So I’m back home after a great trip to the US and with much to talk about. Sorry to be such a poor correspondent while on the road, but a combination of technical problems and having too much fun conspired to keep me away from communications devices of all sorts.
Anyway, I wanted to jot down a few points about being back in the US, most, though not all of it, related to music.
I’m thinking I’ll do a bunch of “postcard” type posts, but let’s start with a few stray thoughts.
There's more to Crikey than you think.
Get more Crikey for just
I was curious to see how things had changed since I flew out in July 2005, especially to see the effects of the global financial crisis. Being back, I must say, it didn’t feel like there was a major downturn: while some big stores had closed down, other indicators, such as far fewer homeless people, suggested that things had actually improved.
More on that as we go along, but depression or not, you can’t help but notice that in many ways the US is still at the cutting edge of technology, filled to the brim with gadgetry that you mightn’t need, but that you probably do, and that you can covet regardless.
iPhones are ubiqutous. DC streets are clogged with Prius. The plane from LA east had wifi, even if you had to pay. (Everything free in America/For a small fee in America). The bus from DC to NYC had wifi, which worked and was free.
So there’s all that, but travelling around the US, even amongst this cutting edginess, gives you a positively olde worlde sense of deja vu. In some ways, it’s like stepping back into Australia circa 1970.
Sure there is a surfeit of Prius, but mostly the streets are backed up with hugely stupid vehicles, or stupidly huge vehicles, which mightn’t exactly look the cool cars of the 50s and 60s but they are just gas-guzzling and oversized in their own way. Cue music:
Automobile in America,
Chromium steel in America,
Wire-spoke wheel in America,
Very big deal in America!
These auto dinosaurs also consume gallons, not litres of petrol, and they do it after travelling miles not kilometers. Yes, folks, no sign of the the vastly more rational metric system anywhere in these here United States, including on our rent-a-car GPS which kept telling me to turn left in .2 miles. Huh?
On the flight from Australia they made a small concession to their non-American audience by announcing the temperature as we landed in LA in Celsius, but after that it was Fahrenheit all the way. I kept expecting Brian Wilkie and Roger Climpson to show up on telly.
Other Australian boyhood flashbacks came when walking around North-West DC. Lush green lawns and pirouetting sprinklers gushed gallons of apparently plentiful water everywhere to keep them that way. When was the last time you saw that in Australia?
At the beach, there was ne’ry a rashie in site. All the kids wear swimmers but no tops. There’s sunscreen, but it is applied reluctantly rather than religiously. People boast about their sunburn and delight in peeling the pre-cancerous skin off in sheets. Brown, leathery tans highlighted by white bikinis are displayed in such a way as to suggest the owners of said leather think it is attractive.
Of course, there are bigger things that make you think you have regressed to some earlier period. God still gets pretty good press, though not the uncritical coverage I witnessed during the Bush reign of error. Nonetheless, at Washington International Airport (I’m not going to call it Reagan Airport) they made a public announcement that a Catholic Mass was about to start in the airport chapel.
Universal health care is still a concept they cannot grasp, even those who support the idea in principle. Congress is currently wrestling with the matter and it is like hearing aliens talking about human mating practices: it just all seems so weird and messy to them. And that’s at the supportive end of the debate.
There are also plenty of critics who talk about it in terms of communism, a line of intellectual back-looking that highlights the sort of temporal disconnect I’m talking about. Communism! FFS. Mr Obama, bring down that wall. Oh, wait…
(And by the way, political junkies: health is and will be a much bigger issue there than emissions trading. Just saying.)
There is great food around but tilt the holographic postcard and another America is revealed. There is still the sense of a country unaware of the benefits of fresh food and healthy eating. Maybe California is different but in the East, the idea of fresh food outlets has barely caught on. The food joints in the fairly affluent area of Rehobeth Beach, Delaware, were all pizza-slice holes in the wall with greasy fries options and that sort of thing. Not a Boost store to be seen. The area is about the same speed as, say, the Corso in Manly, but again, it is the Manly of decades ago.
BTW: speaking of health food, the picture above was snapped on Broadway in New York City Sunday week ago. And yes, people were buying them…
Even where you get a decent sandwich or fresh salad, they will ask if you want chips on the side and then give you a little packet of crisps to have with it. Coke and other soft drinks are self-serve and bottomless: help yourself ad infinitum. (I love that, by the way.)
