The Cult Era

We all want to belong

First it was baseball, then it was the Beatles and finally it was MTV. We all paid attention, we all knew what was happening, and even the barely hip caught the references.

Today you’ve got no idea what people are talking about, unless they’re a member of your cult.

We’re all people, living on the planet, but we’re all separate, lonely, and this doesn’t feel good. We’re looking to connect. We’re living to connect. So how do we handle this? We join a cult.

There’s no center anymore, nothing everyone is aware of and agrees upon. And this is disorienting. So you’re not just a fan of something, you’re a member of the cult. Like “Succession.” The numbers were anemic. But you can’t tell that to anybody who watched the show, they’ll get pissed off. They’ll tell you how great it was, how you’re missing out. And they’ll point to the “New York Times” and other newspapers’ coverage of the finale to prove their point. But the “Times” is a cult too. You’re either in it or outside of it. The right has demonized the “Times,” therefore readers double-down and testify about it. It used to just be a newspaper, now people believe in it, it’s nearly a religion.

Just like politics on the right. It doesn’t matter how many times Trump gets indicted, it’s not going to change the minds of his cult members, his believers. It’s not about right and wrong, it’s about belonging. They decided to jump in and were greeted warmly. Used to be a cult was small and its members did their best to keep you out. Today it’s just the opposite, cults are large and everybody is welcome, as long as they drink the kool-aid and become a true believer.

There was One Direction. Huge in America with only one hit. Now we’ve got BTS. Most people have never ever heard the act’s music. But those who have? There are no casual BTS fans, they’re all-in. And it’s not just listening to the music, it’s going to the show, buying merchandise, quoting the lyrics, once again, it’s belief.

Like Taylor Swift. In the scheme of things, she reaches fewer people than any superstar of the pre-internet era. But her cult is large and fearless, out to combat any naysayers. Ben Sisario pointed this out on the front page of yesterday’s “Times”: 

“The power of Swift’s fan army — and fear of crossing the star, or even appearing to — has kept nearly all of the press about the tour sunny.”:

Cross Taylor at your peril. Say something negative and you will be canceled by her army.

As for the attendance at her shows… Talk to some of those who are going, they need to be there, it’s a rite of passage, they need to be able to talk about their experience. They know all the lyrics, they dance and sing, Taylor Swift gives them reason to live.

Like hip-hop. It’s a cult. There are few casual listeners. There are haters and defenders. But hip-hop is not a perfect example, because it burgeoned in the last century, it’ not brand new.

Like classic rock acts. Everybody knows them, there’s nowhere near the passion for them like there is for twenty first century acts. Everybody knows the music, they want to see the band one last time, but they’re not foaming at the mouth over it, they’re not talking 24/7 about it, whereas the modern acts?

That’s what you’re building, not a fan base, but a rabid cult, which is dedicated to you and not only bringing in new members, but excoriating those who don’t believe, who put the act down.

It’s not about Donald Trump, it’s about the cult. It’s a symbiotic relationship. Trump is not part of the machine. Trump is theirs. He speaks to them, they listen. Trump’s not listening to the Republican Party, he’s not even listening to the legal system. They love this, he is theirs, uncompromised, and if you say anything negative they’ll come bite you in the ass. How can you say something like that?

As for Biden… There’s no cult. Are people scared enough about the prospect of Trump being re-elected that they’ll show up for old Joe? We’ll find out. But he won’t win on his policies, because that’s not what it’s about. Bidenomics? No one cares. You can testify all day long about his achievements, it’s irrelevant. Even the Republican officials who voted against the infrastructure bill who are now praising the positive effects in their own burgs? You might think by pointing this out you’re winning, but not whatsoever. Because people aren’t listening to you. And if they are, they think you’re a hater and should be ignored.

The broad of the past?


Well, a little more than that, but not a whole hell of a lot more.

Network TV? No one watches because you can’t be a cult member, everything has its edges shaved off, the ads undercut the content, what’s to believe in? Nothing!

This is why Netflix’s ad-tier is a mistake. The company is not reaching guaranteed numbers, but this is not a business proposition. We can’t let everybody in, just those who pay, who are really dedicated. We don’t want the casual, we want believers, who are going to pay for Netflix and watch and testify about shows.

