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The Hidden Drama of Bourgeois Life

In the St. Mumford thread [1] below, a reader quotes from a Bono interview:

To live in the garret with a knife in your hand and a bleeding ear is more romantic than the fragility that leaves open the wound…Bohemia is more attractive than suburbia but maybe you don’t live there, maybe you live on a street which is like any other street where the opera that goes on behind parted curtains is more than enough…

I think this is a hugely important point (and by the way, I don’t take a moral or aesthetic position on Mumford & Sons’ music; it doesn’t appeal to me, but then again, most pop music today doesn’t appeal to me). When I was at the Dallas Morning News, there was a big push in the newsroom to increase coverage of the suburbs, because that was where our subscribers overwhelmingly lived. For the most part, reporters resisted this, and for reasons I completely understand as a former reporter: because the sexy stories were downtown, and downtown-ish.

But I remember thinking at the time that this attitude represented a failure of imagination on the part of reporters — and a failure of imagination on my part as well, because I too was an editor. The lives of middle-class people in the suburbs are no less meaningful than the lives of the urban poor, or urban hip, and so forth. It is harder to investigate those lives empathetically, because comfort and safety disguises particular kinds of despair, and hunger, and aspiration. But it’s there.

As Bono said, it’s not romantic, and finding it is not easy.

But it’s there.

You know what’s a great pop album exploring this sensibility? “Welcome Interstate Managers” by Fountains of Wayne [2]. Can anybody else list examples of good popular art created out of the middle-class suburban experience — and not paint-by-numbers bitching about suburbia among its creative exiles?

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46 Comments To "The Hidden Drama of Bourgeois Life"

#1 Comment By M_Young On October 5, 2012 @ 6:24 am

The [3]Boys. In fact, real Surf Music too, though I guess as an instrumental form, thats not what you are looking for. X’s [4] is a complaint (in the third person) about a city that was basically one giant suburb being turned into a cosmopolis. Most SoCal punk of that era had its roots in the suburbs.

#2 Comment By Baconboy On October 5, 2012 @ 7:15 am

Ben Fold’s album, “Rockin the Suburbs.” My favorite song from that album is Ascent of Stan.

#3 Comment By scottinnj On October 5, 2012 @ 7:18 am

In music an excellent album inspired by suburbia of the 1950′ s is The Nightfly by Donald Fagen. Donald states “The songs on this album represent certain fantasies that might have been entertained by a young man growing up in the remote suburbs of a northeastern city during the late fifties and early sixties, i.e., one of my general height, weight and build.”

#4 Comment By candles On October 5, 2012 @ 7:33 am

My wife and I are expecting our first child. One thing that strikes me is that, when we go in to see ultrasounds and such, the only options are 1) normal or 2) something terrible. There’s 0 chance that we’ll get some tests results back and the doctor will say, “Congratulations – your child apparently can fly! No one expected that!” Nope, its normality at best, or something is going awry.

Suburbs are like that, I think. That’s the tricky thing, for art, about suburban living – not that artists are unfair to it, but that, at its absolute, very best, it’s not supposed to be generating narratives. Suburban living isn’t about exceeding expectations, or serendipity, or surprise. Either it does exactly what you expect, with the sorts of people and homeowners and community you expect, or something is going awry. A good suburb should not be in your way. It should not be part of the story. That’s a feature, not a bug.

Suburbs are our large-scale utopian planning, right? Utopia – “no place”. Places are inconvenient. They require compromise, and have history. They take psychic energy to approach, and are hard to leave once they become a part of you. They’re particular. They have stories. They existed before you, and will carry on without you when you leave or die. But what if you don’t want that relationship to space? I think a lot of people really don’t.

#5 Comment By Roger C. On October 5, 2012 @ 7:50 am

Rod,
You and I should start a pop group that explores the trials and tribulations that come with growing up geek in rural America.

#6 Comment By BenSix On October 5, 2012 @ 7:56 am

The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band’s [5], of course.

More seriously – very seriously – [6].

