Anyone familiar with music knows the heyday of the country and western genre was the early 2010s, late 2012 to early 2015. Radio stations hit an all-time high in ratings. Digital downloads, MTV and award show ratings, and live streams reached astronomical numbers. Country music was, for a while, “cool.” It had cross-format appeal, and many younger listeners and Top 40 fans who had never liked country music suddenly became interested in the current pop-leaning output of what used to be the genre for hicks and hillbillies. Then, suddenly the genre collapsed. After years of being a thriving format with a vibrant future, country music plunged into darkness and irrelevance. Ratings this past month reached their lowest point since the first quarter of 2012. Country music is just for hicks and hillbillies again.
How did this happen? Well, the conventional wisdom is that the critics were right. All throughout the time of country music’s prosperity, a small but loud group of angry critics were complaining about the direction of country music. Even though all the numbers showed the format growing and massively expanding in popularity across the United States, the critics complained that the music was bad because, quite simply, they didn’t like it. They felt the music was too commercialized, and lacked artistic value. Much like David Denby moans in his essay Has Hollywood Murdered the Movies? that the current film output from Hollywood is culturally bankrupt, the music critics complained that the lyrics, production, and auto-tune were degrading the rich cultural heritage of country music. This small group of disillusioned critics, who favored a more traditional, old-school sound for the country/western format, littered the Internet with their minority opinions, convinced that they were visionaries privileged to an understanding of quality music that the blind masses just couldn’t see, that the average music fans just didn’t know what was good for themselves.
The critics warned that this immoral, classless music would eventually lead the format to crash, and all these listeners would magically experience a burnout and the format would see a massive exodus of younger listeners. As a result of this small group of critics constantly pushing these abstract ideas about what they believed to be good for the format, despite all the solid numbers massively contradicting their narrative, radio programmers and music executives began to think that the critics had a point, largely due to the online pervasiveness of their opinions. Through a massive social media operation, this group of some fifteen music critics managed to convince the general public that the critics’ view was the majority view, and suddenly country music slammed on the brakes and began reversing course, returning to more traditional music around late 2014, abandoning the style of music that had made them rich in favor of a return to styles of music that only appealed to older listeners. By 2015, ratings had started to plummet due to this gradual return to traditionalism, and the critics made sure to blame the previous era of modern music for leaving this void. As the format continued to crumble in coincidence with the musical output taking a vastly traditional, old-school turn, which should have been seen as a direct rebuke of the critics’ misguided views on what music is right for the format, the modern music of the past was blamed.
To this day, country music’s irrelevance has been blamed on the failure of the modern wing of the genre. Critics have cast this style of music as a cheap novelty that couldn’t last, based only on digital effects and lacking strong lyrics and meaning. The conventional wisdom is that the critics were right, that the masses and trend-chasers were wrong, and that the format should now attempt to make reparations to the critics by returning to traditional music and playing an increased ratio of older artists, which will only, in my view, continue the format down the path of declining ratings and irrelevance.
Does this sound familiar? When I read Denby’s article bemoaning the loss of narrative, character depth, quality, and culture in Hollywood, I couldn’t help but experience flashbacks of the critics of country music during its heyday in 2012, 2013, and 2014. The rhetoric about technology, expensive effects, and style over substance in this piece paralleled the arguments I read from music critics countless times, and it made me realize that, should Hollywood take the advice of the vocal minority of people like Denby, who try to convince the public that their opinions are the most common by flooding social media with these views, the film industry will end up exactly like country music, and, if history repeats itself, critics will cast blame on the cheap thrills of past films like the ones Denby criticizes in his essay, rather than admitting to the public that they have in fact steered the entire industry in the wrong direction and destroyed it with their hubristic view that material shouldn’t be made simply because critics don’t like it.
