Tag Archives: culture

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.

Meaning manufacture, old and new (Significant Objects)

In the old days, most of the meanings of our objects came prefab.

This what brands did for us. Brands, and the advertisers, planners, researchers, and  marketers who made them.

Inevitably we would add meanings to our possessions.  We might finesse the ones we found there.  But mostly, anyone with the same objects had the same meanings.  Thus did our material culture make our culture material.

We have since seen the rise of custom-made meanings.  This is one of the reasons we like antique fairs, and farmer’s markets is that these objects have been stripped of their original meanings and taken on new, historical, ones.  What used to be someone’s tea cup is now our Victorian teacup.

It’s the reason we like the tourist trinkets we bring back from vacation.  These were likely hand made somewhere.  That textile just says Mexico.  More than that, it says, "our vacation in Mexico."

It’s also the reason we like artisanal goods, the chocolates, beer and bread that is so popular now.  There are no brands here. These products take their meaning mostly from the process of hand crafting and the person who made them.  These objects come with stories more than meanings and we like to tell these stories.  "Well, Frank, that’s the guy who made these chocolates, he’s got that little shop down on Cambie, Frank used to be a professional football player.  No, I am not kidding."

Of course this sort of thing has always been true of high end restaurants.  This has always been hand crafted, unbranded (at least in so far as national brands are concerned), and meanings that come with this food are all about this very particular restaurant, chef, owner, designer, etc.  Here the brand is a man or a women.

The rich like to live in a relatively unbranded world.  Kitchens, furniture, bespoke tailoring, all of this is completely custom made.  It’s fun to go due north on Madison, I think it is.  In mid town, we are looking at branded stores, but as we hit the the upper east side, the brands fall away.  Now all the shops are little and very particular.  This is no brand land.

Experiments like Etsy give us a glimpse of a democratized version of this world.  Now, the rest of us can own customized stuff. No brands.  No manufacture in the industrial sense.  What we buy from Etsy.com is unique and if its to mean something, it will be because we have invested it with meanings particular to our own lives and sensibilities.

So I was interested to note the website called Significant Objects.  (Thanks to Leora Kornfeld for the head’s up.)  This was invented by Joshua Glenn, Matthew Battles, Rob Walker and others in the summer of 2009.  Here’s how they describe what they do.  (Sorry to be vague about the founders of Significant Objects but they appear to take pains to efface their identities on the SO website.  I can’t but wonder whether they are waiting for authors to supply identities for them…or at least names.  Excellent strategy.)

Significant Objects has three steps:

1. The experiment’s curators purchase objects — for no more than a few dollars — from thrift stores and garage sales.

2. A participating writer is paired with an object. He or she then writes a fictional story, in any style or voice, about the object. Voila! An unremarkable, castoff thingamajig has suddenly become a “significant” object!

3. Each significant object is listed for sale on eBay. The s.o. is pictured, but instead of a factual description the s.o.’s newly written fictional story is used. However, care is taken to avoid the impression that the story is a true one; the intent of the project is not to hoax eBay customers. (Doing so would void our test.) The author’s byline will appear with his or her story.

The first version of Significant objects can be defined still more particularly:

Significant Objects was originally intended as an experiment exploring the relationship between narrative and value. (In fact, we didn’t think many writers would want to participate — before we launched the experiment, we listed 100 writers we knew or just admired and asked ourselves, “How do we convince/cajole/trick/browbeat these talented people into helping us with no guarantee that they’ll get anything out of it whatsoever?”) Our goal, then as now, was not simply to generate content, or to provide writers with a fun creative exercise, but instead to pair our carefully curated objects with stories that we’d curated every bit as carefully. We want the site to offer a consistently great reading experience — and we put a lot of effort into that.

The relationship between narrative and value.  How very interesting.  Economics is not very good on this relationship.  Indeed the idea that stories can create value is a little mystifying.  And this would be a good time to come to terms with this, because as I say, it is the coming thing.