#7 Comment By evw On October 5, 2012 @ 7:59 am

As the parent of young adults/teenagers, I can tell you that my kids are always looking for a singer who reflects, in even the tiniest way, their Christian worldview. I’m the parent whose most frequent refrain is, “What are those lyrics!?” so while my kids may roll their eyes when I ask, they are now the young adults who continue to listen to pop music, but with a more discerning ear. It’s a tight-rope walk, this “in the world but not of the world” mentality. Mumford & Son, Elbow, Mountain Goats, Citizen Cope, and Sufjan Stevens allow my kids a venue to dip into in an otherwise banal wasteland of popular music. So, no, it ain’t Tom Waits, but I’ll take it over Beyonce and Lady Gaga any day.

#8 Comment By MattSwartz On October 5, 2012 @ 8:07 am

I think the Kinks’ Village Green Preservation Society fits the bill. The songs are about middle age and the middle class, and they’re always well-drawn and human, rather than glib and condescending.

Maybe the Killers fit the bill as well? Admittedly, their first album was a glam-fest, but since then, they’ve shifted their focus, and their new songs talk about ordinary people with a depth that I think is rare and special.

They sound like 80’s pop, but with the soul of country.

#9 Comment By KMD On October 5, 2012 @ 8:08 am

Hear, hear. Too many take the “American Beauty” rout. At his best, John Cheever could often celebrate suburbia in his stories.

#10 Comment By Tyro On October 5, 2012 @ 8:10 am

Can anybody else list examples of good popular art created out of the middle-class suburban experience — and not paint-by-numbers bitching about suburbia among its creative exiles?

The Soporanos.

#11 Comment By AM Trausch On October 5, 2012 @ 8:35 am

Well of course there’s Arcade Fire’s “The Suburbs,” which runs the gamut from typical angsty complaints about life there to nostalgia for it to bitter disillusionment about the attractions of life downtown. Really phenomenal music, as well.

#12 Comment By Beyng On October 5, 2012 @ 8:40 am

Great post.

Part of the problem with “covering” the bourgeois suburbs is that bourgeois “comfort and safety” are practically synonymous with that other and perhaps cardinal bourgeois virtue: privacy.

Most of us on this blog are bourgeois (indeed, in Tocquevillian terms, the vast majority of everyone in America–including the wealthy–are bourgeois in an ontological and not merely material sense), so most of us know that bourgeois lives can be sordid, disturbing, and exciting in their own ways.

But most of this sordidness, etc., is properly regarded as private and privative: who among us wants to hear about the divorces, affairs, scandals, and sundry pathologies that afflict the bourgeois? Not to mention the internecine strife of HOA and PTA meetings. We don’t regard these things as “newsworthy,” even though one can’t suggest that they’re less “exciting” or meaningful than a drug bust or mugging downtown.

#13 Comment By Scott H On October 5, 2012 @ 8:41 am

How about the films American Beauty, Magnolia and Revolution Road?

#14 Comment By elizabeth On October 5, 2012 @ 8:41 am

The entire album “The Suburbs” by Arcade Fire is a memoir of growing up in suburbs.

But on balance I agree with you about most pop music. I tune in to public radio classical in the car most of the time now and it has become a strong preference. Beethoven’s 7th is more thrilling than anything from any rock era.

#15 Comment By Lance Kinzer On October 5, 2012 @ 9:20 am

Rod, I agree with your “Fountains of Wayne” reference. There is a little line from Russell Kirk’s autobiography that I’ve always found very powerful, “Those men and women who fail to perceive timeless moments are the prisoners of time and circumstance.” Kirk was quite clear that the mundane occurrences of life are full of such timeless moments for those who have eyes to see (and that we develop those eyes by cultivating the illative sense). The Fountains of Wayne song “All Kinds of Time” has always seemed to me a well done expression of how such a moment is experienced in the context of one kind of mundane task; a high school quarterback dropping back for a pass. There is more than mere sentimentality expressed here; the lyrics are awake to the possibility that there is meaning in the mundane. Fountains of Wayne is worth a listen because, as Walker Percy might have put it, they are onto something.

#16 Comment By tmatt On October 5, 2012 @ 9:38 am

’50s suburbia meets rural — “Trip to Bountiful.” “Tender Mercies” is WAAAYYYY outside city life, into rural poverty, but it captures drama in a clash between ordinary and extraordinary people.

In POPULAR art, “The Blind Side” was also an attempt to clash city and suburban.