This is where the intellectual elites in academia experience a vast disconnect from average, everyday, middle-class Americans, and why as a college student I strive to maintain connections with regular folks in “the outside world” and the struggles and opinions of the common man. In middle America, where close to every woman and every man has a family to support, bills to pay and mouths to feed, one thing matters when it comes to work: producing a product that makes a profit. In academia, where critics get paid to sit around and philosophize about abstract things like culture, intrinsic value, and their opinion of quality, it is easy to criticize the most popular entertainment—movies, music, television, books, et cetera and ignore the fact that this stuff is bringing in millions of dollars in profit and keeping tens of thousands of people employed. Critics who do not understand what it’s like to be a middle-class, working man or woman who has a mortgage to pay find it easy to slam the material currently being released, even though all the concrete numbers show this material makes huge sums of money and is popular among the vast majority of Americans. In their academic bubble, critics believe it is more important to put out material that is in their opinion “high quality” than it is to put out material that makes money and keeps the wolves at the door for millions of Americans. These critics are convinced that the masses who enjoy these movies, shows, music, whatever, that are vastly popular, are blinded. They don’t know what’s good for themselves, the critics will suggest. The critics feel they have something of a “manifest destiny” to save quality and culture in the entertainment industry, rather than to promote material that actually makes money—to save the masses from themselves in a way, by preventing them from enjoying “bad material,” which they believe, without evidence, leads to greater cultural crises in America. These critics would rather an entire industry go financially bankrupt with material that they find to be artistic and decent, than to see an industry thrive on content they find to be hollow, empty thrills.
I always think of my father, who works over fifty hours a week as an electrical engineer. He does not have time to sit around with his co-workers analyzing the “culture” or “artistic value” of their work. He has a family to keep alive, and one thing matters—producing the product that makes the most profit. This is a perfect example of elitist privilege. People in Hollywood have the privilege to spend their days condescendingly slamming the films being made and the people who enjoy them, while still raking in millions of dollars off of discussing and reviewing these very films.
With the new age of digital media, these elitist critics have been empowered with a unique tool to get their message out—social media. This has allowed a small group of a few elite critics, a vocal minority, to spread their message of disdain for material that entertains the masses of everyday Americans. This tool has empowered this vocal minority to flood the Internet with their opinions, convincing people that they are anything but a vocal minority. Sites like Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, etc. disproportionately represent the opinions of the general public because people who are in the minority school of thought, but are far more passionate and activist about their views, can take to these sites to spread their minority opinions on a large scale, painting the illusion that they are in fact of the majority school of thought, while average everyday Americans, the silent majority, are too busy working 12-hour days on their jobs, actually producing real products and trying to make profits, to take to the Internet to counter the views of the vocal minority.
This is the dilemma social media poses to the entertainment industry. A vocal minority of concerned activists can convince the public that their views are the prevalent opinions and thus impact the output of the entertainment industries in the future. If this small group of critics like David Denby who hate most modern films much more passionately than everyday Americans like said films, can use social media to convince people that they are actually a majority, this will scare filmmakers and executives into thinking that there is suddenly a backlash against the kinds of movies being made, that these vastly popular films are actually losing their popularity and fading as an old trend. Then, who do these filmmakers turn to for ideas on where to take the film industry next? The David Denbys of the world, the loud, angry critics online who use social media to disguise themselves as the majority. When filmmakers think they are making movies for the majority, which is in fact the minority in disguise, it will come as quite a surprise when suddenly these movies all bomb at the box office and the film industry goes bankrupt. And who gets blamed? The “trend chasers,” the people who made all the movies with “quick editing,” CGI, stylized action, special effects, the cheap but not-so-cheap thrills. We will be told that these filmmakers chased a short-term fad that flamed out and left the film industry with no clear audience and nowhere to go. People who read about the death of the film industry in the history books hundreds of years from now will never know what caused the true downfall of the film industry, much like what has happened to the country music industry.
But, at least, when the film industry has abandoned all the films that have made the most money and descended into a dark age of low-budget films that bomb at the box office, we will have finally satisfied the critics and preserved culture, so everything’s okay! Never mind the thousands of people in the film industry who will be out of work, or the fast amounts of average Americans who no longer enjoy anything at the box office. We’ve done something greater for society…we’ve preserved artistic value. When little Johnny asks why there’s nothing in the fridge, and why his dad no longer has a job because the film industry is in ruins after David Denby finally got rid of The Avengers in favor of a movie with more “intrinsic value,” you can tell little Johnny that he is starving for a good, moral cause – cultural preservation.
