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Brain Dead in Seattle

A jeremiad

Beavis: Huh huh, like, what’s Seattle?
Butthead: It’s this place where stuff is, like, really cool.

I start with what I take not to be a radical assertion. Beavis and Butthead are, at the very least, supposed to represent a form of humor. People, from the local TV critic to others with jobs that require actual thought, aver that in the course of watching the show laughter has escaped their lips. I do not wish to enjoin debate on the relative comedic value of the show; de gustibus and all that. I simply seek to point out that determining the genre to which the show belongs should generate little debate, and furthermore, to sharpen the focus of this taxonomical prolegomenon, I propose that we call the mode of humor operating in the show parody. Beavis and Butthead parody a type of early adolescent white American male produced by immersion in the carnival swirl of pop entertainment culture whose typical characteristics include a fetish for scatology, an affection for violence, and vigilant attentiveness to the various forms in which women’s breasts come. Not to strike too glum a note, but I rather suspect that most of us easily recognize this type from our own experiences in shopping malls, movie theaters, fast food restaurants, and all the other various dispiriting venues that comprise American public space.

Now, parody typically expresses a disdain for its objects that invites the audience to identify with the author’s disapproval and desire to eliminate instances of the ridiculed behavior. It is a key rhetorical weapon in the arsenal of social correction. But, because it relies on indirect modes of argument, the nudge and the wink, to make its point, the normative message can easily fail to register in the mind of an audience unaccustomed to reading implied or figurative, rather than literal, signals. Which is to say, the early adolescent white American male. And hence the peculiar and growing phenomenon of early adolescent white American males parroting the speech and, perhaps to a lesser degree, the behavior of their own parodic images, Beavis and Butthead. In the sites of public culture, the guttural “huh huh, cool” and “that doesn’t even suck” sorts of Beavis and-Butthead-isms (not to mention,“huh huh, you said ‘ism’”) run as rampant as boom cars, Hare-Krishna-esque skate rats, and backwards baseball caps.

The genius of MTV of course has been the corporation’s ability to target, neatly define, and then bring into the commercial mainstream demographic groups that have remained outside of previously prescribed marketing niches. Beavis and Butthead provides such an effective medium for creating and exploiting the adolescent white American male consumer group that the show has acquired that highest of advertising values, crossover appeal, for the mightiest consumer of all: the fully-fledged white American male who sits colossus-like in front of the television assimilating the manufactured set of desires available to him therein that endows him with an identity. After all, without television, how would any of us know who we are and what we should want? The thing that distinguishes Beavis and Butthead, though, from other modes of subjectivity defined through television is the target audience’s co-optation of its own parodic image in a literal manner. Because of their inability to detect the parodying of themselves at work in the inane, destructive shenanigans of Beavis and Butthead, the kids embrace it as a normatively positive depiction of teenage behavior, and pattern their own lives after the show. The figurative register of the show, in which Beavis and Butthead are a satirical trope of teenage experience, vanishes and only the literal register, in which Beavis and Butthead goof royally off, retains meaning. The greater the degree of this literal identification by the audience with their television models, Beavis and Butthead, the more compliant consumers of the world according to MTV and its advertisers they will become. Under the guise of parodying teen disaffection, Beavis and Butthead domesticates the spirit of rebellion underlying teenage anomie by giving its possessors their own room in the house of late capitalist consumerism. A neat trick.

The pervasive adoption of the Beavis and Butthead personality model illustrates how immense is the power of MTV, probably the most influential agent of the artisticocommercial complex, to constitute the subjectivity of its audience. The epigraph above bears this out in an important way. The ignorance of American students in matters of geography has such a well-documented history that it has acquired the status of a truism. A survey that found 78% of high school sophomores were unable to find their way home after school would probably provoke no surprise in any quarter. And the exchange preceding the passage above, unsurprisingly enough, reveals that Beavis and Butthead have no clue where Seattle might be on a map or in relation to wherever it is they live. But what they do know must warm the heart of David Geffen, namely, that Seattle is where Nirvana and other “cool stuff” are found (fill in the blank with your own pun here: ____). The Geffen Company marketing thunderstorm that rained promos of every imaginable stripe down on college radio station managers in 1991 succeeded in getting Nirvana huge airplay and in single-handedly forging awareness of a “Seattle sound” among the listeners of these stations. The video for “Smells Like Teen Spirit” presented a ragtag musical threesome in a high school gym whipping its long-haired, grungily attired, obviously disaffected teen audience of Dumpster divers, stoners, and slackers into a Dionysian state of communal rebellion and transcendent hipness, and more or less called it “Seattle,” less a geographical locale than a psychic space in which surface meanings did not bear close examination, but getting next to the band became the secret to happiness.

Seattle is where Nirvana and other “cool stuff” are found.

