Mired in Mediocrity
[or, is Meh the New Black? DJK]
WELCOME to the “new mediocre.” It’s not quite the New Look, or the New Deal, but it is the new normal.
At least according to Christine Lagarde, managing director of the International Monetary Fund, who coined the term a few weeks ago.
She was referring to the global economy, of course, which she thought could use a jolt lest it “muddle along with subpar growth,” but her words, uttered during a relatively small-scale speech at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service, have had an impact far beyond the school’s borders and the world of economists (though said economists were very het up about it), reaching into the Twitterverse.
Macroeconomic theory rarely seems to have much to do with the minutiae of everyday life, but in this case Ms. Lagarde’s phrase has a surprisingly resonant application. Suddenly, that free-floating malaise and lack of inspiration everyone keeps complaining about has a name.
Consider, for example, fashion (admittedly, I am a fashion person so I would consider it, but stick with me).
The reason for that feeling of déjà vu I had as I sat through fashion show after fashion show during the last ready-to-wear season and saw yet more “reinventions” and “homages” to 1960s rock chick dresses and 1970s flared trousers, 1980s power jackets and 1920s flapper frocks, and wondered, “How do I explain this lack of new ideas among so many extremely talented designers?” The new mediocre.
The inexplicable fact that Normcore, which effectively means dressing in bland and generic clothes, has somehow managed to be elevated to the status of phenomenon rather than joke or just-stuff-that’s-in-your-closet (which, let’s be honest, it is)? The new mediocre.
The answer to the endless debate we in the industry have over why big fashion groups would rather buy an old brand name than back a fresh one? The new mediocre.
Given that the underlying principle of fashion is to identify that ephemeral state of culture and society known as the zeitgeist and reflect it back at the world in sartorial form, this would suggest that what has been happening in fashion, and the explanation for it, actually reflects a broader reality. And indeed, once you start thinking along new mediocre lines, you see it everywhere.
Reading about the Republican economic agenda, for example, which Prof. Matthew J. Slaughter of Dartmouth labeled “a compendium of modest expectations,” I thought, “Oh, there’s the new mediocre at work.” When my husband complained about President Obama’s compromised agenda, I shrugged and said, “It’s just the new mediocre.”
Talking to a banker friend who was bemoaning the trend toward investors’ losing faith in the idea of genius hedge funds that can outperform the market and moving their money into index funds, hence “settling for average returns,” I nodded knowingly and said, “Oh, that’s the new mediocre.”
The fall in Twitter’s stock price as investors began to worry about “lackluster” revenue and user growth? Blame the new mediocre! The fact that Rob Ford, Toronto’s disgraced ex-mayor, still managed to win a City Council seat? The new mediocre (it exists in Canada, too).
That feeling of browsing your Kindle, or standing in your local Barnes & Noble, faced with yet more young adult trilogies about dystopias and tough-girl heroines, or soft-porn-for-grown-ups trilogies (or just trilogies, period), and thinking, “What is there to read?” The new mediocre.
That harrumph when you peruse the movie listings and find yourself choosing between comic-book-hero action films and old-guy action films — unless you want to go way, way across town to the one surviving and obscure art-house cinema that values conversation over abs? The new mediocre.
In fact, the only time I refuse to accept the new mediocre as an explanation of a real-life situation is in the context of my children’s excuse for so-so homework. But then, there is nothing new about parental hypocrisy.
Granted, the above is a broad generalization, and there are pockets of brilliance and hope amid the gloom (“House of Cards” and “True Detective,” for example, or the proliferation of small independent presses). But that doesn’t obviate the general trend: Such examples are the exceptions that prove the rule. They stick out because, in the world of the new mediocre, they are so rare.
Still, while being able to identify and explain something might be very satisfying (if, in this case, a little depressing), it does not make it any more palatable. Though it does raise the question: How did we get here?
Arguably, all of this cultural and political mediocrity is related to Ms. Lagarde’s economic mediocrity; as conventional wisdom goes, when the economy is slow, both businesses — creative and otherwise — and individuals tend to play it cautious, opting for incremental change to known quantities or for milquetoast recreations of what succeeded before, as opposed to radical change.
This is particularly true in the current global environment, where some countries are experiencing signs of a positive upswing, while others languish on the downward slope. When it’s all bad, there’s no choice but to take risks to jolt people into awareness (or purchasing: You have to give ’em something they definitely could not have bought before). But in this state of uncertainty about where markets are going, there’s security in the familiarity of a fur-lined Birkenstock. No matter how ridiculous it might be.
We get locked in a vicious cycle of same-old-safe-old. You see it in the endless fetishization of the sneaker, the vampire-meets-girl retreads and the obsessive fixation on yet another maybe-possible Clinton/Bush standoff. That’s a political drama at least we think we know.
And it is all exacerbated, certainly in creativity’s commercial case, by the concurrent belief that consumer interest can be piqued simply by a never-ending cascade of new stuff, thus making it even harder for anybody to have enough time to think up actually new new stuff, and forcing them — designers, authors, producers, what have you — into having to rejigger old stuff to make it look like new stuff.
The problem is that the more familiar a product is, the less exciting it is, which makes it less likely to do well, which makes it really not a safe bet at all. More than 30 years after the Me Decade, we are in the middle of the Meh Decade (as my grandmother might say).
Or so it seems. Given that eras tend not to get their permanent label until a few years after they have officially ended, there may be some time for this to change. And in that context, perhaps there is something to be said for another truism of fashion, which states that what comes in must go out. It’s the style equivalent of Newton’s third law of motion. If accurate, this would dictate that, at some point, the new mediocre will become the old mediocre.
Certainly, that is Ms. Lagarde’s hope, though she did not put it that way exactly. What she said instead was that the global economy “can aim for a better path where bold policies would accelerate growth, increase employment and achieve a ‘new momentum.’ ”
O.K., it’s a little vague and rhetorical, but still: the new momentum?
I can work with that.