"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Topics: Entertainment News
The other day I was at some sort of art opening, standing in the corner, surrounded by the kind of burnished people who instinctively make me a little nervous — the way they refer to things like art openings as “events,” garments of clothing as “pieces,” even the world’s crappiest movies as “films.” I was talking to a woman whose jarringly luminescent smile had a peculiar effect on me: Staring at her, I was reminded of a moment during my freshman year of college when my then-girlfriend invited me up to her dorm room to give me a gift, which ended up being her freshly waxed genitals.
Don’t laugh. I’m being serious here.
Let me explain: The art-opening woman — 30s, stunning, perfectly disheveled in designer jeans and one of those curious tops that coyly expose a single shoulder — had these teeth that were tremendously, shockingly, eerily white. I had to squint. I was envious, turned on, repulsed and a little frightened all at once — which, as it happens, is exactly how I felt that night in the dorm room as my girlfriend stood there in the buff, blinking, and in a babyish voice asked, “You like?”
No doubt you’ve encountered such a creature: someone whose teeth have gone through the modern-day whitening ringer to the point where they come out funny-looking, whiter than white. Maybe adhesive night strips were involved. Or some sort of paint-on gel. A regimen of specialized toothpastes. Trips to a “cosmetic dentist” or, as they now have in SoHo, a “whitening spa.” Perhaps it was a misguided, overzealous combination of all of the above. Whatever the specific concoction may be, the result is always the same: teeth that have passed through the barrier of “human” and into some mannequin-like terrain — teeth as natural-looking as, yes, a pubic region that appears plucked from a Mr. Potato Head kit.
Some fun facts: According to William Chappell, an analyst at SunTrust Robinson Humphrey in Atlanta, well over 50 percent of all toothpaste is marketed as having some kind of whitening powers, and in the near future, he says, that figure will approach 100 percent, with “whitening” joining more health-conscious phrases as “tartar control” and “plaque fighting” as mandatory toothpaste tube rhetoric. In the last four years, the tooth-whitening industry has grown 300 percent, 86 percent in the past year alone. This year, 10 million Americans will contribute to a $15 billion franchise by having their teeth professionally whitened, and untold millions more will treat themselves to some sort of over-the-counter procedure — bright white cogs in a $300 million machine. Turn on the TV, flip through a magazine, go to the drug store, and you are bombarded with strange new products: Crest has Night Effects, Whitestrips Premium, a new SpinBrush Pro whitening toothbrush. BriteSmile, a professional whitening center, seduces customers with celebrity endorsements from Alan Thicke and someone from “Survivor.” Trident offers whitening chewing gum. Mentadent presents a whitening mouth tray to compete with Natural White’s at-home whitening kit. Rembrandt, the granddaddy of them all, is proud to promote something called the Whitening Wand, disposable whitening strips (“Just bleach and toss!”), two-hour whitening kits, and an “age-defying” whitening mouthwash, to say nothing of its exhaustive line of whitening toothpastes that are widely imitated by Aquafresh, Arm & Hammer, Colgate and everyone else in the game.
In the annals of human self-consciousness run amuck, this isn’t exactly a new development. Cro-Magnons would apparently chew on sticks to protect their pearly whites after, say, a hearty snack of raw wild boar tendons. In the 1800s the gentry class had their teeth doused in various enamel-dissolving acids. Being supremely clean and shiny has, in other words, always been a way for us humans to remind ourselves of our supremacy over the rest of the animal kingdom. (And, interestingly, health is not as important as the perception of health: The FDA has approved almost none of these magic potions, and very little independent health research on the safety of tooth whiteners exists.)
Still, the phenomenon’s current incarnation doesn’t quite seem like a natural step in the evolutionary development of what I believe scientists call the Irrationally Insecure Gene. Rather, it’s a media-created fad, like those gaudy bracelets that are slapped tight around your wrist, or hypercolor T-shirts. What’s next? Whitening mirrors, whitening ground beef, vitamin water infused with whitening extract? Starbucks will introduce whitening coffee; Elmer’s, a whitening tooth enamel that, in a scandal that’ll grip the gleaming world, will be revealed to be nothing more than its classic glue! What started out as a fine little addition to the national morning hygiene routine has, lately, gone a little berserk.
And the reason is simple.
Toothpaste manufacturers have finally figured out a way to push their unsexy products using sex. When tooth whitening started to pick up speed — thanks to the marketing gurus at Rembrandt, who discovered that you could triple the price of toothpaste if you used a grave font and printed the word “whitening” on the tube — the product was always packaged seriously, soberly. It looked like medicine. Something for people with something wrong with them: chronic smokers, coffee fiends, winos, old folks still telling themselves they didn’t need dentures.
