Featured: Top of Home Page

Entertainment as attention

In No One Makes You Shop at Wal-Mart, Tom Slee's book about the foibles of individual choice, he cites this passage from Grant and Wood's Blockbusters about the risk involved in putting up cultural goods for sale:

The risk factor in launching new works of popular culture is impossible to overestimate. Simply put, the great majority of cultural products do not succeed: few people by the CD or watch the movie, and the investment in the creation of the intellectual property is not recouped. Adding to the risk is the blunt fact that research and pre-testing are notoriously ineffective in the realm of popular culture. Until audiences actually experience a creative product, it simply cannot be evaluated. In advance of the actual release of the title, nobody knows.

This point is often raised when someone wants to debunk the power mainstream media conglomerates have in shaping taste or to validate the sovereign, spontaneous role of the consumer in creating culture, which, if this is true, is exactly what we want and deserve. But Slee is citing it to make an almost opposite point -- the market for cultural product is so polluted with failure that audiences are always becoming that much more risk-averse themselves. The more product that floods the market, the more difficult it is for an audience to choose something, and the more the audience will rely on safe herd choices. According to Slee, it's an asymmetric information problem -- no one knows what makes anything any good (i.e. successful, profitable -- the meaningful criterion) so the slightest fortunate accident that creates a focal point (or the concerted ad campaign, or the presence of a known star, or any other aspect that brings a modicum of familiarity and comfort) can drive a herd to something specific, which then becomes something everybody needs to know about in order to have something to talk about with one another (which is the main function of most popular culture) -- you need to see Borat because everyone else has and is reliving it in conversation. Economists calls this increasing returns to scale -- the bigger something becomes, the bigger it will continue to become, because the incentives for choosing something else diminish. This is why the longer the long tail gets, the bigger the blockbusters become. Adrift in the deep, vast ocean of mediocrity, we need brighter beacons to bring us home.

But what makes the ocean so deep is the ease with which anyone can distribute their creations. This may allow more people to conceive of themselves as creators making culture rather than consumers digesting it, just as cultural-studies Pollyannas were fond of saying all along -- consumption is a form of making, of production. Now, consumers have the opportunity to really prove that by distributing their various repurposed versions of the culture they consume -- the remixes, the mash-ups, blog posts, etc. With that distibution capability available, it may becomes incumbent to distribute one's creative work. One no longer has the excuse of being shut out from the technology as a reason for not attempting to share one's innovations with an audience larger than the person in the mirror. If one takes the possibility of an audience for the innovative ways in which you consume culture seriously, this shift changes the pursuit of entertainment into the pursuit of attention. So perhaps the future of the "superstars" economy is this: a handful of successes in the sense that Grant and Wood mean, and then a legion of reimagined versions of those successes, at varying degrees of separation and revamping.





The Dance of Male Forms in Denis' 'Beau travail'

Claire Denis' masterwork of cinematic poetry, Beau travail, is a cinematic ballet that tracks through tone and style the sublimation of violent masculine complexes into the silent convulsions of male angst.


The Cradle's 'Laughing in My Sleep' Is an Off-kilter Reflection of Musical Curiosity

The Cradle's Paco Cathcart has curated a thoughtfully multifarious album. Laughing in My Sleep is an impressive collection of 21 tracks, each unapologetic in their rejection of expectations.


Tobin Sprout Goes Americana on 'Empty Horses'

During the heyday of Guided By Voices, Tobin Sprout wasn't afraid to be absurd amongst all that fuzz. Sprout's new album, Empty Horses, is not the Tobin Sprout we know.


'All In: The Fight for Democracy' Spotlights America's Current Voting Restrictions as Jim Crow 2.0

Featuring an ebullient and combative Stacey Abrams, All In: The Fight for Democracy shows just how determined anti-democratic forces are to ensure that certain groups don't get access to the voting booth.


'Transgender Street Legend Vol. 2' Finds Left at London "At My Peak and Still Rising"

"[Pandemic lockdown] has been a detriment to many people's mental health," notes Nat Puff (aka Left at London) around her incendiary, politically-charged new album, "but goddamn it if I haven't been making some bops here and there!"


Daniel Romano's 'How Ill Thy World Is Ordered' Is His Ninth LP of 2020 and It's Glorious

No, this is isn't a typo. Daniel Romano's How Ill Thy World Is Ordered is his ninth full-length release of 2020, and it's a genre-busting thrill ride.


The Masonic Travelers Offer Stirring Rendition of "Rock My Soul" (premiere)

The Last Shall Be First: the JCR Records Story, Volume 1 captures the sacred soul of Memphis in the 1970s and features a wide range of largely forgotten artists waiting to be rediscovered. Hear the Masonic Travelers "Rock My Soul".


GLVES Creates Mesmerizing Dark Folktronica on "Heal Me"

Australian First Nations singer-songwriter GLVES creates dense, deep, and darkish electropop that mesmerizes with its blend of electronics and native sounds on "Heal Me".


Otis Junior and Dr. Dundiff Tells Us "When It's Sweet" It's So Sweet

Neo-soul singer Otis Junior teams with fellow Kentuckian Dr. Dundiff and his hip-hop beats for the silky, groovy "When It's Sweet".


Lars and the Magic Mountain's "Invincible" Is a Shoegazey, Dreamy Delight (premiere)

Dutch space pop/psychedelic band Lars and the Magic Mountain share the dreamy and gorgeous "Invincible".


What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .


Alexander Wren's "The Earth Is Flat" Wryly Looks at Lost Love (premiere + interview)

Singer-songwriter Alexander Wren's "The Earth Is Flat" is a less a flat-earther's anthem and more a wry examination of heartache.


Big Little Lions' "Distant Air" Is a Powerful Folk-Anthem (premiere)

Folk-pop's Big Little Lions create a powerful anthem with "Distant Air", a song full of sophisticated pop hooks, smart dynamics, and killer choruses.


The Flat Five Invite You to "Look at the Birdy" (premiere)

Chicago's the Flat Five deliver an exciting new single that exemplifies what some have called "twisted sunshine vocal pop".


Brian Bromberg Pays Tribute to Hendrix With "Jimi" (premiere + interview)

Bass giant Brian Bromberg revisits his 2012 tribute to Jimi Hendrix 50 years after his passing, and reflects on the impact Hendrix's music has had on generations.

Jedd Beaudoin

Shirley Collins' ​'Heart's Ease'​ Affirms Her Musical Prowess

Shirley Collins' Heart's Ease makes it apparent these songs do not belong to her as they are ownerless. Collins is the conveyor of their power while ensuring the music maintains cultural importance.


Ignorance, Fear, and Democracy in America

Anti-intellectualism in America is, sadly, older than the nation itself. A new collection of Richard Hofstadter's work from Library of America traces the history of ideas and cultural currents in American society and politics.

By the Book

Democratizing Our Data: A Manifesto (excerpt)

Just as big tech leads world in data for profit, the US government can produce data for the public good, sans the bureaucracy. This excerpt of Julia Lane's Democratizing Our Data: A Manifesto will whet your appetite for disruptive change in data management, which is critical for democracy's survival.

Julia Lane

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.