Thursday, May. 22, 2003 (12:51 p.m.)
A call to arms or Entertainment that does more than wash your dishes

Yes, it’s another Clay Aiken entry today. Am I overinvolved? Probably, but that’s the way I tend to operate. Overinvolved and overanalytic. And truthfully, I like it that way. So there. [Warning. This thing is outrageously long. Read it in bits, at your own risk.]

So I think I’m over the crying now. (Mostly.) And over the miffedness. (Mostly.) And on to hope.

Hope that the message the viewers of this show sent will be heard. Hope that the product we made clear we wanted will be produced. Hope that even though it’s clear that the Powers That Be haven’t understood what we're saying yet, they will eventually.

I’m talking about the message we sent simply by voting three incredibly nice, unusually talented, real people types into the final three. The message we sent by loving both Clay and Ruben so much that, whatever the ever-fluctuating difference was, we basically couldn’t choose between the two of them. In fact, the message we sent by simply watching the show in huge numbers, numbers large enough to make it the second-highest rated show on television, even though the ensconced and self-referential entertainment media repeatedly dismissed it as "boring" and "uninvolving."

Because we certainly found it interesting and involving. In fact, we found it more interesting and involving, I think, because of the very factors that caused the establishment to dismiss it: the genuine, down-home quality of the contestants, the real camaraderie, and the way we could identify with these people instead of worship them. We poured our hearts into the show, even though it’s my opinion that the production types would have rathered we didn’t.

They’d so much rather tell us, you see, what we like than listen to us tell them, even though it’s our hard-earned money from our dreary little lives that puts them where they are. And that’s the key to what I see as a major problem in today’s popular culture.

See, I’m into entertainment. I like it a lot. I love to watch television, and movies, and though I may not like to admit it, I even like to read the "celebrity dish" type pulps now and again (I certainly like them better than I like celebrity dish pulps masquerading as news magazines. Ahem, Newsweek). I like to spend money on entertainment. I like to talk about it. I like, no, I love to become emotionally involved with it.

And I know I’m not alone in that. In our Internet Age or Knowledge Era or Disconnected Epoch, or whatever you’re going to call it, I think the value of popular entertainment that brings people together just keeps rising. In fact, I think that the more disconnected we become from all our old systems of community, the more imperative it becomes that we bond over cultural phenomena – i.e., entertainment.

What I mean by that is this: I think that the era of the fanbase is at hand. "But gloamling," you’ll say, "don’t be silly! There have been fan bases for centuries! Look at, say, Charles Dickens!" And you’re right. There have been fanbases. But never before have they had the voice that they have now.

Or, should I say, never before have they had the opportunity to have the voice that they have now. Because the key to this problem I want to talk about is that I think, while the fans/viewers/consumers may be speaking, may even be acting, the culture establishment (or entertainment establishment, or Powers That Be, or whatever you want to call it, but I think I’ll stick with culture establishment because it sounds all cool and semi-socialist-dictatorship and stuff) isn’t listening.

For, well, almost ever, one of the important tasks of someone in the entertainment industry has been anticipating popular demand. In fact, that’s the most important task in any directly consumer-related industry, right? At least, economics tells us it is. Supply fills demand, demand (hopefully) meets supply. Everyone’s happy.

But of course, it’s not really that simple. Anticipating demand isn’t so terribly hard when you’re, say, building dishwashers. What people are going to want is pretty clear: a dishwasher that costs less and washes their dishes better. And if a demand – say a demand for more energy-efficient dishwashers – does sneak up on you, you know pretty quickly, and you work to meet it pretty quickly.

Entertainment/culture, however, is of course not quite that easy. It’s a lot more difficult to say what people "demand" out of entertainment – even to say that they "demand" anything at all.

The purpose of entertainment isn’t that clear. You can’t just work to make entertainment that, metaphorically, washes your dishes better, because nobody’s even sure that you want entertainment that washes your dishes. Maybe you want entertainment that cleans your floors. Or entertainment that feeds your family. Maybe you want entertainment that does all three tasks and fixes your plumbing at the same time.

The point is, "demand" is a bit of a confusing concept when you come to selling something that's more about feelings and ideas and wants, rather than practical needs and applications.

