Comes the moment to decide: in a Hinky Dinky store in Omaha, in a book shop in New Orleans, in a Giant supermarket in Washington, in stores all over this great land of ours, Americans stare at cornucopias of canned fruit, pyramids of paper towels, lockers of beer, shelves laden with books, paint, appliances, medicine and shampoo, to name just a few of the items in question, and they mull what may well be a major metaphysical question for our time: Generic or brand name? The Babel of labels or the Bauhaus starkness of a package that says not Budweiser but simply BEER? Not Clorox, but CHLORINE BLEACH! Not "The Bride Wore Black," but just MYSTERY!
This is serious. One industry watcher has spotted a wall covering called PAINT, a non-DiMaggio coffee maker called COFFEE MAKER, and wines whose chateau and vintage are subsumed under the brutal monikers RED and WHITE. Nothing is sacred. Jove books now publishes generic novels--ROMANCE, MYSTERY, SCIENCE FICTION. If you don't read them, presumably Hollywood could make it possible for you to say, "But I saw THE MOVIE." A recent "Ziggy" cartoon, nationally syndicated, shows a puzzled Ziggy standing by a mailbox, looking at a letter, and saying: "It's not from anyone . . . It's a generic letter!"
This is the generic revolution, one side of a life style civil war raging right under our noses. The other side, of course, is the onslaught of designer everything--Calvin Klein autographing tushies by the millions or Bill Blass signing chocolates, implying that there are Important Differences between almost everything. Generic says there's no difference between almost anything. Clearly, we have a dispute verging on the theological, a mini-Armageddon brewing.
The question is, where's it all going?
The past gives few clues. The generic armies first started massing "when a lot of forces came together in the late '60s and early '70s," says Ann Clurman of the research firm Yankelovich, Skelly and White. That's when consumer groups demanded generic prescription drugs, a rock band named The Band got popular, and a San Francisco guru founded a commune named The Farm. (The Farm now has a publishing company called The Publishing Company.)
A researcher for a trade magazine in the grocery business says it began in 1975 with Carrefour Hypermarches--French supermarkets whose idea got duplicated by Jewel supermarkets in Chicago a year later. It was France, too, that brought us Le Car, but Detroit had long before started turning out cars that looked so identical that owners took to pasting decals in the windows reading FORD or DODGE, trying to hang on to vestiges of brand-name rights in the face of the generic assault. In food stores now, according to new data from Selling Areas-Marketing Inc., a research firm, there are generic products in 307 of the 447 categories it monitors.
The attack on the designer and brand-name forces may be due any day.
Imagine Brooke Shields saying, "Nothing comes between me and my jeans." Imagine a television commercial showing an airplane with the word AIRPLANE written on the side, and the soundtrack singing: "We're just another airline, doing what we do best." Let's not forget that you deserve a break today--at a fast food joint. But don't squeeze the toilet paper.
The message, here: What's the difference? But we've known that all along. So many things seem the same nowadays. So why not cut costs and bother across the board, and introduce all-generic living?
Think about it. For once in your life, get in on a trend before it's over. In keeping with the unofficial American motto that anything worth doing is worth overdoing, here's what the alert consumer might do well to expect, for better or worse.
SEX: No more hetero, homo, weirdo, whatever. It's always come down to something pretty simple anyway, and only the gift wrapping has been different. In the generic America of the future, just plain old SEX will do, with perhaps the only concession to frills being a centerfold staple in every navel.
CITIES: President Reagan has just seen fit to add another one to a great generic tradition that includes Anytown, Metropolis (where Superman is a newspaper reporter) and Smallville (where Superman grew up). Just as the '60s gave us "the ghetto" to designate almost a generic black urban neighborhood, the '80s, courtesy of the president's recent remarks about out-of-work Americans in general, have given us "South Succotash." The difference between the two is that in the ghetto life was much worse that we chose to pretend, whereas in South Succotash, we're assured, it's much better.
RESTAURANTS: Generic restaurants will have waiters and waitresses who come equipped with one standard wisecrack. When you ask: "What's good here?" they'll always reply: "The food."
