Tag Archives: culture

Andy Grove and the mysteries of the inflection point

It begins like a classic HBS case study. Andy Grove and Gordon Moore are sitting in Grove’s office at Intel. They are deeply unhappy.  Intel is caught in a price war with the Japanese. 

Here’s how Mr. Grove describes what happened next:

I looked out the window at the Ferris wheel of the Great America amusement park revolving in the distance, then I turned back to Gordon and I asked, “If we got kicked out and the board brought in a new CEO, what do you think he would do?” Gordon answered without hesitation, “He would get us out of memories.” I stared at him, numb, then said, “Why shouldn’t you and I walk out the door, come back and do it ourselves?

It’s an amazing moment.  Intel’s most senior managers bring themselves to make the right decision, but only by contriving to step outside of themselves.  Grove is saying "what would we do if we weren’t us?"  He and Moore Grove and Moore have been in the memory chip business for so long, it is difficult for them now to see that it is, for Intel, over, and that the time has come to move on.  

This is the problem with a corporate culture.  It contains much of the cunning and intelligence of the corporation.  But it also contains deep seated assumptions that blind the senior decision maker.  "What we do" has become "who we are" and only be pretending to be someone else can Grove and Moore set themselves free.  As Grove puts it, "Intel equaled memories in all of our minds. How could we give up our identity?"

Grove has a pragmatic grasp of culture.  He sees it here in the corporation culture that constrains the senior manager.  And he has a feeling for how to manage cultural moments, as he demonstrated with his "what if" scenario with Moore.  

He is acutely sensitive to the way his "strategic inflection points" can work silently and invasively.

"New rules prevailed now—and they were powerful enough to force us into actions that cost us nearly half a billion dollars. The trouble was, not only didn’t we realize that the rules had changed—what was worse, we didn’t know what rules we now had to abide by."

And when he talks about this sort of thing, he is talking about culture.  More exactly, he is talking about a set of understandings and practices that have embedded themselves in employees and the corporation.  Grove talks about them as "rules" but if they were precisely this, they would be visible to employees, more obvious when changing, and easier to acquire when changed.  

Give the guy a break.  He’s an engineer.  A deeply gifted engineer who had quite a lot to do with the fact that I can now communicate with you in this manner and the machine on which I am now typing furiously.  So lighten up a little.

Still, a guy this astronomically smart would be smarter still if he had a formal idea of what culture is.  He would understand its formal properties.  He would be still more skillful in detecting cultural factors as causes and consequences of the inflections he describes so well.  

References

Grove, Andrew S. 1999. Only the Paranoid Survive: How to Exploit the Crisis Points That Challenge Every Company. Crown Business.  (first passage is around location 1176 in the Kindle edition of this book; second passage is c. location 1184; third passage, 359)

Acknowledgements

Thanks to several people on Twitter who recently encouraged me to read this book.  I would mention you by name, but I can’t seem to retrieve our conversation.  If you read this, please identify yourselves.  Also, does Twitter have an archive?  

Popular Culture Goes All Anthropological

[In Dinner for Schmucks] Steve Carell earns his laughs not with wit […] but by investing all his faith and energy in deeply boneheaded convictions.  

The Steve Carell character is funny because he doesn’t "get it."  We can rely upon him to leap to the wrong conclusion.  He’s "often wrong but never in doubt."

There is something endearing about this guy.  We wish we were as sure of anything as he is of everything.  He may be a bull in the china shop of daily life, but he means so well we cannot fault him. 

There is something flattering too.  Because by this standard, we are all social virtuosos. We do get it.  By the Carell standard, each of us is a genius.  

But something more than intellectual slapstick going on.  When the Carell character [hereafter, Carell] gets it wrong, he makes a small piece of our culture materialize before our eyes. 

In Dinner for Schmucks, Carell states the obvious, "She’s talking to the lobster."  This is funny because a smarter person would know that the obvious "goes without saying."  

