Like Che printed t-shirts and Darfur doo-rags, tragedy has become fashionable. It isn’t rare that I find someone trading stories (with great excitement) about a friend of a friend who was in Indonesia during the tsunami, or meet an artist eager to proclaim that he lost everything in New Orleans. Surely, a life of meaning must have been filled with unbelievable obstacles. If you spit lyrics, you must have bit the bullet (literally) at some point, right? Well, if not…did you almost die some way? Why do you think Kanye West is still rapping about his car crash?
Rappers are some of America’s earliest poverty-pimps, doling out pain and suffering long after they can pay bills. But rap artists aren’t the only people making a pretty penny off popular pities. Reality television has become the great distributor of everyone’s story, for better or worse. We can watch obese people cry over food, older women bed younger men, unattractive people get new faces, and burdened parents struggle with troubled children. The is The Biggest Loser, The Cougar, Extreme Makeover, and The Nanny.
Beyond reality television, there is Facebook, twitter, blogs, and i-reports. As a result, the democratization of news has created a culture of entitlement, where people not only hope, but believe their individual stories are important. And when pop culture themes suggest otherwise, people go to great lengths to swing the spotlight to their side. They crash acceptance speeches and White House parties and build mysterious saucers to fake-launch their six year-olds. And we return, ad-nauseum, to the same opportunity for uplift where people fight to surmount unbelievable obstacles. With media along for the ride, who is left to interrogate how we all got to this new reality in the first place? Who bears the responsibility of separating fantasy from the real world’s many harsh realities?