Welcome to the fin de siècle, where anything over-the-top is susceptible to overplay--and where the cutting edge can whip around like a chainsaw on the loose. It's a world where your mother's favorite nail polish company makes a line of blues and greens, and your 2-year-old niece rips around in her own motorized "X-treme Machine." "I recently worked on a middle-aged man, and his kids were telling him not to do it," laughs tattoo artist Karen Slafter, 32, co-owner of Incredible Ink in Austin, Texas.
If the current fringe fever seems a little far-out--or at least far-reaching--it's not your imagination. "Young people have always been interested in living at the edge. It's a time in life when people are experimenting, when they don't know any boundaries," observes James Twitchell, professor of English at the University of Florida, Gainesville, and author of Lead Us Into Temptation: The Triumph of American Materialism (Columbia University Press, $19.99, 212-666-1000). "But in the '50s and [early] '60s, for example, [such forays into the fringe] were pretty much hidden. Nobody really cared."
Young people did their thing while the culture at large went about its business: There was the establishment and the anti-establishment. Today, Twitchell notes, the ethics of extreme and excess have become guiding forces in the entire culture. "[Fringe] culture is the center of fashion, the center of music--it's everywhere," he says.
Why? In part, it's because shock imagery makes memorable advertising. As the media universe proliferates, it becomes harder and harder for marketers to grab attention. Extreme images break through the clutter.
But Twitchell also notes that marketers haven't simply amplified their techniques--they've also switched their focus. "The [adolescent and young adult] audience which had been [marginalized] is now of great interest to advertisers," Twitchell says. "Advertisers have realized they don't want to reach the person who's already consuming; they want the person who hasn't yet developed a brand loyalty."
As advertisers--and the corresponding media--try to reach out to young audiences, things that once might have been considered bizarre, kooky, shocking or profane are now beamed into American homes with all the wholesome legitimacy of mainstream culture. It's enough to turn your grandmother's hair purple . . . or any other semi-permanent color of her choice.