For his thirtieth birthday, Hal Niedzviecki received what his parents thought was the perfect card for their rebellious son. On the front it depicted a crowd scene-dour grey men in suits, hats, and overcoats. Inside it said: "Happy Birthday to a non-conformist." Niedzviecki had a moment of crisis. "If I'm a rebel sanctioned by society, encouraged by my parents, and cheered on by Hallmark, what is left to rebel against?"
In Hello, I'm Special, the guru of indie culture offers up a barrage of facts, observations, and arguments that point to the extinction of the non-conformist and the rise of individuality as the new conformity. In chronicling his singular encounters as an editor and pop culture explorer, his meditations touch on everything from religion to karaoke, from declining birth rates to Celebrity Worship Syndrome, from Mississauga's famed Backyard Wrestling Federation to Friday night Sabbath in Atlanta, Georgia. He unearths the amateur underground-zines, People Cards, the Trampoline Hall Speakers' Series-and shines a spotlight on the self-help industry, Canadian Idol, Hollywood, and mainstream media. The result is a smart, witty, and impassioned argument that shatters the you-can-do-anything pop myth and exposes the paradox of individuality.
When nonconformity has become not only cool but also consumable, and everyone is told they are special, what happens to our definitions of rebellion and individualism? Are our real rebels against "conformist nonconformity" now the "neo-traditionalists" who exchange their individualism for membership in a community that offers meaning in backward-looking ideologies? These questions are pertinent but hardly original, and Niedzviecki's approach doesn't refresh the cultural debate. Niedzviecki (We Want Some Too) details lively examples from pop, consumer and counterculture e.g., backyard wrestlers who assert their uniqueness while participating in mass culture; the "philosophy" brand of health and beauty products that sells its lotions with "moral maxims." But he molds these cases to fit his often predictable arguments: celebrity culture has been confused with individualism; the "semi-collapse" of traditional culture has led some to rebel by embracing orthodoxy; marketers have exploited ideals of individuality; and political activism is often just a way for protestors to "affirm their specialness." Falling short of a richer, more contradictory and more provocative analysis of these cultural items, Niedzviecki only grazes the surface of many of the issues Christopher Lasch (The Culture of Narcissism) and Thomas Frank (The Conquest of Cool) have already explored with depth and complexity.