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In Dead Malls, Dan Bell unveils America’s commercial wasteland

| Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Claire Kopischke | The Observer

Traditionally, people measure emotional strength through clarity and relatability. For example, everyone recognizes the forces of blind rage, passionate love and overwhelming grief. In his YouTube show the Dead Mall Series, Dan Bell argues something much different. Based on each video’s comment section, viewers often feel the pang of ineffable, ambiguous and slow-burning emotions. This alternative emotionality inspired over 565,000 people to hit the subscribe button. 

In the series, Dan Bell walks through failing and abandoned shopping malls. Filming from a first-person perspective and commentating on his surroundings, the show sounds simple — boring, even — but Bell wears a variety of hats to make each tour entertaining.

Bell acts as a coroner to these commercial cadavers. Leaning into years of experience, he helps identify plausible causes of death, often incorporating research from the local area. A mall, Bell seems to imply, never fails as a result of a systemic issue. Poor location, increased crime and bad management instead are the impetuses for such failures.

Bell leaves it to the viewer to grasp the big picture. As thousands of mall-based stores shut down across the country and online retail rises, perhaps the era of shopping malls has simply passed. 

The YouTuber clearly recognizes the decline of late-twentieth-century American consumerism. He astutely compares shopping malls to the Titanic. Both seemed impossible to fail. They symbolized human industry and looked magnificent. Today, their ruins are monuments to the false hope of their patrons. Bell, playing the role of archivist, digitally preserves the golden age that promised so much and delivered so little. 

Bell decorates his mall archives with a genre of electronic music called vaporwave. Vice likens vaporwave to “corporate smooth jazz Windows 95 pop.” Many vaporwave songs include samples from ‘80s and ‘90s tracks — the same decades of consumerism that produced Bell’s dead malls. As a result, vaporwave sounds like the requiem of the funeral procession for commercial America. Vaporwave, and perhaps the Dead Mall Series, mock the idea that consumer culture could ever create a society of fulfilled human beings.

To complete the posthumous picture, Bell interrupts his tours with old commercials and mall promotional videos. The clips provide cultural context for the archives. All of these elements coalesce into an amorphous but compelling product. Each video’s tone depends on the viewer’s perspective. Older people may find the series nostalgic. Disaffected youth likely feel affirmed. The videos can be somber, exciting, disconcerting, creepy. No matter what, Bell certainly provokes a powerful emotional response.

One might grow nihilistic after seeing so many malls fall from grace. Dan Bell, however, clearly treats his subjects with invested care. In addition to being a coroner and archivist, Bell acts as a reverent acolyte. In his TED Talk, he describes the countless hours he spent working at Marley Station Mall as a teenager. As an aging adult, he toured the now-dead Marley Station with solemn despair. Bell seems to feel a piece of his past in every dead mall he visits. 

At one mall, Bell gets emotional over a custodian who cleans the escalator handrails with pride. At another mall, he heaps praises upon a tailor who showcases her small business.

“If you’re ever in Rehoboth Beach and you need some alterations, you know where to go,” Bell says, as if his referral can hold back the retail apocalypse.

Undoubtedly, the Dead Mall Series can be a religious experience for viewers who share Bell’s outlook. 

In the midst of a global pandemic and recession, dead malls feel more relevant than ever. They remind humanity that hope only lasts as long as the luster of a zeitgeist. Post-war consumer culture promised America an eternal age of material prosperity. Now, only the ruins of shopping centers remain for our hollowed-out citizenry.

Some Americans continue to pray for stable happiness at the altar of boom-and-bust. Others take up the creed of vaporwave, which says that capitalism’s broken promises prove that nothing matters. Either way, Dan Bell provides dead malls for your viewing pleasure. Enjoy. 

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