Monday, January 30, 2012

OPINION: Tyler, Lana, and the Cult of Hype

By Steve Jones.

I want to preface this short essay with the acknowledgment that this is but one man’s opinion.  And it is likely a woefully under-informed opinion at that.  All I want to do is report on these phenomena as they have appeared to me. 

Hype is everywhere.  I do not consciously seek out hype and follow it, and I expect the same is true of many readers.  Maybe more of us try to actively avoid it.  But whether we embrace or shun it, we cannot avoid hype.

Rather than continuing to address hype in such nebulous terms, I now want to highlight some notable parallels and dissimilarities between two distinctly polarizing artists, united nevertheless by the hype train they have both ridden.  These are the mythologies of Tyler, the Creator and Lana Del Rey.

At a glance, they couldn’t be more different.  Tyler is loud, vulgar, and a troublemaker, whereas Lana is mysterious, restrained, and a sex icon.  Tyler makes violent and misogynistic DIY hip hop, and Lana makes laconic high-production radio pop.  Tyler doesn’t seem to care about fame so much as doing what he wants (debatable), and Lana has gone on record saying she has wanted to be famous, embracing terms like “Hollywood sadcore.”  Tyler is masculine, Lana is feminine.  Tyler oozes immaturity, Lana has an air of maturity.  And so on.  In fact, Lana seems to be the antithesis of Tyler, and vice versa.  It’s the hot girl next door versus the crazy kid down the block.

These superficial differences, however, betray some much deeper similarities, and these have to less to do with their images and more to do with the trajectory of their images.  The next two paragraphs will outline two histories.  I’ll let the reader draw the parallels.

Around this time last year, Tyler was enjoying a surge of popularity and anticipation for his new album Goblin.  Although he would deny such a title, most journalists referred to him as the leader of the hip hop/skateboard/multimedia collective Odd Future.  He was, at the very least, the figurehead of the group, which seemed to emerge out of nowhere as the new generation of hip hop, marked by its youthful crassness and ambition.  Several free mixtapes and albums made the internet rounds.  The initial reception among music journalists was pretty positive, and even as more divisive opinions surfaced, the image of Odd Future stayed forefront.  An energetic performance on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon especially brought Tyler and his cohorts under public eye and scrutiny.  Whether you found them admirably uncompromising or contemptibly immature, you still knew who they were and had an opinion on them.

This year, it has been Lana Del Rey riding the nonstop hype-train leading up to her debut album Born to Die.  She is a solo artist, although a lot of attention has been devoted towards the figures in the shadows surrounding her.  The public en masse was introduced to her via the song and video for the track “Video Games.”  Initial reception was pretty positive, but as she reached more notoriety and more songs were revealed, more divisive opinions began to be formed.  The image of Lana Del Rey became more prominent.  Large lips, seductive glances, and her “gangster Nancy Sinatra” aesthetic stayed in people’s minds.  A controversial performance on Saturday Night Live further fueled arguments about her talent and deservedness.  Whether you thought she was the new voice of pop or an overrated daddy’s girl, you knew who she was.

A statement: where hype is concerned, opinion forming is important, but the opinion itself doesn’t matter.

I want to highlight that, in both cases, music was the springboard, but not the accelerant.  We are still a music community, so we need some piece of music (Tyler’s Bastard or Lana’s “Video Games”) to start things, but, as hype and buzz grows, music criticism gives way to image criticism.  Have you seen more writing on the deconstruction of Tyler’s psychology in Bastard, or on whether his use of the word “faggot” is hate speech or not?  Have you seen more admiration for the subversiveness of “Video Games,” or more postulation on Lizzie Grant’s evolution into Lana Del Rey.  Image overtakes music when the person creating the music becomes considered more noteworthy than the music itself.  Obviously, an artist’s life is inexorably intertwined with their art, and there are many respected schools of criticism which care about this connection.  There is a difference between those schools of thought and, say, reporting on Tyler’s tweeting or Lana’s fake lips.

