Korporate Konsumer Kulture

This entry originally appeared in Powell’s Books blog and is reprinted by permission.

It’s 2 a.m. and the rain is so loud and the moon is so bright that I’m lying on the closet floor, trying to get some sleep. It’s hard. I mean, the floor is hard and it’s hard to sleep on it.

You’re supposed to empty your mind of all thought, in order to fall asleep, right? Or is that meditation? Either way. I believe the brain’s first order of business is to lie to you, so I like to shut that organ down every chance I get.

Tonight, though, when I try to shut it up, it keeps asking this question: why do people think I’m foreign? My brain raises a good point. I’ve never been sure why people tend to guess I’m foreign. ‘Cause they do. Often. They ask me “what part of the world” I’m from. And it bugs me. What does “foreign” even mean in a melting pot? I mean, I speak English.

“You speak it…weird, though,” says my husband, Billy. “And you like to dress like a refugee.”

“Weird? What do you mean, ‘weird’? And good like a refugee or bad like a refugee?”

“Oh…good,” he says. “Like you were the first girl to the bale.”

I’ve seen Billy asked for directions in Milan, Boise, Barcelona, New York and Dublin. Clearly he has no trouble fitting in, wherever he is. In most of these places, he is foreign.

I’m not asked for directions anywhere, not even in my hometown where I should look like I know where I’m going.

Today, walking down NW 23rd, here in Portland, I saw no less than six different ladies wearing the exact same shoes. Shoes that were being sold in several places on that very street. I guessed that those ladies weren’t foreign — they certainly looked like they belonged.

I began to wonder if besides wearing the same shoes, maybe they all listened to the same music, too. As a musician, I wonder this a lot. Marketing is very effective when it comes to shoes and music.

I looked down at my sturdy refugee shoes and thought, “Fashion. Again.” In music it often seems to come down to that tiny bit of evil: style over substance, ephemeral over timeless.

Recently, a music journalist told me that he hadn’t kept up with my career for the past few years, because I had “fallen off [his] radar.” The last record of mine that he’d heard was the subject of a well funded major label marketing campaign; I was on the radio and in most music publications as well as some of the magazines one might read at, say, the dentist’s office.

It hadn’t occurred to this man, who works in the music business, that what he thinks of as his “radar” might just be the result of marketing dollars spent by a corporation whose job it is to create popular culture by creating the impression of popular culture in order to… Make Money.

I was amazed. How could this be? I thought. How can this process be invisible even to a person who plays a role in it? Well, I guess the answer is in the shoes. Belonging at the expense of individuality. No one seems to want to give it up. We like matching feet and reliable coffee and using the same perfume as rich and famous people.

Our American cities are disappearing under the weight of corporate giants who drive out competition while peddling sameness. Once the rents go up, no store other than a chain can afford to pursue the all-important Coed Consumer Monster, waving Daddy’s credit card.

Over twenty years of touring the states, I’ve watched local accents and local music slip away from cities like Austin, Texas, Athens, Georgia and Chapel Hill, North Carolina. So sad! There used to be places to go in this country, pictures to take, people to meet. Now they look the same and sound the same. We even eat the same food! Do you remember regional cuisine? Can you really find any? It’s even happening in foreign places like Europe, Asia, Australia, even my beloved New Zealand!

I’m done. I’m going back to sleep now. My sturdy shoes are right next to my face, but I don’t mind. I like them now. They’re on my radar. I love being an American, but I don’t feel like I have to look like one. And I listen to all kinds of music, from lots of different places and eras; not because some giant sold it to me, but because it never sucked.

I think I might just keep talking funny, too.

Posted in: words on December 21, 2006