Out On The Edge Of Generic

And I’m hanging on a moment of truth,
Out on the edge of glory…
–Lady Gaga

I’m just back from a trip into the deepest exburbs of Virginia that’s left me agitated in a way that seems close to an anxiety attack. Now it must be said that I usually do anything to avoid the Virginia exburbs; that even a flight from Dulles is pushing it for me. Over the years, I’ve jokingly ascribed this avoidance to the fact I have the exburban equivalent of refrigerator blindness; that past Dulles, I always seem to get instantly lost–turned around out there not from any unfamiliarity with landmarks, but rather from their complete absence. And in retrospect, I suppose, this should have seen as a warning sign . . .

I was returning from the unavoidable errand, maybe 60 minutes outside Washington, when my growing unease turned into, well, anomie. Or something like it. The absolute sameness surrounding me and stretching into the distance was suddenly overwhelming.

Each wide-spot in the road, those places where any other culture would have placed towns, featured identical post-modern shopping centers with the same beige-and-brown stores; where the signs in the parking lots were always name/noun-place–and where those places were always Run, Creek, Crossing, Commons or Square.

In the distance, townhouses were precisely punctuated by McMansions. I had a vision of driving by them at 90 miles an hour and watching them rhythmically pulse in the same way a picket fence would. These too were beige-and-brown–as were the gas stations, hospitals, post offices and medical centers. And everything–shopping centers and housing alike–was designed in an oddly sinister homogenization of all American architecture since, say, 1920. In no way timeless, but rather out-of-time–as weird as the always-conceptual and mediated bagels of Butte, Montana. Structures that half-heartedly tried to be proportionally charming only to end-up zombied by their own blandness–a simplification dictated by pre-fab construction rather than minimalism.

And I’m driving through all this surrounded by nearly identical SUVs, all in the same palette of earth-tone colors, as Lady Gaga’s pop-commodity voice belts out “Edge Of Glory” over the boom of  predictably beige beats and a stuttering, radio-fodder hook. It sounds exactly the same as anything else on any other Top 40 station, and then the conceptual-and-mediated sax solo appeared, sounding as if it were built from samples of “Baker Street.”

And there’s miles upon miles of this sameness–there’s 60 fucking straight minutes of this non-landscape–and the Gaga song never seems to end and all the mommies in all the matching SUVs all have ponytails pulled through the holes in the backs of their matching baseball caps. And that’s when the sense of anomie started; that’s when uneasiness began to feel like an anxiety attack. Think the precise opposite of agoraphobia–not fear of wide-open spaces, but cultural claustrophobia instead. And, of course, there was no pulling over–not there; not in the middle of all that. It was Bat Country, and I was the poor bastard who had finally realized it . . .

Hunter Thompson once described Las Vegas as what the world would be doing on Saturday night had Hitler won the war. I similarly think that the exburbs of Virginia are the final triumph of the Pod People from Invasion Of The Body Snatchers. It’s what developed 50 years after Kevin McCarthy ran through traffic screaming “They’re Here!” These exburbs are where the Pod People hang out while planning their next weekend junkets to Vegas.

And most damning of all, they’re where Lady Gaga is still considered edgy.