When did living became a lifestyle choice?

Once, we drove cars, ate ice-cream, and named our mutts Rover. Now our Prius shows we care, Ben & Jerry's fills our Smeg freezer, and dogs come with provenance. Why the change, asks Joe Queenan
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The Independent Online

There was never any shortage of reasons to dislike the nouveau-riche couple who recently moved in down the street. Hideous new McMansion poised cheek-by-jowl with the demure little Japanese home perched right next to it? Check.

Idiotic cathedral window towering imperiously over the doorway suggesting that the Fifth Laird of Gylfennen himself might dwell inside, and perhaps at this moment be quaffing a tankard of mead? Check.

Pretentious, overbearing driveway crafted from the finest Belgian stone? Check. Trees clear-cut on the rear slope, thus guaranteeing regular mudslides cascading on to the high-school tennis courts inopportunely positioned just below their property every time it rained? Check.

So, yes, there were abundant reasons to despise the couple who moved in down the street last year. But it wasn't the hideous house, or the sudden desecration of what had previously been a panoramic view of the Hudson River, or the contempt for humanity implicit in the way the house loomed over its elfin neighbour - like Germany eyeing Luxembourg - that got me fired up. No, it was the fact that the new arrivals had a dog named Santana.

Set aside for a moment whatever feelings you may have for the beloved, if somewhat one-dimensional, Latino guitar god that Frank Zappa once ridiculed in a song entitled "The Secret Carlos Santana Chord Progression". The very idea of naming a dog, much less a cat, or a finch, or a goldfish "Santana" illustrates the horrifying degree to which lifestyle now trumps life in Western society.

Life is Rover. Life is Rover the dog. In real life, dogs named Rover are entirely without pretensions. In ordinary life, the way life was construed for the first 5,000 years of human history, dogs discreetly melted into the landscape, forming a congenial tail-wagging backdrop to the herculean human drama. In lifestyle world, by contrast, dogs have intriguing biographies, are of mysterious provenance, manifest esoteric personality disorders, and respond to the name Santana.

The Baby Boomers, the Bulge Generation, or whatever else one cares to call them are the people responsible for this ghastly interregnum. They're the ones who introduced the notion that the measure of human success is no longer the life well lived but the lifestyle well lived.

This break with the past occurred quickly; the eclipse of life by lifestyle dates from the early 1970s, when the Arab oil embargo shocked a generation of Bohemians who wanted nothing into becoming a generation of consumers who wanted everything.

Resigned to the fact that they could not have the society they wanted, the Woodstock Generation decided to have, at all costs, the kitchen that they wanted, the vacation that they wanted, the bathroom fixtures that they wanted, and, if at all possible, the balsamic vinegar that they wanted. The passion that once manifested itself in planet-wide social upheaval was now channelled into the more conventional avenue of upscale retail.

Life versus lifestyle is embodied in the profound difference between things that simply are and things that signify. Before Ben & Jerry got in on the act, ice-cream was merely ice-cream. It was something to eat; it was something that gave pleasure. But it didn't actually mean anything in the cosmic sense; ice-cream lacked subtext.

Then Ben & Jerry conquered the world by popularising the notion that consuming overpriced lifestyle foods, adorned with self-congratulatory packaging in defence of some issue no one could possibly oppose - "Let's Save the Rainforest", "Let's Be Nice to Farmers" as opposed to "No, Let's Not Save the Rainforest", or "I've Got a Better Idea, Let's Screw Farmers" - meant that you were a better person than your neighbours if you ate their ice-cream. For all I know, many of my neighbours are better human beings than me. But it is not because of the dairy products we consume.

The contemporary progeny industry is another perfect illustration of how lifestyle has banished life from the playing field. Babies used to be thought of as an ordinary facet of the life cycle: You had them, you loved them, and when they grew up, they took the place you had previously occupied on the planet. But they didn't signify anything, at least not until they were at least 18 months old.

Today, newborns are a product, a component of the family marketing mix, and very much a lifestyle choice. Their interchangeably marvellous careers are precisely calibrated for them while they are still in the womb; the schools they attend, the skills they master, the attitudes they evoke, the banalities they utter are all part and parcel of some weird dream of global conquest their parents have devised.

Children today are as much a part of the décor as the Etruscan pottery, the Japanese wall hangings, and the season tickets to the Brooklyn Academy of Music, which this year will be performing Love's Labours Lost in Urdu.

Lifestyle children never have real names. Today's pre-fab tykes are anointed with clamorous, ethnically incongruous handles such as Rhiannon and Bentley and Ignatius, and are foisted on the world as yet another indicator of their parents' prosperity, uniqueness and general splendidness. In Lifestyle World, children's names are not so much a means of identification as a threat to the rest of the world: I am Brianna, and I shall reap the whirlwind.

A friend of mine recently spent two years working in Boise, Idaho. While there, she enrolled her daughter in a ballet class. Here were the names of the other children in the class: Cody, Melynda, Kelsee, Chelsea, Caitlan, Aidan, Ciera, Allegra, Hailey, Courtney, Collette, Cataline, Shelby, Sarraye, Maren, Koreen, Oakley, Adelle, Sadi, Marisa, Natania, Jade, Raquel, Kinsey, Leela, Elia, Kendall, Michaela, Ayla, Cami, Becca, Alyson, Arrianna, Tymer, Kaitlynn, Kieron, Taylor, Morgan, Amari, Whitney, Brittany, Storm and Ireland. Or, as a man christened David Jones once remarked: "This ain't rock'n'roll. This is genocide."

