Whatever Became of Weird?

I’ve been called “weird” all my life. Its a longtime hurt. Even today the word wounds a little, puts me on the defensive, which tends to startle and bewilder the one who invoked it. “But I meant it as a compliment!” he or she will stammer as bug-eyed I raise the butterknife. And, yes, that’s most likely true. But when you’ve heard it as long as I have, you understand the depths of its cruelty. The word carries with it a debilitating stigma from which you never quite recover. I mean, I don’t think I’m weird. Never did.

As a kid, “weird” meant different. Too different. It was right up there with cooties. If you weren’t an outright outcast, you were regarded with a wary curiosity. As someone who came of age in the era of Riunite Reagan yuppies, I can assure you that “weird” was never a compliment.

Then, in the ’90s, something funny happened. Weird became acceptable, even preferable. (Or maybe we just grew up.)

But it was a weird weird, a synthetic weird, one with very specific guidelines. Thanks to the burgeoning “alternative” wave (what we’d once called “college rock”), people began impulsively buying guitars, letting their hair grow long, upchucking dismal pentameter (typical images: rancid cancer, rotting hearts), listening to bands they would’ve dismissed as whiny-faggy only months before, and embracing a wholesomely middle-class angst.  Suddenly we were up to our soul patches in artists emerging from their suburbanite ennui to become the beautiful ugly butterfly. And just as suddenly, I wasn’t weird anymore — at least not fashionably weird, outrageously weird, a Horshack “Ooo! Ooo!” of eccentricity.

Now, quite frankly, I’m weary of weird. It’s stagnant. Humdrum. Blase. For instance, can you think of anything more monotonous these days than a tattoo? A recent informal scientific study has revealed that 214 out of every 7 people over the age of nine possess at least one.

That number was significantly smaller during my squirtage. I only knew of two such people, and I was related to both. My grandfather (rest his soul) and his younger brother, my great-uncle, both sported the usual ink of their surly boozehound generation: the anchor on the arm, strategically positioned to distract potential floor-chompers as the Frye men peeled up a long sleeve to reduce the wind resistance on a haymaker. That’s what a tattoo used to be: a self-inflicted scar, stamped to the sort that deliberately lurked in shadows. Rare. Weird.

Today, of course, you can spot ribbons of meat ink on every hipster chump at any upscale downtown twee trough. A tattoo in 2009 is about as subversive as quaffing a vanilla pabulum Slurpee during a church-youth soccer practice. If you’ve just stumbled from a parlor freshly blemished with the latest in pseudo-spiritual Chinese script, congratulations: you now have something in common with the average 38-year-old housewife.

Strangely, this ritual is no longer an act of rebellion or the artistic yawp of an individual, but a rite of peer-pressure passage, the new conformity. You no longer have to travel to the part of town with more blood than piss in the streets; there’s a licensed inker in every mini-mall, offering professional services in puncture, garrote, and slash. Self-mutilation is now status quo, joining a host of other pedestrian thrills, like French maid costumes and Catholic schoolgirl outfits. (Same goes for Mohawks, which ceased taunting the squares when I was still in grass-stained corduroys. These days the ‘do can be seen on elementary school playgrounds and on teenagers trying too hard.)

We’re living in the loathsome peak of the New Weird. Cosmetics. Accessories. Costumes. Brands. All of which must be acquired through commerce. Real weird’s costs, however, are purely social, and you can wear whatever the hell you want.

Weird, huh?


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