Saturday, January 07, 2012

Why "Tom"?

Like most people who maintain a blog, I spend a lot of time thinking about cultural phenomena-- what makes some things popular with a mass audience, some things popular with a niche audience, and other things not particularly popular with anybody. Perhaps it is obvious, but I've found that the second category is the most difficult to understand, followed by the third category, with the first being the easiest. At least I thought I had it all figured out.

I decided that the formula to becoming a popular mainstream recording artist was to construct narratives in accessible formats, with just a tinge of novelty. My theory was heavily influenced by Chuck Klosterman's analysis of the popularity of what he calls "Wal-Mart country music" in Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs. His argument for why Eminem became the most popular rapper in the nation had nothing to do with racial dynamics, authenticity, or for that matter, beats: "He enunciates better than any rapper who's ever lived. He's literally good at talking." Klosterman goes on to explore how important lyrics are in modern country music, and how much they resonate with their audience--Wal-Mart shoppers (i.e. the mainstream).

I ran across this article a few years ago, which explores the power of narrative to shape our view of reality. While again the country music genre may provide the most readily apparent examples of narratives, I've come to realize that a large percentage of the most popular songs have at least a simple plot outline. While the Beatles are one of the most critically-acclaimed bands of all time, I think their popular success can be attributed to the sheer number of narratives they conveyed. For every "Revolution #9," there was an "Ob-la-de Ob-la-da," which told a rudimentary story. (And of course, they enunciated well).

But while the audience wants accessibility and familiarity, there needs to be some element, however small, which serves to set the product apart from other products. "She Loves You" was an accessible mini-narrative that could have been written by any number of bands--until the "Yeah, yeah, yeah" chorus made it distinctive. Or sometimes it's not the content but the packaging that makes something stand out. Did the Beatles popularize the moptop hairstyle or did the moptop hairstyle popularize the Beatles?

And extrapolating from the recording industry, I determined that some combination of accessibility, narrative, and novelty results in popularity. And I found a lot of confirming evidence and very little to disconfirm my theory. But then my son became a fan of Thomas the Tank Engine.

He's not quite two years old, so he is too young to follow a plot. His still-limited vocabulary means that not much is truly accessible to him. And yet he has developed a true attachment to a select group of fictional characters, including the aforementioned Thomas, Superman and Batman, the Veggie Tales cohort, Curious George, and of course, Elmo. Recently, he's been making his initial forays into capitalistic interpolation. Yesterday in the grocery store he caught sight of Veggie Tales fruit snacks, pointed at them, and excitedly kept repeating "Tales, tales, tales!" (This was a particularly short interpolation period, since his first exposure to Veggie Tales came in the form of a couple of DVDs he received from relatives at Christmas). And then today in a department store he ended up with a Thomas the Tank Engine T-shirt after he pointed and enthusiastically exclaimed "Tom!" (He later repeated this exclamation in the car even with the shirt out of sight, and then tried to put it on at home even before he had his coat off).

What I am trying to figure out is why he prefers some characters over others. He seems to have some affinity for the entire Sesame Street cast, but he clearly favors Elmo. Why does he love Thomas, but show apathy toward the tank engine's PBS colleague, the Cat in the Hat?

Some may suspect that parental influence is the decisive factor, that his mother and I must have displayed our own preferences and that he is picking up on our cues. Or that sheer exposure is decisive in forming his attachments. I don't discount that his affection for Superman and Batman is in large part a consequence of his father's demonstrated attachment. And his fondness for Curious George is probably related to the fact that A)He owns two Curious George books that are frequently fodder for bedtime stories and B)The Curious George cartoon airs in the morning at a time when his parents are getting ready for the day and an electronic babysitter is helpful.

But that still doesn't explain his Elmo affinity. And "Tom" and "Tales" have only been introduced to him casually--he has taken the initiative in implicitly declaring his partiality for them. I wonder if there isn't something elemental in his valuations, something that might even inform why we esteem what we do. I stumbled onto another theory of popularity a little over one year ago, in which I hypothesized that we are drawn to things that combine the familiar and the strange. Thinking about what some of my son's favorite characters have in common, there is a thread of anthropomorphism, which is almost by definition a combination of familiar and strange. A train car with a human face, for example, qualifies.

But aside from Curious George, who has extenuating circumstances, there is another common thread among all of the favorite characters--primary colors (red, blue, and green). My favorite superheroes have always been Superman and Spider-Man. These characters have also been the flagship characters for their respective comic book companies. There is really not a lot that these characters have in common, though, except for having a red and blue color palette. Could that be an underlying reason for their enduring popularity?

Perhaps all of my theories are not unrelated. Maybe the primary color comprises the "familiar" in the familiar/strange dynamic. Maybe the primary color makes the product accessible, and for a child, maybe the specificity inherent in a name is enough to constitute a primitive narrative. It is frustrating to realize that by the time my son is old enough to tell me why he likes certain fictional constructs, his reasons will have probably changed. If only he could enunciate better... But I suppose he enunciates well enough to get his parents to buy him things he wants.


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