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Last month I was living in a "Matrix Nation." Or so The New Yorker's website told me in a table-of-contents reference to Adam Gopnik's movie review. I was surprised to learn this, because I thought I was living in a Karaoke Nation. I'd been told this by New York magazine writer Steve Fishman, whose new book with that title went on sale around then and was being written about in all sorts of publications. So which was it, then? Was I a black-clad, steely-eyed bad ass, or was I a drunk with a mic? The choices seemed a bit limited, but who was I to question the media's all-knowing gaze?
I continued reading and before long I realized just how many nations I was living in simultaneously. Article after article, book after book, declared me a denizen of some nation or other. Radar magazine, in its hyped-for-being-less-hyped second issue, placed me smack-dab in the middle of a "B-List Nation," filled to the brim with wannabe A-list celebrities. But then a Yale historian's new book set me straight: I was in a Hellfire Nation, torn between pompous moralizers and social rabble-rousers. Or was I? It's a "Soap Opera Nation," said a Business Today article, making me, presumably, a stunning star in a flatteringly lit room. But no. A former inmate and a prison activist who just published a book together say I'm just rattling my tin cup across the bars of a Prison Nation. (Which would explain why I've got nothing better to do than all this reading.) But that's wrong, too, explained Newsweek's Seth Mnookin. All along, he told me, I've been a proud inhabitant of, yes, a "Condom Nation." In which case, Seth, where do I sign up for a green card?
It's a mind-numbing variety of nations I traveled through in just a few weeks' time. But of course I'd really just stayed in one place, and all these "nations"—these labelings of the zeitgeist, really—had just washed over me. But had there really been so many major cultural shifts in just a month or so? Or are writers—and book publishers, and the magazine editor who come up with coverlines—just getting lazy?
The Weekly Standard, bemoaning the decline of Georgetown basketball, has dubbed us a "Hoya Nation." Newsweek, digging again for a cutesy headline, calls us a "Spielberg Nation," since apparently anyone with a digicam and a PC can direct E.T. And book writers have pinned down with aplomb what ails our country. We're a Prozac Nation, a Fast Food Nation, a Rogue Nation, a Poker Nation, a Roadtrip Nation, an Alien Nation, and, invoking the DJ's blessed surname, a Savage Nation—all at the same time.
Americans are, to be sure, a peculiar lot. But is it really possible we're a savage bunch of overeaters and pill poppers, road trippers and foreigners, with a weak spot for Big Macs and a penchant for playing Texas Hold 'em? Perhaps, really, we're just a label-loving nation, one with a fondness for catch phrases and quick, concise, and cute explanations for the myriad cultural trends, habits, and vices we're told are sweeping this country.
Assuming we are, then scribes are fulfilling our wishes with gusto. There's no shortage of snappy two-word titles with "nation" plunked at the end, defining who we are, explaining why our funny nation acts the way it acts. But not only does the media's fond use of punchy phrases oversimplify cultural (and presumably national) phenomena, it also exaggerates trends and events, so as to add a mark of sensationalism and timeliness to writers' stories.
Or, at the very least, these catchy if unimaginative titles are clever ploys to boost sales. After all, Elizabeth Wurtzel received a $500,000 book advance for her follow-up to Prozac Nation. Eric Schlosser's Fast Food Nation, the title for which was conceived by Rolling Stone's Will Dana, remained on the Times bestseller list for 15 weeks straight.
Given the trend, and its success, it seems likely we'll be a nation of Nations for the indefinite future. It's only a matter of time before we read about our Small-Talk Nation, examining Americans' obsession with mindless chatter, or our Breath-Strip Nation, with breath that just can't get any mintier. Or perhaps we'll be a Post-It Nation, overrun with those helpful little sticky things, or a even a Cup-Holder Nation, desperately concerned with whether our comfy chairs are beverage-compliant.
But there's always another possibility. Maybe the media will alas put the kibosh on this overused titular device. Maybe our writers and editors will come up with more creative headlines. Because this trend is old hat: It has already swept the nation.
Lionel Beehner is a freelance writer based in New York City.