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The Boston Phoenix Phantom Menaces

What did 1999 teach us? We're all suckers for a big deal.

By Jason Gay

JANUARY 3, 2000:  The mother of all New Year's Eves is finally upon us, and soon we will learn the answer to the Question of Questions: is this the end of the world as we know it? After all the hype, will we indeed arise on January 1 to a dark, electricity-deprived society, stripped of communication tools and transportation vessels, deep in debt and enslaved to a master race of genetically engineered, Volkswagen-size ants?

Perhaps. There's likely to be some isolated millennial trouble -- American law-enforcement agencies are buzzing about a terrorist threat, and the laws of statistics, alcohol consumption, and disgruntled computer-repair people suggest that something has to go wrong somewhere. The millennium could be the End of Days. Maybe we'll wake up and discover Cleveland's missing.

If the millennium fell flat, though, it would only be appropriate. That's because 1999 was a year of Big Deals that turned out to be Not So Big. Whether it was the fizzled impeachment hearings, the inert "Latin Invasion," Elizabeth Dole, Puff Daddy, Talk magazine, or Star Wars: The Phantom Menace, 1999 has been characterized by supposedly major events that fell thunderously short of their advance billing.

Remember that the first few weeks of this year were turbulent ones. President Clinton, still in a pickle because of his, er, pickle, faced a nasty Senate trial. His enemies were threatening to drag Monica and company before the American people. More than a hundred newspapers were demanding the president's resignation. Pundits were groaning about the erosion of America's world stature. Even ranking Democrats were getting on their high horses about "moral authority." It was a Big Deal.

Or was it? Not a year has passed, and already, the Lewinsky affair is little more than an embarrassing chapter of personal history that everyone would like to forget -- like that Speedo Dad insisted on wearing for an entire summer. Yes, what Clinton did was wrong. Yes, he got impeached. But it's unlikely that historians will view it as an event that justified dragging the country down into the muck for so long. In retrospect, a Senate conviction was implausible from the get-go. And it's even harder to defend the media's wall-to-wall coverage and pseudo-psychological analysis of the affair-- especially when polls at the time showed that the vast majority of Americans weren't that interested.

But that's the problem with hype. Hype paints you into a corner. Once you start trumpeting something as the Next Big Deal, it's hard to pull away. If you've dedicated hours and hours of attention to President Clinton's sexual proclivities, it's difficult to suddenly stop and say they're not important anymore. In a storm of hype, perspective is in short supply.

Much of the problem is media driven, of course. A lot has been said and written about the proliferation of news outlets -- the growing role of cable-television and Internet coverage, in particular -- and how this has contributed to the Great Hype Machine. But an even bigger factor is the fourth estate's herd mentality. You would think that with so many papers, magazines, TV stations, and Web sites there'd be increased room for originality and diversity in reporting. Har. Today, what matters most is making sure you have what the competition's got. Deliver the news, yes, but also cover your ass.

This partly explains the morbidly excessive coverage of what turned out to be one of 1999's Biggest Deals: the death of John F. Kennedy Jr. No doubt Kennedy's demise was tragic, especially given his family's sad history. It was compounded by the loss of his wife, Carolyn Bessette Kennedy, and his sister-in-law, Lauren Bessette, which helped make the plane crash an impossible story for any news outlet to pass up. But his death was covered to ribbons by everyone from the dailies to the tabloids to People to U.S. News & World Report to Life; no one, it seemed, wanted to be the publication that didn't put JFK Jr. on its cover.

Where was the sense of scale? With all these publications vying to outdo each other, the coverage of Kennedy's death was ghoulishly out of proportion to his actual life. Kennedy was a famous person who did good things and cherished his privacy. The public, too, got swept up in the emotional tide, lamenting the loss of a possible future president -- pointless and far-out speculation that Kennedy himself probably would have been embarrassed by.

That's what hype does. When an event becomes saturated in attention, it's virtually impossible to analyze it within its own limited context. In order to justify the Bigness of the Deal, an event has to take on a deeper significance -- it has to be part of a trend, part of a bigger picture, even if that trend or picture is flat-out specious. That's how JFK Jr.'s death became not just the death of a man, but the death of a future president. That's how a lone day trader who went on a shooting spree in downtown Atlanta somehow became evidence of a growing army of disgruntled, potentially lethal day traders. That's how the shootings at Columbine High School became Exhibit A in the case against a generation of supposedly hyperviolent, disaffected teenagers. Months later, when several agencies (including the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) released studies showing that Columbine was an anomaly, that violence among teenagers had actually gone down, no one stepped up to say that was a Big Deal. And we're still waiting for the next day trader to go off.

