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Hello, I'm Special: How Individuality Became the New Conformity
Hello, I'm Special: How Individuality Became the New Conformity
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Hal gives an overview of the book:

When being a rebel is sanctioned by society, what is left to rebel against? Hal Niedzviecki has a blunt message for the army of tattoo and piercing enthusiasts, bloggers, skateboard warriors, and anyone else walking around with the smug certainty that they are one of a kind: Individuality is the new conformity. Niedzviecki’s meditations touch on everything from designer religions to webcasts, from reality TV to the endless “Everybody Is A Star” platitudes of global pop culture. He unearths the amateur underground and shines a spotlight on the self-help industry, Hollywood, and mainstream media. The result is a smart, witty, and impassioned argument that shatters the you-can-do-anything pop myth and exposes the paradox of individualism. "A blend of cultural analysis, reporting and memoir, Hello, I'm Special is full of sharp and funny observations (most of...
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When being a rebel is sanctioned by society, what is left to rebel against?

Hal Niedzviecki has a blunt message for the army of tattoo and piercing enthusiasts, bloggers, skateboard warriors, and anyone else walking around with the smug certainty that they are one of a kind: Individuality is the new conformity.

Niedzviecki’s meditations touch on everything from designer religions to webcasts, from reality TV to the endless “Everybody Is A Star” platitudes of global pop culture. He unearths the amateur underground and shines a spotlight on the self-help industry, Hollywood, and mainstream media. The result is a smart, witty, and impassioned argument that shatters the you-can-do-anything pop myth and exposes the paradox of individualism.

"A blend of cultural analysis, reporting and memoir, Hello, I'm Special is full of sharp and funny observations (most of them somewhere on the spectrum from bemusement to rage) and is generally a bracing read." – Salon.com

“Hal Niedzviecki is truly special, but not in the mass market way. He is one of the wisest, funniest and most acute cultural critics writing today. A sure-footed guide through a surreal landscape.” – Naomi Klein, author of No Logo

"Equal parts Jerry Seinfeld and Thomas Frank . . . an equally gifted fiction writer and social critic, Niedzviecki in his new book gives us everything that makes his brand of literary genius so, well, 'special'. Breaking every hipster's heavy heart by identifying the shared cult of individuality underlying both mainstream and alternative cultures, Hello I'm Special makes an impassioned–and oftentimes hilarious–case for a personality that money just can't buy." – Tikkun Magazine

Read an excerpt »

Introduction: “Mom, Dad, I’ve Got Something to Tell You …”

Discovering the New Conformity

Flash back to the mid-eighties. Ronald Reagan has just capped the ascendancy of the conservative age with his victory over a hapless Walter Mondale. The Maryland bedroom community where my family resides boasts one of the highest concentrations of retail outlets in the world. My father works for the World Bank, an ominous-sounding international organization known for its conservative fiscal policies. My mother is social coordinator at the Canadian embassy—not an institution known for its wild parties. Conservative people living in a conservative era, working in a conservative city at conservative establishments and, at the end of their conservative day, driving their conservative cars back to their comfortable conservative suburban domicile.

Like so many suburban teens, high school Hal is bored. Through the veil of his teen angst, he sees nothing but shopping malls and hypocrisy. Clearly the scene is rife with opportunity—opportunity for a rabble-rousing whipper-snapper to lift his leg and mark his territory.

Teen Hal definitely intends to do his best.

I come home after disappearing for an entire weekend. I stink of tequila and sick. Dad takes me aside and tells me I should “stick to vodka.” I “borrow” a Visa card and spend my parents’ credit with abandon. Dad yells at me. Mom slips me a twenty. I deliberately fail classes in Hebrew school, in the process acquiring a large stack of conduct referrals and detentions. I forge my mom’s signature on the mailed slips and almost get away with it. The parents sigh and transfer me to the local public high school—where I hone my ability to ingest intoxicating substances; blare depressive Euro alt-rock; and spend profligately on non-Jewish girls I make a habit of inviting to Passover Seders.

The parents laugh. They tell me I’ll grow out of it. Dad takes me aside and gives me a fistful of condoms. I’m the one who blushes.

Fast-forward to my university days. I decide to become a writer. I announce I have no chance of ever making a living. Mom rushes off to tell the neighbours that I’m an artiste. Dad slips me a twenty.

Now I’m in my thirties. The parents still revel in my “radical” tendencies. Not only do they seem to encourage my idiosyncrasies, but they go out of their way to make sure I know how proud they are of my nonconformist status.

Take the birthday cards they give me. For my thirtieth birthday, I got a Hallmark card depicting a crowd scene—dour grey men in suits, hats, and overcoats. Superimposed on the picture is the announcement: “Conformity—proudly serving painfully boring people since time began.” Inside it says: “Happy birthday to a non-conformist.”

For my thirty-first birthday, I got a card showing a delicately painted landscape: blue tree and purple sun. The front of the card said: “The challenge is to be yourself in a world that is trying to make you like everyone else.” Inside: “Happy birthday to a one-of-a-kind you!”

The parents are delighted with the cards, which, as far as they’re concerned, represent their open minds and understanding natures. But, perched as I am on the edge of the abyss known as middle age, the cards have an unintended effect. They depress me. They confirm something I’ve long suspected but have never wanted to acknowledge: My primary behaviour pattern is, essentially, obsolete. In a world that craves Hallmark greeting cards about overturning the grey-suited enemies of individuality, the nonconformist has lost his identity. Far from being weird and rebellious, he becomes normal and placid. On my thirty-first birthday I realized that my nonconformity is not merely tolerated, but replicated and accepted. 

