Monday, April 27, 2009

The Midas Touch of Mass Media

The Greek myth of King Midas concerns a man whose wish to turn everything he touches to gold is granted by the gods. At first, everything is OK. He has a palace made of gold now, gold dinnerware, formerly marble statuary, now all pure and precious gold. Then things go wrong. Gold potato chips—uh-uh. Solid gold socks—no good in cold weather. Gold kitty cat—oops. Finally, he turns his daughter to gold.


A couple of weeks ago I bawled my eyes out watching frumpy Susan Boyle sing “I Dreamed a Dream” and the jaded audience forced to swallow their sneers and condescension. It was a glorious television moment—an example of the way TV can take an ordinary person, give her an extraordinary opportunity, and, with the aid of some backstage cheerleading and artful crosscutting between audience and singer, create a gemlike encomium to working-class women and men.

Further, YouTube made this little moment available for all the world to see, even those of us who don’t get Britain’s Got Talent on TV. Long live YouTube.

But, of course, this wasn’t the end of the story. Boyle popped up on American TV via CBS’s Early Show the next week—along with Access Hollywood, etc., etc., etc.

Then she got a makeover—unruly eyebrows be gone, enter hair dye and more fashionable clothes. OK, fine, the girl deserves a makeover, if that’s what she wants.

Then, of course, there had to be commentary on the same—Before the makeover, NPR’s Talk of the Nation debated whether she ought to have one.

Of course, the debates have proliferated since then: Had she had the makeover before her TV appearance, would she have hit the same emotional chords with viewers? What are the various imperfections of her lovely voice? Had she really, truly never been kissed? Did a 12-year-old Welsh boy blow her out of the water with his rendition of “Who’s Loving You?” Was she really all that nice and cheerful anyway? Everything but (though it’s on its way, I’m telling you) Just who the hell does this bitch think she is?

Last week, on NPR, again, somebody expressed how absolutely shocked he was that nobody, nobody, was making any money off the Boyle phenomenon—not the makers of Britain’s Got Talent, not YouTube, not even (unsurprisingly last on the list) Susan Boyle! It was almost as if to say: If all my tears are not making somebody rich, what was the fucking point?

All this supports my contention that mass media’s Midas touch is also its Achilles’ heel.

Television can show us the Rodney King beating, the collapse of the Twin Towers, and stranded New Orleans citizens on their rooftops in the middle of a flood—and charge our emotions with poignant moments we may never have visualized on our own.

Yet television also has the tendency to run anything it touches into the ground. The bright new face we cheered for a year ago becomes, through a process of tireless reiteration, the jerk you can’t get rid of, no matter which channel you turn to.

The repetition of emotionally charged images has two effects, usually in tandem: exaltation of feelings as ends to themselves and desensitization leading to devaluation.

I’ve long argued that the sex and violence people complain of on television does not hold a candle to the sex and violence of Sophocles’ Oedipus the King. What differs, obviously, is television’s mechanical reduplication and near incessant replay of that sex and violence. I dare say that, in just eighteen years, more people have seen Rodney King get the shit beat out of him than ever contemplated, in over 2,400 years, Oedipus gouging his eyeballs out with his mother’s brooch.

In Greek society, Oedipus’ blinding was performed offstage, but described in chilling grisly detail by a messenger. And how many times did Athenians witness this appalling carnage? Probably only once … in a lifetime.

But, thanks to television and the Internet, nothing has to be “once in a lifetime” again. No tender, inspirational moment escapes their gaze or, in a matter of 200 or so replays, their transformation of it from gold back to dross. “Nothing gold can stay”? Think again, Robert Frost. It can stay and stay and stay, until you’re sick the hell of it.

In all this, I mean no criticism of Boyle, or of her sincerity, talent, or appearance. I hope she records an album and (at last!) makes some money off all her recent attention. It’s only a matter of time, though, before the publicity cloys.

We live in a consumerist culture, so chewing things up and spitting them out has become second nature to many of even the best of us.

I kind of hope Boyle takes a lesson from Jessica Lynch six years ago (remember her?) and the grieving student body of Virginia Tech two years ago (remember them?), who—in different ways, of course—firmly yet politely asked that the spotlight be turned away from them, so that they could go on with their lives.

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