Pop Culture 2.0?

Originally posted September 6, 2006

It’s the end of an era. Two of the most influential figures in American pop culture were fired this week: Tom Freston and Robert Christgau. Freston, who was head of Viacom’s cable networks, was one of the key executives behind the rise of MTV. Christgau is the self-proclaimed “Dean of American Rock Critics,” the writer who redefined the rock canon away from the populism of the mainstream music press, and toward what he sometimes called “semipopular music.”

Freston got canned after the MTV Music Video Awards continued their ratings freefall this year, while MTV’s web offerrings got their clocks cleaned by “Web 2.0” social networking juggernauts MySpace and YouTubeChristgau got axed after the Village Voice was sold to an alternaweekly chain desperately trying to compete with craigslist’s free classified ads.

The old frameworks for making sense of pop culture are starting to collapse. Pop’s presumed market of scarcity – only a handful of songs can make it to heavy rotation, only a handful of artists can become stars – is being overwhelmed by an information explosion. On MySpace, thousands of local band listings sit side by side with Paris Hilton promotions – and Paris needs the locals more than they need her. No one indie band has the reach of a pop star, but it’s the community they’ve built that brings eyeballs to Paris’s page. Meanwhile, viewers are tuning out TV channels and becoming their own programmers on YouTube.

The demassification of American popular culture continues. Every year, the big networks lose ground to cable, while the big cable channels lose ground to the profusion of newer digital channels. The big record labels’ sales shrink, while the global jukebox becomes available on all-you-can-download subscription services like Rhapsody. Radio listeners abandon terrestrial’s shrunken playlists for Sirius and XM. “The Long Tail” grows ever longer.

Which explains not only Freston’s departure, but perhaps Christgau’s, too. When the mainstream dissolves, how do we define the margins? If there’s no longer such a thing as pop, how can there still be punk?

Christgau himself was never an indie snob – he’s always had the open-earedness to praise a big star like Garth Brooks if he thought the music earned it. And I’m sure he’ll land on his feet – some smart publication should grab him for some instant hipster credibility. Freston, I’m not so sure about, although I’m confident his parachute was much more golden than Christgau’s. But the real question is what comes next.

Pop Culture 2.0 no longer needs a lowest common denominator. Traditional media companies are always out to score a blockbuster, because it’s so much more efficient to sell one product to one million customers, rather than a thousnd products to a thousand customers each. But to MySpace, it’s all the same. They make their money off ads, and a million pageviews is a million pageviews, no matter how they’re sliced up. In fact, better they be a thousand different pages with a thousand viewers each – all the more room for growth. Finally, the economics are on the side of cultural diversity.

That doesn’t mean they’ll stay that way. I’m sure that Fox, which bought MySpace, would love to see it simply replace MTV as pop’s top tastemaker. But I doubt we’ll ever again see the kind of teen monoculture I lived through in the 1980s. There’s just too much cool stuff out there to listen to. Christgau’s the one who taught me that. And now everybody’s figuring it out.

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