The Magazine

Pretty Bad Goods

Shop A Prairie Home Companion till you drop.

May 2, 2005, Vol. 10, No. 31 • By JOE QUEENAN
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NOT LONG AGO, THE belligerently-mannered New York radio personality Jonathan Schwartz confided in his listeners that he could not go on living without being able to hear Frank Sinatra's memorable version of "Our Love Is Here to Stay" at least one more time.

I have to admit that the unforgettable selection in question may have been "Embraceable You" or "Softly As I Leave You"--memory fails me. What caught my attention here was not the deejay's predictable, self-congratulatory homage to the obviously great (let the public be damned; I'm still in Johann Sebastian Bach's corner!) nor even his manicured sincerity. Rather, it was the obstreperously precious quality to the comment: I, Jonathan Schwartz, having long ago pledged my fealty to the chairman of the board, could not possibly go on living without being able to hear one of his priceless recordings at least one more time.

This is what set Schwartz apart from ordinary mortals in Totowa and Council Bluffs and Chechnya and the Sudan: They could probably manage quite well without Frank, Billie, Tony, Bing, or Ella. But not Jonathan. Oh no, not Jonathan. Jonathan just couldn't go on breathing without Frank.

Having clearly established his own unassailable status as one who danced to the beat of a different drummer, Schwartz next launched into a fulsome paean to the high priest of idiosyncrasy: Garrison Keillor. Apparently, Keillor had recently appeared at a black-tie function attired in the requisite monkey suit, but purely to establish his countercultural bona fides and épater le bourgeois, Keillor had topped off the ensemble with a pair of lurid red sneakers. And it was this insouciant touch that prompted Schwartz to rhapsodize about the subversive subtext implicit in the donning of such garish footwear. Red sneakers at a black-tie function! Such cheek! Such sassiness! Imagine the chagrin of the multitudinous suits, marooned in their black wing-tips!

Oh yes, once again, the flabbergasted bourgeois were in for a good, sound epater-ing.

Of course, it wasn't just that Keillor wore idiotic, inappropriate, anachronistic sneakers that so impressed Schwartz. No, it was that the sneakers were worn--nay, sported--in such a casual, matter-of-fact fashion, as befat the Laird of Lake Wobegon. Not for Keillor was any of that ersatz, calculated mutinousness that one associates with roguish billionaires, insolent pop stars, and other faux iconoclasts. No, in the world according to Garrison Keillor, this gesture was entirely sui generis: Nothing could be more natural than turning up at a black-tie function sporting stupid red sneakers. For Keillor was nothing if not a maverick. And mavericks wore red sneakers.

Though the reader may detect an undercurrent of malice in the preceding paragraphs, I can truthfully say that I have nothing against the nation's designated imps, no axe to grind with the professionally precious. What does concern me is when the elfin charm and general wig-waggishness that we all associate with A Prairie Home Companion begins to spread into the general populace. Fanciful whimsiness of the National Public Radio variety is a vital element in this society and, so long as it is handled exclusively by seasoned professionals with extensive experience in the realm of the overweaningly twee, the MacroMaverick poses no threat to the commonweal. But when premeditated affectation begins to spread at the micro level, when amateur lone wolves begin to infest our towns and churches and schools and neighborhoods with their stage-managed coyness--frequently manifested in their footwear--then there is cause for concern.

This is why I was so troubled when I stumbled upon the Pretty Good Goods catalog, published by American Public Media Group. The catalog, replete with quintessential Prairie Home Companion-type merchandise, is for all intents and purposes the J. Crew catalog of choreographed cuteness. Apparently, it has been around for some time, but like a number of exotic viruses, has been keeping a relatively low profile.

It is quite a document. Here is the Norlender Traditional Norwegian Sweater, a macabre, snow-flake-adorned, orange-and-black pastiche perhaps designed to make middle-aged white men look even more ridiculous in the eyes of young African Americans. Here are the Wash Away Your Sins Soap and Hand Cleaner, the Church Potluck Supper Cookbook and Personalized Stoneware Dish, the American Duct Tape Council Embroidered Denim Shirt. And here, of course, are the Animal Tracks Walking Stick, the Hummingbird Balance Toy, Vanilla and Chocolate Scented Cow Soaps, My Granny's Purse Book, and the Navy Blue Reader's Wrap.