Which is why the culture establishment has developed. When I say culture establishment, I mean the group of people – the entertainment industry, the critics, the execs and producers and designers and mavens and gurus – who get together and basically try to decide amongst themselves what the public's going to demand out of entertainment and popular culture. It's a perfectly legitimate idea. I mean, somebody has to do it, or we wouldn't have any entertainment or culture at all, except the stuff that springs up spontaneously.

Fine, ok. If there's really very little way to consult the actual consumers about what they want, I guess you just have to turn inward and make it up yourselves. Thing is, though, that's all changing, and I maintain that we need to call on the culture establishment to keep up the pace.

Information is different now. We've heard it a billion times. Internet this, responsiveness that, person-to-person the other. Our society now has access to a dizzying amount of up-to-the-minute information on virtually everything, at the same time that we feel vastly more disconnected from community than we ever have before. We live in an age both of unprecedented opportunities for free speech and of unprecedented lack of familiar cohesive bodies. As each and every one of us gains a publicly audible voice, we also all begin speaking at once, instead of as a body, and the noise can be deafening.

So, enter the fanbase. The self-created, informal, at-a-distance community of today. And I do mean community. I maintain that, as we lose track (to our collective dismay) of the cultural/community markers we've had in the past -- that is, as the cultures of extended family, ethnicity, neighborhood, and religion become so spread out that they no longer fill our need for group interaction – we are rapidly striving to create communities of found culture.

And here's where we turn to the culture establishment, and here's where I see it as failing to respond.

What better place for us to find a new way of community-building than in entertainment/culture, really? It's one thing we are actually sharing more of in this disconnected world. Despite all the talk of global governments and universal currencies and languages, the only thing we've really managed to globalize in today's society is entertainment. Consumerism. MacDonald's and Beverly Hills 90210.

That's the given, right? Say you meet someone new from across the country. You've got nothing in common. Nothing to talk about. You can at least discuss your favorite cartoons when you were a kid, right? Or popular music. Or your favorite places to shop. Culture – the culture of consumer/popular entertainment (and yes, I am including food and shopping here. Face it, we do it for entertainment as much as anything else) – is what we have in common.

And so, we form fanbases. We use our new modes of speech – the internet, zines, conventions, all facilitated by rapidly evolving communicative and connective technologies – to gather together and make cultures and subcultures of entertainment our new communities. (This even applies when we're talking about a subculture that isn't directly entertainment-based, like Goths, for instance. Goth culture is as much about music, images, and fashion as about anything else –- thus, entertainment.)

Do you see what I'm getting at? I think, that for the first time in history, through the technologically connective fanbase, consumers of culture are able to express their demands. We are now, astonishingly, wonderfully, exhilaratingly, able to band together and say, "Look! This is exactly who we are, and this is exactly what we want to see/hear/consume!"

It's amazing. Up until now, entertainment has had to kind of market itself to everyone and see who responded. (That's ignoring niche marketing, yes, but that's a fairly recent development. And I maintain, actually, that it's never been used the way it should be used. Instead of saying, "we're going to pitch this towards semi-intellectuals who have a taste for dark comedy," the culture establishment has said "we're going to market this towards white and Asian men between the ages of 15 and 26.")

It's still true, I guess, when you're launching a new culture-product – fanbases have yet to form preemptively, as far as I can tell – but as soon as you do launch, the opportunity exists for the consumers to actually respond, as a group, to every single facet of that product. And that, I think, is terrific. We now are not only consumers, you see, we're participants.

Or, at least, we should be.

But the thing is, that over the years, the culture establishment has gotten more and more insular. It's developed, in fact, to the point where it's forgotten that the reason it began consulting only within itself was that it couldn't reach its real consumers. The culture establishment has begun to believe that they're the only ones who could possibly know what we want, even though now, finally, we're able to tell them loud and clear what that is.

But they're not listening. They're just not listening, and it infuriates me. Yes, I'll buy culture-establishment entertainment if I have to. If it's the only thing available. But what I'd like to buy even more, what I'd allocate even more of my consumer power to if it existed, would be fanbase-designed or -interactive entertainment. Because, crazy though it sounds, I think I know what I want better than some Hollywood exec does.