I fell to thinking about a variation of the SO theme.  As it stands, in what remains of the old world of marketing, a watch comes charged with some standard meanings, crafted by the CMO, the brand, agency and its creatives.  Take for instance the Rolex that uses the Bond movie franchise to give the watch a certain quality of romance, danger, adventure, etc.

A SO approach would craft the meaning of the objects more particularly.   The brand could engage a team of writers and have them standing by to deliver stories to the owner, perhaps on a just in time basis.  What I am a buying the watch then is also a stream of stories that might come to me every day or week or month.  Tomorrow, I might get an email that reads

Today your watch is owned by a functionary, a man who lives in Ottawa and works for the Canadian government.  You have a secret.  You have embezzled $3 million from the Canadian government.  Today is actually is your last day.  You wouldn’t be here, but the embezzlement will finalize today. You are nervous.  Actually you’re sweating bullets.  Make it through today, and you can spend the rest of your life in some sunny country that laughs in the face of the Canadian extradition.  But you can’t help feeling that suspicions are flourishing.  You know people are looking at you.  Aren’t they? Every glance, every comment today will be charged with menace.  Have a nice day.

This is narrative and I believe our Rolex is more valuable for it.  As these stories change, as we enter the narratives that come with the watch, the watch becomes more and more valuable.  It serves as a portal on alternative realities and multiple selves.

References

See the Significant Objects website here.

See the Smoking Man Figurine complete with a very interesting story by Vicente Lozano here.  (this image lost in the melt down, see note below)

Note: This post was lost in the Network Solutions debacle of 2009.  It was reposted December 25, 2010.

Girls at Yale in the 1960s

I recently met a spell binding story teller.  An entire table, fell under his spell, like children at story time.  

One of his stories was about women at Yale when he was an undergraduate there in the 1960s or the 70s.

Many of these women, he said, knew the character they resembled from high fiction or art.  What’s more, they did everything they could to heighten the similarity.

If you looked like someone out of Austen or Bronte, at Yale, you walked it, talked it and coiffed it.

If you looked like someone painted by the pre-raphaelite brotherhood, this too was a similarity to be heightened, an advantage to be taken advantage of.

Forty years later, it’s hard to imagine that this still happens on university campuses.  These days inspiration is more likely to come from Kanye West lyrics (surely the only place where "blond dyke" and "Klondike" are made to rhyme.)

These days, if we are lucky enough to resemble a Hollywood celebrity, well, this is a piece of good fortune too considerable to pass up.   I remember seeing Toronto fill with David Bowie lookalikes when he was in town for a concert.  I couldn’t tell whether these people always sought to show the resemblance or were doing so just for the evening.  Pretty remarkable, either way.  In our culture, we are jealous of our uniqueness.  Only extraordinary admiration (or advantage) can move us to imitation.

But this is only sometimes slavish imitation or an act of deference.  It’s fun to quote celebrities with fleeting moments of comparison, as when we say "bag" the way Kristen Wiig does in her SNL "checkout lady" skit.  My wife does an excellent imitation of Jennifer Coolidge.  ("Thank goodness for the model trains.  It’s where they got the idea for the big trains!")

So what’s the difference between imitating a Jane Austen character or Kanye West?  I think imitating pop culture celebrity is actually more fun and more interesting.  More is left to our creative endeavor.  I mean, we arewearing a Jane Austin or Emily Bronte character.  And we are obliged to wear it all the time.  It is fully formed and we are punished, not rewarded, for departure.  We are it.  It is never us.  There is no cocreation here.

Quoting celebrities is playful, various, optional.  And we can draw on any number of celebrities over the course of the day. Actually, we are not looking for similarity (and certainly not for identity).  We are looking dramatic, transformational resources we can use for our own purposes.

Boldly stated, this is the difference I think between high culture and low culture, and it’s the reason we have moved so relentlessly from one and the other.

And that’s the challenge for social critics.  The traditional approach in an essay of this kind is to shake our heads in disapproval.  What a good thing it must have been to see all those Austen and Bronte girls at Yale!  And surely it’s a very bad thing indeed that we are moving from high fiction to the vulgar, democratic arts of Hollywood and popular music.

