Category Archives: Anthropology meets Economics

Johnny Depp and the dead men’s chest called Hollywood

Depp_1 It is now clear that Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest is a smash hit, and everyone connected to it is an absolute genius. (Bill Murray’s joke here: "I’d like to thank everyone connected to Lost in Translation, but so many people take credit for it now, I wouldn’t know where to begin.")

It’s worth remembering that the striking thing about the film, and the thing that most surely saved it from being fiber free, Nutrasweet pap, is the performance by Johnny Depp.  And this is worth remembering because Disney came close to canning his performance

[T]he eccentricity of Depp’s approach sent ripples of panic through Disney’s executive suites. Frantic phone calls were placed to Verbinski, Bruckheimer, and Depp’s agent: Why is he walking funny? Why is he talking like that? Is he gay? Is he drunk? And it wasn’t only the suits who were concerned: ”The first scene I did with Johnny, I was like, What the f— are you doing?” Knightley says. ”None of us knew if it was going to work.”  

Depp was not to be deterred. ”It was just fuel to go further,” he says. ”Not because I wanted to piss Disney off, but because I believed it was the right thing to do. Finally, I said, ‘Look, you hired me to do the gig. If you can’t trust me, you can fire me. But I can’t change it.’ It was a hard thing to say, but f— it.” (Rottenburg)

Whew!  Talk about dodging a bullet!  Imagine if the lead actor didn’t have clout or courage.  Imagine a director (Gore Verbinski) who was not prepared to retire to a life as a "goat cheese farmer."   Imagine if this was a bigger bet for Disney, and not a movie based on a ride from it’s theme park.  Depp might well have been deterred.  Disney might well have prevailed.  All of a sudden, it’s no longer an opening weekend of $132 million or a ten-day-take of $258 million.  "I can’t change it."  When was the last time these 4 words made a studio this much money?

Hollywood, one of the places culture and commerce combine spectacularly in our world, is having a hard time of it. 

1) costs are going up.  The Motion Picture Association of America says that it now costs $96 million dollars on average to make and market a film.  This is up nearly $20 million from 2001.

2) ticket sales are still flat, and hover at what they were 4 years ago.

3) DVD sales are beginning to slow, after years of double-digit growth.

The industry, once famous for its big spending ways, is changing.

1) new cost discipline is in effect at the studios, not least because they are now owned by large multinationals.

2) big stars are dropping their salaries.  Tom Cruise did for Mission Impossible 3

3) the studios are, in the opinion of Stephen Prough of Salem Partners, "absolutely less fun" to work at. 

4) There is even talk of a "death of the middle" strategy embraced in other markets.

Hollywood executives have also opened a debate about the proper size and composition of a studio’s film slate.  One theory is that studios should do away with mid-sized films–say, with budgets in the $50 range–and instead focus on the blockbusters, such as Pirates of the Caribbean and niche products.  (Chaffin)

The "death of the middle" strategy is straight forward.  It says, spend massively to guarantee hits at the top, and fund lots of little films to fill niches (and find sleepers) at the bottom.  The middling films, the DOM stategy says, are too small for marketing muscle and too big to connect to anyone.

But what are we assuming here?  We’re assuming that the block busters are manufacturable, that the studios can manage their way to sensational numbers.  Really?  It looks like Disney came this close to refusing the essential ingredient of this summer’s blockbuster.  (Is he drunk?  Is he gay?  Please.  It’s called acting.)  Were it not for Depp’s refusal to rework his foppish Jack, this block buster might well have been a middle weight, and no block buster at all.

I wonder if it isn’t time for Hollywood to get chunkier.  Maybe the real opportunities lie in the middle ground.  A chunky approach to marketing says go for the sweet spot, the place with money enough to hire real talent, and enough freedom to set them free.  (Freeish.)  There has to be a habitable space between the deeply eccentric, entirely self indulgent freedoms of the indie and the "fear of falling" rigidities that understandably beset the studio when spending $160 million.