#17 Comment By itsmike On October 5, 2012 @ 9:57 am

Maybe the song “Subdivisions” by Rush – teen angst growing up in the suburbs. I was a bit too old to appreciate it when it came out, but if I had been in high school, I would have related to it.

#18 Comment By stillaninterestedobserver On October 5, 2012 @ 10:12 am

I forgot where I read the argument, but there’s a good case made for the early Talking Heads albums in particular being takes on this kind of thing — which may seem counterintuitive, but the idea was that for all the seeming critiques of suburbia (“Once In a Lifetime” most obviously) there’s also an acknowledgement of it — not a making-fun-of-the-squares take but more of a capturing of what it’s like to be working and living within it instead of self-consciously defining yourself against it. “Life During Wartime” and “Don’t Worry About the Government” were specifically mentioned. That set against the exploratory feel of the music is what made the band so uniquely resonant in its early albums. I don’t know if I entirely buy this myself, but I like the idea nonetheless.

On a much more obscure but I think extremely potent level, the Welsh band the Young Marble Giants, who only released one album and a single or two back in 1980 or so before breaking up for thirty years, had a very understated, thoughtful and strangely beautiful and minimal way around these issues. Worth investigating, those folks.

#19 Comment By Bruce Ross On October 5, 2012 @ 10:46 am

“Seven scotch and sodas at the office party, now I don’t remember where I’m from …”

Fountains of Wayne. Uneven, but awesome when they hit their notes.

#20 Comment By dl On October 5, 2012 @ 10:47 am

The Fountains of Wayne album is very good, but I agree with the commenters who point to the Arcade Fire album, The Suburbs. An excellent *album* — I didn’t know anybody recorded albums any more.

#21 Comment By scottinnj On October 5, 2012 @ 11:25 am

Also I would add the first two – Illinois & Michigan – of Sufjan Stevens proposed project “The 50 States”.

Someone mentioned American Beauty, one could also add The Virgin Suicides (acknowledging that movie may violate the “paint-by-numbers bitching about suburbia among its creative exiles” rule).

#22 Comment By Polichinello On October 5, 2012 @ 11:39 am

People move to the suburbs specifically to avoid “drama.” Like it or not, there really isn’t much drama in the suburbs because people living there tend to have their lives put together well. You don’t maintain a job and mortgage by living the life of a flake and a drama queen. Yes, you can find a few exceptions–the scandalous sorts–but they stand out because they are exceptions.

#23 Comment By Charles Cosimano On October 5, 2012 @ 11:40 am

Tom Lynch, the watercolorist. A lot of his work celebrates suburban life.

The fact is that a quiet, ordered life without murders down the block or corrupt politicians is not the stuff of news, nor is it conducive to art dependant upon some sort of social angst.

What I find more interesting is that you were involved in a coverage argument that came so late. Up until the late 70s, newsrooms assumed that even though people had moved to the suburbs, they would still read and listen to stories about the city because they came from there and still had an interesting. By 1980, they were faced with the fact they had a whole generation to market to that had no experience of living in the central city and could not care less about anything that happened in it.

#24 Comment By EKS On October 5, 2012 @ 11:58 am

I don’t think that either The Corrections or the first half of The Pale King count as the bitching of creative exiles. I was surprised by the degree of empathy in both.

Raymond Carver?

#25 Comment By Franklin Evans On October 5, 2012 @ 12:10 pm

I offer from the moving-pictures realm:

The Nickelodeon production “The Adventures of Pete and Pete.”

The Graduate, but especially the Mad Magazine parody of it.

“Thirtysomething”.

Obscure for some, perhaps: “All in the Family.”

And for some reason not based on my memories of it, but nagging me to be included: Peyton Place.

😉

#26 Comment By Charles Cosimano On October 5, 2012 @ 12:19 pm

“had an interesting.” I need a good editor!

#27 Comment By Tyro On October 5, 2012 @ 12:35 pm

People move to the suburbs specifically to avoid “drama.” Like it or not, there really isn’t much drama in the suburbs because people living there tend to have their lives put together well

Pretty much, this. My experience growing up in the suburbs was that things “just worked.” there were no knock-down, drag out fights during the community association meetings– we didn’t have community associations (by which I mean neighborhood representative organizations, not HOAs), because the town more or less ran itself with the town government. Drama was interpersonal and kept within households rather than having problems spread to the rest of the town– eg, the drug using unemployed bipolar son who still lived at home was a burden to his parents, but the rest of the town didn’t really know he was there.

