We had to brand ourselves, unless we’d somehow gotten ahead before the 21st century dawned and had therefore arrived in the new millennium prebranded. Otherwise, we were obligated to promote, pimp, shill and otherwise whore like never before. Our experiences were special, marketable and somehow universal. With effort and determination we could turn our quirky little selves into big cash money. There was no room for doubt, ambiguity or the nagging concern that this was all kind of a boondoggle. The era of personal branding had arrived, they told us, though I no longer remember who “they” were. You needed to blog about your shit or get off the pot.
I had ambition. I had guts. I had bills to pay. I had a wireless connection. What I didn’t have was someone telling me that the whole concept of creating a personal brand, of turning the most private details of the only life you’ll ever have into a prima facie profit-generating product is perilous, misguided and probably disastrous for the soul. Or maybe someone did tell me that and I decided not to listen.
When my parenting memoir Alternadad got close to its January 2007 publication, I smelled opportunity. Parenting, I believed, was hot, and hipster parenting was hotter. Social networking had begun to explode. The blogosphere promised great riches to those who understood how to exploit its uncharted social codes. I prepared myself for something much bigger than a successful book. Alternadad would pave the way to a branded lifestyle empire.
Five years later, I’m still, unsurprisingly, a parent, but my “empire” has been reduced to the occasional Facebook status update about something cute or weird that my son says and the even more occasional quote for a Father’s Day newspaper story. That’s as it should be, really. But like a puppy on a chair leg, I tried to dominate the world, never realizing I’d chosen the wrong target. Let my experience be a warning to anyone who tries to brand his life.
It almost never works.
In early 2006 I heard from a reporter at New York magazine. He was working on something called “Up With Grups,” about the “ascendant breed of grown-up who has redefined adulthood.” The piece, as the writer later explained in his summary paragraph, served as “an obituary for the generation gap. It is a story about 40-year-old men and women who look, talk, act and dress like people who are 22 years old.” His article graced the magazine’s cover, complemented by a series of portraits of men much hipper and more downtown-looking than I holding their children in their BabyBjörns. It made some social observations that seemed trenchant at the time, though it has a before-the-fall vibe that dates it badly. People who were trying to look cool in 2006 are now just trying to hang on to their apartments.
The writer called me with some questions. I answered eagerly. He sounded happy as I talked to him, like a prospector who’d just discovered a rich vein of gold. “My son seems to like the Hives a lot,” I said. “I mean, he doesn’t know who they are. He calls it ‘thunder music’ when I put it on. He gets very excited by that. That makes me sort of proud.”
The reporter had found his fool, the ultimate example of arrested intellectual development in a Gen-X parent. I fed his buzz-worthy thesis as if it were a hungry python. “You have to have a little bit of Dora the Explorer in your life,” I said. “But you can do what you can to mute its influence. And there’s no shame, when your kid’s watching a show and you don’t like it, in telling him it sucks. If you start telling him it sucks, maybe he might develop an aesthetic.”
Alternadad was still almost a year away from publication. It’s a simple, universal story of two people without much money trying to define their identities in the face of new parenthood. All the “hipster dad” stuff in the book, though prominent, gets played for comic effect. The book’s central joke is that no one who calls himself a hipster is actually hip in any way, and that’s doubly true for a hipster dad. But I hadn’t really thought through how I was going to present my upcoming book in interviews. So instead I said stupid stuff like “I recognize that changes and sacrifices are necessary. I do occasionally wake up before nine these days. But I didn’t want to lose touch with the world’s cultural progress. I didn’t want to freeze myself in time.”
The people of New York read the piece. My editor called after it appeared. He was doing a nice job with the Alternadad manuscript, but he suddenly didn’t sound too pleased to be representing the “tell your kid his favorite show sucks” guy. Damage had been done, he said. “Next time, you should consult with us before you give an interview,” he warned.
The theme had been set. One blogger wrote, “A generation of self-consumed male hipsters have suddenly discovered parenthood, and we’ll be forced to listen to them for years on end. Really, it’s enough to make you want to just crawl into a little ball and never read New York magazine again.”
Still, people were actually talking about, or at least around, the book. Even though I’d unwittingly become a reviled figure, I’d bullied my way into a corner of the cultural conversation. I’d done a poor job defining the brand. But there it stood anyway, branded, ready for exploitation.
“Isn’t there something unsavory in the idea of your kid as a kind of tabula rasa for you to overwrite with your tastes?” wrote the New York magazine reporter after a particularly pungent quote of mine. “Less a child than a malleable Mini-Me?” That moment, as it turned out, was the Alternadad brand’s pinnacle.