Maybe the next move for Hollywood should be managers who can manage the middle.  I mean most anyone can spend their way out of risk…except when they can’t (which is now much of the time).  And just about anyone can max out their parent’s credit cards in the creation of the next great indie act of film school nicherie. 

More easily said than done.  Managing the middle, looking for chunky markets, this takes people who really know the interface between culture and commerce, people who can read consumer taste and preference, who can work a fragmented culture because they know that culture, AND bring the project in on time and budget.  It takes people who know their culture and their commerce.  I don’t doubt there are people in Hollywood who qualify as centaurs, but I’d be very surprised if these people were industry standard.

Hollywood’s problem is everyone’s problem.  Every packaged goods brand face the problem of the vanishing middle.  Every marketer must learn to speak to a turbulent marketplace.  One of these days, a business school or an industry association will rise to the occasion.  In the meantime, we’ll just have to hope that the actors will save us.  (And when you are relying on Johnny Depp to save you, well, God save you, too.)


Chaffin, Joshua.  2006.  Hollywood’s blockbuster budgets leave the chests bare.  Financial Times.  July 17, 2006.  [source for all data reproduced above in point form]

Rottenberg, Josh.  2006.  The Piracy Debate: the rough seas of the upcoming "Pirates of the Caribbean" films.  Entertainment Weekly.  July 07, 2006.  here


Bill Murray quote approximate.

Post Script

Russell Davies offers this as one of several insights from his stay in Portland at Nike and Wieden + Kennedy. 

7. Brands that influence culture sell more

This feeling was always in the air. People were trying to build popular culture not piggy-back on it, trying to create new culture, not just repeat old ones. About the worst thing you could say about an idea was that it had ‘borrowed interest’. And it was palpably clear that this instinct led to more effective, more profitable brands. So I remember writing ‘brands that influence culture sell more’ in a creds deck and getting the highly prized Wieden nod of approval. That was a good moment. (Or at least I think I remember writing that, it seems to have turned up in other places too, so maybe I heard it somewhere first, perhaps through some sort of strange wormhole into the future.)

Davies, Russell.  2006.  Seven things I learned at Wieden and Kennedy.  here.

Chunky culture: the next new thing?

Kyra_sedgwick Michael Keaton will do a TV series called The Company about the CIA.

James Woods will do a show this fall called Shark about a prosecuting attorney.

Kyra Sedwick triumphed in The Closer, the highest ranking show on cable.

Holly Hunter is in negotiations to do a drama called Grace about an Oklahoma City detective.

What do these actors have in common?  They can carry TV and Hollywood projects but they’d rather steal them. 

Out of Sight (Steven Soderbergh, 1998) was a great picture and Keaton managed to steal it with 2 minutes of screen time.  "Ray Nicolette" is a deeply stupid FBI agent who likes to wear the FBI t-shirts they sell in tourist kiosks.  He is taunted by his girl friend’s father (Dennis Farina),

"Hey, Ray, when you’re working undercover do you ever wear a t-shirt that reads "undercover"?" 

Ray replies with a stare that is equidistant between complete incomprehension and complete hostility.   We the audience just can’t tell.  It’s the best bit of acting in a film filled with good acting. I think it’s fair to say that Jennifer Lopez and George Clooney have never been better than in Out of Sight.  Keaton appears almost as if remind us that, even at their best, they are film stars, not actors.

James Woods, as Dr. Harvey Mandrake, came precious close to stealing Any Given Sunday (Oliver Stone, 1999) with a bit part about a doctor compromised by the demands of professional football. 

Kyra Sedgwick stole cable with a show that debuted in the summer time. (!)

And my favorite example is Holly Hunter who steals the whole of Timecode (Mike Figgis, 2000) with about 30 seconds on one quarter of the screen. 

Funny, then, that all of them should have been be tapped for television. 

