Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Susan Boyle Superstar

A singer/actress friend of mine and I were discussing the Susan Boyle Phenomenon[1]. There are a lot of layers at work here. At first my friend was surprised about all the fuss over a lady with a good Broadway voice. She knows plenty of people like Susan Boyle, so what's the big deal?

The big deal, we realized, is not that a TV show found some actual talent for once, but that the talent was not beautiful. This apparently passes as some sort of revelation for people who regularly watch American Idol and Britain's Got Talent. The formula behind these shows is to select some attractive people to win, and a lot of unattractive people to laugh at. Only recently did the producers of BGT suddenly decide it was time to have a Carrie moment in their show where the unattractive people are avenged.

Susan Boyle slayed everyone not entirely by the strength of her voice. Had her voice come out of a cute twentysomething, we would not have been nearly so moved. Susan Boyle slayed the crowd with her unattractiveness and talent. Most viewers were surprised that such a voice could come in such a form, but why should they have been? Because TV and popular music have been controlling the Industry of Cool for so long we've actually forgotten that talent is independent of physical beauty.

The saddest part of this is that the greatest talents are most often the least attractive people. Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan was not a handsome man. Nor was Luciano Pavarotti. The single most astounding guitarist and pianist I've ever seen was a fat guy from Memphis who had psoriasis.

I realize AI and BGT are entertainment shows, and they are designed to get you emotionally involved, and that manipulation is a big part of that. Legitimate musical talent has about as much to do with these shows as McDonald's has to do with quality beef. The audience just needs to be aware of the manipulation, and I don't think they are. I think people have confused AI/BGT with a musical meritocracy where excellence is rewarded. It's not.

Let's be honest: if AI/BGT showed us nothing but excellence every week, we would stop watching. No one likes to be constantly confronted with prodigies because it's depressing after awhile. But having a show where regular folk get rewarded for having regular talent creates a mental lottery of sorts where the viewer watches the show and relates to the contestants personally, thinking, "that's not so hard; I could do that." And we feel better because we're right. We could do that. Given the luck and timing, you could win on American Idol. Given the same conditions, you could also win the lottery.

Cheers to Susan Boyle, though, for being the person selected to remind the world that talent has nothing at all to do with attractiveness. Hers is apparently the most viewed video on the web ever, which is a testament to the weight of the truth she makes manifest. Perhaps it's a sign that the entertainment world is re-awakening to the possibility that unattractive people can still rock the house.

1.) If you don't know who that is, then no one you know watches television, forwards emails or looks at YouTube. Congratulations.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

The Spirit of Radio, Continued

My previous entry may have been on to something[1], because Clear Channel just announced some changes that could translate to more autonomy for local stations.
"Managers will have the latitude to choose content and talent for their stations as a way to generate more audience and ultimately advertising dollars."
Wow. Here's hoping this is the first slip of the reins. In a related story, Hyperlocalization is coming.

1.) I'm as shocked as you are, believe me.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

The Industry of Cool and The Spirit of Radio

My family has a thing for radio. I have an uncle who has worked for many years as a DJ, my father had his own small-town radio show for awhile, I ran a small college radio station, and my first real job after college was working in talk radio. I still find the concept eternally fascinating: one person sitting in a room, talking into a system of devices that transmits a signal across the miles.

I actually find radio more impressive than the Internet, because the Internet is made of wires. Radio is made of air. It's in the air right now. Passing through you at this very moment: a car dealership commercial in Spanish, the Rolling Stones' "Satisfaction," a talk show about camshafts, a weather report, and "Stronger" by Kanye West, among many, many others.

In the early days of music broadcasting, the DJ was the tastemaker. His in-depth knowledge of current music allowed him to select what he thought was the best of the best, and he wanted you to hear it. He controlled a frequency on your radio dial, and for his time slot he had your attention. He presented to you the songs he thought were cool, and this determined what songs topped the charts. For an all-too-brief span of time, this was an elegant arrangement. But it couldn't last; soon there were too many financial cooks in the kitchen and radio playlists essentially became record industry agendas. The industry generally decided what was cool, and spent the necessary money to convince the public to believe it. Thus popular music became, as Lester Bangs termed it, an Industry of Cool.

