Thanks to the internets and the wonder of ever-increasing connectivity and what not, everyone can listen to the band that is the best all the time. This means that no one is listening to any of the other bands because they suck. Kanye and Beyonce and Kanye and Beyonce and also, maybe Metallica, I guess, on constant rotation, with Mick Jagger gagging, “Start me up!” as his ancient bony bits spurt ever new shiny new quality product.
Anyway, here’s a graph, showing that the most popular graphs are getting ever more of the clicks.
See? Just looking at that graph makes you hipper and more content-optimized.
But…does it? Just because it is the graph that all the wonks are looking at until other graphs turn green with envy and their trend lines droop with despair — does that mean that it is really the best of all possible graphs?
The answer is, shockingly, no. People look at the graph they look at just because that is the graph people look at. It doesn’t have anything to do with the quality of the graph, or the freshness of Mick Jagger’s spurting. Here is a graph showing that that 1 Elvis fans is right only in the sense that he or she has correctly identified the website where the 49 million other Elvis fans hang out.
In short, I could be Andrew Sullivan if I’d just supported the Iraq war at the right time.
Neil Irwin, whose graphs I stole, quotes Alan Krueger who is an economist and therefore has succeeded entirely by merit explaining that he is shocked (in a low-key way that won’t damage his brand) to learn that art is not about quality despite the sterling example of Tom Petty.
“In addition to talent, arbitrary factors can lead to success or failure, like whether another band happens to release a more popular song than your band at the same time,” said Krueger. “The difference between a Sugar Man, a Dylan and a Post Break Tragedy depends a lot more on luck than is commonly acknowledged.”
Mathematically, Dylan’s Dylan not because he’s great but because a bunch of people stochastically tuned in and everyone else dropped on after. We’re all just basically sheep slipping on the hillside and bathing our sheep ears in giant wads of everyone else’s sheep shit.
Or that’s one interpretation. Another possibility, though, is that we’re not quite as dumb as those sheep — or, perhaps, those sheep aren’t as dumb as we are. Or, at least, when we are together with the sheep, we revel in the earthy sheep power of bathing in shit together. We may be sliding down that hill, but it’s by choice.
This is somewhere in the vicinity of what Paul Lauter argues in his essay “Class, Caste, and Canon” (1981/87). Lauter starts his essay by talking about one time he was sitting listening to a feminist literary crit collective, as you end up doing sometimes when you’re a lefty literary critic, and they started to analyze a poem by Adrienne Rich, because all feminist literary crit collectives analyze poems by Adrienne Rich, and/or by Beyonce, depending. Lauter assures us that he likes Adrienne Rich (and/or Beyonce), but, he says, why always this thing? Why always the standard of meritocratic excellence and formal beauty? Why not instead follow in the well-worn boots of the working class, and embrace art that speaks to communal enthusiasms and needs and desires? Working class art, he says, is valuable because of its use [his italics] in the lives of the proletariat. Art is not to loose anarchy or Yeats, but to bind us together so we can overcome and love one another right now. It’s the song, not the singer.
These days, of course, the proletariat is exponentially less likely to be listening to Roll Jordan Roll than to be watching American Idol or the Voice where hopefully they’re not singing Roll, Jordan, Roll. But whose to say that the change is for the worse? After all, if the point of art is the community that it fosters, then it seems like any community will do. What does it matter if you’re singing authentic volk songs or reading Adrienne Rich or watching Mad Men with a billion friends on Twitter? The point is the use as communal totem. People aren’t confused when they choose the most popular graph as the best graph. On the contrary, they’ve got it just right. Art makes a culture a culture, and it does that by being the culture you take as your culture. Who can buck the trend when the trend is the trend?
There are sub-trends of course, and subcultures, whether built around Dr. Who or Foucault or Richard Linklater or (as Lauter would presumably have it) work songs and sea shanties. The polite fiction is that we enter communities of culture because of what we like, but that’s just a way of inserting ourselves into the algorithm whereby our art sells our community back to us as ourselves. “Quality” is a ghost that haunts our skulls; a mirage we worship like a mirror. The Internet’s just given us a bigger frame on which to be somebody, too.