Monday, November 28, 2011
Hipness is not an easily measurable concept, but its very intangibility is part of what makes in interesting. If we imagine a hipness quotient connected to cities, we would include, high on the list, places like Palo Alto, Berkeley, Boulder, San Francisco, even New York. Detroit would probably arrive toward the bottom. Recently, however, Detroit has been getting attention that may be boosting its credentials.
Not long ago, the documentary Detroit Wildlife was filmed. In it, one protagonist asserts that Detroit wasn't much affected by the 2008 blackout. People in the city were are already living off the grid, squatting in abandoned buildings, foraging for food. They didn't have electricity, so why would they notice when it was gone? Detroit is offered as a harbinger of a post-fossil fuel future, where wild animals are returning to a dessicated urban landscape.
But things seem to be changing. Last year's Chrysler advertisement, released during the Superbowl, featuring Detroit denizen Marshall Mathers, aka Eminem, didn't hurt. The ad featured Detroit as hip in a gritty hard-working kind of way, a place so exotic that its cars were "imported" by other parts of the U.S.
Other indicators preceded the Eminem spot. One was the appearance of the HBO Series, Hung, which began airing in 2009. The series features divorced father and public school teacher Ray Decker, who, unable to support his children properly after his uninsured house burns down, becomes a male prostitute.
Created by the brilliant filmmaker Thomas Payne (Election), Hung is hilariously funny as it traverses the borderlines of bad taste. And while the series does not exactly portray the city of Detroit in a positive light, the mere appearance of an HBO series tends to elevate a hipness quotient significantly. (Look at what The Wire did for West Baltimore.)
Two weeks ago, The Huffington Post launched a new section, "Detroit News and Opinion," with a heterogeneous mix of Detroit bloggers, from the worlds of political reporting, sports writing, cultural analysis, and the non-profit sector. The articles provide insightful analysis of Detroit’s continuing economic plight, sprinkled with a strong dose of optimism about the possibilities for the city’s resurrection. Detroit now finds itself as one of only six local sections in the Huff Post, sharing space with New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco.
So what’s happened? Why does Detroit seem to be rising on the pop cultural hipness index? The Obama administration's decision to save the auto industry has a great deal to do with it. If the government had not intervened to save the thousands of jobs that were at stake, Detroit's utter collapse would have been inevitable. And while the domestic automobile industry is a shadow of its once-proud self, it still employs more people than Google, Facebook, and Apple combined.
Detroit, moreover, is re-writing its books on the meaning of industrial. A new generation of digital engineers is being hired by the automakers to develop the complex software necessary to run the current generation of cars. While Detroit has not exactly become Silicon Valley-on-the-river, young people are actually moving back and into downtown areas that were being abandoned.
Detroit, in other words, has the potential to create a new kind of hybrid city, where the digital, the industrial, and the green collide in interesting ways. What could be more hip than that?
Thursday, February 17, 2011
Chrysler’s recent advertisement, featuring Eminem, has been getting considerable attention. Detroiters have apparently embraced its portrayal of their city as tough, gritty, and determined. Detroit, after all, became infamous in the 1980s and 90s for Devil’s Night, the week before Halloween, when gangs of itinerant youth roamed the city, burning random swaths of buildings, just for the fun of it.
Eminem, of course, is well-known for his roots in the Motor City. The quasi-autobiographical film, 8 Mile, featured him and Detroit underground hip hop artists. It also celebrated the eight mile stretch between downtown Detroit and the border crossing to Windsor, Canada, an area that had long been abandoned by industry and residential community.
That eight mile strip, was, by the way, also the birthplace of techno. Three African-American teenagers, the sons of Detroit autoworkers (the Belleville Three) set up shop there in the 1980s, drawn by the cheap rental space. Their experimentations with early digital drum machines and keyboards helped move the previously arcane world of electronic music from small recital halls into club spaces and onto dance floors.
The advertisement, which is hawking the Chrylser 200, a luxury car, circles around the concept of luxury itself and suggests that it’s not just “who it’s for, but where it’s from.” “We’re not New York City,” the resonant voiceover states, “We’re not the windy city…and certainly not the empty city.” The sound track features a sample of Eminem’s “Losing It.” At the end, he steps out of the car, into an auditorium that has a full gospel choir on stage. He turns to the camera and states defiantly: “This is Detroit, and this is what we do.”
It might seem a bit strange for an automobile corporation, like Chrysler, to embrace someone with Eminem’s pedigree. At one time he was among the most vilified popular musical performers in the U.S. And his latest CD, Recovery, marks the return of his old sexist, homophobic, alter-ego, Slim Shady. In any event, he has lost little, if any, of his capacities for spewing vitriol and deletable expletives, although now softened with the occasional expressions of regret. (And I say this as a fan.)
But that seems to be the point of it all. Detroit, like Eminem, has been in recovery—economic recovery. A long time coming perhaps, but now it’s returning to form, unapologetic and as badass as ever.
This is all in good fun. And I certainly don't begrudge Detroiters their fifteen minutes in the pop cultural sunlight. I would love to see the city undergo a true renaissance. But it's not clear that the route to Detroit's success is a new line of Chrysler luxury cars. And it would have been nice if the ad had alluded at least once to the multi-billion dollar bailout package that the corporation received from taxpayers to keep it afloat (for the second time). While originally a Bush initiative, support for it contributed to Democratic congressional losses in November. Some of the same money helped presumably to offset the costs of broadcasting a high-end television advertisement, featuring a global pop superstar, on Superbowl Sunday.