Sunday, December 26, 2010

How to Create a Cultural Phenomenon

Of the top 20 most watched TV shows in fall 2010, 18 were NFL games. In a media climate where all TV ratings are in perpetual decline, the NFL bucks the trend. In fact, this is shaping up to be the most watched NFL season in history--which is amazing when you realize that there are more Sunday viewers now than there was back when there were only three channels (four if you count PBS) and no Internet.

Americans just love football, right? One problem--college football ratings are down this year. I'm guessing that people who choose to watch the NFL over college are not trying to make a statement that they prefer a game where prone, untouched players have the right to get up. The rules and plays are obviously similar, and if anything, in recent years college games have come to more closely resemble the style of play one sees on Sundays. Granted the overall athleticism of college players don't equate to the pros, but A) This actually allows for more big plays at the college level, and an arguably more fun, wide-open contest and B) The same could be said about basketball, where college seems to enjoy greater popularity (The NCAA Tourney has more than double the ratings of the NBA Finals).

So what's the difference? Awhile back I came up with a sweeping theory about popular appeal, but I'm now going to posit an additional theory to sit alongside that one. Popular phenomena must have the right combination of the following three elements:

1) Tribalism: There must be an "us" vs. "them" component. This obviously works well for niche phenomena (such as indie rock, for example). A subcultural population can latch on to the notion that they possess something esoteric that empowers them to experience life in a way that is superior to the unenlightened. Tribalism gets tricky when you are talking about something with a strong mainstream appeal, but it is usually there. Even during Beatlemania young moptop fans could fancy that they were appreciating their heroes in the face of opposition from the older folks that just didn't "get it." The same probably goes for the Twilight generation, but Stephanie Meyer has succeeded in giving her base a further tribal component by fostering "Team Edward" and "Team Jacob." And of course, sports has the best of both worlds. The NFL as a brand can have a strong mainstream presence, while giving its followers the opportunity to splinter into separate (and relatively equal) tribes. Of course, college sports offer the same thing (to an even greater degree given that one can quite literally become a member of a tribe through matriculation), so this component doesn't account for the NFL's superior popularity.

2) Narrative Significance: Allow me to deviate from sports for a minute to discuss one of other great passions--comic books. It is a general rule of comic book sales that the first issue sales of a given title will always be higher than the second issue, and that the longer the title goes, the more the sales will drop. However, there is almost always a sales spike when a story comes along which is hyped as one that will be changing a character's status quo (a superhero dies, gets a new costume, acquires or loses powers, enters or ends a romantic relationship, joins or quits a superhero team, etc...). Another way to get a sales spike is through the use of a "tie-in"-- a multi-part story that spans several titles in a company's line of comics. When these things happen, fans then often take to the Internet and bemoan their favorite character's new direction or complain that they have to buy all kinds of comics they don't want in order to understand a story. They long for the good old days when comic stories were "done in one" where you could get a decent story with a beginning, middle, and end, and one that doesn't feel the need to deal in world-shaking ramifications. But the problem with such complaints is that what fans say they want and what they demonstrably want are different things. When it is perceived that a story "matters," sales go up.

In recent years, producers of television shows have tapped into this trend. Many of the popular television shows (in ratings, buzz, and DVD sales) are serials, shows where one episode builds on another, where you miss out if you miss a week. And although all sports benefit from having games "matter" in terms of play-off races, the NFL undeniably has the most meaningful regular season. "Every game matters" was an ESPN tag line for college basketball promos a few years ago (and indeed this may partly explain the appeal of college hoops over the NBA), but it is more true for pro football.

I've heard it argued that the college football season is more meaningful than the NFL because usually one loss, and certainly two, dooms a team's championship hopes. So every game has greater stakes. But this is true only for undefeated teams. Once a team suffers losses, their games take on much less significance. And since more NFL teams are "in the hunt" late in the season, there are a greater number of meaningful games.

In theory, sports fans should be able to enjoy a good game devoid of context. But like comic book fans, the context and the perceived significance of the game matters.

3) Narrative closure: Postmodern philosophers can talk about the virtues of ambiguity all they want, but give an audience an ambiguous ending (e.g. The Sopranos) and get ready for a backlash. People want twists, turns, and surprises throughout a narrative, but at the end, they want resolution.

