Friday, March 30, 2012

The Hate in My Love-Hate Relationship with Utah

For the past couple of weeks, I’ve been listening to morning radio during the first hour or two of my work day. It’s been a semi-refreshing change of pace from listening to music absolutely all day long. (Yes, I said it.) One of the main radio stations I’ve been listening to (via the Internet) is Salt Lake City-based X96, whose Radio from Hell was my morning show of choice back when I lived in Utah. Because I’m two hours ahead of the Beehive State, I can join the Utah program later in my day without having missed much of the broadcast.

While it’s been fun revisiting Radio from Hell, listening again to Utah radio is souring my opinion of the state. Not because of Utah radio itself. I’ve been surprisingly disappointed with the radio offerings in this corner of the US, including Atlanta (which I would have expected to have even more radio options than SLC, but which is actually much worse). However, the news stories and advertising on Utah radio remind me all too much of a culture that I have not missed. To begin with, Utah is surprisingly snooty. I don’t think I realized this until I left the state and then returned for the occasional visit. Salt Lake City is a more cosmopolitan city than many would think, and I’m convinced that you could be quite happy living there if you were a snob. There are advantages to living in such a place—SLC features some very nice restaurants, parks, and shopping, for example—but there is also a sense in which Utah residents are relentlessly, even if silently, judgy. It’s a cliquish place to be. It really is.

That brings me to another part of Utah culture that I’m just not interested in. It’s fractured. There is such an “us vs. them” mentality. You might not notice it too much if you stick to your own kind, but I don’t like the underlying tension that it creates. Obviously, this is something that stems from the heavy religiosity of the state, and yet it exists because people on both sides of the divide are so often closed-minded and judgmental. One group seems to operate under the guise of, “You’re great, as long as you’re just like me!” The other seems committed to thinking, “You’re great, as long as you’re not one of them!” It gets tiring. In my experience, it’s a more implicit than explicit part of the social dynamics of living in Utah, and yet it is both pervasive and annoying.

I mentioned that advertising has stirred up my disdain for certain aspects of Utah culture. Even when I lived in Utah, I was painfully aware of how much Utah advertising caters to a particular demographic. Though I fall largely within that demographic, I always found it rather insulting that I would be pandered to in such a cheap and discriminatory way, with other members of the community who don’t belong to the target demographic being ignored altogether because, hey, who cares about them (and aren’t we all more comfortable pretending they don’t exist anyway)? But it’s worse than I had formerly realized. Having lived outside of Utah for roughly six years, I now recognize just how much even the most innocuous and, as it were, secular Utah advertisement is catering to a very particular crowd. It’s quite subtle, but it’s there. It’s the most obvious in cases of “funny” commercials. I’m not sure I can explain how so, but the humor is often insultingly stupid. “Corny” is probably an apt description. I don’t think humor has to be raunchy or edgy, but if you want to keep things clean and wholesome, at least make it intelligent. Sometimes I get the impression that Utahans (and thus those whose livelihoods depend on appealing to Utahans, such as certain advertisers) are more concerned with something being appropriate than with it being creative or artistically good. If something is wholly inoffensive, it’s lauded—not just morally, but creatively! Insofar as something is not squeaky clean, it doesn’t even deserve consideration—it simply can’t possess any artistic value in that case. It’s an attitude that really irks me.

I’m writing this blog entry because I feel a bit crestfallen. When I visited Utah last summer, it actually sparked a genuine desire in me to live there again someday. Of course, I was simply on vacation, interacting largely with friends and family. I wasn’t living my normal, day-to-day life. Listening to Utah radio every morning over the last week or two has given me a tiny taste of what it might be like to be re-immersed in that culture on a more permanent, normal-life basis. It’s somewhat unappealing. Then again, who knows. Last time I was in Utah, I was also feeling inspired to live life my way and not give a crap about what others think. (Those feelings eventually gave birth to this post, several months later.) Perhaps if I were more in touch with that attitude right now, I wouldn’t mind living in Utah. I worry, though, about falling back into normal attitudes and ultimately feeling like I haven’t progressed at all, like all of the progress I’ve made over the last six years has been lost. I’m really on the fence about ever returning to live again in my home state. If the opportunity presented itself, I think I’d probably go for it. But I sincerely fear that I might regret it.

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