Tellingly, Boise was recently designated the best place to live in America by the previously sane Forbes magazine. This is a town where even the downscale, non-lifestyle girls have names like Tira, Denae, Bailey and Salix, and where the lost boys have names like Cree, Piute, and Leaf. I do not think Forbes can be trusted any longer.

Music, like food, used to be something that made life bearable. "Without a song the day would never end," is the lyric that captured the essence of the artform. But music is no longer used primarily for the purpose of entertainment; music is used almost exclusively to define one's lifestyle. (Is it really all that surprising that bands such as The Strokes emanate from the upper class, or that roots rockers by night turn out to be derivatives salesmen by day? Rock 'n' roll, like sport, used to be an escape hatch for the working class. Now it's just another a lifestyle option for young plutocrats.)

Today, music is not there to be listened to; it is meant to signify. Musicians long past the first glow of youth - the acts on last year's canceled Lollapalooza tour, for example - are constantly amazed that their records no longer sell, that their concerts are poorly attended, that their fans ultimately desert them. Whatever were you expecting, lads and lassies? Success never really had all that much to do with your music. You merely fit nicely into somebody's lifestyle for a short period of time. Your songs had limited inherent musical appeal; it was what they implied that mattered. Music thus defined is no longer background music. It is foreground music.

It is, indeed, the soundtrack of our lives.

The concept of life versus lifestyle is perfectly captured in the mountain-climbing mania that has swept the world in recent years. When Edmund Hillary struggled up Mount Everest in 1954, his endeavour was all about life. But when the affable dentist down the street tells me that he personally knows three other dentists who have duplicated Hillary's feat, we are obviously talking about the Himalayas as lifestyle.

Enlisting in the army and fighting a war is a matter of life and death; signing up for one of those faux dangerous expeditions to the Maldives to swim with the sharks is entirely about lifestyle. If you were really looking for danger, you wouldn't have to pay to find it. It would be more than happy to find you.

Lifestyle has invaded every phase of human existence, including the very leaving of it. Funerals, at least in the United States, are now a gaudy mixture of cabaret and open-mic comedy, where duelling buffoons compete to see who can say the least appropriate thing about the dearly departed.

Ostentatiously scattering a loved one's ashes in the Seine or the Ganges or the Grand Canyon or a host of other sacred precincts which already contained enough human offal content is just another way of transmuting what should be a poignant human moment, fraught with authentic human emotion, into a lifestyle choice. No, not transmuting: transmogrifying.

The ridiculous, almost pornographic, liaison between the gentry and their appliances is another tragic example of the triumph of victory of lifestyle over life. "I'm a Blackberry person; I'm a Mac person," men of sublime dinkiness will often declare, as if the human spirit could be apotheosised in the latest breakthrough from Steve Jobs.

And when owners of gas-guzzling SUVs theatrically ditch them in favour of economical, politically correct hybrids, they do not do so because of a long delayed awakening of social conscience, or a desire to reduce fuel emissions, or even because they want to help their country reduce its dependence on foreign fuel, but because hybrids are suddenly fashionable, and can be seamlessly integrated into an individual's lifestyle.

"I used to drive a massive vehicle that needlessly endangered the lives of everyone else on the road. But now I've changed lifestyles." In other words: I used to be Satan. But being satanic is no longer in vogue. So let me try being a cherub for awhile.

The worst thing about the triumph of lifestyle over life is that it distils every human activity into a symbol of something else, usually something that is not worth symbolising. And to those of us who have resisted the lifestylisation of life, these symbols are infuriating.

You start hating people because of the motto on their T-shirt, or because they've suddenly discovered Miles Davis, or because their pre-programmed designer child imported from some forlorn Third World country is named Drake or Kismet. But mostly you hate them because their entire personality is defined by lifestyle. You can't have a conversation with them about anything that does not involve social class or retail. Listening to Andrea Bocelli or reading The Girl with the Pearl Earring or visiting Siena are not cultural choices, but lifestyle decisions.

Culture, like furniture, becomes modular; people start devouring John Coltrane and Anthony Trollope not because of what they are but because of what they represent. Nothing ever is any more; everything evokes. Nothing is ever done for the hell of it; everything is choreographed. This is the Von Clausewitz approach to existence.

I have had more than enough of this nonsense. But perhaps help is on the way. Not long ago, several neighbours reported that Santana the Upscale Dog had attacked them while they were out walking. Not a solitary attack, but several. One part of me was shocked and dismayed; but another part of me was relieved, nay encouraged, that no matter how ridiculous a name the gentry might confer on their canine appurtenances, the dogs were ultimately going to revert to form and take a chunk out of somebody's ass. Santana might have been designed on the drawing board as a lifestyle dog, but in real life he's nothing but a mutt.

Anyway, I wish they'd named him Flock of Seagulls. Or Wham!

Joe Queenan's new book, Balsalmic Dreams, is published by Picador, priced £10.99. To order it for the special price of £9.99 (inc P&P) call Independent Books Direct on 08700 798 897