June 2006

Daniel Nester


An Interview with Hal Niedzviecki

If the 1980s and early 90s was the epoch of counterculture commodification -- remember the “Kerouac Wore Khakis” Gap ads and the Picasso and Einstein “Think Different” ads for Apple? -- then the last 10 years has turned out to be the epoch of self-commodification. The notion of non-rebellion rebellion now seems quaint with all these MySpace voyeurs and peer-to-peer media. We’re now all part of the same broadband gang. This weekend, for example, my cousin Colin Challender will film himself burping the alphabet and put it on the video-sharing website YouTube. A minimum of 800 people will view this in its first weekend. A star may well be born. My cousin is under the delusion that he will be, in the words of cultural critic Hal Niedzviecki, “Special.”

What does being Special mean? In Hello, I’m Special: How Individuality Became The New Conformity, Toronto-based pop culture critic Hal Niedzviecki defines it using examples such as Mississaugas Backyard Wrestling Federation as an example of Specialness. These are amateurs who film themselves beating the crap out of each other in the backyards of Ontario, adopt professional wrestler personae, and wait for worldwide web fame to arrive. Instead of rebelling against the mainstream wrestling world, being co-opted by it, or being satisfied by entertaining the people who are watching in the backyard, these folks are under the We’re-all-Special delusion that they in fact are the next World Wrestling Federation. It’s cultural karaoke. There’s no difference. As William Carlos Williams writes in his poem “To Elsie,” we have “no peasant traditions to give us character.” Everybody is under the delusion that we are stars, Niedzviecki writes; because of mass media’s infiltration into all aspects of our lives, everyone thinks they’re Special.

Born in Brockville, Ontario, Niedzviecki grew up in Ottawa and the suburbs of Washington, D.C. He’s the founder and editor of the alternative culture magazine Broken Pencil. In promoting his 2002 book We Want Some Too: Underground Desire and the Reinvention of Mass Culture, his publicity machine took to calling Niedzviecki an “alternative culture guru.” He shies from the description. “I think I prefer underground culture guru,” he says in a recent interview, “though those same conservatives might amend even that to ‘slacker.’”

I e-mailed Niedzviecki at his home office in the west side of Toronto to talk to him about Specialness, Simon Cowell, Martha Stewart, corporate conspiracy theories, and that blasted MySpace.

On your book tour, you hold The Most Special Person Ever competitions. Any reports from the road? Have you found truly Special people?

Well, the contest is more of a semi-sarcastic way to approach the whole idea of how much we all crave attention, Specialness, et cetera. What, really, can anyone say or do that hasn't been done or said? So really it gets down to the fact that we are all Special intrinsically as human beings, which also means that none of us are Special, not even the celebrities and their oddly-named offspring. At the same time, we’ve had some fun moments on the road -- in Boston a woman won by listing all the magazines she subscribes to, which included various lit mags and corporate mags, and also Rendering Quarterly and Meat Packers Monthly -- I’m making up the titles, but not her claim to be a subscriber to them.

Comedian Eugene Mirman, a judge, asked her if she was a butcher and she said, “No, I’m just curious.”

What is inherently wrong with everyone wanting to be Special, to be a star, to be one-of-a-kind?

A successful society is going to be one that provides a community in which people do feel inherently, intrinsically, recognized. Sadly, we aren’t currently living in such a society. A lot of people feel like the only way they can demonstrate some kind of worth to themselves and others is to create a narrative which positions themselves at the top of the ladder, as in some way “Special.” We do this by seeking celebrity, by trying to break a meaningless record, by doing extreme stunts, by lining up in droves to try out for a reality TV show, by constructing elaborate websites/MySpace pages that demonstrate how great we are and how we have 12,000 MySpace pals. All of us are infected with the idea that we need to manage our identity in order to project an image. All of us are diminished by the sense that those who have greatest access in the virtual media world -- celebrities -- are those who are worth the most in society.

What’s wrong with all this? In the book, I point to rising rates of depression and anxiety and stress. I point to the incredible dissatisfaction so many people have with their lives, even though those lives are lived in freedom and with every possible comfort accounted for. I point to the number of people living in debt above their means, obsessed with products and lifestyles they can’t afford. I note that more and more people relate more to celebrities and TV characters than they do to friends and family. The more we crave stardom and Specialness, the less we engage with community and society. We become narcissistic consumers and the product we most want everyone to consume is ourselves.

