I’ve seen more billboard ads than I can count the past couple of years that use the word “you” or some overt target of the first or second person --- “the you wide web” “It’s all about you” … “the bank of me” … and on and on. I think that as Americans (or Usonians if you prefer) we have a tradition of valuing individualism. In our films we celebrate the individualist individual who breaks out to do it his own way, whatever “it” is. In the drama of film we enjoy watching this person make the painful choices to go it alone and subvert/fight against the bad guys and wet blankets. We watch them cut through the gristle come out on top in the end and cheer.
In the actual function of most Americans daily lives, most are not individuals in this way in any real heroic sense. To actually become an individual requires that one be willing to walk in a valley of aloneness, which is often a long valley. To even begin the journey one needs a compulsion to begin it and then one needs a vision to guide one along the way.
I think most Americans live in the tension that they are not true individuals and for better or worse and aren’t on any real hard or productive path to becoming one. Americans live in a culture that lionizes the successful individual in myth but that is hard on true individualism in practice. Most Americans for all truly important matters in life stick as close to the ideas and modes of their chosen peer group with whom they identify -- this is true no matter what age. So many an American harbors an angst that he/she wants to feel like a truly special individual but knows deep down that he/she is not all that terribly special. Even if you get the most radical tattoos you are only an “individual” when you are alone in the company of non-radically tattooed people.
Here to fill the emotional void of this American angst are products, courtesy of corporations, that you can buy. With these products you can medicate your need to feel kinda sorta like an individual by buying a certain product or flavor of product. That way you can be a sorta kinda individual without any real path into loneliness. Even better, if you may feel that if you buy a cool product before it is super popular then you can even be a bit cool and edgy and therefore be kinda sorta like a leader among men. If you believe that then I know a brand of whiskey that’s looking for you.
If you don’t know or care that it is fake and you are not living in the conscious management of your deep down American angst, then I suppose there is a certain bliss to being ignorant and/or oblivious. If any of you really feel that “you can be you” by your choice of which ring tone or bank then you are in a sense blessed by not having the angst that I often feel. When I see those ads I’m offended. I’m offended that someone out there thinks that I’m such a nincompoop that I would find one scintilla of my emotional needs for individuality from my choice of a bank, car or cellphone. I’m also sad for the state of our country that there are people for whom this advertising actually works – there have to be lots of those people since there’s lots of that kind of advertising.
I say if you’re going to be an individual then do it the hard way or not at all. If you are not then be honest with yourself. Not everyone is meant to be a trailblazing individual. Getting your individuality from buy-decisions without walking through the valley of aloneness will get you as close to individuality as playing guitar hero will get you close to playing guitar.