At first glance, it looks like a good trade.  They bring talent and celebrity to a cable proposition that is now robust enough to pay them decently and risk taking enough to give them room to do their thing dramatically. 

But I wonder whether this does not also suggest a trend in contemporary culture and commerce.  What we are looking at might be a shift from the stars to actors, from big propositions (beauty + charisma with just enough talent) to something more intense (talent with a capital T and whatever else the actor happens to bring along for the ride).  I think George Clooney is a good case in point here.  He has just enough talent to sustain his career as handsome George.  Holly Hunter is a formidable talent who happens to be good looking.  And it wouldn’t much matter if she weren’t.  (Every show stealer is a great actor.  That’s how they do it.)

You could call this long tail casting, but only if you wanted to obscure what is going on.  Cable is eating Network’s lunch precisely because it can go intensive (narrow but deep) while the Network continues to struggle to be extensive (wide but shallow).  And if that’s all that happened, we are indeed looking at a long tail proposition.

But this is something different.  This is talent finding a new way in, and it reverses an age old pattern.  In the old days, stars would come up big and, if they were smart about it, they would spend their rest of their careers trading their celebrity for credibility, taking more difficult roles in smaller productions.  We will have to watch Kyra Sedgwick’s career with interest.  She was never mass, but her part in The Closer suggests the possibility that she might someday become so.

By this reckoning, the mass market is not dead.  It is merely more capacious.  Some of its structural properties have changed, to be sure.  Those who want a chunk of this market can’t get it merely by going wide, by being witless, agreeable and non threatening.  This fragmented mass market demands that people bring talent, take risks and proceed intensively.  Only thus can they hope to break in.  But this is not about tiny markets connected to small producers (mostly) by electronically enabled channels. 

It is as if mass culture became a larger space, and as if got larger, the traditional model of stardom and production was forced now to change.  In fact, as I was reading the obits for Aaron Spelling, I couldn’t help wondering whether the producer of shows like Charlie’s Angels would flourish in the new world of television.  I think we can take for granted that The Closer would have offended Spelling’s vaunted instincts in just about every way.  But we would be wrong, we would be naive, to suppose that this is the beginning of a long tail market.  There is something installed in our culture between the old mass media and the new long tail "youtubes" of the world.  TV calls it cable.  We call it chunky. 

If this is true, it’s good news for TV.  The future is not It’s good news for advertising.  The future is consumer created content and word-of-mouth.  And it is, whew, good news for anthropology.  The future is not a perfect fragmentation of consumer taste and preference. 

This world will fill with evolutionary options.  Out of this long tail noise will come winners who take, well, if not "all," then great big chucks of the marketing place.  The chief difference is that they will have to start small, risk big and leverage real talent.  But some of them, just a few of them, will prove to be show stealers.  To win in this marketplace and culture, that’s what it will take.  Not Jessica Simpson but Kyra Sedgwick.  Not Heather Graham but Holly Hunter.  Not Rebecca Romajin (Pepper Dennis), but oh, I don’t know, someone who can really act. 

Call this the rise of a chunky culture, no longer mass, not yet, and not ever, long tail.  The future of contemporary culture and contemporary culture?  It belongs to the show stealers.  I am not sure Nietzsche ever got that 3 picture deal from Hollywood he deserved, but it was he, I think, who anticipate the new industry when he said, "good poets don’t borrow, they steal." 

When Michael Keaton, James Woods, Kyra Sedgwick and Holly Hunter come to the "waste land" of television, we are looking at the era of the scene stealer, not the arrival of a long tail market.  Cable is not going to fragment still further.  It is beginning to chunk.  It is expanding enough to attract big talent, and with these steal stealers in place it will expand even more. 