Do you think there should be more Simon Cowells in the world, people telling us we are terrible singers; that we are, in fact, not Special?

The irony is that Specialness flattens out everything, by which I mean that if you just want to be noticed, to be the center of attention, you can be noticed by being the worst at something just as easily as you can by being the best at something. So we get the William Hung “She Bangs” phenomenon or the Paris Hilton craze. If you have gotten onto TV for a few minutes, even if you are mocked by the judges, you still consider yourself farther ahead in the game than the billions on this earth who didn’t get to be on TV. People who used to dream about making it as a singer now dream about being reviled by Simon Cowell.

“Communities” is a really important word and concept in Hello, I’m Special.

Well, it comes down to social groupings that can enhance and reaffirm our sense of inherent individuality without restricting our options or allowing us to forget that we have responsibilities. It’s kind of like the small town, only without the snap judgments and prejudice. Really, we have to wonder two things: Where has community gone, and how can we get it back?

So I’m trying to think of an example of a community-based and yet popular-culture-oriented moment or instance and not give away some of the great examples you have in your book, since that’s sort of the climax of Hello, I’m Special.

Here’s one. In Philly on the tour last week, I stumbled across a weekly indie movie night held at a local restaurant. Every week, people brought their videos to be screened. Standing room only. Everyone got a chance and the videos ranged from being about the local community to being about issues with global implications. Some were horrid and some were great, but the point was that they were made by people for their community.

“The message of pop,” you write, “compels us to be more ourselves, because we are intrinsically interesting, beautiful, worthy of attention and notice.” Should we combat this message the popular culture gives us, this “I’m Specialism,” as you call it?

Well, this is the problem. It hardly seems like a good idea to be going around telling people that it’s all a lie and that they actually aren’t destined for amazing things if they believe in themselves, work hard, never give up, and so on and so forth.

There’s a lot of good in the rise of Specialism. Millions have ambitions and desires they might otherwise have never had; millions have a sense of their worth and their equality because of pop culture and its universal message: you are Special no matter what anyone tells you. But the problem comes when the pop culture industry defines Special as celebrity.

So, yes, we must combat the message of pop, what I call “the lie of fame.” We can’t all be famous, we shouldn’t even want to be famous because fame is meaningless and destroys community and society by debasing ability and commitment and our right to feel recognized as human beings regardless of who we are or what we do.

As a Canadian yourself, you do mention a lot of Canadian cultural phenomena alongside those in the U.S. Are there any blanket-statement, interview-friendly differences among Canadians and their southern counterparts?

The U.S. is the epicentre of Specialness because it is the epicentre of pop culture and mass media. Canada isn’t in the centre. In the past, this has meant a more ironic culture that questions the idea of the star system and Specialness. But as our media becomes more corporate and American-influenced, as electronic mass culture is no longer limited by borders, I see this less and less. Today the kids line up for Canadian Idol with just as much fervor as they line up for American Idol.

Do the Canadian Idol singers sing in French? I’m sort of fascinated by how American Idol shows all the different sectors of America -- country, urban, gay, milquetoast...

Alas, Canadian Idol is only in English and pretty much fails to illuminate a single thing about Canada that might be distinct or unique from the U.S.

To what degree do you think this discussion of “I’m Specialness” -- the idea that as products of our culture, we set out not to be merely ourselves, but to be Special, extraordinary, famous -- is a concern mainly of lower- and middle-class people who either, respectively, are put into a tailspin of diversion or have enough time to think of such things?

I don’t think this is a class issue at all. The rich are just as consumed with controlling their narrative and realizing their optimal fame and Specialness as the poor and the middle class. Look at the Hilton sisters or the Osborne children or Donald Trump or Richard Branson. Trump told the New York Times that the other billionaire-types are jealous of him because nobody knows who they are, thus with all their money they are nobody. When The Donald walks down the street he’s the one everyone cheers for. In the book I encounter a figure like Charmaine, who is a spiritual counselor to business executives. They pay her a lot of money to counsel them and help them reconnect to the spiritual. She designs an altar for them and personal prayer sessions. They are at the top, but feel empty, destitute, feel like they aren’t getting the attention they need so they have to hire Charmaine to find a way to make themselves feel even more Special.