It’s not only that people in the suburbs have fewer problems. It’s that what problems exist don’t spread through the town and affect other people. That’s another reason why people move there.

What you mean as “news” in the suburbs is closer to what we call “gossip.”

#28 Comment By Sam M On October 5, 2012 @ 1:30 pm

Modest Mouse: Lonesome Crowded West.

Kanye West: College Dropout

#29 Comment By Charles Cosimano On October 5, 2012 @ 2:04 pm

I think the difference can be summed up in a column in the Chicago Tribune many years ago when the writer compared what people in the city had to go through to get a dead refrigerator disposed of compared to what the suburbanites did and how people in the suburbs would never tolerate the things people in the city would.

He concluded with the line, “People in the suburbs live on their feet. People in the city live on their knees.”

#30 Comment By Robert Loftus On October 5, 2012 @ 2:57 pm

Rod:

Interesting you should comment about your comrades at DMN and their disdain of the suburbs. I’ve lived in Lakewood neighborhood of Dallas for 30 years and love it but I do not like the always present undertone of superiority of the city dwellers towards the outside of I-635’ers. It made me think of Shylock’s speech in The Merchant of Venice.
Hath not a suburbanite eyes? …..If you prick us shall we not bleed.” I never really get any sense of snobishness from people from the burbs. I think the Urban City people make up an edginess and coolness that let’s them then look the other way at the horrendous schools and sub-par city services and thus somehow
rationalize away all those high functioning services that are routine out in the Burbs.

#31 Comment By Chris On October 5, 2012 @ 3:01 pm

The Wonder Years

#32 Comment By Nathan P. On October 5, 2012 @ 4:21 pm

“Modest Mouse: Lonesome Crowded West.”
Ditto. Also Pavement: Crooked Crooked Rain.

#33 Comment By Alex Ignatiev On October 5, 2012 @ 4:44 pm

Nobody mentions weezer? The Blue album.

#34 Comment By JonF On October 5, 2012 @ 5:21 pm

Drama certainly does happen in the suburbs. when I was growing up a man in our subdivision had a psychotic breakdown and gunned down his wife in front of the grocery store. There was also a fatal house fire on the street behind me– a neighbor crippled with MS died because he could not get out.
And for sure there’s lots of domestic drama. Unhappy marriages, alcoholism and drug abuse, divorce and spouse and child battery, delinquent kids, etc. As someone else said we know a lot less about those things because nowadays no one really knows their neighbors.

#35 Comment By John E_o On October 5, 2012 @ 5:41 pm

what people in the city had to go through to get a dead refrigerator disposed of compared to what the suburbanites did

Heh – out here in the boonies, getting rid of dead refrigerators usually involves an application of Tannerite.

#36 Comment By JonF On October 5, 2012 @ 6:20 pm

Here in Baltimore to dispose of bulk items you can do two things:
1) Call the city for bulk pickup
2) Set the item outside and as long as it is not nailed down, red hot of weighing a ton, it will be gone in short order.

#37 Comment By Darwin’s S-list On October 5, 2012 @ 6:48 pm

I’d suggest the films Juno and Young Adult, both written by Diablo Cody. If they don’t exactly validate the suburbs, at least take urban hipsterism down a notch or two.

In Juno, when Justin Bateman’s Mark tells Jennifer Garner’s Vanessa that he’s leaving her, their suburban McMansion, and their plans to adopt Juno’s baby to pursue his musical aspirations, there’s the following exchange:

V: Have you found a place to stay?
M: Yeah, downtown.
V: A hotel?
M: It’s a loft.
V: (cutting & sarcastic) Aren’t you the cool guy?

Bateman’s character’s yearning for some kind of indie-cred as he enters middle age is plainly made to seem ridiculous.

In Young Adult, the small, suburban-oriented town where it’s set isn’t sentimentalized: it’s full of chain restaurants, cheesy bars, poor clothes shopping, and hopelessly uncool people. But they’re also a whole lot happier and decent than Charlize Theron’s character, who has an urban apartment in Minneapolis and a “creative class” career as a writer (of crappy teen novels, but still).