Today, though, it seems possible that the Industry of Cool may get crushed by its own weight. Given literally thousands of great bands with as many MySpace pages, iTunes, Pandora, Pitchfork, Paste, Spin, and a seemingly endless supply of music blogs...what's a music fan to do? In the words of an MTV writer covering SXSW 2007:
I was struck by how it’s like a microcosm of all the problems the industry is facing now: It’s too big, there’s too much to see out there, you have no idea what’s going to be big, it’s too splintered, there are too many ways of consuming music.
If the Industry of Cool is splintered, how will people know what's cool? If the record industry crumbles, and signs point to yes that it will, who will decide what gets to be heard nationally?

I'm sorry to say I don't know the answer, but I will say I'm excited to be alive to watch the revolution slowly take shape[1]. My secret dream solution goes something like this:
  1. The record industry as we know it dies.
  2. Without industry promotion, new artists are no longer financially able to achieve nationwide stadium-level success.
  3. Radio stations as we know them lose the industry payola and stop having their playlists dictated to them.
  4. Radio conglomerates die.
  5. Radio stations are sold back to local owners, who, in an effort to keep up with the diverse and niche-oriented Internet, expand their playlists and begin spotlighting local acts (many of which are just as good as today's nationwide crap anyway). The decreased profitability of radio may even necessitate that some stations die and others go non-profit, giving DJ power to volunteers.
  6. Radio rises again.
It's a long shot, I readily admit. But I think it's within the realm of possibility. The Internet is allowing so much to happen at a local level via neighborhood and music scene blogs; radio could take advantage of that. In the absence of industry support, it would seem the best course of action for radio stations is to go back to being locally focused.

Or maybe radio will just die out completely. I suspect, though, that there are enough people like my family who are drawn to radio for its own sake. Maybe there are enough people out there who can't live without their radio.

1.) One thing is for sure, given that MTV has essentially abdicated its role as a music channel, this revolution will most certainly not be televised.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Our Man in Tehran

I've recently started up a dialogue with an Iranian musician. I've been fascinated by Heavy Metal Islam, which tells the stories of rock musicians in Muslim countries and the struggles they endure just to play the music they like. For as much as American musicians complain about the hardships of touring or not making any money, we really have no idea what it's like to be actively persecuted by our government for making music. Here's an excerpt from one of his emails:

You asked about music in Iran, it has a long story. Iranian society is really complicated. First of all i think you should know that government is not representative of people. Islamic Republic is a dictator government and they disfigure everything. but there are every kind of people in Iran, religious, irreligious, modern and every kind that you could think. Iranian society is complicated because Tehran is different with other cities and we are on border. on the border of modernity and tradition. and about music, we have all of genres but some of them are underground like metal bands. the government doesn't care to art and music but people are very interested in art, cinema, music. and this is a big problem. last month my friend had a piano recital and Culture Ministry pestered him really. I mean bureaucratic problems. they don't care to artists. many musicians immigrate to other countries like England and Canada and if they can USA. my teacher is a composer but when he wants record his orchestral work he goes to european countries. why?...because of bureaucratic problems. artists, authors are open minded and it's a dangerous problem for a dictator government..do you understand? but it's one of our problem...most people in the world and specially in western countries are misunderstood about Iranians. even some of them don't know that we are not Arab, we are Persian. our culture is very different with arabs. did you hear president Obama's message about new year in Iran. do you know that first Human rights law wrote by Cyrus, Iranian king 2500 years ago? and now, Iran is one of the worst countries from human rights viewpoint?

My hope is that some day Iran might be able to follow the example of Czechoslovakia, which overthrew its hardline rulers in 1989's Velvet Revolution, a movement spurred by the the country's artistic community. Playwright and Czech President Vaclav Havel was involved in the 1970's with the Charter 77 manifesto, motivated in part by the arrest of members of a rock band, the Plastic People of the Universe[1]. The constant crackdown on musicians and artists in that country eventually caused the communist regime's overthrow. Maybe the Iranian people will be ready to do something similar. If history is any indication, America's exported culture (movies, music, and books) has a way of infiltrating even the most restrictive countries. Rock and roll, it would seem, still contains within it the seeds for revolution.

1.) "Plastic People" of course is a reference to a Frank Zappa song. There were a lot of Frank Zappa fans in Czechoslovakia, so much so that Havel himself invited Zappa to become an ambassador of culture for the Czech people in the late 80's, a move that then-US Secretary of State James Baker swiftly condemned and ultimately quashed.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

The Poetry of Economics

Some recent quotations I've come across this week have formed a sort of confused constellation in my mind about the world economy:

"We have involved ourselves in a colossal muddle, having blundered in the control of a delicate machine, the working of which we do not understand."

