Media Icons Rule

How media icons transform our culture

February 21, 2007

I actually wrote this a few years ago, but just rediscovered it.

I recently heard a piece on All things considered about the folk singer Jewel puttting out a dance club music album, with the accompanying music video show Jewel as a hip-hop music diva. I marveled at the transformation (something the piece argued was not so strange) a music artist could make and was willing to make. What can be said of someone who moves away from very original music---both in lyrics and sound, and already commercially successful---to banal, superficial, and trendy music?

The piece argued that Jewel's first folksy, granola crunching persona was just as manufactured as the new dance diva version. If that is true, it just reinforces the point I am getting to. (By the way, I think Jewel is extemely talented. I hope she will explore jazz soon.)

It takes a lot of marketing and promotion---lots of money---to manufacture such media icons. Such icons can be hugely profitable marketing vehicles for myriad products. The critical requirement to make such investments even theoretically successful is the ability of an enterprise to obtain exclusive rights to the use of the manufactured icon---its image, its voice, etc.

Would the Walt Disney Co. invest millions of dollars a year in marketing Mickey Mouse as a media icon and spokesman and salesman of products for kids if it didn't have exclusive rights to limit who can use the image and at what price? Suppose the copyright and trademark laws that make such icon creation profitable were different; suppose that a company's exclusive rights to its works were limited to 15--20 years. It is almost certain that Mickey Mouse would have never grown much beyond a cartoon in movies and books. It would have gained popularity to the extent that its associated movies and books were well liked. But no one would invest millions to create a media icon if the duration of their exclusive marketing rights to it were too short to recoup their investment plus a profit.

We refer to the culture of today as contemporary culture. This seems to me a contradiction in terms. Doesn't culture imply history? Of course it includes the present as well: over time, the 10% new stuff mixes with the 90% old stuff, adding to the old and sometimes altering it a bit, definitely an evolutionary process overall. Our contemporary culture changes so fast that it barely encompasses one decade of history---as opposed to a few centuries or more. Contemporary culture no longer has the meaning of hundreds of years of history with greater focus and perspective on recent events, ways, and sentiments. Contemporary culture now is media culture: instant culture, nearly devoid of historical influence. It is remanufactured every year, with a new model available for consumption and adoption from any newspaper, magazine, television or radio station near you.

What can we say about the meaning and significance of media icons? Do they represent our culture if they did not arise from the broad collective of people's life experiences, but instead were manufactured and fed to us by corporations? Why do we go to "Universal Studios" or "Walt Disney" stores that only sell T-shirts, posters and mugs, etc. of their brands? Would such stores---and their merchandise---even exist, if not for the power of major media corporations to obtain legal exclusive rights of these icons, and to project these icons in every nook and cranny of our living environment?

The ability of Disney and others to secure legal exclusive rights to their copyrighted works, in all forms, for periods of over 90 years or indefinitely---by applying some legal tricks---has destroyed the ability of our society to discover its true self: we do not know what others in our society really think or feel, what their concerns are, their joys, their fears, their preferences. How can we engage in productive democratic debate if we know so little about each other? Or worse, have completely misguided perceptions of each other?

Can 100 year copyright protection really be the major cause of the distruction of the culture that would reflect our true humanity? I've always had a mechanistic view of the world, believing in causality as the fundamental means to discover and understand the world we live in. Think about what is said here; perform some economic experiments in your head. What would our culture be like if copyright law didn't exist at all? What would our culture be like if copyright law existed but was less generous?

We, as a democratic society, have instituted our laws. It is our right, our responsibility, and it is in our best interest, to review and modify laws that are not working as originally intended, or that have been instituted abusively. Do not be afraid to investigate and question our current societal state or the merits of any given law or government action.