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Copyright 2016 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

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Coastal Snobbery, 'The Masses,' And Respecting The Lowest Common Denominator

Jan 30, 2013
Originally published on January 31, 2013 12:03 pm

There are three phrases that are almost always bad news for a piece of cultural writing.

They are:

1. "The masses."

2. "Middle America."

3. "The lowest common denominator."

All three are ways to separate the writer and her sensibility — which are presumed to be congruent with the reader and her sensibility — from invisible and undefined others, for whom bad cultural content is produced and by whom it is unquestioningly gobbled up.

For substantive comment on the quality or meaning of anything, all three substitute code — code for a pernicious, poisonous underlying assumption that popularity, non-U.S.-coastal geography, and easy translation from person to person are all good indicators that an opinion is not to be trusted or that an audience is unsophisticated. And while that attitude may endear a writer to those who feel favored by it, it also gradually narrows the writer's audience to the point where it's a drum circle of incessant one-upmanship and complaints about the things other people — with whom no one in the circle actually associates — are presumably watching, listening to, and reading, without actually engaging any of those things on their own terms.

What, after all, does it mean to say something is for "the masses"? That many people like it and enjoy it? That it brings pleasure to a broad audience? Does it merely mean that you don't have to be an expert in anything in particular to enjoy it? Because while commonality and popularity may be a feature of plenty of artless junk, they are also a feature of plenty of artful creative work of the most traditional kinds, from Mozart to Shakespeare. They're also easy to identify in plenty of vibrant, heartening culture from more modern traditions like soul music and stand-up comedy.

The problem with popularity is not that only awful things are popular or that "the masses" can't tell the difference; it's the wrongheaded philosophy that only popular things are perceived to be good, or the practical problem that arises when only popular things can survive. A statement that something is "fine for the masses" or "made for the masses" could simply mean it's of high quality and accessible, which should be a good thing, or could mean it's facile and uncreative, in which case what's wrong with it is that it's facile and uncreative, not that there exists somewhere a teeming zombie horde of undifferentiated pasty-faced morons waiting to snap it up.

Sadly, with so much of cultural writing happening on the east and west coasts, that zombie horde is often presumed to exist in the dreaded "Middle America." According to this terrifying scenario, everything from about Pittsburgh to Carson City is one thing — one big blob of blobs, where there are maybe some farms, and also people ride horses, maybe? ... and everybody shops at Wal-Mart and listens to the same music as everybody else because all they have is one radio station, and there aren't any good restaurants, and people basically live there because they can't afford to move to New York or couldn't make it there.

If you've ever actually lived off the coasts, this is very embarrassing to encounter, because it's so arrogant and so un-self-consciously so. I lived for about ten years in the Twin Cities, and the thing is, Minneapolis and St. Paul aren't even the same. You have to live there to get it, just like you have to live in Brooklyn to get — or care about — the different parts of Brooklyn and how they differ. But Minneapolis has more of a glass-buildings feel, and St. Paul has more of a stone-buildings feel, and St. Paul has more the feel of the private colleges and Minneapolis is more dominated by the U, and ... you see, you kind of have to live there to get it.

Assuming cultural commonality between those places and Cleveland and all the different parts of Texas is not just condescending and coast-centric, though it is those things. It's also just wrong and silly. There's no such thing as making a television show, for instance, for "middle America," because anything that's broad enough to be intended for even both Austin and Dallas is intended for parts of New York and California. And if your definition of "middle America" is super-super-middle-America, like, "Oh, no, I'm talking about just Kansas and Missouri," then (1) that's still not all one kind of person, and (2) nobody would ever make a television show or a movie for Kansas and Missouri, because they have a combined population of under 10 million people, and making something for a potential audience pool of 10 million people is not exactly the broad, safe play people have in mind when they say "middle America."

To try to appreciate the cultural flavor of "middle America" is not to come to terms with its depressing sameness, but to get your arms around its tremendous variation, its pockets of enthusiasm, and its utter indifference to most of what people in New York and Los Angeles have to say about it.

And that brings us to the final term and the fundamental question: What's wrong with the lowest common denominator?

If you remember what a lowest common denominator is from math, you know that it has to do with taking two fractions — say one-fourth and one-sixth, where the denominators would be four and six respectively — and finding the smallest denominator you can use to express both so that you can, for instance, add them together. For those two fractions, the lowest common denominator would be 12, because one-fourth can be expressed as three-twelfths and one-sixth can be expressed as two-twelfths, so you can add them together and get five-twelfths.

I've always found the lowest common denominator kind of a cozy concept, particularly because you kind of do it by feel — it's a translator that lets you take two things that seem to be vibrating on different frequencies and unlock them so they can fit together instead of bumping into each other.

But somehow in culture, "lowest common denominator" has become a way to describe not what's unifying but what's worst, as if we all come together where we are awful and stupid. In fact, when we do all come together in large numbers, it's usually not where we are awful and stupid, particularly not because we are awful and stupid. We come together where there's enough commonality to let people talk to each other about the same thing. How did that become a slam, unless we assume that the purpose of culture, and of our own tastes, is to efficiently separate those who favor wheat from those who are more into chaff?

The lowest common denominator on a huge scale, in fact, is probably something like The Avengers or the Oscars or the Super Bowl, none of which is embraced for its scandalous or scatological qualities, but all of which are popular simply because lots of people think it's fun to watch them. And as silly as those things are, their commonality is actually their most redeeming quality — that it's the lowest common denominator across surprisingly diverse populations is the best thing about the Super Bowl, not the worst. It's certainly the best thing about the Oscars.

In a smaller group of people, the lowest common denominator would be the thing everyone can relate to that draws out their shared likes and dislikes, like a common language. Maybe in an individual family, the lowest common denominator is Top Chef — if that's the case, then whether you like or hate Top Chef, what's wrong with it is hardly that everybody in that family puts down their cell phones when it's on, even though the rest of the time, they're strictly in different rooms with different things playing.

Talking derisively to a limited audience about imagined cultural "masses" existing elsewhere is like any other kind of derisive in-group chatter. The good part is where it bonds you to those who feel like they're inside the circle you're drawing. The bad part is where it pushes, hard, on the people who know they're outside that circle and in fact are being used to define it. We're entering a phase where cultural content is pitched for smaller and smaller audiences, and it's more important than ever to find and value the things that are both good and unifying. Popularity is not quality, but neither, after all, is obscurity.

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