There’s been a lot of attention given to Girls star and writer Lena Dunham’s publishing deal this week, a reported $3.5 million for her first book, Not That Kind of Girl. Much of that has come in the form of bitter griping, of course, as is the natural course for the internet; nevermind, ‘we hate it when our friends become successful,’ we hate it when anyone becomes successful. But one thing we do like is when someone seems like they’re going to be successful. That’s the thesis at the heart of this interesting piece on Slate today, “The Irrational Allure of the Next Big Thing.”
It’s the hypothetical space, the moment before take off, that thrills us, and why the ‘poised to break into stardom’ narrative is such a reliable cliche of entertainment writing, a crutch I’ve certainly leaned on more than a few times in my career. Success itself is an easy thing to hate, but the artist, or author, or musician, or athlete poised for success is a delight to behold—it’s an in between space where we can recognize and salute talent, which is a natural inclination, but not have that admiration sullied by the attendant depressing comparisons to our own lives that come when someone else has become truly successful. Call it the Kreayshawn corrolary. That’s why it was so much fun to simply behold her existence when she was a zygote meme—the real world business enterprise is a lot less fun.
The piece uses Dunham and authors like Jonathan Safran Foer, as well as superstar athletes like Lebron James (which is probably the first and last time those two will appear in a sentence together) to draw out the point, but it’s something that I think is also central to the way that we as voracious consumers of music go about pledging our allegiance to musicians.
A few important excerpts:
A recent study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology helps explain our long-standing fascination with the Next Big Thing. In one experiment, subjects were asked how much money they’d offer basketball players in the sixth year of their NBA careers. Player A was a five-year veteran, brandishing a list of impressive stats. Player B was a rookie, so in lieu of examining his five-year stats, subjects were shown projections of his numbers. Participants were willing to fork over $4.26 million for year six of Player A’s contract, but offered Player B, who had yet to step foot inside a pro arena, $5.25 million.
Potential won out over actual accomplishment in other domains as well, such as the art world, where subjectivity and hype make people particularly prone to falling for Next Best Thing-ism. When forced to state a preference between an artist who “many critics felt had the potential to win a major award in the art community” and an artist who had just won that very award, participants viewed the up-and-comer more favorably. Even when researchers made subjects choose between someone who might win the award and someone who had actually won four times, subjects preferred the artist who hadn’t actually won anything 57 percent of the time. Even more amazing is that subjects preferred the newcomer while acknowledging that they felt more uncertain about the artist with potential, and that the award-winner objectively had a more impressive résumé.
Think about that in the context of the bands that you’re excited about now; for example, this list I just posted on Bullett of 22 Must Hear Boston Bands. It’s a legitimate thrill for me, as a music journalist, to write about bands like that, bands who in all likelihood won’t go on to have lifelong careers just based on the sheer brutality of the odds stacked against them. But sharing the music of bands that we think are going to be, or at least have the potential to be successful is one of, if not the only, charms of the music writing career. I mention a few more established acts at the beginning of the piece, Amanda Palmer and Passion Pit, both of whom I rhapsodized about at one point or another early on in their careers, but for whom I can’t muster too much enthusiasm for anymore. Not because they stopped being good at what they do, but rather, they realized their potential. They’re no longer in the act of becoming, they’ve become who they are. Call it the banality of success. We want to align ourselves with an underdog on the way up rather than a proven thing, because that’s a space we can wrap our heads around. I could be an artist on the verge starting tonight! You never know, it could happen. (It’s not going to happen).
It’s why the possibility of a new candidate always seems so alluring in presidential elections as well, the Slate piece says. The allure of the unknown is strong.
The way we view uncertainty and accomplishment explains many judgments we make. In the case of the presidential election, most people are making an uneven comparison, sizing up Obama’s first term—what he has or hasn’t done over the past four years—with Romney’s potential over the next four years. Because we don’t know what a Romney administration would look like, we fill in the unknowns with what little information we have, coloring it in with our current reaction to his proposed policies. Being partial to potential also explains why Obama’s supporters were more jazzed in 2008, when they freely imagined that he really could solve the country’s problems overnight. Today, we’re forced to respond to his actual accomplishments, none of which hold a candle to our raging, hopeful imaginations.
Consider the old game show conundrum: do you want the nice washing machine you’ve already won, or to risk it all for the hypothetical car that may be behind curtain number two? Or think about how we consider novelty in our sexual lives: People may know they have a partner that is perfect for them, but then they meet someone new, and the idea of them starts to overwhelm what’s good about what they already have for a lot of people. A bird in the hand may be worth two in the bush, but oh man oh man oh man, those birds/bands/presidents that are lurking out there just around the corner—they are supremely tempting.
I think this goes a long way toward explaining why so many of us jump ship on a musical act once they’ve “sold out” or “gotten too big.” It’s nothing to do with the quality of the music changing, it’s just that they’ve moved from the theoretical, the ascendent narrative that gives us the contact high of movement, to just another stationary object. Better to be on the way to getting there than have already arrived, because as we all soon learn, no matter where you are, there’s always some place else you want to go.