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« Rhetoric Watch | Main | Elsewhere »

September 11, 2004

The World Goes Silver

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

What's with all the silver cars? Every second or third car that drives by these days seems to be silver, and silver cars have a near-monopoly in ads and magazines.

  • Not a surprise that silver cars are out there on the usual car-ad salt flats. That's where all cars show up eventually. But that silver-on-salt look does deliver a special, hushed kick, doesn't it? That's one alone car, baby, and that's one dignified car too.

  • Interesting, the way that silver cars seem to feel a kinship with the chic new architecture, isn't it?

  • I've noticed that some silver cars have a taste for moving in ultra-close to the camera lens. Perhaps they like being appreciated for their purely abstract qualities: you certainly don't know what these cars look like, except that they're silvery.

  • The fad is so widespread that even some low-class cars are daring to go silver. Will the other cars let the low-class cars get away with this kind of fashion audacity?

  • Silver may indeed be neutral and dignified. But even so, it's not as though silver cars don't know how to have fun. Silver car go whee!!!

  • Deep down, though, to be silver is to be comfortable and calm with yourself -- even when posing for the cover of a magazine.

  • But being silver is also about being willing to play a supporting role too. Why? Because that's real confidence.

    in background, soccer.jpgcrash.jpg

Hard to believe, I know, but silver cars were once a rarity. Back when, silver was understood to mean "BMW" or "Mercedes" -- "expensive German engineering," basically: something for people with money, taste, and Euro-pretentions. (Me, I always liked silver on a car: I had the Euro-pretentions if not the money.) But real American cars had colors, dammit. Your Mustang was stop-sign red; your Sting Ray was kandy-flake blue.

These days nearly everyone seems to want their car to be silver. How to explain this dramatic change in taste? Has there been a general raising of tone and taste? What with The Gap and Banana Republic being everywhere, your standard American does dress a little better -- and in a more neutral kind of way -- than he/she once did. So can the new silver cars best be understood as symptoms of America's yuppification?

My own hunch is a little more ... well, OK, maybe Euro-pretentious. I think that silver these days suggests not just "high-end German engineering," as it always has. I think that silver has become the color of the computer age. Pixels ... Computer models ... Visionary concepts ... Is-it-plastic-or-is-it-metal flowiness ... Swoopy shapes ... Photoshop ... That glowy, depth-and-reflectiveness finish ... Those Dolby sound effects and fireballs ...

Ooops, sorry: I got computer-era cars all mixed up with computer-era movies there for a second. But it's all very Darth Vader/DVD/Time-Warner building (here)/G-5 Mac/"T-2," isn't it? It's all about cyber-whooshiness -- the car (or the building or the movie) that wants to be taken more as an "experience" than as a "thing." A technological-zen-bliss experience too, I'd guess.

I was walking around the city. Silvery swooshiness seemed to be everywhere. The cars ... The Nike ads ... The poppin'-out girls, with their sparkles and their clingy-perfect fabrics ... The featureless metrosexual boys, plugged into iPods ...

And I started to notice the bodies on billboards and in magazines. Advertisers seem to be doing their best to present faces, flesh, and muscles as glossy Photoshop perfection. The people in the ads have been turned into Darth-Vader versions of themselves -- only they're happy about this state of affairs. And I got to thinking about OSX, about Imacs, and about the way the Evil Robot in "T-2" would dissolve into a pool of mercury, then re-form himself out of it. Perhaps, deep down, we're nothing but malleable bundles of glowy pixels.

white girl ferragamo.jpg

This visual approach works especially well with African skin, which yields sumptuous depths and highlights.

It's a handsome effect, an attention-grabbing effect, and a weird effect. Not for the first time, I find myself wondering why we're so eager to turn ourselves into wire-frame computer simulations of ourselves. Do we really want life to become a Pixar movie? Is reincarnating ourselves inside an LCD screen our idea of ascending to heaven?

All these thoughts have led me to conclude that the people who have had the most influence on our visual culture in recent decades aren't traditional or highbrow artists. Instead, our most influential visual people have been George Lucas, Steve Jobs, and James Cameron.

Does anyone else have any hunches about why all cars seem to be silver these days?



posted by Michael at September 11, 2004


Silver cars are practical. They show less dirt, so you don't have to wash them as much. Reflect the sun, so the car is not as hot when it's been sitting in the parking lot of South Coast Plaza all day, waiting for you to finish buying your Paul Frank boy-shorts. Take this from a Southern Californian woman who insisted on buying a black car because I'd always wanted one (blame Knight Rider) and now deeply regrets it. Ultimately, I think the aesthetic sensibilities of 2004 are shaped more by practical matters than ever before. That's why it's Casual Friday almost every day.

Posted by: Megan on September 11, 2004 2:24 PM

Why does everyone want to be remolded? Easy, it's the fastest way to acheive perfection. Great lighting, an army of makeup artists and hair dressers, followed by hours in editing. People expect it, Fashion-Advertisment photography has always been mannerist and unreal, and now the sensibilities are everywhere. Only people who don't want to look their best are sullen malconents. best to ignore them.

