January 24, 2004

There's No Accounting for Taste

JOSHUA ELLIS HAS WRITTEN an article examining the concept of like tastes, in which he puts forth a few arguments on the concept, some with more merit than others.

Mr Ellis makes the point that people with like interests will congregate together, which seems a rational observation on American life. He then argues that the Internet has caused this dynamic to change. Now, he says, more people than ever can find others of like mind through blogging. Finally, Mr Ellis charges that this state of affairs is great for content producers, i.e. writers and musicians, but problematic for content distributors, i.e. publishing houses and recording companies. In this vein, Mr Ellis rants about Britney Spears' success.

Mr Ellis writes:

"Ms. Spears has precisely zero talent at anything, except possibly for the hardly-challenging skill of shaking her ass. Her songs are wretched parodies of everything that makes music great and vital. She cannot hold a key without production effects. In effect, she is little more than a Junior League lap dancer with a karaoke backing track.

And yet, she is one of the best-selling pop stars in the world. Why? Because record labels promote the ever-loving hell out of her. It is impossible to walk into a chain record store without seeing her face (or more likely, her ass) plastered up on every surface. MTV plays her videos on an endless loop, because the record labels have created artificial demand for her work.

And yet, the likelihood is that Ms. Spears herself is making most of her money not from record sales, but from merchandise sales t-shirts and handbags and training bras. As profitable as these items may be, they are worthless without the heavy hand of her record label. Without the label's promotional efforts, without the album it distributes around the globe to giggling teenage girls and the videos it gets played on MTV and the singles it pays "promoters" to push on radio stations, a Britney Spears t-shirt would be no more a commodity than a t-shirt with my face on it. If you took the record label out of the equation, Britney Spears really would be nothing more than a Junior League lap dancer with a karaoke backing track. She would certainly not become successful on the merits of her music, because it has none."

You know such criticism is over the top when even we think it is sour grapes.

Regular Rant readers know, of course, that Ms Spears routinely appalls us. One day, we are inadvertently exposed to one of her horrid new songs; on a second, we are bombarded with stories about her quickie marriage; on a third, we learn about something particularly idiotic she has said, such as claiming she wasn't a role model. However, we think the sick Hollywood culture contributes to these happenings; and for us to agree with Mr Ellis' argument in this regard would be foolish.

We mean, really. The record companies are promoting their musicians? Gad! The nerve these people have! To think that these otherwise fine corporations would actually attempt to make money!

The truly funny part about the whole thing is that Mr Ellis has bought into the trap. After all, in criticizing her so harshly, he merely adds to the publicity that she receives (hey, it prompted us to write about it). His argument would have been stronger had he simply criticized the music business in general.

Oh, and we love the argument about "artificial demand" too. We could see such an argument applied if the situation involved a rumored (or contrived) shortage in oil or bauxite; for buyers would drive up the price of such goods on those rumors (and sell on the news). But the idea of artificial demand in the music business does not apply -- at least not to compact disc sales. There, the demand is very real; even we cannot deny that millions of people really want Ms Spears' albums. And since the cost-per-disc of producing a compact disc falls the more one produces of any particular issue, Mr Ellis' argument is just not sound on an economic basis.

In that vein, we also can't agree with Mr Ellis' argument that Ms Spears has no talents at all. Aside from the singing and prancing about on stage bit, she clearly she has a talent for separating Americans from their hard-earned money, and in our capitalist society that counts for quite a lot.

Had Mr Ellis applauded Ms Spears for this instead of criticizing her, that would have helped us buy into his schtick. But he did not, and as such we find his arguments greatly diminished. For in attacking the success of one particular segment of music, he undermines the essence of his own argument: that in this world, there's no accounting for taste.

(Via Dean Esmay)

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at January 24, 2004 11:11 AM | TrackBack

My argument remains that unless Mr. Ellis is in fact a 12 year old girl, his opinions on the value or lack thereof of Ms. Spears' yodelings is rather limited in its insight. ;-)

Posted by: Dean Esmay.com at January 24, 2004 11:21 AM

I think the point of criticizing the record company for promoting Ms. Spears is not that they dare to make money through exploiting her...assets, but that they do so at the expense of more talented acts.

Posted by: Kerry at January 25, 2004 12:52 PM

Not to defend Britney, although she does have a nice ass, at least once upon a time she could sing (she did win her round on Star Search anyway). Her new voice, as it were, seems to be pretty well orchestrated just to be breathy and sexy rather than anything like talk-to-the-dolphins Mariah Carey-esque.

And I agree that the no-talent argument falls flat, if only because she's proven herself to be pretty shrewd in the field, much like a young Madonna (who, I imagine, had all the same insults hurled at her from people in the press as her popularity grew). I think she's here to stay.

Posted by: andy at January 28, 2004 09:50 AM