What goes around comes around! Slate.com’s Seth Stevenson has a regular column that basically reviews consumer advertisements, primarily commercials. In his newest column he just so happens to review the Levi’s commercials that use Walt’s poems (America and Pioneers! O Pioneers!) that we talked about at the beginning of the semester.
Stevenson generally loves these commercials, saying, “there’s logic to this match between a quintessentially American poet and a quintessentially American product. Whitman’s verse allows Levi’s to evoke not only its proud history but a forward-looking present—the pioneering, American mindset that Whitman captured and that Levi’s hopes to embody.” I think Stevenson makes a great point in channelling Walt, but perhaps it’s a tad misdirected if applied to a pantsmaking corporation?
Stevenson also waxes a bit poetically himself when describing the nuanced ambiance of the commercials: “That scratchy Whitman recording also sets a mood of vague disquiet. Paired with the music behind it and the startling crack of sudden fireworks, that raspy, distant voice sounds rather ominous. Where the ‘Live Unbuttoned’ ads were about carefree self-expression, this “Go Forth” spot is about squalor and anxiety.”
He gives the commercials an A, for “astounding aesthetics” but is mindful that, after all, this is a still just a multimillion dollar company trying to sell jeans anyway it can, regardless of what literary monuments it desecrates, er, utilizes.
Readers of the article are much more ambivalent, as the message board is rife with division, with headings like “Our cultural heritage turned from gold to shit” juxtaposing “This ad succeeds where the Chevy ad failed” juxtaposing “does the average levis buyer know who walt whitman is?” and getting downright mean with “Seth Stevenson’s a hack with no taste”.
So in a way this article does bring up the question of just what Walt’s legacy means to us now. Has the legacy been reduced to a clever but artfully done advertising schematic? Is it only meaningful in some secondary context, i.e. a Levi’s commercial or a Robin Williams’ rant in Dead Poets Society? I mean, I know we as a class can appreciate Walt, but I’m talking as a generation. Does Walt matter?
I contend that Walt is a difficult read today, where EVERYTHING is compartmentalized. Politics, religion, diseases (PLEASE do not get me started on the swine flu), diet, sexual orientation. We’re judged not by our quality as a human, but the various tags and demographics that are spit out like tickertape at a deli. “Hi, I am Chris. I am a straight, white male who enjoys eating steak, is politically apathetic, atheist, and Irish. True, there is a lot more to me, but in this day and age of 3 minute pop songs and 30 second commercial spots, I doubt you have the attention span to care about the rest. But hey! At least Bud Light and McDonald’s have spent millions and millions on demographic-focused marketing to fill in the blanks of my identity and personality for me!” O! How Walt would think of us now!
Walt transcended categorization. His enigmatic contradictions are downright baffling at times, but show the convergent and divergent nature of humans. Biologically, what, there’s a 0.00001 difference between every single person? We all have lungs, legs, elbows, fibulas, A COCCYX! But that fraction tends to make all the difference. Walt understood the perpetual flow of ideologies that inundate us, and tried to reconcile them all. There may be no right or wrong, it just always depends on who you ask.
Are we still talking about pants?