When Paul Rudd is accused by a ventriloquist’s dummy of looking down her dress, Carell asks, "Tim–were you?  God, don’t do that man."  We understand that this discipline of gaze, this new standard of male sensitivity, does not apply to an inanimate object, even an animated inanimate object.  But Carell doesn’t quite see this.  (The joke within the joke: is the dummy sufficiently animated that social rules do apply to her.  But of course it’s a mute question because, this is the still deeper joke, this is really just dummies in conversation.]

Carell doesn’t grasp what the rest of us take for granted.  In fact, he draws some of his humor from the fact that he is violating rules the rest of us obey but cannot see.  And in this respect he acts as a kind of dowser.  He can detect and to bring to the surface cultural rules otherwise invisible. 

The Paul Rudd character in I Love You, Man is almost the perfect opposite.  He couldn’t find cultural rules with both hands and a map, as they say.  The humor of this movie turns on the fact that the Paul Rudd character [hereafter, Rudd] doesn’t understand how to act like a guy.  Almost every male socialized in our culture gets "guyness."  Somehow Rudd just missed it.   

What a splendid piece of anthropology.  The movie acts of a catalog of the rules of maleness.  Which is a way of saying that Rudd ends up drawing his comedy from the same well as Carrel, from the violating of cultural rules that govern the rest of us invisibly.  

All comedy, with the possible exception of slap stick, toys with the expectations installed by culture.  This is why the Billy Crystal character in Mr. Saturday Night is always saying, "Do you see what I did there?"  He is asking the viewer to admire the intelligence with which he played a trick on our cultural expectations.  

But it seems to be that the rise of this school of comedy marks a shift of some kind.  I am not sure what to call this school.  We could use the names of its leading directors: Judd Apatow, Jay Roach, John Hamburg or its stars: Steve Carrel and Paul Rudd.  Or just call it culture comedy.  

But the question is this: why culture comedy now?  If I weren’t rushing to get to the airport and would have a go at it.  I would be your grateful for thoughts and comments.

References

Friend, Tad.  2010.  First Banana: Steve Carell and the metriculous art of spontaneity.  The New Yorker.  July 5.  pp. 50-59, p. 50. 

Are Vampires Done Yet?


The Vampire genre has been a big producer in popular culture.  

The question is, will it remain so?

No, that’s not the question. (For this too shall pass.)

No, the question is, when will Vampires fall from fashion.  

I gave a presentation this summer to a big media holding company

One of my slides read "Are Vampires Done Yet"

I was trying to be provocative.  I was talking about the inscrutability of our culture and the difficulty this causes, um, big media holding companies.

The head of the publishing house came up afterwards, her eye’s wide.

"I heard you on Vampires.  We’re still signing up authors.  And I just know the thing is going to turn, and we will be stuck with projects we cannot publish, let alone sell."

The question, then, is, how?  How do we track the Vampire trend and spot its decline.

This morning I dropped in to HSX.com to see if I could find any evidence.  And I found this. The Hollywood Stock Exchange is tracking a Vampire movie in production and the HSXers now evidence a waning enthusiasm.

To be sure:

a. their enthusiasm is not waning very dramatically.

b. HSXers may be not be a useful measure of popular opinion.

c. even if HSXers were a measure, they might be acting out of other motives.  (They don’t like the choice of director or leading lady, for example.)

Still, it’s a project that expresses our (and Hollywood’s) interest in Vampires.  It’s a measure. It changes over time.  

Not perfect.  But better then, "I just have this feeling."

The talking point: is there a way to use the Hollywood Stock Exchange as a cultural metric and, if so, how.  

References

McCracken, Grant. 2009. Chief Culture Officer: How to Create a Living, Breathing Corporation. Basic Books.  

McCracken, Grant. 2006. Flock and Flow: Predicting and Managing Change in a Dynamic Marketplace. Indiana University Press.  

Virginia Postrel was kind enough to interview me for Enterpreneur Magazine.  

You can find an edited version of the interview at Enterpreneur.com here.

