Sunday, August 14, 2011

Groupon Blues

When Groupon rolled around, I thought it was the coolest site ever. Coupons to get substantial savings from restaurants, stores, gyms, etc. in your area. I checked in every morning, expectantly, this will be the day they advertise a restaurant I go to regularly, I can feel it …

Months later, I’ve used Groupon twice, to get some really good Korean fried chicken across the street at work, and some used books at a hip Salvation Army store downtown. Most days, I don’t even look at the site.

Why? I guess for a number of reasons, but the truth is it makes me feel vaguely depressed and pressured to read the daily offers on their website. Taken as a whole, they suggest to me an empty lifestyle for people who position themselves as “worldly” but in reality are just annoying twerps afraid or unwilling to sit still and contemplate their lives for even a second. They put forth a myth of the “everything people” – think of the Dos Equis beer commercial of a man so legendary, sharks have a week dedicated to him. I peruse Groupon for a few minutes, and it makes me want to get an egg roll and some greasy chicken lo mein from the local nondescript Chinese hole in the wall that Groupon would scoff at … for $5.00. And then eat it while watching Shark Week on the Discovery Channel ... with no pants on.

I recognize it’s far from the intention of the Groupon folks to depress people with their site. They simply try to come up with as many different, interesting options as they can for their site subscribers to spend money on, and it wouldn’t serve their purpose to present an image that was anything less than cutting-edge hip.

The problem is the site, taken as a whole and read on a daily basis, presents this antiseptic, metrosexual, perfectly-coifed, hairless-bodied, restaurant-eating-every-night, taking-flight-lessons, yoga-practicing, boot-camp-surviving, Lasik-enhanced-vision, organic-burger-eating, Brazilian-waxed, cupcake connoisseur who spends every waking hour seeking out only pleasure and spiritual enhancing activities that normally cost a small fortune, but thanks to Groupon, allow you to be part of the Über-race of Type A self-realizers for a discount.

In other words, it suggests a person who is an empty vessel that must be filled by spending discretionary income on “cool” things: the ultimate consumer. Not just any consumer, but one who only does stuff, that, you know, would provide scenes for a good reality show, if only the person could become famous for some unspecified reason, to justify the discount kayaking lessons on the Hudson, or $20 off the duck tacos with chipotle cherry salsa. Picture yourself victoriously paddling into the sunset (you’ve won, what, I don’t know, but, fuck it, man, you’ve won) while Alicia Keys croons “Empire State of Mind” in the background. (And not just on the soundtrack … just for you, they really found Alicia Keys and paid her to sing the song to you in her own kayak with a film crew a few yards behind you.)

Pencil me out. How did we reach this place where just living, just going about your life, isn’t enough, that you have to jam all this retail shit into it to make your life feel justified and worthwhile? Is this really how people define themselves? With all this stupid, esoteric shit … the cucumber facial treatments, the feng shui interior design, the teeth-whitening sessions?

You ever spend time around people espousing this lifestyle? I know you have. If you live or work around Manhattan, they’re wallpaper in your life. To hear someone like this go on and on and on about their lives … save they never once tell you anything real about themselves. It’s all these pricey leisure-time activities they’ve jammed into it to make themselves feel important and interesting. To compensate? I’d guess that’s true, too, but compensating for what, I don’t have a clue. I can guarantee you, in their minds, they’re not compensating for anything.

For some reason, this all makes me envision my 78-year-old mother para-gliding off a sheer rock face over the ocean. That’s how crazy this all feels to me. I picture my late father, who liked to get a burger and fries at McDonalds, then eat it while out driving around with his favorite dog, having a pretty, nose-ringed, heavily-tattooed waitress explain to him the merits of free-range rattlesnake burgers as opposed to farm-raised.

Is it all to stave off fear of death and personal destruction? The economy has been so nuts over the past few years, I can’t help but think that all this stuff is some odd, massive cultural fiddle we’re all stroking while Rome, our way of life, smolders. Do you sense that air of desperation, too? Not just that we want to do and acquire all this crazy, senseless shit to alleviate how bad things are … but we want to save money while we do so. Because much like your average Trader Joe shopper, we know a bargain when we see one … and we’re far too cool to shop at the Dollar Store.

It costs a lot of money to feel this empty. But saving a few bucks buying crazy shit fills that void. Normal people save money. We’re normal people buying crazy shit. Get it?

As noted Detroit philosopher Bob Seger once said, "You just can’t have it all." Most of us aren’t financially equipped to have anything. We’re either too poor to get by (and buying way too much shit with credit cards that were never meant to be bought on credit), or spending so much money on rents and mortgages that there’s very little left to engage in whatever socio-economic lifestyle people expect of us for such moneyed neighborhoods. Thus Groupon comes along to cut folks in that second boat a slice of the good life and make them feel more complete/qualified to live this way of life they aspire to.

I wish I’d thought of it first, and I suspect part of what you’re reading here is jealousy that I didn’t recognize how savvy it would be to sell coupons to people who see themselves as being far above the type of person who would ever use coupons. Whatever trepidations I may have, I must also tip my cap to the Groupon folks for their ingenuity. The issues noted above are mine, not theirs, but I still can’t help feeling mildly troubled the few times I click on that site every month to see what I’m missing.

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