And they don't want stories that drag on too long. This is why, just as comic book titles drop in sales, there will always be a drop-off in a TV series' television ratings. Lost got more hype as it went along, but less people tuned in to watch it (until the final few episodes of course, when principle #2 came into play). And this is why the Rolling Stones can sell out any venue they play, but nobody cares about their studio albums anymore. So perhaps one reason the NFL is beating television shows in ratings is because it never overstays its welcome--the season comes to an end and then the baggage is tossed overboard and a new narrative begins a new cycle.

College football benefits from this cyclical phenomenon, but it strikes out in providing adequate closure. Given the lack of a play-off system and the frequent irresolution in declaring a champion, fans often feel unsatisfied. And while some argue that debate and controversy is great for a sport, TV ratings show that controversy alone doesn't drive interest. The NFL has plenty of debate and controversy, too, but the assurance that fans have that their investment will be rewarded with closure, and that their weekly investment is meaningful, makes them tune in (and go to games, and buy merchandise, and bet on games, and play in fantasy leagues). Add in a little tribalism and it is hardly surprising that NFL Football is the phenomenon that it is.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Anti-Bieber Fever

Until I recently had a student write a paper exploring the phenomenon of "Bieber Fever," I'd never sustained more than a few seconds at a time thinking about Justin Bieber. I take full advantage of the fact that I live in a saturated media climate, to the point where I am almost never exposed to something that I don't on some level want to be exposed to. Although I, to the best of my knowledge, have never heard a Bieber song, I am still fairly certain that his music wouldn't appeal to me. Previously, I have been vaguely aware that Bieber was an ultra-popular teen idol, appealing primarily to teen-age and preteen girls, and I was also aware that there is a significant Bieber backlash: I'd seen the Facebook groups like "Please God give us back Bob Marley, you can have Justin Bieber" and the like.

And my response to the entire phenomenon has been utter and complete apathy. It's hard to muster up any feelings when you've seen teen idol fads cycle several times throughout your lifetime. I was in elementary school when New Kids on the Block exploded in popularity. I was too busy listening to sports talk on the AM dial to care what was being played on the top 40 stations, but I was well aware that New Kids were a big deal. So when I got to middle school, the NKOTB backlash was something that my young mind just couldn't comprehend. The most popular band in the world had somehow become the least popular band in the world, seemingly overnight. People actually wore shirts that said "New Kids Suck" (imagine someone wearing a "Beatles Suck" shirt in 1966). I remember eating dinner with my parents' friends, and hearing them express bewilderment with their daughter's change of heart regarding her favorite band ("We have a closet full of stuff that she refuses to wear anymore").

I think the fall of the New Kids is still a unique phenomenon--though teen idols often lose popularity as their audience matures, it is rare that their exact audience turns on them with such vengeance. The New Kids got caught up in an early 90s vortex that saw theatricality and gaudy excess give way to gritty cynicism (hair metal and bubblegum rap giving way to grunge and gangster rap). But there has always been a backlash against fads, and several years later I would wholeheartedly take part (in what limited capacity I could) in the backlash against the Backstreet Boys and 'N Sync (though I will defend Hanson to this day). It actually made me angry that many of my contemporaries would listen to what I considered to be such horrible music when good music went unappreciated. When Billy Corgan announced in 2000 that the Smashing Pumpkins were breaking up because it became too hard to "fight the good fight against the Britneys of the world," I actually didn't regard this as ridiculous.

But from my perspective today, I realize how utterly misplaced my emotion was, how ineffectual it was to waste any time or energy despising a pop culture phenomenon which will eventually dissipate anyway. And again, given the fact that with my ipod and my satellite radio I can avoid any music I don't want to hear, I see no need to concern myself with what others are listening to (aside from a restrained pity that so many kids today just don't know what they are missing). So the phenomenon of Bieber Fever doesn't hold much interest to me.

