The cultural contradictions of democracy

Democracy rules. At least according to the New York Times. Jeff Leeds, in this morning's Times, echoing some themes from my own Weekly Standard piece about the Super Bowl, tells us that pop culture is now increasingly dependent on the spectacle of the amateur creative artist.

Leeds suggests that this "American idolization" of amateur content will climax at this year's Super Bowl. Coverage of the game will begin with three amateur singers who won a competition to perform with Justin Timberlake. Then, during the game itself, we'll be able to watch amateur created commercials from Doritos, the NFL and Chevrolet. And then, in a post game orgy of democratization, YouTube will hold an online vote to see which Super Bowl commercial was most popular with the digital masses.

Leeds quotes the great music critic Dave Marsh of this cult of the amateur. “What it really represents is an ever more cleverly manipulated pop culture,” Marsh explains. “Empowerment becomes a commodity."

Exactly. But who is manipulating who? According to March, this is a faux democratization in which mainstream media are still controlling the commanding heights of the entertainment industry. It is senior entertainment executives who are still making the final choices as to which amateur advertisements and singers gets shown on Super Bowl Sunday. Marsh is, of course, right. The next big thing, I predict, will be American Idol style competitions run by amateurs themselves. These will be considered more authentic. It will represent the complete empowerment of the amateur.

Marsh's point about the commodification of empowerment is particularly incisive. The democratization is culture is an important piece of a more complex story of individual identity in America today. Why aren't people satisfied being simple consumers as longer? Why do they demand to be participants in the creation of culture? Why do they want to sing at the Super Bowl and make their own commercials for Dorito chips?

One book that intelligently examines identity in post industrial America is Daniel Bell's Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism. Only, I prefer to see the commodification of empowerment as a cultural contradiction of democracy. So De Tocqueville is likely to be more helpful to us here than Marx or any critic (or defender) of capitalism. Another very smart writer that makes sense of all this is Thomas Frank, particularly in The Conquest of Cool -- his book about the way in which the advertising industry has commodified the ideals of the counterculture.

One thing, however, I know for sure. You won't find the answer at Sunday's Super Bowl. The television spectacle will broadcast the cult of the amateur, but it won't explain it.