Tom Wolfe’s whole oeuvre, including both his more recent fiction and original, groundbreaking non-fiction is a catalog of the flip-over that occurred in pop culture after World War II regarding society, class, and the styles that individuals affect in the desire to express their individuality. Prior to the post-war period, in fact, throughout almost all of history, style flowed from the top down. As late as the 1920s and ’30s, the Duke of Windsor only had to be photographed wearing certain styles of clothing — such as suede shoes, tab collars, or the necktie knot that bears his name, to make them de rigueur for millions of men in Europe and America. Even as late as the first years of the 1960s, John F. Kennedy’s wearing two-button suits led to that style replacing the three-button suit as the most popular suit style for decades. Kennedy famously not wearing hats (at least after his inauguration) led to their gradual demise on men.
But beginning in the 1950s, as the lower classes had money to create their own styles, trends increasingly started to bubble up from the bottom: Wolfe’s first article for Esquire, “There Goes (Varoom! Varoom!) That The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby” explored the world of the first hot rod customizers, typically tradesmen who began by modifying their own cars, but whose ideas would be adopted by Detroit’s stylists, producing the famous “muscle cars” of the late 1960s. A famous mid-’60s Wolfe article on Las Vegas noted that this was the first city whose gaudy aesthetics were essentially created by organized crime. And Wolfe’s legendary “Radical Chic” article from 1970 was all about the highs and the lows of society intermingling politically, a trend which saw its ultimate synthesis in the 2008 presidential election.
And of course, it was in popular music where this new formula really took form, as Wolfe told Rolling Stone magazine in 1987 (ellipses in original):
Rock & roll was a socially radical form of music. Rock & roll demolished the ballroom-dance hegemony of popular music — Glenn Miller, Frank Sinatra…And ballroom dancing is one of the support structures of the conventional status system. It’s good manners. Presley, and later the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, demolished the status structure of popular music. When Presley came along, the fact that he was of low-rent origins and had a low-rent sound — a black singer who happened to be a poor white boy from the hills — that was very much part of his importance, musically and socially. This is Marshall McLuhan’s insight — and it’s quite valid — that it was of crucial importance to the influence of the Beatles that they were lower-class boys from Liverpool, or thought of themselves as lower class. I guess most of them qualified. The same is true with the Rolling Stones. Even if they had to manufacture a lower-class background for themselves, it was important that they have it. This was a social revolution.
But not one without peril, of course. The social revolution was quickly followed by “The Great Relearning”, Wolfe wrote in 2000’s Hooking Up:
In 1968, in San Francisco, I came across a curious footnote to the hippie movement. At the Haight-Ashbury Free Clinic, there were doctors treating diseases no living doctor had ever encountered before, diseases that had disappeared so long ago they had never even picked up Latin names, diseases such as the mange, the grunge, the itch, the twitch, the thrush, the scroff, the rot. And how was it that they now returned? It had to do with the fact that thousands of young men and women had migrated to San Francisco to live communally in what I think history will record as one of the most extraordinary religious fevers of all time.The hippies sought nothing less than to sweep aside all codes and restraints of the past and start from zero. At one point, the novelist Ken Kesey, leader of a commune called the Merry Pranksters, organized a pilgrimage to Stonehenge with the idea of returning to Anglo-Saxon’s point zero, which he figured was Stonehenge, and heading out all over again to do it better. Among the codes and restraints that people in the communes swept aside — quite purposely — were those that said you shouldn’t use other people’s toothbrushes or sleep on other people’s mattresses without changing the sheets, or as was more likely, without using any sheets at all, or that you and five other people shouldn’t drink from the same bottle of Shasta or take tokes from the same cigarette. And now, in 1968, they were relearning…the laws of hygiene…by getting the mange, the grunge, the itch, the twitch, the thrush, the scroff, the rot.
This process, namely the relearning — following a Promethean and unprecedented start from zero–seems to me to be the leitmotif of the twenty-first century in America.
Well, 21st century America certainly has its work cut out for itself, judging by MTV’s Jersey Shore reality show, which took concept behind the viral “Guido Beach” video that’s made the rounds on YouTube since last year or so (and its predecessor, which now serves as an incredible time capsule of the early-1990s) and adapted it into a typical MTV-style reality show. After describing several of the series’ more salacious incidents, Jonah Goldberg writes:
The Los Angeles Times reported the other day that the reality-show industry is suddenly having a crisis of conscience about its impact on the culture. That’s nice to hear, but it’s not nearly enough.
British historian Arnold Toynbee argued that civilizations thrive when the lower classes aspire to be like the upper classes, and they decay when the upper classes try to be like the lower classes. Looked at through this prism, it’s hard not to see America in a prolonged period of decay.
It’s not all bad news, to be sure. The elite minority’s general acceptance of racial and sexual equality as important values has been a moral triumph. But not without costs. As part of this transformation, society has embraced what social scientist Charles Murray calls “ecumenical niceness.” A core tenet of ecumenical niceness is that harsh judgments of the underclass — or people with underclass values — are forbidden. A corollary: People with old-fashioned notions of decency are fair game.
Long before the rise of reality shows, ecumenical niceness created a moral vacuum. Out-of-wedlock birth was once a great shame; now it’s something of a happy lifestyle choice. The cavalier use of profanity was once crude; now it’s increasingly conversational. Self-discipline was once a virtue; now self-expression is king.
Reality-show culture has thrived in that moral vacuum, accelerating the decay and helping to create a society in which celebrity is the new nobility. One senses that Richard Heene thought — maybe still thinks — that the way to make his kids proud of him was to land a reality show. Paris Hilton, famous for being famous thanks in part to a “reality” sex tape released days before her 2003 reality show The Simple Life, is now a cultural icon of no redeeming value whatsoever.
Whatever you think of what Toynbee and Murray would call the “proletarianization of the elites,” one point is beyond dispute: The rich can afford moral lassitude more than the poor can. Hilton, heir to a hotel fortune, has life as simple as she wants it to be. Tiger Woods is surely a cad, but as a pure matter of economics, he can afford to be one.
The question is: Can the rest of us afford to live in a society constantly auditioning to make an ass of itself on TV?
Oh I don’t know — one never knows where such a career could eventually lead.