“Popular” is Not the Opposite of “Relevant”

For this series, we’ve reached into the vault to share a few pieces that are still relevant today.

If you have a moment, read the piece from the Los Angeles Times wherein two local L.A. critics talk about the small theater scene. It’s worth reading for its own merits, and it’s an interesting discussion with a number of really perceptive insights from the two critics, Charles McNulty and Steven Leigh Morris.

But one thing Morris said stood out that I want to challenge, or at least frame differently. It’s this one:

“Pleasing and selling are awfully seductive, essential really; they may lead to a popular theater but not necessarily to a relevant one. And that’s the paradox.”

I just want to note that “popular” and “relevant” are not opposites. In fact, I’d ask how something can be relevant if no one cares about it. What do you mean by relevant anyway? To me, something’s relevant if it has a gravitational pull on the culture. Oom-pah-pah music, not relevant. Social media innovations, relevant. Those are obvious because one’s obviously nearly dead in the culture, and one is almost universal.

But relevant doesn’t have to be a mass phenomenon. In fact, who cares if it’s a mass phenomenon? Morris says this:

“How are theaters supposed to go out and do work that they know will alienate 95% of the general population? What’s their incentive to be brave?”

Well, that’s an easy one: the love and support of the 5%. If it’s truly being done for the 5% in the sense that they’re the niche that can and will support such work, that should be plenty to make any organization thrive. The goal over time is to grow the 5% to 6 and then 7 and then, well, as large as you want.

Trying to please the so-called “general population” is a fool’s errand that’s irrelevant to today’s market for anything. Everything is a niche market. Mass market is dead. Super dead. Cirque du Soleil and the NFL are both huge, but they’re still niches. Why? Because their product isn’t for everyone; it started with a small, emerging portion of the culture which clashed meaningfully with the “general population” and then over time, their vision won out, or at the very least, earned the right to survive and thrive. Football used to have to live on the leftovers from baseball, horse racing and boxing. Cirque du Soleil was a freaky footnote to the head-in-a-lion’s-mouth school of circuses that cost $5 to see. Only in hindsight does it seem obvious that these are tastes shared by many people.

Although I understand it, I hate the mindset that says we can either do “good” work or we can do “popular” work. No organization has to please everybody and shouldn’t try. That’s a guarantee of failure. And imagining that there’s a “general population” is naive and out of touch. I vaguely feel like this is just snobbery dressed up in something that sounds like thought. There’s no “general population.” There are just people, and their tastes are really varied.

What’s hard, though, is figuring out who your work is for and then honing it to make it work for them. It’s easier just to hand wave the problem away and say that there’s a “paradox” where theater gets stuck between what’s popular and what’s good.

On the other hand, if what’s meant by “relevant” is really self-indulgent work that values mere self-expression without any regard to the audience and designed mostly to flatter the ego of the artist, there’s a different word for that.

Irrelevant.

Related:

The Big 3: Horse Racing, Boxing and Baseball

Gravitational Pull

The Irrelevance of Stores and How That Affects Live Entertainment (Hint: It’s a Good Thing)

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