There are plenty more things to say about chucky culture and commerce.  But I will close with just three.  Chunky culture is big enough to fund real talent.  (Where are the incentives in long tail markets?)  Chunky culture is big enough to encourage real risk.  (Where are the incentives in long tail markets?)   Chunky culture is big enough to have real  gravitational effects on contemporary culture.  (Long tail markets are a recreation of the tower of babel.)  Things like Arrested Development, this was long tail.  It grew big enough to max out and, God willing, it will flourish in a more narrow medium. 

But the other plays on Cable, these are now big enough to get bigger, and as they do we move from long tail to chucky. 


Andreeva, Nellie.  2006.  Hunter finds good "Grace" in TNT pilot.  Hollywood Reporter East. July 10, 2006, p. 1.

Nordyke, Kimberley.  2006.  Keaton, Turner make for Good Company.  Hollywood Report East. July 10, 2006, p. 5. 

Anthropology, sleeping giant or just sleeping?

Google_trend_iiiHere’s what happens when you enter the terms "anthropology" and "economics" as search terms in Google Trends Lab.  (Clicking on the image will make it larger and more legible.)

Economics looks pretty active.

Anthropology is flat lined. 

It’s a little tragic.

But note, most particularly, that no where do these lines intersect. 

Have a great week end.


Enter your own search terms at Google Trends Lab here.



Thanks to Dave Snell for a key email. 

Levitt vs. Geertz

Dell I’ve been on the road 33 of the last 44 days.  I have neglected blog comments.  I read them, certainly, but I don’t always have enough time or presence of mind to reply.

I mean to do better, starting now. 

Yesterday, Auto offered on comment on Friday’s post.  He wondered whether Theodore Levitt warrants the fuss lavished on him in managerial and marketing circles.  He wondered whether Levitt is perhaps less interesting, less significant that the anthropologist to whom I had compared him, Clifford Geertz.

I would argue that Levitt is more important to business than Geertz is to anthropology, and intellectually more interesting, in any case.  There are several ways to make this argument, but here’s one. 

Let’s consider a "case study" from the pages of Friday’s Financial Times. 

Dell is a $56 billion collosus.  Last year it grew 14% on revenue and 21% on earnings.  As we know, Dell managed this success story by supply chain management and a disintermediation of intermediate parties.  In this industry, to use the words of the famous video, Dell so commandeers the supply chain, it could argue, "All your base (and profit) are belong to us."

But things are no longer quite so rosy.  Dell’s massive price advantage has diminished.  With recent successes at HP, Acer and Lenovo, that advantage may now be as little as 5%.  (So speculates Richard Gardner of Citigroup in the Financial Times.)  Results in the last 3 quarters have disappointed and shares have fallen more than 40% in the last 12 months.

Now, in these circumstances, companies typically respond by doing what they have always done better than they have ever done it.  Indeed, Dell has squeezed $3 billion worth of savings out of what must have been a very lean system. 

But this is sometimes the road to disaster, especially when the competition is playing a discontinuous, Christensenian game, as most now do in the "innovation economy."

But at some point, the corporation sees that old tactics and strategies are no longer working.  Typically this is the moment that Levitt’s question begins to tug at the edges of senior managers’ consciousness. "What business are we in?"

In my experience, this question usually provokes a certain literalism.  In Dell’s case, likely, a surprised, "well, um, we make personal computers."

But this is of course the wrong answer.  Indeed, it is, or may be, the very assumption that now makes life difficult for the corporation.  Corporations are magnificent problem solving machines, but they are obliged, in a Batesonian way, to make some assumptions. Only thus can we "get down to business."  These assumptions will remain in place unless and until some crisis, or the Levittian question, forces them to the surface.

The power of Levitt’s question, then, is that it always elicits the wrong answer.  It is, I think, designed to reveal the invisible and therefore fatal assumption that is the corporation’s new place of competitive disadvantage.  Levitt’s question matters because it reveals, to use the buddhist’s notion, the error with which wisdom must begin. 

