Style Over Substance: Obama, the iPhone, and What We Pay for Being Cool

http://www.forbes.com/2009/04/01/style-over-substance-opinions-contributors-barack-obama.html

Lately I’ve been trying to figure out why my friends buy dysfunctional products. I include myself for my two cursed MacBooks, each of which has been in the shop multiple times in their first year of service. I’ve been using Macs so long that it would be a major issue to change all my files, though every month or two I think about it.

But because of my MacBook horrors–which include having to buy a second one when the first one simply wouldn’t turn on the day before a month-long trip to Afghanistan–I’ve resisted the siren song of the iPhone and stayed with my reliable if unglam BlackBerry.

Yes, I’d love to have the function that identifies songs that are playing, and the photo storage is cool and good-looking. But from what I’ve heard, it just doesn’t work. Lately, every time I’ve walked up those silly transparent steps to the Moronbar at my local Apple Store with one of my two lemon MacBooks, I’ve watched the line of hipsters waiting to drop their iPhones off for repair–and recoiled.

Then my visiting friend from Los Angeles, Rachel, told me she needed to use my landline for a radio interview because her iPhone was unreliable. I knew I’d made the right choice. I don’t need another product that doesn’t work.

My friend Edward, who is 49, told me that a 27-year-old woman he recently went on a date with showed him how to use some of the apps on his iPhone. (Maybe that’s what people do on dates these days). Edward is brilliant but an “old 49″ who dresses like a man of 60. So the iPhone is the equivalent of sharper shoes for him. It involves him in the culture of younger folk.

The iPhone seems to have a fatal allure for my 50ish friends, and I’ve come to think they see it as a way of clinging to youth that doesn’t involve fashion mistakes or plastic surgery. With both the iPhone and BlackBerry now available for about $199, with a contract, neither is a signifier of wealth. But each has a meaning. And maybe the BlackBerry is a way of leapfrogging to full adulthood–the corporate world, seriousness, all that–for some users in their early 20s.
Don’t get me wrong, part of me wants an iPhone, too–the same part that occasionally buys really uncomfortable shoes because of how they look. And I understand those who have both iPhones and BlackBerrys; it’s like having both sensible shoes and stilettos. If you’re willing to lug around two devices (the reason many people give for buying an iPhone is that they don’t want to carry both an iPod and a BlackBerry), and can afford it, why not?

My bi-phone 51-year-old woman filmmaker friend Pamela loves her BlackBerry (“I’ve dropped it at least 300 times and no matter how hard it falls, it still works!”) and her iPhone. But what she e-mailed me about the iPhone reminds me of Edward:

“Not only is it useful in my line of work, having an iPhone is sort of like having a dog–you take it out and you instantly make friends with lots of very attractive young people–you sit around and trade tips on the best new apps or show each other photos or films you’ve made. This definitely makes it worth every penny.”

Ah yes, the very attractive young people–and so accessible! Who can blame Pamela? The quest for signifiers of youth is pretty harmless, in the field of consumer goods.

But as I’ve been hearing complaints about iPhones from friends–fragile, you can’t type on it, you can’t cut and paste text on it–the germ of a theory has been growing. So when I had dinner recently with my friend Jason, I asked him which he had, a BlackBerry or an iPhone.

“BlackBerry, of course. They work.”

I was relieved. Jason is a Harvard grad (economics) in his mid-30s who runs a worthwhile NGO and also manages money. If someone is running money in this climate, he’d better have a lot of common sense.

Jason, unlike me, voted for Obama. For the record, so did Pamela.

So with some fear of offending, I asked the big question. “Do you think there’s a correlation between Obama supporters and iPhone users?”

“Absolutely! They’re the style choice.”

Jason had put his finger on something I’d been suspecting. More and more, Obama looks like the iPhone President, and the U.S. is now paying a “style penalty” for having him at the helm. (Obama himself, of course, uses a BlackBerry. He may be in love with himself, but he’s no dope.)

You want to have a handsome, cool, politically correct president who forever gives the lie to the charge that Americans are racists, provincial, uncouth, you name it? So he doesn’t really know much about government or economics. Fine–no problem. But your economy and stock market will pay a price.

Thus far, the true believers don’t seem to mind. This isn’t necessarily irrational, so long as you care more about the image of your president than how your 401(k) is doing or how many of your fellow citizens are unemployed. Everything has a price, and apparently Obama’s style value is so high for his supporters that it outweighs dollars and cents losses.

The new willingness among a large number of Americans to pay a style premium strikes me as very … European. It’s like the uncomfortably tight clothes favored by fashionable Italian men even in their leisure hours, or the taboo against eating anything other than ice cream in the street in France and Italy.

Each practice costs something in ease or convenience, but is part of maintaining one’s image. We Americans have instead favored baggy athletic clothes and Brooks Brothers suits, and we will eat almost anything in public. We’ve rationalized this by saying that comfort and substance are what really matter.

Maybe, though, things are changing. A fair number of overweight people who wear sweats and scarf burritos in public must have voted for Obama. A cynical interpretation is that this is a low-cost way of throwing in your lot with the svelte, knowing young people bopping to their iPods and iPhones without dieting, exercising or getting better manners.

Voting in the 2008 election wasn’t about old fashioned class, but about cool, or how cool increasingly makes class irrelevant. The campaign of Sarah Palin was a valiant attempt to re-position blue collar signifiers as cool–remember the speech about Carhart jackets?

The chickens may be coming home to roost in the White House now. After the debacle over Obama’s gifts to Gordon Brown, it occurred to me that one basic fact had been lost in the deconstruction of the meaning of the 25 DVDs of American movies, which could not be played on European players. It’s possible Obama meant neither to end the “special relationship” between the U.S. and Great Britain, nor to send a message to the folks who occupied Kenya. It’s possible that whoever picked the gift is from a background where it’s considered a perfectly nice present. Gifting Psycho may not be classy, but it aspires to be cool.

I feel the appeal of cool, and there are ways it’s good for us, as long as style doesn’t distract from substance. But I’m worried that even a candidate with Obama’s exact positions on the issues couldn’t have been elected if that candidate were, say, a short, dumpy 60-year-old white guy, or a 47-year-old mixed race woman who didn’t happen to be particularly attractive. I suspect it means not that race doesn’t matter anymore in American politics, but that the choice is skin deep

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