Any culture watcher can tell you there is a difference between trends and fads. Both start small. Both eventually cover the waterfront. But fads, the flotsam of popular culture, leave the shoreline unchanged. Trends erode and deposit, reshaping both the shore and the horizon over time, changing them forever.
For all their evanescence, fads often prepare the way for trends. Knit shirts emblazoned with little alligators may be a fashion memory, but they were a large step toward a branded world in which even toilets come with logos. Perhaps no one understands the symbiotic relationship between fad and trend better than the shape-shifting superstar Madonna, who has managed to surf from one fad to the next (most recently, from sexual entrepreneur to devoted mum), while all along steadily consolidating the cultural power of celebrity.
Which brings me to two recent arrivals on the American cultural landscape, both of which have, as it happens, a Madonna connection.
Let's start with tattoos. Tattoos go back far enough that Leviticus 19:28 prohibits them. But they are current enough that 15 percent of the population has one (including Madonna, who sported a kabalistic Hebrew anagram on her arm in a recent video). Since the Lycos Internet search engine started keeping track in 1995, tattoo has consistently been one of the most-searched-for items on the Internet.
If tattoos are a fad, they are an unusually deep and durable one. Indeed, the appeal of tattoos is their claim to permanence. Compared to the flickering images on computer screens and the fluctuations of fashion, tattoos make a stab at lasting significance. This desire to rise bodily above the limits of time isn't unfamiliar to those of us who believe that a resurrected human ...1