Every now and then an actor or acclaimed folk music icon from the '60s "sells out" and the whole world loses its mind, as if we'd never seen a human work for money before. As sad as those moments are, it's even sadder knowing that there are marketing guys in suits behind EVERYTHING ELSE around us. For example ...
If there's one thing the media love, it's the chance to make pictures of boobs politically relevant. That may or may not be why the Ukrainian feminist protest group FEMEN hit a nerve, since their members are known for spontaneously ripping off their clothes in response to oppression, burqas, Islam, churches, and anything that doesn't have boobs on it. From the media coverage, you could be forgiven for thinking that FEMEN is a grassroots movement of angry women who just happen to hate all forms of fabric. Oh, and that every single member of FEMEN just happens to be young and really attractive.
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They also hate "morals," apparently.
Why is it that all the topless protesters in FEMEN are nubile, taut-skinned women with symmetrical breasts? Wouldn't most organic protest movements accept a healthy mix of stretch marks and wrinkles, maybe an extra nipple here and there? The answer is that there's nothing "organic" about FEMEN, except maybe its members' hair products. Members are usually salaried, are paid to protest, and audition by flashing their breasts. Because nothing says "feminism" like hiring women based on how perky their boobs are.
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"Well, team, I guess the moral of this story is- aw, dammit."
Unfortunately, choosing media attention over the purity of one's cause is not unheard of in American protests, either. You might pass a group of people on the street holding signs and yelling about how we have to ban ducks because they poop in our reservoirs and think, "Well, they're misguided, but at least they're doing what they believe in." But that's not necessarily true: Wealthy groups from all over the political spectrum have been caught paying people to protest their causes. One union that picketed work sites demanding better wages and benefits for employees was found to be using homeless people as hired protesters, paying them $8.50 an hour.
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Clearly, we must hire someone to protest this abuse of homeless people.
When we turn on the radio and hear a pop star singing about losing her pet monkey, we want to believe that the singer did have a monkey, and she did truly lose it. That's the way music is supposed to work: Artists have personal stuff they want to write about, they record songs, and then radio stations play the songs 500,000 times until everyone hates them for existing.
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"Fuck your fucking monkey, Ke$ha."
But it turns out we've been hating the wrong people. Or rather, we've been hating too many people, because most of the iconic hits of the last 10 years were written by the same person. If you have attended a photogenic pool party in the last five years, or even watched a video of a pool party while sitting alone in your house, chances are you were dancing (or crying) mostly to music written by a guy called Dr. Luke. "TiK ToK"? "Dynamite"? "Till the World Ends"? "Wrecking Ball"? Pretty much any song by Katy Perry? They're all the work of this single relatively unfamous songwriter, who has written or co-written 40 hit singles since 2004. Add in Dr. Luke's frequent co-writer Max Martin, and these two guys have pretty much written everything you have ever heard if you were born in 1999.
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I would have mentioned Max Martin first, but clearly he is less respectable because he didn't go to song medical school.
But Martin and Dr. Luke are just the most successful examples of a whole obscure industry: songwriting teams who make their living churning out material for other, more attractive people. Members of these teams can decide whether the song they're writing this week should be aggressive nu-metal or a sassy breakup ballad: For example, a writing group called the Matrix produces songs for both Shakira and Korn, while Max Martin wrote for Backstreet Boys and a Welsh metal group called Bullet for My Valentine.
It might seem dishonest, because for the last few decades we've been conditioned to believe that musicians are singing about their own sexual conquests and trips to the club. But the arrangement works out well for everyone: Performers get near-guaranteed hits, and songwriters get to work in the industry without having to cover themselves in bacon and jump into a pack of wild dogs, or whatever it is singers are doing during live shows these days.
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I think I saw Pink do that once, but it might have been the acid.
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"Well," the readers among you might say, clutching your threadbare Kindles to your chests, "at least fiction is still a bastion of pure artistic outpouring." Sorry to let you down even more than the unreality of unicorns, but it's not true. Now, don't get me wrong: The young-adult fiction world, like the musical world, is still full of wonderful, talented people writing stuff with both selling power and artistic integrity. But that's starting to change. A company called Full Fathom Five recently appeared on the scene and soon became infamous for hiring low-paid writers to churn out pseudonymous young-adult novels. The writers, mostly recent college graduates desperate to get published in any form, were threatened with legal action if they admitted that they worked for a book-writing factory. Oh, and did I mention that Full Fathom Five is run by James Frey, the rich ex-frat boy writer who pretended to be a badass cop-bashing drug runner so he could sell fake memoirs?
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You gotta have street cred if you're gonna make that Oprah money.
Depressingly, Frey's business plan has worked out pretty well. His first mass-produced novel roused a bidding war over movie rights before the manuscript was even finished, which allowed producers to give input on the book's content (they requested that certain objects be added to the book's storyline to increase merchandising potential). Frey's writing factory has since evolved into a multimedia platform, pumping out young-adult stories that can be easily transformed into catchy movie pitches and merchandise.
Worse, Frey's cynical movie grabs aren't even original cynical movie grabs: His latest book/movie project is reportedly about adolescents from 12 different tribes who are forced to fight each other to the death for supremacy, as if none of us could recognize a Sweet Valley High ripoff when we see it.
But Frey's misadventures are just a super-exploitative version of something that's already common in the young-adult market. Like any other industry, publishing wants books with a "we'll make you a lot of money" guarantee. So it's common for publishers to hire companies called book packagers that brainstorm ideas they think will be big among teenagers ("It's like the Baby-Sitter's Club ... with chupacabras") and then bring in a writer to flesh out the story. Once the writer has produced the book, the packager edits it and sends the finished "package" back to the publisher.
One of these book packagers, Alloy Entertainment, is singlehandedly responsible for producing the book-series-turned-TV-shows Gossip Girl, Vampire Diaries, and Pretty Little Liars. So that book on the shelf about sexy teen weresharks might be something the author dreamed of writing ever since her father was killed by a wereshark when she was small, but it's just as likely that an editor somewhere thought weresharks were going to be big in 2014 and the writer had a big dentist bill.