Recently, many critics have taken to complaining about the fact that there is just too much content floating around out there. Some of the complaints, like those lodged on a recent Grantland podcast, are smart and measured; others, like those in a series of New York Times op-eds bemoaning that a cool record collection doesn’t get you laid anymore, less so. Regardless, they all seem to boil down to the same argument — there are far fewer gatekeepers than there once were, and because of that, a lot of terrible content gets made and shared where it wouldn’t have otherwise.
I watched the VMAs last weekend for reasons that are still unclear to me, and I’ll admit to spending most of the time frantically Googling the names of people on the screen. I learned far more about YouTube and Vine stars than I ever wanted to, as well hearing a bunch of pop songs that I somehow managed to miss this summer. Then I spent some time thinking about the 1995 VMAs, and how many of the celebrities there were mainstream famous actors and musicians that even my parents would recognize. I’m pretty sure if I mentioned Vine to my parents, they would probably think it had something to do with gardening.
So, fine, I’m officially old and all the stuff the kids like baffles me. But lost in all the discussions about this is the following: we have more ways to share content now than ever before, and that means more people have opportunities to share content than ever before. I’ll keep beating this drum until my arms fall off: this is, on balance, a good thing. It might be bad for a select number of people, but it’s great for many, many more.
Take TV, for example. One of the best shows of the summer is UnReal, which is a pretty explicitly feminist show about how screwed up reality TV can be. It’s smart and mean and airs on Lifetime, of all places; you know, the channel that usually shows “Mother, May I Sleep With Danger?” But because the bar for TV is being raised all the time, Lifetime jumped in and ran the show. Ditto Mr Robot, on USA, a channel not known for dark programming. Or the brilliant and woefully under-rated Halt and Catch Fire — even five years ago, would a network have aired a show about two women running a gaming company?
There’s more good TV now than ever, and I can understand why some people are burned out. My Netflix queue is always a mile long, and I’m constantly getting recommendations on what to watch next. But again, this is a much better position to be in than having nothing to watch at all. It also means that more stories get told than ever before, and this includes stories about women, people of color, LGBTQ people, and people from all around the world.
The DIY aspect of all of this means that people don’t have to jump through hoops to build their fame. A reader of my last piece was critical of the fact that I said all you need is a laptop and an idea to make it big, and I’ll amend that slightly — you also need to know how to market yourself and have a personality. But then all you need is a laptop and smartphone and social media. Are crazy parkour Vines my thing, personally? No. Are they someone’s thing? Sure, and I’m glad they exist for that audience.
In music, we’ve been hearing this complaint since the dawn of Napster and bedroom recording applications. The complaints go something like this: now anyone can make music, and we don’t have rock critics and record store clerks to tell us what’s good, so the world is ending. Now conjure up images of record label presidents, rock critics, and record store clerks, and think about why many of those people tend to look the same. Yeah, there’s plenty of terrible music out there now — but there’s also a lot of good music that would have never been heard. You have to sift, but so what; the odds of hearing a fresh voice are a lot higher now, too.
There’s also an undertone of “I’m not getting the attention I deserve” in many of these complaints. No one deserves attention, just like no one deserves fans. If someone from another culture can do something better than you can, well, them’s the breaks in the new economy. No one has the absolute right to live in the world that suits them the best, especially at the expense of others.
At the end of the Grantland podcast referenced above, the hosts both talk about analysis paralysis when it comes to their viewing and listening options — and when you have unlimited choices, it does become easy to revert to the same old things you know you’ll love. A few thoughts on this: one, there’s nothing wrong with cultural comfort food. Not being the mood to explore or discover is fine, as long as you don’t find yourself in a total rut. And even if you do, who cares? You’re probably missing some neat things, but it’s not like there’s a pop quiz at the end of each album or TV season that you have to ace in order to keep existing.
Two, you’re never going to get to the end of Netflix or Spotify. And again, that’s fine. There’s no next level you advance to after watching every prestige drama or listening to every album that Pitchfork likes. Not knowing about Vine stars or YouTube sensations is acceptable. What’s not acceptable is romanticizing a world where these people and options don’t exist. There’s no “either/or” in the world of entertainment — because a terrible song exists, it doesn’t cancel out a great song. There is only “and” — and infinite options with something for everyone.
What do you think? Please log in and respond below.