Tag Archives: popular culture

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.

Contemporary culture: 25 years of change in 15 minutes

In the early 1990s, I founded and ran the Institute of Contemporary Culture at the Royal Ontario Museum.

On Saturday, I’m going back to the ROM to reflect on some of the changes that have taken in culture in the last 25 years.

And it’s dizzying to see how much is now changing: the home and the family, the way we think about women, the revolution taking place in TV, the way we are now defining the self and the group.  (I have just 15 minutes to talk, so it’s a short list.)

As you will see, this presentation is  less about technology (the thing with which most people lead nowadays) and concentrates much more on the cultural changes that have taken place.  These are, I would submit, every big as large and astonishing as the tech changes.

You can see the presentation here on YouTube.   Like most everyone, my speaking style has shifted from too many words on the screen to images.  The burden of exposition falling to the speaker (me) when speaking (on Saturday).  Apologies when this makes the deck a little cryptic.  Please do come join us if you are in Toronto this weekend.

A new name for this blog

grant mccracken II

My blog subtitle used to be “This blog sits at the Intersection of Anthropology and Economics.”  This was both too grand and untrue.  Fine for politicians but not websites.

So now it’s “How to make culture.”  For the moment.  Also thinking of “New Rules for Making Culture.”  Is that better?  I can’t tell.  Please let me know.

Yesterday, I was blogging about the new rules of TV.  And in the last couple of weeks I’ve been talking about advertising, education, late night TV, game shows, culture accelerators.  Less recently, I’ve been talking about marketing, comedy, language, branding, culturematics, story telling, hip hop, publishing, and design thinking.

All of this is culture made by someone.  And all of it is culture made in new ways, often, and according to new rules, increasingly.  Surely an anthropologist can make himself useful on something like this.  Anyhow, I’m going to try.

I have four convictions.  Open to discussion and disproof.

1) that our culture is changing.  Popular culture is becoming more like culture plain and simple.  Our culture is getting better.

I have believed in this contention for many years.  Certainly, since the 90s when I still lived in Toronto.  (It was my dear friend Hargurchet Bhabra who, over drinks and a long conversation, put his finger on it.  “It’s not popular culture anymore.  Forget the adjective.  It’s just culture.”)

This was not a popular position to take especially when so many academics and intellectuals insisted that popular culture was a debased and manipulative culture, and therefore not culture at all.  Celebrity culture, Reality TV, there were lots of ways to refurbish and renew the “popular culture is bad culture” argument.  And the voices were many.  (One of these days I am going to post a manuscript I banged out when living in Montreal.  I called it So Logo and took issue with all the intellectuals who were then pouring scorn of popular culture one way or another.)

My confidence in the “popular culture is now culture” notion grew substantially this fall when I did research for Netflix on the “binge viewing” phenomenon.  To sit down with a range of people and listen to them talk about what they were watching and how they were watching, this said very plainly that TV, once ridiculed as a “wasteland,” was maturing into story telling that was deeper, richer and more nuanced.  The wasteland was flowering.  The intellectuals were wrong.

2) This will change many of the rules by which we make culture.  So what are the new rules?

I mean to investigate these changes and see if I can come up with a new set of rules.  See yesterday’s post on how we have to rethink complexity and casting in TV if we hope to make narratives that have any hope of speaking to audiences and contributing to culture.  Think of me as a medieval theologian struggling to codify new varieties of religious experience.

3) The number of people who can now participate in the making of culture has expanded extraordinarily.  

This argument is I think much discussed and well understood.  We even know the etiology, chiefly the democratization (or simple diffusion) of the new skills and new technology.  What happens to culture and the rules and conventions of making culture when so many other people are included, active, inspired and productive?  We are beginning to see.  Watch for codification here too.   (As always, I will take my lead for Leora Kornfeld who is doing such great work in the field of music.)

4)  We must build an economy that ensures that work is rewarded with value.

I have had quite enough of gurus telling us how great it is that the internet represents a gift economy, a place where people give and take freely.  Two things here.  1) The argument comes from people who are very well provided for thanks to academic or managerial appointments.  2) This argument is applied to people who are often obliged to hold one or more “day jobs” to “give freely on the internet.”  Guru, please.   Let’s put aside the ideological needle work, and apply ourselves to inventing an economy that honors value through the distribution of value.

I have made this sound like a solitary quest but of course there are many thousands of people working on the problem.  Every creative professional is trying to figure out what he or she can do that clients think they want.  I am beginning to think I can identify the ones who are rising to the occasion.  They have a certain light in their eyes when you talk to them and I believe this springs from two dueling motives I know from my own professional experience, terror and excitement.

