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The Easy Allure of "Lifestyle" Choices

Exclusive commentary by Greg Lewis /
November 25, 2003

The values and behavior on display in the most insistent popular culture venues, particularly in popular music and music videos, are characterized by the gross over-representation of certain contemporary "lifestyles." Among other things, this has given rise to the notion that somehow "lifestyle" choices have as much validity or are as important to how we define ourselves as are legitimate "life" choices. There's a profound difference between the two, however, and the difference is particularly noticeable in what have come to be known as the "gay" and "hip-hop" lifestyles.

Here's an example of what it's come to: Some homosexual and transgender students at the University of Chicago have become so anxiety-ridden at the thought of having to choose a public restroom on the basis of sex (to do so involves, as they see it, a loathesome act of "self-labeling"), that they're unable to go to the bathroom at all when they're away from their own rooms or apartments. They're lobbying to have public bathrooms become unisex for everyone by law, in order to avoid the problems, including bladder infections, that result from a tiny group of gender-sensitive ninnies walking around holding it in all day.

While, for example, gays and lesbians make up a statistically miniscule percentage of the U.S. population (their numbers are generally pegged by even marginally responsible statisticians at three to four percent), the picture we get in music videos (and increasingly in television programming) is of a population which should somehow be experiencing something like equal gay and lesbian representation under law. When, however, the influence generated by their over-representation in the media gets thrown back in their faces, the gay community is rarely happy. Witness how gays and lesbians deplore the phenomenon of so-called "metro-sexuals," straight men who dress and act gay in order to attract women.

The problem is that the values arising from the ascendancy of "lifestyle" issues have somehow become a standard by which many think all people should be judged. Fortunately, one of the consequences — especially for people in the music industry who push the acceptance of these lifestyle values while at the same time relying on the public's acceptance of their products in order to stay in business — is that there's currently a bit of a backlash, and business isn't going especially well. CD sales are down significantly over the past several years. Of course, industry executives, in their whining about internet distribution of their product reducing sales and revenues, are looking everywhere for explanations but to the most likely reasons.

What they haven't come to grips with is the fact that the music they produce is no longer music at all but a commodity that closely resembles music, one whose primary function has become the promotion of "lifestyle" values. Popular music today arguably still incorporates melody and lyrics (well, except in the case of hip-hop, about which more momentarily), but whatever survives of those two fundamental properties has been so debased by sexualized and politicized presentation that the music no longer deals at all with serious human themes and issues. In other words, music no longer represents "life" values but "lifestyle" values.

The chasm between the gloss (what promoters are telling us the music is about) and the reality (what we can see and hear is actually happening in the music) is so jarring that it's simply not possible to sustain it any longer. Ignoring for a moment the fact that Britney Spears reached her creative peak as a Mouseketeer, we're just not buying it when she says that her performances are not "sexual." At least not as long as we can see her on stage or in videos performing in a way that would have gotten her arrested not much more than a quarter century ago. And when some whiny hip-hop "artist" tries to run the old shuck-and-jive routine about blacks being held down by "the man," when they try to pass off as meaningful the utter doggerel that replaces any serious lyrical content whatsoever because it represents the black "lifestyle," well, the only thing to say is that the black "lifestyle" is in deep trouble.

Every day the number of people who have never heard music that is more than simply the commercialization of a lifestyle grows larger, and with it the number of people who can't tell the difference between a life and a lifestyle. This tends to lead them to base their important decisions and their political positions on the trivial. Indeed, the next time you pause in doubt about which public restroom to enter, remember, it's a lifestyle choice and not a life choice. Rather than agonize over your decision, thank your lucky stars you're living in a time that is witnessing the demise, hastened along by the sheer absurdity of its own posturing, of this type of triviality as the basis, not only of legitimate popular art, but of serious public debate as well.

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