Stupid human tricks

Culture | The rise of New Age powerbeads, the decline of late-night irony, and other cultural buzz

Issue: "Taking on the thugs," Nov. 6, 1999

Idol fashion
Blame a New York handbag designer named Zoe Metro for the latest New Age craze. She saw the Dalai Lama wearing prayer beads and was inspired to create a line of bracelets. From that was spawned powerbeads, which have replaced crystals and body amulets as the dominant fetish for the superstitious. Powerbeads are sold everywhere from fashionable department stores to low-rent street vendors, Some folks believe this little dash of Buddhism can increase wealth and brainpower, or even cure premenstrual syndrome. Wait, it gets sillier. Supposedly the color of the powerbeads determines their magic powers. For example, a rose quartz attracts, turquoise delivers healing, and mother of pearl sucks in the shekels. "Everyone is buying these powerbeads, all ages, all sexes, across the country," gushed Saks Fifth Avenue merchandise manager Jennifer DeWinter. "Rarely do you get a trend that appeals to so many people." If only P.T. Barnum were here to see this. Powerbeads join feng shui, yoga, and rubbing the Buddha for money as the latest dumbed-down permutation of Eastern mysticism to be flim-flammed onto the gullible. Trend watchers even see this as showing how people are becoming more "spiritual." "Americans today are taking a mental account of what is important in life. They are more mystical and inspirational," market researcher Irma Zandl told the Associated Press. "Powerbeads fit right into that.... They are about being positive and feeling good." Write your own punch line there. What powerbeads really show is the classic American approach to religion. You have your higher power and I have mine. Whatever gets you through the night-from rocks on a string to prayer cloths to a metal folding chair--is acceptable. Especially if we can get the mystical buzz and power for successful living without religion's downside of moral demands, faith, doctrine, and discipleship. Perhaps what we need is sackcloth and ashes. On the fall of the house of Letterman
Remember back in 1993 when David Letterman was going to be the king of TV? He jumped from NBC to a better deal on CBS and was supposed to trounce his former bosses. It didn't work out that way. Mr. Letterman's ratings are in the cellar, even in these days of declining network ratings. The Late Show pulls about 3.6 million people a night these days, but that's less than half the audience that watched five years ago. Even winning an Emmy this year hasn't helped. In fact, The Tonight Show regularly beats it, and the ratings lead is growing. (Nightline usually beats them both, but it doesn't get as much attention because it isn't so star-studded.) Mr. Letterman has clearly lost his role as gatekeeper to all that is hot and hip. Even independent TV stations are now counter-programming him, raising the cultural ante with reruns of Seinfeld or Frasier or Friends. They spend a fortune for the rights to those shows, and often it pays off. Perhaps the trouble with snide Mr. Letterman, and his clone Craig Kilborn, is that they are almost always sarcastic. Such sneering was a surprise back in 1980, but cynicism dominates the media now, so who needs Dave as a role model? Shepherd of the airwaves
For 21 years, Jean Shepherd held radio listeners spellbound up and down the Eastern seaboard, broadcasting from New York City's WOR tales from his childhood back in Hammond, Indiana. He died last month at age 78. In 1983 Mr. Shepherd's characters hit the silver screen when his book of short stories, In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash, was dramatized as the movie A Christmas Story. The film, annually aired on TBS, has a few mean-spirited moments, but it tells a funny story about small-town America without being cloying or nostalgic.

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