An old-fashioned icon in a fragmented culture

[18 July 2007]

By J. Peder Zane

McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

Harry Potter is a throwback freak, the residue of a faded age, the likes of whom we may never see again.

I don’t mean the archaic fantasy world of Muggles and wizards that author J.K. Rowling has created through seven novels, the last of which, “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows,” goes on sale Saturday. I’m talking about the real world of Harry hoopla, where the Potter books have sold more than 325 million copies and inspired five hit movies and dizzying numbers of doodads big (a Potter theme park being built in Florida) and small (lunchboxes, action figures, banners, bookends, watches, magic wands ...).

That blockbuster success makes Harry part of a dying breed, a once-dominant species whose members ruled our culture with their lips, hips and light sabers. Elvis, Marilyn, the Beatles, “I Love Lucy,” the “Star Wars” films - like Harry, they weren’t just hits. They were icons.

Icons and hit makers have taken a beating over the past two decades in a bloodless revolution that has transformed our cultural landscape. The chief weapon was not the mighty sword but sophisticated technologies, from the Internet and 500-channel cable systems to TiVo, the iPod and other gadgets that let us decide when we will watch and listen to the proliferating content available.

We still have hit TV shows, records and books; every week we’re told that some movie is No. 1 at the box office. But as Chris Anderson documents in his must-read book, “The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business Is Selling Less of More” (2006), “Hits are starting to, gasp, rule less. Number one is still number one, but the sales that go with that are not what they once were.”

Among the reams of supporting data, Anderson notes that “most of the top fifty best-selling albums of all time were recorded in the seventies and eighties (the Eagles, Michael Jackson), and none of them were made in the past five years.” In 1954, he writes, 74 percent of households with TVs watched “I Love Lucy.” Today fewer than half of all TVs in use are tuned to programs on the major networks. Glamour events that once commanded large national audiences - the Grammys and Oscars, the World Series and the Olympics - attract ever smaller numbers of people.

The one area where this phenomenon does not hold is books, where Danielle Steel, John Grisham, Stephen King, J.K. Rowling and other best-selling authors enjoy far higher sales than their popular predecessors. Of course, a book that sells a million copies is a runaway hit, while network TV shows with the same audience are quickly yanked off the air. Anderson’s point about big culture still applies.

On one level, this is happy news, because the new culture has been driven by the proliferation of choice. Everyone used to watch “I Love Lucy” because there were few other options; today there are hundreds. Instead of being limited to the few movies playing at local theaters, Americans can choose from more than 80,000 titles offered by online companies such as Netflix.

Where the largest mega-bookstores carry about 100,000 titles, online retailers such as Amazon offer more than 10 million choices. Absent the increasingly rare blockbuster, such as “American Idol” and “Harry Potter,” nobody’s on the same page anymore.

What we have witnessed is broad democratization of the marketplace. Instead of having to choose from a relatively small menu of options, consumers can customize selections to their own tastes. They are in control. Consumers, Anderson writes, “are scattered to the winds as markets fragment into countless niches.”

This power and freedom have wider ramifications. In profound ways, they undercut the traditional aims of civil society. Culture, at bottom, is an instrument of coercion. Where our instincts urge us to do as we please, society has pushed us toward cooperation. Like watchful parents, it tries to rein in our selfishness by reminding us of our ties and obligations to others.

A world of niche consumers runs counter to this. While liberating us from small menus of forced choices, it also loosens our bonds to one another. It encourages us to think of ourselves and our tastes in isolation, to see ourselves as distinct individuals, not as members of the larger community. In the past, they may have had no alternative to “I Love Lucy,” but they did have something to talk about around the water cooler.

If this trend were limited to pop culture, it would just be a curiosity. But it has ramped up at a time when scholars have documented a breakdown in bonds to family and community, the most famous being Robert Putnam’s 1995 article “Bowling Alone: America’s Declining Social Capital.”

I feel conflicted about these developments.

The great economic abundance Americans now enjoy, along with the loosening of social strictures that began in the 1950s and empowered blacks, women, gays and others, has bestowed great blessings. America has long been known as a nation of reinvention, the place people come to lose the shackles of the past and define themselves for themselves. This has never been so true as now.

It’s no wonder, then, that Americans are embracing this radical individualism, which has arisen at a time when America has become a far richer and fairer nation. I have a bedrock faith that Americans remain capable of confronting problems that demand collective action—from global warming to health care reform.

But a small part of me fears that we may reach a tipping point where our individualism vanquishes our sense of community.

I don’t know if we’ll see the likes of Harry Potter again, but I hope so.

___

ABOUT THE WRITER
J. Peder Zane is a columnist for the Raleigh (N.C.) News & Observer. Readers may send him e-mail at peder.zane AT newsobserver dot com.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/article/an-old-fashioned-icon-in-a-fragmented-culture/