David Barry (pappubahry) wrote,
David Barry

Hamilton bubbles

I don't follow pop culture, and in particular music, at all closely. But through my social media feeds I get some sense of the media-hype cycles and who the biggest stars are – Kanye, TSwift, Adele – and sometimes I even join in the hype and buy a CD.

The Hamilton musical started becoming a common topic on my Tumblr dashboard late last year, despite my dashboard only mildly overlapping with any fandoms; it was enough to make me add one of the tags to my Tumblr Savior blacklist. Vox published a lot of stories and explainers about it. I saw a recommendation for the cast album on a blog I read, saying that "It’s a musical about the life of Alexander Hamilton set to rap, but you will like it even if you do not like rap or early American history." The YouTube video of the first song is geoblocked in Australia, so it took a long time for me to give in and listen to it*, but when I finally did so a week ago, almost immediately I saw an Atlantic story about the GOP race with a Hamilton reference in the headline, a New York Times article about its historical accuracy or otherwise, and a tediously weird rebuttal in Vox (of course). Hamilton is everywhere.

*I installed Spotify for this, listened to the first 40-odd minutes, then bought the double-CD; Napster's lawyers would be proud of me.

But I seem to be living in a bubble or two, because the cast recordings are nowhere near as popular on YouTube as the pop music which crosses my radar. The opening song (geoblocked in Australia, and apparently unlisted on YouTube) has just 3.4 million views, having been uploaded in September 2015. I scrolled down the Billboard charts to try to find something comparable, and clicked on Kenny Chesney's Save It For A Rainy Day, which spent five weeks on the chart and peaked at #54, and which has over 11 million YouTube views since its upload July 2015. That seems pretty typical (in my admittedly very limited sampling) – I could watch the top 50 on Rage every week, and pretty much every song will be more popular than Hamilton currently is.

(The cast album is doing OK on the album chart, having spent half a year there, peaking at 12 or 15 depending on the source, and still at 19 this week. And maybe it's doing proportionally better on Spotify than on YouTube. Still I think there's a mismatch between Hamilton's presence in my corners of the Internet, and how many people are actually listening to it.)

That Hamilton isn't Swift-level popular is probably because it's theatre, inherently not a mass-consumption product. The Richard Rodgers Theatre seats about 1300; at around eight shows a week, the total audience for the first year of its Broadway run will be about half a million. Of course the album makes it far more accessible, but it's marketed as a musical, and most people will therefore ignore it.

Why is it everywhere in my Internet then? One possibility is that even the presence of mashup fandom posts on my dashboard doesn't imply that everyone reblogging has watched or listened to Hamilton:

While catching up recently with a friend who is much more active in fandom than I am, she mentioned Hamilton. “Oh, have you seen the show?” I asked. “It’s incredible.” She laughed and responded that she hadn’t listened to a single song, but “it’s on my Tumblr dashboard—every fandom mashes up with it, so it’s like I know it.”

I follow a handful of people from so-called 'rationalist Tumblr', a loose grouping of people vaguely connected to LessWrong, generally without all of LW's strange dogmatism. Many of them often think in ways I like, and apparently that includes appreciating clever rhymes about weighty subjects.

I keep an organised collection of my favourite science songs (link!), but economics or history works as well. Hamilton gives us clever rhymes with professional production, and gives us 20,000 words of it. It's so lyrically incredible that it oughtn't take much to spread across a receptive little Internet subculture once someone in there first listens to it.

Hamilton's more than just clever rhymes (though so many of them fly by so quickly that it rewards multiple listens) – it's a compelling story in its own right with interesting characters, and totally warrants an even larger dedicated fan base.

My favourite aspect of the fan side of Hamilton is the Ham4Ham YouTube videos. Hamilton tickets cost a lot, but a handful are sold cheaply to lottery winners, who used to form a crowd outside the theatre. Miranda would organise some sort of short performance for the patient crowd, someone would video it with their phone and upload it to YouTube (they've since switched to online lotteries and pre-recorded Ham4Ham videos on the official YT channel). These videos often have poor sound quality, people running in front of the camera, and they have astonishingly high like:dislike ratios. Usually a ratio near 100:1 is what you'd get for a video that's really good (or an old song that people who don't like it won't search for), 200:1 for something exceptional. This poor-sound-quality video is at 375:1; this spoken-word version of Cabinet Battle #1 from the White House is at 500:1; a six(?)-year-old Lin-Manuel lip-synching (a video of little interest apart from its subject) is at 1377:1. It's a very happy corner of YouTube, both in the ratings and in the comments.

What about Vox and the Atlantic and the New York Times? I wonder if it reflects what Freddie deBoer complains about ("If our political media was made up of something other than affluent Ivy League grads...") – the people interested in theatre are a small proportion of the general public, but there's a disproportionate number in the media. (On a related note, Matt Bruenig had a hilarious line about Paul Ryan, tweeting that "his schtick is so well calibrated for the NPR/Hamilton crowd, it's actually kind of impressive".)

On the other hand, Vox is pretty SEO-focused, so presumably their Hamilton articles get lots of clicks. And when Junkee posted an article on Facebook about (tentative) plans to bring Hamilton to Australia, it got 500 likes and 100 shares, a lot better than Junkee FB posts usually do.

Is it just that the relatively small Hamilton-fan demographic is super-passionate and will read and share articles on the subject? I don't know.

No conclusion.

(But if you're not sure if listening to the 2.5-hour cast album is worth the time investment, try this 4min video of Miranda at the White House, performing in 2009 what became the opening song to the musical. The only background knowledge assumed is that Aaron Burr, as Vice-President, killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel, and that Hamilton, the first Secretary of the Treasury, is on the US $10 note.

If listening to the cast album, I recommend following the Rap-Genius lyrics and annotations, so that it's clear who's who.)
Tags: music
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