Thursday, October 21, 2010

The Importance Of Hard Work. Or Not.

Back in the early-middle portion of the last century there was a fine group of people known as "The Greatest Generation." These were folks who worked hard, fought valiantly and sacrificed greatly both at home and abroad during World War II. You probably already knew that, because you're a smarty-pants like me. But did you also know that the term "Greatest Generation" didn't exist until a clever guy named Tom Brokaw made it up? I don't know who Tom Brokaw is, but he must be a real smarty pants too!

I became aware of that fascinating etymological factoid while reading the Wikipedia article on the subject; I also learned that The Greatest Generation was sandwiched between "The Lost Generation"—which (I presume) on account of shell-shock after fighting in World War I couldn't find their way back to the airport in Paris, and so took to sipping anise liqueurs and writing great novels—and "The Silent Generation," which came of age at the tail end of WWII but was pretty much phased out with the advent of "talkies" (I can't quite make the timeline add up for that one, but then again I was never that good at math).

Anyway, after the war The Greatest Generation also proved to be highly adept at earning a living, procreating, and buying appliances. This resulted in The Baby Boom and the 1950s. I'm also not sure what The Baby Boom was, but I fear it was some kind of gruesome mishap involving too many babies and shiny and new—but unattended—toaster ovens.

Apart from all the babies getting blown up, the 1950s were an era of progress and prosperity. But since then it's all been downhill. Materialism, industry and fossil fuels have lost their glorious sheen. Wars in the "post-war" era have not been so great—in fact they've been pretty lousy across the board. In the decades since The Greatest Generation, greatness has given way to disillusionment, frustration, and indolence. (One good thing has come from this, however—without indolence we wouldn't have indy-rock.)

Since the last reflected gleam of the setting sun of greatness faded from the chromed fenders of the 1950s, we've had generations of rebellion and indulgence; we've had beatniks, hippies, yippies, yuppies, hush-puppies, slackers, Generation X, Generation Y, and, well, basically we're at the ass-end of the alphabet here, and things are not looking up. (Actually I'm not really sure if Hush Puppies were a generation, something you wear, or something you eat.) If you've observed today's up-and-coming generation, you can see that young people need something to rally around, to spark their motivation and industriousness, to end the current slumping in employment, the economy, and if we're lucky, their posture.

Now I may be a smarty-pants, but sometimes you just need good luck to solve your problems. Answers often are found when you aren't looking, and in the most unexpected places.

Earlier this week I chanced to pick up a copy of Paper Magazine (I mean this quite literally, as I picked up said periodical from the sidewalk when by chance I came across a large stack of about a dozen copies of the October issue someone mysteriously had left out along with the recycling). What I learned upon perusing the pages of the magazine was that advertising has the power to save us every time. Or the products that advertising is hawking have such power. Or at least the ads make you feel that way about the products, which frankly is good enough for me. (Like I said, I'm not really that good at making things properly add up.)

Anyway, there's finally hope! Here's the ad that restored my faith in mankind, or the economy, or generational oversimplifications or whatever it is that makes this world tick:

Here's a guy in Levi's hanging out. As you can see in the corner of the ad, this scene takes place in a town called Braddock, PA.

What's so remarkable about all this? For one thing, these new jeans from Levi's are ready for work—"Whatever The Work May Be." But it's not just the jeans. Look at that stylish kid, wearing his jeans, loafing on his bed in his arftully unrenovated pad in Braddock PA. I can relate to this guy!

He's a studied James Dean, a Jack Kerouac ready to face the travails of the world... even if he's not actually doing anything just now. That's because he's empowered by a cultural identity that, while not based on blind adherence to the soul-crushing labor of earlier generations, is infused with all the rugged style that was distilled from those labors. Monastic in a self-romanticizing manner, he has taken independence-affirming nourishment from his book and his proximity to a six-string guitar, and now he is ready to face the world, and whatever work awaits. As long as it's not too physical, because without socks those wingtips are going to give his Achilles tendons some ugly blisters before an 8 hour workday is through. So he has an Achilles heel—so what? That only makes him all the more noble. Kinda problematic that work is his Achilles heel, but there's no need to overthink it.