For the full version of the interview in which you will find me chatty and discursive.  

 

Virginia Postrel: What do you mean by “culture”?

Grant McCracken: I was just watching the movie I Love You, Man.  It’s a funny movie, and it’s a wonderfully observed piece of anthropology.  The Paul Rudd character doesn’t understand how to act like a “guy.”  Somehow this knowledge has escaped him.  That’s what culture is: the meanings and rules with which we understand and act in the world. 

This makes culture sound amorphous and absurdly abstract, I know.  But let’s put this another way.  Culture is the very knowledge and scripts we will someday build into robots to make them socially sentient creatures.  At the moment, we’re still teaching them to climb stairs. The more difficult task is to read social situations.  Unless we’re autistic, most of us do this effortlessly and in real time.  That’s because we have this knowledge “built in.”  Notice what it will take to build it into robots.  This is programming, exact, finite, and incredibly specific programming.  Nothing amorphous or abstract about it. 

VP: What’s the biggest mistake business people make when they think about the intersection of culture and commerce?

GM: Business people think that because they can’t see it, culture doesn’t exist.  They suppose that the moment of sale consists of a rational decision, a calculation of interest, a pursuit of benefit.  But every purchase is shaped by meanings and rules.  Whether a new product finds a place in the market depends on whether and how it squares with the meanings in our heads.  Think of all the innovations that were technically brilliant but failed because the consumer “couldn’t really get a handle on them.”  This is another way of saying that the innovation was not designed or positioned in a way that made it consistent with the culture in our heads.

VP: What can a small startup without the resources to have a dedicated “chief culture officer” do to make sure it pays attention to the relevant cultural trends?

GM: Start ups have access to lots of culture knowledge.  No need to hire a guru or a cool hunter.  They can boot strap this knowledge.  (They probably do need to read Chief Culture Officer.  I can’t urge this strongly enough.  But, hey, it’s my start up.)  The thing is to formalize all that cultural knowledge we have in our heads.  Right now it’s tacit knowledge.  Like how to be a guy.  Or things we know about culture, about television, cocktail culture, the local food movement, Burning Man.  We have to get it out of our heads onto the table.  And then we have to tag the changes we see happening.  Then we need to build a big board in order to track the changes that matter to us and we have to start making estimates about when they will reach our markets.  For the culture knowledge we don’t know, the trick is to start combing media more systematically.  In Chief Culture Officer, I talk about an investment firm in NYC that keeps track of culture by having 5 people read 300 magazines.  We don’t need to hire a cool hunter or a guru to learn about culture.  We just have to pay attention. 

GM: I think Alan Moore put his finger on the problem here in Crossing the Chasm.  In the early days, tech start ups are selling to people who are savvy enough to figure out the value proposition and make the product work.  Eventually, however, we are speaking to much larger audiences and this means talking to people who don’t get tech.  Now we have to build not from what’s technically possible.  Now we have to build to what fits in the world of the consumer.  Consumers are no longer coming to us.  We must go to them.  We have to cease being an engineer for a moment and become an anthropologist.  We must find out who the consumer is, how he lives, and what will make the product make sense to him.  In a perfect world, we build a product that understands the consumer so perfectly, he or she doesn’t even need to read the manual.  We all remember our first experience with the iPhone.  It was as if the iPhone understood us so completely, it was teaching us how to use it.  This is cultural knowledge in action.

VP: Could you give us an example of a startup that beat the big guys by understanding culture?

GM: The world of carbonated soft drinks is filled with examples of start ups that managed to spot the next trend and steal a march on the big guys: Snapple, Red Bull, Vitamin Water, Odwalla, and so on.  These startups spotted the trend and rode it to glory.  They get in early and ended up owning the market.  In the book, I try to show how Snapple accomplished this miracle.  The rewards here at breathtaking.  Snapple sold to Quaker for $1.7 billion.

VP: People often say, “You can’t teach taste.” At least when it comes to business, you disagree. Why?

