Australian novelist and two-time Man Booker prize winner Peter Carey said recently in an interview that the main difference between America and the rest of the British colonies (and a major source of Australia’s inferiority complex) was that, in America, a conquerable, important wilderness seemed to exist everywhere. You tell a young, pre-industrial Australia to go west and a generation of boys die tied up in tumbleweed, flushed with dysentery somewhere in the Northern Territories. If you’re a young Canadian and heed that exploratory urge, hordes of stout families end up starving on ice floes in Hudson Bay.

Jonathan Duggan
FROM LEFT: Kristin Cavalleri, Mount Rushmore, Yung Joc, “The Da Vinci Code.” (Photo illustration by Angela Cesere; FROM LEFT: Courtesy of UPN, bensguide.gpo.gov and Bad Boy)

America didn’t have the most, say, humane time articulating that Protestant-fueled Manifest Destiny (eg. “Blood Meridian,” the destruction of the overwhelming majority of Native Americans), but, unlike the other colonies sharing this hunk of rock, every piece of our space came up roses. Oregon. California. Florida. Texas. The Great Plains. Each battle, each massacre and each loss of life gave us the greatest farmland, the most exquisite ports and natural resources and wildlife bordering on Eden. We could not lose. Wars don’t even touch us. We have the biggest cars, the hugest pants and the best buffet lines. We are invincible. Gas prices too high? Fuck you, Alaska/Iraq/Saudi. Give it to me now. Someone yell at you on the street? Fuck you, meet my lawyer. Ass gets too big? Make my car’s seat wider. Our nation’s highways are now inadequately narrow. We beat nature. We beat the world. We are God’s favorite. We are fundamentally unoccupied.

Once we got bored (WWI, All Gods Dead, Left Bank, D-Day, A-Bomb, et. al.) we started making things to let us skirt the wilderness (suburbs, cars), or at least insulate our lives from what we didn’t like. Then we found the greatest thing ever – the most important construct of the last 50 years. We made a new space and shoved everything we couldn’t control into it – American pop culture, the second wilderness, omnipresent, undying, impenetrable. It’s the last essential part of American life.

It’s our final embrace of the absurdity that other countries learned through war, colonization, famine and other events way less awesome than the season premiere of “Grey’s Anatomy.”

The wilderness pushes back: Southern rap, once dually regarded as graveyard and DMZ of hip hop, has controlled the Clear Channel airwaves for half a decade now, producing the lion’s share of rap’s platinum albums and most enthralling new talent (Clipse, Lil’ Wayne). What’s more, the whole world is absolutely obsessed with Southern rap now, so numb, inhuman, thick artists like Young Joc have multiple hit singles to their name. And we can’t tell the difference. John Milton. Dan Brown. Young Joc. Rakim. Jet. The Rolling Stones. MySpace. The Guttenberg Bible. Facebook. All equally deserving of praise and criticism. We have nothing else to do.

We are overwhelmed by one wave of pop and taken by another before we can even right ourselves. We stuff the digital wilderness with more albums, more films, more TV shows. Contemporary “criticism” is staged, articulated and referenced within minutes. People can, and sometimes do, literally go into severe depressive episodes when their favorite television characters dies. That’s our true communal experience, cheering when Jack Bauer guns down people like a fascist foot soldier.

Pop culture is more important the family. And youth: Acres and acres of grainy young high-schoolers get thrown through the MTV thresher affectionately known as the 10 Spot in the hopes of aping the career path of Kristin Cavallari (fashionable, mildly witty bitchdom, quickly canceled concept reality show, small-scale video appearances for one-off emo bards, already fading looks). We don’t want to be great; we want to be filmable. We need to be just enough. Fame is the only fight left. Anonymity is the dark cave. Paris is America. Art isn’t art, it’s a means to an end.

We can stomach new lows. They’re not even lows. Categorically talentless “people” summon most of the national consciousness. People create viable careers out of being filmed during their most emotionally trying and desperate moments – “The Real World” alone has brought us drunk driving, the death of a actor/character/real person’s mother and countless more moments of existential grief- artful, frigid moments of emotional trauma from a person your age going through the same painful emotions you have had or will. You, the witness, are the star, without having lifted a finger. It’s not that that barriers got torn down, it’s that they were never there. No taste is taste. All art is equal. Some art is just more equal than others.

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