Popularity is Subjective

One of my favourite pop culture writers, Nathan Rabin recently wrote an article entitled The Generation Gap: Apparently a Thing over on his website Nathan Rabin's Happy Place. In the very well-written and insightful piece, Rabin mentions how he was shocked when listening to one of his favourite podcasts that the hosts were only vaguely familiar with Beastie Boys' sophomore album, Paul's Boutique. This was shocking to him because he always saw the album as an iconic masterpiece that is a landmark piece of pop culture. He is right, because it is, to him and many people like him. But it also is clearly a little-known album to many others. He learned that things he deems as universally popular, actually are not as significant or even known to other demographics

The idea of popularity is something that I wanted to discuss for awhile. The longer that I've written about pop culture, done a weekly movie podcast and been married to a lovely wife that has significant pop culture blindspots, I've learned that what one person feels is popular or famous is obscure to the next one. What one deems popular or famous has less to do with the actual relevance and cultural footprint of an item and more about one's own background, experience, social circle and interests. For me, significant bands from the 1990s include I Mother Earth, Smashing Pumpkins, Pearl Jam, Our Lady Peace and Nirvana, and while my wife knows the names of those bands, there is a strong chance I could play one of those bands' hits and she wouldn't know who was playing, I also realize that there is a strong chance that one of my American readers yelled out 'Who?' when they read I Mother Earth or Our Lady Peace. Popular music can also change from country to country, and the best example of that would be The Tragically Hip, probably is one of the most popular bands ever in Canada but relatively unknown almost anywhere else.

I've talked many, many, many, many times that the criticism of art is subjective, and that one person's beloved masterpiece can be another person's stinky burning trash heap. While I think many people will agree with me on that (though the internet proves daily that isn't universally accepted fact as people war over opinion), but some may not believe popularity is just as subjective. A lot of popularity has to do with how one decides to consume pop culture. There are certain groups that see personalities on YouTube to be big stars and others that can list all the contestants on The Bachelor and others that can list almost every NFL football player and others that know every movie release this year with who is starring in each. Depending if watching YouTube on the iPhone or you'd rather consume all the latest sci-fi novels, what you perceive as hot, trendy and popular is formulated by the pop culture world you construct.

Generation is a huge factor. I remember being absolutely shocked when I talked to someone who had never heard of Stephen King. He had been declared the rock star of the literary world and one of the all-time bestsellers, but this person who was at least 15 years younger than me, had never had him float into her radar. This is a person who likes to read, and there were many novels that we both liked, but King with his works leaning towards horror were never something she bothered to pay attention. For most people King is immensely popular even if you don't like him, but there are those living and breathing that get through the days barely knowing about him. The same way there can be huge fans of sci-fi novels that love modern writers like John Scalzi but be unaware of the very authors that influenced him like Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury and Robert A. Heinlein.

The interesting thing about popularity is that two people can enjoy the same thing, but still have a different perception of what is popular or well-known. I remember talking to a friend a few years ago who considers himself a movie buff and goes to the theatre several times a year. While he knows way more movies than my wife or my mom, I was still shocked by his blindspots. During our conversation, I was floored that he was unaware of the latest Wes Anderson movie that had just come out, which at the time was The Grand Budapest Hotel. He was equally oblivious to what was my most anticipated movie of that year in Richard Linklater's ambitious Boyhood. It floored me that one could identify as a fan of movies and somehow not even be aware of the latest works of important filmmakers like Anderson and Linklater. All this meant, was we looked and cared about movies differently. What I deemed important and the movie sites that I frequented and the things I immersed myself into was very different than my friend despite both loving cinema.

Wrestling is another great example of this. Wrestling has never been very great an honouring or remembering its history. It shouldn't be shocking to me that there are wrestling fans who have been watching as long as I have been (1987) but barely know wrestling icons like Pedro Morales and Bruno Sammartino. I think, most long-time wrestling fans who are at least over 30 years old are aware that both were wrestlers and were important but may not know their significance.

Sammartino is one of the biggest draws in WWE history (then WWWF and later WWF) and in the 1960s and 1970s carried the company on his back to make it one of the biggest wrestling promotions around. He had two WWF World Title reigns and they were over 11 years combined (no one else comes close to that combine length of a World title reign). He is the biggest star in WWF history comparable to Hulk Hogan and Stone Cold Steve Austin (even if he probably doesn't get that recognition due to it being decades ago).

Morales may even have less recognition today despite being a huge draw as WWF World Champion in the 1970s with a two-year reign that saw him a hero among Puerto Rican wrestling fans. He also was the first man to achieve the triple crown, which means he was the first to win the WWF World championship, WWF Intercontinental championship and WWF World Tag Team championship. He won those belts during a time that titles didn't change hands often and only a few people on the roster would actually win titles. These are indisputable WWF legends, but I can think of several wrestling fans that wouldn't mention them if they were told to list the ten most popular and important WWF wrestlers of all-time.

As a man who writes and talks about movies, I've also got a kick out of click-baity websites that try to compose lists of stuff like 'The 20 Best 2018 Movies You've Never Heard About' or '10 Great Obscure Horror Movies' and often being able to not only recognize most of the movies but have already seen them. I also get the strategy is to draw attention with titles like that but when writing a piece for movie fans, it can be a bit presumptuous that you can create a list of several movies that can be considered unknown to fans who spend time reading sites devoted to movies. My experience is that often the same movies keep on ending up on 'unknown lists' with a frequency that makes me question how unknown they really can be (Game Night made almost every underrated list that I saw last year so I question if it is underrated).

This is why when my co-host of The Movie Breakdown, Scott, bemoans a star not being more recognizable or how a specific movie is unknown, that I largely stay quiet. Often those movies or stars are talked about frequently on social media and websites by other movie fans and writers. Since our podcast should largely be targeted towards movie fans, I assume the apparent obscure actor or movie could be one of a listener's favourites. At the same time, stuff I talk about as if it is common knowledge may be something a listener has little idea what I am talking about. Every listener and reader have different experiences and perspective, which in turn means different idea of what is popular or unknown.

All popular really means is that within your social circle this thing is frequently talked about. The people you know are aware and excited about this person or work of art. I confess as a person who writes about and watches a lot of movies, there are pictures or stars that I think are bigger deals and more well-known than the reality.

My experience is that we shouldn't assume anything. I shouldn't assume that a reader or listener hasn't ever heard about Dead Man's Shoes just like I shouldn't assume every listener or reader has seen Star Wars: The Last Jedi. What this means as a writer or podcaster is that I shouldn't insult intelligence by detailing every movie reference, because a listener or reader may know as much or more than me. I should also be careful in things like spoilers or using references that I assume everyone will get. Though personally I think it is always better to assume my audience knows more than I think, because there is a reason Google exists and it is always better to not slow down an article or conversation with over-explaining.

Since popularity is all subjective and about social circles, maybe somewhere there are two people that I think I'm more famous that Roger Ebert and JK Rowling combined. If only that then meant I can objectively make half as much money as them.