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Connections / Reed Johnson

In the wake of burst bubbles, it's have-nots who are chic

October 27, 2002|REED JOHNSON

Just when you thought the stock market was rebounding and it was safe to wear Givenchy and pay 40 bucks for an entree again, comes this stunning dispatch from the pop-culture front lines: There are poor people among us! What's more, downward mobility can be diverting! America, which usually prefers the champagne fizz of success, is sampling the malt-liquor authenticity and reverse-snob appeal of TV shows, rap tunes, fashion spreads and other cultural tributes to the burger-flipping classes.

In less time than it takes to say "Au revoir, 401(k)!," we've gone from groveling at the feet of Bill Gates to aping Lil' Abner.

But does this new infatuation with the lifestyles of the penniless and desperate reflect shifting social values -- a break with the go-go, gaga '90s and a touch of empathy for the 32 million Americans now living in poverty? Or is it a fashionably jaded form of exploitation?

Consider the conflicting evidence:

Nappy Roots, a hip-hop sextet from rural Kentucky, has gone gold with its CD "Watermelon, Chicken & Gritz," a witty, straight-up exploration of the mixed blessings of being a have-not. No city-slicker rhymes for these guys about posses, stretch limos and gangsta profilin'. That stuff, explains group member Skinny DeVille in the rapper's down-home patois, is as passe as Y2K.

"When Clinton was in office, man, everything was good," DeVille says. "The economy was excellent. There was a lot of jobs out there, folks was working. Right now it ain't at all like that no more. People aren't spending on certain things that was frivolous. Time to take care of your own right now."

DeVille's colleague Big V remembers growing up so poor that he had to wear his sports uniforms to school in lieu of new clothes. "We used to think money was white. You know, like: 'Put that down, boy! We ain't white!' But we always had each other, and that's what I like to rap about, was my family being there, and my auntie chipping in, and my uncle doing what he could afford."

Nappy Roots' blue-collar identity is real, but pop culture doesn't always treat poverty so charitably. Often, its response is more ambiguous. In the halls of CBS, plans are underway to remake the '60s sitcom "The Beverly Hillbillies" as a "reality TV" show. According to a story in the Washington Post, program developers are scouring Appalachia's hills and hollers looking for a Clampett-like clan to relocate to a Westside mansion for at least a year, where they'll grapple with the plot-propelling mysteries of hiring maids, driving fancy cars and, no doubt, that ol' cee-ment pond.

CBS insists that its remake -- using real, live hillbillies -- will aspire to "social commentary" and be more about skewering pretensions of the rich than making hay out of hapless rubes.

'Dust-bowl glamour'

But what are we to make of the New Yorker's recent fashion layout, in which photographer Herb Ritts poses hollow-cheeked models in clothes and backdrops that make them look like Okie refuges from the Great Depression? "Fashion has been looking over its shoulder again," says the upscale magazine's breathless text. "Designers have drawn on both the glitter and the squalor of the [1930s] -- satin shoes and dusty dungarees, gimlets and dry rot -- and the result is something like dust-bowl glamour."

One model, a weather-beaten Pa Joad impersonator, sports an artfully soiled Dolce & Gabbana undershirt beneath his bib overalls. Another photo of a woman's legs in tattered stockings tapering to a pair of Manolo Blahnik crocodile-and-leopard-print pony skin pumps, coyly alludes to a similar photograph by Dorothea Lange, who pricked America's conscience with her haunting images of real poor people, the Steinbeckian migrants who flocked to California's fruited plains in search of hope and a living wage.

Whether Ritts' concept is tasteless and insensitive, or a clever jab at America's historic habit of following fat times with sharp economic reversals, is a question of interpretation. But Judy Keller, who curated a current exhibition of Lange's photographs at the Getty Museum in Brentwood, including the iconic "Migrant Mother," doesn't think Ritts should be able to have his postmodern-ironist's cornbread and eat it too.

" 'Outrageous' is the first word that comes to mind," says Keller, an associate curator in the Getty's department of photographs. "He is using the idea of poverty and a Depression context to show current couture fashions. I would say it's totally out of whack."

Americans have always been schizoid about the morality of material success, or its lack. We venerate Lincoln's humble, character-building roots, but given the choice most of us would probably prefer to be strolling the gardens at Monticello or water-skiing at Hyannisport than reading by log-cabin candlelight. Unless our parents picked cotton in Texas or scooped strawberries in Salinas we may easily forget that we're only a generation or two away from plucking chickens or mining coal for a living.

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