2 credits, open to non-majors.
The dictum says that you have to learn to fail before you can truly succeed. And so failure has recently become a buzzword with regard to contemporary creative endeavors in the arts, humanities, business and science. In 2014, the New York Times announced the rise of “The Failure Age:” the flipside of our relentless push toward entrepreneurial achievement and innovation is the tragic reality of companies that have gone bust and seemingly bright ideas that have imploded or ended in catastrophe.
We live in an age dominated by reality television winners and losers; by television shows like Flight of the Conchords, Girls, Bunheads and Shameless, and films like Birdman, that delve into personal failure in unprecedented and sometimes hilarious ways; and by social media videos and memes laced with hashtags like #fail and #epicfail that promote people’s embarrassing mistakes and failures, whether staged or otherwise. Yet, we hold fast to the belief that there is an art to failure: we’re routinely encouraged to fail as long as we glean inspirational lessons from our mistakes, gaffes and foibles and self-correct toward ultimate success. Every high-achieving artist and entrepreneur has some sort of relationship to failure; in fact, fear of failure is a chief driver that underwrites creative success.
This class considers failure as it relates to the contemporary popular arts. What is it exactly that we think we can learn from failure? And more to the point, what does our amplified 21st century interest and obsession with failure say about us? We take a deeper look at case studies of failures in popular music, movies, theater and beyond as a way to further our understanding of the complexity of the creative process, especially as it comes into tension with pressures of industry and commerce.
As we do so, we’ll take a look at Lauren Berlant’s theory of cruel optimism as well as Jack Halberstam’s work on the queer art of failure. George Lipsitz’s ideas about creative miscommunication in popular music come into play, as do Sara Jane Bailes’ studies of failure in theater and performance art. We branch out from there to focus on feature films about the deeper recesses of artistic failure like The Coen Brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis, documentary features like Jodorowsky’s Dune, and sour mockumentaries like I’m Still Here. We look at under-researched areas in popular music like one-hit wonders, sophomore slumps, also-rans, bankrupted record labels and tech start-ups, and more. Among the case studies we may tackle: Milli Vanilli, Rebecca Black, “American Idol’s” William Hung, Brian Wilson’s collapsed Smile, Britney Spears’ mid 2000s meltdown, and Kanye West’s award-show speeches. Along the way, we’ll consider our culture’s changing ideas about ambition, hubris, excess, disappointment, resentment, self-destruction, burn-outs, interruptions, misunderstandings, communication breakdowns, industry obstructions and creative blocks. We stop to consider how failure is not a static concept but gets articulated diversely in different cultures, nations and time periods; and we think about the rise of racialized concepts of failure like “ratchet” in popular culture and television shows like Empire.
Students should leave the class with greater understanding of changing definitions of success and achievement in a downturned 21st creative economy, and richer ways to consider the varies of artistic ambition and achievement in a culture that valorizes winning while both trashing and fetishizing failure.