Not anymore. “Get twice the satisfaction in bed,” reads one of the print ads that Crest, the current leader of the movement, uses to promote its Night Effects, a nail-polish-like substance you apply to your teeth before turning out the lights. In another, a sultry blonde wearing what appear to be black panties lies in bed with a giddy, yes-I-just-got-some grin on her face. “Wake up with a whole new reason to smile,” we are told. In a TV spot for the company’s Whitestrips Premium — a kind of bleaching Band-Aid — we watch a foursome of women who look like “Sex and the City” extras have a lunchtime debate about why one of the gang looks so damn happy. “OK, who is he?” one demands, gazing haughtily at her friend as if she’s strolled into the restaurant bowlegged, it’s that obvious. “Trust me,” the grinning gal replies, “there’s no guy.” Her comrades are unfazed. “You’re in love,” another chimes in. “Look at that smile!” But, alas, a voiceover comes along to set things straight: “It’s not love — it’s new Crest Whitestrips Premium.”
Hell, if that’s the case, why hold back? Here’s an idea for future spots, free of charge: Crest Whitestrips Premium — the vibrator of oral hygiene!
A quick clarification: You may be picturing me typing this essay in a clay hut, my unibrow proudly furrowed, my current (unshaved) girlfriend asleep on the pile of hay next to me, her jaundiced teeth glinting in the morning light. For the record, I use Aquafresh whitening toothpaste because I like the glittery box it comes in, and I am all for combating the coffee and red wine that I have no plans of ever giving up — not to mention that I’m plenty aware women will find me more attractive if I don’t have yellow teeth. My concern here is that by making these products seem so sexy, and therefore so necessary (“Irresistibly white. Irresistibly beautiful” is Crest’s irresistible tagline) the companies have accidentally persuaded people to whiten their teeth as if whitening is an X-Games event, emancipating their enamel without noticing what’s happening to their faces.
More and more I find I’m staring at teeth that are chalky and plastic-y, like Tic Tacs. I’m accosted by smiles that could guide me on a spelunking mission. When such souls eat a poppy seed bagel, their teeth look like dice. In the most extreme cases (the art-opening woman, for example) such teeth have surpassed the whole spectrum of white — from nimbus to bone, pearl to opal — and have turned a shade off … blue. This is scary. All the more so when you realize that it’s becoming accepted as the way humans should look. To want to appear young and hot is perfectly understandable. To want to appear a bit like a movie star is slightly pathetic but, in this day and age, palatable enough. But to morph into a nation of possessed mutant anchormen and beauty pageant queens is flat-out freaky.
But I actually think this whiter-than-white trend is about something bigger than the sly Smurfification of our teeth; it’s about a new, discombobulating phase in our quest to “fight age” that extends far beyond our teeth. We are creating an archetype of beauty that’s not simply young, but younger than young. It’s the modern-day paradox: Never before have people looked so young and felt so old, and the impossible race toward the former is precisely what propels that latter. Comb through the tooth-whitening products, as I have, and you’ll see that what they have in common is their promise to reverse time. As a result, human smiles are mutating into something nonhuman: teeth that are whiter than they were on that virgin day long ago when they first poked through the gum line.
A confession: There was a reason I used the waxed-genitals metaphor earlier, and it was to hammer home this very point. So, without further ado, I ask you to please turn your attention back to my ex-girlfriend’s hairless crotch. Stand there in the dorm room with me. Hell, become me for a moment: a 17-year-old male who has waited an entire adolescence for this moment — a real woman presenting herself to me, naked and willing! — and what I get is a faux-sheepish, ersatz 11-year-old girl. Someone who has had pubic hair only for a few years, and already it’s dragging her down. She looks silly, sure, but I can’t lie. My attitude is: If this is how it’s gonna be, I’ll adjust. Soon enough, I’ll forget how weird it actually is…
OK. Now file that away and take another look at the Crest Whitestrips ad with the foursome of sassy women deconstructing what must be their friend’s lovemaking-induced glow. The product purports to “take off 14 years in 7 days.” Well, I ran these numbers by a team of mathematicians who informed me that, when applied to the woman in question — and, by extension, Crest’s target demographic, aka the entire human race — this means our radiant fox has acquired the “irresistible” smile of a … 14-year-old girl! What could be sexier? What grown man could say no? Of course she got laid!
I’m exaggerating — but only slightly. I don’t think the nice people who run Crest or any other such company are purposely subscribing to the Pederast’s School of Beauty. That said, something’s gone awry, and I have a tip for all you chronic tooth whiteners out there: Turn away from the big bright light. Have a cup of coffee or maybe a nice glass of red wine. Trust me, everything will be OK.
David Amsden, a contributing editor at New York magazine, is the author of the novel "Important Things That Don't Matter," which is now available in paperback. He lives in Brooklyn.More David Amsden.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)