This readily commodifiable image of Seattle rapidly became the mechanism with which the record biz pitched a lengthy list of so-called “alternative” rock bands to the new disaffected teen consumer group that Geffen’s Operation Nirvana had called into being. Moreover, it came to define Seattle for the rest of the country which had theretofore pretty much left it in peace tucked away in the hard-to-reach Pacific Northwest. Fast-forward eighteen months to Beavis and Butthead, the saliva-spewing mouthpieces of rebellious youth, happily flaunting their ignorance of geography but hitting every cue that the image mavens of the music industry could dream of programming into the minds of the good little disaffected consumerist monads snatching up any CD flying the “Seattle” flag. Seattle has given utterly way to “Seattle,” an associative cultural signifier readily transferable from music to fashion, books, generational politics, whatever, that endows its host object with a patina of eminently salable deviance, which nevertheless remains firmly within the controllable purview of the most conservative corporate plutocracy orchestrating the products of the artisticocommercial complex: MTV, Time Warner (publisher of Madonna’s reactionary Sex), Bloomingdale’s (whose “grunge” fashion line was such a big hit … ), and so on.

And poor, pathetic Nirvana. They perhaps could initially have laid some claim to a genuinely oppositional cultural stance in their early Sub Pop days, and dear little Kurt Cobain’s erect middle finger on the liner notes to Nevermind does mark some expression of political and aesthetic independence. Even their lyrics sometimes aspire to formal subversion and satire of pop music conventions, making fun of rock star egomania and puffery, insipid song-writing, and whoring industry types who flog their derivative and tired music through album after album. But by the time they appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone, with Cobain in his “Corporate rock still sucks” T-shirt, how could they possibly claim quarantine after enjoying the largesse, in the form of the most masterfully marketed album of the year, of just what they once seemed to oppose? The very “Seattle” that they helped create has consumed Nirvana themselves, remade them into their own commodified image and effaced the original version under the veneer of domesticated deviance, sure to sell, but at the expense of their souls. Grungy, indeed.

The “Seattle” phenomenon spawned a series of imitators in the music press as well. A phalanx of music writers set out in hot search of the next locale that might replicate the transformation of Seattle into “Seattle.” For some time, Chapel Hill appeared to enjoy frontrunner status and a spate of pieces appeared touting central North Carolina as the place to watch. Entertainment Weekly, Rolling Stone, Alternative Press, Spin, the Chicago Tribune, Details, and Esquire (and maybe more for all I know; I got bored counting after a while) all trudged through town to get the rather picked-over story, acquitting themselves each in their own particular, vapid way. In fact, three deserve special commendation for stupidity. Esquire got around to Chapel Hill this past spring, and paid special homage to the role of the Cat’s Cradle, the town’s biggest club, in the development of the local scene. As every local music fan knew, though, the club was slated to close on May 19, thereby gutting the central organ of the Esquire construct of the Chapel Hill music scene. Oops. Spin came around at the end of 1992, but they must have found the crowds of out-of-town reports too close after a while, because by the time Esquire was on to Chapel Hill, Spin had settled on New Market, Virginia (I kid you not). And you thought Seattle was hard to find on a map. But the most notable of the Chapel Hill pieces was certainly Mr. Eric Konigsberg’s piece for Details. Alternately a self-aggrandizing account of his chumming around with the bedraggled lot who make up the band scene and a hymn to the superlative charms of one Kathy Poindexter, “nineteen years and 107 pounds worth of scabby-kneed horniness,” singer in the band Picasso Trigger, Konigsberg does yeoman’s work in fabricating a Chapel Hill to suit his fantasies of what the next happening music scene will be. “Welcome to North Carolina, where the men are grad students and the women play bass.” That’s cute, and might even be true of maybe an entire house here and there. “In the Chapel Hill-Raleigh-Durham triangle of sleepy, left-leaning college towns, English lit students argue structuralism on their front porches while listening to hardcore songs like ‘Wheel-chair Full of Old Man.’” Yes, Chapel Hill, Raleigh, and Durham are in fact replicas of the same town, and now the secret is out. Amazing that the fiction of them being distinct municipalities endured so long. And never mind that structuralism has not been a topic of compelling academic interest for thirty years, because state law does in fact mandate that the graduate stipend for studying literature include a house with a front porch. But if “Chapel Hill” catches on, Eric Konigsberg can claim credit as midwife, and what a fine resumé stuffer that would be.

In response to the displays of stupidity, mental laziness, and venality that I have chronicled herein, I wish to conclude by announcing the inception of a new field of cultural studies. If all goes as imagined, this new field will catch fire as the hot new academic trend and will catapult me to fame and fortune as I collect royalties on every usage of my copyrighted term. I dub this new discipline “moronics” and declare that it will concern itself with the breakdown of the individual’s ability to distinguish between lived experience and the simulacrum or image of experience as propagated by the engines of the artisticocommercial complex. Areas of study might include any and all of the various devices that the artisticocommercial complex employs to ensure the pervasive spread of a consumerist subjectivity that remains unaware of metaphorical or figurative expression, is deficient in modes of satire and irony, and stays wholly depoliticized thanks to the many mind-numbing varieties of entertainment available on television, in the movies, on the radio, in magazines, and soon to come in the virtual reality arcades and 500-channel cable TV subscriptions. Indeed, moronics could expand into the political or sociological realms, as no doubt some shrewd Chamber of Commerce officials will soon clue in to the potential municipal marketing appeal of having their town become the new “Seattle.” The influx of media figures alone ought to suffice to lift any recession-ridden town out of the economic doldrums. Rand McNally could include a “deviance quotient” in their survey of livable cities. After all, what civic leader would not love to lord a “Seattlized” profile over colleagues at a national convention of city luminaries?

This is my modest proposal, conceived for the benefit of times that deserve no less.