This is what Zaslav didn’t realize about HBO. It’s a cult. He dismantled it overnight. Do you know how hard it is to build a cult? Well, Zaslav and Iger are members of an elite cult themselves, that’s why they’re so tone-deaf when it comes to the WGA/SAG strike. They’re so insular, flying private, boasting about their triple-digit million compensation packages that they’ve got no idea what the other cult thinks, never mind its power. Yes, there’s a huge cult that believes it’s been screwed financially. Bernie Sanders knew this and almost gained the Democratic nomination. The Democratic party was surprised, went for Hillary, who was safe, who supposedly deserved it. And then she lost. There was no and still is no Hillary Clinton cult. Nonexistent. Nobody passionate about her, who will defend and debate you about her. And that’s why she lost. It’s a no-brainer. Vote for her and be ignored?

Yes, the cult member wants dividends. They want something for their devotion. Forget that Trump promises stuff he doesn’t deliver, that he too often defends the rich instead of the poor. Trump is the best they’ve got, so they’re sticking with him. Just like Taylor Swift. In all the accolades about the tour do you see anybody talking about the music? No. It’s not about that. The music is in service to the cult. This is not Sinéad O’Connor. Sinéad died and everybody’s testifying as to her talent, her lyrics, her beliefs, her actions. No one’s talking about dedication to her, her grosses, that’s not what Sinéad was selling. Sinéad was anti-cult. But that was a different era. During the MTV heyday everybody in the world could be aware of “Nothing Compares 2 U,” that’s an impossibility today. That’s right, impossible, no one can reach everybody, no one. And those who try are on a fool’s errand.

Like SNL. The media reports on it even though few watch it. Why? Because you no longer get the references. Used to be SNL was a club, there was a wink between the performers and the audience, they were all in it together. Now there’s a huge gulf between those on stage and off stage. You might be a fan, but you don’t think they’re going to come to your house, that you’ve got anything in common. The outside references were inside in the seventies, now they fall on deaf ears.

If you’re trying to reach everybody, you’re failing. Because if you’re reaching everybody there’s no us vs. them. Part of being in the cult is not only believing in the performer, but hating and being down on all competitors. It’s your hero and a bunch of zeros.

And you’ve got to know who your audience is. Record companies are flummoxed because now you can go direct to fan, intermediaries mean little, but it’s hard to build a cult, it takes time, one fan at a time. Even Taylor Swift had the benefit of breaking in an earlier era, in country, when Top Forty reached many more people. Those days are through.

Coachella is a cult. Doesn’t matter who is on stage, that’s not why you buy a ticket, you do to say you were there!

The festivals are much more important than the talent. Meaning if your festival doesn’t have gravitas, if there’s no core system of values, nothing extra, every year you’re starting from scratch, if you can survive at all.

It’s culture. But not culture for everybody, just a select few.

Once again, don’t be holier-than-thou, don’t be rational. You watched that documentary on NXIVM, right? Rationality was irrelevant, people liked being involved, belonging, playing volleyball, being a member of the group. Extricating someone from a cult is nearly impossible. Because the cult provides so much. As for blowback, isn’t the granddaddy here Scientology? Break with the cult, say something negative and your life will be ruined. Good luck relying on the police… The police are not prepared for this. If you’re looking to the system to protect yourself from the cult you’re dreaming.

And this is all based on the loneliness of the human being, the feeling of detachment, of floating in a wilderness of too many options, none of which reach everybody. Sure, there’s politics, but if you’re on the left and vocal about it you’ll be told you have TDS, “Trump Derangement Syndrome,” that you are the one who is delusional, you are the one who keeps harping, that you are the one who needs to shut up. This is classic cult, anybody who says anything negative is a target.

So if you’re trying to compete with a cult…

Good luck, you’ve got to become a cult yourself.

And what is the essence of a cult?

A like-minded group of people who believe they’ve got the answers and everybody else is wrong. Who are emboldened by both their leaders and the group. This is what people don’t understand about #MeToo and other sexual harassment. The action is only the end of the process. Men are talking in a special language amongst themselves, that they do not reveal to women. And if you don’t speak this language you are ostracized. And then there are people who are in the cult and don’t even know it, because it’s all they’ve ever been exposed to.

But the media keeps reporting like everything is the same. Like all the news that’s fit to print is really in the “Times.” Nothing could be further from the truth. The “Times” only scratches the surface. However, if you get an article about your irrelevant enterprise in the “Times” you’ve got a leg up, because the cult members, the readers of the “Times,” pay attention, they think the “Times” endorses it. As for the non-“Times” readers, they’re usually completely unaware of it!

