My hopes for America lie less in Obama- mania, more in Vaud and the Villains
Long before I became a journalist I taught myself to absorb the essence of an unfamiliar city by staying alert in the taxi from the airport: Los Angeles offers a particularly vivid first encounter. As the yellow cab barrels out of the precincts of LAX on to an angry avenue called La Brea, images and warnings crowd in. Neon signs in Korean and Spanish tell me that this is one of the planet’s most multi-ethnic conurbations. Half-crazed vagrants haunt the sidewalks, their random possessions piled in shopping trolleys. Radio ads offer a catalogue of modern American neuroses. Behind on your mortgage payments, facing foreclosure? Here’s the number of a friendly lawyer. Expecting the unexpected? Book yourself a mammogram at Kaiser Presidente. Still believe your luck might change? Win, win, win at Pala Casino Resort. To which a placard on the fence of a derelict site adds ‘Divorce — Child Custody — Visitation Rights — Call 0800-123-DADDY’.
But the in-your-face alienation of urban America is so often countered by unexpected charm. ‘Sir, are you British?’ the world-weary Hispanic driver asks as we pull over for a screaming police car. ‘There’s a British TV show on cable I really like, it’s called Keeping Up Appearances. But I can’t say the lady’s name right.’ ‘You mean Mrs Bucket, pronounced “Bouquet”?’ ‘Yeah, that’s her,’ he brightens up and enunciates: ‘Hiya-cinth Boo-kay.’
I’m here for the annual British-American Project conference, the veritable Bretton Woods of transatlantic networking. This year we’re due to talk about popular culture, but of course there are only two topics anyone really wants to discuss: the economic crisis and the triumph of Barack Obama. One modest contributor to his campaign proudly shows me on her BlackBerry the personalised emails his team sent out in the final days, culminating in one which began ‘Dear Susan, in ten minutes I’ll be leaving for Grant Park… And it’s all down to you.’ It’s clever stuff, but the emotion of the crowd and the near-universal admiration for his coolness, his eloquence, his black-but-not-quite-blackness, his sheer Obama-ness, cannot conceal the blank space where a coherent response to the economic crisis ought to be. We know he wants to bail out the auto industry, but does that mean a bail-out for every sector in trouble — and how will he square the cost with his promise of tax cuts for ‘95 per cent of workers and their families’? Is he going to cane the rich 5 per cent, many of whom, in liberal LA at least, are now so eager to embrace him? If I had a vote here, I’d have given it to Barack the beacon of hope rather than McCain the has-been — but by the time Obama-mania subsides, I hope the new emperor has found some convincing clothes.
The two-digit shopper
Speaking of clothes, one of our conference sessions is about the tastes and values of the age groups who make up most of today’s consumers. We learn about Generation X, born in the Sixties and Seventies, who have, according to Time magazine, ‘a monumental preoccupation with all the problems the preceding generation will leave for them to fix’: that certainly applies to Obama, born in 1961. Then there’s pain-in-the-ass Generation Y, the pampered twentysomething offspring of (usually divorced) baby-boomer parents. And Generation Jones — I doze at this point — which is a post-boomer pre-Gen X slice so thin that quite possibly everyone in it is called Jones.
But I’m awoken by a documentary film by Lauren Greenfield, Kids + Money, depicting an as-yet unlabelled generation of pre-teen girls who are morbidly obsessed with shopping — little princesses of the era of overconsumption, who yearn for the ‘four-digit’ ($1,000-plus) outfits and accessories that win them admission to the best cliques, pronounced ‘clicks’, at school. It’s horrifying, not so much for the brainwashed state of the children as for the moral vacuity of their parents. But there’s a foretaste of a different era to come in a new fashion category, the ‘recessionista’ — one who makes a virtue of dressing stylishly on a tight budget — with which I strongly identify. Me, I’m a two-digit shopper: my top outfit for the trip is a £69 linen suit from Burton in Leeds. Several American ladies tell me I look sharp, so I tell them that when I went back for a second suit, all that was left in my size was a £75 jacket which I would have dismissed as too expensive — except it came with a free pair of trousers: that’s what I call a bail-out. Readers may like to email their own recessionista successes to firstname.lastname@example.org.
I feel the lurve
I think it’s ill-mannered of Brits in our party who have succumbed to Obama-mania to keep telling our hosts what a relief it is that ‘it’s OK to love America again’. We should always love America, not for its leaders — who generally turn out as disappointing as our own — but for its vitality, its collective belief in the possibility of renewal, its vast anthology of personal stories. The perfect metaphor for the America it’s impossible to dislike is on stage at the down-at-heel Fais Do-Do nightclub off La Brea Avenue. It’s called Vaud and the Villains, it’s an 18-piece band plus Burlesque dancers, and we like them all so much we book them to play in our suffocatingly bland conference hotel, where they blow the roof off with a unique New Orleans-gospel-soul mix officially described as ‘what rock ’n’ roll would sound like if they played it back in the Thirties’. A Democrat lawyer en route to the White House transition team is heard to mutter, while watching the dancers: ‘Now I know what Dr King meant when he said he had a dream.’ Among the line-up is a gravel-voiced, heavily tattooed chanteuse who’s in rehab; a dancer who’s a bit-part soap-actress single mother; a tiny, smiling man in a pork-pie hat, Filipino perhaps, with a voice as big as Pavarotti’s; and a black lead singer with the loose-limbed elegance and energy of — yes, him again — Barack Obama. I’m not easily swayed by the emotion of the crowd, but I have to tell you, as one New Yorker grabs the mike to declare, ‘I feel the lurve,’ Vaud and the Villains give me hope for America. Catch them this Saturday and next at El Cid on Sunset Boulevard.