The Little Debbie Factor: American pop culture focused on pleasure
October 5, 2009 —
The most successful and significant piece of American legislation in the past century, and maybe in the history of the Unites States, was the G.I. Bill following World War II. Prior to the departure and return of millions of soldiers from the war, it was not typical for an American to go to college, nor was it typical for an American family to own its own home. The majority of the population paid rent, and they paid it with money earned at jobs that didnít require a college degree. The G.I. bill started the American tradition of going to college and owning a home, two things that my generation take for granted. Sending an entire generation of young men to college catapulted the United States to the top of the economic world for decades.
The value of education and effort in the Ď50s and Ď60s lead to a cultural richness that has declined as education has increasingly become seen as a burden placed upon us by life. While our grandparents were dazzled and motivated by the opportunity to attend college and move into newly formed suburbia, most of us expect to own our own home and go to school: but school is a pain in our sides. Meanwhile, the popular art of contemporary American culture can hardly be called art; it more often shares the characteristics of illegal narcotics. Modern popular music is not thought provoking. It does not dig at the fundamental truths of what it means to be human. It does not inspire the betterment of society or confront the ills of society. It provides a visceral pleasure, compounding simple animalistic emotions, giving us a cheap high that perpetuates our need for more while numbing us to the quality of deeper feelings and thought. Like heroin. The same is largely true for mainstream movies, novels, TV shows, etc. If the Vanguard didnít extend its Arts and Entertainment page past mainstream production, it might was well be called the Just Entertainment page.
I have a name for the declining popularity of thoughtprovoking culture (and thought in general): the Little Debbie Effect. One can find Little Debbie in the red-light district of convenience stores Ė on the shelves in the checkout lanes next to the National Inquirer and a rack of key chains. Little Debbie sells herself for a scandalous quarter-dollar. Despite the list of ingredients longer than anything Homer ever wrote, Little Debbie has two basic components: sugar and food coloring. When consumers are faced with a choice between a Little Debbie and any other snack, they must ask themselves the question, ďDo I want to pay more than half a dollar to have to chew and deal with the stimulation of multiple flavors, or do I want to spend only twenty-five cents and just mash my tongue to the roof of my mouth, dissolving the one-flavored goo in seconds?Ē Little Debbie peers up from behind those curly red locks and says, ďNot hungry? Grab a Little Debbie,Ē because Little Debbie and hunger have nothing to do with each other. We donít eat a fudge-round because our stomach is growling. We eat it because we want to, because is satisfies a simple urge long enough for one to get home and have those urges distracted by television. When we eat a Little Debbie, we donít want to chew or think or receive any nutrients, we just want to feel, and after opening the wrapper, the Little Debbie is a symphony of the mouth with no mandible struggle required.
Culture is what separates humans from animals. Our lives are more complicated than satisfying our basic needs for survival and reproduction. Culture redefines our needs. Culture creates a life experience that goes beyond braving the elements and interacting with the other creatures on earth. Humans are blessed with two worlds: the physical world and the world of our minds. That world we create in our imagination is much less appealing today, it seems. Most would prefer to live a life no more complicated than the stimulations of their environment and their immediate instinctive reaction to it.
I canít by any objective standard say that the banal simplicity that has overtaken American culture is a bad thing, but I think it is a symptom of the same changes causing the U.S. to lose its place of luxury in the world. Americans used to be achievement-driven people, and those people brought us global economic and political supremacy. As a whole, we are now enjoyment-driven people. What do we want to do for a living? Whatever we will enjoy. Donít ask us to go to school too long, to know whatís going on in the world, to chew too much or to contemplate the complexity of jazz music.