It’s safe to say that we’ve all influenced at least one person and been influenced by many. Our fashionable souls always wish to be thought well of, at the least, exempt from social scorn and public rankings.
Throughout high school, I wore loose-fitting railroad overalls and walked the two miles from my house everyday to avoid the dreaded bus ride. Mainly, being mocked and ridiculed by high school “influencers”: those snarky girls wearing mini dresses and more pancake than Trump, who commandeered the back of the bus in order to view and criticize every student climbing onboard. Hard to be influenced by people we don’t even want to associate with, but they had their devout followers; namely the football team, the lusting musical coach and a perverted principal.
Even back then, what influenced me was of an aesthetic or more humane nature: discovering new mediums, the kindness and generosity of my art teachers, and the books I devoured on American master makers (Calder, Rockwell, Hopper, O’Keefe, Rothko). CD’s, computers and cable had yet to be invented; TV’s possessed only a handful of channels, so live and literary impressions were key.
I remember JFK’s assassination and the resounding response around the world. His death was a revelation: witnessing how a public figure could have such a personal impact on so many people. A more entertaining revelation was the arrival in NYC of a mop-headed quartet called The Beatles, who gave me cause to appreciate the power that words and harmonized voices in music could have.
Living on the Bowery, I liked to stop at Yonah Schimmel’s Knish Cafe. It was nearby on Houston St., and sometimes I’d find Joni Mitchell sitting at a back table. Too enamored of her to approach or speak, I’d just watch her sip coffee and write. She was the first and remains one of the strongest influences on my own poetry.
I somehow missed the birth of electronics and subsequent blizzard of technological inventions while crisscrossing the country with circuses and shows. By the late 80’s, it was standard and customary to own cell phones and computers in homes and businesses. My first phone – after the bombing of the WTC in 1993 – was an archaic Nokia, just one step up from a walkie-talkie.
I still consider myself on the side-of-the-dirt-road of rapid fire communication devices and platforms. Other than Facebook, I remain wary of current trends, the increasing warp-speed titans of media: Instagram, Tiktok, Reddit, Tweets, Twitter, Snapchat, We Chat, Tumbler, Pinterest, LinkedIn, VK, Spaces… I can’t even name the rest. Forty five percent of the world population uses social media, and it is now the new measure of success; simply how many followers one has. Sadly, for literary ventures, it is almost impossible to procure an agent or publisher without possessing a massive database of readers who follow you. Numbers rule; a hardy human count for commerce’s sake.
This evolution of modern times has created its own newfound caste, “Influencers”, a breed of the wealthy and famed who utilize electronic prowess and high velocity visibility. With access to an endless global audience, these are individuals with upwards of multi-million ardent followers.
Granted, there are the gifted celebrities: singer/musicians, actors and sports heroes with track records of proven artistry. DeCaprio, Bieber, Swift, Grande, Gomez, Eilish, Perry, Beyonce, Ronaldo … all command a high volume of devout fans and hardly have to flex their powers of persuasion to affect an immense populace.
But more and more, there appears a force of “Fashionistas at the Front” – learned in promotion and peddling their best product: themselves. They all have distinct niches of authority and expertise that resonates with their devoted clientelle. But more importantly, they possess swag and hold major sway: the ability to impact purchasing decisions. As mega-marketers, they attract brand names and corporate ventures looking to collaborate and expand their own marketing objectives.
We know that vanity sells. Karl Langerfeld called it “The healthiest thing in life”. Diana Vreeland decreed: “I loathe narcissism, but I approve of vanity”. By virtue of that measure and her oversized confidence, Miss Piggy was a great early incluencer.
Fashion has always begat ardent fans, those hunting updated methods or shortcuts to beautification and style. There’s a longtime, clear-cut fever of consumption promoting appearances. British philosopher Benjamin Whichcote, who argued in his day (the 1600’s) for religious tolerance, said, “None are so empty as those who are full of themselves”. More currently, the singer George Michael declared, “The whole business is built on ego, vanity, self-satisfaction, and it’s total crap to pretend it’s not”.
But vanity is not the leading virtue of the drive behind social media: communication is – the instant gratification of being heard and seen. Flooded by graphics and audio, film footage and podcasts, people get to connect with strangers and folks they would normally not meet. The feedback and positive enforcement is stimulating; why economist Paul Zak dubbed Oxytocin (a chemical the brain releases when a person feels accepted and part of something), “The Trust Hormone”. Electronic influence is about esteem and approval, a bonding outside one’s family. On social media, we all become eager as dogs to have someone paying attention to us.
An allegiance and dependency on our screens (whatever the size or form), has almost become a religion for some, magnified in 2020 by the isolating parameters that Covid established. We were all left immobile. Prevented from traveling other than virtually, unable to see our loved ones, to convene business and professional work, offices and public buildings banned. Electronic communication became a consolation and salvation; we could see and speak to the world when one could not even leave their homes.
Online shopping grew 44% in 2020, with Amazon accounting for half that figure. The first ever documented online purchase was only 25 years ago, in 1994. Today, one quarter of the 7.8 billion people in the world are online shoppers. That explains a lot of “influencing”, at least in the commercial realm.
I don’t own a Kindle, not do I like audiobooks. I still love the touch and feel of turning book pages, of holding a hardbound in my hands and retreating to a corner to read. This form of intimacy amplifies the digestion. Book reading is easier on the eyes and easier to skim than any e-versions. I am a bit snobbish in that I never trust a home where books are not evident: shelves or piles of novels and factual writings, well-worn and diverse in topic.
Our parents and inner family are out first sources of influence. From there, what and how we filter information we receive is tantamount to advancing and developing. We learn from multiple sources and places, even from strangers. Common sense still dictates some of our choices, as does self-preservation and affiliate defenses–to provide for and protect family and friends. The pursuit of dollar signs, of objects hailed by celebrity consumers doubling as marketing activists, seems to misplace crucial elements by which we pledge allegiance.
It is easy to find lessons in everyday occurrances and interactions, but as the Dalai Lama notes, “Real power has to do with one’s ability to influence the hearts and minds of others”.
4 thoughts on “Under the Influence”
I always knew that you were a talented artist but didn’t realize how well you could write.
I guess i shouldn’t be surprised. We weren’t close in high school, but i could relate to your memories.
I wasn’t athletic or very good looking and didn’t have much self confidence.
I never went to dances or the prom and didn’t date until college.
My saving grace was my dry quick sense of humor that enabled me to make people laugh and make friends.
I wasn’t one of the cool kids, but I think that I turned out okay!
Bruce, I didn’t recall your being in the same boat as me, but by your very descriptive – we were pulling oars together! I didn’t date or do dances, my gym stints were sabatogued by more snarky girls who used their field hockey sticks to whack me. A sense of humor is a vital tool and saving grace! Congratulations on feeling good about yourself now!
Any writings about your circus life?
If I didn’t answer this previously: yes. Last year I finished a novel’s worth of memoirs, including all my circus and show travels, my four decades of living on the Bowery, documenting all its cultural, architectural, political and social changes. I am at a standstill with it as a publication though.