Let us examine what might be the course of Dell’s self examination.  Dell can’t be in the "personal computer" business.  After all, the personal computer is an historical accident and a fleeting thing.  The PC looks and feels like an indisputable, inevitable fact but it is an artifact shaped by accidents that "just happened" and "path dependencies" that have long since disappeared.  In point of fact, the personal computer is the unholy child produced out of wedlock by a brief and unlikely indiscretion on the part of IBM and Microsoft (with genetic contributions from Intel, Xerox, and Apple), and shaped ever since by a technological race to see what improvements could be made coaxed out of a "standard package" that is not, as I say, very standard at all.

If there is any doubt on this one, we have in the last few years watched as computer chips insinuate themselves into cars, household appliances, clock radios, Xboxes, iPods, PDAs and cell phones.  These are personal computers, too.  Indeed, they are more personal than the PC.

People at Dell are alive to the fact that the culture and the consumer have changed. Ro Parra, the head of Dell’s consumer business, watched his teenage daughter getting ready for her exams.

She was listening to music on the internet, she was chatting with her friends online, and she was doing research at the same time.  There is a dramatic change going on in the way people use computers. You can argue our products probably lost some of their sizzle and lost excitement relative to our competitors.

The marketer within cringes at the idea that Parra got the news from his daughter.  I mean really this is what marketing research is for.  But, very good, Dell is on notice.  The world is changing. 

Perhaps Dell is now poised to grasp additional opportunities, especially the MPC (more personal computer).  But fully to accept Levitt’s challenge, Dell will also have to get in touch with culture and consumers on a continual basis.  It is no longer enough merely to find the one true successor to the beige box but to engage in product development that contemplates and auditions a vertible stream of successors.  This will take new kinds of marketing research and strategy.  Finally, Dell will have to embrace a new level of design intelligence.  The iPod demonstrates that a new product must instruct the consumer in what it is and how it works in a single glance.  Dell did introduce a music player (Jukebox, pictured) a couple of years ago.  It was an impressively bad piece of design.  Design is a way of delivering novelty without provoking astonishment. 

These urgent tasks are not necessarily implicit in Levitt’s question, but the marketer cannot embrace them until he or she understands that the world has changed and that the old order has passed. 

In sum, Levitt’s question matters because it an opportunity to climb out of once profitable but now mistaken assumptions.  Climb out?  Bail out, more like it.  Mistaken assumptions will carry us to a terrible end if we don’t part company.  So, yes, it’s an important question. 

This may say enough to make the argument, but a couple more words. Clifford Geertz is one of the great architects of anthropology’s interpretive turn.  His elegant essays and books help us see the ways in which culture and meanings form the social world.  This is precisely the sort of thing that is removed by economic man models, to hat’s off to this aspect of his work and his influence.  (I should also acknowledge that I am a Geertzian as everyone trained in the 1970s must be, and that I became an anthropologist largely on the strength of his influence.)

The thing about Geertz is that his actor is almost always a theatrical actor, playing out dramas and meanings.  There isn’t much room here for agency and absolutely no room for cultural forms that emerge from the concatenation of economic actors and activities "on the ground."  This is of course an important "site of production" in contemporary, First world cultures and while the Geertzian influence has a beneficial effect on the students on traditional societies, it is not much help when it comes to the rest of the world.

Indeed, ours is a culture in which everyone and not just the corporation routinely discovers that favorite assumptions no longer actually seem to apply.  Everyone, not just the corporation, is having to ask "what is it that I am, what is that I do" on a continual basis.  This suspends the actor not in a web of meaning but in a set of a conflicting, largely inscrutable agenda and the dynamism that these agenda set in train.  First we must read the world, guessing at codes, grasping at interpretations.  And then we must decide what and who we are.  What makes sense?  What makes sense?  What’s our best hope? 

Levitt’s question applies not just to the corporation but to culture, and we cannot answer it without giving the actor the agency, the self interest, and the active intelligence that Geertz and anthropology seem sometimes to have taken out.


