“Saturday Night Live” opened its 44th season this past Saturday. Though much of the news coverage of the first episode was given to Matt Damon’s Brett Kavanaugh impression, I was surprised by the amount of attention given to Kanye West. As many may have read, Kanye West delivered an angry, emotional rant about his support for Donald Trump and his disdain for the Democratic Party.
While this wasn’t particularly strange coming from West, given his statement on Twitter over the summer that he and Trump are both “dragon energy,” the media’s ability to witness and pick apart West’s post-show monologue is truly incredible. Using nothing more than a cellphone, Chris Rock was able to capture much of West’s speech and share it with the world. Anyone with Internet access had immediate access to a speech that West gave in a closed, post-broadcast studio environment. Despite the seeming privacy of the studio floor with its strict rules against phone usage, West’s impromptu musings are now open to interpretation and analysis.
Portable recording devices and widely accessible social media platforms have irrevocably changed the way that performing artists interact with their fans. Both in the performance hall and in their everyday lives, performing artists’ every move can be captured and distributed at the click of a button. Artists no longer need to fear the paparazzi — now anyone with a smartphone can be a member of the paparazzi.
To this end, I am reminded of an experience I had over the summer. I was handing out signs at a rally in New York City when Amy Schumer walked by. Though she was not planning on speaking or doing anything to acknowledge her celebrity status, the organization I volunteered for immediately asked her for a photo for their social media pages. For the organization, this was an exciting opportunity to demonstrate broad support for their mission. For Schumer, however, this was not an event that she had planned on publicly attending. After the organization tagged her on Twitter, the entire world could see that she had attended the event. Her private views about immigration policy and the separation of families had become public.
This increased scrutiny facing performance artists has contributed to the hyperpolarization of the performance arts that we see occurring today. If artists are constantly under the view of their fans, than they must constantly conform to the sociopolitical views they share with their fans. Artists are pressured to speak out against actions they disagree with, hoping to generate positive media attention for actions that would not have garnered much interest in the pre-social-media era.
Additionally, without centralized media sources controlling the flow of information between artists and fans, artists begin to populate increasingly specific microcultural bubbles containing their own prejudices and understandings of the world. Cultural consensus surrounding socio-political beliefs begins to dissolve as artists no longer feel the need to conform to the centrist cultural standards imposed by hegemonic news organizations. Fans can select the artists that most conform to their own viewpoints, only following those on social media who match this stringent criterion. West’s SNL rant, for example, particularly shocked his fan base, as it violated the larger rap/pop culture in which West exists — a culture obsessed with being “woke” and resisting the Trump administration on virtually all fronts.
And in the performance hall, artists must assume that they are constantly being filmed for posterity. Any mistakes or experimentation during a show will be released to the world upon a show’s conclusion, ensuring that this creativity happens not during the performance but during rehearsals.
Some artists even go so far as to prevent their fans from using their phones during performances. At Hasan Minhaj’s Sept. performance at the Michigan Theater, for example, guests were required to put their phones in magnetically-locked pouches before the start of the show. Minhaj did this because he wanted to try out material for his upcoming show without it going viral. Unless he forced the audience to lock away their phones, Minhaj had no expectation that his material would remain new. If West’s comments could be captured in the security of a television studio, merely instructing audience members to refrain from using recording devices during a show is clearly out of the question.
This ease of recording and transmitting information does, however, allow artists to communicate directly with their fans. Rather than communicating exclusively through press statements or feature articles in high profile newspapers, artists can post something on their social media that extends out directly to their fan base. In this regard, artists are no longer restricted by geographic location or demographic boundaries that may prevent their work from being discovered outside the specific microculture they occupy.
This, in turn, has contributed to a more diverse artistic marketplace. Though this may be far down the road, I believe that this will lead to the eventual dissolution of national popular culture, at least in the way that we currently conceive of popular culture. Popular culture will dissolve without the cohesivity of centralized media outlets holding it in place. Popular culture will disintegrate into microcultures, each obsessed with their own artistic figures.
Without seeming too dismal or apocalyptic, my fear is that this process will eventually lead to a total loss of consensus not just around culture but around the truth. In a world in which information is truly democratized and decentralized, in which anyone with a phone can communicate with anyone else and all artists (both professional and amateur) are afforded the opportunity to share their content with the world, I fear that factual information becomes similarly democratized. Just as fans can subscribe to the artists that they most appreciate, I fear that we will all begin to subscribe to that version of reality that match best with our desired manifestation of reality.
Even more dire for the performing arts is the threat that someday online consumption of the arts will totally eclipse live performance. Artists already feel increasing pressure to conform to their recorded work. Just as artists must fear making a mistake at a performance, so must they fear not living up to the Internet version of their work that audience members and fans have become accustomed to. If someone is not as good as they are online, what’s to encourage the fan to attend a live performance? And if anyone can be recorded, what is to separate the artist from the average citizen?
Cellphones and social media bring celebrities back down to Earth; they also obscure the boundaries between the Earth and the sky. To paraphrase Syndrome in “The Incredibles,” when everyone’s an artist, no one will be. Technology is bringing about a radical change in the role of the performing artist, and one can only speculate now what this role will entail. The only thing that is certain, it seems, is that there is little to be certain of — we are in the early stages of a dramatic evolution in the performing arts, and the results of this evolution are anyone’s guess.