The Consumer Republic: Over the Edge

“Edgy” now serves as the Gold Lion of adjectives, the Good Housekeeping Seal of creativity.
In a year in which virtually everything will be blamed on the coming millennium, let me get the ball rolling with my latest pet peeve: the word “edgy.” There must be something about standing on the precipice of the next thousand years that has made “edginess” the approbation of the hour.
Given the commercials, cable channels, sports, music and fashion dangling from the ledge of the 20th century, it’s surprising the whole culture doesn’t have a nosebleed.
A search of the 6,000-periodical database of Dow Jones Interactive turned up 2,083 mentions of the words “edgy” and “edgier” in 1990. In 1998, they popped up 11,405 times. Trotted out to describe every other rock band this side of Nirvana, the word is a culture critic’s one-stop shop, applied by the press in the last year to describe everything from the movie Happiness to the stock market to onions. Yes, according to The Denver Post, even a vegetable can be edgy.
In advertising, where a decade ago “fresh” ruled as the plaudit of choice, “edgy” now serves as the Gold Lion of adjectives, the Good Housekeeping Seal of creativity. It stuck to the Miller Lite “Dick” campaign like a Homeric epithet. Serving as the alibi for what traditionalists might dismiss as dimwitted or vulgar, edginess smooths away a thousand sins.
It became clear to me that the verbal virus had reached epidemic levels when an acquaintance credited her new job at a sober think journal to the editors’ desire to make the magazine “a little edgier.” What did they mean by that? She cheerfully admitted she didn’t know. Of course, chances are the editors didn’t know either. “Edgy” has become a semantic garbage pail into which a useful assortment of vague meanings have been tossed. It’s one of those prefabricated insights so beloved by journalists on deadline.
“Edgy” simultaneously suggests youthfulness, modernity, irony, cool, provocation, entertainment in extremis: the leading, cutting, bleeding edge. Dulled by overuse, the word is like a gravestone whose inscription has been worn to unintelligibility; you don’t know what it represents, but you have a pretty good idea why it’s there.
Yet for all its apparent meaninglessness, there’s a reason that “edgy” has become the “groovy” of the ’90s. It’s one of those words that, decades hence, we’ll be quoting with, well, an edge in our voice to indicate how quaint the fin de sicle was. As long as there’s been commercial culture, that culture has had a cutting edge. But it’s only at the precipice of the second millennium that we valorize edginess itself.
The question is: What exactly is edgy? The dictionary naturally offers some helpful clues. One definition identifies “edgy” as “impatient and anxious,” as good a summary as any of the everyday angst of our 24/7 world. Edginess resonates to what Regis McKenna calls the “never satisfied customer,” who, by definition, is always on edge. As the present collapses under the pressure of the digital future, we have an ever-diminishing tolerance for inconvenience and delay, and a lower threshold of “nervous irritability,” another of Webster’s takes on “edgy.”
“Sharp edged” is yet another meaning. As it suggests, “edginess” is meant to be discomfiting, disturbing, to cut and draw blood. It’s a symbolic slap in the face to a culture that otherwise is single-mindedly devoted to consumer comfort. The flip side of edgy is numb.
And whatever else it is, edginess is not a girl thing. There are a few prickly female celebs–perennial edginess poster girl Sandra Bernhard or Courtney Love (pre-post Kurt)–who are granted the accolade. For the most part, edginess is aimed at 10-year-old boys of all ages. If you’re looking for an edgefest, tune into one of the young male demo paradises such as South Park. Watching the seamless programming and ads, you’d be forgiven for mistaking this edgy mixture of turd jokes, gleeful profanity and cartoon violence for simple puerile tastelessness. The media’s romance with edginess demonstrates that in a universe of niche audiences, some are more valuable and powerful than others. The 18-34 males (still) reign as the most powerful niche of all.
The more individually tailored our consumables, the more calculated and policed our public spaces and the more customer-friendly our services, the more we value transgressions and disturbances–as long as they’re available by remote control and we don’t have to leave the Barcalounger to experience them.
Finally, edginess is an imperative when media create a viscous environment that flows past and through our consciousness without engaging our attention. In an age of mass marketing, edgy is like a sharp hot poker in the eyeball. Or at least it’s supposed to be. Once gray-templed editors of staid journals routinely start taking their image cues from alternative rock bands, edginess will lose its edge.