"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)
Every weekday, everyone in New York who is tangentially involved in the entertainment business receives a depressing piece of e-mail spam that demands, “Are You VIP?” If you decide you are, it invites you to click through to some nightclub promoter’s Web site, where you can get on the guest list for a party that features “Guaranteed Celebrities in the Building!!!”
Meanwhile, laddish authors like Tucker Max and Frank Kelly Rich (founder of Modern Drunkard) achieve short-lived fame for being young men who celebrate drunkenness and boorish behavior. (Imagine that.) Then there’s that just-above-the-coccyx tattoo on young women, which seemed, 15 years ago, like some vaguely racy advertisement for hedonism and is now just today’s answer to raspberry lip gloss. And let’s add the snowboarders who showcase their uncontainable, slope-shredding radicalness in Mountain Dew commercials.
These may seem to you like disconnected little pieces of pop monoculture, with nothing threading them together except the vacuum-cleaner whine of boredom that fills your head when you try to think about them. But Hal Niedzviecki, the author of “Hello, I’m Special,” sees a pattern. A Canadian essayist and fiction writer who founded the alt-culture magazine Broken Pencil, Niedzviecki identifies phenomena like these, and many more besides, as characteristic of a paradoxical culture in which “individuality is the new conformity” or, to say the same thing backward, “nonconformity is now the accepted norm of society.”
On one level, this idea is so obviously true it hardly bears mentioning, let alone repeating and reformulating over and over again (as Niedzviecki tends to do). This is after all the age of “American Idol” and “Survivor,” perhaps the greatest celebrations of pseudo-individuality on a mass scale ever witnessed. The flannel-suited organization man, with his ideal of outward social conformity and private, inward individuality, has all but disappeared as a cultural icon, except as the butt of sitcom humor or an object of reactionary nostalgia. As Niedzviecki frames it, these days one must present the outward appearance of being distinctive and special, even eccentric, while pursuing the most hackneyed and conventional dreams of money, power and celebrity.
Today’s avatar of success has abandoned the bowling leagues, country-club parties and Presbyterian church socials that supposedly occupied the organization man’s leisure time. His signifiers are different: He plays Texas Hold ‘Em in Vegas, BlackBerrys his broker from his whitewater kayak, hits all the best spots for mojitos in South Beach, chaperones models to the Croatian Riviera and leaps from job to job in a lonely, lustful quest for accumulation and domination. At least, he aspires to do all those things. He (or, increasingly, she) has upgraded from an old version of conformity to a new one, whose central oxymoronic commandment is: Be yourself. If “yourself” turns out to be nothing more than an amalgam of brand names and images plucked from TV shows, movies and magazine layouts, so much the better.
On the other hand, there’s something wobbly about Niedzviecki’s contention that the “individual conformist” lies at the heart of our culture; he doesn’t always seem to believe it himself. A blend of cultural analysis, reporting and memoir, “Hello, I’m Special” is full of sharp and funny observations (most of them somewhere on the spectrum from bemusement to rage) and is generally a bracing read. But as Niedzviecki wanders from New Age Judaism to self-esteem training for teens, the “low-power” TV movement, karaoke clubs, the real estate boom in the remote coastal islands of British Columbia and boy-band entrepreneur Lou Pearlman’s latest product (a group called Natural whose members actually play instruments), it becomes increasingly less clear what his target is.
Sometimes he’s writing about the rise of conformist individuality. Sometimes he’s writing about the paralytic disorder of celebrity worship (with its concomitant belief that each of us is a potential celebrity). And sometimes he’s writing about the pop-culture economy that makes these things possible, a bloblike entity whose only products are image and spectacle and that has grown so big that nothing, including our purportedly private inward selves, can be said to remain outside it.
There are times when Niedzviecki seems like a paleontologist trying to reconstruct an entire extinct critter from a single metatarsal, or like a physics undergrad who has noticed a peculiar relationship in the lab between mass and energy, but doesn’t know about that famous equation. His reading is eclectic, ambitious and scattershot: He draws from classic works of sociology by Ulrich Beck, Serge Moscovici and George Simmel; contemporary cultural analysis by Benjamin Barber and Stuart Ewen; and the great postmodern philosopher Michel Foucault. But he doesn’t seem fully aware that for 50 or 60 years cultural critics of various stripes have been wrassling pretty much the same problem he is: that is, the tendency of late-capitalist culture to absorb all forms of opposition and resistance, whether real or symbolic, and then crap them out on our heads as interchangeable commodities.
