Monday, April 12, 2010

“Decadent” is the New “Yummy”

It’s not particularly healthy to get worked up about the real or perceived downfall of American society, and we try to avoid it whenever we can . . . although we succeed less often than we’d like, and end up wasting a lot of time worrying and complaining about it.

Occasionally we’ll get upset about politics, religion, literacy, or some other similar Big Important Thing about which most people have strong, heartfelt, and fantastically uninformed opinions that usually involve accusing you of being some sort of jackbooted religious hypocrite or an America-hating fascist socialist, depending on how exactly you choose to disagree with them. Usually, though, we tend to dwell on punctuation mistakes, bad grammar, and poor word choices, like when people write “could of” when what they really mean is ”could’ve.”1

Or to give a better example: not too long ago, before it was co-opted by marketing departments and turned into ridiculous marketing catch-phrase, the word decadent actually had a real meaning. It wasn’t a particularly positive one, either. According to Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary, decadent means, as an adjective,
1: marked by decay or decline (as from an earlier condition of excellence or vitality): as a: characterized by self-indulgence [a rich and decadent aristocracy]
and as a noun,
1: one that is decadent, especially : one characterized by or exhibiting the qualities of those who are degenerating to a lower type or of an age that is on the decline.
We haven’t measured this scientifically or even unscientifically, but ourguess is that until recently, the word decadent was used primarily to describe the state of the Roman Empire right before it was overrun by barbarians and collapsed—as Eddie Izzard might say, “like a flan in a cupboard”—living on only as a historical object lesson about the societal dangers of unchecked hedonism.

Scholars divide the history of the Roman Empire into five distinct periods, which are as follows:
  1. Republic: awesome.
  2. Empire: more powerful, but not as awesome for fans of, you know, rights and law and stuff.
  3. Decadence: you may think it’s awesome, especially if you’re a fan of vomiting, fiddling, burning, and/or orgies, but society is coming down all around you, which begins to be lame once you start noticing it.
  4. Being overrun by barbarians: totally lame.
  5. Spending a thousand years being compared to every powerful nation on Earth in a very preachy “they’ll get what’s coming to them” sort of way: lame.

So Rome, rotting from within and collapsing from the weight of its own debauchery,2 is a prime example of what decadence used to mean. Now, though, thanks to the ubiquitous dumbing-down power of advertising, decadence means one thing and one thing only:


Yes, that’s right, the symbol of moral and societal decay now means “yummy.”

But don’t just take our word for it, see and listen for yourself. As far as we’re concerned, the woman in this Hershey’s Bliss commercial says it all—and says it with a deep, sultry, throaty delivery that makes it clear that, if she had the chance, she wouldn’t think twice about slinking seductively out of your television set, tearing all her clothes off, and making slow, unbridled, passionate love . . . to your dessert.

And in case you think we’re just weird—instead of, more accurately, weird but correct—here are a couple more examples. You don’t have to watch the whole thing, the word you’re looking for shows up nice and early in both. We find it very odd, if not particularly relevant, that one of the examples comes from some sort of church group:

What does all this mean? Does it mean that American advertising, by latching onto yet another dopey and ubiquitous catchword (do you remember when everything from water parks to burritos were “extreme”?), tends to be embarrassingly mindless? Yeah, probably. Does it mean we should spend far less time dwelling on minor misuses of English? No.3 Does it mean that American society really does, on the whole, view decadence as a positive thing, and that we’re therefore heading inexorably along an downhill slope towards an inevitable oblivion?

Damned if we know, but we think that’s a really interesting question, and we’re glad we pretended that you asked it. Somewhere further on down the line, when we have a bit more time, a lot more education, and a few more facts and reasonably well thought-out opinions at our disposal, we’d like to address that question a bit more in depth, perhaps with the help of our faithful readers and even the Squid Bandit, co-founder of Bowling in the Dark, if he ever emerges from his cozy hole up in Punxsutawney. We hope you’re all up for it, and interested . . . or at the very least, still reading.

1. We are fully aware that by saying this, we’re likely to not only lose half of the folks who’ll ever bother to read this, but also bore the other half to death.
2. We’ve never actually studied the Roman Empire, so everything we’ve written about it may well be complete baloney. It’s possible that the Roman Empire collapsed under the weight of lead poisoning, the rise of Islam as a power in the region, or the unsustainable expense of maintaining defenses along such a vast territory against a multitude of foes. Hell, for all we know, it collapsed under the weight of Raymond Burr, which, come to think of it, sounds awfully believable to us.
3. Yes.

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