Wednesday, June 13, 2018


The existence of the payola, and its derivations, speak to a lot, and as with the peaks of so many underwater glaciers, indicate the many more things which we do not "see" but which have to exist to make the payola work. In this case, for it to work, people have to actually buy whatever crud is being sold. Think of paying some purveyor of goods to promote sales of your product, such as paying a radio station to play your song irrespective of how much the local community and/or the disc jockey(s) likes the song, placing a book prominently near a high-traffic area in a bookstore irrespective of what customer interaction or staff preferences say, or doing any other thing in which a greedy capitalist business changes its sales model in order to profit not on selling what it thinks will sell best, but on earning money from the purveyor of goods just for popularizing something by making it appear popular, e.g. playing or displaying it more. Here's a link about an Apple E-book price fixing scheme designed to accomplish a similar goal by a different method than the mid-twentieth-century radio payola, where the most effective advertising of a product is the assumed choices of other buyers, as opposed to what consumers generally imagine--and are, per the government, entitled to imagine--are their real choices for buying something.

The payola was cheating, in a way; a violation of the sacred agreement between merchant and customer. Everyone knows all the customer wants is to buy an impression of popularity; to buy as others have bought. And in a way, the payola was good, for it made this true before and after, making a song falsely appear popular even as it made the song actually popular by everyone falling for it simultaneously. And customers were mad when they figured out the payola, because it was the merchant admitting the customer wasn't actually making up his mind based on some independent set of intelligent criteria of what he actually might like, but only by popularity, which everyone knew is all he really wanted, but which the merchant, through an open payola, insulted and proved openly. "See, you didn't really have a set of criteria for what you like. You are, in fact, so hungry for conformity that you're too dumb to have criteria." It's a similar unspoken agreement to the one that democratic governments have with their voting cattle, where they make a show of running candidates, including the one who's going to win anyway, and the show of a "competition" flatters people that they have criteria when they actually don't and just follow the payola trend. Anecdotally, people coast-to-coast tell me they can't vote as they'd really prefer because you have to choose from a limited set of options; Americans' silly belief that having "more" parties would change things is like a fantasy that more stations and more disc jockeys would substantively change the music business. But it's a sacred bond; you're not supposed to admit the people are idiots and just appoint a dictator who would do the same things anyway. Not because policy would be adversely effected--if you were going to do something repressive or evil, your "elected" groups could and would do it anyway--but because it's insulting to people to admit that you know they don't have any character or criteria. You know they don't, they know you don't, but it's just incredibly rude to admit that you know that they know. You can't go one step further on the line of reasoning, so it's okay if you know they know and it's okay if they know you know, but it's extremely taboo to have a situation portraying how they know that you know that they know or vice versa.

All products, not just politics. In mid-twentieth century radio, the payola told people what they were supposed to like, both individually and en masse, and without that, confused music fans would have "liked" all sorts of different things and it would've caused confusion in what music to play at gatherings, but the payola got them all on the same page. Or if we're all going to agree to feel magical, and we're each reading one of fifty books that year involving magical boarding school education, all the funny or heartwarming or thoughtful scenes can hardly be shared with anyone else, so all the literary agents and publishing companies have done their job, and people can be brought together by learning what it is they like today. Payola worked not only because of this type of aggregating effect, but because people's characters were really so empty that they needed this guidance to know what it was they actually liked. Which means that, in a sense, what humans like is not really their own decision, it's sort of a gradual mass vote, where smarter people decide for them and they're glad for it. Similar in politics, where "liberals" in Great Britain and the United States thought they were antiwar until the next generation of leaders decided that they wanted to be all about military occupations, and they agreed. So if you're a critic in a magazine, it's very important for your job that you claim some sort of independence or realism in regard to your choice what to review this week, and not just admit that you're reviewing what everyone is supposed to be reading, because that's as good as admitting that the morons don't really know what they like, and that even hyper-simplified tag lines on the backs of books aren't enough to clue them in--and of course they're not, because the taglines give no indication of how popular the book is or will be, whereas certain tones and locations for critical reviews can indicate that. Kind of a hilarious and good representation of this can be found in the pop history book reviews that often pop up in places like The Atlantic, where a bunch of people coincidentally, in say 2021, want to out of seeming nowhere read about the forgotten Taft's famous diplomatic river cruise to the Congo, where not only what you read but what you talk about at cocktail parties can be created from scratch. So our culture, whatever it is, is not so much "good" or "bad" as it is "choreographed," and our desire to have people independently make choices is childish and wrong and impossible and unrealistic, representing a fundamental misunderstanding of what it is that people need out of their lives; out of all forms of entertainment and pastime during their time here. No one talks about the growing security threat in Congo, let alone Taft's voyage, unless they've been choreographed to think or care about it; they don't comb the stacks of new releases and pick which historical event/unevent catches their honest interest, but rather, are guided to discover their honest interest by a payola review. It is not that we're in search of lost time, but lost selves, in how cravenly we beg professional knowers for keeping us aware of what should be up to date. Ergo Taft's heroic journey is not forgotten, and besides perfectly demonstrating a lot of things that are in vogue today, it guides us to timeless principles that can benefit us anytime, hey did you read the new one about Taft?

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