Of Swing Music And Flamethrowers

You may or may not be old enough to remember a particularly obnoxious crime perpetrated upon us by the media in the 1990s—I refer to, of course, the conspiracy to make Swing Music a new fad.

Even my young, non-jaded brain called “bullshit” on how hard the media was trying to push the idea that Swing Music was Cool. It was a textbook case of how to try to artificially create a fad in order to sell shit. Here is a typical mainstream media “let’s all get on the bandwagon” puff piece, courtesy of the Washington Post circa 1999:

It’s time to don those glad rags and join all the other cats hopping on the retro bandwagon that has much of the country swinging. No one knows exactly when it started, but from movies to music to clothing, the 1940s are back in a big way. Couples of all ages are showing up dressed to the nines at local clubs to shag, bop and boogie-woogie to the tunes of musicians such as Cherry Poppin’ Daddies and Cab Calloway.

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Now, I don’t blame the writer for coming up with this stuff. I’ve had to write and assign a lot of this stuff too as an editor of a major pop-culture site, and a lot of that was for really nerdy stuff like expensive plastic figurines with enormous chibi heads or expensive plastic figurines based on obscure 1980s cartoons which weren’t really that good in retrospect or expensive plastic figurines of popular characters styled as big-breasted anime characters—which means I’m a way more terrible person.

The point is, a lot of these “crazes” are artificially manufactured via press releases and publicists in order to move large amounts of merchandise. We are told that there is this organic movement “gripping” the nation, but often there isn’t much organic about any of it. It’s as well-planned as a war.

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The GAP schooled us on the way it was to be done.

Now, I have no doubt there were hip pockets of people at that time enjoying this retro musical genre. And what probably happened is that the hobby of these genuine fans was co-opted by music execs and corporate trend-hunters. It’s decided to crown this relatively obscure musical style, or clothing style, or book genre “The IT Thing.” Watered-down copies of the originals are crafted within studios and marketing boardrooms—to create a mass-market version. It gets quantified, simplified, multiplied.

Then it gets pushed on the public; integrated into news stories as “the real thing.” Selling the items themselves becomes “real news.”

I thought about all this last year when I ran into an article on CNN Money about a (according to CNN Money, at any rate) “hot new fad”: personal flamethrowers.

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While nowhere as fawning as the Washington Post piece, I did wonder in the back of my mind if this was all based on a press release or publicist’s call. Or: are personal military-grade flamethrowers really a growing market now?

From the article:

Flamethrowers were gruesome weapons of war and so controversial that the U.S. military stopped using them after Vietnam. But as crazy as it may sound, they are available for sale to the public. A Cleveland startup called Throwflame is selling flamethrowers for $1,599 that can shoot fire for 50 feet. Another company, Ion Productions Team of Detroit, is selling $900 flamethrowers that can eject flames for 25 feet. Both companies started selling them this year. The flamethrowers are marketed not as weapons, but as fun devices.

There is then a quote from a CEO from one of the flamethrower startups: “We always have the people who want it just for fun. Impress the neighbors at the BBQ.”

When I note all the unrest and insanity going on right now in the U.S.—doesn’t a personal flamethrower fad make a lot of sense?

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Isn’t the next step showing off your right to bear arms by operating your goddamn amazing-looking weapons-grade personal flamethrower? First they came for the flamethrowers, then they came for the guns, then Hitler took over. You can never be too sure. That’s why you need to walk around your 24-hour Home Depot at 2:00 in the morning wearing your goddamn fine flame-retardant suit and your goddamn military-grade propane flamethrower strapped to your back like a real badass.

Now that I think of it, even if the Swing Music revival was mostly an artificial sensation, it seems quite a bit more positive a movement than many aspects of the contemporary zeitgeist. Maybe Plato was right: maybe we need a team of philosopher-kings to send out press releases to CNN and USA Today plugging gentle fads based on idealized versions of the past that never quite existed.

At any rate, individual human agency must be avoided at all costs. We can’t be trusted with our own culture. It’s all really for the best.