Alexander the Great had scupltors in his war camps who would crave and distrubute busts of himself to cities he visited/seiged. The busts always showed him at his best, a young, shaven, beautiful boy. not the scared, bearded, middle-aged man he was.

Posted by: JL on September 11, 2004 2:42 PM


You know that silver is the German racing color? There's also British Racing Green (when I was a kid, we had a TR-4 in "BRG"), red for Italy (a real Ferrari is red), and blue for France (a real Bugatti is blue). America has blue and white -- some teams have made this white with blue stripes, like the Ford GT-40s at Le Mans, and others have made blue cars with white stripes, like Dan Gurney's All American Racing F1 Eagles, which also had gold noses (like the Brabham's he had driven).


Posted by: john massengale on September 11, 2004 7:49 PM

Megan -- It's a good point, and I like silver for practical reasons too. But if it were merely a matter of practicality, half of all cars would have been silver years ago. People would have caught on, no? So how to explain, why silver, why now?

JL -- That's the great seduction of digital tech, don't you find? You can be who you want to be, or at least portray yourself that way. The digi-world ain't the traditional arts-and-media world, that's for sure.

John -- You and I must have grown up with the same heroes! Jimmy Clark, Graham Hill, Jackie Stewart, the Lotus team ... British racing green, maybe the greatest color of all time. I never actually saw a Formula One race, but I certainly dreamed about them a lot, and spent an awful lot of time leafing through Car & Driver and Road & Track. I especially liked it when the photography got all drizzly and grainy -- Jags looked especially good in those photos. Did you ever get to Watkins Glen, or any of the other Formula One tracks?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on September 11, 2004 10:35 PM

Dear Michael:
I wouldn't be too sure. I doubt any of Bronzino's subjects actually had all that pale akin and cruel aloofness *all* the time, but they wanted to be seen that way. Vanity and the quest for perfection is is timeless, just the tools change.


Posted by: JL on September 12, 2004 12:47 AM

Have you ever tried to photograph a black car at Bonneville? Or red? It's not fun. Mid tone colors work best. And most clients know it. It has very little to do with national colors and a lot to do with the contrast.

Posted by: Brent Thomas on September 12, 2004 2:11 AM


Regarding the last few pictures of African Americans, there's another trend I've noticed over the last decade or so, which is the tendency to amp up the contrast on color images. The images pictured, particularly the one at the lower right, are essentially Hollywood (Expressionist) glamor photography of the 1930s done in color, rather than black and white. When Hollywood went to color in the 1950s, it mostly backed away from this approach as too obviously mannered and went for flatter lighting, but I always thought it was an interesting road not least until the past few years.

I would assume this has come back, along with a vogue for high contrast color film stock in movies, in part because of MTV, and in part because of the ease of fiddling with the contrast knobs in Photoshop. I know I've discovered (for my own taste, anyway) that color photos almost always can use at least a slight upward kick in the contrast for maximum impact.

Have you noticed this as well?

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on September 12, 2004 11:48 AM

So I guess you knew about German racing silver.

Years before I could drive our cars had Dan Gurney for President stickers on them. I think Car & Driver made them.

As I approached 16 and it became time to replace one of the cars, my father bought a Rover 2000 TC, advertised as "the car for your teenage son to have an accident in."

We picked it up in Solihull, and the whole family went to Silverstone for the British GP. Three years later I was an exchange student in England and went to the Monaco GP. I also went to races at Bridgehampton (and saw the Chaparral with the first wing) and Lime Rock, but the best was yet to come.

One of my best friends from 6th grade on had a friend who had a nothing-special job at Texaco. But by the time I got to college, he had worked his way up to CEO, and they were major F1 sponsors.

I went to the GP at Zaandvoort, and couldn't help noticing that the Texaco pass around my neck seemed to get a lot of respect from all the guards. I just decided to push it and see how far I could go. At one point, I found myself on the outside of a 140 mph curve, about 40 feet from the track, with nothing between me and the track.

The Texaco pass for my second race at Monaco was even better, because Texaco had a hospitality trailer that opened onto the pit lane. To see the race you would dodge the cars racing into the pits and stand in a narrow strip between the pits and the track. One of the people was David Niven. I think I even got off a bon mot when I met him, but now I can't remember what it was.

That was the last race I went to, although I have driven rental cars around Le Mans and the Nurburgring.

Posted by: john massengale on September 12, 2004 2:04 PM

PS: Although I've never had the pleasure of driving a Ferrari, I did once get a ride in a Boxster with a factory test driver around the factory's test track, as well as around Maranello.

Un-be-liev-able! The brakes and cornering were not to be believed. It was a bit like the Cyclone at Coney Island: you know it's gone around the corner 10,000 times, but you can still believe this might be the time it goes off the tracks. And you discover that if the driver starts in 5th gear, he can still flatten you against the seat as he accelerates.

