The Spectator

“Where the Wings Have No Shame”

What’s SkyMall culture really about?

Just this week the parent company of SkyMall filed for bankruptcy. In April 2007, Ron Rosenbaum wrote about SkyMall’s culture of “gadgetization.” His article is reprinted below:

I think it was the SnacDaddy® chicken-wing tray that may have done it. Convinced me there is something to be learned about America from SkyMall culture.

When I say SkyMall culture, I mean the gadget-fetishizing, techno-porn culture of the ads in airline magazines. Most of you are familiar with the ads in airline magazines, and I’m sure at one bored, tarmac-sitting moment or another you must have wondered why a certain kind of product is featured in their pages. Well, SkyMall is an airline magazine that features nothing but airline magazine ads.

Nothing but ads for such essential items as the “Readylight® Handcrank LED Flashlight.” (SkyMall advertisers are big on “handcrank” items. Handcrank enthusiasts implicitly foresee a crisis in which all forms of power on the planet will fail, and you’ll be able to generate light only with the help of a crank.)

The ad for the SnacDaddy® chicken-wing array tray—headlined “Where the wings have no shame”—appears in the Late Spring ‘07 issue of SkyMall, which I found in the seat pocket on a Delta flight. This was just pages from an ad for “the world’s largest write-on map mural,” probably useful for keeping an eye on the fast-moving global catastrophe that will make your many handcrank devices the envy of your crank-deprived neighbors. And a few pages on, we find the “crank-powered walkie talkie.” (The crank, handbred in Vermont, is sold separately.)

The issue also features the “upside-down tomato garden,” the “remote controlled robotic hammerhead shark,” the “pop-up hot dog cooker,” the “million-germ-eliminating travel toothbrush sanitizer,” the “window-mounted cat porch,” the “world’s smallest indoor remote control helicopter,” the “Turbo-Groomer® COBALT” nose-hair trimmer, the “Sudoku glass tabletop set,” the “Solar-powered mole repeller,” (what, no handcrank in case of nuclear winter?), the “versatile mock rock in five sizes.” (For those unaware of the purpose of a “mock rock”—since real ones are not in short supply—they are designed to “hide problem areas in your yard or garden.”)

And then there’s the fixation on watches—watches that give you as much useless time-related information as possible. The cover story of this issue of SkyMall features “Stylish, Atomic, Solar based Chronograph Watches” alongside close-ups of the dials of two giant-looking “stylish, atomic, solar-based chronograph watches.” I found myself staring at the multiple gauges on the two huge dials which must convey, to the SkyMall geek, a thrill equal to that delivered by two large breasts on the cover of Penthouse.

It was chrono-porn. I found myself actually getting a little airsick staring at the still photographs of these watches, one with three dials-within-the-dial and a wavy thing that looked like a three-dimensional parabola, whose time-relatedness I didn’t understand at all.

But what did occur to me is that the appeal of watches in SkyMall country has something to do with the notion of death—of your time running out.

Something to do with the fact that when one is up in the air, however familiar, on some limbic level of the brain, one is aware of how absurd it is to be suspended eight miles high in a metal container, only some poorly understood laws of physics keeping you from plunging abruptly to certain death.

In some still-not-entirely assimilated region of the limbic brain, one’s time is about to run out every second, thus the attraction of all those devices that somehow contain time, tame time, break time down into tiny dials within dials—even the word dial contains the word (or, to be precise, sound) die. Consuming chrono-porn in midair seems to be a way of managing the existential anxiety—the denial of the dial—of flight.

With such reverence for time, it’s no wonder you can encounter, inside SkyMall, the “most hailed watch in modern human history.” Modern human history, people! That’s a lot of hailing.

Gadgetization has even invaded the airline-mag category of “executive” self-improvement and motivational tools. In the ad for Successories®, “your complete source for workplace motivation, inspiration and recognition,” the magazine features the “Power of Attitude Pen Holder.”

