Death by hard-sell: Hype is killing off considered criticism

In the past 24 hours I have been told that there are five things I simply, simply must do. I must read Patricia Cornwell's Cruel and Unusual: it's the best thriller in years, darling. Everybody says so. I have to land tickets at the National for The Seagull, which is the very best mounting of The Seagull since . . . since the last very best mounting of The Seagull. It is also essential that I immediately rush to the cinema and expose myself to Love and Human Remains, if only to compare the play with the celluloid version and savour the non-PC sexual politics: so transgressive.

From here I must dash to Billion Dollar Babes, the club to see and be seen in. Hot, hot, hot: attendance is mandatory. No one gets out alive. And why haven't I blagged seats for Frank Skinner next month? He's the comic to book for. Eddie Izzard is old hat. Didn't I know that? Where have I been? What have I been doing? As a matter of fact, who am I?

I am a victim of hype, that curious hybrid of publicity and bullying that so perfectly fits our restless consumer/conformist times: you will, you must, you have to be party to the latest music/art/food/fashion thing because . . . you will, you must, you have to. Very post-modern.

On one level, this is hardly surprising.

London is a hype haven, as most Western capital cities are; here congregate the big public relations agencies, the promoters, the bull-shitters, the boys and girls who service the media, as the happy sucker fish services the hungry shark. A certain degree of hype is therefore to be expected and maybe even welcomed.

In its proper place - balanced by criticism, word-of-mouth and good old-fashioned cynicism - hype alerts the city's tired citizens to the wares currently on sale in the busy cultural bazaar. It gives us something to talk about, a spectacle to share as our once solid sense of community - of being Londoners - disintegrates. Hype can (he said through clenched teeth) perform a service. And a disservice if allowed free reign. Given half a chance, hype becomes a tyranny, not a means to an end but an end in itself. Its effects are both devastating and deadening: you begin to attend events with little or no expectation of pleasure - the point is not to be left out of the loop.

One samples out of self-defence, out of the fear that dinner party or office or casual conversation will turn to, say, Oleanna, and you'll have to confess that you haven't seen it. Protesting that you loathe, have always loathed, and will always loathe Mamet, and simply do not wish to see Oleanna is no protection. Oleanna is in the air and pitying glances will be automatically directed your way. Obey, obey, obey . . . Yet, even if one wanted to, who can keep up with hype? There are only so many hours in a day and so many Next Big Things demanding your time and attention, and demanding them now.

Feeling left out of the loop is inevitable - as inevitable as the bankruptcy that would result from shelling out every day to grope the ever-mutating urban zeitgeist. But, like an addict chasing the impossible high (the Next Big Thing will be brilliant, stunning, absolutely fabulous) you keep buying the drug and dreaming. Hype springs eternal.

Yet appetite is never satisfied. No wonder hype makes you bitchy (or more bitchy than usual). Very few things can live up to their hype - no, not even the Picasso exhibition at the Tate - so disappointment of some sort is almost

inevitable. Only it's never anything as trivial as disappointment. Hype is the art of extremes - it doesn't allow mild words or middle ground. It works you up and then works you over; we're either talking masterpiece or steaming pile of ordure. The language of considered thought (and considered criticism) is banished from the vocabulary.

Hype says all or nothing. In more ways than one hype has now become the media's natural state, so if you haven't heard of something - something low-key, something hard to hard-sell in a headline, something little that could mean a lot - it more or less ceases to exist.

'No buzz on it, baby, the hipster will mock, even while insisting that he's open to new experiences. Hell, he had dinner at Beach Blanket Babylon last night, didn't he?

Some saw it coming. As Howard Schuman lyrically predicted in the TV series Rock Follies of 77: 'Everyone/Has something to sell/A film/A book/An album/Their politics/ Religion/They're all after a pigeon/To peddle visions to.

'With so many peddlers/All out on the street/We have to get our skates on/If we want to compete.

'No time for relaxing/For sleeping like logs/ Too many other hustlers/ Are after Joe Bloggs.

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