Articles Life Modest Proposals

Pringles vs Playstation

Thursday, April 17, 1997

An intelligent young man sits in front of the TV, clutching a PlayStation controller and screaming in horror as his alter ego crashes to his death off a pixellated cliff. He bitterly shakes his head and mumbles, ‘just one more go’.

He doesn’t want another go. He knows he should be doing creative and positive things, but instead he feels about nine years old, and part of him wants his Mum to come in and tell him to get up those stairs and tidy his room.

Hitting the Start button again is a crucial modern experience. It’s the pivotal point between enjoyment that comes from wanting to continue and enjoyment that comes from not wanting to stop. From here on, the buzz he gets is from the knowledge that he’s wasting his time and spoiling himself.  You tell yourself you’ll play till you get another hi-score but you know that even if you stop then you’ll still get annoyed with yourself for not stopping earlier.

This ‘once you pop, you can’t stop’ attitude applies equally well to another 90’s phenomenon, Pringles potato snacks. Like computer games, Pringles are fine when diluted by company, but if it’s just you and the tube, you’re in trouble.

The first third of them are genuinely lovely, and you can try and decide which way round you prefer to eat them. Eat them like an ‘n’ and they fit round your tongue in a satisfying way – harmony and balance; eat them like a ‘u’ for that feeling of crushing them against the roof of your mouth – domination and conflict.

Half-way through the tube, you really don’t want any more but you imagine the licentiousness of letting yourself just finish them all anyway. Doing something so obviously unnecessary affirms, in a ridiculously tiny way, that you don’t always do sensible – you can also do reckless and spontaneous.

MTV works in the same way. You’ve enjoyed a few videos, and now it’s time to watch some real television, but you’re still there four songs later, saying ‘let’s just see if the next video’s any good’.

It might seem pathetic that much of our enjoyment from these wonderful new things comes from getting to the stage where we hate ourselves. Either we should enjoy them till we’ve had enough and then stop, or do something really spectacular if we want gluttonous overindulgence. Finishing a tube of Pringles isn’t exactly a Bacchanalian orgy.

People have always enjoyed being bad, and the ‘just one more’ syndrome has been around as long as chocolate, but the real lesson to be learned from Pringles and PlayStations is that the overindulgence they demand from us is impersonal, fleeting and mass-produced.

These epiphanies of consumerism are just shadows of real excess. Like rollercoasters, they offer cheap thrills in complete safety. We risk nothing in eating a few too many potato snacks, or playing an extra game of FIFA football, and yet we feel like we’re bold transgressors. To be really rebellious, you have to eat Pringles only until you’ve had enough. Once you pop, you can stop.

(first published as a Modest Proposals newsletter, 17 April 1997)

Posted by David in • Modest ProposalsLife

Articles Modest Proposals Music

Spice Girls vs. U2

Thursday, April 10, 1997

This whole thing is about words and deeds. The Spice Girls have created a phenomenon by projecting an image of sexy misbehaviour and irreverence.  The attitude is their unique selling point, because the music itself is glitzy but essentially mundane. The lyrics mouthed by these advocates of girl power are actually simpering tributes to the values they denounce in their frequent public statements.

With the Spice Girls, the hype obscures the fact that they are at heart deeply conservative. Like a Shakespeare comedy, the exciting suggestion of chaos eventually gives way to the restoration of order: we are titillated by the thought of Ginger Spice’s antics while a ‘club dancer’ in Majorca, but end up buying the platitudinous ‘Mama’.  The music isn’t the message – the minidress is the message.

It’s scrupulously honest – everyone knows the image is at least as important as the music in pop (why else does Eric Clapton outsell Richard Thompson?), and the Girls have simply done away with the pretence that the music matters at all.

It’s a trope in the development of teen bands that there comes a time when they become ‘serious about their music’. Sporty Spice and her sisters should never fall into this trap, because that’s not what they’re about – the music is simply the hook to hang the product on.

U2 are, strangely enough, apparently following a similarly lightweight path at the moment. Their latest album, Pop, comes complete with a trashy po-mo image that has them dressing up as The Village People for the ‘Discotheque’ video, and hosting a launch event in a supermarket (Music’s a commodity?  You don’t say.). The live show is billed as a consumerist extravaganza, with Edge explaining, ‘it costs millions to be this trashy’, and everyone reflects on how the old earnest U2 are best forgotten.

Not taking yourself too seriously is crucial for mainstream success in the UK and Ireland at the moment – who’s to say if The Divine Comedy or The Lightning Seeds are laughing behind their hands? It’s especially important if you?re an established group with a track record like U2’s – honest emotion might have been fine for the late 80s but now no-one expects to find what they’re looking for.

In this environment, U2’s move shows they’re impressively light on their feet. Like the Spice Girls, the gloss surrounding the music is much more apparent than the music itself. Edge’s ‘Spun’ baseball cap on the sleeve of Zooropa was perfect – the band has spun itself in a way that would make Peter Mandelson blush.

However, let’s not start expecting the lads to change their names to Bald Spice, Hunk Spice, Weird Spice and God Spice. While the Girls are all spin and no substance, U2 are using this self-marketing guile to sell songs that are as substantial and earnest as they’ve ever been.

Wise to our current thirst for superficiality, they cunningly pretend to be as throwaway as Boyzone so they can sell bucketloads of an album that they genuinely mean. Genius. While the Spice Girls are honest about their lying, U2 are lying about their honesty.

(first published as a Modest Proposals newsletter, 10 April 1997)