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Revenge of hope

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Tuesday, Jan 23, 2007

Via BoingBoing comes this fairly elaborate attempt by Keith Martin to make all six Star Wars films make sense as a complete, seamless epic. Martin’s ingenious thesis is that R2D2 abd Chewbacca are the pivotal figures in the original three films; we just couldn’t see it because they were hiding behind their respective frontmen, C3PO and Han Solo. His explanation is far more interesting than the first three films deserve.


This effort demonstrates how an audience can go to great lengths to salvage the integrity of a product that its makers have compromised, whether out of complacency or laziness, or in Lucas’s case, to millk more money out of it. Certain consumers will view inconsistency or inadequacy as an oppotunity, for filling in the blanks, for reimagining, or even for comprehensive criticism. This audience ends up rationalizing weak efforts, because the makers of it see an audience engaged with the product and contributing to its bottom line. Of course, audiences won’t put this kind of effort into any lousy cultural product; they won’t give unknown quantites the benefit of the doubt. But it seems as though that once an audience does grant this leeway, once its hope is invested in certain artists, there is almost no level of failure that will cause it to be rescinded. After all, I went to see Return of the Clones or whatever even after I saw the utterly abysmal Phantom Menace. People kept buying Liz Phair albums even though it was clear her songwriting muse was spent after her first album. I kept listening to Neil Young records even after hearing Landing on Water and Old Ways. I’ve even argued that Landing on Water is not actually bad; I’ve rationalized its terrible sound and reactionary lyrics as a kind of sophisticated, conceptual statement.


How do we become invested in certain artists’ failure? Force of habit? Perhaps the cult of personality is at work, or the fundamental attribution error (which gives credit to people for things beyond their control). Also, network effects kick in with popular artists that makes attention to their crap worthwhile because you can guarantee you will have fellow sufferers to share your feelings with—this is how Dylanophiles made it through the 1980s, perhaps. We may enjoy these failures because they through the successful works into relief while humanizing their creators, deepening what we understand of their character and making it easier for us to vicariously enter into their works.


I wonder if there is a certain level of exposure that can be counted on to kindle this kind of residual hope—perhaps that ratio is part of the way small differences in talent are leveraged into huge increases in earning power for celebrities, along the lines Sherwin Rosen argued in “The Economics of Superstars.” Our hope and faith are transformed into their outsize incomes.

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