In the Guide’s weekly Solved! column, we look into a crucial pop-culture question you’ve been burning to know the answer to – and settle it
Whatever you think of Kanye West, he remains hip-hop’s greatest salesman. His three pre-release stadium listening parties ensured that Donda, his third sub-par album on the trot, debuted with an undeserved bang. But even his manicfrenzied self-promotion doesn’t earn him a seat at the top table in the history of hype.
The origins of the word lie in criminality. In the 1920s, a hype was someone who short-changed customers. In the 60s music business, hype meant fixing chart positions through shady means. Now the word is generally applied to legal activity but it should still describe the gap between publicity and reality: the phrase “lives up to the hype” is oxymoronic. If hype delivers on its promises, then it’s no longer hype; it’s just great marketing. Take Michael Jackson in the 90s. He may have been guilty of stunning hubris when his team demanded that he be referred to as the “King of Pop” and towed a 10-metre-high MJ statue down the Thames, but his hits collection HIStory did become the biggest-selling double album of all time. Job done.
Real hype must end in failure and embarrassment, such as the infamous case of Suffolk rock band Brinsley Schwarz. In 1970, their aptly named managers Famepushers Ltd paid a fortune to fly scores of British journalists to a prestigious show in New York. But the jet had to make an emergency landing in Ireland, stranding the hacks in a free bar. When they reached the venue at the last minute they were hungover or still drunk. The stunt guaranteed a sour reception for the show and the debut album; it was 34 years before the band repaid their record label debt.
In Hollywood, the zenith (or nadir) of hype remains the 1998 Godzilla movie. Forbes reported that TriStar Pictures spent $50m on marketing and its commercial partners, including Taco Bell, a further $150m, thus exceeding the movie’s entire production budget. Between the saturated billboard campaign (“Size Does Matter”) and the 3,000 branded products, from pizzas to batteries, there was no escape. The (terrible) movie did make a profit but not enough to justify sequels or shift action figures, and is remembered as a giant waste of time and money.
That cash-drunk period just before the dotcom crash (itself the consequence of hype) was stuffed with expensive disappointments, from Be Here Now to The Phantom Menace to the carnage of Woodstock 99, but even they look benign next to the multi-billion-dollar hypes now generated by tech companies: at this point, the most egregious case of hype should be one that combines showbusiness with Silicon Valley snake oil, thus restoring the word to its original definition as something crooked – something with victims.
Enter 2017’s Fyre festival, an era-defining scam fuelled by the hot air of Instagram influencers and tech-bro bullshit. A once-in-a-lifetime experience for all the wrong reasons, it failed to deliver tolerable food and accommodation, let alone music, and ended up sending blowhard promoter Billy McFarland to jail for wire fraud. There are people who enjoyed Godzilla, or had fun at Woodstock 99, but there isn’t a single soul who had a great time at Fyre. Brinsley Schwarz got off lightly.