If I were to pick one song that most defined my personality and my life story, it would be Talking Heads’ “(Nothing But) Flowers.” It isn’t what I would call my “favorite song” (that would be a tie between The Replacements’ “Can’t Hardly Wait” and the Heads’ own “This Must Be the Place”), but “Flowers” has the unique ability to evoke the evolution of my perspective toward life with almost uncanny accuracy. In an analysis of the song for The Onion’s A.V. Club, Jason Heller calls “Flowers,” released in the spring of 1988 off of the Heads’ final album, “a funeral bouquet on suburbia, the band itself, and the ’80s along with it.” Indeed it does suggest that the band, and especially principal songwriter David Byrne, have come full circle since they first rose to (relative) prominence in the late 1970s as the band of choice for art school intellectual-types who were drawn to the “otherness” of the era’s burgeoning punk rock scene but found bands like the Ramones to be too dunderheaded to fully embrace. Urbane Manhattan sophisticates couldn’t in good conscious embrace the mainstream schlock of Aerosmith or Boston (the band, not the city), but when they heard the Sex Pistols screeching “I am the anti-Christ,” they yearned for a less literal alternative. Enter the Talking Heads, who sang songs partially in French. It was a match made in Heaven.
The song that sums up the cultural location of the early-years Heads and their followers is 1978’s “The Big Country.” It’s a celebration of snobbery laced with just enough irony to leave the listener unsure exactly how sincere the narrator is being but sure enough to be confident that the band essentially holds the sentiments being expressed, or at least some version of them. The narrator of “The Big Country” is looking down on flyover country – quite literally, as he’s flying above it in an airplane – and remarking “I wouldn’t live there if you paid me to” and “It’s not even worth talking about those people down there.”
Now fast forward ten years to 1988 and “(Nothing But) Flowers.” The “Flowers” narrator notes that “Years ago, I was an angry young man.” As back-to-nature types ranted against chain stores and suburban sprawl, the narrator nodded along with them. Now, in the “Flowers” universe, the back-to-nature crowd has won a sweeping victory; the extermination of the chains is complete. The narrator observes that “This was a Pizza Hut; Now it’s all covered with daisies” and “There was a shopping mall; Now it’s all covered with flowers.” But now that the narrator has had the reality of non-consumer society thrust upon him, he’s grown disillusioned and realized that he’s traded one form of bland, confining cultural wasteland for another. “I miss the honky tonics, Dairy Queens, and 7-Elevens,” he sings, adding “I dream of cherry pies, candy bars, and chocolate chip cookies.” The song ends with the narrator wailing “Don’t leave me stranded here; I can’t get used to this lifestyle.”
So what does this have to do with me? Just like the “Flowers” narrator, I can say that “Years ago, I was an angry young man.” I didn’t manifest the anger through outward demonstrations of fury; it was more of a quiet, internal exasperation with the cultural desolation of my blandly conservative high school and hometown and then, later, the fraternity/sorority scene of college. It was my “angry young man” phase that first drew me to sociology, and the evolution of my perspective hasn’t dimmed my enthusiasm for the field. But as I began to move away from chain-store-world in terms of my surroundings, I came to believe that the alternative offered limitations that, at least in my personal experience, could be just as confining. In high school, I fumed at the lack of a boutiquey local espresso joint in my hometown. Later, when I actually got a job at just such a boutiquey local espresso joint at the tail end of my undergraduate years, I began to feel misgivings about my co-workers’ frequent denunciations of Starbucks. I tried to argue to my coworkers that if it weren’t for Starbucks conditioning the American consumer to believe that paying $4.50 for a coffee beverage is reasonable, local shops like ours probably would never have been able to exist. But beyond that, I began to question whether being unable to embrace uncool culture for fear of judgment and condemnation was any less confining than being unable to embrace cool culture due to its inaccessibility.
That which is, from the perspective of a coffee connoisseur or many sociologists, uncool or even somehow morally offensive – the honky tonk, the Dairy Queen, the 7-Eleven – adds color and variety to life. It is only through the existence of that which is uncool or uninteresting that those things that are cool can, through the contrast, achieve coolness. Without the tacky as a counterpoint, a universe of nothing but purity and coolness becomes a monotonous tundra not unlike a universe made entirely of chain stores.
Somewhere along the line in my life, I came to a sort of peace accords with the chain stores that – both in themselves and for the broader lifestyle I saw them as representing – so annoyed me in the past. Is this a sort of intellectual, political, or moral surrender? Perhaps. But I think it’s ultimately rooted in a desire to have the best of both worlds – to be able to eat vegetarian food and sip lattes with sociologists while chatting ruefully about the provincialism of the Middle American masses while still being able to enjoy ice cream, baseball, convenience, and familiarity.