Comparing Sex and the City with Dido provides a telling insight into the current pathologies of postmodern culture.
Both SATC and Dido are predominantly consumed by women, but whereas women proudly display their Sex and the City boxsets, they tend to conceal their Dido CDs in much the same way that men are embarrassed about pornography.
Because SATC is liberating and positive for women, whereas Dido is coffee-table bland neurosis that women should be ashamed of, right?
This is the wrong way round. It is SATC that should be the guilty secret, not Dido.
The standard critique of SATC is that it saw women descending to the level of men: voracious, amoral and casual in their sexual appetites.
The real problem with SATC is that it was exactly the inverse of this. Despite their carefully-cultivated street smart modern urban ironic appearance, the women in SATC were, in reality, as cliched and conventional as the heroines of romantic fiction: a certain steely veneer did little to belie the fact that ultimately they (‘even’ Samantha) were sentimental and men-obsessed.
SATC was just Barbara Cartland with fisting. The alleged daring of the sexual practices acted as a smokescreen for the pathetic simpering mooning of the four leads, allowing the consumers of the show to have their indulgent sentimentalism whilst pretending to be sophisticated and modern.
So the show’s supposed ‘feminism’ was of course anything but. SATC’s relentless message was appallingly man-centred: it left us in no doubt that no woman is complete without a man. Its relentless phallicism (‘Big’, for uttunul’s sake!) was nowhere better demonstrated than when Samantha had a lesbian affair. Did she enjoy the Irigarayan alterity of a diffuse eroticism beyond the pleasures of the body with Organ? Of course not. ‘It’s like TEN dicks’ is how she described the encounter.
The only novelty of the show was to equate heterosexual female equivocation over men with banal consumer choice. Postmodernism, or the cultural logic of late capitalism indeed. SATC’s Postmodern romantic fiction is pitilessly consumerized. ‘Is HE the ONE?’ (what a question for the sex which is not one to be reduced to posing btw) = ‘should I buy THIS pair of shoes or THAT one… they’re both nice….’ The overwhelming message of the show (in no way diluted by the false note of the final episode) perfectly fitted the anti-existentialism of our times: it is better to be in the anxiety of choice than to actually choose.
SATC relentlessly peddled the postmodern core belief that commitment is a fate, if not worse than, then at least equivalent to, death. To be committed, PoMo assures us, is to have our options closed down, restricted. Hence the grotesquerie of forty or fifty year-olds who still think and behave like teenagers.
Of course, the reality is precisely the contrary of this. You can always reverse a commitment, make a different choice. You can’t reverse equivocation. The time is wasted, gone.
Dido, by contrast, speaks for female disquiet with heterosexuality, not from the point of view of the insatiable consumer (no choice would be a good one, because it would mean that I had left SO MANY other things on the shelf… AND I would have to leave the shop) but from the point of view of disappointed total commitment. A song like ‘Stoned’ stands comparison with something like Annie Anxiety’s ‘As I Lay in Your Arms’ (‘As I lie in your arms, I watch the paint peel from the ceiling… I was waiting to feel the pain/ it never came’) in its anatomy of a relationship reduced to numbed disappointment. ‘When you’re stoned, baby/ and I am drunk/ when we make love/It seems a little desolate /it’s hard sometimes not to look away/and think what’s the point.’
Similarly, the justly celebrated ‘White Flag’ is a song of total commitment, of a refusal to give up no matter what. If it is clear that ‘White Flag’ is about a pyschotically self-destructive passion, then at least Dido is prepared to own her desire, to be consumed by it, rather than retaining forever her consumer rights, i.e. the dubious right to consume, forever.
But it is ‘Life for Rent’ that is the ultimate riposte to SATC. It is like Carrie Bradshaw after a dose of Sartre. Here is a thirtysomething wealthy white woman who comes to the realization that the gap in her life, the lack, the ache she cannot satisfy, arises precisely from her own indecision. It is not that she has been disappointed or let down by external forces (also equated in SATC with MEN, of course), it is that she has never wanted anything enough to really pursue it.
Is there a more acute account of the desolation of the existential void of postmodernity anywhere in pop than in ‘Life for Rent’s’ first verse? ‘I haven’t really ever found a place that I call home/ I never stick around quite long enough to make it/ I apologize that once again I’m not in love /But it’s not as if I mind/ that your heart ain’t exactly breaking…’
It is precisely ‘buying’ – making a definitive choice, and then leaving the emporium to live the commitment – that Dido’s postmodern everywoman finds so difficult. Better to rent, to borrow, to wander round the store forever, than to actually face the anguish attendant upon real commitment. ‘But if my life is for rent and I don’t learn to buy/ well I deserve nothing more than I get…’
The mobile phone is the paradigm case of the indefinite postmonement of postmodern consumption. Even though we are always paying for the phone, we never really own it, because there is always the prospect of the upgrade, the improvement. ‘Life for Rent’ understands that this possibility of paying without owing – we pay AS IF we own, but we never do, we are always prey to the ‘constant craving’ of the consumer itch to get something ‘better’ – is the existential reality of the lives of those condemned to wander in a somnambulent haze through the always restocking aisles of Kapital’s overlit shopping malls.
But ‘Life for Rent’ is the moment of Sartrean crisis and realization that Carrie Bradshaw, endlessly at the counter, endlessly prevaricating about choices she will never fully make in the future and choices she has already failed to fully make in the past, could never come to.