“Give the people what they want.”
The phrase is used both as a command and a sarcastic warning. One school of thought holds that a producer of anything to be marketed and sold really needs to provide customers exactly what they’re asking for. Another holds that people don’t know what they want until someone with a vision shows them what they want, and therefore the express wishes of “the people,” however defined, are a tertiary consideration, if that.
The guy on TV hawking some product saying he’s been listening to what people say and is trying to fill that need clearly wants to give the people what they want, or what they at least say they want, is on one end of this spectrum. The tech guru—think Steve Jobs—coming up with a completely bizarre, counterintuitive, or off-the-wall idea that nobody asked for, and then telling them that this is what they really need, is on the other. The former can come off as overeager, slick, insinuating, and perhaps even dumbed down. The latter can come across as arrogant, tone-deaf, pretentious, and economically dangerous.
Ah, but what about when it comes to art?
This might not surprise anyone who has read this blog for at time, but I fall more strongly on the side that most definitely does not give the people what they want. Do you know what the people want? Superhero movies. Young adult novels—a misnomer if there ever was one because adult women tend to enjoy these—featuring a plucky teenaged female overcoming post-apocalyptic challenged. Over-the-top, vulgar, disgusting, and perverse fever-dreams shoehorned into every single drama or comedy. Yes, it’s lucrative. Yes, it’s hacky and tasteless. Ultimately does not move things forward.
It does not progress.
Oh yeah, I went there. I used that word. Listen: I’m a fan of progressive rock, for example, because these musicians old and new stretch the familiar artform by doing what everyone else is not doing. Everyone’s writing short, poppy boy-girl love songs? Let’s make lengthy, conceptual pieces based on mythological, fantastical, or more cerebral themes. Is the playing basic? Let’s graft jazz and classical elements onto guitar rock. Is the trend to play faster? Let’s play slower. And so on.
Without deviation from the norm, progress is not possible. Frank Zappa said that, and he was certainly a progressive musician in the truest sense of the word.
In all arts, of course, musical, visual, and written, this attitude has led to a lot of stuff people might not even consider art. Pablo Picasso and Jackson Pollock come to mine. Or how about Kazimir Malevich and his famous work “Black Square,” which is literally a black square painted on a canvas. Or Marcel Duchamp’s “Fountain,” which is a urinal. Or that other weird French guy who allegedly canned his own shit. They were pushing the boundaries of art, but was it actually art?
John Cage’s “4’33”” is an example of this in the musical sphere. It’s four minutes and thirty-three seconds of the performer sitting at a piano doing nothing. I saw the Melvins cover this back in 2002. Now, John Cage actually wrote pieces that involved notes—I rather enjoy his prepared piano pieces—though his methods of composition are quite bizarre to most people. The twelve-tone/atonal pieces of early 20th century composers like Arnold Schoenberg, Alban Berg, Anton Webern, and the rest of the Second Viennese School, were radical departures from millennia-old Western ideas of tonality. But is it actually music?
It’s debatable. I would say what matters are the motives of these progressive types. What are they trying to say? To whose glory are they saying it?
Unfortunately, with a lot of people who push boundaries and look for new tools, their attitude is simply épater le bourgeois, like the guy who allegedly canned his shit. It’s a middle-finger to normal people. Composers like Schoenberg and his pupils, from what I know of them, were more interested in new techniques to express their emotions and ideas.
It’s a balancing act.
Most people like pretty music and pretty art. Pretty music and pretty art are always vital and important and should be celebrated and cherished. But never forget that Beethoven pioneered harmonic, rhythmic, and compositional techniques that were considered radical in his day, and the entirety of human civilization is better for it. Other composers were more workmanlike, delivering compositions that were widely enjoyed by the popular masses and there’s nothing wrong with that.
But at some point, art can stagnate. Art can especially stagnate if audiences who take no part in its creation are fed a steady diet of the exact same thing. Creative junk food. And if that’s all people’s artistic sensibilities are accustomed to, much like their palates, that is all they’ll crave.
Give the people what they want
You gotta give the people what they want
The more they get, the more they need
And every time they get harder and harder to pleaseThe Kinks, “Give the People What They Want”
The issue is that you need to deliver what you just delivered, parts 2, 3, 4, and 5. Think of the band who had a big hit and then spends the rest of their career fruitlessly trying to replicate their success. There’s a reason many groups we still talk about are still talked about. Led Zeppelin never made another song in the vein of “Stairway to Heaven.” The much-derided Beatles (a group I love, so I’m biased) were progressive in that they never even had a set sound: it changed from album to album, and they had a healthy sense of the avant-garde with compositions like “Revolution 9,” “Tomorrow Never Knows,” and the unreleased “Carnival of Light.”