No deal was bigger in 1999 than the Big E: the Internet economy. Now, make no mistake; there's a legitimate, important story here. There's little doubt that a vast technological revolution is, in fact, at hand, and that the growth of e-commerce is a major contributor to the booming US market. In this respect, the Internet deserves much attention. We've seen only the tip of the iceberg.

But where's the critical analysis? The hyping of Internet chieftains and their enterprises has verged on hagiography. Internet entrepreneurs are hailed in the kind of gushy prose usually reserved for athletes, model/actresses, and guitar heroes. E-commerce reporters tick off the net worths of their subjects as if they were reciting baseball stats. Moodily lit photographs of khaki-clad 25-year-old hotshots adorn geek-porn mags like Wired and Fast Company. Amazon.com's Jeff Bezos is Time magazine's Man of the Year.

In a way, the relationship between e-titans and their e-chroniclers recalls the old days of professional sports, when writers used to share trains and cabs with players and look the other way when one of them was spotted drunk in the gutter, or in the company of a woman who was not his wife. Back then, sports wasn't really an industry yet, and building a mythology was as crucial as reporting the facts. In these early days of e-commerce, too, the mythology is nearly as important as what's actually going on. Amid all the dizzying figures and success stories, the line between fable and reality gets blurred.

Some of this e-worship is probably just good old-fashioned money lust. Indeed, another Big Deal in 1999 was "e-envy": the condition of being very, very jealous of people who've made fast cash in the Internet boom. Never mind that for every Internet gazillionaire, there are hundreds of failures. Never mind that you're still better off sticking that wad of cash in the bank than investing it in an Internet start-up. We're undergoing a paradigm shift in the way we view wealth -- not only how you make money, but how much you want and how quickly you want it. It's no longer sufficient to get rich anymore; one must get very rich, very fast. (The name of the television hit Who Wants To Be a Millionaire? is actually a question asked dismissively among top e-commerce entrepreneurs.)

But as we salivate over the money to be made, we're glossing over another Big Deal -- the fast transformation of the Internet from a creative enterprise into an almost wholly commercial one. Remember, it was only a few years ago that people were talking about the Internet as a way to bring people together through chat rooms and virtual communities. Whatever. Now that money is involved -- lots of money -- all that has practically withered away, and most people are too busy monitoring the decamillionaires and IPOs to notice.

Of course, it's still early. A lot of folks are still trying to figure out what to make of the e-commerce phenomenon. The more familiar people become with it, the more likely they will be to take issue with it. (And if the stock market crashes, you can be assured that the critics will start piling on.) But for now, the Internet is still the object of uninhibited celebration -- so don't expect people to question its future, much less its moral core. It's not what people want to hear. It's kind of like walking into a party just as it's hitting its stride and announcing that the beer has run out.

Pop culture is always good for some overblown Big Deals, and there were plenty of them in 1999. Topping the list was Star Wars: The Phantom Menace, George Lucas's eagerly anticipated "prequel" to the Star Wars trilogy, which people waited days in line to see (unnecessarily, it turned out) despite the fact that it had about as much soul as an Oldsmobile commercial. There was Eyes Wide Shut, Stanley Kubrick's eagerly anticipated film about sex, which tanked critically and commercially when people realized that it wasn't really about sex. And there was Forever, Puff Daddy's eagerly anticipated rap release, which tanked critically and commercially after people realized that Puff Daddy can't really rap.

In the rush to pick the Next Big Deal, people seem to forget that for every Matt Damon there's a Gretchen Mol. What's so wrong with being right? Used to be that a movie would come out, get good reviews, and draw audiences, and then the cover stories would start showing up. No longer. In this era of mega-media "synergy," a movie is hyped long before it comes out. This leads not only to some problematic conflicts -- witness Time's "exclusive" advance tub-thumping for Eyes Wide Shut, released by its parent company, Time Warner -- but also to some embarrassing misfires. Rolling Stone slotted Jar Jar Binks for its cover just as the Phantom Menace opened, thinking it must have had a scoop, but by then 99 percent of American adults and children had already decided that Jar Jar was either a) a racist caricature, b) a total jackass, or c) both. By the time that dead-in-the-water issue left the newsstands, Rolling Stone's cred had slipped a few notches, and Jar Jar's crap-crap was selling at 50 percent off in stores across America.