You know, it does sound crazy to them. Ridiculous. They look down on us, the consumers, and it bugs the hell out of me. We're finally able to speak up, loud and clear, and they've decided our voices don't matter! It's what made American Idol this season both such a tantalizing and frustrating experience.

The idea of AI, of course, is perfect for what I'm calling fanbase-interactive entertainment. They set it up, and then we take it from there by voting ourselves. Terrific! It's the perfect blend of old culture establishment and new fanbase community.

And perfect it would have been, if they'd let it be. But instead, infuriatingly, frustratingly, disgustingly at times, they wouldn't. The culture establishment, cocky as hell, ensconced in its ways, so damn sure they know better than us, took it upon themselves to negate our input. To make it mean less than it should have.

It showed in a variety of ways. The way they kept pushing the contestants whose "looks" they thought were marketable over those who weren't, even though voting (and internet fandom) clearly showed that we, the consumers, thought the others were pretty damn marketable themselves. The way they worried certain topics to death, like Clay's ears or Kimberley's weight, even though we'd shown we weren't interested. The bias towards Ruben and against Clay because, bafflingly, they'd decided that Ruben was "more marketable."

-- Tangent: Okay. I really don't know why they think this. Honestly. Ruben certainly is marketable. I'm not saying he isn't. But why is Clay unmarketable? How is Ruben somehow "less weird?" I think it must be because Ruben is something RCA and 19E feel they've seen before – a large black man with a smooth voice. They feel he's just like Luther Vandross or Peabo Bryson. But isn't that doing a disservice to Ruben? I mean, he is a large black man, but that doesn't define him, for heaven's sake! He's his own thing! He's a lot more innocent-seeming than either of those guys, for one thing, and his voice is a lot higher than Luther Vandross's or, certainly, Barry White. (I find comparisons with Barry White positively insulting to Ruben – their musical styles are so different! All you could possibly be comparing them on would be look!)

And on the other side of things, Clay is wildly, intensely marketable! He has screaming-girl-fans! He has sex appeal! He's something new and different and wonderful! He's incredibly versatile! Please explain to me how this isn't marketability? Again, what could it possibly be but looks? There's no skinny white guy who sounds like Clay already so there couldn't possibly be a market for it?! Oh good God! How narrow-minded can you get! –

The thing is, we, the viewers (and oh, so many of us there are) have been telling the culture establishment loud and clear throughout this whole competition that we wanted the following things out of a new solo performer:

a. We wanted a nice person. The animosity towards people who weren't perceived as kind or decent was overwhelming. No bad boys or girls wanted here. And who ended up in the final three? Clay, Ruben, and Kimberley – three incredibly decent-seeming human beings who love their families, their hometowns, and caring about others.

b. We wanted someone with a new and different musical style. Listen up culture establishment! When did we love these people the most? When they surprised us with the versatility of their styles and ranges! When they sounded different from Brittney Spears or Justin Timberlake! We ended up, again, with three performers whose styles were so different from most of the music scene that the media has had a terrifically difficult time defining who they sound like. (Especially, on this count, Clay – another reason it infuriates me that 19E dismissed him so often.)

c. We wanted singers, not wailers or groaners or shouters. Again – we didn't want the image of a popstar, we wanted the substance of one. Are you listening, culture establishment?

d. We wanted people who looked like real people. Not Hollywood-pretty. Not models. Not Barbie and Ken dolls. This. Is. Astounding. And I love it. I love, love, love, love, love that of the top three, not one fits that "image" the culture establishment has decided is the only one. After years and years of people saying "well, the sad truth is that only BeautifulPlasticPeople get love these days," when we were given just the slightest chance to speak, we shouted loud and clear that we wanted talent, personality, and moral sturdiness in a regular-person package. "Skinny boys with goofy smiles are incredibly sexy," we yelled. "Curvy girls with style and class are cool," we proclaimed. "Sweet-looking, big, huggable guys make us happy," we cooed. We shouted it from the mountaintops, we typed the hell out of it on the boards and lists, we said it loud and clear: we want to see people who look like us! We love them!

e. And the final thing we wanted, the thing that combines them all into one package, the thing that I think is the most important message the culture establishment should take from us is this: we didn't want an idol after all. We wanted a friend. We didn't want someone to gaze at from afar, we didn't want a glossy, un-human finished product, we wanted truthful, friendly, talented, strong, real-looking, beautiful-in-sprit-and-in-smile friends for our Idols. We wanted to feel like we knew these kids. Like, given half a chance, we could have been them. We didn't want to see the product of a sterile and insulated culture establishment on that screen, we wanted to see the product of a real, living, breathing, laughing public. We wanted a fanbase idol – an idol for our brand new, interactive, community-based culture, not for the old, removed one. We wanted a champion.