Thanks

To Russell Duncan for taking the photograph.

Second Look TV

Ember

For most of it’s existence, TV was designed to be “one look” entertainment.  We were supposed to grasp things the first time, and if it happened that some complexity or nuanced escaped us, well, not to worry.  It can’t have been that important in any case.  TV was forgettable culture.  Tissue thin and completely disposable.

But we are entering into the era of “second look” television.  Sometimes this happens because we were making a sandwich or playing with the cat.  Never mind, a simple push of the go-back button, and we are caught up.

But some TV is now created with the expectation that we will not and cannot get it the first time.  If it pleases the court, I offer the following Sprint ad into evidence

Notice that it’s not just the dialog and foreign language(s) that demand the replay.  This ad has got Judy Greer who is fast rising from “sidekick” standing to full blown celebrity.  Plus there are parts that make no sense however many times we watch it.  (The final moment when everyone looks suddenly at the hamster is wonderful partly because it is inscrutable and permanently so.)

Pam, my wife, and I spend a lot of time freezing frame and going back.  “Wait, did she say what I think we said.”  Or “Hey, did you notice that guy in the background?” Or “get a lot of this camera angle!”  This is what it is to live with Second Look TV and the technology that makes replay effortless.

Indeed culture and technology do an attractive two-step here.  The technology makes this possible.  Culture (in the form of new complexity) makes it necessary.  And so continues  our steady transition from a pop culture to a culture, plain and simple.

Imprecision, culture, and Nick Kroll

Nick-Kroll

I’m reading In the Land of Invented Languages by Arika Okrent.  My nephew is inventing a language and I’m trying to make myself useful.  (I can tell he’ll be absolutely astonished if I’m any help at all.)

Sometimes the motive for a new language is clarity.  Inventors want to eliminate the uncertainties contained in a sentence like “I spoke to a man on the boat.”  (Was he on the boat?  Was I on the boat?  Were we on the boat?)

It turns out to be tough to make a language that’s perfectly clear, and one of the pleasures of In the Land of Invented Languages is observing the linguistic and other conniptions that result from this quest for clarity.

Finally, though, Okrent wonders whether the quest isn’t wrong-headed.

Ambiguity, or fuzziness of meaning, is not a flaw of natural language but a feature that gives it flexibility and that, for whatever reason, suits our minds and the way we think.  Likewise, the fact that languages depend on arbitrary convention or cultural habit is not a flaw but a feature that allows us to rein in the fuzziness by establishing agreed-upon meanings at different levels of precision.  Language needs its “flaws” in order to do the enormous range of things we use it for.  (p. 258)

This will come as good news to the blogging community.  Personally, I intend to use Okrent’s discovery as license for the several places in this blog where you may be asking yourself ok, what’s he saying that isn’t really all that clear to you the reader as a meaning co-creator in so many different ways?

But the larger “take away” is “don’t look down.”  Our lives depend on architectures of meanings, as those come to us from language and from culture.  And these architectures are sometimes a little underspecified.  They are a little more like the “building concept” drawings than the actual blue prints.

Normally, the seams don’t show.  (Make that the “seems don’t show.”) We take for granted that the architecture of meaning can bear our weight.  Furthermore, a certain kind of story teller, entertainer and brander reassures us that we occupy a deep, resonant, redundant, completely seamless world.  (Other artists like to take us to the edge of the built world and invite us to look over the edge.)

Over the last couple of weeks here, I’ve been looking at the possibility that popular culture is improving, that it’s becoming more like culture.  But this, the imperfections and insecurities of meaning, may be the one place that popular culture will never go.  Well, let’s watch and see.  If and when popular culture does take us to the edge, this can be a measure of how much it has thrown off its “popular” mandate, conditions, and constraints.

And on this note, I’ve been watching The Kroll Show and Inside Amy Shumer on Comedy Central.  There are moments when it’s good (and wicked clever) fun, but there are moments when you are  being asked to stare into the abyss.  (Thanks, Nick!  Thanks, Amy!)  This might be evidence.

miraculous ascensions

What are the odds that this actor:

Movie-Stars-Who-Started-Out-TV

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

would become this actor:

True-Detective-1x05

 

 

 

 

 

And this actor, once a good time Charlie of the first order:

KIKA_Matthew-McConaughey_kika2866967.jpg_26703

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

would become this actor:

BOB.v19-26.March17.Podhoretz

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And, that, in the larger scheme of things, this show

dragnet_square

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

would become this show:

true_detective_ver2_xlg

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It’s almost as if pop culture is becoming culture.