But this gets it, I believe, precisely wrong.  Low culture, as some insisted on calling it, is more flexible, accommodating, and creative.  It gives us a grammar instead of a language.  It gives us form that gives freedom, not a form we must con-form to.

Post script

This post filed at 31,000 feet, courtesy of Gogo and Virgin America.  The latter has been a really charming experience. The music doesn’t suck.  There are two celebrities on board. The movies leave something to be desired but hey I’m blogging.  And I have internet access. The post was written over Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois.

References

McCracken, Grant.  2005.  Transformations: identity construction in contemporary culture. Bloomington : Indiana University Press.

Note: This post originally lost in the Network Solutions debacle of the 2009.  It was reposted December 25, 2010.  

Chief Culture Officer watch: the troubling case of Jeffrey Zucker

The troubles at NBC have finally reached CEO Jeffrey Zucker, a guy so deft he had previously escaped criticism. Now the knives are out.

"Somebody needs to pay when a poorly thought-out experiment [i.e., the Leno move to 10:00] fails to the tune of millions of dollars, [and results in] the loss of a bankable star i.e., [the threatened departure of Conan O’Brien] and a public-relations nightmare that has the potential to threaten a proposed mega-merger [i.e., with Comcast].  And there is no doubt that the person who should pay for this instantly legendary [screw-up] is the man at the top who instigated the whole thing: Jeff Zucker." [Chez Pazienza, Huffington Post (as quoted in Macdonald, below)]

No doubt the factors that explain Zucker’s managerial difficulties are several and complex, but one in particular jumps out.

In the words of Richard Siklos, Jeffrey Zucker is someone,

who came up on the news side of the business, and he didn’t care for, or have an affinity for, the entertainment business and Hollywood per se.  [in Macdonald, below]

Apparently, Zucker is good at business…but bad at culture.  He knows how to run the company.  But he has no feeling for what the company does.

This is odd.  After all, NBC is mostly a cultural enterprise.  It works when it can read culture. It works when it can produce culture. Naturally, someone like Zucker needs to have the managerial skills to run a large and complex corporation.  But this is the necessary, not the sufficient condition of his (and its) success.  The sufficient condition is simple.  Zucker should know and love entertainment.  (See Maureen Dowd’s column for a nice treatment of the specific implications of Zucker’s incompetence here.)

It would be one thing if this cultural knowledge were arcane, possessed by a very few people tucked away in an obscure institutions (aka the university).  But what Zucker is missing is the cultural competence possessed by most of his viewers, especially the ones under 35.

Here’s what we know:

1) that popular culture became culture (see the work of Steven Johnson and Naussbaum).

2) that culture went from something very simple to something increasingly complex (for simplicity sake, let’s treat HBO as our case in point).

3) that cultural consumers have become increasingly well informed and sophistication (so says the book of Henry Jenkins).

A odd and uncomfortable possibility suggests itself: that NBC managed to hire one of the few people in contemporary America who doesn’t get TV.

How can this have happened? Checking someone’s cultural competence is pretty easy.  All someone at NBC needed to do was to take Zucker to lunch and quiz him on his favorite shows.  Even a brief conversation would have revealed the depth and sophistication of his knowledge.

And now a second possibility suggests itself: that the people doing the hiring at NBC don’t much know about the culture, either.  There is, perhaps, a systematic bias for business and against culture in the NBC c-suite.

Simply: NBC appears to be all about business and not about culture at a time that the corporation is increasingly about culture even when all about business.

Oh for a CCO…or just a CCO who grasps his culture at least as well as most of his viewers do.

References

Dowd, Maureen.  2010.  The Biggest Loser.  The New York Times.  January 12, 2010.  here.

Macdonald, Gayle. 2010. Boy Wonder’s Blunder. The Globe and Mail. January 14, 2010.  here.

Nassbaum, Emily. 2009. When TV became art. New York Magazine. December 4.

Note: this post was in the Network Solutions debacle of 2009.  It was reposted December 25, 2010.