Back to the Garden

The idea of group approval is a strange thing, pulling us this way and that, in directions that are sometimes worthy, other times ugly, asking us to constantly judge both ourselves and others, while hinting broadly exactly what that judgement should be. It’s not just music, or books, or film and TV that are ranked, not just our bodies that are weighed and airbrushed, not just hotels and shops. Basics like food or coffee have become signs, encouraging us to either frequent places that are interchangeable in name and decoration, or special, inaccessible, must-wait-on-line-with-platinum-card until the gatekeepers nod and acknowledge the supplicants and relieve their agony. We do resist – funny how everyone has their favorite places among the green or pink or orange branded signs. The guy on TikTok who introduces the world of Massachusetts talks about Dunkin Donuts. He says people will seek out their favorite outposts, so DD1546 instead of DD 1547, worth another 15 minutes in the car, throwing some money in the direction of the oil companies and climate change in the meantime. Still, we must live. Something to look forward to, after another week of emails and Zoom. Zoom! Off to Starbucks!

Having been bombarded with advertising over the past two weeks, last night I watched Coming 2 America as a way to decompress from the week and think about something else, anything else than pandemics, scandals, and emails, endless emails. A cross between a princess bride and a fresh prince, this sequel had perhaps lost some of the charm of the first. I remembered how cool Arsenio Hall was, back in the day, when it seemed that maybe white men wouldn’t always rule nighttime talkertainment shows. He still is, really. Eddie Murphy, of course, is a legend, even if no longer the razor sharp social commentator, following in the wake of the unique genius of Richard Pryor. But what really struck me was the lavish usage of product placement. A parade of things to buy that was so blatant, scattered in scenes like so much salt. The bizarre first 10 minutes offered up a fake McDonalds segment. The company must have agreed to it, knowing that even a slight variation on the well-known double arch was publicity for the original. So how much did that cost? Granted, it is expensive to finance a film.

As musicians who write advertising jingles find it easier to get record contracts, perhaps directors who are gifted at inserting advertising now replace Hitchcock and Truffaut, Scorsese and Hawks. There is one scene where the two “advisors”, one of whom was a character played by Arsenio Hall, go to the expensive-looking bar at a royal rave, and instead of the whisky and soda or beer of older films, precisely order Crown Royal, and then camera pans to the bottle, placed at a lovingly precise angle on the bar, before returning to show them drinking their drinks, all smiles. There is even a special edition bottle linked to the film. Another scene takes a quest for bravery and autonomy, empties it out, and inserts a close up on the Friskies cat food used to…well no. I hate spoilers. But in a scene supposedly set in Africa, with wild animals, to focus that clearly on a tiny catfood tin… Well. It was an interesting directorial choice.  Still. Reality, right? Someone’s got to pay for this…entertainment. In fact, if you want a listing of all the products, check out this page. It’s amazing, isn’t it? This is a job for a lot of people. This is reality for a lot of people. Hard to cast aspersions on an entire industry. After all, it’s not the coal mines, right?

I’ve never been to Africa, not the Northern part, places like Morocco and Tunisia, where I always wanted to go, remembering couscous meals in a romantic restaurant in Kentish Town that no longer exists. Not Egypt, fabled land of the pyramids and now repression, creating the educated asylum seekers who now work in the local bodega, and tell me their stories in late night moments. I’ve never traveled to Nigeria or Ghana, places that always intrigued me, after teaching kids whose families came from there, who taught me in return about how they saw the world, and each other, as opposed to the idea of Africa as some homogeneous block where everyone was the same. I never wanted to go to South Africa. And people boasting about climbing Kilimanjaro makes me think of that Toto song. Then I think of photos on Twitter of political scions, idiots going to the savannah to hunt innocent animals, posing next to a still warm, motionless creature of beauty, even in death. Those gurning faces, symbols of greed, so proud of their ability to destroy.

