Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Why is hype ubiquitous?

Everybody hates hype, yet hype constitutes a greater and greater portion of our public discourse. Why? What is going on? Hype may naturallly spiral, since in a climate of hype, new hype needs to be that more outlandish and hyperbolic. But what instigates people to create hype in the first place? At what point in our technological advancement as a society did word-of-mouth enthusiasm degenerate into the rote manufacture of hype for new products?

Hype serves a fundamental purpose in the culture industries of generating demand for new products and pemitting growth where none is necessary. No one needs a new rock band or a new film star, but the industry must expand the pantheon to establish new profitable product lines. Hence PR firms are hired to assiduously and relentless try to generate buzz for their clients. They saturate anyone with any kind of media reach with hype, trying desperately to create the illusion of significance for whatever they are hyping. This hype, obviously paid for and obviously indiscriminate and patently desperate, is easy for most to dismiss. But it establishes the grammar for more legitimized forms of hype that are harder to dismiss, the "authentic" enthusiasm of "disinterested" tastemakers -- in indie music these consist of online journals, MPS blogs, and the like, written and produced by the addessees of much of the PR hype. The Pr hype that these folks reject becomes the standard for how they try to express their own actual enthusiasm for some new cultural product. They react against it, but as any good dialectician will tell you, their reaction absorbs into it the values of what it is reacting against. The counterhype becomes simply a more evolved kind of hype, formulated along a priori principles provided by the very hype it seeks to obliterate.

A possibly less abstruse explanation for ubiquitous hype can be found in the pressure to remain relevant. Let's say you're Pitchfork, and you've gained all sorts of notoriety for propelling the Arcade Fire to profitability. The taste of the power to move markets may not reveal itself explicitly economic and capitalistic, it may reveal itself as a kind of warm mellow feeling of goodness, of having brought better culture to a wider audience for the sake of the culture, not the money. But in order for Pitchfork to sustain its relevance, in order for it to remain in that benevolent glow of having moved culture forward, in needs to repeat its success, nominate a new Arcade Fire. In other words, it needs to function like a record company and discover and hype the next big thing to keep people reading, to maintain its sense of power and significance. Here the "independent media" the trusted source for music information, and the evil profit-hungry record company, have their best interests converge. And what once made Pitchfork readable, the fact that it seemed like disitnerested enthusiasts espousing unvetted opinions, becomes yet another distant arm of the culture industry hype machine, the technostructure ( to borrow Galbraith's term for the web of group management-think that propels massive and complex corporations toward their profits) that decides for in advance what culture will be mass-produced and promulgated. Pitchfork's success allows them to become absorbed into the machine of hype gneration; it doesn't protect them from it. Success in our culture means collaboration with the technostructure; it means high-profile profitability. An independent voice cannot be preserved once success is attained, since success in our cutlure, by its very nature, means integration into this technostructure that guides the direction of the economy and the zeitgeist.

All word-of-mouth enthusaism now aspires to become part of the technostructure, whether it knows it or not. The Internet is a massive tool for assimilating the opinions of so many different voices, and then rendering it into a group-think decision worthy of moving capital and dictating investment decisions. On the level of culture this means that when you blog your opinions, you are volunteering them for this assimilation into the hype machine. When you post to Amazon, you are asking to have your opinion be a sales tool. Technology has it made it such that an individual need not rest content influencing a few friends, but should seek a larger sphere of influence, to touch and affect total strangers. And the pervasive sense of the availability of this access, the constant harping on the blogosphere and, now, podcasting (see today's Wall Street Journal), makes it such that everyone feels obliged to seek this power -- and the essence of this power, the language it speaks, is hype.

What technology has done is subvert the intentions of word-of-mouth, making it a competition -- whose MP3 blog gets the most hits? It has integrated this interpersonal communication into a larger system, destroying its personal nature, and making such personal contacts suspect (why are they telling me this? whose hype are they repeating?). Pop-culture critics by their nature are generally content to be taste-makers and market researchers for the industry that fascinates them, whose levers they seek to pull. Reviewers have no reason to be negative or critical, because no one needs to waste their time reading or hearing about something that sucks. So the pressure to be heard amounts to a pressure to effuse about everything, to sweep everyone up in a cotton-candy fluff of phony positivity.

For those who don't want to participate in the hype of the now, there is the escape into nostalgia, the rehashing of old pop culture and its significance to hypes of years past. But the more enthusiastic one becomes about these things of the past that need rediscovery, the more one begins to spout hype all over again.

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