I went to a private Catholic high school where it was pretty much a given that your parents had enough cash to send you there and you were going to graduate and go on to a prestigious college, marry someone equally wealthy, be rich and successful, and die happy. What was odd was that only about ten of the kids in my class had any money, most were there because their parents were good Catholics and the Church was subsidizing most (or, in my case, all) of their tuition. Where I went to high school it was considered very un-cool to be popular. This was just accepted and no one questioned the absurdity of it. Kids in the class who were popular never would have acknowledged the fact; just as kids who were intelligent would never admit to being so. There was some sort of stigma associated with being cool. Even though everyone wanted to be cool, everyone resented those who were, including those who were. Maybe this explains why there were about 85 different cliques in my class, which was no small feat when you consider there were only about 70 kids in my graduating class.
But there weren’t supposed to be any cliques at Father Lopez Catholic, that was why most of our parents sent us there. We were supposed to value learning and morality and character, not going out drinking and doing drugs and cheating and sleeping with everyone possible. Something went wrong, and it is only now, four years later, that even the slightest glimmer of an explanation is presenting itself to me. We were trapped in what has engulfed all of American culture – the paradox of popularity.
It is a paradox of amateurism vs professionalism, of detached disinterestedness vs, zealotry, of hobby vs. lifestyle, of cool vs. un-cool. Nowhere is this paradox more evident than in the arenas of sport and rock n roll, those most American of institutions . Two examples are sufficient to show this paradox and its effects on mass culture: the Major League Baseball strike of 1994 and the rise and fall of the rock group Pearl Jam.
Some would say the baseball strike was inevitable. Players were making too much money in a sport which most Americans held near and dear to their hearts as a bastion of truth, justice, and the American way. Baseball is for little kids, for dreamers and athletes, for the ability and the agility, for the ethos of team play and sportsmanship. And it had become a multi-billion dollar capitalistic enterprise, a job instead of a game, a money-making machine instead of a hero-producer. It was almost laughable. Where else could there simultaneously exist a minimum wage of around $150,000 per year and continual labor strife?
The movie Bull Durham showed beautifully the angst of the old school vs. the new, the paradox of popularity. ‘Crash’ Davis, the epitome of baseball legend, playing the game in near-total obscurity for years ‘just for the thrill of playing,’ was forced to coach Ippy Calvin Lalouche, the pitcher with a lightning arm destined to make millions ‘in the show’ but without the sense to get there and survive. There is a scene in which ‘Crash’ tells Lalouche all the right things to say to the media, which he says can make or break a pitcher in the major leagues. “I’m just doing my best to help the team,” he tells Lalouche to say. “We just gotta work hard, and, God-willing, we’ll do okay.”
But Lalouche doesn’t care what team drafts him. He just wants to make money. He wants to ‘make it in the show’ and retire early with his pockets full. And the American public wants him to do just that, but they don’t want him to admit that is his goal. They want him to be like Ted Williams, who once said, when asked what he wanted out of life that all he wanted was to able to walk down the street and hear people behind him say, “There goes ted Williams, the best there ever was in this game.” (The character Roy Hobbs, from the movie The Natural, was based loosely on Williams.)
That is where the paradox of popularity begins. Once a player is making millions, we resent him for being greedy. Even though we want them to, there just aren’t that many kids in high school or college out there going, “Maybe someday I’ll break the RBI record set by Yaz in ’76 …” Most of them are thinking, “Maybe someday I’ll set the single season salary record set in ’93 …”
We are willing to let a baseball player make more than the President because it hardly affects us. But when we’re reminded of this at the stadium box office we aren’t willing to shell out $34.50 for a ticket and we’re outraged. The more popular a player becomes, the more we have to pay to see him and the less we like him for profiting from his ‘loyal’ fans. The less loyal his fans become, the less we buy his gloves and baseball cards, and the less we pay to see him, then the less his owner can afford to pay him. When his owner can no longer afford to pay him what he’s been accustomed to receiving, the player feels cheated. When enough players feel cheated, there is a strike. When there is a strike, we are reminded of how heartless and capitalistic baseball really is and we are disgusted at what we have created. The paradox of popularity enables us to have our heroes and hate them too.
High ticket prices are perhaps the driving force in ruining rock bands. The band Pearl Jam recently took Ticketmaster to the Supreme Court in order to insure affordable ticket prices for their fans. Few bands in this decade have enjoyed as swift a ride to success and fortune as Pearl Jam. And how is the lead singer, Eddie Vedder, seen by the media? Saturday Night Live called him a whiner and Time magazine thought he was hypocritical in trying to keep ticket prices down. The band, in trying to avoid the trappings of stardom, by not owning fancy cars and not advertising and not getting tour sponsors (e.g. THE BUDWEISER ROLLING STONES TOUR), is ridiculed. The twenty-somethings who are supposedly their biggest fans all talk about how cool they were two years ago, before they got famous. Even though they haven’t ‘sold out’ in the traditional sense (e.g. Reebok ads, endorsing a particular brand of guitar or microphone), they are seen as sell-outs simply for being suddenly popular. When Time magazine ran an issue with Eddie Vedder on the cover, the article inside quoted how angry he was at all the attention. Much like ‘Crash’ Davis, Vedder realizes the importance of not appearing as a champion of capitalism but as one of artistic integrity. And he realizes how powerful the paradox of popularity’s influence is on the American consumer.
How many quintets of teenage boys are hanging out in garages and mini-rent storage spaces playing instruments for hours and doing their best to write songs in the hopes of languishing forever in obscurity? I would venture to say the number is pretty close to zero. Local bands are always popular, but as soon as they start charging $40 for a concert ticket, disenchantment isn’t long to follow. As soon as they are recognized as popular, unless they are stupendously talented (Clapton, Lennon, Etheridge), they usually disappear in a flash, guilty only of becoming too popular. And, paradoxically, the most enduring, popular musicians and bands are the ones who appear as poor, unpopular, working class Americans: Tom Petty, Bruce Springsteen. Both Petty and Springsteen often sing about how rough they’ve got it and that is what we identify with and enjoy. How long will ‘Neon’ Deion or Bo Jackson captivate us with their flashy displays of wealth and arrogance? The paradox of popularity decrees they will soon vanish, victims of their own recognizability.
[Editor’s Note: I am a huge fan of Deion Sanders, Bruce Springsteen, The Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton, Melissa Etheridge, John Lennon, Eddie Vedder, Bo Jackson, and Tom Petty. On the off-chance that any of them (except John, of course) were to ever see this on-line, I wouldn’t want them to be offended.]
This is a paper I wrote on November 13, 1994.
New comments are disabled on this post.