Mexico has always been a refuge for Americans at odds with the American Dream. The American Dream makes demands: demands of time, effort and value conformity. The only way to escape the demands of the American Dream, within America, is to become homeless. This is a most distressing alternative – it is like diving off of a cliff: easy to jump, difficult to survive and harder still to climb up out of.
Mexico provides a place of almost unlimited squalor potential, yet is still a place from which one can easily return. It is much easier to return to a secure position within the American Dream framework from outside the country than to try to reenter the framework from within. The contempt that America feels for those who have allowed themselves to fall below the minimum requirement of a place to live is palpable, no matter what platitudes politicians spout.
How could it be otherwise? How else could society retain the pressure upon its members to toil and save and spend and have heart attacks, if the alternative is allowed social acceptability?
We are not a communist country: we are a country of individual opportunity and individual responsibility. Fantasies like Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and Animal House strike such a responsive chord because they acknowledge the grievous weight of this responsibility and speculate, “wouldn’t it be great if we could have all of this without the responsibility?” But these are fantasies, and we know they are fantasies, and they know we know.
Expatriotism provides an acceptable, if temporary, respite from this pressure. While America cares deeply about levels of participation within the system and places firm demands, Mexico simply doesn’t give a squat. It takes many fewer pesos to hole up in a shack along a beautiful coastline in Mexico than it does to live in government-subsidized housing in Buffalo, New York.
Where would you rather be? Basking in the perpetual summer of a snow white beach sipping Margaritas and chuckling at the tourists, or huddling around your short-circuiting space heater in your tundra hovel in Buffalo?
Fictional characters from Fred C. Dobbs to Augie March, to Jimmie Buffett’s semiautobiographical musical persona have chosen the Mexican alternative. It’s close, warm, and cheap.
“Margaritaville” conjures up all of these vagueries when its caribbean-country-mariachi tune begins. It’s happy yet reflective – the lilt of the melody is balanced by an aftertaste of regret. The song is not an unmitigated call to hedonism – it doesn’t celebrate the lifestyle into which its protagonist has fallen.
The song’s power lies in its acknowledgment that the life of dissipation must be temporary to have any value. Dissipation must be in contrast to real life – it must be the shadow against which real life shines, not the screen that real life is shown upon.
Margaritaville is analagous to college life: it is temporary, it isn’t real life. Hanging in Mexico for a while is even better than college: you don’t have to study. Dissipation and languor are accepted ways of life in college AND in Mexico, but someone has to pay for college, and even Mexico requires some outlay of cash. Depletion of funds give college and Mexico their natural ending for most people.
A musician like Jimmy Buffett has sufficient royalties coming in to sustain this lifestyle indefinitely, so he must create his own ending to the story. It is his progress toward that ending that gives the song its drama:
“Nibbling on spongecake,
watching the sun bake
All of those tourists covered with oil,
Strummin’ my 6 string,
on my front porch swing
Smell those shrimp they’re beginning to boil.”
This sounds to be paradise incarnate: all needs met, no demands made. The singer’s voice tells us otherwise, though. He is bored, played out and can barely rouse himself to mumble the words o fthe chorus:
“Wastin’ away again in Margaritaville
Searchin for my lost shaker of salt,
Some people claim that there’s a woman to blame
But I know its nobody’s fault.”
All of the seduction and the resignation and the hopelessness of addiction are there in Buffett’s voice. He knows he’s “wastin’ away.” He can’t even get it together to do the Margarita right anymore; he isn’t even bothering with an excuse. His addiction has become, in Lou Reed’s words, “his wife and his life.” What began as a pleasure, a diversion, has become punishment for overindulging in that pleasure.
“Don’t know the reason,
I stayed here all season.
Got nothing to show but this brand new tattoo
But its a real beauty,
a Mexican cutie
How it got here I haven’t a clue.”
Reckoning is in the air though because Buffett ends the 2nd chorus with:
“Some people claim that there’s a woman to blame,
Now I think, ‘hell, it could be my fault’.”
Responsibility is an awesome weight but ultimately it cannot be imposed upon us from without. We must accept it for what it is: the demand to live up to our own values. Clearly, the singer’s lifestyle here doesn’t coincide with his values. Rather than living a life of ease, he is living a life of intense internal conflict, a life he can only perpetuate with liberal applications of alcohol. He doesn’t even want to face up to the fact that he is drinking alcohol. He disguises the alcohol with mixes and rituals – rituals that are fast wearing thin.
Buffett’s character’s acceptance of the possibility that he bears culpability for his actions is the great turning point. This reckoning requires such an effort that he needs an instrumental break to contemplate what he has just admitted to himself and to us. During the break we are reminded just how beguiling all of this is: dissipation is fun. Laying out in the sun, with a pitcher of frozen Margaritas at your side, watching the wet brown bikinis go by, is fun.
But what are your values? Do they include “accomplishing” anything? For most Americans the answer is “yes.” We aren’t comfortable with a permanent subsistence existence. The only way to maintain this lifestyle is to drown the doubts in alcohol (or something). But alcohol is a poison, of which our body reminds us the next morning, every time. The only way to adddress this nagging from the body and soul is with more alcohol. Thus the cycle begins from which some never recover.
“I blew out my flip flop,
stepped on a pop top
Cut my heel had to cruise on back home
But there’s booze in the blender,
And soon it will render,
That frozen concoction that helps me hang on”
This is classic self-crisis-generation to force a decision. In this case the “crisis” is comically overblown. The singer is driven back to the shelter of his shack and his alcohol, but the feeling is that it’s for old times sake. He realizes the wafer thinness of his alibi du jour. He thinks it’s funny that he has to resort to this sort of rationalization. He knows the end is near, but it sure has been fun, the song is a toast to his soon to be ex-lifestyle. We know that his rehabilitation is near because of the final chorus:
“Some people claim there’s a woman to blame
But I know, its my own damn fault.”
If the dilemma is his own fault, then only he can remedy the situation. The implication is that he will.