A Very funny episode of HBO’s Curb Your Enthusiasm—one of many—had hangdog comedian Richard Lewis complaining bitterly about not getting creative credit for the ubiquitous phrase, “The (Blank) From Hell.” He thought he should get a royalty check, or at least a “as Richard Lewis once famously said…,” every time some barfly in Cleveland announced that he had the wife or the propane tank or the pit bull “from hell.” This would be like copyrighting “Have a good one,”“Been there, done that,” “Forgetaboutit,” or “Duh.” Not that anyone would ever claim authorship of these grating clichés.
Which brings me to the subject at hand: the faddish phrase, “(Blank) is the new (Blank).” It’s all the rage as in“50 is the new 40”—popular among aging Hollywood sexpots. Or “Biloxi is the new Vegas”—currently in style among degenerate Southern gamblers who can’t afford the bus fare to Nevada. “The new” or “Is the new” is a shibboleth of our times, maybe the shibboleth of our times, if you discount, of course, the dozens of mind-numbing banalities that ooze out of Washington daily to gum up the public dialogue. “Is the new” can’t really compete with “They hate freedom,” “It’s your money, not the government’s,” or one of my favorites, “Just a few rotten apples.” Abu Ghraib was just a few rotten apples. Corporate fraud and thievery was just a few rotten apples. Hell, the entire Iraq insurgency is, yip, just a few Christian-hating, freedom-hating, deathloving rotten apples.
A famous commercial-maker once defined “pure advertising” as simply renaming or “repurposing” something to attract a different audience. For instance, if you took Johnson’s Baby Shampoo—which is, duh, shampoo for babies—and repitched it as a gentle shampoo that adults can use everyday, you might hook in adults obsessed about clean hair. And it worked. That’s what “is the new” is all about: relabeling. And except for the occasional misguided analogy between Biloxi and Las Vegas, it is mostly a relabeling that excludes a vast majority of people from the new label. It is snob talk.
Take “50 is the new 40.” Who really thinks being 50 today is just like being 40 was a generation ago? Do you think any of the 50-year-old women who punch in every day at the Wal-Mart Superstore in Marietta, Georgia feel 40? What about the paunchy, 50-year-old Xerox salesman huffing and puffing his way around Northern Ohio trying to make his sales quota for the month? Think he’s waking up, saying, “Man, 500 sit-ups and I’m out of here!” Actually, for most people, the calculation runs the other way. Fifty is the new 60, not the new 40. They’re tired. They’re under constant stress from an economy that demands that most middle-class people work 50 to 60 hours a week just to get by. By the age of 50, the world has pretty much beaten these people into an age-specific stupor.
Of course, if you have plenty of money, work out everyday, stick closely to the South Beach Diet, maybe splurge for a little nip/tuck and are always ready with the right pill for the right moment, you probably do look and feel younger than your mom or dad did in the ‘50s or ‘60s. But by and large, that’s the stuff of ads, whether they are ads for celebrities, called Access Hollywood and People magazine, or ads for youth-enhancing products, called ads. By this point in American consumer culture, if you’re 50 and don’t feel 40, you’re a loser. The worst thing that could happen to a post-menopausal Boomer is to announce your age—“I’m 53”—and have someone reply, “You know, you look exactly 53.”
The most egregious use of the “is the new” cliché was an article in the LA Times about the insanely inflated housing prices in Southern California. The headline was Ten Million Is The New Million. Meaning the milliondollar house, a far-flung fantasy for virtually everyone alive in Southern California, not to mention the whole world, will now cost you 10 million dollars. Who did they write this article for? The four people in the market for a $10 million fixer-upper? Or the eight million salaried breadwinners who know that if they scrimp and save for decades and maybe, just maybe, become the millionaire next door, they’ll still be nine million short.
What about a new “is the new” adage, one that demeans status, privilege, and money? “Modesty is the new vanity.”
by Allen Rucker
Allen Rucker is a best-selling author, public speaker and writes regularly for this magazine.