Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Guaranteed Personality

The Search for authenticity as related by one of the greatest bands you've maybe never heard of and by one of my favorite writers.  The song starts at 8 minutes in and is one of my favorite covers.... ever.

I was leaving a show last week and they were playing this song as I walked out the door of the club.  It stuck in my head.  I listened to it at work the next day and for the first time really heard the lyrics.  This is probably because when I heard Marah play it, my ears were close to bleeding.  They spend the entire first half of every set I've ever seen them play trying to get the sound guy to make everything louder.

If you don't have 11 minutes to listen to the entire essay and the song that follows, I will include some of the best points from Nick Hornby's essay below:

"I would have paid good money out of my grant for a little authenticity and credibility but now I was selling and I didn't know how to buy it anyway... "

"I didn't know that I was acting out one of punk rock's most pointless conversations with itself: who was the punkest and what did that mean anyway?... Could you be a punk if you had hair like this, trousers like that, a guitarist who could play, a keyboard? Could you be a punk in fact if you never read a book?..."

"[The Clash] were trapped inside the cartoon that punk had become and that they had helped to draw... The angrier the band got the more the crowd loved it because being angry was what punk was all about. "

What strikes me, really listening for the first time, is the truth and relevancy.  One of the greatest untold longings in our culture today is the search for authenticity.  The Clash sum this up in "Lost in the Supermarket".  You get the sense from the first verse that they feel boxed in from a young age in suburbia.   And now as adults they are in the supermarket and still feeling that same urge to break free of the uniformity and the life that most people say they want.  Nick Hornby says that he could feel as much from the stage when he saw them play.  It must be a pretty palpable feeling and the anger that Hornby says emanated from their stage presence wasn't put on, it was real!  They were angry, at least a little lonely, and felt misunderstood.  Maybe that's why the punk movement was so welcoming and infectious; everyone feels at least one of those at any given time almost and many of us two or three.  But it helps alleviate those feelings being around other people who feel the same way, which is what the punk movement became: a way to find identity while at the same time saying you didn't need one and you defied anyone that tried to give one to you.  And yet most walked away with one anyway.

Strummer and Jones, co-writers on this track, say that hearing people fight in the flat above them is one of their first ever feelings and in the next line that that feeling has never diminished. They still see it all around them.  That is scary and would be cause for anger which is a natural outgrowth of fear.  Then that cuttingly brilliant chorus: "I'm all lost in the supermarket.  I can no longer shop happily.  I came in here for a special offer - a guaranteed personality."  This song was written in 1979 and nearly 40 years later still holds water.

The things we buy in some way identify us.  And it's so easy to get lost in the forest of products we have to choose from on a daily basis.  14 different kinds of peanut butter, 27 different kinds of bathroom tissue, 50 kinds of cheese.  To say nothing of the larger choices we make: buying a house, what neighborhood we live in, what car we drive, where we go to school or don't go to school, organic or non-organic bananas.  And of course I speak from the viewpoint of a middle-class white suburbanite.  These are certainly not the same choices that one would have in, say Dominica, where I have been in a grocery store that sold probably 150 products, total, as opposed to the 38,000 products in an American grocery store (2010,  Do we suffer from having so many choices? I have been thinking a lot about a much-discussed book called the Paradox of Choice.  It's been brought up a few times in discussions I've had recently about online dating.  A dramatic oversimplification of the thesis: the more we have to pick from the less we are able to commit to our choices.  I bring it up simply to say that the song is right I think, there are people out there who may go grocery shopping and in that find a little bit of their identity.  But it gets lost so easily in the thousands of decisions we have to make in the 30 minutes we're in the store and nothing we decide on or carry home in our basket actually gives us a true identity.  Sure, if we look at what we brought home we could find a few labels to ascribe to our personality: ice cream = indulgent, celery = healthy/maybe on a diet?,  salmon steaks = aware of the benefits of Omega 3s!, organic bananas = willing to spend a bit more to make the environmentally conscious choice, white bread = not afraid of carbs.  And any of those products could be read in a different way too, but we know what we want our choices to say about us. We want them to paint a picture of a good life, a full life. We do get lost in the supermarket.  Or we can anyway, in more ways than just in the physical sense.

We are looking for identity and we long for authenticity as this song so clearly and wonderfully cries out.  And they know we won't find it in the supermarket, or in the house, or the car, or in our job.  No, it's bigger and deeper than those, though all of those are its outward manifestations. We can manufacture almost any image we want these days, and get through most of our lives without ever really being known.  To meet someone with no veneer, who is known fully and lives openly to all around him is a true gift. I think The Clash knew that, Marah knows that, and they could both at least write realistically about it, if they weren't living it out every day.

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