Less public knowledge, more private meaning (lessons for politicians and brands)

This is a part of a map of London drawn by Fuller (aka Gareth Wood).

Wood says that he created a map to show his relationship with the city over several years.

“It’s about documenting a particular time and experience.”

Wood’s map of London ends up being a personal document.

Of course personal is the last thing that maps are supposed to be. They are supposed to come from official sources and authoritative parties. In an almost magical act of abstraction, they remove everything that has anything to do with anyone. There are millions of people in London interacting with the city in many millions of moments. Mapmaking is meant to make all that disappear. We give you London, all place, no time, all place, no people, all place, no particulars. At all.

Something in us now recoils from this abstraction. Authoritative meanings are on the run. But of course we will continue to need maps of the old fashion, abstract kind. Chances are we will never use Wood’s map actually to find our way around London. (Though that’s a pretty charming idea and it’s easy to imagine a guest who is very late for a dinner party giving as her plaintive explanation that her Fuller map is “really not all that helpful when you get right down to it.”)

But more and more we like a world that vibrates with particularities. Public knowledge seems a little thin. Authoritative versions of the world seem a little unforthcoming if not positively stingy. Surely, we think, the world, and especially London, is more interesting than this.

This shift in expectation runs through us with big consequences. Political figures must learn from it. Romney seemed very “official map.” Obama seemed somehow more particular.  (Though he never did get all that personal.) Hillary is very official map. It’s as if so much of what makes her personal plays to her disadvantage that she wants to get abstract and stay that way. Every politician needs to solve this problem. How to show the real person, the authentic individual, even when everything in them screams to keep the image airbrushed. In his strange, deeply stupid manner, Trump has addressed this problem.

Things are easier in the world of the brand.  Every brand has been struggling to make itself less official and more particular for some time. This means letting in the consumer and the world in ways that were once unforgivable. American brands used to be very abstract indeed. But they are (marginally) less alarmed about making the transition away from abstraction. Out of the USP into life. I always thought Subaru has done a nice job of this.

It’s a good exercise for a politician or a brand. If your present self is a formal map of who you are, what would Gareth Wood’s version look like? Creatives, planners, brand managers, campaign managers, please let me know if you try this and it works.

Acknowledgment:

For more on Wood and his map, see the excellent coverage by Greg Miller here.

Cultural Leaders and Laggards, the problem with beer ads

I love this ad.  How quickly bashful behavior gives way to full-on performance.  And how this disappears (when the woman enters the store). And then reappears (when it occurs to our singer that there is a small chance the strangers might actually come listen to him.)

Funny. Human. With lots of little grace notes. The store is brilliantly cast. The singer is that perfect combo of surprisingly good and still terrible.  The way the woman rolls her eyes in “whatever” dismissal when she enters the store to find a man singing.

Beer advertising has been the bad part of town when it comes to cultural creation and creative ingenuity.  TV with the advent of really good shows and new nuance has stolen the lead. Now it can be really painful to move from good narrative to bad advertising.

Beer advertising has been especially trying on the gender theme. As Bob Garfield has pointed out, beer ads treat men in a way that’s patronizing and diminishing. In a really symmetrical universe, men would protest this treatment with outrage and boycotts.  (Or at least roll their eyes in “whatever” dismissal.)

Beer advertising has been tone deaf when it comes to culture. Yes, some guys continue to act like dolts, and all guys treasure moments of deep, unapologetic stupidity at least some of the time. But beer advertising has to wake up and come to grips with the revolutions taking place in the world of maleness.

There are all kinds of things, a new feeling for play, wit, creativity, multiplicity and, yes, performance. Which brings us back to this Miller Lite ad which acknowledges this new development with just the right combo of tender heartedness and ruthless scorn. Very male that.  (Or maybe not.)

Hat’s off to MillerCoors Chief Marketing Officer Andy England and  TBWA\Chiat\Day LA and director Matt Aselton of Arts & Sciences.

Narrative captivity: Losing Orphan Black for want of a half-fan

18706-orphan-black-s2-dvd-new_mediumI am a long standing fan of Orphan Black but this season they lost me.  I tuned in for the opening episode of the new season, and it wasn’t long before my eyes had crossed.

In the new season, it feels as if Orphan Black is being made to labor under the weight of its own complexities.  And with all the clones in motion, these complexities are formidable. And with two seasons in place, there are many additional plot points and precedents to honor.

Tedium, thy name is consistency.

Showrunners Graeme Manson, Ivan Schneeberg and David Fortier must of course honor the story.  Fans, especially, are ferocious in their defense of its integrity.  But the rest of us really are not engaged in narrative book-keeping in any kind.  We love the actress, her clones, and the broad story lines that give her an opportunity to dazzle us with her virtuosity, lend some urgency to the story at hand, identify the goodies and the baddies, and that’s enough for us.

