As far as music goes, it is a commonly repeated enough point that we tend to heap attention too enthusiastically, too readily at the feet of those who show any hint of promise. The internet and the blog have, among other things, made bands shockingly available, have busted open the doors on a culture that tended to separate taste into camps: the mainstream and the obscure. So, this is my question: what does it now mean to be mainstream or obscure, when it seems that everyone knows about everything and can download it instantly?
A caveat: I will admit that it is entirely possible that I exist in my own niche and as a result will consistently misjudge other niches, even if those niches happen to be large. I live on the internet, I don’t watch MTV (saying this might prove my lack of knowledge about a “mainstream”), I don’t own a radio. I don’t have a single idea what is at the top of the billboard chart right now. If I am to be faulted in any way, it is to assume that my experiences of popularity and obscurity are in any way indicative of a greater trend. I am open to arguments against my logic. I do not think I am alone in this experience, though. If it is not universal, there are at least a few others.
Before, the mainstream was generally defined by popularity, and, some would say conformity, though not necessarily always as a pair. Radiohead, or the Beatles, for instance, managed to achieve a great deal of mainstream success while remaining artistically curious. Conversely, we have all known a band or two that attempts to achieve popularity by aping more popular acts.
The obscure was the difficult to find, the difficult to appreciate, or the niche work. A talented but difficult band that released a single 7″ single at some point in the not-so-distant past of a show they recorded in their mother’s basement might have been legendary to a select group, popular for 15 people. EG- the first Vashti Bunyan record. If you had it, or knew someone who had it, or even knew about it, you were in the know.
I believe that the mainstream as we knew it is no longer, replaced by competing niches with varying degrees of popularity. There will be no mass-cultural events quite like those my parents experienced: walking down the street and hearing Sgt. Pepper’s blasting from every window. The mass-cultural event as such has been destroyed, or fragmented and sped up by the internet. In their place, we have niche cultural events, which are both more available and more mercurial. The blog band. The band on the last episode of Grey’s Anatomy. That rapper who sampled ______’s song. The micro-event is the event sped up and spread out.
Conformity, like this new fragmentary popularity, will remain, but to be experienced in a different way as well. Which brings me back to my original point: we sometimes heap praise too readily, though this is a symptom of a greater problem resulting from a redefinition of the obscure and the popular in the newly fluid environment of taste and media exchange. Now, as opposed to a single mainstream (or a few dominant mainstreams), we have more- or less-popular tastemaking outlets coupled with a general dissemination of certain tastes virally through blogs and the like. Pitchfork, for instance, operates as a tastemaking center. When Pitchfork gives a record “Best New Music,” it starts showing up all over the internet, on probably hundreds of blogs. I don’t know what this does for the album’s sales, but it certainly doesn’t hurt the artist’s popularity or availability.
Popularity and availability are still, to some extent, decided by centers. These centers are dispersed, and we generally assume that they are not centers in the classical sense of the “mainstream” media outlet. This is why we have to pay attention to them. We have, as opposed to a dominant genre, or even a specific television station, micro-genres and small, but connected and powerful centers of tastemaking. Ours is an era where you can program your own radio station, and so we believe our taste is influenced only by its own development. Taste doesn’t work this way, we are still always influenced by the outside. This neither good nor bad but still important to realize.
The important thing that these effects of an imploded sense of popularity (dispersed micro-centers, micro-genres, blog darling bands) have in common is their speed. Everything happens faster. Bands that are hugely popular now for even a moment may never have been noticed 20 or even 10 years ago. Often they need to do little more than record a song in their room and put it up on a blog.
Couple all these factors: fragmented cultural events, viral tastemaking, speed of transmission, and near-universal availability of all music, and we arrive at the reasons for this problem I brought up in the first place. We often heap praise too readily. All of these factors cause us to digest and pass by far too quickly, looking to tastemakers for guidance, which only increases the speed of our digestion. This cycle continually extends its own limits. This is not to say that some of these bands are not deserving of praise, but that the pace of creative expression is different for each artist, and we are burning some out with the way we digest. Or failing to appreciate the depth and breadth of their art. Granted, people may not set out to listen to everything they find on blogs or cokemachineglow, but their tastes are largely defined by which outlets or blogs they pay attention to rather than what is “culturally dominant.”
Obscurity is, then, no longer a matter of availability, but a matter of attention. Something is now more obscure if we fail to notice it, or pass it by too quickly. I recognize and agree with a certain level of valorization of the obscure. It is not, for some fundamental reason, better than the status quo, but there is, I believe, some value in doing something different. So: slow it down, pay attention to something for a bit longer. It is good, yes, to have all these things available, but do we really need to have 10k mp3s on our hard drives? The career artist may be a dinosaur, and some may say good riddance. And there is surely something thrilling about the speed of artistic development we can achieve now. But am I the only one who feels fatigued by it all, who feels that things pass a little too quickly?
Our extended engagement is on the way out. The side effect of the ease of finding a record that would never have been available before the internet is our loss of the experience, the joy, and enthusiasm for the rarity of that object. There is something special about a truly rare record, or now, simply waiting until the release date of a record to hear it. Finding something on a whim or half-heartedly listening to a leaked record robs of it’s aura.
It is good, to a certain extent, that the aura is leaving consumption of media. Though, since the aura has begun to dissipate, media consumption is still a game of self-conscious production of taste, but much less an engagement with a thing over time by a person who changes over time. These functions of consumption have been inherent to it all along, but now the ratio has tipped too far. Consumption, especially in this manner, often becomes momentum for its own sake. An empire collapses, often, precisely as it pushes its own borders too far out.
All too often we have assumed the thrill newness can and will replace the familiarity of time spent. I would simply like to recommend that we risk losing something special unless we make some more time to engage. To think about it at all is the first step. Newness may fade, but intimacy and appreciation may deepen with time. Take a chance, fall in love with something and stick with it. There will always be something new if it doesn’t work out.
I propose that we at GhostIsland start reviewing old favorites. Call them something other than reviews, if you’d like. Write essays about them, if you want. Explain why you love what you love. Let’s emphasize the things we’ve grown to appreciate and not the things we’ve read about, chewed up, and spit out. Let’s write criticism of books, movies, or music that are too old, that came out six months, a year, 6 years, 60 years ago. Time and circumstance will often give a love or hatred of a thing a perspective that only deepens our engagement.
If no one else does this, I still will.
Also, try buying a turntable. Who cares if it “sounds better.” You would perhaps be surprised how much more engaged you are with a record that you actually have to select and physically handle before you can listen to it.