Then, of course, there are solutions for problems you didn’t realize were problems: “Radio controlled snack float brings food and drinks to you!” while you’re relaxing on “[t]he world’s most advanced self-propelled pool float!” While all the while inside your washer the “Bra Baby” is doing its thing, making sure that it’s safe to wash and dry padded bras “without worry!”

I could go on: the “pre-programmed wine chiller,” the “Life is a Journey” bracelet. And “the Ultimate Gear Management Solution,” a “travel-vest” that has “29 hidden pockets”—the emphasis on storage management reflecting the uneasiness of the traveler always feeling out of place, with no hidden pockets to hide in. Thus, the proliferation of ingenious storage devices which give the comforting illusion that, in a larger sense, everything can be made to fit—including you.

But I think there’s something about the SnacDaddy® slogan—“Where the wings have no shame”—that somehow captures the heart of the SkyMall sensibility.

The SnacDaddy ad presents a problem that we’ve all struggled with and by now have probably given up all hope of solving: “Eating chicken wings can be a messy business.”

But wait! News flash!: “It doesn’t have to be.” And with those few reassuring words, the ad reveals that the “SnacDaddy wing tray is the innovative new tray specially engineered to hold chicken wings and hide the leftover bones.”

The device depicted in the accompanying illustration looks like a cross between a big, rubber doggy dish and a Lazy Susan. It has a dozen or so chicken-wing-shaped compartments “specially engineered” to cradle a single wing in distinctive glowing glory, and we see the wings arrayed, as yet untouched by human hands, in what looks like, I now realize, a chicken-wing-powered flying saucer.

I know you’re curious about how this “specially engineered” wonder of human civilization actually works. Fortunately, “Where the Wings Have No Shame” anticipates and answers your question:

“Just pile SnacDaddy™ wing tray full of wings, enjoy your meal and toss the bones back inside the center hole” (italics mine).

But just one minute here. The red doggy-dish thing does appear to have a center hole, but what’s the deal? The SnacDaddy ad is reticent about what happens to the wings once they fall into the hole. Are the wings going to just stand there, mute, moist testimony to the savage appetites of those who sucked them bare? If, as we assume, the “wingholder” is placed on a surface, will the wings not fall through said hole to the surface below, risking wing-bone scratches on a polished dining room table?

Or are wing disposal bags to be purchased separately? Perhaps the wingtray center hole possesses a (handcranked) super anti-gravity suction device that whisks the wing bones to a black hole or an alternate universe beyond what physicists call “the event horizon.”

But, thank God, “your mess is kept out of sight while the wings keep coming.”

Thank God, because as everyone knows, looking at chicken bones after having eaten chicken parts can result in devastating moments of existential doubt: I too will become nothing more than bare wing bones someday. Kinda Beckett-like.

And once again we’re back in the dark world, the dark side of flight, the subconscious “shame” at our cumbersome “wings” that leave us in peril of momentary downdrafts.

And the more one thinks of wings, not chicken wings or airline wings, or even the wax wings of Icarus, or the waxwings of Nabokov, the more one thinks rather of Andrew Marvell’s phrase for the onrush of mortality, “Time’s winged chariot.”

Yes, I’m obsessed with the phrase “Where the Wings Have No Shame.” And yes, I admit it has something to do with one of my favorite early U2 anthems, “Where the Streets Have No Name.” It’s a haunting song about one’s deeply uncertain place in the world—aloft or not. Haunting in the way “In the Air Tonight” is, no matter how much you dislike Phil Collins.

So, what do we learn about America from SkyMall culture? That if you scratch the surface of our consciousness at vulnerable moments suspended over the earth on the strength of razor-thin wings, you find fear and shame, perhaps the shame of the wingspread of the American imperium (represented almost universally by a winged eagle): Could those chicken wings represent diminished versions of the once-proud American eagle’s wings?

We’re all “in the air tonight,” living with the shame of wings, fearing the death of Icarus, who flew too close to the sun,and kept on falling. Knowing we don’t belong up there, taking solace from the picture of those as-yet-untouched wings, each nestled in its wing-shaped SnacDaddy® holder, together looking like a ring of supplicants around the black hole for bones.