Content Warning: Jonathan Franzen
Freedom, by Jonathan Franzen, is my favorite book of the decade. Spanning the scope of modern life and its idiosyncrasies he manages to touch on everything from sexual abuse, the etiology of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, overpopulation as mankind’s greatest eminent threat, misogynistic views men typically hold, heartache and relationship decay, and rampant consumerism. Here is one of my favorite scenes in the book relating to that last point, the oh-so-lovely nature of American consumerism and privilege. It is an interview between a washed-up rock star (Richard Katz) and some seemingly precocious high-school kid who wants to interview Katz and get street cred to get the girl over whom he is pining to fuck him.
Q: What do you think of the MP3 revolution?
A: Ah, revolution, wow. It’s great to hear the word “revolution” again. It’s great that a song now costs exactly the same as a pack of gum and last exactly the same amount of time before it loses its flavor and you have the spend another buck. That era which finally ended whenever, yesterday - you know, that era when we pretended rock was the scourge of conformity and consumerism, instead of its anointed handmaid - that era was really irritating and to me. I think it’s good for the honesty of rock and roll and good for the country in general that we can finally see Bob Dylan and Iggy Pop for what they really were: as manufacturers of wintergreen Chiclets.
Q: So you’re saying rock has lost its subversive edge?
A: I’m saying it never had any subversive edge. It was always wintergreen Chiclets, we just enjoyed pretending otherwise.
Q: What about when Dylan went electric?
A: If you’re going to talk about ancient history, let’s go back to the French revolution. Remember when, I forget his name, but that rocker who wrote ‘Marseillaise,’ Jean Jacques Whoever – remember when his song started getting all that airplay in 1792, and suddenly the peasantry rose up and overthrew the aristocracy? There was a song that changed the world. Attitude was what the peasants were missing. They already had everything else – humiliating servitude, grinding poverty, unpayable debts, horrific working conditions. But without a song, man, it added up to nothing. The sansculotte style was what really changed the world.
Q: So what’s next for Richard Katz?
A: I’m getting involved in Republican politics.
Q: Ha ha.
A: Seriously. Getting nominated for a Grammy was such an unexpected honor, I feel duty bound to make the most of it in this critical election year. I’ve been given the opportunity to participate in the pop-music mainstream, and manufacture Chiclets, and help try to persuade fourteen-year-olds that the look and feel of Apple Computer products is an indication of Apple Computer’s commitment to making the world a better place. Because making the world a better place is cool, right? And Apple Computer must be way more committed to a better world, because iPods are so much cooler-looking than other MP3 players, which is why they’re so much more expensive and incompatible with other companies’ software, because – well, actually it’s a little unclear why, in a better world, the very coolest products have to bring the very most obscene profits to a tiny number of residents of the better world. This may be a case where you have to step back and take the long view and see that getting to have your very own iPod is itself the very thing that makes the world a better place. And that’s what I find so refreshing about the Republican Party. They leave it up to the individual to decide what a better world might be. It’s the party of liberty, right? That’s why I can’t understand why those intolerant Christian moralists have so much influence on the party. Those people are very antichoice. Some of them are even opposed to the worship of money and material goods. I think the iPod is the true face of Republican politics, and I’m in favor of the music industry really getting out in front on this one, and becoming more active politically, and standing up proud and saying it out loud: We in the Chiclet-manufacturing business are not about social justice, we’re not about accurate or objectively verifiable information, we’re not about meaningful labor, we’re not about a coherent set of national ideals, we’re not about wisdom. We’re about choosing what WE want to listen to and ignoring everything else. We’re about ridiculing people who have the bad manners not to want to be cool like us. We’re about giving ourselves a mindless feel-good treat every five minutes. We’re about the relentless enforcement and exploitation of our intellectual-property rights. We’re about persuading ten-year-old children to spend twenty-five dollars on a cool little silicone iPod case that costs a licensed Apple Computer subsidiary thirty-nine cents to manufacture.
Q: Seriously, though. There was a very strong antiwar mood at last year’s Grammys. Many of the nominees were very outspoken. Do you think successful musicians have a responsibility to be role models?
A: Me me me, buy buy buy, party party party. Sit in your own little world, rocking, with your eyes closed. What I’ve been trying to say is that we already are perfect Republican role models.
Q: If that’s the case, then why was there a censor at the awards last year, making sure that nobody spoke out against the war? Are you saying Sheryl Crow is a Republican?
A: I hope so. She seems like such a nice person, I’d hate to think she was a democrat.
Q: She’s been very vocally anitwar.
A: Do you think George Bush actually hates gay people? Do you think he personally gives a shit about abortion? Do you think Dick Cheney really believes Saddam Hussein engineered 9/11? Sheryl Crow is a chewing-gum manufacturer, and i say that as a longtime chewing-gum manufacturer myself. The person who cares what Sheryl Crow think about the war in Iraq is the same person who’s going to buy an obscenely overpriced MP3 player because Bono Vox is shilling for it.
Q: But there’s a place for leaders in a society, too, right? Wasn’t that what corporate America was trying to suppress at the Grammys? The voices of potential leaders of an antiwar movement?
A: You want the CEO of Chiclets to be a leader in the fight against tooth decay? Use the same advertising methods to sell gum and tell the world that gum is bad for you? I know i just made a crack about Bono, but he has more integrity than the rest of the music world combined. If you made a fortune selling Chiclets, you might as well go ahead and sell overpriced IPods, too, and get even richer, and then use your money and your status to get entrèe to the White House and try to do some actual hands-on good in Africa. Like: be a man, suck it up, admit that you like being part of the ruling class and that you believe in the rule class, and that you’ll do whatever it takes to consolidate your position in it.