Hey, you know they’re all the same.
You know you’re doing better on your own, so don’t buy in.
Live right now, yeah, just be yourself.
It doesn’t matter if it’s good enough for someone else.
~ Jimmy Eat World
Damn good advice.
Sure, you should be yourself, I should be myself, Lady Gaga should be herself (‘cos she’s fabulous!). Be ourselves. Simple, clean, doable.
Kind of meaningless, too. Who are we if not just a combination of outside influences? Do you think your favorite band is Muse because of some spiritual resonance with the universe (seriously, your favorite band is Muse?)? Your lucky shirt was mass produced at a million units and your most cherished novel is on a high school reading list in Pomona (assuming you have a favorite book; if you don’t then you are unfuckable and thus not worthy of consideration; good day).
Being ourselves just means enjoying the things that a million people before us enjoyed. You might argue that you are a unique composite of a variety of tastes, but let’s be honest, if you’re a big Tim Burton fan you probably also have Emily the Strange accessories and frequently shop at Hot Topic (let’s hope you’re also a 16-year-old girl, cos otherwise that’s creepy, dude).
You are a brand.
There is such glaring irony in the way car makers and sports drinks try to sell themselves as the products for people who are Individuals. There isn’t much profit in lone wolves. They expect us to, as that orange philosopher Hobbes astutely puts it, “express individuality through conformity.”
Like we have a choice.
We’re not all going to sew our own clothes, design and build our own cars, grow, cook, mix, bottle, stir all our own food and drinks. Even if we did, we’d still follow directions and recipes that had already been established (with maybe a few tweaks here or there). Individuality expressed through material objects is an oxymoron to its very core, because all matter is just part of a cosmic stew that has existed for billions of years. We rearrange the parts, but the parts are all the same.
That’s a pretty metaphysical way of saying, go ahead, buy your favorite brand shoes and eat your favorite fast food, they are just as much an expression of your individuality as making your own moccasins and eating vegan steak in a chickpea au jus sauce (I don’t know if that’s a thing, but it probably is).
An’ I don’t really care if ya think I’m strange, I ain’t gonna change
We pay lip service to individuality, but we find comfort in conformity. We ‘like’ when people post our favorite song lyrics, we have entire conversations of nothing but movie quotes and we’ll laugh at and share anything that references a beloved childhood cartoon or the obscure sci-fi movie we devotedly watched 10 times. We manufacture nostalgia for things that occurred 5 minutes ago.
Who hasn’t instantly bonded with a coworker or bar buddy over the well-timed drop in of “The snozberries taste like snozberries” or “Excuse me while I whip this out”? We are programmed to seek out similarities (for evolutionary reasons, it’s safer), and so we forge our relationships out of common cultural touchstones. For our generation, those common experiences are less flapper girls and speakeasies and more Antoine Dodson and Chocolate Rain.
Ironically, despite the fact that the internet allows for a wider dissemination of obscure music, films, literature and other mediums of art, we still live in a world of top 40 songs and $300 million dollar blockbusters. It’s not that we stopped sharing experiences, it’s that we now share so much more. Michael Bay’s latest 2 hour music video is gonna be the talk of July 4th, but at the same time, a subculture of that same crowd is going to be debating whether “Source Code,” Duncan Jones’ follow up to “Moon,” proves he’s a talented auteur or just a one hit wonder.
Take for instance the cliché of the hipster asshole who “knew the band before they were big.” Plenty of people won’t listen to anything that’s massively popular just because it is massively popular. But these people aren’t eschewing all pop music conventions in their tastes. They hate on Katy Perry while proclaiming the glory of Animal Collective, when in fact both are just opposite sides of the same coin: Popular Music. It is music that is meant to be enjoyed by the masses, even if those fanbases are wildly divergent in demographic and size.
The Punk music scene was the ultimate expression of disdain for fitting in with mainstream culture, but even in its infancy, the scene still had a uniform and a style and plenty of infighting about what was or wasn’t ‘real punk.’ In other words, what belonged and what didn’t.
I’m not critiquing music scenes here.
I’m arguing that we do not assert our individuality through our tastes. Rather, we express our conformity to a greater whole.
Well, do ya, punk?
In our fictions, we make heroes of the strong loners, but in the real world we mock or distrust them, even vilify them. Clint Eastwood’s characters are legends in the fictive mean streets, but their real world counterparts are just old cranks on porches (even Hollywood’s version of an old crank ends up being a badass with a cool car and Asians who can’t act for neighbors).
Hollywood culture sold us on the notion of the James Dean/John Wayne/Humphrey Bogart stoic loner who exudes calm, cool self-confidence. The rebel, the soldier, the cowboy. It plays into our American mythology, the nation founded by pioneers and wild men on horseback, traversing the untamed wilderness.
The thing is, America was also built by racial bigots and religious extremists who tried people as witches if they were different. By legend, we praise individualism, but by practice, we punish it.
You’re never going to express any form of individuality by the movies you watch or the Ipad you buy or the pets you own. These are all ways of expressing your connection to some culture, big or small.
And you won’t do it by the art you create. All successful expressions of ourselves expose our shared humanity. That’s what makes it successful, the ability for other people to relate to it, to bring it into themselves and find internal resonance within it. We can (arguably) express a new perspective on an old topic, but unless it’s a perspective that other people can come to share, it’s only going to be lost in the deluge of artistic expressions
If you want to truly find individuality, your tastes shouldn’t be exclusive, they should be inclusive. Devour literature and music of all kinds, not just Sci-Fi/Fantasy and Indie Rock. Explore artists you’ve always avoided and locations you feel uncomfortable at.
Be a consumer. Not a consumer of products, but a consumer of ideas and experiences and art. Your output in all aspects of life reflects your influences, so why narrow the scope?
On The Road
I don’t travel the country because I want to prove I’m some sort of Beatific Rebel, criticizing middle class America and thumbing my nose at convention. I do it because I believe that a diversity of experience is what will make me a fuller person, a more complete artist.
I don’t care if people think of me as an Individual. My only concern is that I never stop growing and learning.
Which, I guess, is what being myself is all about.