Allison, Kevin.  2006.  Can Dell Succeed in getting its mojo back.  Financial Times.  June 29, 2006, p. 17.

McMansion trend

Is the McMansion trend breaking?  Has it broken.  The Wall Street Journal seems to think so.

The WSJ defines a "McMansion" as a house larger than 5000 square feet with 4 or more bedrooms.  We might add that it has a gratuitous scalen and a quality of forced (and therefore unsuccessful) grandeur.  McMansions often look like they are making status claims beyond their due. 

To use the phrase just used by the woman sitting beside me on the brown line of Chicago’s transit system, the one with "Funno" tattooed in Spencerian script on her neck in line with her adam’s apple, McMansions are often, but not always, found in "uppity-ass neighborhoods."  The Wall Street Journal also notes that "McMansion" is often used in a derisive way to describe any house larger than the speaker’s own.

There are nearly 3.2 million homes in the US that are 4000 square feet or larger.  This figure is up 11% since the last survey in 2001.

The WSJ speculates that there at least 6 factors driving the McMansion downturn.

1) the overall slump in the housing marketing.

2) the rise in heating and cooling costs.

3) the jump in interest rates.

4) that fact that boomers are moving to smaller quarters.

5) the fact that the next cohort is marrying later and having smaller families.

6) the fact some people now prefer higher quality contruction to bigger spaces.

But the WSJ doesn’t seem much interested in the cultural drivers of this development, and there are several candidates here:

7) Susanka’s "small house" movement.

8) new models of the family, family interaction, family solidarity. 

9) the possibility that the BoBo sensibility described by David Brooks may have "gone wide."

10)  the possibility that the larger trend towards conspicuous consumption, so robust these last 20 years, may now be receding.

Someone should be investigating.  If any of the factors 7 through 10 are germane, we are in for some very interesting changes in culture and economy. 


Fletcher, June.  2006.  The McMansion Glut.  Wall Street Journal.  June 16, 2006., pp. W1, W8.

McCracken, Grant. 2006.  Homeyness.  Culture and Consumption II.  Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Music Week for the “culture and economics” world


Unofficially, this is music week for bloggers interested in culture and economics. Over at Knowledge Problem, Lynne Kieslinghas some thoughts on implications of the long tail market for the music industry, and Mike Giberson contemplates format changes in Washington radio (refs. and links below).

This Blog Sits At is eager to make itself useful, and on Friday, I offered thoughts on Pink’s new album. Today, I want to share an email I got from John Galvin.  I had been wondering what magazines I should be subscribing to in the music category, and in matters of this kind I do nothing without advice of counsel.  John has more than once wowed me with his command of popular culture in general and music in particular, so I turned to him. 

Here, by kind permission, is the email with which John laid out a couple of music magazine subscription options.

Hi Grant – Your request is both flattering and well-timed:  I have recently (for about the fourth time in my life) embarked on a get-back-in-touch-with-music campaign, energized by the recent (and far-too-late) addition of an iPod to my life, and a realization that I’ve been living in the land of ‘new releases by bands I already know I like’ for too long. I’ve re-subscribed to magazines, forced myself out the door to shows at local clubs, and have made music sites and bit torrents part of my daily internet regimen.

Musically, I was raised on mostly American mid-80s through early-90s alterna-indie-rock, and so my suggestions reflect that.  That said, I think you should subscribe to, or at least monitor, the following:

Magnet ( – this magazine, more than any other, covers the music I like/love.  Some of the regular contributors piss me the holy hell off (especially Jonathan Valania), but it’s usually in a productive way (except Jonathan Valania).  Their most frequent sin is a "hipper than thou," "oh you don’t know that already?" tone…but that’s to be expected, and perhaps desired, in one’s music journalism.  (And anyway, they don’t violate as egregiously in this area as my next suggestion.)  Comes out of Philadelphia, with a CD in every issue, and LOTS of album reviews.  Short, one- or two-page sections on other genres (e.g., folk, jazz) – just the right amount for this reader – are at the back.  When you subscribe, online or by subscription card, you get the current issue in the mail about 3 days later, in a hand-addressed envelope.  No “please allow 6-8 weeks”: this isn’t a big corporate mag.  While they put together a top-rate, slick publication with great cover photos, it’s obvious even from the transaction of the subscription that there’s a room somewhere in Philly, filled with guys (sic) who love this music and want other people to love it, too.  To be read to understand and keep current with the enduring indie-rock-loving, alt-country-loving rock critic culture.  For the music I like, Magnet is the best one-stop place to keep up-to-date with new bands and developments and (re-)releases for established acts.

Paste ( – Only on its 20th issue or so, this magazine covers more than just music.  Comes with a CD/DVD every issue.  Has an artsy orientation and is more concerned with what’s intellectually hip in white alt.culture than with what’s good music, per se (cf. the recent cover of Philip Seymour Hoffman…mind you, this is only a problem if you want your music magazine to be a *music* magazine; nothing wrong with Philip Seymour Hoffman on the cover of a magazine).  Paste comes from a "why everyone you know who’s smart likes this already" rather than a "why *we* like this" perspective.  (The latter of which better describes Magnet, which is why I like it more.)  I use it to make sure there’s nothing major I’m missing, and because they write about so much of what I like – but their coverage of artists I already know about often irritates me, leaves me feeling condescended to, that they’ve missed something, that they were too ‘meta’ about the ‘significance’ or ‘importance’ of their topic.  If NPR was a music/arts/culture magazine, it’d be Paste.  Don’t get me wrong: it’s beautiful, slick (er, matte), and always engrossing; the DVD material alone is usually worth the price of admission.

Fader ( – I’m personally not all *that* enthused by this magazine but I think it’s still useful and pick it up on the newsstand now and then.  It covers (from a very "white" perspective) an intentionally wide range of musics…always 2 different covers for every issue, usually of conflicting music styles (the current issue is available with either Ghostface Killah or Sweden’s Love Is All gracing the front).  Black music is frequently covered but from a music critic point of view, never a hip-hop culture point of view.  That’s just a for instance; they are intentionally "multi-cultural" so I use hip-hop as merely an example.  Fader is always super-hip: hey, here’s that Brazilian band you’ve just *got* to know about.

And for a website to know what indie/alt-music culture is up to on a regular basis: This is where I go, daily, to make sure I know about upcoming tours of bands that I’ll want to see, new albums, etc.  There’s culture here, but it’s my culture, so it’s invisible to me – I go here to learn about stuff and routinely say to friends, "Did you see on Pitchfork that….?"

The British mags Q and Mojo are worth keeping tabs on if your inner music fan has any anglophile in him at all, and maybe even if he doesn’t.  American music journalism treats its heroes with an awestruck reverence, saving irreverence only for fans, and those artists “we” have all agreed to find silly (e.g., Britney Spears, Kenny G, Courtney Love).  British music journalism refreshingly channels its irreverence toward great and crappy artists alike, and that reason alone makes Q or Mojo a good occasional purchase.

Hope that helps.

Very helpful indeed.  Thank you, John, for that superb survey. I am placing my subscriptions now. 


Giberson, Michael. 2006. Washington Area Radio Reshuffles the Deck Chairs. April 4, 2006. here.

Kiesling, Lynne. 2006. Has the death of the music lapel started. Knowledge Problem. April 3, 2006. here.

Branding strategies: Finding the cult in culture


Some brands are in the right place at the right time.  One minute, they are muddling in obscurity.  The next, greatness is bestowed upon them.  Every trend produces winners of this kind: Nike in the 1970s, Filofax in the 1980s, Snapple in the 1990s. 

