Thursday, 16 October 2008

Fuck (aspects of) the mainstream

Sorry if this entry is a little incoherent. I'm feeling somewhat crap and yet felt the need to blog.

It's something I see a lot, particularly among the friends I have in what is bafflingly and tediously known as the "alternative" community: a shunning of the mainstream. A friend told me today that she liked a TV series before it arrived on the BBC, but as soon as it did, she went off it because it went "too mainstream". I share the irrational urge to shun things which are being hyped and which are becoming popular; perhaps it's just a result of the questioning of authority, or not wanting to appear conformist. Whatever the reason, it's clear to me at least that it can be an irrational urge: if the TV show didn't change at all simply by becoming popular, then there is no reason to dislike it if you liked it before.

Of course, this is not always the case. Sometimes, when something becomes popular it changes in order to remain so, or become more so. This is often the case in music, and one of the reasons the "mainstream" is so reviled by fans of so-called alternative music: it means that a band will sometimes compromise its style etc. in order to increase appeal.

So, on the one hand, I sympathise with those who sport t-shirts with the amusingly widespread "Fuck the mainstream" slogan. But, as usual, I think you'll find it's more complicated than that. I'm tempted to put the title of this post on a t-shirt too, now.

For instance, as a band becomes more popular, they are more likely to be able to continue making music and touring - and their fans will have greater access to that band. If they make no compromise in their sound, then as far as I can see it's win-win; the only thing they gain that can be seen as negative is popularity, which is not terribly rational to view in that light. Even if they do change their sound, do them the courtesy of seriously considering the change from an aesthetic point of view before dismissing it. Dimmu Borgir undeniably changed their sound as they became more popular, and this has proven less than popular with their original fanbase. But you know what? I like the music they're making these days.

The trend is even more pronounced for a television series: the more people watch it, the less likely it is that Fox the network will cancel it. In a roundabout way, I suppose it makes some kind of sense to curse the mainstream for being so heavily relied upon in this regard - the mere fact that something is not embraced by a lot of people should not condemn it to oblivion and obscurity. But at the same time, the way it is is the way it is - mainstream acceptance allows our favourite shows to continue on and entertain us.

There is a more important message here, for sceptics, rationalists, freethinkers and all the other categories of the sane: the mainstream is to be shunned at your own risk. There is a reason why entire organisations are set up to promote the public understanding of science: if more people understand its value - its necessity - then progress becomes easier. More young people will choose science as a career path; more will consider it an important issue in politics; more funding becomes available to scientific projects.

As much as the state of the mainstream media pains me at present, simply saying "fuck it" helps nobody. What is needed is improvement in standards, and more general promotion of just how useful, important, and cool science can be. We need to work with the mainstream, get rationality out of the shadows, and being freely discussed by the majority of people.

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