Marco Roth, editor of N+1, has recently complained about sociology. His beef is that sociology has lost its power as a critical tool and has instead become the lens through which most art is judged:
Sociology has ceased to be demystifying because it has become the way everyone thinks. Discussions about the arts have an awkward, paralyzed quality: few judgments about the independent excellences of works are offered, but everyone wants to know who sat on the jury that gave out the award. It’s become natural to imagine that networks of power are responsible for the success or failure of works of art, rather than any creative power of the artist herself.
Roth is reflecting upon the ideas of the great French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu. In his book Distinction, Bourdieu claims there is no such thing as pure aesthetic judgement. He argues that differences in taste are instead the result of, and help to reinforce, stratifications of social class.
What is true of sociology is also true of media studies. Its viewpoints are no longer restricted to academia; they now have a wider reach. One example is the study of audiences. There is a long tradition within media studies (plus sociology and cultural studies) of ignoring that artist’s role in creating works of art and instead concentrating on how audiences re-appropriate those artworks. Although these disciplines are concerned about class clichés, they have been happy to undertake their own research on a class basis. In an attempt to elevate working class audiences, and suggest that they are not prey to the ‘shit of capitalist production’, theorists have argued that these audiences creatively rework the products of mass society. The idea of the creative consumer is there in Stuart Hall’s theories of ‘articulation’, Michel de Certeau’s idea of ‘textual poaching’, John Fiske advocation of ‘resistance’, and Henry Jenkins’s work on ‘participatory culture’.
This idea has also taken root amongst boy bands. At some point in the current century, these pop performers stopped talking about artistic creation and instead began to talk about what they owe to their fans. In boy band interviews, you will hear these acts say that they are ‘humble’, rather than glory in being stars. Gone, it seems, are the days when pop acts claimed that they were born to boogie or were kings of the wild frontier. The new bands don’t claim to make art, but suggest instead that their fans make them. The debt, it seems, is wholly one way. Take, for example, a recent interview with One Direction that Tom Lamont conducted for the Guardian. The band members stress the role that chance has played in their success. ‘We’re normal lads’, says Louis; ‘we’re normal guys’, says Zayn. And this is what they say about their relationship with their audience: ‘it’s great to give back to the fans’, says Zayn; it’s all about ‘giving back to the fans’, they point out collectively.
The band’s relationship with their fans is, of course, also the focus of publications such as the Guardian, whose readers aren’t necessarily interested in One Direction’s records, but are curious about sociology and media studies. All the same, this doesn’t stop the band from toeing their ‘giving it back’ line in every media forum that they appear in. One reason for this outlook, perhaps, is that they don’t have any outlet in which to talk at length about their artistic endeavours. As Lamont points out, they have a different relationship with media than stars of old:
One Direction is the first mega-band of the social media age, and this has a direct knock-on effect for me: the boys have very little incentive to promote their wares through old institutional channels such as the press. They don’t give long interviews; they don’t need to.
All of this probably makes the media theorists happy: the rest of the world has cottoned on to the fact that it is not artists who matter; what’s more important is the creative practices of their fans. And this includes the fans and artists themselves: they both know who is doing the real work.
I can’t be so sanguine about this. On the one hand, I have an outdated faith in artistic creation. I even want to see it in boy bands. These groups have millions of fans and so their work ought to be good. If you are hugely successful, you should have some sort of statement to make. Fans certainly have a part to play. Their input can help move artworks to a higher and more interesting level. However, I believe that it stands a better chance of doing so if: a) the fans are given interesting material to work with in the first place; and b) the worth of this material is acknowledged. The quality of dialogue that surrounds works of art can be of as much benefit to audiences as the works of art themselves. One Direction certainly talk to their fans: there is an endless stream of tweets and instagrams. This dialogue isn’t always inspiring, however. They are usually telling their fans that they have a new product out. No wonder they feel indebted to them.
The textual poaching of the fans isn’t always inspiring either. It can range from the mundane (Lamont watches Liam tweet ‘very interesting day today’; this message is soon re-tweeted 55,000 times) to the threatening (when the magazine GQ ran an unflattering portrait of One Direction, a fan articulated her anger by saying ‘GQ needs to shut up before I break my glass nail file in two and stab them in the eyes’). Here she is clearly doing something with the artwork beyond the original intention of the artists, but is it really what we need?
Ultimately, we need more art, and more talk about art, from the boy bands and from their fans. The media theorists like to think that they’re looking favourably upon audiences when they describe their work as being ‘creative’. However, it is usually only a certain type of fan whose behaviour is described in this way. Marco Roth is wrong about the complete takeover of a sociological perspective. For example, when the Guardian explores the work of opera singers or jazz musicians, its analyses are different to its analyses of One Direction. There’s more talk about the artists’ intentions, and less about the activities of fans. As a consequence, opera and jazz are still musics of ‘distinction’. Conversely, despite Bourdieu’s exposure of the stratification of taste groups, there’s still little cultural capital to be gained from being in a boy band or being a fan of a boy band. Audience studies have, in fact, helped to reinforce social stratifications. It is usually only the ‘lowest’ forms of art that are approached by looking at the fans’ perspective first. Sociology and media studies are not the way that ‘everybody’ thinks; they are instead the preserve of an elevated sector of society. This sector likes to analyse other audiences, but rarely stops to consider that it is an audience itself.