February 3, 2014

MOORE | Super Bowl Subtext

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By TOM MOORE

I joined my housemates on the couch this Super Bowl Sunday, and was soon confronted with Laurence Fishburne trying to sell me a car. In an echo of the classic “red pill, blue pill” scene from his role in The Matrix, Fishburne plays a valet offering a wealthy couple two car keys, one red and one blue. “Take the blue key,” he says in that silky Morpheus voice of his, “and go back to the luxury you know. Take the red key, and you’ll never look at luxury the same again.”

The man, adventurous American that he is, naturally chooses the red key. “This is unreal,” he gasps, suddenly behind the wheel of a brand new Kia K900 and having his mind blown by the upholstery. It’s all very chic, as the sci-fi freedom fighter in the back seat tells us, “This is what luxury looks like. This is what it feels like.”

Just one car advertisement in, and I was already at risk of being that guy spouting armchair cultural criticism while everyone’s just trying to watch the Super Bowl. Fishburne — who had once presented to the world the choice between living in the virtual reality of the Matrix or waking to join in the revolutionary struggle against our machine overlords — had just offered me a choice between a brand new Kia K900 or some other less authentically luxurious car. I’m left to gape at Kia’s tagline: “Challenge the luxury you know.” Challenge the limits (of your own consumption), and stretch the boundaries (of your own luxury). The revolutionary aesthetic of the red pill had been appropriated for its marketability.

But my bad trip through the stream of increasingly disturbing car and truck commercials had just begun. After a brief interlude of anthem singing, flag waving and even a little bit of football, the auto industry was back running the show through the indomitable voice of 10 year-old Quvenzhane Wallis. Wallis is best known for her Oscar-nominated role in Beasts of the Southern Wild, an apocalyptic New Orleans coming-of-age drama whose anti-capitalist and anti-state themes are hard to miss. In the commercial, however, she tries to sell us a Maserati:

“The world is full of giants. They have always been here, lumbering through the schoolyards, limping through the alleys. We had to learn how to deal with them, how to overcome them. We were small, but fast, remember? We were like a wind, appearing out of nowhere. We knew that being clever was more important than being the biggest kid in the neighborhood. As long as we keep our heads down, as long as we work hard, trust what we feel in our guts, our hearts, then we’re ready. We wait until they get sleepy, wait until they get so big they can barely move. Then we walk out of the shadows, quietly walk out of the dark, and strike.”

If the poem wasn’t being read over heroic shots of firefighters, fishermen and factory workers, I’d likely have taken it as an incitement to revolutionary violence, an ode to the power of ordinary people to collectively slay the bloated giants. Instead, it’s all been edited into one more chorus of the ode to the American automobile. Language of resistance is superimposed on imagery of industrial American pride: Hot metal glows, wrenches spin, a handsome worker lifts up his welding mask and gazes out in satisfaction. And, of course, a car drives around really fast.

Wallis’ reading of this vaguely insurrectionist poem is thus repurposed to sell luxury automobiles. A strange pitch, but maybe not the strangest pitch I heard on Super Bowl Sunday. Chevy was using cancer to sell trucks, Bruce Willis was using hugs to sell cars, Coca-Cola was using athleticism to sell sugar-water, Kwik Fill was using children to sell 100% North American oil, there were hashtags everywhere, and right when I thought the worst was over, I heard his voice.

“Is there anything more American than America?”

Bob Dylan himself, the man Rolling Stone has called “the guiding spirit of the counterculture generation,” selling the all-new Chrysler 200, with plenty of American Dream thrown in. “Yeah,” Dylan sneers, “Detroit made cars, and cars made America.” But it was the final lines of the ad that raised the most eyebrows in my living room:

“When it’s made here, it’s made with the one thing you can’t import from anywhere else. American pride. So let Germany brew your beer. Let Switzerland make your watch. Let Asia assemble your phone. We will build your car.”

Perhaps a moment of silence is in order, another punk of a prophet gone the way of the corporate spokesman.

Meanwhile, the Seahawks mercilessly thrash the Broncos, and linebacker Malcolm Smith is named MVP. His prize? He is now the proud owner of a brand-new Chevy Silverado! The flags flap and the confetti flies and the American behemoth gleams on the field.

Tom Moore is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He may be reached at tmoore@cornellsun.com. His column appears alternate Tuesdays this semester.

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