The Four Or Five Americas

Posted by Rob Walker on July 10, 2006
Posted Under: America

On the ever-popular topic of whether mass culture is dead, consult the most recent (July 10 & 17, 2006) issue of The New Yorker. Two features are of interest: One about Hot 97, the other about “blue collar” comedians.

Hot 97 is the New York rap station that’s become notorious as the site of several shooting incidents. According the article (by Ben McGrath), Hot 97 was the first station in the U.S. to go with to an all-hip-hop format, back in 1992. That was a long time ago, and throughout the piece there are glimpses of and allusions to something we have all come to take for granted since then: Hip-hop’s enormous cultural reach and influence. If you doubt that Jay-Z is mass, note that his supposed offense at the remarks of a Cristal executive in The Economist “generated international news.” McGrath’s article, which is really good, is not about the relationship of hip-hop to mass culture, but let’s just acknowledge: hip-hop is mainstream.

The “blue collar” comedians are Jeff Foxworthy and Larry the Cable Guy and a couple of others. The piece is by Tad Friend, and it’s also very good. (Friend is one of my favorite magazine writers.) The general theme is that these guys are hugely successful in a way that basically freaks out the people who run the entertainment business. If those people thought about it, Friend suggests, they might “have to confront the idea that there are indeed two Americas, and that theirs – the isolate island states of Manhattan and Hollywood – is wildly out of step with the rest of the country.” For instance, Foxworthy has sold 15 million comedy albums, “more than twice as many as Steve Martin and Richard Pryor combined.” Larry the Cable Guy’s catch-phrase, Git-R-Done, “is the most profitable phrase in comedy,” Friend writes. “Last year, the comedian sold more than seven million dollars worth of novelty merchandise in convenience stores alone.” Clearly, the Blue Collar Guys are mainstream.

Neither of those articles is online, unfortunately. The Hot 97 article is online; the Blue Collar one isn’t. (My mistake on this — thanks Steve Portigal.) Here, from the same issue, is John Cassidy’s review of The Long Tail. I haven’t read the book, so I’m not passing judgment on it one way or the other, but Cassidy generally takes issue with its contention that mass culture is, in fact, over, and that we’re headed to an all-niche world. Cassidy argues that people will continue to swarm around event movies like The Da Vinci Code, whatever the reviews or word-of-mouth are like, so they can “feel part of a social event.”

I tend to think that that’s true. I think it’s impossible to deny that the world is niche-ier than ever, I just I don’t think a lot of niches necessarily mean that mass over. To me, this issue of The New Yorker suggests that the mainstream has multiplied. I don’t think there are two Americas, I think there are more. I think there are probably four or five versions of “the mainstream” now, each of which could and should be characterized as “mass.” Mass, after all, doesn’t have to mean every single person in the country – it just has to mean big enough to feel, you know, really big.

Doesn’t hip-hop America feel really big? How about “blue collar” America (meaning the audience for those comedians, not actual blue-collar workers)? Can you deny that either one is mass? And yet, how much overlap is there between members of these two mass cultures? I also think you could make a case for a sort of Rick Warren/“Passion of the Christ” mainstream, and maybe an “alternative” America, and possibly a (smaller, but still big enough to be mass) jet-set or cosmopolitan or maybe post-national America. Maybe each overlaps with some of the others. Each of these can probably be divided into a bunch of niches, but that doesn’t cancel out the mass part of the equation.

I’m just winging it here, you understand, but basically I think the niche vs. mass debate is phony. It’s built on a false choice. There have always been niche cultures, that didn’t happen because of the Internet, or cable, or whatever. And as long as there is a need for people to feel as if they are part of something larger than themselves (which would be: always) there will be mass culture – or mass cultures, I should say.

Further diversion may be found at MKTG Tumblr, and the Consumed Facebook page.

Reader Comments

The Hot97 piece (just finished it earlier today) is

Written By Steve Portigal on July 10th, 2006 @ 3:48 pm

at one time, we had three networks, a few major newspapers … and that was about it.

nobody knew as much about the niches, because there was no easy, efficient way to find out about them. i think this talk all comes from us having many, many ways of learning what others across the country (and world) are doing, thinking, etc.

Written By el jefe on July 13th, 2006 @ 2:29 pm
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