I spent my Saturdays scrounging around Seattle’s vintage clothing stores at Pike Place Market. These stores had names like “Retro Viva”, were staffed by frighteningly cool salespeople and filled with glum teens like me, on the hunt for that perfect black velvet coat with most of its buttons still in tact. The clothes were often stained or ripped. So you’d add patches or buttons or ribbon or dye them with RIT, pissing off your mom by staining the washing machine.
But when you were done, you triumphantly wore that silk smoking jacket, brocade cocktail dress or vinyl miniskirt knowing you were the coolest person in the cafeteria. That vintage outfit was truly yours, because you discovered it. You’d worked for it. It was your personal revamped vision.
Today’s teens can avoid this process and head to Hot Topic, where retail focus groups have pre-determined exactly which vintage style t-shirts to push. Before they even enter the store, someone else has filtered the aesthetic experience for them. It’s completely sanitized and accessible. (No mothball smell either.) Or if you don’t feel like going to the mall, you can stay in your bedroom and browse on line. Within a few minutes you can find an exquisite 1950’s clutch that would have taken me weeks to unearth in the dank vintage stores of Seattle.
Music is equally accessible. It’s not sought after, it’s marketed directly to you. You don’t have to extend too much effort. Not like it was in my day. No sir! We were tireless music scavengers, hitting used record stores to research Iggy and the Stooges or The New York Dolls or some other band referenced in a Rolling Stone article. You might start chatting with the paunchy older guy behind the counter, dressed in an ancient concert t-shirt that stunk of stale cigarettes. By the time you’d left the store you’d have bought the Stooges “Funhouse” album, pretended to know who The Velvet Underground were and promised to come back to get the MC5 album he’d played for you.
Now Pandora Radio allows you to create your own personalized radio station though The Music Genome Project. So instead of the paunchy guy behind the counter, you’re directed to new music you might like by vectors and genes that are assigned numbers in half-integer increments. It all sounds like the biology classes I used to skip when I’d sneak onto the school roof, listen to music and dream of moving to New York. (Of course I could be wrong, seeing as how I rarely went to biology class.)
It’s possible that vectors are more precise than the paunchy used record store guy in his cigarette scented t-shirt. But algorithms aren’t infallible. Who hasn’t downloaded a song from iTunes, seen the “Genius Recommendations” suggestions afterwards and thought: “Are you serious with this shit?”
The “Listeners Also Bought” section tends to depress me too. How could I be the kind of person who shares even one song in common with nameless, faceless assholes who spent their hard earned cash on John Mayer?
So I’ll take the paunchy record store guy, please. Because the great thing about having to work for your cultural touchstones was the connections you made, the experience you had figuring it all out. In Seattle’s University District there was this incredible used bookstore, run by a bizarre old guy. The place was a shrine to serendipity. Not only were the dusty books stacked high, jumbled and out of order, but people would stop in selling bags of used clothes, hold political meetings, and post flyers for their bands. One day I stuck around for so long that the owner had me work behind the counter for a while, and asked if I’d run away to Paris with him. But I still have the copy of Dorothy Parker’s “Enough Rope” that he gave me that day. He told me, “I know you’ll love this but promise me you don’t become jaded like her.”
This inconvenient mode of collecting ideas enabled you to stumble on artistic connections. You’d listen to the Cure’s “Killing an Arab” then pop into the bookstore and find out the song was written about Camus’ “The Stranger”. You’d discover that David Bowie used William S. Burroughs’ “cut up method” to write his songs. So you’d buy a copy of “The Naked Lunch”. But it felt like your personal discovery, a special thread you followed that helped define your interests.
The funny thing is that the Internet is perfect for this type of thread following. It’s so easy. Throw a word into a search engine and it spits out thousands of related concepts. But people seem to do it less and less. Search engines have given way to apps that are tailored to your needs. So even something as vast as the Internet, with as many threads and connections and combinations as it creates, has now been tailored just for you. Random chaos has been customized. Convenience wins again.
Whether it’s clothes, music or books, people don’t really have to search much anymore. Hell, your Google account even looks out for you, seizing key words, doing the research for things you might like. Some unknown force yanks on your sleeve saying, “Hey there! I noticed you’re writing something about Hawaii. So this Magnum P.I. t-shirt is exactly what you need!”
The thrill of the hunt is nearly extinct and everything is accessible without working for it. But the question becomes: how much do you really appreciate something when it falls into your lap so easily? Convenience is killing our idols. A king’s ransom has dwindled with the rise of Paypal.
Excess accessibility has lessened the value of precious things; even the rarified world of celebrity. In the Golden Age of Hollywood, going to a movie used to be an event. People would get dressed up and go to beautiful movie palaces with giant silver screens and lush red velvet curtains. So movie stars were looked upon as gods; mythic creatures on Hollywood’s Mount Olympus. They were not photographed buying groceries or getting coffee in stained sweatpants. They were photographed in perfectly staged environments, far removed from your ordinary life in Wisconsin.
Now you can watch blockbusters on your cell phone and keep tabs on your favorite celebrity via Twitter. You can sneer at their cellulite through the paparazzi’s lens. The velvet curtain has been pulled back and turns out the little man lurking behind there wears dirty flip flops and has terrible grammar.
The overabundance and availability of fame has lessened its value, which means more people just expect to get famous these days. Fame is ubiquitous. Like Doritos. And how grateful or surprised is anyone who buys a bag of Doritos from a vending machine?
I’m not even sure if we value our friends as much anymore. Even they’re too accessible. It’s too convenient to check in on them. Is it that exciting to see a friend in person when you can access them by cell phone 24 hours a day, read their thoughts and opinions and even track their whereabouts on Facebook and Twitter? Accessibility breeds comfort and comfort leads to stagnancy. If you want to put it in mathematical terms: it’s the same equation that explains why so many couples get fat together.
If absence makes the heart grow fonder, our biggest problem is that no one gives you the opportunity to miss them. Even people who go on vacation still feel compelled to keep in touch via social networking sites. No one is fully present, yet they’re still everywhere: boring you with their dull photos and updates. It feels like some futile attempt to manufacture shared memories. And I can’t help but laugh at the people who return from these trips to find that they’ve been robbed, after repeatedly announcing to their online “friends” that they won’t be home for a week. Guess what? Most of your “friends” aren’t real. But your empty house and flat screen TV are.
Lately I’ve been wondering if people will ever get bored of convenience and availability without tangible experience. Will people ever miss the random process of literally rummaging through cultural storage bins to pick out what you want? What about the tactile sensation of being in the moment instead of capturing it as evidence to be shared online?
If this boredom ever does strike, I predict it will usher in a resurgence of indie bookstores, vintage boutiques and music shops. After all, certain megastores like Barnes & Noble are in decline because they aren’t able to compete with the convenience of the Internet. While little indie stores can’t compete on that level either, they do have a great advantage: they can give you a unique experience and a real sense of community. They create spaces where you can meet people, support your neighbors, and make cultural and personal connections. Best of all, the paunchy older guy behind the counter can’t be outsourced.