GM: Culture is a body of knowledge like any other body of knowledge.  Saying we “can’t teach taste” is like saying we can’t teach finance, operations, or human relations.  Of course, we can.  But of course we have lots of people in business who have a vested interest in making it voodoo.   This is the way gurus, cool hunters, and various agencies keep themselves in business.  It’s time to get culture out of the black box.  I don’t say we don’t need gurus or agencies.  For certain purposes, they can create exceptional value.  I do say that they should not be allowed to make themselves sole source for what we know about culture.  In the run up of 1990s, serial startups found that the guy who was CFO for the last startup was now CMO for the next one.  The C-Suite is filled with fast learners, with mobile learners.  We need to get culture into this mix. 

VP: A.G. Lafley is one of the heroes of Chief Culture Officer. What can entrepreneurs learn from him?

GM: He’s the guy who helped teach P&G, that great temple of marketing, that it had much more to learn about being consumer focused.  In Game-Changers, Lafley insists that the marketer must dolly back from narrow utilities to see the larger social and cultural context, to see the consumer in all of his or her complexity.  This is the corporation making sure that the product services is “not about us,” not about what the engineers can build, not about what the marketer’s can sell, not about what the corporation has traditionally done.  It’s about who the consumer is and how he or she lives.   It’s about that software in his or her heads. 

VP: What’s wrong with “cool hunting”?

GM: Cool hunting is heat sensitive.  Cool hunters only care about the latest stuff, the fads and fashion.  But culture is vastly more than this.  It is deep cultural traditions.  These traditions change, but they do so slowly.  And when they change, they do not show on the cool hunter’s radar.  Hard to know how to quantify this, but my guess is that fads and fashions make up only 20% of culture.  Slow culture is all the rest.  What kind of professional ignores 80% of his or her domain?

VP: You’re a creative, divergent thinker, yet you seek to avoid what Claude Levi-Strauss called “wild thought.” How do you balance creativity and structure, and what would you advise entrepreneurs about striking that balance?

GM: I’m Canadian, a notoriously tidy people, the Swiss of North America.  But I am prepared to go where ideas take me.  I have this from my parents and from my education at the University of Chicago.  (The latter looks a little like Lafley’s P&G.  It accepts that the exercise is “not about us,” but about the ideas.  You adapt as you must to honor them.)  I think this makes me like most entrepreneurs who know that good things happen only when wild creativity is routinized and systematized.  Entrepreneurs have range!  They are there when the big ideas happen, driving people “outside the box.”  They then find a way to rebuild the box.  They then find a way to make something actually come out of the box.  Then they find a way to put that something out in to the market where it turns into ROI.  Phenomenal!  They are very smart and very determined.  But they are also masters of many cultures. 

VP: You introduce the idea of the “lunch list” as a way to stay in touch with culture. What is it, and how would it apply to the owner of a small startup?

GM: No one can keep track of contemporary culture but there are people who really understand individual pieces of it.  The CCO solution?  Take these people to lunch.  (Or otherwise engage them.)  My editor at Basic Books, Tim Sullivan, is a great guy to take to lunch.  He will give you the world of emerging ideas. He will let you his astounding powers of pattern recognition.  Chefs, journalists, politicians, CMOs, diplomats, all can give us a glimpse of the forces shaping the world.

VP: You talk about “fast culture” and “slow culture.” What do you mean, and how do their implications for business differ?

GM: Fast culture is great churn of our culture at any given time.  Some of the fads will cool into fashion, some of the fashions will cool into trends, and some of the trends will actually stay on to become culture.  But most fad, fashion and trend just keeps going, out of our world, eventually out of memory.  As I was saying above, it is fast culture that preoccupies us most. 

But there is also “slow culture,” and these are the long standing traditions that are part of our bed rock.  These get some attention from the academics.  The historians have warmed to the idea of culture over the last 30 years especially and this has results in some very useful work.  I am just reading a book called Hotel: An American History by Andrew K. Sandoval-Strausz, a wonderfully interesting look at the hospitality industry as it has shaped and been shaped by the American culture.  We need to know about fast culture, but this is like taking a major leaguers’ stats for the season and not the career.  We need to know about slow culture too.

