The Consumer Republic: Blithe Spirits




For one brief, shining moment, just after the much-hyped Evita Look vanished without a trace, it seemed as if Madonna’s reign as the avatar of our cultural obsessions was over. Then along comes her millennial motherhood and her latest album, Ray of Light, to show she still knows how to ride a cultural wave.
The Material Girl has gone spiritual. In her current work, the Microsoft of new pop-music trends appropriates the sounds of electronica to deliver her new message of enlightenment: Open your heart. Let it go. Give it up. Give it away. “Some things cannot be bought,” Madonna sings. Ray of Light is not one of them. The album sold more than 370,000 copies in its debut week in the U.S., making it Madonna’s first bona fide hit album of the decade.
In fact, Madonna making like a swami on The Rosie O’Donnell Show is but one sign that spiritualism is hot. The Cabala, the doctrine of Jewish mysticism, is making a comeback among celebrity seekers. The media empire of Deepak Chopra, guru to managers and entrepreneurs, grows apace. Nicholas Cage joins the swelling ranks of God’s extraterrestrials, starring as a heavenly messenger in the new movie City of Angels. In fashion magazines, the faces of the moment are transparent and unadorned, surfaces carefully calculated to say that surfaces don’t matter.
We also know that people are becoming more spiritual because they tell us they are. In the latest Yankelovich annual survey, 21 percent of the sample qualified as “spiritual,” defined as those who “describe themselves as spiritual, [believe] spiritual well-being is the most important form of well-being, and have a strong/moderate need to satisfy spiritual hunger.” Blame it on the calendar. Millenniums are supposed to be spiritual events, and here comes the consumer, seeking inner peace right on cue.
But there could be less to this neat tautology than meets the inner eye. Surely when people confess to a deep spiritual yearning they are saying something about their state of mind, even if they don’t necessarily know what it is. Scratch the surface of these numbers and one finds that the modern quest for spiritual well-being is more about having it all than giving it away.
Indeed, a lot of notions that fall under the rubric of “spirituality” would, in a more rational age, be labeled sheer mumbo jumbo. In 1997, 52 percent somewhat believed in “spiritualism”– whatever that means–compared to only 12 percent in 1976. Back then, 10 percent gave credence to faith healing. Today, a startling 45 percent find the concept somewhat plausible. You’ve lived through the go-go ’80s. Welcome to the ga-ga ’90s.
It’s still unclear to me how one can believe “somewhat” in, say, reincarnation, as a quarter of Yankelovich’s sample claims to do. Maybe these respondents are saying they believe the doctrine of reincarnation might be true. Which means, of course, they also believe it might not be true. In other words, anything’s possible and they don’t know what to think. This is not spirituality. This is confusion.
One thing is evident: It feels good to be spiritual. A certain amount of self-esteem, verging on smugness, seems to be one of the by-products of belief. An impressive 66 percent of spiritual types see themselves as “self-confident,” against 53 percent of the total sample. Fifty-eight percent describe themselves as “creative,” compared to 47 percent, and, most telling, 55 percent consider themselves “smart shoppers,” 11 percent more than the whole group. (It takes a smart shopper to pick and choose from the smorgasbord of spiritual resources spread before us.) Those anxious to keep up with the souls of the Joneses have their work cut out for them.
Bull-market optimism is the guardian angel of the spirituality trend. After 96 months of uninterrupted economic growth and low inflation, we’ve gone off the charts on the Maslow hierarchy of needs, demanding that the market fulfill our deepest yearnings. The new spirituality is like a con game we play on ourselves, a way of separating “good” ’90s prosperity from the “bad” ’80s kind. Get rid of that greedy accumulation of stuff, the contemporary upscale consumer is told. Purify your household with a few pricey possessions whose ineffable “quality” and posh price tag satisfy the soul. This turn toward the spiritual is not about anti-materialism; it’s about materialism raised to a higher power.
If anything rings true in consumers’ self-avowed spiritual hunger, it’s the hunger part. Consumers, as is their wont, desire more. The spiritually enlightened are raising the ante of marketing, demanding to be sold the things that money can’t buy. Contrary to what Madonna teaches, millennial spiritualism doesn’t require that we let go. It’s just another appetite to be fed, one of the proliferating “strong/moderate” needs that keeps the marketplace expanding.