But even image is not enough of an accelerant to fuel the hype train.  To return to my previous statement, it is a controversy of opinions which drives buzz.  The only thing that galvanizes an opinion more than somebody agreeing with you is somebody disagreeing with you.  It doesn’t matter why or how an opinion is formed, so long as it can find solidarity in numbers and in opposition.  And I’m not condemning this as a universally bad thing.  In fact, it would be a very boring world where we all would agree with each other.  Rather, my issue is with how these controversies deal with image and celebrities rather than with music and artists.  Tyler, the Musician, is different than Tyler, the Celebrity, yet the sphere of music journalists will choose to focus on the latter over the former.  I just think that undermines the point of music journalism and further feeds into a system where albums and songs are secondary.

Nonetheless, hype works!  I wouldn’t be thinking or writing so much about these two figures if not for the hype which drew my attention to them in the first place.  And if an artist’s goal is to get their music heard by as many people as possible, hype works for the artist as well.  Maybe music alone isn’t enough to make people care anymore.  With the internet as saturated as it is with everyone and their cousin’s Myspace, Bandcamp, demo tapes, and music blogs, perhaps we need some kind of juicy incentive outside of music to pay attention to an artist’s work.  And since a controversial image seems to do the trick, is it any wonder why musicians are capitalizing on it?  Regardless of whether it is an intentional construction or not, if it happens, why not go along with it?

We are no longer in a world where anyone can play guitar.  We’re in a world where anyone can play guitar and upload it for all of the other potential and actual guitar players to hear.  Cream may not always rise to the top, but controversy will.

I don’t wish to paint a hopeless picture here.  The appreciation of good music is far from dead.  The deafening buzz around Tyler seemed to die down after the release of Goblin.  Not because the album was particularly terrible, but because that was the hype’s endpoint.  The kind of hype that surrounded Tyler and now surrounds Lana inexorably makes itself larger and more interesting than any normal album can hope to achieve.  Hype feeds on the unlimited potential of an unknown entity, but once that entity is revealed, the potential dissipates.  So the release of a hyped album is basically a buzz-gasm, after which the buzz will subside until it finds something new to promote.  It happened to Tyler, and the same thing will happen to Lana Del Rey.

What this means, and why this is a hopeful point, is that ultimately the music does matter.  Hype's greatest strength and weakness is its relevancy.  Hype happens in the moment, but a good album will extend into the past and future, because people will keep listening to it and keep thinking about it.  A year from now, or ten years from now, or one hundred years from now, nobody is going to care about Lana’s shitty SNL performance.  But if Born to Die has staying power, it will stick around.  Hype is the bright flash of a shooting star, captivating yet short-lived.  A piece of good music is a normal star.  Its shine may not be so brilliant, but you’ll always be able to find it on a clear night.

Hype is entertainment, so enjoy it.  Just don’t take it too seriously or permanently, and don’t forget to listen to the music you love.

(Steve Jones is an aspiring freelance writer, if such a thing exists.  You can follow his inanity on Twitter.)


  1. Steve is so much better than the rest of us at writing that it's absurd.

  2. He's still an asshole though, Kyle.

  3. but in 100 years will records we think are relevant be cast aside with Lana? I mean i dont particularly remember any SNL performances that blew me away. And its a bit of a stretch to say that Tyler is waning after his record has been out for a year. I can't think of many records that have that much of a longevity. I think you can judge that more when he puts out a new record. The hype might have waned now but with starting artist their hype diminishes after each record and then when word lets out that a new record is about to be released the hype returns, and if that hype increases then they continue to be relevant. For example St. Vincent released marry me with no hype, then actor received acclaim but certainly didnt last a year and when she released strange mercy all of a sudden her popularity sky rocketed. her bon iver and m83 were trading the spots for albums of the year on several polls. will their out of the woodwork fame last off that single record? probably not. the suburbs won a grammy (even though it means shit) and made arcade fire huge, but a year later i hear their name less and less. Are they done? no, the hype will most likely return with their next record, and probably with greater attention. It what the bands do with the attention they receive. i dont give a shit if tyler the creator is ranting on twitter. what will prove his success is not only his music, but how he uses his hype to promote his music and more importantly himself. the music business is about selling yourself. I think its more of a "put up or shut up" environment and hype cant be discredited. Even black flag used the hype of their live shows and rollins opinions to gain attention. With this bandcamp scene these break out artist are just using hype to make an unknowning public notice them, and from that point say "you know my name now? Heres my art, take it how you may." I agree that the music is the most important element here, but you cant completely put hype down as a medium to promote music..... fuck that was long winded