This isn’t entirely a liability. The world of ideas doesn’t really need another grad student hauling the brains of dead Marxists around in his suitcase. Niedzviecki can’t (or at least doesn’t) call upon the dour heavyweights of the Frankfurt School, the apocalyptic bravado of the Situationists or the dense aphorisms of Jacques Derrida, Jean Baudrillard and company. That sometimes leaves him bumping around in the dark, stumbling over objects discovered long ago by others, but it also lends his account an undeniable freshness and vigor.
Whatever the theoretical or analytical weaknesses of “Hello, I’m Special,” it offers you the experience of an intelligent young writer struggling to think for himself. As Niedzviecki is well aware, this is something that the culture of individualistic conformity has made obligatory, and thereby almost impossible.
In his early 30s, as Niedzviecki explains in his introduction, he experienced a sort of personal epiphany. He had devoted his post-collegiate years to playing the role of anti-establishment, hard-partying bad boy, a “pop-influenced semi-slacker” who celebrated deviance and attacked corporate culture. When his parents, two years running, gave him Hallmark cards that celebrated his nonconformity (“Happy birthday to a one-of-a-kind you!”) he abruptly realized that his alleged defiance of convention had become utterly conventional, a ritualized behavior that was “not merely tolerated, but replicated and accepted.”
“Hello, I’m Special” is not primarily a memoir, but its quality of personal quest, fueled by both confusion and anger, lends it a peculiar power. Writing the book, Niedzviecki tells us, is partly an act of self-indictment; he has looked into himself and found the same infection of “narcissistic I’m Specialness” and “pop-culture-inspired fantasies” that afflicts almost everyone else in North America. His punk-anarchist-intellectual pose was mostly about “exuding a pretense of cool,” and it’s now time, he writes with disarming frankness, to “get on with the business of figuring out what and who I want to be.”
So like any good reporter, he has an emotional stake in the story he’s telling. Late in the book, while attending 2002 World Youth Day activities in Toronto, he meets a group of devout young Catholics from Arizona who are fervently patriotic and fiercely antiabortion. They represent almost everything he has hated and feared his entire life, and he doesn’t share their nationalism, their politics or their religious faith. But he writes about them with a kind of awe, describing their shimmering blond hair and glowing tans. Indeed, his primary reaction is not revulsion but envy: “They believe in something. It’s more than many of us can say.”
What most of us believe, Niedzviecki thinks, is not just a lie but a cheap and secondhand lie. He begins his narrative by exploring the world of backyard wrestling, a tiny corner of pop culture beloved of journalists in recent years. Countless short-lived backyard wrestling “federations” have staged tournaments in which bored young men somewhere in suburbia beat the bejesus out of each other, often using outrageous props, in front of a camcorder and then post the results on the Internet for the enjoyment of like-minded souls. As Niedzviecki observes, the whole enterprise is “an imitation of a TV spectacle (a spectacle that is, itself, an imitation of a sport).”
But the meta-ness of backyard wrestling isn’t what engages him. Most accounts focus on how dangerous it is for untrained teenagers to leap off the garage or bash each other into the cement birdbath (which is arguably the point), or they tell us, with postmodern hopefulness, that these young fans are inscribing their own meanings onto an established cultural practice. For Niedzviecki, backyard wrestlers embody “the kind of specialness that characterizes the new conformity … a genuine desire to articulate genuine individuality that is nonetheless mired in cliché and convention.”
That’s his argument in a nutshell: Those of us who grew up in the post-industrial, pop-culture-saturated West (and a whole lot of people who didn’t) have been raised to believe that we are unique individuals with special destinies. When it comes to imagining that destiny, however, all we have are the mass-produced images of fame and success that everyone shares: Donald Trump in his corner office with its vulgar but expensive furniture, Howard Stern partying joylessly amid pneumatic boobs, pop stars and movie actors trying vainly to imitate the more real-seeming pop stars and movie actors of the past.
Stuffed with half-baked philosophies of self-actualization and self-fulfillment, we also believe that we are ourselves primarily or even solely responsible for reaching that destiny. We have all embraced that e-mail from the cosmos assuring us that we’re VIPs — the Guaranteed Celebrity in the Building can only be us! — even though that requires pretending not to notice that everybody else got the same message.
