I happen to be one of those people who from time to time will post song lyrics as my Facebook status. Usually it’s because I’m a) listening to the song at the current time and find myself responding to a particular line, or b) having a particular experience that a more talented wordsmith has been able to elucidate better than I ever could.
Now, recently, the nation has been swept up by Gotye’s Somebody That I Used To Know, which is an incredible song, both in composition and lyrics. It’s certainly propelled him into the mainstream consciousness, to the point where at work (I work in a record store) customers will enquire about him and be able to say his name properly; six months ago, it was normally pronounced “gotcha” by people buying his CDs for their kids.
The thing is, he’s been kicking around for a while now, and has had a small-to-medium sized devoted fanbase for just as long. I know a few people who are a bit peeved that Somebody… has become so popular, because they “loved Gotye for years before that song came out!” I knew of him because I sold his CDs at work, and while I liked a few songs, I wouldn’t have called myself a massive fan. Somebody… has propelled me into listening to more and more of his stuff, and though I like what I’ve heard, I don’t use that song’s lyrics as a status. This is either because I don’t want to piss off my friends who are long-time fans, or because I don’t feel I’ve earned the right to embrace his lyrics as a way of expressing myself, which really just ties back into the former notion.
This isn’t a new thing though, as anyone can tell you, and I myself am guilty of it to varying degrees. I have a particular hatred when a movie is remade into a drastically inferior product, but that becomes doubled when new audiences aren’t aware that it’s a remake. Now to clarify, I’m actually not one of those people who assume every remake is inferior – many are unnecessary, but that doesn’t negate their merits. Both Dawn of the Dead and Last House on the Left received very adequate remakes (bordering on surpassing their original) and even a classic like Cape Feare I thought to be better in its newer incarnation.
But when slack jawed teens come into my work and buy the remake of I Spit On Your Grave and talk about how brutal it is, and how “there’s never been a movie like this before” it boils my blood (though that instance led to a particularly fantastic opportunity to silently present them with the DVD of the original). And the thing is, I don’t even particularly like I Spit On Your Grave – I respect a few odd things about it, but I don’t see it as a film that I get to hold as currency against the mainstream – I get no satisfaction out of knowing that I “knew about it first” but it annoys me that the original is disregarded.
And it comes with many different flavours – people will be annoyed when a movie adaptation makes a book more popular, people will be annoyed if a dance step gains more exposure, and of course, when music becomes more commercially recognised.
What is it about our mentalities that gets annoyed when something niche we like becomes popular? Is it because we see the newfound popularity as exposing something we love to people who don’t appreciate it as much? Or is it that we feel like our devotion to something obscure becomes invalidated, when someone else who hasn’t devoted themselves for as long gets to experience whatever niche thing it is we hold so dear?
Perhaps it’s a semi-subconscious desire to be seen as an originator or to hold an authoritative voice. All those Gotye fans that have loved his work for years are now indistinguishable from someone who heard Somebody That I Used To Know and went through his back catalogue. A passerby could assume that a Gotye fan has only developed their tastes off what the local pop-music stations are playing.
They have their devotion disregarded, because, now that he’s popular, it may seem to an outsider that they are simply following what is in vogue. A year ago, they could’ve talked about liking Gotye, and expected to get a query is to who that was. Now, they mention they like Gotye, and there’s a risk they’ll be greeted with an “OMG I love them too! That Somebody That I Used To Know song is sooo cool” and there comes the most horrible notion of all – they might be seen to be like that.
An additional risk, particularly when it comes to personal tastes that might be seen as facets of our outward identity, is that something becoming popular deprives us of an indicator of effort. While something is obscure and elusive, we have to struggle to obtain it. This further bonds us to whatever it may be that we’re hunting down, and we become part of an echelon that knows about this rare, obscure, esoteric interest. But if it becomes popular, then it becomes readily available. No effort has to be made anymore. The echelon is disbanded.
Of course, this can be taken to ridiculous jokes, as with the stereotypical Hipster notion of using obscurity as a weapon – y’know, nothing you like is cool or indie, it’s actually just totally mainstream. Though that also ignores something of an irony that complaining about hipsters used to be a pretty rare thing, and now it’s incredibly popular and easy… Who hasn’t as yet heard the below joke?:
Q: How many hipsters does it take to screw in a light bulb?
A: Oh it’s an obscure number, you’ve probably never heard of it…
But that’s just the exaggerated form of this necessity to hold on to what we hold dear, in all its obscurity. We feel better if we’re there first, and we don’t like it when other people try to claim it as their own too.
I of course have no solutions to all of this. Despite getting frustrated by it when people try to belittle me for liking something they liked ages ago, I do the exact same thing. I don’t like to admit it, but I also want the recognition that I was there first, and for longer, or that I knew more about it before it became so popular.
At the end of this though, I still won’t use Somebody That I Used To Know as a Facebook status, annoyingly, as I do really love the song. Maybe everyone loves the song and that’s the problem – it speaks to too many people, and it’s not a niche appeal anymore.