Posted by: john massengale on September 12, 2004 2:11 PM

Interesting observation. There is a new trend-- or an old trend that is coming back, towards more natural and humane designs. Most companies haven't caught on yet, and I think there will still be room for a few stand-out ultra-sleek objects like Apple computers, but that we're finally getting over the collective insanity of having every appliance in our homes try to be an attention-grabbing brushed metal or glossy plastic monstrosity.

Posted by: . on September 12, 2004 4:14 PM

Brent -- What a great idea: a critical piece about the effect of film stocks' latitude on everyone's color sense. If it doesn't register on fim, well, then we ain't going to be seeing it.

FvB -- There is a lot more contrasty color photography around these days, isn't there? I wish I knew the history of it. Does it come from changes in the film stock? From the way color TV and video have accustomed everyone to a harsher look more generally? (Which would seem to imply that the video look has displaced the film look as a glamor thing.) I'm prone to point to computers, but I do that for everything. Still ... One reason we've got the graphic design we have these days is computers -- what with Macs, designers started rockin' out and having fun with "bad" design, and what was once "bad design" eventually kind of sifted out and has become a whole new design language. I wonder if the same thing has happened in photography. I certainly think that one huge underrecognized element is that our tastes are now being so formed by the experience of looking at glowing computer screens all day. Magazine pages are typically being designed in order to mimic the experience of looking at a glowing monitor and a Mac-style desktop, and if you look at those photos, especially of the African-American guys, they look like they're illuminated from behind. Given that, does high-contrast color maybe pop from a monitor better than smoother color?

John -- You're breakin' my heart! The only car races I've ever seen have been dirt track, circles, stuff like that -- great fun, but my fantasy life for a few years as a kid was all about Formula One. Silverstone! Lime Rock! Monaco! Le Mans! I grew up not too far from Watkins Glen, but never even made it there. I must really have been lacking in initiative. No, wait: by the time I could drive myself I'd started paying attention to tennis instead of car racing. Still, what a ... well, I want to type "trip" or "gas" it must be to see those races, and how cool it must be to whip around a few of those tracks. Meeting and swapping suavities with David Niven -- that's hot stuff too.

"." -- glad to hear it. I've had enough brushed steel (or onscreen brushed steel) to last several lifetimes. Between you and me, I think that the most important thing artists should be paying attention to right now is helping humanize the digital universe. Otherwise, good lord, we're going to be living in a world that suits no one but electrical engineers. Not that I'd tell artists how to run their lives or anything. What kind of more humanistic design is around these days?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on September 13, 2004 12:10 AM

My take on the silver and the CGI aesthetics.

It's not so much silver as the color of unpainted metal (even if it is, in fact, painted). Thus silver connotes unadorned functionality. The "sports utility" functional aesthetic has been dominant for the last ten years or so. Viking stoves, etc. All of which has been creeping downmarket. Think of the "platinum" credit card or the Hyundai SUV.

Also, cars used to be made of metal. Now there's a lot of plastic used. Plastic looks cheap because it *is* cheap (even if truly functionally superior to metal). Painting cars silver makes them look more rarified and upmarket.

This is also the case of portable CD players and the mini iPod, both of which you can buy in silver-painted plastic. The silver looks quite convincingly like metal. Until you scuff it, that is.

Back to the sports utility aesthetic. I believe that this is partly a reaction *against* the CGI aesthetic. Why? Because computer graphics have democratized beauty to a certain extent. Therefore, we yearn to be more real in these cyber times. The real, authentic, and functional are all given premiums. The caveat is that the sports utility aesthetic is all about sports, that is leisure. All these authentic lifestyle items are about asserting your rugged individual identity outside of work.

There is also an anti-CGI fashion aesthetic. Think Terry Richardson, Ryan McGinley, VICE magazine, Nan Golden. They take beautiful models or anyone off the street for that mater and take shoddy snapshots of them in horrible light. The result is more authentic, ugly, and real. If you attach a brand name to it than it's instant street cred for that brand. (In a sense street cred is trumping beauty as the aspirational touchstone for the brand...)

But there's also a counter-counter aesthetic, which I believe is the one you're referencing. The aesthetic of the hyper fake. Fake as fetish. The Real Doll look.

Who will win? What's next?


Posted by: tim on September 13, 2004 3:28 PM

Silver cars were fashionable about 25 years ago. I bought a Datsun 310 hatchback in silver in 1979, largely because the first TurboPorsche I ever rode in was silver -- German engineering! Unfortunately, the paintjob did not turn my Datsun into a Porsche, but it was a perfectly good color -- didn't show dirt and didn't get hot in the sun. (Did you know that gold, in contrast to silver, gets really hot?). The bigger question is why such a functional color went out of fashion for a long time.

Posted by: Steve Sailer on September 13, 2004 4:58 PM

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