Mr. Smith Goes to Washington

What if, several years ago, in some clandestine laboratory in Central Nevada, a crack team of scientists began developing the ultimate late-century entertainment device. Certain criteria would have been established: The device should affirm the ideals of liberal consumerism. It should be benignly sexy and have soft-drink-friendly “attitude.” It should synergize all major wings of the culture industry, use all available techniques of mass hypnosis and consensus building. It should be ebonics-fluent yet family-oriented, fresh-seeming yet profoundly familiar. It should be named Smith.

Cut to the present. “The only thing you can really, truly hate about Will Smith is that he is not your best friend and never will be,” writes Ned Zeman in the current Vanity Fair. “If you’re looking to read an explosive deconstruction of Will Smith, go find another article.” If you’re looking to read a breathless dispatch from the squishy center, however, you’ve come to the right place. Zeman accurately pinpoints the rapper, movie star, and “most likable man in the world” as the matrix of current entertainment commerce. He less accurately calls group Dru Hill a rapper and identifies Stevie Wonder’s ‘70s hit “I Wish” as “You Wish,” but such oversights seem part of the point. (In the same news cycle, a New Yorker feature misspelled the name of jazz giant Kenny Dorham and a Rolling Stone feature invoked “the chord changes” of lyricist Johnny Mercer.) To fully celebrate Smith is to ignore details and subcultures, to have a bullish, centrist, get-with-the-team attitude. It is to bask in what Zeman describes somewhat disturbingly as “all that bright-eyed, jug-eared Will Smithness.” It is to believe in the transcendent value of the mainstream.

Will Smith is more than an emblem of bland Clinton-era diversity. He is the pinnacle of current entertainment values and a master of contemporary pop methodologies. An able actor, he is irresistibly congenial onscreen–warm, self-effacing, infectiously amused. On record, he outdoes even Puffy Combs in the project of making a once politically charged, word-based music virtually content-free. This two-pronged campaign has enabled Smith to achieve a sort of greatness. He has synergized Hollywood and the music industry to the extent that any film he stars in gets its own guaranteed top-10 hit-video commercial. He has combined $250 million per film earnings with platinum record sales.

This is not solely a product of bright-eyed, jug-eared Will Smithness, but also of supreme pop engineering. The Austin Powers Age has brought us a sly, supposedly more palatable mode of corporate shilling, wherein the shiller jokes about shilling while shilling. For his latest hit, Smith turned Stevie Wonder’s “I Wish”–an exuberantly funky reminiscence of childhood innocence–into a musical ad for his star vehicle Wild Wild West (even the WWW title seems some subtle invocation of new-media mastery). While pop songs have doubled as film trailers since Viva Las Vegas, previously it was done with lyrics that referenced a character’s name, say, or mentioned a story locale. Smith lives in less subtle times. His song for Men in Black was called “Men in Black.” Its chorus went “Here come/ The Men In Black.” His song for Wild Wild West is called “Wild Wild West.” Its chorus goes, “We’re going straight/ To the Wild Wild West”–where, presumably, we’ll pay our $9.50 and perhaps enjoy something from the concession stand. Smith yucks it up so infectiously in his cowboy outfit and game smirk that we hardly mind being reminded of his new film’s title 125 times in the same song.

There is a word for Smith’s form of virtuosity and it also applies to his hero, the post-retirement Michael Jordan. The word is salesmanship. More than actor, rapper, or even puff-writer hypnotist, Smith is a salesman. A salesman must please everyone–old, young, male, female, white, black. He must inspire a trust and affection that makes the sale itself a felicitous experience, no matter how blatant. With Smith, producers and record execs have the best salesman in America on the payroll. People will buy this movie, his hit song, the merchandise. He’ll smile on the cover of every magazine from Vibe to Vanity Fair. The product might be beats, special effects or, who knows, a new health plan. “I absolutely believe I could be president of the United States,” Smith tells Zeman. “I believe that if … that’s what I wanted to do with my life, I could win.” Stay tuned.