None of them are cheap. What's so great about that? you may ask. Well, nobody ever said any of this stuff was great. We merely said it was pretty good. Get it?

The one-stop shopping center for pre-fab disingenuousness, push-button puckishness, and mail-order irony, Pretty Good Goods also purveys such Machiavellianly cloying items as a book of Dirt Farmer Wisdom, Vintage Typewriter Key Jewelry, the Gaelic Welcome sign and the Garden Jeans Rain Gauge. They're so lame, they're cool! They're not great; they're just pretty good! Nor will those in the market for sappy, homespun, horrible music be disappointed. The catalogue also features such classics of negative hipness as Dan Newton's Café Accordion Orchestra Live!, The Kingston Trio 45th Anniversary Tribute, and Songs of the Cat, on which Keillor himself warbles through 16 feline celebrating songs with fading opera star Frederica von Stade.

And then, of course, there is the Victor Borge Collectors Set. For those born too recently to be apprised of his myriad crimes, Borge was a clownish though not especially funny musician--a defrocked concert pianist--who plied his trade by butchering the classics on national television, thus making high art seem stupid. In his time, he was viewed by young people as just as potent a menace to America's sanity and self-image as Sammy Davis Jr., Lawrence Welk and his Champagne Music Makers, Ozzie and Harriet, the Ray Conniff Singers, Percy Faith, Ferrante & Teicher, and the cast of Gilligan's Island. But that was before his work was exhumed and rescued via the countercultural Heimlich maneuver of irony. Americans are justifiably concerned about Internet websites that offer inexpensive downloads of programs teaching ordinary people how to devise computer viruses. They are always up in arms about books and magazines detailing how to assemble atomic weapons. Where, then, is the outcry against the publication and dissemination of Pretty Good Goods?

Viruses are insidious and nuclear weapons are hideous, but those that create them are widely viewed as outcasts and madmen, not as part of the warp and woof of society. But fifth-column publications such as Pretty Good Goods eat away at the bulwarks of democracy from within. They sap our will to be hip, well-dressed, and cool; they transmit the subliminal message that preening dorkiness is an acceptable lifestyle. They encourage Baby Boomers to be even more annoying than they already are: First it was your music, then it was your politics, then it was your McMansions, and now it's your 100 percent Norwegian-crafted snow flake sweaters. God, does your generation suck!

To be perfectly honest, I don't believe that Keillor, author of Homegrown Democrat, which preaches the self-hagiographical "politics of kindness," became associated with the enterprise because he thought he was going to get rich off it. No, I suspect that Keillor's true motivation for putting out this insidious catalogue is to spread the gospel of postmodern cutey-piedness by way of a seemingly innocuous mechanism. By persuading the public that dumb is smart, that bad is good, that lame is hip, that corny is cutting-edge, Keillor hopes to plant the seeds of jejuneness and turn everyone in this country into a dink. That way, the Democrats might finally win an election.

I don't like it. I don't like it even one bit. I think the FCC, or the Better Business Bureau, or the Small Business Administration, or somebody important should look into this. Howard Stern and Janet Jackson may pose clear and present threats to our national morals, but they pose no threat to our national dignity. Keillor and his band of merry mavericks are another story entirely. If catalogues such as this ever fall into the hands of our kids, and our teenaged children (already culturally predisposed toward knee-jerk seditiousness) begin adorning their rooms with World War I propellers, bronze miner's lamps, Love Is Where You Find It posters, and Scented Hen and Egg Soaps, our entire society could disappear overnight beneath a tidal wave of tongue-in-cheekiness.

Looking on the bright side, in a truly ironic bit of ironic irony, the very existence of a catalogue such as Pretty Good Goods could ultimately be self-defeating, sabotaging precisely those re-social engineering projects that the red-sneaker crowd are most enamored of. For if "rebels" like Garrison Keillor are serious about issues like gun control, they must one day wise up to the fact that the American people will never willingly surrender their firearms so long as someone out there is selling Kingston Trio 45th Anniversary Tribute CDs. There is only so far the American people can be pushed; the Kingston Trio is far enough.

To paraphrase a famous American: millions for defense; not one cent for Kingston Trio tribute.

Joe Queenan is author, most recently, of Queenan Country: A Reluctant Anglo-phile's Pilgrimage to the Mother Country.