Always pushing forward. Always on to the next thing.
I firmly believe that there needs to be a degree of vanguardism in the arts. In order for anything to progress, what has come before needs to branch off into hitherto uncharted realms. This can take the form of genre mash-ups, for example. Artificial restrictions. New technologies. Bending or breaking of old rules.
But it all has to have a purpose: what are you trying to express?
In writing, not everybody has to go the James Joyce route and produce something nigh unreadable and incomprehensible. But there is no shame in experimenting with narrative structures, time, chronology, tense, word choice, sentence structure. Think of Kurt Vonnegut—Slaughterhouse Five is pretty out there, but it works! The most important considerations are why are you doing this? and What do you want the reader to get out of this?
If you’re trying to piss off your audience, okay I get that. It’s an adolescent impulse, and maybe there are certain segments of the populace you are deliberately trying to alienate and antagonize. Maybe it’s for the publicity. Maybe you get a kick out of the shock value. Or maybe it’s because you really believe what you say. But as with all art—with all tools available to the creator—the finished product should at least be good. Look at a painter like Domenikos Theotokopoulos, also known as El Greco: the guy never stopped innovating and ended up creating styles some three centuries ahead of his time. And he did it all to glory God. This is the way.
I always go back to music because it’s my favorite artform. How about a guy like David Bowie? He helped pioneer electronic and ambient sounds in popular music. Who was asking for this? No one. He was just a man driven by a restless spirit and, to be fair, tons of cocaine, who wanted to share what he heard in his head with the rest of us.
I love that.
Here’s where we run into a problem with giving the people what they want, especially when it comes to what my friend and author J.D. Cowan calls fandom: these are people who have their entire personality, their self-identity, wrapped up in some piece of pop culture. If they don’t the unbelievably niche Star Wars side story they’ve been clamoring for, they are unhappy and never stop complaining. And thanks to another piece of forward-thinking technology called the Internet, they have ample opportunity to hate and hate and hate until they get what they want.
Writer and social critic Freddie deBoer notes this phenomenon in his recent takedown of the popular TV show Stranger Things. In detailing the problems he has with the show, he touches upon an important warning for all creators:
And the problem there is that the Stranger Things crew clearly pays much, much too much attention to the internet. This is a widespread plague in our present culture, this obsession with catering to the “hardcore fans.” The best art you’ve ever enjoyed was made with a studied indifference to its audience. One of the things I hate most about modern TV and movies is recognizing the moments where the creators said “oh, people are definitely gonna gif this part!” It’s bad form for shows to constantly put out their lips to be kissed.
The best art you’ve ever enjoyed was made with a studied indifference to its audience.
That’s mean. That’s harsh. And I agree with it 100 percent.
If you’re always seeking approval, your art is probably going to be bad. I’m not sorry for saying that. It’s better to make what YOU like, and invite everyone else along for the ride.
The honesty and integrity will show through. Hell, progressive rock band Rush, who I’ve written about a time or a hundred, based their entire career on this ethos, and look where it got them.
Do you think authors like Bret Easton Ellis or Chuck Palahniuk cared a whit about what readers were expecting? Do you think filmmakers like David Lynch pay attention to the Internet and its expectations? I don’t think even the pulp grandmasters of yore did! Robert E. Howard wrote stories that he thought were awesome and expressed sentiments he thought were important. J.R.R. Tolkien created Middle Earth before he even penned The Lord of the Rings because he enjoyed it at a time that epic fantasy wasn’t exactly flying off the shelves.
Yes, I know Tolkien didn’t invent fantasy, and that there was a rich vein in the genre that came before him thanks to legends like Poul Anderson and Lord Dunsany and Fritz Leiber. Read Jeffro Johnson’s excellent Appendix Nfor a through accounting of this pre-Tolkien literature, works that inspired Gary Gygax to create Dungeons & Dragons. These authors wrote from their hearts, breaking new ground without ever taking a comprehensive survey of what the people said they wanted. That people happened to really enjoy it was a bonus.
Read Hyperion by Dan Simmons. Do you think Dan wrote for the masses? It’s a dense, challenging sci-fi story full of references and allusions that forces the reader to think, to re-read passages, to think about their own lives based on what his characters are experiencing. Narratively, it might be qualified as “a mess,” but it’s a beautiful, glorious mess that holds together thanks to Simmons’s singular vision.
He was a vanguard, redefining what science fiction could be.
Of course, the more people got of stuff like this, the more they needed. So every new innovation has a shelf-life where, once it becomes widely adopted, forces the need for artists to re-examine the map, figure out where the blank spots are, and chart a course there.
That’s why we need a healthy level of vanguardism in the arts. Because people like to be surprised, even if they don’t know it yet.