We didn’t need Niedzviecki to tell us that the Toronto cattle-call auditions for the debut season of “Canadian Idol” — in which 10,000 potential pop stars packed into a gravel parking lot — made for a pathetic spectacle. (Let’s not even ask whether “Canadian Idol” is an unintentionally amusing title in the first place.) Almost everyone he talks to among the “thousands of young people planning on singing interchangeable pop songs” expresses the same New Age-flavored confidence. “Anyone can become what they want to be,” says 16-year-old Brooke. “If you really want to make it there’s always a way,” says Billy, a 20-year-old house painter.
Even the 7,000 or so aspirants who don’t make the first cut refuse to act daunted. “This isn’t the last of me,” one rejected girl tells Niedzviecki. “I know I’m going to be a star. The only person who can make your dreams not come true is yourself.” To stop believing in your own specialness, no matter what the evidence, would be to violate the creed of the new conformism. Furthermore, if you fail to realize your dreams — the same “shared, colonized, implanted” dreams millions of other people are chasing — the fault must be yours.
One of Niedzviecki’s sharper moments arrives in his chapter about the teen self-esteem industry, where he points out that this unstable conundrum — we’re all special, but almost none of us actually become superstars, and that’s supposed to be our own fault — creates its own solution. The end product of the “new-conformist society steeped in pop,” he writes, is a solitary “citizen consumer” who is “passive, focused on the self, willing to work hard to buy the stuff that will make him stand out.” If his specialness continues to elude the rest of the world, he “blames himself and turns inward to therapy, image adjustment, altar consultation, yoga” and so on.
There’s a flash of genuine illumination here; Niedzviecki has captured one of the principal personality types of our time (one likely to seem uncomfortably familiar to most of us) in straightforward and commonsensical prose. Still, like a lot of his book, this is overstated and a bit simplistic. So far as I know, no one has previously identified yoga as a modality of social control, and that seems a bit harsh.
It also isn’t half as original as he may believe. The idea that the individual, as a social category, was essentially invented by consumer capitalism is a central observation of 20th century Marxist and post-Marxist philosophy. Individual human beings have existed as long as the species has, and of course no two possess exactly the same attributes. But the idea of the individual as a hermetic entity surrounding a self, a mystical inner well of needs and desires capable of fulfillment, realization, repression and so on, could not have existed before the combination of capitalism, Protestantism and the beginnings of psychology called it into existence. Medieval Christian society had no time for the self; neither of course did communism or fascism.
Liberal humanism, at least in its popular incarnation, has always insisted that while the human body is imprisoned by circumstance, the soul always remains free. Niedzviecki draws heavily on Foucault’s famous assertion that the reverse is actually true: Every human being possesses at least some physical freedom to do what he will with his body, but the soul is an “instrument of a political anatomy,” impressed upon us by the institutions and ideologies around us. We are free, in other words, to become Pilates enthusiasts, drag queens or debauched junkies. We are not free, Niedzviecki writes, “to evoke an individuality that has not already been implanted in us by a combination of state-sponsored regulation and the wish-fulfillment fantasies of our pop culture.”
Throughout his book, Niedzviecki seems to be restating, presumably at second hand, many of the points in the controversial and massively influential 1944 essay “The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception,” by the German-Jewish refugee scholars Max Horkheimer and T.W. Adorno (from their book “Dialectic of Enlightenment”). All human needs, they write, are “presented to individuals as capable of fulfillment by the culture industry,” but “individuals experience themselves through their needs only as eternal consumers, as the culture industry’s object.” The point here is “the necessity, inherent in the system, of never releasing its grip on the consumer, of not for a moment allowing him or her to suspect that resistance is possible.”
There’s plenty more one could quote; later in the essay Horkheimer and Adorno have a long paragraph describing the “pseudoindividuality” of Hollywood starlets, “serially produced like the Yale locks which differ by fractions of a millimeter.” They conclude, “The peculiarity of the self is a socially conditioned monopoly commodity misrepresented as natural.” I don’t think this similarity of theme is accidental, but I don’t think Niedzviecki is borrowing ideas without credit either. Probably Horkheimer and Adorno’s vision of culture has just percolated so widely in the academic world that it wasn’t possible to receive a liberal-arts education in the ’90s, as Niedzviecki presumably did, without imbibing it.
