In August of 2010, I found myself sitting on my parents’ couch with some down time. I had finished a creative writing program at the University of Iowa earlier that spring; I didn’t know what I would be doing with the coming year. So I did what any reasonable person of my generation would do: tired, late at night, confused about the future, I turned on MTV.
I was intrigued about Jersey Shore because, six months earlier, I had wanted to kill it. It seemed that every poet in my graduate program had been watching (if not obsessing over) the thing! I hated MTV for how it had infiltrated life even in my beloved “alternative” sphere—what I wanted to be my home away from commercial culture. Hadn’t they taken enough?
Maybe you have felt similarly. Or maybe you are an enthralled fan (like me, now), or an ironic-casual one (like many people my age). Or maybe you just clicked on this headline because it was hard to resist.
Much, much, much has been said about the show. All of it considers itself to be smarter than the show and its characters. There seem to be two primary, usually conjoined, ways of consuming “Jersey Shore”: ironic celebration, and ironic dismissal. Everyone gets the irony part (their own distance from these people); we watch to either a) laugh at or b) laugh along with the characters. Watching them look foolish makes me feel better about my own foolery! But the substance is there too. My friend C. saw her own relationship struggles reflected in Ronnie and Sammi’s perpetual trust issues. My feminist friends laughed raucously at the womanizing of The Situation and Pauly D. And everyone seemed to identify with the underdog Snooki of Season 1’s episodes.
Much can be said about “celebreality” culture: the almost gravitational, seductive force a show exerts when it showcases “everyday” people; about shows that work more like advertisements than the advertisements that accompany them; about how we are watching the people on these shows slowly mutate themselves into brands (Snooki slippers; The Situation workout; etc.); about how we are being sold, more than products, a culture. I want to avoid all that and keep this personal.
After all, I too shared something with my friends on Jersey Shore. It seemed to me that this was not a show about “Italian-Americans,” but that the superficial layer of cultural sameness (the “Guido”/”Guidette”) served to keep covered a deeper level of affinity, through which the show’s fans (myself included) were all truly connecting. Jersey Shore is a show about growing up in contemporary American capitalist society. This society, whether progressing or regressing, is aging. But these characters, in their fundamental innocence, offered me and my peers a buoy for our own childhoods, which were so quickly disappearing.
My childhood bloomed at the height of the neoliberal era: Reagan, Bush 1, Clinton. Everything was safe! Because I was a late bloomer, I didn’t hit real adolescence until right around the time W. came into office. Then, in my last year of high school—for the first time considering my future—two planes hit the world trade center buildings. A month later, an old schoolmate of mine, exploring an abandoned warehouse near the campus of his new college, slid down a shaft and was crushed by a garbage compacter. He yelled up to warn his friends not to come down.
Then I was thirty miles north of home at college, having my little brain blown open by people my age who were much, much smarter than I was. My peers were disgusted with the fact that we were going to war; they were deeply skeptical of “free-trade” economic policies and “US supported coups” in Latin America. I didn’t know any of the stuff they were talking about! The more I learned, though, it became clear, even to me, that our country was caught in some awful stage which all of us were powerless to change.
I turned 21. I realized, under this new weight, that I wanted to change some of my habits. I began rejecting the culture I grew up on: fast food; video gaming; televised sports.
I became a cliche to my best friends, from childhood: a liberal. I yelled at them when they used the word “gay,” a word that had previously bonded us together against all the stupid things of the world.
Kerry won the nomination over Dean; lost to Bush.
And just as I was ready to turn into an adult, in full gilded cynicism, Barack Obama came along and promised my generation…hope.
And for a moment, euphoria.
Then slowly, over the past two years, something more familiar.
And this takes us, finally, to the present: to Jersey Shore. It is the last great promise of childhood. It is the hope that capitalism…really can give us everything. It is the idea that we don’t have to be boring and responsible, and that our planet is not dying. It is an imperative! We can still have fun.
And so I took up watching the thing. I became addicted; I loved the people. I watched the Tea Party mobilize popular energy. I watched my friends working in finance drink like crazy and make lots of money. I watched Snooki.
And I felt as happy as all of them.
Thank you MTV.
You have made me realize that everything is going to be okay.