Rao pegs the beginning of premium mediocrity’s ascent to the 2008 financial collapse, when cupcakes ruled the culinary landscape. The cupcake is a classic example: It’s a single-serve dessert on demand, minus the true indulgence of buying or making a whole cake to enjoy over time or share with family or friends. Cupcakes look great in photos, but as has been frequently noted in the past decade, many of them are not exactly delicious. I remain unconvinced that anyone ever took genuine pleasure in eating a dry, fist-size Crumbs Bake Shop cupcake topped with a mountain of hardened buttercream.
As with many aesthetically pleasing food trends that have thrived in the era of constant internet access, the value of a deluxe cupcake isn’t necessarily in its physical consumption. Instead, it’s more like an edible Gucci logo belt, or a sprinkle-topped boutique hotel with a beautifully decorated lobby bar and painfully cramped showers. These goods are the least expensive way to gain temporary entry to a particular consumer class—for example, Gucci belts cost $450, while one of the brand’s bags could easily set you back $3,500. The brand’s belts are not any better at belting than many far less expensive options, but they provide a conduit for a person of middling means to transport herself into the lavish life she wants, if only within the highly edited confines of a carefully staged Instagram photo.
Crumbs Bake Shop expanded to 79 locations in the United States before it went out of business in 2014, but the value system that enabled it remains: A plethora of subpar options is the foundation of modern shopping. Most Millennials were too young to get a foothold in the economy before it fell out from under them, and now, confronted with the precariousness of working- and middle-class life in the decade after the Great Recession, the most many can do is playact modern success for as long as possible while hoping the real thing happens eventually.
All of the faux-Eames chairs the internet tried to sell me are props for this Kabuki theater: things you buy because they’re masquerading as more exceptional than they are. Some of these products are perfectly good at fulfilling their function, but they paper over a problem of class mobility that consumer choices can’t change. The market has looked upon the people it serves and said, “Let them eat cupcakes.”
Social strivers have been buying knockoffs in America since modern consumerism took shape, in the decades after World War II. The advent of industrialized manufacturing and mass media helped create marketing as we know it, but it’s hard to imagine that the internet would be so bloated with speciously opulent mid-priced home decor and personal-wellness products if not for celebrities and, more recently, Instagram.
Rao is right to date the acceleration of premium mediocrity to the late 2000s, but it wasn’t just the recession that drove the phenomenon. The streets of Los Angeles and New York had turned into paparazzi wonderlands, fueled by a mixture of booming tabloid sales and new blockbuster gossip blogs such as TMZ. Photographers tailed Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan, and Nicole Richie while they bought lattes and spilled out of nightclubs; then journalists and bloggers detailed exactly what they were wearing, carrying, and driving for a ravenous audience, often offering up “looks for less” to help readers imitate what they saw. This was the first time most Americans got such an exhaustive and unvarnished look at how famous people behave when they’re not on the red carpet—a glimpse of the wealth that had previously been consigned to the pages of glossy fashion magazines, where it was cleaned up and made tasteful, or to the personal knowledge of maids, cooks, and assistants.