The bogus trend stories of summer: Chubby is hip; laptoppers evicted from coffee shops; DIY burial.

Media criticism.
Aug. 14 2009 3:20 PM

Bogus Trend Stories, Summer Edition

Chubby is hip; laptoppers evicted from coffee shops; DIY burial.

Pot belly. Click image to expand.
Are pot bellies now in?

Guy Trebay—who is a good enough journalist to know better—proclaims in the Aug. 13 New York Times Thursday Styles section that a potbelly is the summer of 2009's hip signifier—the new "trucker cap and wallet chain" for New York hipsters ("It's Hip To Be Round").

The "Ralph Kramden" look "is everywhere to be seen lately, or at least it is in the vicinity of the Brooklyn Flea in Fort Greene, the McCarren Park Greenmarket and pretty much any place one is apt to encounter fans of Grizzly Bear," Trebay writes.

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Trebay gets Details Editor Dan Peres to second his opinion. The streets of Williamsburg are filled with men "proudly rocking a gut," Peres says. Aaron Hicklin, editor of Out, explains that the six-pack abs obsession has become "so prissy it stopped being masculine." Even Trebay's personal trainer calls the He-Man look outdated.

Although Trebay avoids the word trend as well as its many synonyms, his piece reeks of bogusity. He never explains what makes something hip. Is it pure numbers? If so, the iPhone is hip. But by definition, something celebrated by everybody and found almost everywhere is conformity, and conformity ain't hip.

Usually when something is called hip, a top hipster can be found embracing it. But Trebay names no leader of potbelly hipness and uncovers no evidence of hip potbellies in the cinema, the stage, the concert hall, the night club, or elsewhere. It's just these random guts strolling around New York. You might as well say argyle socks are hip.

Maybe Trebay just saw Pulp Fiction(1994) and mistook it for a new release. In it, Fabienne (Maria de Medeiros) shares this memorable dialogue with Butch (Bruce Willis) about the coolness of potbellies on women.

Fabienne: I was looking at myself in the mirror.
Butch: Uh-huh?
Fabienne: I wish I had a pot.
Butch: You were lookin' in the mirror and you wish you had some pot?
Fabienne: A pot. A potbelly. Pot bellies are sexy.
Butch: Well you should be happy, 'cause you do.
Fabienne: Shut up, Fatso! I don't have a pot! I have a bit of a tummy, like Madonna when she did "Lucky Star," it's not the same thing.
Butch: I didn't realize there was a difference between a tummy and a pot belly.
Fabienne: The difference is huge.
Butch: You want me to have a pot?
Fabienne: No. Potbellies make a man look either oafish, or like a gorilla. But on a woman, a pot belly is very sexy. The rest of you is normal. Normal face, normal legs, normal hips, normal ass, but with a big, perfectly round pot belly. If I had one, I'd wear a tee-shirt two sizes too small to accentuate it.
Butch: You think guys would find that attractive?
Fabienne: I don't give a damn what men find attractive. It's unfortunate what we find pleasing to the touch and pleasing to the eye is seldom the same.

The Wall Street Journal rankled more than one bogus trend-spotter last week with its Aug. 6 piece "No More Perks: Coffee Shops Pull the Plug on Laptop Users; They Sit for Hours and Don't Spend Much; Getting the Bum's Rush in the Big Apple."

Yes, it appears as though a handful of independent coffee shops in New York City have limited the use of laptops in their establishments recently, but does that really constitute a trend? The piece notes that the largest coffee chain in the world, Starbucks, doesn't evict loitering laptoppers, nor does Borders, nor does Barnes & Noble. Seeing as a Starbucks or other chain coffee shop can be found near most independent cafes, and these chains accommodate laptop users, the trend is weaker than the coffee my mom used to perk.

The Journal alleges that the "trend" to evict laptoppers "is accelerating among" independent coffee shops and that "the recession has clearly accelerated it." But the aggressive policing of laptop use at coffee shops isn't new. A June 13, 2005, New York Times piece reported that Seattle and San Francisco cafes were ousting Wi-Fi moochers to make way for paying clientele. Even the headline of the Times piece is remarkably similar to that of the Journal's: "Some Cafe Owners Pull the Plug on Lingering Wi-Fi Users."

A year after the Times covered the "trend," the Boston Globe published"Wi-Fi Wars: Loiterers Can Be a Drag on Businesses' Bottom Line" (July 9, 2006). The Globe's findings: "Now some owners are fighting back by charging for wireless access, shutting off their signal at peak business hours, or telling loitering laptoppers to shell out or ship out."

The Press Box verdict: Move along, seekers of novelty and excitement—there's nothing here but an empty cup of joe.

Finally, last month (July 21), in a story headlined "Home Burials Offer an Intimate Alternative," the New York Times hyped the idea that "a growing number of people nationwide" are turning family funerals into do-it-yourself events.

If the New York Times wants to maintain that a growing number of America's sons and daughters have taken to floating their dead parents on a bed of ice for a nice DIY service in the family parlor, surely somebody has performed a body count that documents that fact. Alas, the Times article presents no home-buried counts for any year. The closest the story comes to putting a number to the practice is when it reports that one "death midwife" has "helped more with 300 families with funerals" since 1995, weekend workshops that instruct folks in how to plant their loved ones "have a waiting list," and the number of "organizations or individuals nationwide that help families with the process" stood at two in 2002 and is 45 today. The first anecdote doesn't measure anything meaningful, and the other two only establish that there is some interest in home burial, not that it is booming. So desperate is the Times to put a face on this nontrend that it mentions parenthetically that Michael Jackson's family was thinking of burying him at Neverland. Right. I can see Joe Jackson washing Michael's body, Tito digging the grave, and Jermaine assembling the funeral bouquet.

This trend is DOA.

******

Just three years ago the New York Times was hyping the beard: "At hipster hangouts and within fashion circles, the bearded revolution that began with raffishly trimmed whiskers a year or more ago has evolved into full-fledged Benjamin Harrisons." Thanks to trend-spotters David Frank, Stephen Parker, Carla Saulter, Anupreeta Das, and others for their suggestions. Seen a bogus trend story? Send it to slate.pressbox@gmail.com. I get trendy almost hourly on my Twitter feed. (E-mail may be quoted by name in "The Fray," Slate's readers' forum; in a future article; or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)

Track my errors: This hand-built RSS feed will ring every time Slate runs a "Press Box" correction. For e-mail notification of errors in this specific column, type the word DOA in the subject head of an e-mail message, and send to slate.pressbox@gmail.com.

Jack Shafer was Slate's editor at large. You can follow him on Twitter or email him at Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com.