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Michael Jackson and the Fat Middle


You can think of that, if we have to coin a phrase (and everybody does, don't they?), as the "fat middle." Or maybe it's somewhere above the middle. Call it the "bulging upper body" of cultural production. Or, if you want to use Chris Anderson's head/tail distinction, the "swelling head." You can go ahead and use any lingo you want. If you're mathematically minded and want to talk curves, you can even say the "flat head." The exact picture you draw of this will depend on cutting up a lot more data, but in general the mega-blockbusters of the early '80s have given way to a bigger clump of competitors jostling in the upper decks of hit, close-to-hits, could-be-hits, and near-hits.

So does this mean that The Winner Take All Society is all wrong and The Long Tail is right? Well, not really. A few winners are not getting closer to taking all, but there could still be a sharp drop-off further down the economic ladder, lending some truth to some of Frank's points about expanding inequality. And while the gap from first place to second and second to tenth and tenth to hundredth appears to have narrowed since the early '80s, supporting Anderson's thesis, all the movement we're looking at is still at the top of the ladder. The top ranks might be more crowded, but the growth in the fat upper-middle doesn't guarantee that the tail is growing longer and fatter as well (though it does make it likely).

For cultural prognosticators, what might be interesting about the bulging upper body is that it shows there is plenty of room for cultural products—I hate saying "products" when I mean "movies, music, books, and the like," but there's no better word here—whose appeal is somewhat less than universal, but somewhat greater than niche-y. If you long for a time when we could all do the moonwalk together, this might feel daunting.

But if you are a cultural grazer, it is not. The fat middle welcomes grazers: Everything in it is accessible; nothing is mandatory. This, to my mind, is a good thing. If it comes at the cost of there never being another Michael Jackson ... well, one tragic King of Rock and Roll and one tragic King of Pop seems like all the subjects can handle. You'll have all next week to bid goodbye to him and his cultural moment of the mega-hit. And if you need more time, never fear. Without a doubt, the Academy will find a way to shoehorn him into next year's Oscars. Between all those best-picture clips in the era of the fat middle, there's lots of room to fill at the show.

Thanks to Box Office Mojo for movie ticket sales data.


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