The customer is always …
By this I refer to that line of thinking that equates a thing’s popularity with its aesthetic/artistic value. Thus the Inspirations = popular, ergo Inspirations music = good.
But it need not be confined to such an easy target. Judging by the stream of mediocre music (whose flow is only occasionally interrupted by something insightful and exciting) that comes from most southern gospel acts these days, aesthetic populism is the operative mode of creativity in sg. Every time a songwriter or producer or performer or musician hears that nagging voice that says, really, ANOTHER cover of “Just a Little Talk With Jesus,” ANOTHER hook that rhymes “Cal-va-REE” with “you and me” … that little voice can be shouted down with the soothing old lie: nobody likes it but the people.
A version of this debate is going right now elsewhere on this site, with some commenters arguing that sg should stylistically move in the direction of the prevailing winds of country music, since that’s what the people like these days, and others (understandably) wonder, whither being led by one’s own lights?
Aesthetic populism is a syllogistic kissing cousin to Joyful Noise-ism, but more potent in a way, because the pietism is overlaid with a healthy dose of world-weary cynicism. So where the Joyful Noiser can run into a kind of utopianist pietism (everything done in the name of Christ is good!) that can turn off the religiously committed person who also values her reason, aesthetic populism signals its knowingness in that wry formulation: nobody likes it but the people. (Bonus points if you refer to Rusty Goodman or whatever legendary figure to whom this axiom is attributed in southern gospel.)
In sg, you’ll hear this refrain often when a critique of form, content, style, or execution has been made. And if nobody likes it but the people, then that (in the populist’s mind) settles it.
Except of course American popular culture- secular and religious – is in some ways one fairly frequent testimony after another about “the people’s” crummy aesthetic judgment. John and Kate Plus 8, anyone? Those obnoxious blinking LED crosses at NQC? Jesus Got R Done t-shirts?
My point is not to hie myself to the ivory tower and preach down to the unwashed nabobs about their inferior tastes (you’ll have to take one of my classes for that! heheh). I like Golden Girls and Hee Haw and McDonalds french fries too. No, the point is that, at least as far as mass artistic or creative culture is concerned, it’s a balance between anticipating what your (potential) audience wants and judging what they might like to experience but wouldn’t have chosen by themselves, and sometimes (often?) the latter can and should trump the former.
But for some reason, even though we know empirically that the latter part of the equation is responsible for a lot of the best works of popular culture (John Lennon didn’t focus-group “Imagine” … “How Great Thou Art” wasn’t workshopped and poll-tested), “the customer is always right” remains a kind of sacrosanct incantation of late capitalism that gets whispered with ever more reverence over product development (and that’s what popular songwriting and album producing are, really, even and especially in sg) the more evidence that piles up to the contrary: in fact, the customer is often very, very wrong.
My suspicion is that business people/artists/executives like to fall back on the customer is always right when they’re too lazy, afraid, or unable to create themselves out of whatever rut they’re in. Thus, for instance, do we get “A Pile of Crowns.” Or, to shift industries, thus do executives from the automobile industry insist that it’s a folly bordering on insanity for car companies to make more fuel-efficient and alternative-energy vehicles. “American car buyers don’t want those cars,” they say, and point to the SUV craze.
Except that consumer taste doesn’t develop in a vacuum. In the car case, advertisements and other mass promotional campaigns have a huge, verifiable and transformative effect on consumer attitudes toward products. If automobile companies wanted to make fuel-efficient cars as attractive to consumers as Excursions and Escalades, they could (and would) do it. But change is hard, looking over the horizon even harder, and besides, a bird in the hand and all that.
In the case of music, all good artists encounter moments in their careers when they have (or ought) to leverage their credibility, fame, or connection with audiences to bring fans along with them to whatever new creative place their vision takes them. When they don’t, then the result is a world full of Kenny Chesneys, half-sober Amy Winehouse imitators, and every southern gospel group (except the Dixie Echoes!) cueing up another pre-programmed encore of “Beulah Land.”
Or to put it another way: the customer may always be right, but sometimes they need help in arriving at that conclusion.Email this Post