Beyond that, the telly is full of ads for breakfast cereals that barely count as food in any meaningful sense. Try a plate of Reeses peanut butter and chocolate pops to see what I mean. Shopping centres, not to mention airports, smell of burnt sugar. Your sense of sweetness is so assaulted that oranges start to taste like lemons. Score one for the corn syrup lobby.
But tilt the holographic postcard again and you could think it was the most health-conscious nation on earth. There are places that sell decent food and it is surprising how many menus will give you a calorie count for the items thereon. But it’s weird. Why would you reveal, as one restaurant did, that a drink they were offering (kind of a milkshake) contained 1700 calories? Why would you sell it in a shop that was ostensibly health conscious?
What else made me feel like I was in a time warp?
Pedestrian crossings don’t beep when it’s time to walk; almost no doors in shopping centres open automatically; and it is surprising how common it is to find shops that don’t scan prices but ring them up on clunky old cash registers. In houses, water is boiled in stove top kettles not electric jugs.
Sure, a lot of this is pretty small potatoes in the greater scheme of things. But there is other stuff.
Take climate change. Despite the fact that legislation before Congress is probably better than what Rudd and co. are offering here, the public debate still felt ten years behind Australia. I wouldn’t put any faith in the bill getting through in anything like its current form. In Australia we have sceptics of all shades, but not on the scale of the US.
The health care debate is even more backward. We all know that every other first-world country has implemented some form of universal cover and that the US hasn’t, but the level of ignorance about such a system — and the way it is misrepresented in public debate — is kind of breathtaking.
There is a barrage of advertising trying to scare people out of change, including one that uses an (allegedly) Canadian woman explaining how government-backed health care in her country nearly killed her. Clever, and the purist bunkum I would guess.
With all this, I can’t decide whether the US is a backwater or refreshingly defiant. Actually, I can decide.
While it’s sort of cool to go your own way and give the middle finger to the world around you, it’s not as if they are snubbing their noses at some weird and meaningless global fads like hula-hoops or Lily Allen. It’s not as if they are resiting an attempt to legitimise female genital mutilation or child labour.
It may be a source of pride to to say you avoided getting caught up in the latest music or fashion fad from Europe, but not so much about universal health cover. There really is nothing too smart about clinging to a system that is burdening their businesses with debilitating costs and depriving 43 million citizens of meaningful health care. And pretending — believing! — that to give in on it is to open the gates to late-onset Marxism. Talk about welcome to the 1950s…
Of course, we are just as dumb in other ways, even to the extent of lauding certain US throwbacks and faded trends or eclipsed stars when they come to Australia posing as international performers of some repute. Take the recent, much-touted tour of Australia by PJ O’Rourke. What were we thinking?
O’Rourke probably more than anyone represents the sort of back-to-the-future confusion I am trying to describe.
Here we have a once-great comic writer whose whole shtick revolved around the idea of being a defiantly conservative misfit in the midst of (alleged) left-liberalism run amok. He bravely and humourously smoked big cigars even as the world was rejecting the lies of the tobacco lobby. He drove fifties yank tanks in defiance of OPEC and their oil cartel and rising prices and concerns about pollution; he openly oggled woman and treated them as objects, even as feminism flourished. He lauded the sort of hair-shirt self-sufficiency of small government libertarianism that gives the right a hard-on quicker than the porn they reject on puritanical grounds.
And here he was in Australia in 2009 doing the same lame “anti-mainstream” jokes and being hailed on shows as various as the ABC’s Q&A and commercial TV’s Rove. Instead of rejecting him as uncool at any speed, media producers couldn’t wait to give him time and op-ed space. More fool us.
My point is, we are miles ahead of the US in some regards and yet we cringe the moment some Yank “celebrity” shows up, and we bend over frontwards to accommodate them.
Still, the optimism and can-doism of America is infectious and appealing. I wish we had more of it. The glass is always half-full, even if it is filled with corn-syrup-laden root beer (980 calories). So I’m in no way putting the US on death watch. I love the place and hope they prosper forever, though wish to hell they would smarten up in other ways.
Anyone who tells you they “get” the US hasn’t lived here.
Like I say, these are just observations: I’m not having a go at them or asserting (too much) superiority. It’s just interesting to watch the country’s many facets — even the retorgrade, planet-destroying, stubbornly antiquated ones — and report back occasionally.
Coming up next….a postcard from America’s record shops.