But I am interested in the backlash. I still have never listened to a Justin Bieber song, but after reading his Wikipedia page, I can't understand why anyone would hate him. Yes, I know that his image is constructed in corporate boardrooms, but as Jack White observed a few years ago, we may need to deconstruct the idea of artistic authenticity when it comes to popular music. And if the narrative of Bieber's rise to popularity is to be believed, it is perfect--a true Horatio Alger story for the 21st Century involving incredible serendipity (a music exec accidentally stumbling on a youtube video), and a Dickensian story about a young boy, both innocent and experienced, taking control of the world on the basis of his sheer talent. And as I can attest to, even if these narratives do nothing for you, it is still completely possible to ignore him. But also according to Wikipedia, there are plenty of people who spend their free time trying to bring him down:

He has been a frequent target for Internet bloggers and message board posters—notably by users of Internet message board 4chan, users of YouTube,and various Facebook groups. Pranks have included a successful campaign to push "Justin Bieber Syphilis" to the top of the Google Trends Hot Searches list; hacked YouTube videos that were altered so as to redirect users to adult websites or trigger pop-up messages saying that Bieber had been killed in a car accident; his photograph being changed to pornographic images; various rumors circulated, from rumors that Bieber had died, joined a cult, or even that his mother was offered $50,000 to pose topless in Playboy magazine—none of which were true. This all forced the affected companies to update their security protocols to reverse the damage, and Bieber himself tweeted to fans reassuring them that he was still living and that false rumors about his mother "just grossed and weirded [him] out." Most notable was the campaign to send Bieber to North Korea as part of his world tour (entitled My World Tour).This was carried out in part by 4chan, digg, and reddit users voting for the country on the tour's website, for the free competition to nominate a bonus country for the tour—the second-placed country being Israel, which presumably was voted for by Israelis genuinely wishing to attend the concert.

Why all the hate? According to British writer Nick Collins: "Bieber's character also appears to strike a particularly sour note with his Internet critics, with many remarks commenting on his youthful appearance, his teen-pop songs, his image as a heart-throb to young teenage girls and his manner of speech, which his detractors say is more suited to rappers than someone of his middle-class background." The latter accusation (i.e. that he is a "poseur") is a particularly tired one that pretty much anyone of any stature in pop music (even Bruce Springsteen) has dealt with in a career. The previous one reeks of jealousy ("maybe girls would like me if Justin Bieber didn't exist"). The others hardly seem grounds to mount a campaign.

But it seems to me that Justin Bieber's greatest sin in the eyes of his detractors is that he is not subversive. New Kids on the Block's fall in popularity corresponded with the rise of 2 Live Crew. In a world where parental advisory stickers can be regarded as a badge of honor, where "Grand Theft Auto" set the tone for a generation of video games, where every Halloween a Saw movie tops the box office, the fact that a squeaky clean teen-ager can ascend to such heights may actually make some people nervous. If he is rewarded for staying between the lines, what does that mean for those who would prefer to wallow in the mire?

Or perhaps Bieber haters just see him as the vanguard of a coming Canadian cultural imperialism-- or is that just another way of saying that they fear a new reality of non-subversive entertainment?

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Thoreau and Storm Team Coverage

I write this blog post with a blizzard bearing down. According to a meteorologist: "This will be one of the bigger and stronger storms in recent history with the combination of snow and wind." The rain hasn't changed over to snow, but TV reporters are already staked out in the elements, commenting on conditions (alas, since there is no standing snow yet we haven't got that close up shot of the ground with the reporter shuffling her feet to indicate how much has fallen). Flipping around the channels, I've also seen the obligatory report from a hardware store, complete with an interview with a guy who is buying a shovel.

This is the kind of formulaic winter storm coverage familiar to anyone who lives in Wisconsin, and it persists in the face of seeming public contempt. Whenever there is a newspaper story about an impending storm, I always play a game where I check the on-line comments section to see how many posts there are before somebody complains about media coverage. I've never had to go beyond the fourth post. (To be fair, there is usually a backlash against the backlash, with somebody shortly thereafter jumping in and defending the local media).

A couple days ago we got a couple inches of snow--nothing that provided a great disruption to travel or commerce, but a bit of an inconvenience for some drivers. The TV stations didn't go wall-to-wall by any means, but they did provide live shots and reports from outdoor locations. And this didn't sit well with some commentators, who remarked that snow in Wisconsin during the month of December does not constitute "news."

