28 April 2008

The Hype Cycle

By now everyone is familiar with the hype cycle. You know the drill: the ginned-up enthusiasm of publicists combines with word of mouth (and blog) to create so-called buzz. Articles appear, posing one of three questions. For the new artist: is this the next big thing? For the established artist (or restaurateur): will stratospheric expectations be met? For the figure whose stock is down: can a comeback be staged? Then the release date arrives, or the premiere, or opening; at last the thing itself can contend with its reception. But, wait, now backlash surges alongside the ongoing hype. And understandably, too: it’s not nice being force-fed even the tastiest food. But hold on a second, here comes the backlash-to-the-backlash …

One way of defending yourself against hype, with its incessant promise of the new, is to adopt a blasé attitude: whatever it is, you’ve seen it five times before. And it could be said that hype, too, is old hat. After all, the rapid boom and bust of stylistic trends and individual reputations has been going on for as long as there’s been a bourgeoisie. Proust is clear on the purely formal character of bourgeois taste. Mme Vinteuil doesn’t know when she promotes her favorite pianist whether she really likes how he plays; she just needs a name to bid up, to burnish her own. It’s part of running a salon. Staying ahead of other people’s taste is how you show that your taste reflects independent judgment, and not just your inevitable location on a chart where everybody’s “favorite” music and books correspond exactly to his income level and education. Poor bourgeoisie! They try to show it’s not all about the money, and next thing you know their relationship to culture is seized by the same buy low/sell high imperative. “I was listening to Franz Liszt before Pitchfork ever even mentioned him,” they must have said to one another in what early adopters were already calling the belle époque.

In the 1950s, America’s first era of mass affluence, this bourgeois problem became a problem of mass taste. The art critic Harold Rosenberg referred to “the herd of independent minds.” And yet the hype cycle has become faster and more domineering within living memory. Something started to happen in the late ’80s, when those sumptuously oversized Vintage trade paperbacks (matte for International, glossy for Contemporary) began to appear, and Miramax had its first big hit with sex, lies, and videotape (1989). Both Vintage and Miramax succeeded in appealing to mass taste by flattering it as discriminating, classy, refined—and throwing in some sex: Vintage International’s first reprint in the series was Lolita. Meanwhile, in 1990, Sonic Youth signed with Geffen Records. This last development was probably the most important, since hype-and-backlash today afflicts popular music most of all. Thus what was called “college rock” during the ’80s became known as “indie rock” just when its independence from corporate sponsorship and mainstream taste was most in doubt. Nirvana claimed to have signed with Geffen because Sonic Youth led the way. And Nirvana were the first great victim-beneficiaries of the hype cycle (according to which all victims are beneficiaries, and all beneficiaries victims). By 1994 the phenomenon was sufficiently familiar that a documentary on the so-called Seattle scene could be called HYPE! Do a LexisNexis search and you see the usage of “hype” growing pretty steadily from 1987 (when the database begins), and then suddenly jumping by 50 percent between 1996 and 1997. It’s curious: just as a historic stock market bubble gets underway, the culture pages begin to bristle with a term that invariably suggests the overvaluation of would-be works of art. This suggests an unconscious understanding of the truth: the hype cycle replaces aesthetic judgment with something closer to speculative investment in securities.

Of course there was never any such thing as truly independent aesthetic judgment. No cultural artifact ever appears out of nowhere, to be taken purely on its own terms; there is always what reception theory calls “a horizon of expectation.” And who would want to possess independent aesthetic judgment anyway? It would mean you were impervious to the enthusiasms of your friends and the arguments of critics; it would mean that you were a total blockhead, ineducable, stupid. So the problem with hype is not that it prevents you from disappearing into a solipsistic reverie over the Monet coffee table book that—if you had to figure out aesthetics all by yourself—would be your favorite object in the universe. Nor is the problem of hype that things get overhyped. Inaccuracy is built into the notion: we say “overhyped” and “underhyped,” we don’t say “correctly hyped.” Besides, as Harold Bloom as shown, it’s possible to overhype even Shakespeare.

