Do you ever look around and wonder, “What happened to all the normal people?”.

In today’s ultra-stylized popular culture, more and more people seem to adorn themselves with tattoos, body piercings, designer fashions, and high-tech gadgets.  Every time I turn around I meet someone who thinks they are the next big thing.  Musicians, Filmmakers, Artists, Designers, most of which are wannabe’s chasing down this “Rockstar” image.  I even see this behavior in fields you wouldn’t expect, like Entrepreneurs, Technology Professionals, and even Gaming Nerds, who are the last group of people that I’d expect to have an overdeveloped sense of ego considering their place in society.  The Internet allows them all to create and nurture this image, and the expectation is that they are “undiscovered” geniuses, and that some day they will “make it” in whatever field they are pursuing.  Of course most of these people end up just being miserable, and never amounting to anything.  But what is it about our culture that has created this narcissistic compulsion in people?

It might be easy to blame technology.  The access to more affordable tools to produce art has enabled these people to envision a world in which they are “Rockstars” in their chosen field.  This really shouldn’t be a bad thing, Society needs Art to survive.  But perhaps it is not Art that these people are chasing. Indeed, technology has enabled several legitimate artists to prosper and continue to work creating what they love.  But, wouldn’t these people have been successful anyways?  Talent always floats to the top, and one would expect that only the very best would be able to make a living creating their art.  I have to wonder if Justin Beiber would have ever been noticed without the access to YouTube.com, which is largely credited as the gateway to his success.  I think so, and so then the question remains, why in the world do we love Justin Beiber??

There is clearly a larger problem at work here.

Our society has been reduced to a wasteland of sensational consumerism, in which we are bombarded by images of how our lives should be, and if we do not purchase all the things we need to complete this image, we are not “normal”.  Since we as a people have an intense need to belong to something larger then ourselves, we buy into this image and the cycle continues, as the manipulation becomes ever increasingly invasive and cunning.  The whole concept of the “counter culture” of the last 20 years, tatoos, piercings, studded belts, and being an “independent” artist, is marketed as a way to stand apart from the norm.  The whole concept of being independent, in and of itself, is becoming “normal”, and as such is completely dependent on the products and services being marketed to serve this image.

This is not a new phenomenon.  In fact most of the 20th century was spent evolving more and more manipulative ways of convincing people to purchase things they didn’t really need, the roots of which can be found in the philosophy of one Edward Bernays.  In his publication, Propaganda (1928), he writes:

The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country. …We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of. This is a logical result of the way in which our democratic society is organized. Vast numbers of human beings must cooperate in this manner if they are to live together as a smoothly functioning society. …In almost every act of our daily lives, whether in the sphere of politics or business, in our social conduct or our ethical thinking, we are dominated by the relatively small number of persons…who understand the mental processes and social patterns of the masses. It is they who pull the wires which control the public mind.

We have come to accept this as the normal functioning of our society when it is anything but normal.  A few illustrations of this concept come to mind.  The band Cake has always been on the fringe of the mainstream, as seen by their latest album, Showroom of Compassion, which was self produced in their own solar powered studio and debuted at #1 on the Billboard Album Chart despite being distributed totally independently.  However, on their first album, Motorcade of Generosity, they had a song entitled “Rock ‘n Roll Lifestyle“, which defies the entire concept of counter culture through music. I’m also reminded of a scene from the film Roger Dodger in which the protagonist, Roger, a magazine writer in New York City, attempts to explain to a beautiful young lady at a bar how her choices in life were already decided for her by some marketing executives.  Of course she doesn’t want to hear it.

And who would.  We all want to believe that the choices we make are our own, that we create our own destiny, that we are in control and no one can tell us who to believe and what to buy. But if that is true, then I ask you, Why are you reading this?