In the 1990s, I once attended a poetry reading by Derek Walcott and Seamus Heaney in lower Manhattan. Both of them had already won their Nobel prizes in literature, and both had made indelible impressions on my young mind about the beauty of language, the possibilities of extended poetic works still being written in modern language, the hope for poetry in general. Cost to see them both back to back: $5, a bit more than a Happy Meal. Can of waterproofing Scotchgard that year: about $8. The irony: priceless.
How could it be, I wondered, that two of the greatest living gifts to the English language cost less than the Verrazano Narrows bridge fare? (To Staten Island!) Something seemed horribly amiss. Sure, Walcott is a turgid, affectless speaker who does no justice to his own jaunty iambs when he speaks them out loud in his heavy basso profundo voice. But Heaney more than compensates. To hear him speak, "A rowan like a lipsticked girl" in his playful brogue with all his funny asides is a real hoot. Well worth $10 at least.
So when my wife mentioned last night to friends at dinner that the Jersey Shore's own Nicole "Snooki" Polizzi was speaking at Rutgers, I knew immediately that she would fetch more than any mere Nobel or Pulitzer prize winner. In fact, I could have written this OMG! story myself if I had just made a few phone calls. Supposedly Snooki, who likely doesn't know who fought on whose side in World War I, is getting $32,000 to speak to kids who just finished their engineering and pharmaceutical science midterms. And as we know from efficient market theory, she is worth every penny, right?
Is it wrong to pay Snooki so much to speak to college students at a renowned university? Rutgers' motto is, "Sun of righteousness, shine upon the West also." Is it wrong to say, "Sun of righteousness, shine upon Snooki, also"? How about "Sun of righteousness, give the drummer some!"
As you know if you're a regular Jersey Shore viewer, the morning sun shining on Snooki usually reveals only a full ashtray and a semen-stained cocktail dress. So what, exactly, will be illuminated on the Rutgers campus? Would Snooki, like Toni Morrison, both defend and attack the classical reading canon? Or would she just try to come up with variants on "Hold onto your dreams girls!" for an hour and a half? Would she recall that time JWoww peed behind the bar and use it as an allegorical statement on feminism and commodification? Would she remind people to stay in college and offer herself as a bad example? Would she remind us that Angelina is a back-stabbing whore and Rutgers students who even think of acting like Angelina better watch their step in her home town?
Would she talk to mostly business students about how to sell your brand and how powerful that brand can be if there's a smell attached?
Really, what could Snooki tell Rutgers students that they don't already know about drunk townies? Wasn't it people like Snooki in high school who hastened a lot of us into college in the first place? Really, Rutgers, hasn't she already done her job?
And that's when it struck me: It's not the content of Snooki's words that matter but Snooki herself. She has become a semion now. A walking representation of the post-industrial dream. With her proud provincialism, she leapfrogged over the moneyed swells and reminded them that all the money they are spending on college would have been better flushed down the toilet on one of the turnpike bathrooms as they made their way to the Shore, bitch.
You think I'm kidding, but consider that college tuition has been rising faster than everything--even stock appreciation--while salaries for most of us stall. The American dream of upward mobility still has a lot of power, but the perception of it and the reality of it are more at odds every year. When the people in the top 2% of income make 450 times more than those in the bottom 50%, when home ownership has become an unreachable aspiration in the new paradigm, and when retirement will likely be withheld longer as savings rates decline, you know for sure that the American dream seems ever more like a hustle, that it's not guaranteed your children will be better off than you are, and that it's time to look at moving to China or Brazil. (Look at the overseas currencies and you might get a sense of where your middle class is going.)
The idea that a good college education these days is going to deliver you the life that even your grandparents got is starting to seem pretty silly. Even law students are starting to think that the allure of their profession with its promise of high income is a scam. And of course, ask doctors how much they are making these days and if it's what they expected.
It's likely that the cast of Jersey Shore is smarter than we give them credit for. Supposedly, they are monetizing their celebrity with rich endorsement deals and making hay while the sun shines. But that is part of the sick, horrible lesson here: How many of us can reap wheat from personality? Is personality really going to be the next great American export, like cars, oil and IPods? How much of it do we have? When will it run out? How soon must I turn my son into a personality after he arrives if I am to start creating a nest egg? It seems like getting him to react to a sneeze on a YouTube video is the only way to fund his future. (Thirteen million views? Not too shabby!)
Snooki is coming to Rutgers, I surmise, to remind people of this very thing. "Study hard," says Snooki, "But party harder." May I suggest ending with "Pull my finger"?
She couldn't be any worse than Derek Walcott.