And what about pop culture's "Latin Invasion"? We're all for Latin music, but this widely trumpeted phenomenon looked like less of a cultural breakthrough than a cynical excuse to put Ricky Martin's pecs and Jennifer Lopez's tush on a lot of magazine covers. And speaking of magazines, what happened to Talk? For all its pre-publication buzz, self-promotion, and masthead talent, it has yet to demonstrate any clear vision beyond prolonging the careers of washed-up movie stars (Liz Taylor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Robin Williams).

But the worst example of mindless hype was that endless supply of Top 10 and Top 100 lists. Is there anyone in America who isn't utterly sick of them? Historians and critics across the country have been converted into tweedy Casey Kasems, pressed into rattling off the world's top leaders, sports heroes, and books as if they were pop hits. (Coming in at number three . . . a Fascist dictator from Berlin, Adolf Hitler!) Never mind that most of these lists were bogus (ESPN put Bill Russell where?), though it was interesting to see which of the borderline cases made the cut. The real problem with lists is that they tend to drive out real analysis. Why discuss the growth of American sport, for example, when you can bitch about why Babe Ruth should be ranked ahead of Michael Jordan? Now that's a Big Deal.

The heartening thing is that even in this era of unsurpassed hype and prediction, unanticipated Big Deals are still possible. We learned this in Seattle, where the mainstream media were caught with their pants down during the World Trade Organization conference and pretty much missed the Protest of the Century. (For example, NBC had Andrea Mitchell on hand for the WTO -- a good choice if you're interested in talking to colleagues of her husband, Alan Greenspan, but not such a good choice if you want an exclusive with a bunch of anarchists from Eugene, Oregon.) We were also caught off guard by the deeper-than-expected international outrage that greeted NATO's intervention in the Balkans, which resulted in President Clinton's being surprised by riots in Greece. We got some unexpected news in Vermont, where the state supreme court issued a landmark ruling that gay and lesbian couples cannot be denied the legal rights granted to heterosexual married couples.

We were surprised by The Blair Witch Project, an indie movie made for less than $100 grand that turned into the summer's biggest sleeper hit, grossing more than $210 million. We were also surprised when an itinerant back-up quarterback named Kurt Warner made an NFL contender out of the second-rate St. Louis Rams, and when the bad-to-the-bone New York Knicks recovered from a hideous regular season to make a run at an NBA title. The Red Sox didn't suck at all. A Bruce Willis movie, The Sixth Sense, was a lot better than people anticipated, and a Kevin Smith film, Dogma, was a lot worse. A wrestler, Mankind, wrote a New York Times bestseller. Susan Lucci finally won that fricking daytime Emmy. Matt Drudge shut up -- briefly.

There are signs we are starting to see beyond the hype. The whole George-W.-Bush-has-raised-so-much-money-we-might-as-well-give-him-the-nomination thing has come crumbling down because of a timely push from everybody's favorite mainstream maverick, John McCain. Liddy Dole was driven from the GOP race when people realized that she had nothing to say into that microphone after all. We realized that the tragedies people care about the most are the everyday ones, like what happened to those six firefighters in Worcester. After further review, we also realized that the New England Patriots do, in fact, suck. And it looks as though people have finally stopped buying Ricky Martin records.

And now, the moment has finally arrived -- Y2K, the Big Deal of Big Deals. No event has been more pumped up, more grossly (and lavishly) overexposed than this fin de siècle. Reserved your impossible-to-get hotel room yet? Buy that special bottle of bubbly? Don't worry -- December 31 isn't too late, it turns out. Polls show that most Americans intend to ring in 2000 the same way they've greeted every New Year -- passed out in front of the television. It must make you feel like a mighty jackass if you booked one of those overpriced "Millennial Phantasmo" packages five years ago.

That was just the party panic, though. Maybe -- just maybe -- the real doomsday predictions were accurate. Maybe you're reading this after January 1, and you're huddled eight feet below the surface of the earth in a self-contained fallout shelter equipped with a breathing apparatus, a portable generator, 10,000 cans of baked beans, Infinite Jest, and Beowulf, while my roommates and I are using wooden sticks to defend our cheap apartment from the giant ants. If that's the case, score one for the Big Deal. And pray for us.

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