In Search of Real Amateurs

As copies of Sleater-Kinney’s forthcoming album — set for release in May but advanced to the press in January — trickled onto file-sharing networks and newsgroups, the band was driven to release this portentous plea: “We don’t think of The Woods as some product getting out there early, we think of it as our art and lives and dreams. For us it’s about respect and about people supporting us by being aware of our artistic intent. We ask that you please respect our wishes to present this record the way we intended. We’re certain that you would want the same for your own endeavors, artistic or otherwise.”

Now, you don’t need to be Frege to spot some specious logic in this proposition. Since the band’s “artistic intent” is presumably captured already in the recording, complete and ineffable in and of itself, what difference does it make when we hear it? You don’t even have to be all that cynical about the entertainment industry to translate that posturing statement into plain English: We would like to get our PR push coordinated with the mainstream press far enough in advance to place fawning articles and break the band out of the indie ghetto, so we can get the “respect” that we crave, in the unequivocal form of cold hard cash.

Of course, there’s no fault in this. The musicians in Sleater-Kinney are professionals: They don’t make records for fun or duty to their fans or even so that they might realize their “artistic intent.” They make them to make a living. And controlling the flow of information about their work and, more important, its distribution is vital to their professional interests. But you have to wonder if the passivity the band expects from its audience — you’ll hear our album when we want and in the context we dictate — is not counterproductive. Not only is it a patronizing insult to fans, who probably like to feel more autonomous in how they entertain themselves, but it militates against what is consumerism’s strongest lure, the idea that you best express your own creative spirit through the inventive uses you find for the commodities you acquire. As such benighted academic champions of the consumer society as James Twitchell, John Storey, and Daniel Miller like to point out, goods grant consumers agency.

By subverting the expected modes of consumption — by, say, using a monstrous military personnel carrier like the Hummer to dominate your neighborhood Albertson’s grocery store parking lot, or by writing your own sexualized fan fiction using the characters of your favorite TV show — you can feel personally empowered even as your dependence on the products industry provides has deepened. By finding those who are likewise obsessed with The O.C. or DeGrassi Junior High, we establish peer communities to nourish our self-concept. So the more creative we consumers are with Sleater-Kinney product, the more involved with it we get by reshaping the context in which we hear it, the less the band needs to worry about being ignored altogether. There will always be those who identify themselves in some crucially constitutive way as “Sleater-Kinney fans,” and by policing the way its music is heard, Sleater-Kinney threatens to alienate these fans needlessly, undermining its own base.

The more we rely on manipulating entertainment-industry product to define our sense of identity and community, the more the consumer society entrenches itself into the very fibers of our being. It becomes the only medium through which we can express ourselves to ourselves and those we care about. This situation is ideal for the entertainment industry, who are guaranteed a slavishly devoted market. And while the “artists” might have their egos bruised by consumers ignoring, subverting or parodying their intentions, at least they can salve the psychological wounds with the money they’ll continue to make.

Once upon a time, the culture industry was fraught with difficult decisions about which people to push as stars: who to cast in films, whose records to produce, whose books to publish. If poor choices were made, the consumers would exercise their admittedly limited power by rejecting the industry’s products, wasting much money and effort. But if the consumers are baited into investing themselves into the culture-industry product, feeling a close kinship with it and a personal responsibility for it, then those dismal days of potential failure are over.

American Idol and its counterparts: This flourish of ersatz democracy in the realm of culture, where home viewers vote for what they want before the industry has to go to the trouble of producing and distributing it seems a perfect panacea. The culture industry can guarantee itself a readymade audience for its products while at the same time affirming that audience’s pseudo-creative impulses. And if the audience can be duped into believing its phone-in votes are equivalent to creative acts, then the culture industry need never worry about being threatened by independent creativity ever again. Thus media conglomerates recast themselves as populist heroes, striking a blow against elitist eggheads who feel superior to widely held tastes. Implicitly such shows ask, Why shouldn’t the majority rule in terms of what art our society makes? Why shouldn’t artists be disciplined by democracy?