- John Maynard Keynes

"The language of psychotherapy -- the recognition that few things in life are black and white, that it mostly consists of perplexing shades of gray -- seems immensely more helpful now than the self-assured, directive lingo we've all become accustomed to speaking or hearing. The advice I trust the most now comes wrapped in doubt. Here's what I'd do, and this is why I think it's right, but I'm not sure. What's implicit is the acknowledgment that very little is a sure thing, that if we follow this advice, we're following at our own risk, and that every potential gain also carries within it the possibility of loss.

Imagine where we might be if we'd spoken in a language that recognized this all along."

- Joel Lovell, The Washington Post

"We are so weak right now that if Germany coughs, we will catch penicillin-resistant tuberculosis."

- Riga Diena, Latvian

"I always knew this day would come."

- Bernard Madoff

Friday, February 27, 2009

Fear of the Other, or Why Dave Matthews Really Sucks

My grandmother was fond of referring to rock and roll as "jungle music," a term that I'm sure was pejorative for her, but never sounded that way to me (granted, I had never heard the term "jungle bunny" or other associated racial slurs). To me at age 10, a jungle was probably the coolest place ever, and tribal rhythms were fun and participation-friendly. In fact, to me now, jungles are still awesome.

I think my grandmother's complaint had less to do with the music itself than with who was listening to it. She knew R&B as "race music," a segregated section at the record shop for black folks' music. As the daughter of a prominent architect in Des Moines, my grandmother was probably even less aware of black culture than I was growing up in Harrison, Arkansas. So the scary thing for her generation was that white kids were listening to race music and liking it. She merely feared what she did not understand.

I would wager that those who openly hate on a particular artist or genre are, like my grandmother, simply afraid of the people who listen to that music.

It's easy for us as a culture to forget how passionately people hated rock and roll at its birth. No genre has been as abusively maligned - not even rap music. The haters are more small-scale now. Folks hate on country-pop, jam bands, metal...even specific folks like John Mayer and Dave Matthews.

You don't hate Dave Matthews. You hate the frat guys who listen to Dave Matthews[1]. You might try to hate Dave Matthews for making music that appeals to frat guys, but an artist's audience is not his fault. It's not like his band sets out to make bland, retreaded rock specifically for insipid people (that's Nickelback's job). By any measure, the Dave Matthews Band is a thoroughly unique, cross-culturally pollinated band of really tight musicians. They also make music that's safe enough for frat guys to dance to without seeming gay. What's to hate?

You don't hate John Mayer. He's a decent guy who plays guitar better than most people in the pop pantheon, and seems to be actively trying (key word) to write good pop songs and to try different things. Sure "Your Body is a Wonderland" is cloying, but is it any more saccharine than "I Want to Hold Your Hand"? You may find him bland and uninteresting, because most of the time he is, but that's no reason to dis a guy. If boring is a crime, then a lot of people are going to jail. No, the vast majority of the hate comes from the fact that he makes money and gets chicks and you don't. And/or you hate the girls who adore him. Oh how you hate them. It's not his fault he's handsome and reasonably talented.

The same goes for the genres. Country-pop? You hate people who wear boots and hats, dip Skoal, watch NASCAR and go line dancing. Metal? You hate nerdy kids grasping for some kind of power in their otherwise sad lives. Gangsta rap? You hate an underclass who are so poor that pretending to be rich and badass is their primary form of entertainment. There's nothing intrinsic in the music that you dislike; it's just the people you don't understand.

1.) I'm making broad generalizations here, of course. No offense to frat guys, but if you want us to stop making broad generalizations about you, you need to stop enforcing conformity in your ranks.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Fun with Economics

This passage in New York Magazine's article on Bernie Madoff stopped me in my tracks:
People later wondered how Bernie could ruin so many people he seemingly cared about. But for decades he didn’t hurt anyone. In fact, there were many that he helped. “I lived off Bernie for years,” one investor says, and he was speaking for many. In all likelihood, Bernie didn’t pocket much of the money. He always paid out promptly, never shorted anyone. And money was flowing out all the time, in large quantities, one continual bank run. Hadassah, for instance, invested $90 million but over the years withdrew $130 million.
It sounds like he ran a collective money pool in which funds were shared and profits were delivered. I wonder how much longer it could have gone on, given that he had what every bank requires from its customers: trust. My question to you is: from a purely conceptual, theoretical standpoint, how was Bernie Madoff's operation any different than a bank?