Saturday, October 03, 2009

What's So Funny?

I just finished watching the recent film version of the Edith Wharton classic The House of Mirth which, for those not familiar, is the story of a woman’s slow decline from the heights of Gilded Age New York society into poverty, addiction and eventually, death. It’s a story that might happen to anyone: a person who is industrious, intelligent and attractive endures a series of setbacks that, taken one at a time might be relatively insignificant, but experienced in rapid succession, they become so overwhelming that he or she loses heart. The courage and self-confidence required to rise above circumstance are gradually eroded as the person is swept downward by an inexorable tide of tragedy. In Wharton’s novel the woman—Lily Bart--is forced to repeatedly demean herself in order to survive, and the friends and relatives upon whom we all depend in times of trial grow fearful of the social repercussions of associating with a “tainted” woman and begin to distance themselves from her as she sinks lower and lower. At length she is offered assistance, but it is too little, too late.

The real tragedy of this tale, of course, is not Lily’s demise, but the failure of those closest to her to intervene on her behalf. In turn-of-the-century Manhattan, it’s every man (or woman) for himself. Unfortunately, here in the 21st century of iPhone and Internet, things don’t seem to be all that different, and I wonder what that means for the future. Technology that is supposed to bring us all closer has made us ever more self-absorbed, less conscious of each other, less cognizant of the simple joys of life, of the small miracles—a butterfly on a flower, a bird’s song, a phone call from a friend, the sun reflecting in a puddle—that make each day unique. But it’s not technology’s fault, really—it’s how people use it that has eroded our humanity.

Lately I have been thinking a great deal about why it is that I have not felt compelled to trek up to the lovely Garden State to partake of the current run of Springsteen shows at Giants Stadium, and I must say that a great deal of it has to do with how his fans have begun to treat each other these last few years. I remember a time when it was so difficult to get tickets that you pinched yourself when you walked into a venue because you couldn’t believe that he was actually going to be on that stage right in front of you later that evening. You didn’t care where you were sitting, or that your friends might have slightly better seats. You were all in the building, and you were going to share this magical experience together. And for less than twenty dollars, you got three-plus hours of pure adrenaline—an emotional rollercoaster ride that was elating and cathartic. It was such a high that all you could do was talk about it. Your unadulterated joy was such that you would develop an overwhelming desire to share it with others, to bring them to a show with you just so you could watch their reaction. You’d sit for hours in the rain and the cold overnight on the sidewalk just to make sure you’d get a ticket, and if you were short a dollar or two, someone else in line would lend you the money. You always knew you’d get it back—we were Springsteen fans, and there was a rare, unspoken level of trust amongst us unlike anything I had ever experienced.

But no more. Just last week, Bruce taped a segment of Elvis Costello’s “Spectacle” show for The Sundance Channel at the Apollo Theater in Harlem. Tickets were difficult but not impossible, but I seriously thought that there was no way I would ever get into the event, so I didn’t really follow up on initial efforts to gain entrance. And I’ll admit, a great deal of this lack of effort also had to do with the increasingly privileged attitude taken by some of Bruce’s most ardent fans. What was once the most uplifting, unifying experience imaginable to any music fan has now become nothing more than an exercise in self-importance. It’s no longer enough just to be there—you now feel compelled to look around (I’ll admit I’ve done this myself) and see where everyone else you know is sitting, confirm that you have a better (or worse) seat than they do (how did that happen? Who do they know that I don’t?), make a mental checklist of who didn’t make it in at all and feel very smug and self-satisfied that you are well connected (it’s never luck, you see) enough to be there. And while this is by no means indicative of the behavior of every single attendee, it’s prevalent enough that, though I shouldn’t allow it to bother me, it detracts so much from my enjoyment that I can’t concentrate on the show. And yeah, some of that’s my fault, but dammit, whatever happened to being satisfied with what we’ve got? With feeling blessed by our good fortune, with wanting to share that good fortune with others? I knew perhaps a dozen people who ended up gaining entrance by one means or another, and not one of them—not one--contacted me either to find out if I were going or to perhaps offer assistance. Of course, it turns out that, like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, I had the power to get in all along and didn’t even know it. But unlike Dorothy, there was no Glenda the Good Witch to point that out to me, so I spent the night of the taping elsewhere.

There’s a great bit by comedian Louis CK on a recent episode of Conan O’Brien in which he opines that people are never satisfied, that everyday life in the Modern World is nothing short of a miracle: high speed Internet on an airplane thousands of feet above the earth, telephones that beam signals back and forth like fireflies, a new technological marvel seemingly everyday, and yet people complain about the mechanical wonders that were unthinkable even ten years ago. “People bitch about stuff that, five minutes ago, they didn’t even know existed,” he cracks. So true, and so sad. What has happened to us?

So yeah, I didn’t go to the taping, which was, by all accounts, an amazing experience. And while I am sorry to have missed it, what has made me saddest of all is that, like Lily Bart, I was left to my own devices at a time when I needed help, and though I was in nowhere near the level of danger she experienced, I was nonetheless, for all intents and purposes, cast adrift. Not attending the show was bad enough, finding out I could have attended after all was worse. But what hurt most of all was being left to fend for myself by my friends and fellow Springsteen fans, when a simple phone call, email or even text message would have meant everything.

So the next time someone speaks of the Springsteen “community,” I will smile and shrug and turn on some Elvis Costello.

No comments:

Post a Comment