What happens when the mainstream isn’t mainstream anymore? With online streaming and the digitization of entertainment, it is now so much easier for artists to find their audiences and create a niche.
No longer does a writer, filmmaker, or musician have to defer to the approval of a producer, editor, or some other gatekeeper. He or she can now self-publish, go to YouTube or Soundcloud, and market their creation through social media and gain a following.
This has not necessarily obliterated the gatekeepers, many of whom have adapted to the times and oversee online media, but it has diminished their hold on popular culture. While in the past Americans had little choice but to consume what the handful of major television networks and music companies offered, they now have plenty of alternatives. They have access to nearly every creative product, and, with the help of computer algorithms tracking their selections, can customize their media input.
This has led to niche markets where artists appeal to narrow audiences with highly specific preferences instead of a wider one with a broad set of preferences. Dispensing with most mainstream options, people tend to resort to what is comfortable and agreeable to them, fueling the niche-ification of entertainment.
The Death of the Pop Culture Gatekeepers
All this summarizes Emily Jashinky’s argument about this recent evolution of popular culture. At the end, she asks what this change means for our culture. Considering other examples in history of mainstream cultures dividing into niches, the outcome will certainly be mixed. Depending on how people respond, however, the proliferation of alternatives could either contribute a veritable cultural renaissance or accelerate a new dark age.
Long before there was Netflix and Spotify, there was Johannes Gutenberg and Martin Luther. Prior to the Reformation, the Catholic Church unilaterally defined politics, religion, and culture for Christendom. For centuries, kingdoms and empires in Western Europe had few alternatives to the material and spiritual order set by the Catholic Church.
If any leaders, philosophers, writers, or artists had something to say, they needed a churchman’s imprimatur before sharing that thought with others. Those who tried to bypass this process were usually excommunicated, ostracized, or condemned as heretics—and often for good reason, since they threatened the social order with an unapproved, and therefore probably subversive and erroneous, idea.
Once Luther posted his 95 theses and popularized his ideas using Gutenberg’s printing press, the great mainstream that was the Catholic Church broke up into so many tributaries of competing beliefs and theories. People had choices in how and what they worshiped, what they read, and how they wanted to be governed.
The Good of the Monoculture
Even though people today learn to look back at this time in purely positive terms, a strictly regulated monoculture had many benefits: civil unity, neighborliness, high standards for arts and letters, and greater spirituality. Unfortunately, these goods accompanied the evils of intellectual stagnation, corruption, and various forms of oppression. The Reformation and printing press reversed (or at least mitigated) these evils, but at the cost of diminishing the virtues.
One can see a parallel tradeoff in modern arts and entertainment in the past decade. People gain in choice and innovation, but they lose common standards and slowly fragment into walled-off niches. Whereas generations in the past could bond over global phenomena like the baby boomers with The Beatles, Gen Xers with “Star Wars,” or millennials with Harry Potter, today’s iGen struggle when one group listens to K-pop and reads manga, another follows people on Twitch and are hyperactive Redditors, while another listens to ’80s New Wave and reads Mojo magazine.
Some may argue that greater choice and alternatives to the mainstream can improve the culture by offering channels for new ideas and promoting healthy competition. After all, the two major political parties will adopt arguments from smaller parties on the fringe in order to better represent constituents and find new solutions to social problems. Similarly, successful painters or chefs can take ideas from other cultures and thereby enrich their paintings or dishes. And, even if the Reformation caused problems for the Catholic Church, it also inspired the Counter-Reformation, which brought about some of the greatest thinkers, artists, and saints that have ever lived.
Then again, these new ideas and competitors may just as well destroy or marginalize the predominating culture. As Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI suggested recently, the Catholic Church’s current scandals are caused by adopting secular values and abandoning orthodoxy. Arguments meant to modernize the church and increase its appeal were sold as reforms, but instead compromised the church and reduced much of its meaning and relevance. As for competition, the Reformation may have brought about great achievements from Catholics, but it also permanently tore Christianity to pieces and paved the way for secular ideologies hostile to religion in the following centuries.
Something similar has happened to the world of fine art. In the past century, rival artistic movements have inspired new masterpieces and expanded the range of creative output, but they have also pushed most art to a point of shallowness and irrelevance. Either art and music become cliché and simplified fodder for mass consumption, or they become a form of quirk meant to appeal to snobs who want to be different. Meanwhile, the true masterpieces remain hidden behind so much overhyped, under-scrutinized garbage.
The Scourge of Choice Paralysis
Today’s loss of a mainstream creates a new problem that has no real analogy to the past: choice paralysis. The extreme abundance of choices can turn the pleasurable activity of listening to a song or watching a movie into something stressful. More and more time that should be spent enjoying entertainment is now spent sifting through the endless options—and it is almost certain that a person will make the wrong choice, or at least feel like he did.
To maximize the benefits and minimize the drawbacks of overturning the mainstream, it has become necessary to educate general audiences in matters of taste. With no popular standard to serve as a point of reference, audiences in search of quality entertainment will need the help of critics—people who do the job of sifting, cutting through marketing propaganda, and applying objective standards of appraisal. Otherwise, these audiences will waste their time on so much dreck and be fooled by a compromised algorithm or clever advertisements.
This new deference and attention to critics will also require a general education in the arts. People do not need to become experts, but they should be able to understand the experts and the rules they apply to whatever medium. This means appreciating art and entertainment as disciplines and modes of knowledge, not just forms of pleasure. If people approach entertainment without any knowledge of objective aesthetic values—as many do now—they will select the ones that offer the greatest dopamine rush, setting aside so many works of beauty and brilliance for binge sessions of “Fortnite” and pornography.
Before the cynic tosses aside this whole discussion of art and entertainment as a “first world problem”—which, to some degree, it is—it should be stressed just how much art influences culture. Art informs the imagination, which in turn informs opinions and perceptions, which informs actions and behavior.
It is not unreasonable to judge a culture by its art or a person by her artistic preferences. Art often says much more about a place or a population than economic or scientific statistics do. Consequently, a culture that ceases to treat its art seriously and subordinates it to lower things like politics, pleasure, or commerce will lose its integrity, along with its identity.
With this in mind, there is reason to hope that this new phase in entertainment will be positive. If Americans resist the urge to huddle in niches and use entertainment for validation and pleasure (instead of the better purpose of edification and discovering beauty), then they will continue progressing towards a brighter future with stronger communities.
If they allow computer algorithms and superficial values to guide their media consumption, then all this choice will simply be a perfected form of distraction, dulling the senses and confusing the mind. In a time of so many choices, the one between thoughtful appreciation and mindless consumption will decide everything else.