Hurray for Hype

No question stumps me more than “What kind of music do you like?” I usually try to beg off with a vague reply — “All kinds of things” or perhaps the far more honest “I don’t know.” Musical taste is a mysterious and intensely private matter, difficult to articulate and impossible to justify. It’s discovered as we listen and if we are concentrating, this is a private matter, felt directly, and it doesn’t require any social mediation.

So when I contemplate that question, I know it isn’t really about the music and that private satisfaction that can’t be expressed, that is an experience, a process, rather than an established fact. Rather I’m being asked how I want to define myself: It’s an invitation to mark my place on the taste matrix — lowbrow or highbrow; mainstream or avant-garde — and pull off some basic identity posturing.

Because our taste in music is a widely and readily understood shorthand for identity, we often seek public ways to exhibit it, even though this betrays its origins in that private, inarticulate satisfaction. Why are we so quick to do this? To muddy the joy we derive in hearing music as it is, objectively, by mixing with it all the provisional, mediated characteristics that stem from how it is hyped, how other people regard it, how we’ll be regarded when we champion it? Could it be that without all that extraneous context, there isn’t much there to consume? Are we at some level secretly aware that the intrinsic qualities of the songs we profess to like for no reason other than to please ourselves are not all that deep and sophisticated?

I have been thinking about this a lot lately as I have been sorting through the mountain of songs that I’ve never listened to that I’ve amassed over the past few years. I used to think that having too much music was a problem I would want, but I appreciated music a lot more when it was scarce. When it was scarce, I was much more likely to look for reasons to include songs in my life rather than reject them. Constraints make music meaningful.

I won’t ever forget the songs on the one tape I had in the car when I drove across New Mexico (a compilation of the Music Machine, the West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band, and the Gestures.) The songs in heavy rotation on the oldies station in Phoenix in the 1990s — “Woman, Woman” by Gary Puckett and the Union Gap; “Summer Rain” by Johnny Rivers, etc. — will always take me back to that specific time and place, the drives I used to take on Interstate 10 late at night, crossing the Maricopa County line on the way to Tucson. On those trips, I was having my musical knowledge broadened at a pace at which I could assimilate it, enjoy it.

Now, there’s no danger of my ever running out of music. The constraints imposed by the radio and my budget are gone. Instead, I am haunted by the fear of running out of attention. I’ve recently begun the quixotic project of trying to listen to all the music I have and sort out which songs I actually like so I can find them more easily. But since I’ve started, I never listen to music for sheer pleasure or distraction anymore; it’s systematic, Sisyphean work, as more unheard music keeps getting added to the pile.

Being able to hear the songs one after the other, with no more expenditure or effort than a click seems to undermine any drama or power they might have had. The songs weren’t made to withstand It. (No music is.) I ended up grasping for reasons to pick one over the other to put on the keeper list, thinking ashamedly to myself, If this song were to crop up in a commercial or get covered by some other band I heard of, I’d keep it for sure. I know that this is no way to decide whether I actually like these songs. What little joy there is in the quick and often arbitrary decisions about whether songs will make it into the “good” playlist comes from judging for judgment’s sake; it doesn’t come from the music itself. (This is a clue to why many record reviews so often seem irrelevant.)

And even then, when I “okay” a song, it’s not exactly that I’ve decided I like it in that moment — I haven’t experienced that ineffable private pleasure. It’s more that I have made a promise to myself to like it later. At some point down the road, I will put it in rotation on my iPod and grow to truly appreciate it then. That’s because liking a song has little to do with any intrinsic qualities I pick up on in a listen; it has to do with what I have managed to invest in them. The songs are repositories for my emotional energy, the energy I’ve spent consuming and remembering them, linking them in various ways to the story I tell myself about my life.

But what makes us choose the songs in which we invest our emotional energy? It seems to help if they are a relatively blank slate. If they are too specific, they will crowd out the feeling I need to be able to pour into them to like them. If the songs have timely political messages of their own or are specific gripes about how being a professional musician sucks, they will rarely attract any emotional energy investment. Generic songs about having feelings — falling in love, going to a party, leaving home, and so on — these seem to work the best.

More important, though, is context. Once we single out a song, we are most of the way to liking it. So if a song is in a genre or by an artist we already know we like, or if it was in a movie, or was referenced by friends, it gives a reason to pay extra attention. And of course, hype also serves this function. As part of my project, I was listening to an album called She & Him and found it mediocre. I was going to delete it, but then I remembered why I had it in the first place — because M. Ward (whose other albums we’re already voted in) was part of the band. That simple fact changed the whole way I perceived the album, shifting my attitude away from looking for reasons to reject it toward listening carefully for things to like. The hype I heard was suddenly brought to bear, and rather than resist it, I embraced it.

