I’m forced to listen to pop music almost everyday thanks to the predictable tastes of the 13 year old girl I live with. The thing about pop music is that it’s palatable in the same sense candy is palatable. Most people love candy because it stimulates our animal brains; I don’t like candy that much, but it’s difficult to find candy that’s actively disgusting.
That candy contains no nutritional value is irrelevant. It doesn’t matter that you want people to like apples instead. Candy is palatable and gives them a jolt of good feeling, therefore it’s a huge industry.
Pop music is more insidious than candy, because it can stimulate our brain on at least two levels. The first level is the same as candy, the driving beats and catchy hooks stimulate our animal brain. But the real power of pop music is to give people a jolt of the warm and fuzzies by confirming what they already believe or desire.
The Secret of Popularity
It’s not a very good secret, to be honest. It’s obvious. If you want to be popular, make everyone around you right. If you want your products or art to be popular, make it make everyone who sees it right.
Pop music is a case study in finding a market and catering to it. They sing to college kids about getting super drunk and blowing your rent money on drugs. They sing to 11 year old girls about everlasting love with a boy who is wealthy, cute, and malleable. They sing to insecure young men about how cool it is to be rich and tough and how many girls will fuck you if you are.
These aren’t revelations to anyone, they are deeply held beliefs and values that are simply being reflected back verbatim.
And it’s not just young, dumb kids who go for this, this is the human condition. Part of the reason I’m a fan of the band Tool is that they confirm my worldview that exploration of the mind and universe is worthwhile and that there’s more to experience than meets the eye. I like Alex Grey because his artwork reflects my experience of the world, verbatim, back to me.
Fox News faithfully parrots all the fear and certainty that their audience feels right back to them. MSNBC provides the same mirror for liberals.
Who’s right or wrong doesn’t matter. People buy what they want to be true.
On one hand, you’re weird because you’re reading a blog that consistently details the ways you are wrong. On the other hand, this is just another mirror. I’m just parroting your deeply held belief that that our lives could be more meaningful, and that society is flawed. I’m just supporting your value of curiosity, and perhaps your desire to feel aloof, intellectually superior to those chewing cud lost among the herd.
In what may be a feat of self congratulation, I believe there is a distinction between what we do here and pop music or Fox News. The difference is that we are capable of having this conversation.
Acknowledging this condition of perpetual confirmation would undermine the belief structures of Fox News viewers and pop music listeners, and therefore would disintegrate the whole enterprise (quickly giving way to new organizations that would gladly fill the void).
On the other hand, the same acknowledgement strengthens our worldview and method of being, much like science done correctly systemically and continuously exposes its own weaknesses, which keeps it strong. Our constant questions about what is truly real and valuable tends to fight against the entropy of human bias, even while it is driven by the very same bias.
Sales and Change
There are two lessons here. The first is never to let go of challenging yourself. If you have the inclination to join this anti-herd of introspection, grip it and don’t let go, because it can only make you stronger.
The other, more difficult, lesson is that your art, the product of your life’s work, will not be judged by you or by this tribe. It will be judged by the world. And the world wants what it wants, not what you wish it wanted.
The tastes and beliefs of the world don’t change all at once, much like an evolving species does’t change all at once. They make almost imperceptible shifts, and you can only see the effect over a long period.
If you want to be a strong person, question everything, and assume you’re not correct.
If you want to sell, confirm that your audience is correct, always.
If you want to change the world, sell, but subvert the message. Show them a mirror, but make it a funhouse mirror. Show them a reflection that’s recognizable but deliberately distorted.
Show them an apple, but make sure they see candy. You’ll sell the candy, and they’ll buy the apple.