McLennan Hunts for New Gatekeepers: The Meaning of Susan Boyle

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With everyone from the lowliest poor person to the Pope, presumably, atwitter (literally and figuratively) over Susan Boyle — who I hereby predict will become the enduring symbol of this we-have-hope period — I have been reflecting on a blogpost by Doug McLennan on his Diacritical. McLennan (whose blog you should read religiously) writes:

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Power in the mass culture model is controlled by gatekeepers – the TV networks, radio stations, record producers, publishers. They had power because they could afford expensive cameras and studios and recording equipment essential to making things and getting them to an audience. Some of the “talent” – the musicians, actors, writers, journalists – did very well in this model if their work found a huge audience. The vast majority of musicians, actors, writers, and journalists did considerably less well.

The mass culture model only works when the means of creation and distribution are limited in some way – a small number of TV channels available, for example. One could think of the record companies or the TV networks as middlemen who were essential for an artist to connect with a large audience.

But the online world has largely been a revolution of plenty. Now anyone can make studio-quality recordings, professional-looking books or movies or radio shows. So goodbye to the middleman, right?

McLennan next quotes another writer who views the middleman mythos with a quick-and-dirty historical mega-analysis that returns him to his point:

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Gone are the days when a Sol Hurok could make a star or a Tchaikovsky Piano Competition winner have an instant career.

…Now artists can produce their own work and often distribute and promote it better than the old channels could. But one can imagine so many voices braying for attention that just being able to make and get one’s art out to an audience doesn’t mean that there’s an audience interested in it.

And that brings us back to Susan Boyle. What is going on in terms of the media hoopla surrounding her proves that mass media is still the gatekeeper, yet it is necessarily a partnered gatekeeper; i.e., TV can launch but the Web must distribute. Just read the comments on this story alone. Indeed, Boyle will now have a career that is so indescribibly instant that just three or four days after her appearance on Britain’s Got Talent, rumor is she’ll sign a contract with Simon Cowell’s label. I just took a look at the YouTube video it’s now over 12.3 million hits.

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In a way, what I think McLennan is really getting at is found in this graph:

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Critics at newspapers, the most powerful of whom legendarily could “close a show” with a bad review also wielded great power. But with arts coverage falling off the pages of the local press and the local press falling off the edge of who knows what, critics are not the gatekeepers they once were even if they’re still around.

Now I do realize McLennan is talking about critics of the performing arts more than mass media. And it’s quite true that with arts coverage dwindling in size, scope and power, the critic-as-gatekeeper construct is as anachronistic as the passenger pigeon and knee breeches. But I still think the critic has an opportunity in this post-gatekeeper world that is unique. I think the critic in this new paradigm can and, indeed, must serve a macro function: to examine a global event like that of Boyle, or even the next big Broadway show, with a longer, broader view toward history. so when McLennan frets over critics no longer being the “gatekeepers they once were,” what he’s really saying is that they’re ability to directly power how people spend their money is ebbing. Well, good. Frankly, I think no one should have that kind of power; if critics want to be consumer advocates, let them go investigate 30 different refrigerator brands and publish a report, for I believe critics should be concerned with the work, not with commerce. And the art, in Boyle’s case, is about the voice, sure, but it should be equally our reaction to the whole aforementioned hoopla. So instead of predicting whether Boyle will be a flash in the pan or Streisand II, which is what a traditional gatekeeper might be concerned with, a critic should equally consider what it is about this moment, this voice, this method of delivering information, this gossip, this supremely unlikely and heartwarming story that is most reflective of our society. It’s “What does it mean?” far more, I believe, than “What is good?”

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