VP: Why would Chris Rock make a good chief culture officer?

GM: Mr. Rock knows about African American culture and he knows about non African American culture, and knows how to pass back and forth between them.  This makes him a cultural entrepreneur.  We might say he’s in the shipping business. Anyone who knows two pieces of our culture is well on his or her way to mastering the larger whole.  It’s a lot like language learning.  The second language is always the toughest.  The third and fourth come more easily. 

VP: How can social media tools help small businesses keep in touch with culture?

GM: Twitter and Facebook are great ways to listen in on the conversation and to engage in it.  I recently did an interview with Bud Caddell at Undercurrent and I liked his idea that you have to keep provoking the world with comments, suggestions, and experiments.  The reactions will give us a sense, a kind of GPS signal, of where we are, of what’s happening “out there.”

VP: Does being Canadian give you an advantage as an anthropologist?

GM: An American journalist asked Martin Short why it was so many American comedians were Canadians by birth.  Shore said, “Oh, that’s because you grew up watching TV.  I grew up watching American TV.”  My sister and I used to watch Saturday morning cartoons.  We enjoyed them immensely, but there was always a small sense that we were watching something from another world.  Now that we are a diverse society everyone has access to a difference of this kind.  As a culture we are so decentered that everyone has an exceptional point of view. 

VP: How much TV do you watch every week?

GM: I watch the national average, plus I have friends who are not as diligent as they should be, so I watch their hours too.  As a civic gesture.  TV is a wonderful listening device for our culture.  The networks and cable run out a constant series of experiments (aka, new shows) and these shows are so expensive that choice are made with great care.  Which is another way of saying the experiments are very carefully crafted.  Then the TV view audience votes with their viewership and we see, hey presto, America likes Modern Marriage and it doesn’t like the show that comes after it on ABC, Cougar Town.  It’s not impossible to draw cultural conclusions from this event. 

VP: What do you make of Lady Gaga?

GM: Lady Gaga burns brightly at the moment.  She has crafted herself in the tradition of David Bowie and Madonna, changing dramatically, vividly, and often.Indeed, Lady Gaga ups the transformational cycle.  Bowie changed several times.  Madonna changed many times. Lady Gaga appears to change with every performance.  So we can take her as a measure of the speed at which we change.  But she is also a fad struggling to stay on as a fashion and then a trend and then a fixture in our culture.  Bowie and Madonna made the cut.  Chances are she will not.  But I hope I’m wrong.  She is a vivid, interesting presence.  (The real mystery here is why the music is so utterly ordinary.  Bowie and Madona were transformational here too.)

VP: You ran a “CCO boot camp.” Who came and what did they do? Do you have plans for more?

GM: We had a great mix, people from the strategy world, the C-suite, entertainment industry, the military, designers, senior managers, grad students, a real range.   In the morning, we reviewed 6 parts of American culture.  In the afternoon, we looked at how to monitor and manage culture for the corporation.  It was amazing fun.  I am now planning to do one for a gigantic corporation.  I now have a poll on my website to see where people want the next one held.  At the moment, Boston is winning. 

Books

Brooks, David. 2001. Bobos In Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There. Simon & Schuster.  

Carey, John. 1992. The Intellectuals and the Masses: pride and prejudice among the literary intelligentsia, 1880-1939. London: Faber and Faber.

Docker, John. 1994. Postmodernism and popular culture: a cultural history. Cambridge. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Fitzgerald, Frances. 1986. Cities on a Hill, A Journey Through Contemporary American Cultures. Simon and Schuster.  

Florida, Richard. 2003. The Rise of the Creative Class: And How It’s Transforming Work, Leisure, Community and Everyday Life. Basic Books.  

Fox, Kate. 2008. Watching the English: The Hidden Rules of English Behaviour. Nicholas Brealey Publishing.  