Part of what a consumer pays for in an album is the cost of the label’s tracking down talent and functioning as a filter. But on an American Idol album, that cost is saved, transformed into profit. What consumers pay for in those cases is the privilege of having a tangible souvenir of how efficacious we were able to make our deep, instinctive wisdom about what kind of culture we need. The brilliance of American Idol is that it makes the actual singers and their songs incidental, raw material for our own brilliant creation, the crowned winner. With the artistry of the musicians set aside, nothing interferes with what we want most out of our cultural product: something that glorifies ourselves.

Audience-vote-driven entertainment effaces the art being voted on and supplants it with the audience’s self-regard, so that it all merely reflects the power the audience feels, testifying to their alleged sovereignty in the marketplace. The market is a faultless mechanism for channeling the people’s will, thus only within the marketplace can any artwork be legitimized, for only there can it be “voted on” via the people’s dollars. Any artist operating outside the marketplace is certainly an elitist, and likely a dangerous lunatic, possibly receiving marching orders from Marxist professors, political correctness Nazis, eco-terrorists, or tree-hugging daydreamers.

But as Thomas Frank points out in One Market Under God: Extreme Capitalism, Market Populism, and the End of Economic Democracy (Anchor, September 2001), his critique of the ’90s propaganda for the “New Economy”, that’s patently absurd. Making consumer choices is much different than exercising power or control over one’s own life. As Frank explains, markets don’t express anything; they are tools for concentrating capital in the hands of ever fewer people if they operate unchecked. Saying yes or no to a commodity is not a flexible enough discourse to allow people to express political ideas, or ideas of any sort. The market isn’t democratic because people with more money to spend have far more influence within it, and the poor have no influence at all. And most of the things that actually make people happy — sociality, meaningful work, self-sufficiency — are considered to be “market externalities,” or in other words, totally irrelevant.

Call-in TV shows, like the many pointless instant Web polls and inane newspaper surveys, proffer the illusion of a franchise, but instead just supply marketers with more useful demographic data. The essence of these call-in shows and polls is their anti-intellectualism. Because the market views all dissent and criticism to be counter-productive by definition, it seeks to stifle that impulse by offering meaningless occasions to make one’s voice heard. When USA Today polls random readers on questions like: “Should the Federal Reserve Bank raise interest rates?” or “What action should the US take against Iran” the specific result is pretty much beside the point; their readership has no grasp of even a fractional percentage of the information necessary to have an meaningful opinion. These polls, along with American Idol and the rest of the viewer-voter shows, reinforce the idea that the very notion of an “informed opinion” is outdated, possibly pernicious. Expertise is irrelevant; being heard and counted is all that matters.

No one should even try to be informed, because so-called experts muddle what New Yorker columnist James Suriowiecki calls “the wisdom of crowds.” (I wonder if his book has a chapter on lynch mobs.) If we let the market aggregate the collective opinion of the ill-informed (pretending for a moment that markets even do this) this will adds up to a more complete and more accurate picture of reality. And thus “reality” can happily sink to the level of the lowest common denominator, which is the place where profits are most easily collected.

The more uninformed opinions we can be goaded into offering, the more drowned out the voices of informed criticism become, and the less likely informed dissent can ever surface. When we give an uninformed opinion just because we’ve been asked, we’re that less likely to bother to develop an informed one. By constantly polling us, the media flatters us with the thought that our knee-jerk responses that we come up with in isolation from each other are significant, profound. But when I express an attitude on something I know nothing about, like the politics in Lebanon or Azerbaijan, I make it clear that I’m not especially interested in the attitudes of people who do know, or finding out any actual information about these places. I’m only interested in having an opinion and making other people hear it. (Why do you think I have a blog?) Next time you have your cell phone out, ready to text a response to an instapoll, or you are ready to express your pleasure at the singing of some earsplitting soprano on American Idol, please think about how you are helping me roll back the Enlightenment.