You could even say that the criticisms leveled at the angst-ridden Frankfurters over the years also apply to Niedzviecki: Like any convert to a systematic ideology, he is overzealous, and he now sees pop culture in dark, Manichaean, monolithic and humorless terms. (Famously, Horkheimer and Adorno thought that jazz and the movies were fatally debased forms, incapable of genuine aesthetic expression.) To suggest that all struggling artists or musicians share the same scripted dreams of “specialness” and superstardom — that if they don’t want to be Britney or Spielberg, they want to be Cobain or Tarantino — is patently false, and Niedzviecki knows better. I suspect he is still trying to explore and debunk his own dreams of alt-world stardom, and I can sympathize. Perhaps a subtler way of making his point would be to argue that, in a world where every form of cultural expression has become an exchangeable commodity, no individual can be so strange and no artist so confrontational as to escape it entirely.
What all this points toward is the likelihood, already mentioned, that Niedzviecki’s book isn’t really about what he thinks it’s about. It’s unquestionably true that a stylized pseudo-individuality is among the hallmarks of our age, but that’s only one limb of a much larger beast. Niedzviecki seems insufficiently alive to the constantly contradictory, push-me-pull-you nature of contemporary pop culture, a system that resembles top-down dictatorship at the top and grass-roots democracy at the bottom, and which could be said to combine the psychoses and superstitions of both.
I’m not sure that celebrity worship, and the dream of celebrity, for instance, is really about individuality at all. It’s more about transcending individuality, and leaving behind its pain and isolation for an identity that is general and universal. In what sense is Tom Cruise an individual? His emotional life, wacky religious beliefs and childbirth principles are public property, more urgent and present to many of us than the fact that our government has been torturing prisoners in secret jails.
When Niedzviecki visits the theme parks of Orlando, Fla., he writes compellingly about the fact that the throngs gathered there seem bored and dissatisfied. (Horkheimer and Adorno make the same observation about movie audiences.) But to argue that anyone goes to Walt Disney World or Universal Studios believing that it’s in any way an individual experience is stretching his theoretical rubber band past the breaking point. Surely the point of theme parks is to replicate real or imagined collective experiences of the past — the county fair, the vaudeville show, Fourth of July in the town square — while somehow supercharging them. (Does the disillusionment come from recognizing that such things can’t be resurrected, or that they weren’t worth it in the first place?)
Yes, the 10,000 kids in the “Canadian Idol” gravel pit are all hopelessly deluded, and share virtually the same delusion. But every high school in North America has 15 girls who all think they’ll become Mariah Carey, when their real destiny is “Good evening, Holiday Inn Express at Saugatuck Center. How may I direct your call?” That’s not a news flash. Niedzviecki tries and fails to make the same point at a karaoke bar, where the patrons are just goofballing, play-acting at stardom for an evening. Nobody is fooling themselves; nobody believes that Simon Cowell’s people will somehow hear their tape. (The same is probably true for the vast majority of backyard wrestlers. Would Niedzviecki feel more kindly to them if they were playing Batman or Spider-Man?)
When he discusses the rise of “neo-traditionalism,” as with the Arizona Catholic teens or the case of his own brother, who became an ultra-Orthodox Jew despite a secular upbringing, Niedzviecki basically has to admit that the issue isn’t individuality but other troublesome categories such as “authenticity” and “meaning.” As another European expat scholar, George Steiner, has put it, we live in a “post-culture” (he means post-Auschwitz and post-Hiroshima) in which all the moral certainties of Western civilization have been stripped away and we wander about with no clear purpose, like ants whose hill has been blown up by a kid with a firecracker.
Some of us try to stride confidently forward, into late capitalism’s model of conformist individualism. Some try to dig existing collective institutions out of the crushed anthill and breathe new life into them (hence the recent rise of fundamentalist religion, Islam included). Most of us are stuck somewhere in between, trying to piece together identities out of incompatible shards of culture: the flag, vegetarianism, Bill O’Reilly, Iranian cinema, the Isaac Mizrahi clothes at Target sewn by some Chinese teenager. Hell, we might as well all answer that e-mail spambot. Am I VIP? I don’t know; probably not. But there will be genuine celebrities in the building. Why be left out?
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)