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U.S. becomes a nation of thrill-seekers

”Extreme” sports, drinks, styles, and more become the latest pop culture craze

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Perhaps you’ve seen this commercial: A twentysomething bald dude emits a glass-shattering ”Aaaaarrggh!” Heavy guitar riffs pummel your eardrums. A water-skier — on bare feet, no less — makes a death-defying leap off a monster ramp.

What ultra-funky, Gen-X product are they peddling now? The latest Soundgarden album, perhaps? A new flavor of Fruitopia? Nope, this ad is pitching…a long-distance phone service from the NYNEX company. And here’s the real marketing coup: The service is called Xtreme Dialing.

Yes, folks, we have a winner! The suits at NYNEX, the Northeastern Baby Bell, have strrrrretched the word extreme to its most ludicrous form in pop culture thus far. But you can hardly blame them. As good capitalists, they’re duty-bound to exploit the concept du jour; and for those who’ve spent the past year in a biosphere watching Blockbuster videos, extreme is just that. (Xtreme Dialing, by the way, has something to do with collect calls; we’re still not clear.)

In its purest sense, something extreme should be dangerous, shock inducing, and envelope pushing. But pure or not, extreme is everywhere. On ESPN, you can watch extreme sports — a buffet of bone-crunching competitions ranging from bungee jumping to mountain biking. In Twister, you can root for the Extreme, Bill Paxton’s ballsy tornado chaser. In New York magazine, you’ll spot a close contender for NYNEX’s crown: recipes for Extreme Lemonade (just add pineapple juice!).

Still, extreme is more than just this week’s happenin’ term. A survey of today’s pop culture indicates we may have entered the Age of Extreme. From Alanis Morissette’s revenge ballads to Dennis Rodman’s feather boa, from a website about exploding heads to Jim Carrey’s martian facial contortions, moderation has finally met its match.

It’s difficult to pinpoint when things started getting extreme. As with many bygone trendy words (see wicked and bad), extreme began its semantic life on the wrong side of the tracks. Traditionally, you avoided things extreme — think extreme poverty, extreme measures, or extreme unction. At the 1964 Republican National Convention, Barry Goldwater tried to give the word a makeover: ”Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice,” he intoned. No dice. Goldwater lost the election to Lyndon B. Johnson by, uh, an extreme margin.

The true reform of the word began in the late ’70s, when a pack of suicidal skiers, some sporting Day-Glo outfits and Mohawks, decided it might be fun to helicopter onto remote mountains and jump off 80-foot cliffs. Calling themselves extreme skiers, they had a snappy motto: ”You fall, you die!” Extreme skiing gave birth to an entire genre of gonzo sports such as sky surfing, skateboard jumping, and the ugliest offshoot, Extreme Fighting, a bloody Cro-Magnon version of boxing that airs on pay per view.

These Che Guevaras of sports, covered with tattoos and scabs, fueled a fast-growing multimillion-dollar business (in 1995, 2.3 million snowboarders swarmed the slopes, up 92 percent from three years before). ESPN took note. The sports channel last year created the Extreme Games, a kind of weeklong athletic Lollapalooza that grabbed such good ratings the channel is now holding this in-your-face Olympics yearly instead of biannually, as originally planned. ”We’re a nation of thrill seekers,” says Frank Farley, former president of the American Psychological Association and a recreational sports expert. ”It’s in tune with what we are.”