Throughout this entire piece, notice I never once mentioned my opinion of David Denby’s actual viewpoints. Surprisingly, I actually agree with him. I absolutely agree that most movies these days suck. They prioritize style over substance. They take advantage of expensive technology, special effects, flashy displays of stylized action violence, and cheap thrills to attract bigger audiences consisting of the type of people who are easily distracted by a laser pointer. Yes, I do agree that this is symbolic of a larger cultural phenomenon. In the age of social media, globalization, and instant access to news, entertainment, and communication at the push of a button, many entertainers have discovered that you can easily satisfy a substantial audience with two hours of cars getting blown up and men in colorful suits battling monsters. I also personally miss seeing deep, thought-provoking stories fleshed that inspire me and make me think. I personally hate all the Avengers and superhero movies, and wish that more intellectually stimulating material was popular. I still watch cartoons from the 90s because all the cartoons these days rely on crude, stupid humor. I believe entertainment these days is doing our children a disservice in the long-run because it doesn’t encourage them to think or stimulate themselves intellectually. It’s quite a shame.
That being said, unlike Mr. Denby, I am not so arrogant and elitist to believe that my opinion, the fact that I no longer enjoy most modern-day films and television series, is some sort of sign of a greater cultural tragedy. I do not think that my opinion is more valid than that of millions of people across the globe who do genuinely enjoy this sort of mindless entertainment. I recognize that I happen to be in the minority school of thought, and these films I detest so much are bringing home the bacon and providing a stable source of income for millions of families of people who work in these industries, so if I don’t enjoy this money-making content, that’s tough for me. Do I wish material I like was more popular? Absolutely. But that’s the market-based society we live in. We don’t all get what we want. I have to accept that movies like The Avengers are raking in record-setting amounts of money. All I can do is be good-natured and respectful of what others like, understanding that this material is putting food on families’ tables, and celebrate on the rare occasion that a film of TV series I do like is a commercial success.
Therefore, I recognize that, although I don’t personally enjoy the content being put out by the film industry these days, these are the kinds of movies Hollywood should continue to produce, as they are by the numbers the most popular. And not just in ticket sales. These movies are being used in massive promotion efforts that stimulate other industries of our economy. Putting characters from these movies on various products—toys, games, birthday decorations, Happy Meals, drink cans, apparel, etc—has managed to expand the appeal of these movie characters across many platforms and stimulate the economy like never before. With all these jobs being created by these trend-chasing movies, it’s hard for me to make a case to myself that, as crappy as they may be, they are bad for society or culture.
I think we should always judge films’ success on one single merit: the amount of money they can make. There shouldn’t be an equation for evaluating a film’s success that takes into account both critical and commercial success, because critical success is meaningless. Essentially, all these critics amount to is a vocal minority of academic elitists who live in a bubble and don’t understand what content satisfies everyday moviegoers. A critic’s opinion is worth as much as a poll with a major sampling bias problem. Critics’ opinions are worth no more than anyone else’s, so why should “critical success” even be a thing? Critics have throughout time always been disillusioned with the direction in which entertainment is going. It seems to just be in the nature of someone who pursues such a career to always be complaining about “movies these days,” “music these days,” “kids these days,” etc. Even if the critical consensus on a movie is almost mutually negative, still, how many people do all these unhappy critics combined amount to? 50 people? 200 people? Even 500 angry critics is a fraction of a fraction of the number of everyday Americans who are enjoying the movie at the box office and buying related products in other industries.
My closing thought would be for readers to imagine a future where the critics get their way. Filmmakers listen to their complaints and vastly adjust the types of movies they make. We place limits on the budget for films to avoid over-spending on special effects, CGI, and quick editing. In The Avengers, Robert Downy Jr. walks around in a cloth Halloween costume instead of his big suit of armor made of metal. Captain America fights with aliens in cardboard costumes with laser rays about as high-tech as those in War of the Worlds. We may have fought the good fight for artistic value and culture, but what would happen financially to the film industry and all the other industries that boom as a result of film promotion efforts? Would we rather take a chance on seeing more people out of work in an effort to satisfy people like David Denby? Will these people ever be truly satisfied, or are they just the sort of people who always want to grumble about “these days?”