Sunday 21 October 2018

Our fascination with bling

This article first appeared in Malta Today 

It is by no means just a Maltese phenomenon and, in fact, it is probably something which you can find just about anywhere. It is a sign of the times, surely, and also a sign of how our priorities have changed when it comes to what we hold dear and what and who we admire.

I am speaking of our fascination with bling, with flashy things and an even flashier lifestyle. Fast cars, fast food, fast relationships, fast entertainment. It’s an unabashed love of what cash or credit cards can buy, convinced that money can buy anything and that everyone has a price; it’s just a matter of finding out how much.

In Malta’s case there is a twist to the tale because it seems we are trying to make up for lost time. There was no natural, gradual progression of our standard of living over the last 40 years or so, but rather a sharp swing from one extreme to the other as globalization was injected into our culture almost overnight. Because of this, we have had a lot of catching up to do, primarily because of previous economic policies which for many years clamped down on foreign imports and made us live a live of austerity. Everything seemed to be banned, from colour TV sets to various brands of chocolate in Mintoff’s well-intentioned but ultimately flawed plan to force us to buy (inferior) locally-made products in order to prop up Maltese industry. Those years of stringent controls only made many people resent him and his policies (although it should have been obvious that when you tell people they cannot have something, it is the worst thing you can do). When the markets were finally liberalized under a PN Government, it was like someone had thrown us full-length into a candy shop and told us, take whatever you like, the world is your oyster.

I think those who experienced the 80s never really recovered from the psychological impact of growing up in a society where shop shelves only carried one brand of whatever the product was. It was very much a ‘take it or leave it’ approach, which led to the mentality of going abroad purely for the joys of shopping; a trend which has never really left us. There are still people who go a bit mad when they travel, because old habits are hard to shake, and they come back with suitcases bulging with new purchases, even though these days you can find basically anything you want here.

In fact, a scene showing the empty shelves of a Russian supermarket in the series The Americans vividly threw me back to those years, as did the dialogue of a Russian defector who was awestruck by the abundance and choice of food in America compared with the limitations back home. I know some people will probably object to this comparison, but it did remind me of how Malta was in the past, and the way Maltese families attacked the Catania markets in the 80s for one big shopping spree every time they had a chance to do so.

Looking around you at how we live today, it is hard to believe this is the same country, huh? Especially when I read news of Spar opening no less than 23 supermarkets, while other supermarket chains keep popping up everywhere we look. I do wonder who is going to buy all these groceries, but that’s another issue. The way we have embraced capitalism and consumerism is such a far cry from Mintoff’s socialism that speaking to someone under 30 about the 1980s, you might as well be referring to World War II.

Malta today is an island of rooftop pools where fiercely-toned women pose in bikinis and three inch heels, to see and be seen (and if you do not post the photos on FB, it didn’t happen).

It’s a chain of entertainment and hospitality venues which have basically devoured Paceville, some more dubious than others, all branded by the letter “H”, for the late Hugo Chetcuti; an empire which his son has vowed to continue in his name.

It’s three days of decadent Lost & Found parties in Qawra where drug busts are a matter of course.

It’s Maltese girls who mercilessly straighten their unruly curls and dye their hair Kardashian black, inject collagen in their lips for better pouting, and insert silicone in their chests for maximum, gravity-defying cleavage. It’s tight tight dresses and killer heels and a constant stream of selfies.

It’s young guys, with no visible means of income, obsessed with their car, the gym and their hairdresser in equal measures, who look like they spend as much time getting ready as their girlfriends.

It’s a fleet of high-powered speedboats which gather in Comino and Gozo’s bays in the same way that high-powered cars which are too ridiculously fast, zoom up and down our handful of major roads. One wonders where all the money comes from for all this, but it seems no one at the Tax Compliance Unit is ever gripped by the same sort of wonderment.

To understand the Malta we live in today, one only need to look at the people who are admired. Kylie Jenner, described as a ‘self-made’ millionaire at the age of 20 from her cosmetics line, recently posed on the cover of GQ with her suited boyfriend while she spilled out of a skimpy swimsuit. She is considered a role model for many young girls – a worrying image which has provoked much commentary. If she is so ‘powerful’, why is the one who is half-naked, further confirming that the only way for women to get ahead is to use nudity and look sexy?

Then there is Ronaldo, who was recently bought for such an obscene amount of money by Juventus that workers at Fiat (owned by the football club’s owners, the Agnellis) quite rightly went on strike. This week he made the news again for the exorbitant amount of tips ($23k) he left for hotel staff while on vacation in Athens. While on the surface it might seem like a nice thing to do, something about splashing around that kind of money just comes across to me as vulgar and tacky.

The obsession with material wealth and the consumer culture is also reflected in what are known as social media influencers: people who use blogs, Twitter and Instagram accounts, whose main aim is to get as many followers as possible. In return they promote just about anything, influencing people to buy certain products just because they have endorsed them. They are a PR company’s dream and in exchange they live a life of constant freebies. As explained in “Under the Influence: The Power of Social Media Influencers” written by Jelle Fasteneu,
“It’s not hard to imagine how this makes influencers the ideal marketing tool for companies. They already have a large following at their disposal, which can be easily tapped into by sending out a message endorsed by a popular figure whose opinion they actually want to hear. In return, influencers profit from participating in these campaigns, either by being paid to post or talk about products, or being provided with free promotional materials.”

News websites are also sliding down this slippery slope in running PR pieces thinly disguised as ‘news’, in exchange for often hefty sponsorships. The line between what is news and what is a paid-for promotion is becoming increasingly blurred and is seriously harming real journalism.

As I said in the introduction, this is not a Maltese phenomenon, as other countries too have woken up to the realization that fakery and superficiality and reality stars who became famous for being famous have snowballed us into a world which lacks any depth or real meaning. Lately, however, I keep feeling that we will inevitably come to a point when it will all become too much: when those who keep pushing the envelope will find that they cannot push it any further.

Maybe it will be at that point that we finally wake up to the fact that, ultimately, in the grand scheme of things, all the bling in the world is really not that important.

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