Songs are often too insubstantial in isolation to be fairly judged on their own merits alone. In practice, criteria can’t emerge from some ideal notion of what a song should be; the criteria we actually use when committing ourselves emerge from the richness of the situation in which we hear it. So regardless of how we hear such tidbits of information, songs benefit from them; they help connect our memories and marshal data about what brought pleasure before. And they allow songs to give us the undeniable pleasure of knowing things.

But does that mean we have surrendered real pleasure for the joy of playing a reputational game? In a recent n+1 essay denounced “the hype cycle,” the pattern of overpraise and backlash that operates independent of any particular aspects of the works in question. “The hype cycle,” the writer claims, “replaces aesthetic judgment with something closer to speculative investment in securities.” The cycle delineates “the emotional life of capitalism, an internalized stock market of aesthetic calls and puts.” Pop songs, then, are like companies on a stock exchange; we invest in them whether or not we understand what they make or approve of their business practices. Then we sell when their reputation is highest, regardless of whether they might still have lasting value. For the n+1 writer, there is no “buy and hold” strategy, just cultural day trading.

While hype may reduce art to an elliptical status game, it also expands the base audience that can relate to it, creating network effects and magnifying the feelings of participation a work conveys, and the extent to which it can be used symbolically. Private pleasure goes only so far. If we were after that private pleasure alone, we probably wouldn’t bother much with following what is contemporary and popular. But because pop culture is distributed widely and is typically generic and malleable, it has a certain negative capability that makes it intentionally indeterminate, or in pejorative terms, “shallow”. But this isn’t a detriment. Its very shallowness lets us consume the zeitgeist through it. When we become invested in pop culture, we are less in pursuit of an abstract aesthetic nirvana than choosing to engage our times and join the cultural conversation.

This is why the n+1 essay seems slightly misguided. While acknowledging that works of art are enriched by the horizon of expectations formed around them, the writer nevertheless claims that “…(T)he problem with hype is that it transforms the use value of a would-be work of art into its exchange value. For in the middle (there’s no end) of the hype cycle, the important thing is no longer what a song, movie, or book does to you. The big question is its relationship to its reputation. So instead of abandoning yourself to the artifact, you try to exploit inefficiencies in the reputation market. “

But the use value and exchange value are not so easily separated. Popular culture’s “use” lies primarily in how it will affect the reputation of those who consume it. That is what makes it “popular” and not private; it is a shared social experience. Ultimately, nobody cares what art works really do to us any more than they would care about how food tastes or how good getting massaged feels to us, should we choose to earnestly discuss such things — we can’t talk about the private feelings music generates. What’s left are its social components, what n+1 labels “hype”.

To those with the time and disposition to habitually seek out their own cultural experiences, hype probably seems like an avalanche of hyperbole burying the integrity of art. These are likely people with fewer responsibilities than most adults are saddled with, and who have the aesthetic training and cultural and social capital necessary to enjoy art for its formal qualities rather than enjoy what it can be used to say about our identities. But for everyone else, the vicarious excitement of hype is welcome — an efficient solution for not having enough leisure (or imagination) to become excited from scratch, entirely on our own.

Far from undermining use value, hype expands it, affording an opportunity to get pleasure from something other than a song’s intrinsic qualities, which may or may not stand up to close scrutiny. It raises our expectations, which, as behavioral economist Dan Ariely explains in Predictably Irrational, often leads to our having a positive experience. Though we often assume raised expectations leads to a greater likelihood of disappointment, Ariely’s research suggests otherwise, that hype, like a kind of cultural foreplay, prepares us for enjoyment. “When you invite people to a movie,” he notes, “you can increase their enjoyment by mentioning that it got great reviews.”

For all our complaining about hype, we would be somewhat lost without it. By roughly aggregating public opinion, hype frames the terms of the cultural conversation about music, making us collectively responsible for it. Thus, rather than making every discussion of music reveal perhaps more about ourselves than we intend, hype actually it liberates us from having to worry about revealing our “true tastes” at all. If we really like to bath in a warm bath of Andreas Vollenweider, no one has to know when we are arguing about the significance of Vampire Weekend or American Idol competitors for that matter. And once the conversation is established, hype gives us a reason to join in. Ultimately, it allows us to consume through culture things not always in ample supply: participation, the sense of belonging to something larger than ourselves, the feeling of being excited.

The hype cycle won’t go away. The subscription-type services that allow us access to virtually all recorded music (detailed by Reihan Salam in this Slate article) are probably inevitable, and this surfeit of culture will make hype’s filtering function even more necessary. The temptation to embrace awareness of new stuff rather than listening to it will become stronger. It will become harder than ever to find the time and the discipline to invest emotional energy in a few songs when the temptation will always be there to indulge the pleasure of judging new songs, instead. Without hype to supply the contours of what is necessary listening, the playlist editing will become a never-ending process, and we’ll never get to the point where we bother to listen at all.