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How to Be Popular in the Century of Self

The Beatles played in front of 18 people in the southern English town of Aldershot on December 9th, 1961.

When you’re involved in the creative arts anyone with integrity will tell you that you don’t write for your audience. The spectre of a novelist that sits down to write a novel thinking ‘what will sell?’ is about as unsettling as a married couple in a harried act of copulation already cashing-in on their little bundle of joy; in terms of an artist doing the same cue a wild rose contemplating its own beauty as it wrestles in a strong wind to cling on to its precious petals. The magic, if there is any, will only come to life when there is some kind of Holy Communion between creator and the cage that is their external world. John Lennon, I imagine, had not analyzed his target audience, nor paid for a market research company to derive the marketability of his product before he wrote Happiness is a Warm Gun. Another thing that people in the art world tell you is that the greatest creations are not what anyone was expecting; perhaps they are happy accidents, or even sublime interventions, but certainly not replicas of what already exists, and what is already popular.

Even news, or opinion writing, which is kind of dry, should have an original slant. Generic formats such as the Reuters Commandments, or any such saturated self-glorifying guidelines and tetchy style-guides to writing are the enemy of creativity, or even supplying information.

Aspiring writers, listen to me when I tell you: Fuck the Police.

Granted, reporting on Thai politics in the style of Finnegans WakeSir Taxith wrought a fierin Royllixts seething light to dint the brew… phssst! – would be an act of business suicide (though it would likely be just as enlightening as much of the phony political lakorn). Nonetheless, bear in mind that being different basically you means you made an effort…unless you’re jumping the shark… then it’s time to quit.

When we came up with the idea for CityNews we wanted to create something unique, something Chiang Mai was verily without. That wasn’t very hard as Chiang Mai doesn’t have a lot of things in terms of English language publications. Our site would include the widely published local government press releases and their annual promises, though we hoped to include counter stories to the hype, and also invoke critical opinions, and have some investigative stories, original features, diverse blogs, etc. We’re not quite there, due basically to time and resources. Expansion is imminent, but we still need to figure out how to be popular. You would think popularity would be the pay-off for quality, wouldn’t you? Well, perhaps in 1961 it was.

One of the best performing English language news sites in this country actually has very little original content. But it does look very nice, and it has the right amount of sexual organs juxtaposed against obscene violence; politics is funny, no one gets hurts like in The A-Team… and it is of course really easy to read. Time, effort, resources, talent, even originality perhaps are superfluous to requirements in the age of Search Engine Optimisation and Viral Bloodbaths. I said perhaps; cynicism is speculative reasoning.

But what do you have to do to be popular these days? Can you survive in a niche market? And if, like many independent artists, you crash and burn, or have to sell out, what we are left with is some great big generic jelly: nice to look at, instantly appealing, yet somehow latently disgusting, and on top of that if you look closely you’ll see it has a very insidious past (it’s full of shit kids, in case you didn’t know).

Jelly: The music, the news, the stories, they all sound the same, and you, the consumer, are gratified, but not happy.

FHM magazine, if you read it in its primal state, along with the lad’s mag Loaded, actually attempted some kind of serious journalism, albeit of the Gonzo sort (Loaded interviewed Hunter S. Thompson in the 90s). It’s likely that at some point the board of directors of these magazines brought in someone to spike the ratings and invigorate sales. Perhaps a maverick editor, a paragon of street-smart sagacity, charmed the board of directors when he divulged to them the secret to success: “more tits…and violence”. The soft-porn-you’re-not-ashamed-of-buying magazine was born. And this geezer, the editor, was right. He’d likely never appreciated the theory of human dualism starring the wildly underrated Thanatos and Eros. Why would one waste time reading psychoanalytic theory when you can just go down the pub and watch Thanatos and Eros fueling their dualism with Jägerbombs until it’s time to punch or fuck. Since the inception of vacuous celebaphilia stories, along with pages designed to be glued together with seminal juice, FHM has become an international success story. I have a little joke in the office at Citylife that I’m going to create the most popular magazine in the world, and in an attempt to be candid (this will be lauded as virtually transcendent) I will call it simply Boobs and Blood – kind of like the front page of the Thairath, but bigger, sexier… and nastier. I can imagine myself in the future sitting on a gilded yacht with Murdochian-type monsters snorting coke from the backs of skinny, depressed, teenage models.

There’s a common dystopian vision in which art has become rootless, valueless, so exploited, tortured, beat up and brainwashed it no longer knows what it is. It has lost its essence, its crest, held under the spell that it only serves profit; and we, the consumers, know something is wrong. Everything that is permitted to be art is derived from what the target demands, which is basically one part blood, one part sex, one part gossip. Of course some of us want high-brow news, philosophical speculation, scientific escapism, but it might be argued that as generations move further towards the age of insanity what they demand is information more bite-sized, better-packaged, less wordy, and of course, dotted with the occasional tit, and/or celebrity life…and death, especially death. Conspiracy theorists will tell you the education system is earnestly supplanting critical thinking subjects with more work-based learning (only because of a more competitive marketplace mind you), and in an effort to medicalm our overburdened, over-withdrawn and over-stressed youth, news, books, music, etc, must become much easier to digest. Culture must become a big fat tempting dessert that we can’t resist, and we shove so much down our gluttonous throats that we get sick as a dumb dog, and the only cure, is more culture. I tend not to buy into these far reaching conspiracies, though I do enjoy – being a bit of an Angry Bird – chucking myself against glass houses.

Very soon Citylife, CityNews, City-now, will be coming out with a website that we hope will surpass your expectations of what we could come up with here in little Chiang Mai. In fact, this weekend a few of the senior staff are going to have a go on it.

From an editorial standpoint we want our written content to be of a high standard. You must have the right amount of integrity in order to impress your readers, you must also have the requisite time for jelly. A problem that can arise is when integrity bumps up against surviving in a very competitive marketplace. If you don’t write for your audience, and perhaps more importantly your sponsors (the advertisers), you may not receive the hits you require to impress the sponsors, nor invest enough trust in the people that advertise with you. Therefore balanced content does not only refer to reportage with various angles on the same occurrence, but it also means trying to keep everyone happy. Trying to keep everyone happy bearing in mind the previous paragraphs. Making money and writing niche content is not easy, therefore it seems online news services like Salon put out very interesting pieces alongside the regular mega-hit stories that sound something like, ‘10 Reasons why you are like Justin Bieber’.

It is my personal conviction that quality editorial, however scary, varied, controversial, will outrun sycophantic writing designed simply to please, or pages blessed only with violence, because however appealing that is to our base desires, it has no longevity. We are better than that. Quality means being multi-dimensional, after all, we are multi-dimensional. And we know in our hearts that jelly rots our guts. We are living in an age of cynicism, but romance is not dead.