The difference, ultimately, is that if you are poor or middle class you have to get in line to be Special or you have to do something really crazy. The rich don’t have to get in line -- they can have the plastic surgery, the face time with the corporate gatekeepers, the book deals, the personally designed religions... whatever they want. When Martha Stewart walked out of prison, she was more popular than ever with a TV talk show and her version of The Apprentice in her back pocket. Her “leveling” experience as a con was seen as marketable. Celebrities bend over backward to appear as if they are still “street.” Thus Jenny “on the block” Lopez AKA Maid in Manhattan. Again, it’s a case where the lie is perpetuated -- it doesn’t matter who you are or where you come from. We all have an equal chance to host our own talk show.

It’s not even remotely true, but everyone, rich and poor, wants to believe that’s the case, because that idea of classlessness redeems the whole celebrity system. Everyone believes, everyone wants to be Special, but the richer you are the more likely you will get to the top of the heap.

“The urge to rebellion,” you write, “will come not from a desire and inability to escape mass culture’s looming presence, but from the realization that something prevents us from entering the pop dream.” Here’s a question: what if popular culture’s products are as rebellious as many people are willing to go? Are we really talking about how the best of us will find a way out of the pop dream and find a new pop dream?

What I’m talking about is not some wholesale overturning of the evil “system,” but the realization that our misery is not always our own fault. We are told that if we have self-esteem and believe in ourselves, we can achieve anything, and the flip side of that is that if you don’t achieve, if you can’t find a way to be seen as Special, you are a failure. But we don’t talk about the systemic difficulties -- the way, for instance, societal prejudice or corporate control of culture might nullify our best efforts no matter how much we believe in ourselves. There’s nothing wrong with pop culture if we think of pop culture as accessible, near-instant mass electronic ways to talk to each other. What’s wrong is how this method of communication has become totally commercialized and used to create celebrity, which is then used to sell product, which is used to create more celebrity, all of which is outside everyday normal human life. What we need to rebel against is the idea that we should want fame, want celebrity, want to be a displaced icon with no meaningful connection to an actual place or time.

A start would be to recognize the barriers that the system erects that keep us on the outside looking in, despite the perpetual promise of Special for everyone. One of the most important things I concluded in writing the book is that we need to stop thinking in terms of rebellion and radical acts of craziness. This doesn’t help us. There is no such thing as an edgy, alternative, underground culture when mainstream TV offers all the sex, violence and weirdness you could possibly imagine. We can’t out-rebel a pop culture that constantly urges us to all be rebels who fight the system.

We need to understand what the system actually is and how it works and how creating narratives in which we are fighting the system only makes the system stronger. Wow, this is starting to sound very conspiracy theory. I don’t think it’s a conspiracy. Even people in power, people who make programming decisions in Hollywood, resent the system and wish to change it but have no idea how. There has to be a grassroots movement away from Special, away from the displaced, ubiquitous virtual celebrity as the highest attainment in our society. This is starting to happen, to some extent, with the arrival of a more freewheeling Internet culture. But that culture is heavily influenced by the culture of Special, of course, and is also being quickly bought and owned by corporations like News Corp., which now owns MySpace. Which is perfect for them, because it’s like a grassroots Idol TV show in which the contestants are the hosts, judges, and performers all in one!

Wow, that’s a lot to swallow. For a second I thought MySpace, with its totally horrible design and interface, was on its way to being a true grassroots network. Then Rupert bought it. Is there no hope for us?

Of course there’s hope. Every day I discover new great things people are doing to reform community, combat the evil of celebrity and otherwise seek to restore human dignity. We are a long, long way from a situation in which we are helpless and hopeless. More and more people demanding the right to be Special is hardly the worse place to be. We’re confused and misguided and depressed, but we’re also pissed-off and determined. We just need to channel our energies and insist on more than our right to vote so-and-so off the island.

Daniel Nester is, among other things, the author of The History of My World Tonight (BlazeVox) as well as God Save My Queen and God Save My Queen II (Soft Skull Press). Visit his personal website at http://www.danielnester.com.