Animal Collective Embodies The New Internet Hype Cycle
How successful are people expecting the new Animal Collective album to be? So successful that Spin‘s Charles Aaron is worried that Merriweather Post Pavilion will become as ubiquitous as Moby’s Play—an album where all but one track was licensed to commercials. This is to say that Aaron is predicting it will be as successful as one of the most successful albums in recent memory, and he is worried that this will make him dislike it. Aaron seems aware of how crazy this is, but all the self-flagellation about his coyly authentic taste lapse doesn’t excuse the fact that he nevertheless wrote a piece about it, nor that he felt enough ownership of a Moby album to be offended when its songs showed up on soap operas, nor that he, like the rest of the internet, is somehow convinced that MPP is going to be a major crossover smash. But why?
Aaron’s only evidence seems to be that a lot of the people have written about it, and that Entertainment Weekly gave it an A-. (An A minus, you guys!) Unlike Aaron, we have the advantage of writing after the album’s release, so we can look at its position on iTunes. After a week of availability there, it’s the No. 5 best-selling album—behind the Twilight soundtrack, Taylor Swift, and the Bon Iver EP, which was released the same day as MPP and is sitting at No. 2.
Ah, but maybe, like Play, it will be licensed to lots of commercials and get noticed that way? Even Aaron admits this is unlikely—”it’s hard to imagine them licensing ‘Lion in a Coma’ to Nokia,” he generously notes in a parenthetical—and there seems to be a world of difference between Moby’s yuppie-friendly blend of blues samples and house and Animal Collective’s hippie-derived drones and group singing. But the overexposure, in Aaron’s reckoning, is going to come from a different source than with Moby’s album. Instead of being forcibly informed that people he dislikes have an emotional connection with a piece of music he does like at “a Starbucks on the New Jersey Turnpike,” the overexposure here would be more virtual.
And now, an oversaturation similar to what Moby willfully engendered via multi-platform licensing over more than a year could be happening, somewhat organically, to Animal Collective — even before their album’s official release and without the attendant financial windfall — via blogs, websites, YouTube, and assorted online jabberwocky.
Aha! What we’re talking about here, then, is not actual success, but Internet success, which is a different beast entirely. By that measure, of course, Animal Collective are already wildly successful. But it seems a little strange that this is what constitutes making it for the modern musical enterprise: not the awareness of casual listeners, the monetary rewards of actual sales, and the cultural ubiquity afforded by a presence on television and in movies, but the warm glow of blogged concert pix, fan-made videos, and people having “SummertimeClothes” as a username on discussion boards.
If this is the success Aaron is worried about, then he has nothing to fear. This is a safe form of acclaim, a small-stakes version of selling out that leaves everyone but the artist satisfied. If Animal Collective never crosses over to the real world, then no one drinking latte in an SUV will ever be playing the album; all we will have to contend with is the affection of other people on the Internet, who are not so unlike you and me, after all. If the band doesn’t get the reward of real-world sales, then it can never leave us, the cossetted bosom of true admirers that have made it what it is. It can stay small, stay in its little hometown and never escape. And if all its ubiquity is on Web sites, then these are easily avoided. We never watch something we don’t choose to watch, after all. This could only be a problem if we spend all our time on the Internet.
But, of course, we do. This is the odd bifurcation of the moment in which we find ourselves: a fragmented musical landscape in which “crossover” means only a jump from the country charts to the pop charts, but we are all loath to admit the new reality. We yearn for the days when we could complain about a band selling out—when Nirvana could cross over and make us all argue about the wrong people liking things. Maybe it will happen for Animal Collective. But if it does, will we even notice? Or will we just assume it’s successful because it’s successful on the Internet?