Goffman, Erving. 1959. The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. Anchor.  

Jenkins, Henry. 2008. Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. Revised. NYU Press.  

Johnson, Steven. 2005. Everything Bad is Good for You: How Today’s Popular Culture is Actually Making Us Smarter. Riverhead Books.  

Kamp, David. 2006. The United States of Arugula: How We Became a Gourmet Nation. Broadway.  

Katz, Donald R. 1993. Home Fires: An Intimate Portrait of One Middle-Class Family in Postwar America. Perennial.  

Klein, Richard. 1993. Cigarettes Are Sublime. Duke University Press.  

Lamont, Michele. 1992. Money, Morals and Manners: the culture of the French and the American upper-middle class. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Long, Elizabeth. 1985. The American Dream and the Popular Novel. Routledge Kegan & Paul.  

Martin, Roger.  2007. The Opposable Mind.  Boston: Harvard Business School Press

Postrel, Virginia. 1998. The Future and Its Enemies: The growing conflict over creativity, enterprise and progress. New York: The Free Press.

Shirky, Clay. 2009. Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations. Reprint. Penguin.

Thornton, Sarah. 1996. Club Cultures: Music, Media, and Subcultural Capital. Wesleyan.  

Warner, W. Lloyd, J. O. Low, Paul S. Lunt, and Leo Srole. 1963. Yankee City. Yale University Press.  

Waters, Mary C. 1990. Ethnic Options: Choosing Identities in America. University of California Press.  

Weinberger, David. 2003. Small Pieces Loosely Joined: A Unified Theory of the Web. Basic Books.  

Wolfe, Tom. 2001. A Man in Full. Dial Press Trade Paperback.  

Zerubavel, Eviatar. 1993. The Fine Line. University Of Chicago Press.  

The Good Guys

The Good Guys, the new cop comedy from Fox, is showing in my Seattle hotel room as I write this.  A month ago I argued that this show has no place in contemporary culture and therefore no hope of success.  (My assumption, unless you are have made contact with culture, your chances of making contact with commerce are remote.)  I am sorry to say that The Good Guys is as predictable and uninteresting as predicted

Dan Stark (Bradley Whitford) is a big dope, cheap, fast and out of control, a walking set of appetites, politically incorrect and proud of it, inclined to play loose and fast with the rules.  Jack Bailey (Colin Hanks) plays by the book and spends a good deal of time rolling his eyes and suppressing the temptation to tell Dan Stark to join the 21st century.  Dude!  This version of the buddy pic has been with at least since 1987 and the release of Lethal Weapon with Mel Gibson as the guy who is out of control and Danny Glover his law and order loving partner. 

There are ways out of this problem.  Producers could have given the Dan Stark role to Colin Hanks.  That would have been a little counter expectational.  Better, Dan Stark could have been both cheap, fast, and out of control, and fastidious about procedure.  In the first case, the actor plays against type.  In the second, the character does. 

The old argument is that no one will bind with the show or indeed follow it unless the thing runs on the rails of established expectation.  Follow genre.  Play to type.  But these days this is the path to an early cancelation.  How is it someone at Fox failed to get the memo?  Present audiences are good enough at TV that they can watch without rails, without genre, without type.  

References

McCracken, Grant.  2010.  Calling all CCOs: how good is your gut?  This Blog. May 13. here.  

Kill Screen, a new resource for the CCO

This is promising. 

Those of us who study culture watch for new windows.  Kill Screen may be one of these.

So when I read this paragraph, I reached for my wallet and signed up immediately.

The idea for Kill Screen was born while Jamin Brophy-Warren  was hanging out with pal and fellow Pitchfork writer Chris Dahlen in March 2009 at the Gamers Developing Conference in San Francisco.  The two began commiserating over the lack of a Tom Wolfe or Chuck Klosterman of video game writing. “Sure there were tons of bloggers dedicated to the subject,” Jamin says, “But there wasn’t anything high-end and intellectual publication on gaming. So we said, let’s do this.”

