“Nothing cool ever happens down here.”
Nothing cool ever happens down here. I’ve heard that for years – for decades – and, I’ll admit, for most of my teenage years and young adulthood, I too wanted to leave the South for that very reason. New York or Los Angeles seemed so much better, and busier, and weirder. Nothing cool ever happens down here . . . Fortunately, for us, that bald generalization not only fails the smell test, it falls flat on its face. Cool things do happen down here— it’s just that too many people fail to recognize and support them.
In his 1957 essay, “Toward a Situationist International,” Guy Debord wrote, “It is not a question of knowing whether this interests you but whether you yourself could become more interesting under new conditions of cultural creation.” Lesser known today, Debord was French writer, thinker, and filmmaker among the mid-century avant-garde in Europe. “Situations,” as he saw envisioned them, were similar to the hippies’ “happenings” in the 1960s, where the audience unwittingly became part of the show. Forced out of their passive role as spectators, unsuspecting people became characters in a setting who were acting within a plot.
Though it’d be hard to find many people in the American South who know Debord’s work, his ideas are peculiarly pertinent to our culture, which too often meets new cultural contributions with one of two minor damnations: writing it off without knowing what it is or flatly ignoring it out of existence. Resistance to change is one of the hallmarks of Southern culture, and while that predilection is usually applied to our political circumstances, its cultural significance can’t be ignored. When deciding what artists, musicians, and writers to support, conservative Southern culture tends to choose “tradition” over “individual talent,” to borrow TS Eliot’s terms. Yes, this is what I recognize, our culture says, but that over there— no.
What is perhaps most compelling about this tendency is that few places on Earth need to change as much as the South does. This region’s creative people, who have learned to make good use of scant resources, could cause our region to evolve and possibly even thrive under “new cultural conditions.” There are farmers, quilters, architects, venues, chefs, and designers in the South seeking, organizing, and creating those conditions, while also struggling to have people around them to pay attention. One might ask, why should we? Because we could all stand to be a little more interesting.
However, we’ve chosen instead to let too many of our best makers either leave or wither. In the 1990s, I was surrounded by creative young people at the Carver Creative and Performing Arts Center, among them Glenn Howerton from It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia and AP Bio, and many of them took their talents out of the South to places that support serious artists. At that time, too, the South was also producing some of the better alternative bands – REM and Indigo Girls from Georgia and Blind Melon from Mississippi – but there were also really good groups that came and went, like Engine House from Auburn, Alabama whose only album Nuwanda is now virtually impossible to find. In fact, if you want to see something you never would have thought even existed, look at the Alabama Punk Archive on Instagram.
Debord is also peculiarly pertinent to the South because his ideas connect to another aspect of our culture that we do support: sporting events, especially college football games, where the crowd is very much part of the action. A game with an active crowd is a “situation,” and game day is an event in itself, separate from the actual contest on the field. Texas A&M’s 12th Man echoes the idea, and there’s good reason why both LSU’s and Clemson‘s home stadiums are called Death Valley. Notwithstanding the players on the teams, the fans and their traditions are what make college football in the South more than a game.
What we Southerners lack in open-mindedness, we often make up for in vigor. (That saying, “If you can’t be good, be good at it,” wasn’t meant to be a golden rule.) Though I’m as big a college football fan as any Southerner, I still can’t understand how we raise our football coaches’ salaries to mythic proportions but can’t see a reason why artists, writers, and musicians should make enough of a living to stick around. In the end, we get what we pay for, and those who support the arts have the arts. Yet, when their absence reduces cultural options to karaoke bars, domestic light beer, and big-screen TVs, that’s when we find ourselves complaining, Nothing cool ever happens down here.