The Mona Lisa is the most famous painting in the world. Yet I’m told that nobody in art circles pays it any attention. It’s not a case that the painting is oversaturated and nobody wants to talk about it. The Mona Lisa genuinely doesn’t seem to be of interest to people who study art for a living.
It was involved in a famous art theft, and maybe it hung in Napoleon’s bedroom for a while. These things ignited a self-sustaining fire of parody and cultural reference that keeps laypeople interested to this day. On its own merits, its a well-executed portrait from an era of well executed portraits. Okay, but not greatest-painting-ever material. Or such is my reading of the art community’s attitude.
In the same way, a top 10 list of thrash metal might conceivably never mention Metallica, and a 10 top list of house music would probably never talk about Daft Punk, and UK skiffle fans probably aren’t wild about the Beatles. They’ve gotten too big for their respective scenes. They’re not a big fish in a small pond, they’re like a whale in an eyedropper. Their subgenre is famous for them, not the other way around. I remember thrash metal discussions where you’d get the stinkeye if you spoke about Metallica. Like you’d brought out a can of Chef Boyardee at a fine cordon bleu culinary school.
I was reading about how Green Day lost their early punk rock fanbase after they signed a major label deal, and it struck me that fame is the flash point that separates healthy fans from unhealthy fans. They might wear the same band shirt, but they’re not the same person. Casual fans, perversely, seem to like things more on their own merits. Hardcore believers, on the other hand, often seem to be malignant narcissists who don’t realise that their obsession is really all about them. They liked it first, they liked it harder, they own the fucking t-shirt, and don’t you forget it, peasant. They wear their “liking thing x” status like a Boy Scout’s merit badge, without the badge and without the merit.
Why else would a record label deal make them suddenly decide they don’t like Green Day any more? Their fannishness was about their own egos. Liking Green Day was just a status-signalling prop, like a woman’s handbag.
Few people are able to make products that appeal to the hardcore coterie and the mass markets. In fact, I think it might be impossible. There’s possibly a “Texas Sharpshooter” element to this stuff, where hardcore fans disavow things for the simple reason that it’s gotten too popular with hoi polloi.
This seems an inextricable and intractable aspect to how cultural circles work. Scott Alexander talks about an example of how fashions change (using the example of cellular automata, a’la Conway’s Game of Life), and how poor people try to imitate the styles of the rich – only to have the rich react in horror at the grubby unwashed copping their style, and moving on to something else. Is it any kind of stretch to posit that there’s a cultural rich, and a cultural poor? Cultural cordon bleu and cultural Chef Boyardee’s? When it comes to entertainment, apparently there is no fate worse than liking the band equivalent of Ikea furniture.
It all seems…unpleasant. If you’re shallow for liking something that’s popular, what does that make someone who stops liking something for the exact same reason?