LITERATURE: We already have generic writers, such as Norman Mailer or Gore Vidal or Truman Capote, who write what's generally (or generically) known as "another book." (In Mailer's case it's "another book about Marilyn Monroe.") Writing is a mere sideline, for them, their major art and craft being television appearances. As Vidal once said, in a nice generic turn of phrase: "Never turn down a chance to have sex or be on television."
Generic writers originally came into being on dust jackets, which claimed they'd all worked at dozens of blue-collar jobs, picking apples in Oregon, carny barking in Maine, that kind of thing. Now the dust jackets of generic writers list all the fellowships they've had, and end up by naming the colleges where they're now writers in residence.
MODERN ART: generic avant-garde painting will consist of an empty frame, hanging on a wall, funded by a grant from the National Endowment, which will be headed by Andy Warhol . . .
EUROPEAN COUNTRY: Why tour 10 countries in eight days when you can spend the whole time in Generica, land of contrasts that offers a friendly greeting and bargains you never dreamed of?
The whole European tourist experience is taken care of. The natives will be sure to ignore you because you don't speak their language, and they'll laugh at you when you try. (The language, by the way, is called FOREIGN.) Unprompted, they'll be happy to criticize America, saying it's racist, and run by women. If they sneer that America is a "very young country," do not anger them further by pointing out that Generica is a very old one. Generica is also well-supplied with American expatriates, young trust-fund types in sandals who will deplore your big spending, and tell you that you should have been there two years ago, before all the American tourists ruined it.
You'll come home saying: "They really know how to live over there." And isn't the bread wonderful?
THIRD WORLD: Generica is not to be confused with the People's Federation of Genero, run by General Strongman and his Heavyhanded Junta, or, during the socialist season, someone known as "the hero of the revolution."
Observe the earthy vitality of the natives at their festivals, traditionally held at 2, 4, 6, 8 and 10 on the lawn by the Genero Hilton. Conclude that they really know how to live, except during the earthquakes. Language is no problem as the majority of the population is American media people who are there to cover the guerrilla war.
CANADA: If after visiting both Generica and Genero you still crave generic adventure, try Canada.
TELEVISION: The Generic Network will feature the same news every night: either mudslides or brushfires threatening $500,000 homes in southern California, either the earthquake or the guerrilla war in Genero, a report from the White House lawn by a beautiful female correspondent who has either blond hair or a little generic lisp, and coming up right after this, sports and weather.
Televised sports will consist of Howard Cosell shouting "Great second effort!" while the screen shows commercials for the Black & Decker Workmate, and, of course, generic BEER.
All public broadcasting shows will be entitled "The Following Program," and will be brought to you by a grant by the Mobil Corp.
FADS: The big craze will be Generic's Cube, which will be painted entirely white.
MINORITIES: There will only be one in the generic future: Generics. (Be sure to capitalize it.) We'll have Generic Power, Generic History Month, and so on. Congress will finally close an old wound by passing a generic bill making everybody's birthday a national holiday. The generic college, called Leading Midwestern University, will have all of its students majoring in Generic Studies, except for the generic minority, who want to learn something that will get them a job.
Comedians will ask: How many generics does it take to screw in a lightbulb? No one will know the answer.
Generics will be attacked and discriminated against by generic bigots --is there any other kind?
MEDICINE: Generic specialists will treat everyone for everything, but there will only be one disease, which will always require an "operation" after we find out out that "the medicine wasn't stopping it." After the operation, we'll only have one question for the doctor: "Did you get it all?" He'll always say yes.
FASHION: the generic cause will finally be done in from within. Generic jeans will at first bear the word "Designer" on the seat. Then someone will make it "La Designer," then Oscar de la Designer, and Yves Saint Designer, and Ralph Designer, and we'll be right back where we started from.
After all, isn't the motto of both generic and designer worlds the same? The only difference, after the counter-revolution, will be that we'll translate "plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose" into English.
The more things change, the more they stay the same.