And what infuriates me is that, even though all of these desires make perfect sense to me, the culture establishment wouldn't listen to them. They repeatedly demonstrated that they don't really trust us to tell them what we want. The whole sneering Ruben-bias thing infuriates me beyond belief on that count.

Now, I’m not saying Ruben didn't deserve to win. No, he wasn't my favorite, but I'm certainly not blind to the fact that the kid has a ton of talent. And besides that, he seems like a terrifically nice guy, he's a fairly engaging performer, and he's regular-looking. (Actually, pretty extraordinary-looking, but you know what I mean.) I most certainly grant that Ruben could absolutely be the people's choice.

But the culture establishment wasn't going to let us find out, now was it? The thing that makes me so angry is that instead of letting Ruben win on his own merits, they went to every conceivable length to force him upon us – and to discredit Clay, who, as last night's incredibly close race proves, was at least as much a fanbase favorite as Ruben. They went, in fact, to disgusting lengths to do it – lengths that may have held Ruben back as a performer, since he never even got any constructive criticism, and lengths that may have damaged Clay as a person, since a lot of the sneering remarks Simon gave him had absolutely no basis in fact, and nothing to do with anything the public really cared about.

And you know, I kind of think "how dare they!" How dare they tell me I'm not capable of choosing my own entertainment? I'm the one who's paying for it! And I will pay, too. I will pay for anything and everything Clay-related, because I love him! I feel an attachment to him as a performer that I've never felt for any other performer in my life – and you know why I think that is? Because he actually is a model for someone like me! A kind, giving, intelligent person, a little weird, plenty talented and sexy but doesn't look like a model – it's incredibly heartening to have someone up there who actually reminds me of the person I'd like to be!

And I know I’m not the only one who feels that way, either. Clay gathered such an astounding fanbase in such a short amount of time. And I know most of them felt the same way I did. Clay is the kind of person we want as a friend, a lover, a prom date, a sweetheart. He's the person, in many ways, we want to be. And how do I know this? Because I'm part of the new community of entertainment! I've talked to other fans! We've worked together and built ourselves a very clear picture of what we want out of a performer like Clay – and, beautifully enough, I know he tried to give us what we wanted – while at the same time remaining true to himself.

And yet the culture establishment persistently paid less than no attention. And it bothers me so much. Again, having Ruben as the American Idol doesn't really bother me too terribly much. Yes, maybe Clay would've won without the bias/conspiracy, but he was still the second – and Ruben's a perfectly good artist. I'm glad to have him in the popular eye. Go Ruben, you know?

But what will the culture establishment do after this? That's what worries me. If they're so out of touch with what we actually want that they won't even let us speak for ourselves, how are they going to treat Ruben and Clay – and any artists in the future? The question that burns in my mind is: will they let these astounding young individuals be what we want – and what the artists themselves want --them to be?

And I’m terribly afraid they won't. That they'll just push and push to try to fit them into molds until they break. And that after this season, they'll never let any of the people we really want to see onto American Idol – or anything like it – again. Because I think it scared them. I think it scared them to get a glimpse of new movements, movements originated by consumers, that they didn't understand and couldn't control.

And frankly, that sucks. So I say we need to empower ourselves. Even though they're not listening, we need to keep talking. We need to shout out what we want so loud that it begins to shake the foundations of the all-too-complacent culture establishment. I'm not saying boycott – I'm the last person to do that, since I'm such an entertainment junkie.

But I am saying don't let them shut you up! Don't let them fool you into thinking you want what they want you to want! Don't let them tell you what to do or think or say or buy! Go a little bit out of your way to find performers who will listen to you, and let them know you appreciate it! We can do it. I know – or at least I fervently hope – we can.

Up with the people! Up with the fans! Someday, I hope, we can rule the world. And, really, I think I'm going to like it a whole lot better when we do.

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