We want some sense of narrative development.  We want our heroine to mature or at least change (or at least clone) as pluckily she survives.  But give us the big picture, not what feel like pages of gawky exposition in which good actors are brought low by the need to belabor plot points.  These moments almost feel like writers and directors clarifying story complexities for their own sake, and when this happens we know that undue complexity has hijacked the show. Narrative captivity, it’s a terrible thing.

We see why this happens.  After a couple of seasons, the people who make the show have mastered the finest plot points better than the best Yeshiva student.  And fans!  Fans live and breathe the show and they often appoint themselves the guardians of the story line.  (“You want me on the wall. You need me on that wall.”)  And in a sense this is like any corporate culture, where the incumbents fall into a gravitational field and eventually can’t believe that everyone doesn’t live there too.

There are a couple of ways of fixing this.  One is to have an ethnographic panel of half-fans.  These are people who love the show but live in distant orbit around it. They know the characters and the major plot points, but they don’t know or care about the very fine details. Writers, directors and show runners can call them up from time to time and say, “So tell me about the show” and they can use this as a chance to recalibrate. It’s a question of optics.  We can hold up the half-fan’s view of the story and change the way we see the show. Or think of it as a time machine.  We can use the half fans knowledge of the show to recover the way we understood it in the first season.

Naturally, half fans, some of them anyhow, will evolve into full fans.  And it will be up to the person running the panel to replace them with more half fans.  In fact we should think of the panel as a bend in the river, a place where half fans slow for long enough for us to quiz them…before they run downstream to full fan status.

I don’t know who want to take this on.  And it would be presumptuous to suggest a name.  So I will.  Dee Dee Gordon could do this brilliantly.  What we need, Dee Dee, is a panel of half fans. As someone starts a new show, they will ask you to empanel this panel, and from time to time they will use it to see their shows (as many, most) others do.  In effect, the half fan panel (now, HFP, because that sounds way more official) is a rope that the showrunner wears around his/her waist while descending into the narrative mine shaft.  A couple of sharp tugs and they can return to the surface.

 

American Music. Listening with numbers

‎arxiv.org:pdf:1502.05417v1.pdfThanks to Thomas Ball, I am looking at a wonderful article that uses big data to examine American music over 50 years.

Here are a couple of excerpts.  See the entire paper here.

Title: The Evolution of Popular Music: USA 1960-2010

Authors: Matthias MauchRobert M. MacCallumMark LevyArmand M. Leroi

[E]xamines US Billboard Hot 100 between 1960 and 2010, [u]sing Music Information Retrieval (MIR) and text-mining tools [to] analyse the musical properties of ~17,000 recordings, [aka] “the fossil record of American popular music”

[findings, proposals and, for some theorists, inconvenient truths, follow]

Some have argued that oligopoly in the media industries has caused a relentless decline in cultural diversity of new music, while others suggest that such homogenizing trends are periodically interrupted by small competitors offering novel and varied content resulting in “cycles of symbol production”. For want of data there have been few tests of either theory.

Contrary to current theories of musical evolution, then, we find no evidence for the progressive homogenisation of music in the charts and little sign of diversity cycles within the 50 year time frame of our study. Instead, the evolution of chart diversity is dominated by historically unique events: the rise and fall of particular ways of making music.

[A]lthough pop music has evolved continuously, it did so with particular rapidity during three stylistic “revolutions” around 1964, 1983 and 1991.

More thoughts on vocal fry

Thanks to Laura Fullton, I have a clearer fix on vocal fry.  Laura found the very interesting work by Ben Trawick-Smith on the topic.

Ben calls it a “creaky voice” and asks 1) whether this vocal technique might have a special connection to the Pacific Northwest, and 2) whether it passed through this connection, and the rise of alternative music there, into general usage.

In fact, this speech trait seems almost de rigeur among the alternative music set.  You could almost hypothesize it began as a regional quirk, then spread through the burgeoning indie rock movement. Evidence of its indie inter-regionalism?  Musician Justin Vernon (aka Bon Iver) has creaky voicing, even though his dialect otherwise betrays his place of upbringing (northern Wisconsin):

This pushes our time-line back and de-genders the vocal fry.  (Assuming of course that “creaky voice” and “fry” are connected…and this might be wrong.)  The data thicken!

(I am filing this post from 32,000 feet and I only bought 30 minutes of access.  So I have to post now!)

William Bunsen Professor of Anthropology at Hudson University

PSM_V72_D574_Lewis_Henry_MorganI am so sorry to be a day late making this announcement, but I want to share with you the exciting news of my new appointment as the William Bunsen Professor of Anthropology and American Culture at Hudson University.

As we know from the Law and Order chronicles, Hudson is riddled with faculty and students prone to crime and that many of them are now serving prison sentences. The up side, I’m hoping, is a reduction in teaching duties and  faculty meetings.

 

new ways to make culture and discover value

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