Thursday, March 4, 2010


There are two contrasting - though perhaps not mutually exclusive - arguments for the usefulness of popularity of X (X here can be anything - food, media, game, meme, etc. - consumed by an audience) as a metric of X's quality to which I subscribe:

I) In order for X to appeal to a sufficiently large population (arbitrarily, say n+1, where n is the size of the largest identifiable subcultural group), certain characteristics of X that would make it appealing to a certain subcultural group, but not to others, must be removed - it must be "watered down". Therefore, the more popular X is, the more watered-down it must be: the most popular rap music is going to be less edgy and authentic than more niche-targeted rap music, more popular movies are generally going to be more blandly generic than movies which were produced with no popular success in mind, etc. This is the broad appeal effect.

II) In order for X to achieve mass popularity, there must be some factor present within X that appeals to a broad population. The fact that it is so universally accepted means that the producers of X did something right - hit on some key factor, some deeply satisfying foundation of human experience - that allows it to have such broad-spectrum appeal. My friend Jason Latshaw argues as such in his blog, It's Show Business, Not Show Preference on Avatar's success amidst in-group disapproval. This is the universal factor argument.

In short: the broad appeal effect drives down the quality of any product X which is targeted to appeal to the largest audience possible, while the universal factor argument claims that any X which appeals to a sufficiently large audience has inherent in that appeal some factor of great value/quality.

I don't know how to resolve these - but I think they do go hand-in-hand in the wild. After all, while a case might be made for Soulja Boy as aesthetically transcendent auteur, those who can subscribe to such an argument without a wink and a nod are arrestingly few, as they ought to be. But at the same time, most of what captures the attention of so many must have some sort of genuine appeal; and one hopes that the universal skein threading together the thoughts of so many is not the superficial, but rather the deep, genuine, true.

Perhaps the two can be reconciled according to lines similar to these: authenticity must be paramount. That is to say: appealing broadly and seeking to appeal broadly are two separate beasts. To appeal broadly, one must strike an authentic chord with the audience - but authenticity, as with happiness and passion, is best sought by not setting out to seek it, but instead losing oneself in the pursuit of something noble. The broad appeal effect applies to media produced in a conscious effort to find broad appeal; but the universal factor argument obtains for media that finds that universal element - a key foundation of which is that it is produced genuinely, and not self-consciously ("self-conscious" here meaning created to serve a second-level aim ["to be popular"] rather than a first-level aim ["to be funny/amusing/moving/well-produced"]).


Anonymous said...

I think there may be a third leg in popularity – that of transcendence? As in, when something manages to transcend the bounds of its genre or demographic and spill over into the mainstream despite the segmentation of the genre. So, for instance, the video game Final Fantasy sells to many people who aren't in the least bit interested in RPG – not because it does away with its RPG elements, but because it has something else so compelling that people are willing to "go along" with something that they'd normally have no interest in. For Avatar, look at how many people who normally hate Sci-Fi attended that movie, for instance. Or look at how many people who would be put off by "country music" who enjoy Taylor Swift.

Anonymous said...

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志竹 said...
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