“Entertainment Tonight.” “People.” All the gossip sites of yore. They’ve got it completely wrong today. We don’t need a plethora of celebrity information, we need a smaller amount with attitude, like TMZ. Hell, if a celebrity misbehaves or dies you’re better off going to TMZ than the straight news media, TMZ has it first. TMZ is not about everything, but just certain things. Bad celebrity behavior? That’s their vertical.

And if you’re starting at the bottom don’t play to the media. Because that lessens your credibility, you appear to be playing the game, selling out. The influencers don’t do this. They build it themselves. People are fans of the influencers until they’re not. It never lasts forever. The influencers burn out, or sell out too much to their advertisers or are supplanted by someone new with an edge. This is the story of social media. The kids dropped Facebook for Instagram and then Instagram for Snapchat and then Snapchat for TikTok. TikTok fans love that the government and the fat cat bloviators abhor it. It demonstrates how ignorant these pontificators are, like they know better, they’re not on TikTok all day, if they’ve ever been there before. The bloviators are a joke to the TikTok users, who are members of a large cult.

And the only way you can understand a cult is to go undercover and become a member.

Fox News is a cult, MSNBC too. What is MSNBC for? Just to make its viewers feel good about their positions. MSNBC doesn’t change the course of history, the course of government, the course of anything at all. That’s not MSNBC’s mission. MSNBC’s mission is to be an antidote to Fox and gain and maintain viewers, that’s it. As for Fox? It’s similar, but there’s a more marked agenda. Fox hammers certain points. Ignores others. It’s a bubble. And you can’t tell a cult member otherwise!

And the cult is bigger than any individual. At least when it comes to large cults like Fox. Tucker Carlson? Gone. Irrelevant. Fox soldiers on. Its agenda intact. Carlson thought he was bigger than the cult, he learned otherwise.

Kind of like Bruce Springsteen. He put out two solo albums and his audience went berserk. Where’s the E Street Band? Bruce got the band back together, he was afraid of losing his audience.

The cult only accepts that which is on theme. Everybody today is worried about their audience. Which they should be, especially if they’re not an artist. An artist evolves, changes it up. And there are some fans of that, like the people who still go to see Bob Dylan in concert, that can be a feature of the cult, but very rarely.

This is America, this is the world today. It’s positively tribal. Like the Middle East. Like in the days of yore. All these religious wars overseas? They don’t want peace, they don’t think the opposition is entitled to their belief, their land, their religion. The opposition has got it wrong and needs to be told.

Which is why head-scratching things happen in America all the time. Most of America wants abortion rights, but those who do not are rabid, and when their leaders deliver limits they’re thrilled and bonded even closer to the cause. Once again, forget the truth. Seems like everyone in America believes taxes are bad. Credit one person, Grover Norquist, he built a large cult over time, to the point where elected Republican officials must pledge fealty. Vote for a tax raise and you’re out, you’ll be primaried.

As for Liz Cheney? How dare she. Marjorie Taylor Greene is the mouthpiece of the cult, and the number one criterion of membership is loyalty, truth doesn’t come into the equation.

So you think you can conquer the cult by pushing back. No way, that never worked. To beat the cult you’ve got to create a new cult, that’s more attractive than the old one. Man, got to give the Republicans credit, they realized they were losing again and again and they started the Federalist Society to groom right wing judges and get them appointed.

Yes, there were cults in the past. But it was nothing like this. Because today there is no center.

We all saw the same movies, the same TV shows, the same sports, and if you didn’t you were out of it. Now ESPN is on the verge of death because there are too many sports and most people don’t want to pay for those they don’t watch. ESPN was an upstart in the eighties, you could believe. Then it overcharged cable operators, who passed the fees on to subscribers, and now conventional wisdom is ESPN is a rip-off outlet that they don’t want to pay for. Bob Iger completely missed this change. He was blinded by the cash cow.

Like record labels and the CD. The fat cats couldn’t understand why anybody would steal on Napster. Never mind it was a better delivery service, people were sick of overpaying for one good track on a CD. Even if there was a single, once it became successful, the label cut it out and made people buy the album.

So there have been cults in the past, but nothing like today.

Nobody reaches everybody. And the power of the cults is so large that it’s perceived they reach everybody, that everybody belongs, but this is patently untrue. Call it a disinformation campaign. And if you cross the line… As Ben Sisario points out, people are afraid to cross the line, not only will they be denigrated but they will lose access. Everybody wants access. But to get it, you’ve got to fall in line.

It’s war in America today. And much is up for grabs.

But it’s all grass roots, however large the cult might be, and those playing by rules of the past believe you can change the world from the top down. You can’t.

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