No, the 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. You can get in on the IPO of a new artist, and trumpet the virtues of the Arctic Monkeys before anyone else has heard of them: this is hype. Or you issue a “sell” recommendation on the overhyped Arctic Monkeys: this is backlash. But there are often steals to be found among recently unloaded assets: “Why’s everybody hatin’ on the Arctic Monkeys?” says the backlash-to-the-backlash. The sophisticated trader is buying, selling, and holding different reputations all at once; the trick in each case is to stay ahead of the market. And the rewards from this trade in reputations redound to your own reputation: even though the market (i.e., other people) dictates your every move, you seem to be a real individual thinking for yourself.

No one will admit to being the 100% tool whose taste is 100% social positioning. Probably no one is that person. But anyone sensitive to art is also sensitive enough to feel his true aesthetic judgments under continuous assault from publicists, bloggers, journalists, advertisers, reviewers, and assorted subcultural specimens. Hype-and-backlash overwhelm the artifacts that supposedly occasion them. At this point a basic inversion takes place. Never mind the moon; look at the finger pointing at the moon. Is it pointing too high, or too low? It makes you want to turn away from that overhyped satellite altogether. But there are perversities involved with ignoring hype, too. There’s the person who demonstrates his individuality by patently false proclamations: “The Sopranos has nothing on Friends.” Or the person who by promoting a revival of some “underrecognized” artist wastes his time and others’: “J. F. Powers is the greatest American novelist of the 20th century.” Or you shut yourself off from the world and read only Dante. Some people even proclaim discrimination itself hopelessly snobbish, and just watch whatever’s on.

Hype-and-backlash might seem simply to speed up and democratize the process of criticism; everybody’s a cultural critic now. But this is mistaken. Real criticism of art sometimes attempts the correction of reputations (as when T. S. Eliot encouraged everyone to drop Shelley and pick up Donne), but that’s not its main task. Real criticism can take the form of a monograph or a long review, or just a few words mumbled to a friend. In any case, it judges art with reference to the work’s internal logic and generic and historical situation. And criticism, which relies on impressions and arguments, is always susceptible to opposite impressions and counterarguments.

Now look at the bullying charticles assembled by lifestyle journalists: the approval matrices and hype-and-backlash sine curves that now disfigure even such a once-proud publication as Les Inrockuptibles. Where the critic tells you what you should think—a proposition you’re free to reject—the charticler tells you what you do think, already. The charticler takes his prejudices and dresses them up as sociology. You are told to get in line by someone pretending the line has already formed; the only comfort is when still others fall in behind you.

The strange thing is that we are not glad when other people like what we like, or vice versa. You’d think these would be happy occasions—as if the candidate you loved won the election. Hurrah! And indeed the excitement of buzz is a proto-political phenomenon; the collective apprehension of the next big thing is a bit like being on a march. You learn, for example, from the recent Nirvana biography that the pleasure of hearing the band play a small club in 1990 owed a lot to the audience’s feeling that they were going to be huge: “Everyone was going around saying, ‘This is the band that’s going to make it.’”

The really potent work of art implies a promise to change everything—surely the world can’t bear the awareness induced by true art!—that’s always renewed and always broken. What reveals the promise as broken is that everyone’s now a fan of the art in question, and still the world goes on as before. Hence the backlash. And if ever the artifact recovers its uncontested popularity, it will be as the work of a “classic” director, writer, or band, which status implies it’s no longer a threat to anyone. People can still feel, in the face of all evidence, that a new album might change everything; not so a box set. That’s how it goes: hype, then backlash, then oblivion or the collector’s edition. The hype cycle has become the emotional life of capitalism, an internalized stock market of aesthetic calls and puts. It testifies first to the power and then, almost as soon, to the impotence of mere culture. It’s how the public expresses faith in itself, and a still more unshakeable belief in its irredeemability: if we all like something, it can’t be good. The extent of the hype cycle’s corruption of our minds can be measured by the frequency with which you hear people complaining that environmentalism has grown so fashionable, so chic, so trendy. Try to imagine a similar complaint from another political era: “I was totally into democracy—before they extended the franchise. I was all about socialism—but it became so working class.”

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