In last year’s smash-hit Freddie Mercury biopic there’s a scene in which the titular anthem is nearly prenatally terminated by studio heads attempting to champion the common man music fan, but then is instead theatrically ushered safely into existence by demand of the genius creators to the ultimate overwhelming benefit of that so-called common collective. For critics who called Bohemian Rhapsody cliché this was one of far too many scenes expecting to enchant us with a trick we’ve seen a hundred times already: artist creates, business people misunderstand and reject creation on behalf of the people, artist insists on creation, people celebrate creation, artist was right. The artist in art, like the customer in business, is always right, we have come to learn. Is it true?
Legendary record producer Rick Rubin (Blood Sugar Sex Magik, Wildflowers, The Black Album, and so much etc.) thinks so, and discusses this on the podcast he hosts with Malcolm Gladwell. “The audience comes last” he says in interview with T Bone Burnett, explaining that a creator is certain to have a much easier time making something they know they like, rather than trying to make something they think other people will like. Of course, we do like Rick Rubin albums, so the system works. Vampire Weekend’s Ezra Koenig on his episode of the same show delves further into the artistic struggle that comes with attempt at manipulation of not only end-user appreciation, but also interpretation. What he wrote to be meaningful a listener might find dumb and to what he didn’t think much of in writing a listener might attach tremendous meaning. This is a facet of creation and consumption particularly familiar to popular world builders like J.K. Rowling and the Rick & Morty guys. As it’s ultimately uncontrollable, Koenig concludes, like Rubin, that all that matters is what’s meaningful to him.
Wherever artistic breakthrough is taking place though, clueless suits cannnot be far away. “You can’t put that head in that box” producers fretted to David Fincher. He of course did put the head in the box creating a movie moment so legendary the film need not be named here. The amount of stories with this structure — trite at this point in the entertainment industry — causes one to wonder: “Will they never learn?” But the fact that things like market research and test screenings exist indicate that there must be plenty of cases where the artist wasn’t right. For every Fincher story shrouded in legend maybe there are ten times we almost saw James Bond play guitar or Elle Woods endure a Verdict-like alcoholic depression phase, only to have our backs had for us by Mr. Sony and Mr. MGM. E.T. is apparently an actual example. Per Spielberg, the little glowy finger guy was not supposed to make it out of that impromptu alien hospital. If you’re a pro-hypothesis reader, maybe you’ll argue that if he hadn’t, the film would occupy the same prestigious galaxy as 2001 instead of the humble family favorite one it occupies here in our universe. More likely you’ll be willing to trash the whole work, claiming it was a pop movie all along, a consumerist film, and thus is not expected to function according to art’s axioms.
A pop entertainment category would indeed be a wondrous resolve to this article allowing you to move on with your day. Spider-Man: Far From Home, The Jonas Brothers, Young Sheldon — this is what those producers are working on! This is the moneymaking shit where, yes, if a survey says 86% want to see Spider-Man dab, that sticky motherfucker is gonna dab! Meanwhile the studio’s resident genius is off unbothered somewhere cooking up the prestige to serve when awards season comes around. (That’s why big dumb movies are called ‘tentpole movies’ — they keep the financial roof up over everybody.)
But Francis Ford Coppola complicates things. Right smack in the middle of this brilliant Pretty Cool Joe content, the master behind, inarguably, at least two of history’s top five greatest films, does this:
You’d feel about as natural as if you were advising Roger Federer on his grip, but Coppola wants to know your thoughts! He’s cut the studio market research middleman out and, for his famously difficult Apocalypse Now, gone straight to the source for valuable viewer feedback.
The acclaimed oral histories of two NBC smash classics speak in detail to their respective perspectives within the collaborative and ratings-religious world of television. On Saturday Night Live, the original cast members circa 1975 aimed only to make each other laugh. They were called the “Not Ready for Prime Time Players”, in fact, for their lack of polish and professional urgency. On Friends about two decades later studio audience response was crucial to direction. Laughs bubbling up at setups instead of jokes was an occasional wake up call to stale writing. Here in the wondrous future, there is the ability to take live feedback to the biometric level. For the Leo-crowning achievement The Revenant studio Fox and mastermind Alejandro González Iñárritu partnered with an emotion technology company to derive insights like “15 fight or flight responses” and “4716 seconds transfixed” from audience’ vitals-monitoring wearables. The company’s founder called data like this “a new color”, for artists like Iñárritu to paint with.
Speaking of color, spectrum-thinking continuously proves itself to be translatable across disciplines of modern thinking. Just as there isn’t a clear distinction between pop entertainment and art entertainment, there is no dominant one-sided perspective on the end-user’s proper role in art creation. Both David Lynch’s befuddling audience alienation and Michael Scott’s in-jokes are craft worthy of praise. And by the way, isn’t even alienation rooted in intended reaction — like anti-pandering? Perhaps that’s coincidental and Lynch is pure vision; but perhaps he‘d be interested in the heart rates of viewers during that Mulholland Drive diner scene, if only to see if he could top it on the next one.
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