Enough about unimportant details. What matters is that he's got a classic, functional look, and positive, empowering text floating above him; he's the modern day male equivalent of Rosie The Riveter!

That's right: industrious Rosie, with her "can do" attitude and very "now" blue-collar work-wear. (Or very "then," I'm not quite sure—again, with the timeline issues.) The only difference between her and Braddock Boy (who I'll call "Brad" to keep it simple), is that while Rosie was already at work, tying a bandana over her hair and rolling up her shirt sleeves, Brad was massaging Crew Forming Cream into his pompadour in preparation for sitting on his bed in a pair of jeans that somebody like Rosie had actually riveted at a place where work actually occurs.

This ad's slogan is about "Work." But it contains another buzz-word, hidden in plain sight, that Brad and his ilk can relate to: "Whatever." Put together, this whole "whatever the work" business, the nonchalant attitude and effortless confidence, evokes a sort of guy whose inflated self-assurance has convinced him he's got the talent and perspicacity to do anything that's creative or admirable—I could be a writer, or a truck driver, a musician or a construction worker—but really he lacks the experience to understand the long hours of work that go into becoming capable of doing any such things.

A trip to the Levi's website unearthed plenty more newly aged clothing and corresponding ad-copy:

"The Trucker Jacket: A hardworking classic, modernized for the rigorous demands of today."

These retro-jackets are now even tougher than the originals from which they draw their inspiration, because back when truck drivers first wore such jackets, they never had to sit on their beds for hours, facing the rigorous anxiety of deciding whether or not to get a job.

I dare say this ad campaign is an ego-stroke for the entitled and delusional generation. I can be a well-read bohemian who's got his feet firmly planted on the ground in sharp loafers and denim that's been aged to perfection like blue cheese. And yeah, that "work" thing. I could totally do that. If I felt like it.

You see, of course, it's all a fantasy. There is no work. If there was, and it was the kind of work that necessitated wearing denim pants, Brad would've been out of the house hours ago, not sitting on his bed reading a David Mitchell novel at 9:30 in the morning.

Just below the Levi's logo there's a tagline encouraging this guy to "Go Forth," which is probably exactly what his parents wish he would do.

But don’t feel bad about yourself because of your disposition toward indolence. Feel good about your potential. And if you do go out, don’t be a slave. Instead run with your dog through the fields in your skinny jeans.

Modern young people (and to be honest, also us "youngish" types, a.k.a. The Smarty-Pants Generation) feel a vague sense of shame and impotence about being an aimless, entitled, not-the-greatest kind of generation. They—okay, we want to feel that we can be noble and industrious, but we were weened on Super Mario Brothers and The Red Hot Chili Peppers and we're not quite ready to give up our indulgences in order to feel like real adults. Levi's and their advertising department have embraced this cognitive dissonance and run with it like a spindly youth with his dog.

Could they really pull off such a complex feat as synthesizing these contradictions? Well Levi's pretty much invented smarty-pants, so I think so. Here's the formula they seem to have devised: address one desire with words, and superimpose that over an image evoking the contradictory other desire. And that's all there is to it. The slogan tells you that you can be that productive worker, but the picture silently reassures you (like Dick Halloran offering Danny ice cream) that there's no need to be nervous. You can still frolic in the fields like Huck Finn in girl's pants (or if the outdoors is too daunting, you can be like Brad, and lounge about Dharma Bum-style in blissful self-aggrandizing pseudo-meditation). It's blatantly paradoxical, but while the ad is adeptly stroking the brain of your inner lizard you'll be too sated to care.

When it comes down to it, whatever. The work may be. But then again the work may not be. It's all up to you. And while you're deciding, I'll be sitting with my shoes up on the bed working on my math skills. And wearing my smarty-pants.

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