewarded with a slew of Golden Globes and BRITS awards.

This is the culture that America is spreading. Hollywood celebrates apathy, while the recording industry canonizes greed, and publishers just keep looking for the next big hype that will sell their disposable rags. Last year, the hottest cover-boy was 50 Cent. The title of his album — the best-selling debut album of 2003 — “Get Rich or Die Trying.” It seems to me like our society is doing both at the same time.