Top 40

Popular. If I was a lame student beginning a term paper, I'd be using a quotation block to add a Webster's definition to that word. The way I did it would telegraph exactly how I intended to approach the topic. A single definition cherry-picked from the possible choices (usually number 3 or 4) is a statement: "this is how I am choosing to use this word. I will brook no dissent to my chosen definition and if you come at me with an argument using any other possible definition of the term, I will defend myself by attacking you as not understanding the word at all...perhaps you have a learning disability."
Listing all of the available definitions sends a few messages: "I only started this paper last night." "I'm eating up space with a large block quotation because I don't have enough to say to fill three pages." "A good strategy for putting almost no thought into this assignment would be to spend a paragraph or two discussing each of these definitions and then wrapping up with a conclusion paragraph that ties everything into my viewpoint."

My personal peccadilloes with student writing aside, I've been wrestling with the concept of popularity recently. Unlike concepts such as value, artistry and fairness which are all constructs of the human mind and vary by perception (people only believe they're being treated fairly when they get what they want), popularity is real and measurable. For instance, "Achy, Breaky Heart" was/is certifiably popular. The album on which the song was released is 9x multi-plat, spent 17 weeks in the #1 spot on the charts, sold more than 20 million copies worldwide and is the best-selling album ever for a male, solo-artist (if Wikipedia is to be believed). By every measure, Billy Ray Cyrus was (and probably still is) more popular than you could ever hope to be. My personal opinion is that Tom Waits' song "Hold On" (to pick at random from the playlist currently accompanying me as I write this) is immeasurably better than "Achy, Breaky Heart". However, it is measurably 40 times less popular using album sales as an indicator. Using a more modern metric, both songs retail for $1.29 on iTunes, but Mr. Waits has a single bar of popularity for his tune while Mr. Cyrus has more bars of popularity than I cared to squint-count.
The easy (lazy) explanation for this is that people are stupid. While this is not untrue, it is paradoxical because I am included in the sub-set of "people" but I'm not stupid. I like to think of my life as a Venn diagram where I am the only part where the circles for "people" and "stupid" do not meet. Unfortunately, this is a very common (one might say nigh-universal, the height of popular) viewpoint.

The problem with popular is that we almost always use the term to make a qualitative assumption about the person or thing being described with this quantitative adjective. For example, take a look at this video from Nada Surf. How do you feel about the popular people in the video? If you hate them, as the band seems to suggest you should, do you hate them because of their quantity of friends/dating partners or for how they act or, perhaps more elementally, just for who they are? Hipster and counterculture tell us that a thing's coolness is inversely proportionate to its popularity...if more than three people have heard of and like a band, they've sold out and become totally lame. For other things, popularity is used as a symbol of greatness; like the Beatles love-fest taking place right now (a phenomenon I found irritating when it happened in the 90s with Anthology. Is there some problem I'm not aware of where people are forgetting about the most famous band ever and needing to re-buy and re-discover their albums once a decade? I'm sorry, but if you've heard "Penny Lane" a thousand times before, hearing it again with different sound mixing shouldn't be the revelation that some of the critics are describing it to be.). Using the popularity of one thing or another to decide whether we hate or love those things allows us to make decisions without familiarizing ourselves with those things enough to make an informed decision.

The reality is that we all hate and love certain things which are popular. I hate anything written by Tolkien, and I've read a good bit of it. I was a bit wary of the book Dune when I picked it up a few weeks ago when I saw it described on the back cover as "The Lord of the Rings of science fiction", but I found it to be a compelling story with writing that didn't make me go into fits of bored frustration. Both are extremely popular, but my enjoyment of one or the other was completely unrelated to that fact. If I had to choose between my friends who are popular people and those who really aren't, I'd lose some good friends either way. I'd really love for this blog to become popular, but would that make DougV or Belligerent or me lame? I propose that each of is capable of great feats of lameness in the absence of popularity, but I doubt any of us will ever be cool, regardless of any measure of popularity.

So if popularity has no real connection with quality, why do we stretch its importance in that way? I think it all comes down to the human instinct for tribalism. You can be part of the tribe that thinks The Eagles are one of the greatest bands ever or part of the tribe that thinks owning the intolerably lame album "Hell Freezes Over" is grounds for ending a friendship. Full disclosure--I do own the aforementioned album. Perhaps I should have mentioned that in my "confessions" post. My ownership of this musical travesty can be attributed to youthful indiscretion and is, at least partially, mitigated by my owning "We Love 'Em Tonight", one of the most badass live albums ever. This desperation to belong to something causes all of us to miss some great stuff out there. I say we should all go ahead and enjoy something if it makes us happy. And now I think I'll end this so I can go enjoy dancing the Macarena in my underpants while drinking a Bud Light.


  1. I agree that it's a dichotomy to want to be popular, but not be blamed for selling out, or not being "underground" any longer. Kurt Cobain apparently had a huge problem with this dilemma, and rather than talk to a therapist he ate a shotgun. Seeing Billy Ray Cyrus's mullet, glistening chest hair and no-sleave flannel makes me want to eat a shotgun too... but I'll survive.

    It's hard to know what even constitutes as the one attribute that makes something popular. I think there's been plenty of research, but that act in itself makes it unpopular (because being a nerd goes agaist popularity by its own definition). I hope someday I can say I sold out to the man. Maybe we'll all look back and laugh about how silly and naive we were once... I'll probably wish I would have paid attention more in English class.

    I hope dancing the Macerena was fun, cause it makes me want to gouge my eyes out with a nearby sharp object when I hear it. Thankfully, the more recent weddings I've been to I left early because I got sick or was too freaking hot (who doesn't get an air-conditioned hall for a mid August wedding!?!?).


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