the shape of water

Guillermo del Toro and The Chainsmokers, Part 1

At the 75th Annual Golden Globe Awards, Guillermo del Toro was awarded ‘Best Director’ for his work on The Shape of Water, a beautiful film about love in the face of bigotry and the inspiration for a thousand unfunny jokes on Twitter. In his sweetly triumphant acceptance speech, del Toro spoke eloquently about his career and how important movies have been to him, mentioning that on several occasion, they actually saved his life. Of films, del Toro said:

“As directors, these things are not just entries in a filmography. We have made a deal with a particularly inefficient devil that trades three years of our lives for one entry on IMDB. And these things are biography, and they are life.”

Guillermo del Toro is arguing that his films are worth something, that they’re more than just a product made to fill up space on Netflix. It probably goes without saying, but this is certainly true in del Toro’s case. He’s always been beloved in certain circles, but this year he seems to have reached a new level of mainstream attention. His work is being celebrated and understood as the work of a true artist, and his films are being discussed and appreciated in a manner befitting the time and effort he’s put into them.

But it doesn’t always work out that way.

It’s well understood that the majority of artists, including some who equal and even surpass del Toro’s ability, toil in obscurity for their entire lives without ever receiving the attention their work deserves. The phrase “toil in obscurity” exists primarily to describing this exact situation. Ironically, many artists who are now household names fell into this category. Herman Melville forever changed the way novels were written, but Moby Dick sold only a few thousand copies while he was alive. Vincent Van Gogh is among the most well-known painters of all time, but went basically unnoticed until he killed himself. Edgar Allen Poe and Franz Kafka essentially created entire new genres of fiction with their work, but both died unrecognized and poor.

Of course, these examples are, by their very existence, somewhat ill-fitting, because those mentioned did eventually receive the recognition they deserve; it was too late for them to appreciate the newfound recognition, but their work continues to endure. But more common by far is the creator whose obscurity only continues and intensifies after their death. It is impossible to say exactly how many brilliant pieces of art have gone unnoticed by anyone, but the number is probably high enough that it would be overwhelming and depressing even if we somehow had the accurate statistics.

This is not news to anyone who has been paying attention. Every level-headed creative person endeavors under the knowledge that the odds of success are staggeringly low. A massive cloud of failure hangs over us all, ready to swoop down and erase all our efforts from history, like a dust-storm descending on the American midwest or a swarm of locust descending upon the Egyptians. It’s a bad scene.

Social media has changed this, but not by much. Maybe there was a moment, early on, when anyone with the knowledge and foresight to game the still-developing system could launch themselves to stardom. When the internet first gained prominence, it was a new and exciting avenue of self-promotion, but with the new ubiquity of social media, it’s now pretty much the only game in town. If you want people to lay eyes (or ears) on something you’ve made, it has to go online. And now that everyone is online, the novelty is gone and the playing field is even once again (as even as it ever is, I mean), but with a brand-new, additional layer of humiliation that we must endure if we want people to see what we’ve made: likes.

Or retweets. Or comments. Or subscriptions. Whatever form it takes on your platform of choice, it all boils down to a single, ugly transaction, the kind that Guillermo del Toro referenced in his acceptance speech: you pour your heart and soul into something, giving away the best years of your life, and in the best case scenario, your Klout score goes up a few points.

This is what the Chainsmokers are talking about in “Sick Boy,” specifically during the bridge when Andrew Taggart sings “feed yourself on my life’s work/how many likes is my life worth?” Some reviewers glibly dismissed this as a cheap-shot at social media, and while they’re not entirely off-base–Taggart himself clearly has a lot of thoughts on how the internet has changed our concept of ‘fame‘–the placement of this couplet at the climax of a song clearly sung from the perspective of a self-loathing artist hints at a much deeper and much darker question: what, exactly, are we doing all this for?

This simple question is complicated by the fact that the Chainsmokers are the ones posing it (which is the way it usually goes.) Regardless of what their artistic legacy turns out to be, the Chainsmokers are not undiscovered or unrecognized. Even if you dispute the quality of their work, you can’t deny that people think about them. You’re thinking about them right now, in fact. People consume and appreciate their music. But success doesn’t change the math: in return for years of hard work, you get a few record-shaped trophies to hang on your wall. Sure, the money is nice, but money eventually runs out, and at the end, all you’re left with is an entry on the Billboard 100.

“Sick Boy” is a little too concerned with the narrator’s personal psychology to address the central irony of this situation, which is so diabolical that it’s almost funny. The often-terrifying whims of the social media algorithms notwithstanding, the attention and approval that modern-day creators are seeking doesn’t come from a powerful voice on high, it comes from the people around them. Fellow denizens of the internet, many of whom no doubt have something of their own to promote.

To call this devil merely inefficient is an understatement. He is devious and cruel, particularly in the way he exploits our unquestioned love of democracy. There are no more tastemakers, he claims, no more gatekeepers or cultural elite to designate what is and is not worthy. There are only the people around you, people just like you, who decide whether or not what you’ve made is worthy of their time — and, in most cases, they’ll just pass it by. All it costs them is a click, and they can’t even spare that.

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