The gaming world is a kind of laboratory in which cultural definitions of self and world are being reworked, cultural rules and tolerances tested and refined.  Actually, laboratory might not the wrong metaphor.  What makes the gaming world so exciting is that it operates more like a skunk works, less academic deliberation and more creativity in real time.  In either case, if Kill Screen lives up to its objective, it will be necessary reading for the CCO.  

Reference

Boyd Myers, Courtney.  2010.  Kill Screen Magazine: what does it mean to play games.  PSFK. June 4. here.

Edery, David, and Ethan Mollick. 2008. Changing the Game: How Video Games Are Transforming the Future of Business. FT Press.  

To subscribe to Kill Screen, go here.  

Acknowledgements

Thanks for PSFK for the head’s up on Kill Screen Magazine.  

Glee as the new American Idol

Is Glee the new American Idol? Could be.  Certainly, Glee has momentum at the moment, and American Idol after a long and spectacular run in the first moments of its decline.  This image, from Google trends, shows Glee over taking American Idol some time in the last quarter…at least as a search term on line.

For the sake of argument, let’s say Glee is the new American Idol.  We may not be correct but we do at least have the opportunity for speculation that would not otherwise occur to us, and with this, we have the opportunity for an early warning.  (The Chief Culture Officer is prepared to be wrong much of the time in order to be "sighted" some of the time.)

Some things don’t seem to change at all.  Both shows seem devoted to the endless recitation of popular culture that is actually not all that popular anymore.  American Idol seems determined to ignore most of what has happened to music since the 1990s.  Glee the same.  (Readers of this blog will know that I take these to be one of several indicators that the "alternative" sensibility of the 1990s is now on the wane.  More evidence?  The decline of Parks and Recreation and Community and of NBC and the now departed Ben Silverman who used to work there.)

But there are some interesting differences.  American Idol devotes itself to intensely personal stories, as kids claw their way to the top.  It’s all terribly authentic. Some of the point of the exercise is to get to know these kids, to root for them, to watch a star being born.   Glee on the other hand is an exercise in flat out artifice.  We don’t get to know the "real" actors beneath the characters and there isn’t very much to get to know about the characters themselves.  This is musical theater, with much more emphasis on the music than the theater.  Indeed, the Glee plot is finally just a device for song and dance delivery. There is some dramatic continuity, some dramatic tension, but its exists for the purposes of cheap sentiment more than character development.  

Indeed, Glee appears designed for modularity.  We can break kids out for song and dance purposes and we can drop celebrities in.  I noticed today that show co-creator Ryan Murphy is suggesting that Susan Boyle appear as a lunch lady.  And with this the possibilities are endless.  Wayne Newton as the janitor can’t be far away.  Just so long as you are recognizable and can burst into song.  And this really is artifice.  Now every actor and character is just a place keeper, a pretext for the infusion of more music.

At their best, the 1990s were a time of unstinting authenticity.  I remember an editor of an alternative music magazine telling me that he couldn’t get photos of the bands he was covering because the bands insisted that a photo would demand that they "pose" and that was precisely the sort of falsehood their music was designed to refuse.  

Pose?   In the era of Glee, it’s "where would you like me?  And what expression should I wear?"  It’s not about authenticity.  It’s about being as emotionally compliant as necessary. Stardom is so precious a capital, we will pay anything for it.  We will endure TMZ coverage and much, much worse.  

By this reckoning, and it’s only a reckoning, American culture is now governed by the rules of musical theater, where kids live for the "one big break," and make any compromise necessary to get there.  This takes us several light years away from the sensibility that came out of the Pacific Northwest in the late 1980s.  Chrystal Bowersox has something of this sensibility, and her victory, if that’s what happens on American Idol, may be last hurrah.  

References

Stack, Tim.  2010.  Susan Boyle to play McKinley High Lunch Lady.  Entertainment Weekly. May 19.  here.