Yes those are the words from the big show stopper in the play, now movie, “Dreamgirls”. This is the story of an extraordinarily talented singer who is cast aside for a marketable lowest common denominator alternative singer. Sure the alternative has a good enough voice- but it is her marketability that elevates her to stardom and gives the true talent the boot.
“Dreamgirls” is an allegory for our present society where we prize celebrity, marketing and profitability over talent and merit. And if you don’t believe me- just look at the marketing of the movie itself.
Before I continue, I have to admit that it is not usual for me to write about movies on this space or to review them and I do not intend to do that here. I saw four movies over the holiday season and I found each one interesting in its own way- “The Good Shepherd”, “Children of Men”, “Notes on a Scandal” and “Dreamgirls” but I will leave the reviewing to those that have a better knack at that than I. But- I don’t think that it is an opinion or a review to say that “Dreamgirls” is Jennifer Hudson’s movie. More to the point, Jennifer Holiday who played the same role, Effie, on Broadway was nominated and won the Tony for Best Actress in a Musical.
Given that the movie is dominated by Ms. Hudson and her Broadway counterpart was “Best Actress”, where is she in the marketing of the movie? All of the advertisements for the movie have big font print and “starring status” for Beyoncé Knowles, Eddie Murphy and Jamie Foxx and leave Ms. Hudson in some small font somewhere else in the ad. And what about the round of early morning news shows, afternoon talk shows as well as Leno and Letterman? It was Ms. Knowles, Mr. Murphy and Mr. Foxx. Are the producers of the movie that immune to the movie’s own message? I reiterate that I am not a critic and I am not at all making any judgment on the performances of these three stars. But my goodness- the irony is clear even to someone who considers blunt force trauma to the head to be subtlety.
It so blows me away that the film itself is guilty of the warnings in the film that I was initially astounded. But should I be? …Probably not.
Our culture has become one of marketability and not of merit. The idea of a society based on merit was introduced by John Locke in his Second Treatise of Government and was a huge influence on founding father Thomas Jefferson. A society where success is derived from merit- hard work and talent- is the hallmark of our nation’s founding. Capitalism is also a hallmark of our nation’s founding. But somewhere Capitalism turned to marketing and saw that in order to garner the most dollars it needed the largest group of consumers and therefore it was important to appeal to the broadest number of people. Some refer to this as “dumbing down” or “appealing to the lowest common denominator”.
What is even more distressing is that our political process has been a victim of marketing. Marketing is so important that obscene amounts of dollars are poured into 30 second commercials that appeal to the fears of the largest number of people.
I do not mean to elevate a film that is good entertainment to something prophetic. But the film and its own deafness to its message about mediocrity is an allegory for our society where we celebrate market over merit.
While the first use of the word “meritocracy” was negative due to it first appearing in in Michael Young’s 1958 book “Rise of the Meritocracy”, which is set in a dystopian future in which one’s social place is determined by IQ plus effort. In the book, this social system ultimately leads to a social revolution in which the masses overthrow the elite, who have become arrogant and disconnected from the feelings of the public. I use the term in the true Lockean sense – where merit is rewarded and mediocrity is not.
That being said- it seems sad that we are not a “meritocracy” but more of a “marketocracy” – our culture and our political process seem to be governed by marketing not by merit. And I am telling you- that saddens me.