Then there are the girls kidnapped by groups that the latest article called “unidentified gunmen.” Some of these young women are returned, but too many are not. I think of the pain of their families, the suffering from endless conflict. The movie about the Rwandan genocide – which we watched in class, silenced. Too many reactions, some that must have been unspoken. Learning. The reality of life. I remember once reading something about someone who was shocked to see high rise buildings where they had thought there would be only primitive dwellings “underneath that burning sun.”  That song. “Well tonight thank God it’s them instead of you ” Bono’s voice rang out. And Live Aid. Click on the You Tube link even now and raise some money. The innocence of the 80s, perhaps the arrogance, but at least there was the sense of wanting to do good. Isn’t that better than Oklahoma now giving immunity to those driving into protestors with their trucks and cars? Or the London police arresting women who gathered to protest the violent death of a woman at the hands of a policeman?

And I watched this heavily promoted film, released through Amazon – let your workers organize into unions, Jeff! – and just felt that I was watching another bad TV show. Why is the American version of life seeping into everything, like mold? But actors need roles, and TV needs content. True, I had missed Arsenio Hall, and Gladys Knight did sing, and there’s two hours of life I spent thinking about something else other than the pandemic. Yet the argument that people need to escape struck me as not quite covering everything people might need.  

Once, a student in a media class came up to me and said something like, I was watching TV last night, and suddenly I realized the ads weren’t for me, to help me, like I thought, but they were just trying to sell me something. You’ve ruined TV for me!

My work here is done, I thought. But it’s never done. Media, when looked at as a system of signs, playing with images and words, does a quick bait and switch with comfortable values and recognizable symbols, and inserts what it wants. Coffee equals family. Hamburger treats equal good parenting. A car is adventure. A sneaker is health. And taglines and headlines point readers in a particular direction. This ambiguity was weaponized in the US over the last four years, replacing trust with mistrust – of a chosen target. Is it enough to not believe unblinkingly everything you read in the papers? Looking at the ownership and history of some media outlets is essential, and some in Britain, at least, know this very well. Look at the famous campaign against the Sun, and the awareness of how the methods of the right wing press, like the Daily Mail’s fascist not-so-long-ago past and the reporting on Brexit in the present may not be that different.

But this started out being a piece on reviews. Reviews, because it was pointed out to me that now on Amazon, you have to spend $50 or £40 a year in order to earn the right to leave a review. Interesting. I’m not sure that approach successfully removed all the paid-for reviews, or weakened the impact of the publicity machines behind publishing and the music industry, but ok. Amazon makes it easy for a person to order a coffee maker, publish on their own, and even easier for the small buyer and seller to disappear into the ether, while the larger entities, with their money and seemingly universal approval, grab the spotlight. Amazon’s earnings during the pandemic have been startling. Approval turns to monopoly. A little like Starbucks. Or the best seller list. Or the records nominated for the Grammy awards. As though that is all there is. As though what is contained within the lists and the brands are our only choices.

The last few years have shown both in the US and the UK that perhaps it’s not a huge jump from influencing a vote up or down for a product, while encouraging people to only go to the places that are recognized and approved, to spreading the idea of toxic nationalism. A brand. A slogan. Merchandise. A large crowd gathering. A logo. A savior. A shared enemy. Propaganda didn’t need an algorithm, but it got one.

Some artists seem to thrive on the branding aspect. Others, not so much. Marketing to a group, fitting into the crowd – these aren’t necessarily traits associated with creativity. And when imagination is subsumed into the rush to create a brand, or target to a market, perhaps that’s not so good, even for the tired demand to escape. And we are tired.

Advertising and the cult of the group are not new. As humans, we are both unique and starry-eyed as well as being the dangerous, oh so useful crowd. Our need to be part of something greater than our ability to question it can be used against us. And the effect of crowdsourcing everything from mixers to foreign policy sends out ripples beyond the buy/sell clickbait culture. We look for validation, and open the door to abusive behavior. We all want to be part of something, but at what cost?

There’s poetry in the world still.  Are we stardust, golden? Or do we now have to look around and only validate each part of our lives based on its curb appeal?  

Even if it seems naïve to want something more, or to look at different moments in time or life and see whether we were fooled or blessed, it’s a knowledge formed of many pieces. There should be a balance between the clear-eyed and the starry-eyed. To find that those placed on a pedestal might not be everything. Why do we rank things anyway…

And this post was supposed to be a little something about reviews.

© Alice Severin