It would be unfair to reduce these films to a pro-suburbia message, but the subtext running through both films is striking.

#38 Comment By ALS84 On October 5, 2012 @ 7:03 pm

To go along with Bono’s “parted curtains” there is Johnny Cash’s “Sunday Morning Sidewalk”:

In the park I saw a daddy
With a laughing little girl that he was swinging.
And I stopped beside a Sunday school
And listened to the songs they were singing.
Then I headed down the street,
And somewhere far away a lonely bell was ringing,
And it echoed through the canyon
Like the disappearing dreams of yesterday.

And Robert Frost’s “Good Hours”:

I HAD for my winter evening walk—
No one at all with whom to talk,
But I had the cottages in a row
Up to their shining eyes in snow.

And I thought I had the folk within:
I had the sound of a violin;
I had a glimpse through curtain laces
Of youthful forms and youthful faces.

I had such company outward bound.
I went till there were no cottages found.
I turned and repented, but coming bacK
I saw no window but that was black.

Over the snow my creaking feet
Disturbed the slumbering village street
Like profanation, by your leave,
At ten o’clock of a winter eve.

#39 Comment By Church Lady On October 5, 2012 @ 7:05 pm

It’s hard to think of any music that extols suburban life, but if you look to the movies, almost anything by Steven Spielberg in his early days will do. ET, for example, is a great suburban fantasy film. So is Close Encounters. Spielberg’s early heroes are almost all young suburban boys.

#40 Comment By zach On October 5, 2012 @ 9:14 pm

@candles

“But what if you don’t want that relationship to space? I think a lot of people really don’t.”

Unfortunately, no one has a choice. Suburbs are places, and each has just as much history as any other place. They happen to be places designed as non-places, and with all of their dramatic narratives ostensibly pre-packaged– marriage, family, etc. See Cheever, et al. for how that works out. Wanting ‘no-place’ is fundamentally anti-social. Who really wants a family, any how? That’s the archetypal Bohemian dream of course. To be personally history-less, self-made and totally free. And it’s just as fundamentally anti-social as the suburban one.

And remember that Brooklyn is America’s first and biggest suburb, while simultaneously the epicenter of what passes for bohemia these days.

#41 Comment By Tyro On October 6, 2012 @ 8:43 am

Spielberg’s early heroes are almost all young suburban boys.

… from broken families. Spielberg’s depictions of suburban family life were always subverting it.

And speaking of less-than efficient government services, it is the first Saturday of the month, which means this is my only chance for the next month to dispose of hazardous waste on a weekend, so I must be off.

#42 Comment By J On October 6, 2012 @ 1:19 pm

There is no significant bourgeois art because bourgeois means: neurotic in ways that are banal, unrevealing of anything that matters.

Suburbs have plenty of neurotic selfimportant people but no one cares because they have nothing new or of importance to say. The basic point of suburbia is function, is about Not Drama, is about actually getting mundane life tasks (and life tasks are generally mundane) done. Rather than cogitating and obsessing about them, productively or creatively or not, which arises from the absence of ability to decide on or fulfill them.

#43 Comment By Church Lady On October 7, 2012 @ 12:23 am

“… from broken families. Spielberg’s depictions of suburban family life were always subverting it.”

Well, true, but a lot of suburban families are broken ones as well. What we don’t see is Spielberg or his characters wanting to abandon or condemn the suburbs for their faults. Instead, they want to fix them, and make them better. The life they look is a suburbia that actually works, not an escape to some other place. They want mom and dad to get back together. Or they want still want to raise families of their own in the suburbs, just do a better job of it. The love and hurt for the suburbs go hand in hand.

#44 Comment By Church Lady On October 7, 2012 @ 12:25 am

Okay, Richard Dreyfus in CE does escape to another planet, but I bet he moves into a suburban home there too.

#45 Comment By Theophilus On October 7, 2012 @ 9:44 pm

Oddly enough, the Beatles, towering figures that they were, had some affection for suburban life. See “Penny Lane” and “Ob la di ob la da,” possibly the most straightforward praises of suburban living I have ever run across in popular music.

#46 Comment By Jason On October 8, 2012 @ 4:31 pm

I’ll put a word in for my favorite novel, Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio.