Stop Complaining About “The Masses,” and “Middle American” Tastes In Pop Culture

Over at NPR, Linda Holmes has a lovely post about the fallacies of pretending that “the masses” or “Middle America” are some sort of homogenous block of cultural consumers, or that “the lowest common denominator” is something we should have contempt for, rather than embrace:

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.

To paraphrase some of the rest of the piece, we watch Community in red states and worship at the altar of Mark Harmon in NCIS in blue states.


I have to say, I wonder if some of this divide comes from shifts in business models that have divided both television and movies into things with massive audiences and tiny audiences, without much space in between. In movies, we’ve increasingly got tentpoles, many of which are genre movies — which face an inherent critical bias and are siloed into “low” culture no matter how self-serious they get — and smaller independent or foreign films, with smart, adult, not very expensive movies vanishing from the scene. 2012 felt like a rare movie-going year in part because there were a number of mass hits, like Lincoln, Argo, Zero Dark Thirty, and Django Unchained that have both done good or pretty good box office and have received good reviews and been the subject of spirited intellectual debates. The things among our common denominators weren’t inherently the lowest. But I do understand how, if you’re a devotee of those $30 million movies that are vanishing, or if it’s becoming harder for you to find independent and foreign films in theaters and they’re slow to make it to video on demand or to streaming, you might feel a certain amount of resentment. It’s not just that other people want and support other things — it’s that it feels harder to get what you want.

The same is true in television, where there remain some massive hits like Dancing With The Stars, NCIS or The Big Bang Theory, but where the ratings for new comedies in particular have quickly shrunk to the point of invisibility. Watching the struggle of something like Community to stay alive, I don’t blame people for being frustrated that more people aren’t tuning in. But the truth is that something like Community, or Happy Endings, or even 30 Rock, all the self-aware, self-referential, pop-culture examining comedies out there — they have an inherent audience ceiling. And that’s totally okay! One of the blessings of a diversified media environment is that networks will create and keep running weird shows with wacky premises and strange-but-endearing characters long after they would have been nuked in a previous era of television. What fans of those shows want is less for everyone to suddenly ditch Leroy Jethro Gibbs and discover the joys of Dean Pelton, and more for NBC to find a way to make money on its wonderful little curiosities, whether it’s an adjustment to the Nielsen ratings that gets advertisers excited about more delayed watching, or richer syndication deals with Hulu and Netflix.

In other words, if folks are still turning up their noses at what “Middle America” watches when Dan Harmon gets his eleventy-billion new shows on the air in coming seasons, the heck with ’em. But if folks are upset about what’s getting mass audiences because they’re afraid it threatens what they like, I have more sympathy for people’s desire to get their hands on and provide support to content than they love.