This is obvious from the reaction of the family, who revel in my every “bad boy” antic, but also from the way society as a whole has scooped me into a warm, fuzzy, loving, be-yourself embrace. How can nonconformity be rebellious when a Hallmark birthday card practically begs you to go for it?

And yet, being considered a nonconformist—a free thinker who challenges trends, ideologies, accepted patterns of behaviour—is an important part of how I define myself. If I’m not a rebel, what am I? Or maybe the question should be: If I’m a rebel sanctioned by society, encouraged by my parents, and cheered on by Hallmark, what is left to rebel against?

 

Chapter 1

Hello, I’m Special

The Rise of Nonconformity

 

Gary Stone is one of thousands of Elvis impersonators who reside in the United States. “I am 50 years-old,” he explains on a website, “married and a national account executive for a large corporation. I live in Cincinnati, Ohio and I am a Sunday School teacher and deacon at a local church. I impersonate an older Elvis Presley to bring some enjoyment and happiness to various groups of people.”

Gary Stone inhabits very traditional worlds. That someone living what appears to be a conservative life feels free to impersonate a pop star who died from drugs, drink, and excess certainly hints at just how deep the ethos of individualism permeates our culture. And it also suggests that even a figure like Stone, with his church, good job, and presumably a happy marriage, longs for something more. The old-style institutions don’t embody him, can’t contain his spirit, won’t speak to who he is the way, oddly enough, doing Elvis impersonations does.

Elvis-impersonator associations, conventions, clubs, newsletters, websites, guide books, and, yes, protocols abound. The Elvis Presley impersonation cult(ure) appeals to Gary Stone because, in an age when business and religion are no longer seen as institutions capable of fostering individuality, he appears to find true community, shared values, and a place to express benevolent personhood in Elvis Presley impersonation. You might argue that all Stone is doing is dressing up and making, say, sick kids laugh. (It’s not hard to imagine Stone working the wards in the local hospital.) But if Stone just wants to do his thing, then why have a website? Why put his picture and biography up for all the world to see? And, more importantly, why not become a clown or some other generic figure of fun? Stone is not just someone who does Elvis impersonations. He is part of the culture of Elvis, the community of Elvis impersonators. Like the backyard wrestlers, he is conforming to the crowd’s pop-inspired rules and regulations, so that he can manifest a more urgent, free, and active identity than his roles as churchgoer and businessman allows. When Gary Stone puts on that Elvis outfit, he is tapping into a new world of non-traditional structures that has come into existence solely to serve the needs and desires of people like himself. No longer just another churchgoer, family man, middle manager, Gary Stone is now a new conformist—an “I’m Specialite” using the precepts of mass culture to reshape his own life.

In The Organization Man, William H. Whyte’s 1956 groundbreaking sociological study of office life, a company president advises a group of aspiring executives. “The ideal,” he tells them, “is to be an individualist privately and a conformist publicly.” But in the era of the new conformity, the ideal is reversed: Figures as diverse as Gary Stone and the backyard-wrestling crew seek to capture the outward appearance of specialness, despite their essentially conformist, conservative lives and convictions. Outer individuality obscures inner conformity. As the need to proclaim oneself an individual becomes more urgent, it is no longer sufficient to simply be a deacon and an account executive. One must, always, be more than what one is, constantly reinventing, constantly announcing. Once, it was enough to be recognized in your community, to be somebody in your own small town or neighbourhood. Those days are over. As Gary Stone shows us, people now crave a different sort of authenticity. Increasingly, we are submitting ourselves to a different sort of authority—the mercurial world of fabricated, mass-produced, instantaneous stardom.

In his book The Nineties: When Surface Was Depth, English writer Michael Bracewell documents the process in which our pop figures appropriate the celebrity concept by demanding and attracting attention not so much for their work as for their everyday personas. Commenting on former Smiths front man Morrissey, Bracewell writes that the singer “represents what is known in modern European philosophy as ‘the will to self-create’; another term for this would be ‘auto-fact.’ What both of these mean is the ability within individuals to realize themselves as a mythology.”

Today, using performance as a way to get noticed has moved from the realm of artists and performers into everyday life. Many of us are starting to feel the pressure to “realize” ourselves as a “mythology.” From the suburbs to the ghettos, from the fringe to the mainstream, the notion that we must always be shaping and telling our special tale of ascendancy has become pervasive. Furthermore, identity “creation” has become almost compulsory. It is those who are not in some way performing roles who seem old-fashioned, of a different era. Those who seek to adhere to the old tropes of society—stay-at-home mom, successful businessman—are ignored or derided by a society that is mesmerized by toddler pop stars, business bad boys, and pierced pretend radicals.

 

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Note from the author coming soon...

About Hal

Hal Niedzviecki is a writer, culture commentator and editor whose work challenges
preconceptions and confronts readers with the offenses of everyday life. He is the author
of many books including The Peep Diaries: How We're Learning to Love Watching Ourselves and...

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Published Reviews

Apr.08.2009

The Peep Diaries: How We’re Learning to Love Watching Ourselves and Our Neighbors Hal Niedzviecki. City Lights $17.95 paper (252p) ISBN 978-0-87286-499-3
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Jun.07.2009

I hate Facebook. I've grown to dread the banal, relentless churn of it: the minutiae of people's status updates, the way it turns otherwise decent people into crass self-promoters. Its “friendships” are...