The price of popularity

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“Oh yeah, I used to like that…but it got so, you know…mainstream…”

This is a sentence heard so many times that it seems to define the attitude we now have as a culture towards our entertainment. Either the writers behind our favourite albums and shows genuinely undergo a “dumbing-down” process when they hit the big time, or it’s our expectations of a cultural experience which are changing. We don’t just want to be entertained anymore – it seems that we want to feel privileged to have stumbled across something, or perhaps even slightly proud of ourselves for having done so.

Personally, I don’t mind it if someone else likes the same thing that I like. In fact, I’m quite happy about it; I feel it validates my opinion, and makes me part of a culture, a movement, a phenomenon. I am aware, however, that this is not the way many people think; the fact that I stuck with Lost until the final episode is a bit of an embarrassment to some of my closest friends, who stopped watching after the appearance of a polar bear on the island (which by the way, is a massive shame, as all those people missed out on an epic scene in which John Locke fought off the bear with nothing but a torch and a can of hairspray…)

So what is it about popularity that makes something so unpopular? Did Fall Out Boy really start writing worse songs after they hit the charts, or was it just their “coolness” which made them uncool? Is Russell Brand actually less funny than he was in his “I’m a recovering drug addict with a mouse living in my hair” days, or is it just his Hollywood credentials that are turning off his British fans? Have the How I Met Your Mother writers lost their way a bit since they started relying on the popularity of main character Barney in order to make musical sequences and elaborate slapstick acceptable? How did Twilight ever become popular in the first place (perhaps a question for an entirely different article, but one that baffles me nonetheless…)?

It seems to me that popularity can only ever improve a show/band/film’s potential to be fantastic – when small BBC3 shows The Mighty Boosh and Little Britain achieved unanticipated hype, their budgets exploded, allowing for much more outlandish plots and ambitious settings. And yet, the glossy veneer of success seemed to taint the original charm these little shows came with; when polished up to match the appearance of other prime-time shows, the magic was gone, and the writing suffered under the strain to constantly better itself.

It’s the age old problem of that tricky second album – once they’ve achieved a bit of fame, it seems that all some artists want to write about is fame, something which alienates their audience, who are looking for something which strikes a deeper chord. Not only this, but the huge budgets they suddenly have to play with can overtake the artistic impulse they started out with – Guillemots’ second album, Red, flopped critically, despite achieving greater chart success than their debut Through the Windowpane, with BBC Music’s review of it claiming it had “one ear on the mainstream”, its overproduction making it practically a self-parody.

There is an undoubtedly special feeling that comes with knowing that you have discovered something entirely unexpected and underrated; just listening to a song you have never even heard of before is like taking it from the back of a shelf and blowing the dust from its cover. It moves you because you found it. A connection arises between you and every chord, as you feel a movement beginning, an understanding between you and the art before anyone else’s interpretation can worm their way in. Maybe, essentially, it’s this sense of discovery, this uninterrupted relationship which makes non-mainstream entertainment so much more refreshing. Maybe, when they are given free reign, artists struggle to live up to their own hype, and try to push their boundaries too far. Let’s be honest with ourselves, though, and admit that really, part of us just greatly enjoys having the ability to say “oh, yeah, I heard of that before it got big…before it was so, you know, mainstream.”

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