It used to be common for even the most bitter and vehement ideological foes of America to nonetheless admit that America’s consumer culture was compelling, entrancing, often interesting, but above all else, cool.
We were critics of the American way of life — over consumption, spectacle, hierarchy — but we were also in love with the movies, the books, the fashion, the Halloween parties, the Super Bowl rituals, the Oscars, the bombshell blondes and the smells of Los Angeles, Manhattan, the windy city and a host of other places that epitomized the highest that capitalist civilization had to offer.
The best food. The best talk. The best sex. The best drugs. The best of everything we could ever want, said the multibillion-dollar-a-year culture industry — and it wasn’t all a lie. America had verve; America was the leader of cool.
But how many of us can really say that about America anymore? Television is beyond bad, it’s boring. The best English language shows are British now, such as the genuinely thought-provoking Black Mirror. American movies are worse and the most exciting books are translations from abroad. Supermodels don’t arouse. The Super Bowl didn’t really matter much this year and the Academy Awards felt like a momentary distraction. CNN and The New York Times pump out increasingly banal, vague and deceptive articles while more and more Americans are turning to The Guardian and Al Jazeera for hard-hitting, fact-driven news.
There is still Silicon Valley but that too is starting to be so bedazzled by the logic of advertising and monetization that it can’t produce more than iterations of virtual gambling, social anxiety and meme inanity. Even the American consumer’s purchasing power isn’t as important as it once was… pretty soon it’ll be the Chinese middle class that will define what ketchup tastes like globally. That leaves the U.S. military, an institution that has become disgraced by unrepentant acts of torture and assassination while perpetrating unpopular civil wars.
What the hell is going on? Why are the rituals of American life losing their veneer? And most importantly, what will the decline of American culture do to the rest of the world?
The world once dreamt American dreams. We became dependent on America’s cool-makers for a vision of how to live and what to strive toward. It may have been a wrong-headed vision but it was still a vision most of the globe chased. Few are going that way now.
Who or what will rise up to fill the imagination void?