Affinity, Empathy, and the Critic’s Dilemma

August 3, 2012

In the March 26th 2012 article in The New Yorker titled “The Song Machine” John Seabrook reports on the hit makers behind such contemporary singers as Rihanna and Kelly Clarkson. In it, Jay Brown the president of Roc Nation told Seabrook, “It’s not enough to have one hook anymore.” Ester Dean’s manager supported the idea: “You’ve got to have a hook in the intro, a hook in the pre-chorus, a hook in the chorus, and a hook in the bridge. … People on average give a song seven seconds on the radio before they change the channel, and you got to hook them.” (48) The “hook” is the practitioners’ word for a measure that establishes affinity with its audience as it may be in journalism, and perhaps fiction also. Though the word is a drug dealer’s word, it is now the link between “art” and capitalism: entertainment. A hook is the way to make money by playing to an affinity group who have money to spend and keep them coming back for more. However, isn’t art in general including fiction and screenwriting in a similar situation? Aren’t they pressured by the market to play to it and not challenge it?

A writer or audience member needs to be able to move away from the comfort zones of affinity and developed sense of empathy or the imagined perspective beyond himself before he can be open to the social and cultural criticism that could be offered in music, film, and fiction. Thus the critic’s dilemma, how much criticism will turn the audience away, is rarely truly experienced or approached by the writer. However, the banishment of the critic is enforced by the offended consumer who has been trained to personalize everything and are left with their comfort food, their favorite flavored lollipop (if a child). Any dilemma that may cause thought for an audience is left at the writing desk and here we have the definition of “mainstream.”