This does raise a valid question. What is "news"? I think the people who accuse weather coverage of being "sensationalism" are on to something deeper than they realize. In Walden, Henry David Thoreau writes: "To a philosopher, all news, as it is called, is gossip." He goes on to develop the idea that once somebody is acquainted with a general principle, there is really no need to be constantly updated with the latest iterations of that principle. In other words, once we are aware that there can be such a thing as a house fire, in which people can lose their possessions, pets, or perhaps their very lives, do we really need to know the details of every house fire that happens in our general vicinity? And once we know there is such a thing as a homicide, do we need to know the details of how homicides in a given geographical radius (which have been defined by the reach of now obsolete analog television signals) actually occurred?

Having once worked as a news reporter for a small town radio station, I definitely got the idea at times that the information I was disseminating was gossip. In reporting on who had been charged in the county court with dealing drugs (and naming names in the process), in making calls to hospitals and relaying information about health conditions of accident victims, and even in covering contentious local elections, I would often think back to Thoreau's quote about news and gossip, as well as his own corollary: "They who edit and read it are old women over their tea."
Thoreau, of course, was basing his ideas on print newspapers. He probably never could have envisioned the degree to which instantaneous, around the clock, electronic media would amplify his observations.

So while I don't fault anyone for complaining about the seeming histrionics of "storm team coverage," I fault them for not being more consistent in their criticisms. If live shots of reporters standing in snowdrifts are inappropriate, then so are most live shots of reporters standing in front of police tape.

Sunday, December 05, 2010

Masked and Anonymous?

Did you hear the one about the guy who walked into a pizza place and ordered 178 pizzas? True story-- a few weeks ago a guy shows up at a Massachusetts business called Antonio's Pizzeria and tells them he is a member of Bob Dylan's road crew (he apparently was wearing some credentials around his neck), and that he'd be needing $3,000 worth of pizzas. So eight employees work until 5 a.m. the next morning getting everything ready. They wait for the guy to show up, and then they wait some more. If they know their Dylan songs, perhaps they start thinking about a line from "Lonesome Day Blues": "I tell myself something's coming but it never does." They find out the hard way that the guy was a fraud, that he had no affiliation to Bob Dylan (who was in town to do a concert, but definitely didn't order any pizzas). So they call the cops, report the fraud, donate as many pizzas as they can to charitable causes, and throw away the rest.

But surprisingly, the story doesn't end there. A few days later it was reported that police had identified the culprit. The details of the detective work were not released, but here is what we know:
1. The suspect is from New Jersey. He did go to Massachusetts to go to the concert, and subsequently returned to New Jersey.
2. His face was captured by the store's video surveillance

Whatever the details of the case, I find it remarkable that somebody from a different state was identified apparently on the basis of his visage alone. Conventional wisdom is that the Internet has enabled individuals to enter an age of anonymity, that we can now hide behind our computer screens and assume alternate personae that allow us to lob invectives with impunity. But the irony is that once you venture off of the virtual grid, there is a better chance you'll be literally recognized than at any point in history. For centuries one could get lost in the frontiers, the wildernesses, or even the populated urban areas. And even in relatively recent times organizations like the KKK thrived on the covering that a hood and a little bit of darkness provided. But in an era of ubiquitous cell phone cameras, increasingly sophisticated facial recognition systems, and superior forensic science, the grid has widened. (And even in the virtual world, many people have learned the hard way that identity is not as opaque as it seems. Discovery of an identity is often just a subpoena away).

Conventional wisdom also holds that we live in an era of fragmented identity, where we can create multiple alternate on-line personae. But when people spend more time on Facebook than on Google, Yahoo, YouTube, Microsoft, Wikipedia and Amazon combined, the end result may be a collapsing of personae. No longer are we showing different faces to the various social circles that we encounter (which has always been the historical default), but we present a broad, consistent and arguably unified image of ourselves to all of our "friends" (which is much more of an inclusive term that is applied much more liberally than ever before).

There was a time when comparisons between the WWW (world wide web) and the WWW (wild, wild west) were abundant almost to the point of cliche. But if we think about what it meant to be a citizen of the wild west--to be afforded anonymity with each new location traversed, to be afforded the opportunity to reinvent oneself, to be afforded the opportunity to quickly build and discard relationships, and yes, to be afforded the opportunity to be a troublemaker and then get out of Dodge before the sheriff could get on your trail--it is pretty much the opposite of the post-World Wide Web existence we all know.

And if you don't believe me, I dare you to walk into a pizzeria and order 178 pizzas.