The anxiety of eminence: freaking out when a favorite performer hits the big time

The anxiety of eminence: freaking out when a favorite performer hits the big time – Culture Quotient

Ken Gordon

The fans of unknown artists are creatures of paradox. They lecture you about indie directors and fame-retardant painters, but they’re secretly possessive of them. They dread catching a pet singer on MTV’s “Total Request Live” or a beloved author in Oprah’s book club (recall the standoff between Oprah Winfrey and self-proclaimed “highbrow” novelist Jonathan Franzen in 2001). But do die-hard fans share such unpopulist sentiments out of a sense of schadenfreude? Or is it just cultural elitism? Ehor Boyanowsky, Ph.D., a psychology professor at Simon Fraser University in Canada, believes that “there is a sense of personal discovery and exclusivity that is diluted by general public acceptance.” Or, as Joshua Gamson, Ph.D., author of Claims to Fame: Celebrity in Contemporary America, states, “If too many people know about it, it’s no longer any fun.”

One inevitable response to breakout success is the charge that an artist is pandering to the masses. Sara Gwenllian Jones, Ph.D., co-editor of Intensities: The Journal of Cult Media, cites the reaction to heavy metal band Metallica’s 1996 recording, “Load.” “When it was released, Metallica infuriated fans by appearing with new haircuts and using an orchestra,” she says. “Many of their original admirers now consider themselves to be fans only of pre-‘Load’ Metallica.”

The betrayal-and-resentment motif may be important for struggling artists who take comfort in the public neglect of their idols. Stuart Fischoff, Ph.D., a media psychologist at California State University at Los Angeles, dubs the process of turning on a cult favorite “reverse schadenfreude.” “I think that there is a desire for a hero to fall [from the good graces of cult fans]. If they don’t fall, you can’t take their place.” And when the one-sided love affair grows stale, aficionados of the obscure must seek out the next unpopular thing.

Of course, not all fans cling to unknown artists for seemingly oedipal reasons. Some take the view that fame–the non-Warholian variety–is a function of time and assume that they alone can perceive lasting artistic accomplishment. Skeptics deem this a sad, homemade brand of cultural elitism. Regardless, there is something admittedly romantic about admiring an artist who is ignored. As James Salter, a highly acclaimed fiction writer who at 78 shows no sign of breaking onto the best-seller list, once wrote, “There is a great, a final glory which falls on certain figures barely noticed in their time, touches them in obscurity and re-creates their lives.”

COPYRIGHT 2003 Sussex Publishers, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2003 Gale Group