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.

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