FLG asks:

The interesting question for me that arises out of the "the very best acts (Grandmaster Flash, Run DMC, Public Enemy, NWA, Biggie, etc) are both excellent within the terms of the genre and extremely popular" is what that says about the hip-hop audience. Is it more knowledgeable? More apt to recognize talent and quality?

My theory has always been that because a rapper doesn't so much write music as lyrics that are then arranged to other people's music his talent as a lyricist is front, center, and undiluted."

When I was writing the post, I was trying to think of how the analogues work in other areas of aesthetics. I came to the conclusion that it's the American indie aesthetic that's backwards, which makes us perceive hip-hop as being bizarre in this regard. After all, think of the underlying premise of hip-hop: those acts which are significantly better than average will become very popular. The relationship between the two is clear, and, moreover, exactly the relationship we might expect.

The same is true in literature, so far as I can tell, at least through the early 20th century: Dickens was unbelievably popular, as was Balzac, or Jane Austen, etc. The first case I can think of in which a retrospective judgment of quality does not match initial popularity is The Great Gatsby, but Fitzgerald was at least also a great short story writer and wildly popular at that (it makes sense that the audience for "A Diamond as Big as the Ritz" isn't quite the same as that for Gatsby).

It's not until, perhaps, the 50s and the rise of 'cool' that one gets credit for liking things other people actively dislike (it was a matter of some caché, though not much, amongst my high school friends, to own, or at least have listened to, some portion of Lou Reed's Metal Machine Music, which is a horrific assault on the ears); but it seems like this actively overturns most of the history of aesthetics. But maybe I'm wrong about the history--this is something of a blind spot.


notasianthug said...

Moby Dick comes to mind as a "great book" that sold nada during Melville's lifetime. I'm sure there are other examples but I can't name specific ones right now.

BTW I am a longtime reader who really appreciates your site but has never commented til now, mainly because of my appalling ignorance of political theory and history. Keep up the good work! I am curious about the Commandments to Foil the Nazis cited in your header; I haven't been able to find any other live references to them online. Do you have any sources where I can trace them?

Nicholas said...

hmm... this is a quite interesting point. Perhaps I should amend the overall idea to say that while a valuation within an author's opera can change over time (covering Gatsby and Moby Dick), the fame itself tends to correspond to who is actually talented.

The place I first encountered the Ten Commandments was in a sociology book on rescuers during the Holocaust. I want to say it was _Quiet Heroes_, but I don't remember for sure. Norm Geras' _The Contract of Mutual Indifference_ has the book cited somewhere. I'll see if I can't find it...

notasianthug said...

I see your meaning, but it seems a better distinction might be between the contemporary neglected geniuses and the hip obscurities. So William Blake was almost totally ignored during his life (unlike Melville who as you say was quite well-known for his early writing), whereas various aesthetic schools have always distinguished themselves by cultivating their own alternative canons of past and contemporary artists. The general point that a larger and more important shift took place in the 20th century is right though; I think John Carey's The Intellectuals and the Masses argues the Modernists were the first movement that militated against popular taste and enjoyment. He probably overstates the case, but the chronology seems right.

Thanks for the tip on Quiet Heroes: a Google books search shows that it indeed references the Dutch Commandments. I'll have to check out the book.