If most media is currently saturated with empty expressions of uninformed opinion, useless surveys, or advertorial copy masquerading as objective service journalism, there’s still a place I go to find some comforting and compelling information: the customer reviews posted on Of the face of things, these seem no different than the silly polls I just finished denouncing, except that these reviews seem to be written not out of boredom or ignorance but out of some compulsion. Rather than the uninformed respondents to USA Today opinion polls, these are hyperinformed volunteers, who have far more at stake in their cultural attachments than mere taste. On you typically find the ravings of enthusiasts, making their case for their favorite band or angered ex-fans venting their sense of betrayal, people with no professional reputation, for being oracular or being in touch with the zeitgeist at stake. These are the same sort of people who would think of themselves as being “Sleater-Kinney Fans” in some integral way, these are the “active” consumers who give the lie to “hydraulic theories” of consumerism, by which people are presumed to be injected with tastes and values by the media elite who manufacture their brain-numbing entertainments.

These reviews are typically far more entertaining and illuminating than what you’ll find in the music press, reviews larded over with bombast, hype, and treacle, reflecting a journalist’s educated guess on what tumorous piece of hype will metastasize. Often the Amazon customer reviews are measured, articulate accounts from people who are congenitally addicted to giving their opinion, pre-professionalized critics, unhampered by editors or advertising pressures. You don’t have to read between the lines to figure out the marketing angle. The real amateurs are motivated by some raw need to communicate and leave their mark somewhere. It resounds with the purest impulse to write, and this makes me trust their authenticity completely.

Reading reviews makes me understand why I read any reviews in the first place. It’s not for information about music. Taste in music is pretty fickle and idiosyncratic; it resists coherent explanation and steady criteria, and it depends crucially on context (which is why Sleater-Kinney wants to control it): where you are when you hear something and how popular it already is and what your friends think of it and what the musicians look like and how cool their CD designs are and so on. One reviewer’s opinion isn’t likely to be worth much as an assessment. But the Amazon reviews create a sense of consensus and community. And only within a community is it even worth forming an opinion about something, articulating it in clear terms, even to yourself. You can’t have an opinion on culture in isolation. You can have no pure reaction; you can’t know your impression of something. That history of how you and, say, the new Sleater-Kinney record got to be in the same place at the same time is not just a factor in your listening experience; it is the entire the listening experience. Ultimately, that history is made less by draconian decisions made by artists but by the intersecting communities that configure us, that create that illusion that we end up cherishing as our unique, purely original opinion.

Without a community, we wouldn’t even bother to have opinions about things as ephemeral as pop music, which would just exist as pleasant noise, like what’s playing in the convenience store or an ambient Eno record. If you are one of those people who needs to have a reason to listen to music, who wants to express an opinion, for whom the construction of an opinion constitutes meaningful work, salvaging consumer experience and redeeming it, you should be grateful that these Amazon reviewers are there to provide a community and to give a mirror in which we can recognize ourselves. So in the end, I read reviews to find confirmation not of my attitude toward a particular album, but of myself, my whole way of thinking. I read them to consume authenticity.

It’s refreshing to think that there are real people out there, not professional opinion-makers but real amateurs, having these spontaneous, unrehearsed responses to music. And that sense of spontaneity, that sense of unpracticed being-in-the-moment is something we have learned to value, something that seems more and more rare in a hypermediated culture full of pseudo-events and entertainment wholly given over to emotional engineering, extracting Pavlovian emotional responses from us without ever challenging our preconceptions. Spontaneity guarantees a kind of truth, a freedom from the calculation — the ads and the flattery and the manipulation and the efficiency — that dominates the public sphere. It shows us that people can really still be “in touch with themselves” and know their “real” feelings. But then, it’s ads themselves that posit this sort of spontaneity as the ultimate value, as the guarantor of truth. Spontaneity has already been reified into a product, another manipulative device.

Paranoia starts to close in. These reviewers, are they just marketing spontaneity to me, too? Already, I’m sure, savvy PR firms have begun to hire fake fans, fake amateurs to gush about records on Amazon. Perhaps Amazon itself will hire them and get them started. There are some reviews that read suspiciously like the press releases that barrage my inbox every day, I’m sure of it. These aren’t real amateurs. I want some real amateurs! The fact is, in a culture so phony that it must fetishize spontaneity and authenticity to the degree that ours does, even amateurs have to be self-conscious about their amateurism. The false notes creep in to their reviews, the posturing, the preening. And we all have pitch-perfect ears for false notes, and we are unforgiving critics of those. I read over what I’ve written, and I hear the alarms sounding.

* * *
For more Rob Horning, visit the Marginal Utility blog.