This is pretty much what happened to Birkenstocks.  Sometime in the late 1960s, these odd little shoes were adopted by hippies and flower children.  They became a telling consumer choice and they entered a body of consumer choices (macrobiotics, granola, cork curtains, macrame wall hangings, tie die t-shirts, candles, frisbees, bicycles, Volvos).  Birkenstocks came to signal a hostility for industrial, capitalist, consumer, urban and urbane society.  For some consumers, they were a badge of ideological courage and convictions.  For others, well, some people took their Birkenstocks and quietly burned them in the garden. 

Quite often, marketers work to soften the edges of the new brand, the better to expand the market.  Not Birkenstocks.  Scott Radcliffe, the marketing director at Birkenstock Distribution USA, says "the brand’s strong point is its power to elicit both positive and negative reactions. That speaks to the bigger cultural relevance of the brand. That’s something I want to participate in. That’s not something I’m trying to shake."

Birkenstock didn’t mind when their shoes ended up dressing the feet of Senator Ortolan Finistirre, an antismoking environmentalist Democrat from Vermont, played by William H. Macy in the new movie, Thank you for smoking.  The director of the movie, Jason Reitman, used the brand to a purpose:

"Nothing says, ‘I want to tell you how to live your life’ more than Birkenstocks," The visual registers immediately. There’s something about the shoe that is universally understood that makes it so funny. The sandals are emblems of liberal do-gooderness."

For Radcliffe, this, too, was okay.  "Birkenstock fans," he said, "feel like they’re part of something bigger than most other shoe choices, frankly."

This branding strategy is clear.  Forget maximizing the market.  Forswear the extensive game of appealing to more consumers for the intensive one of appealing more to existing consumers.   Stay small.  Keep the faith. 

Most marketers will sneer at this.  The point of all marketing is to expand the market, to maximize the opportunity, to harvest the profit.  But there are reasons to suppose that the Birkenstocks strategy will assume new important in the marketer’s playbook. 

Some of these are technical.  Some growth strategies are driven by the 20% grow rule imposed by the street.  Private ownership will make a difference here.   There is also a growing feeling that no brand flourishes in the death valley between big brands and niche ones.  There is no chance for Birkenstock to makes its way across the death valley and install itself as a big brands.  So don’t bother trying

But the Birkenstock strategy is also driven by the new logic of the market place.  The connection between brands and consumers is now a relationship.  Brand recognition has become brand engagement.  The "value proposition" is less about a USP than a place in the consumer’s concept of who they are and what their world is.  So when a cultural trend fashions all of this for you, maybe the smart thing to do is to stay put and explore the riches of niches. 

"So how do we make any money?" will be the heart felt question of the true marketer.  And the answer I think is, more brands.  Not brand extensions.  This, as we know, is where brand intensity goes to die.  No, real, full blooded, utterly different brands.  These are hell to manage for a single company, to be sure.  But we are looking at a new marketplace, and more, smaller, more distinct brands, may be a new objective for us all.


Carr, Coeli.  2006.  Thank You for Insulting Our Sandals.  New York Times.  March 12, 2005. 

Experience marketing or identity supply?


Yesterday, I was staying at a boutique hotel in Washington, The Topaz. The hotel supplied two dressing gowns. This is pretty standard. What is less standard: the dressing gowns were leopard "skin" and zebra "skin," respectively. There’s nothing subtle about the designs. They are bold, unmistakable, and deeply weird.

Apparently, what happens at the Topaz stays at the Topaz. This little hotel is engaged in "experience marketing" and encouraging visitors to make an ordinary stay more "adventurous" and "exotic."

There’s a theatrical scenario built in to this clothing. Leopards chase, attack and kill Zebras. So you’d want to be careful which dressing gown you put on, I guess. But for those with the courage to wear the gown, there is a little drama waiting to happen, and some couples will find this an inducement for interactions that might not otherwise have occurred to them.

Self discovery is a long standing promise of the creative fields.  It has only recently entered the commercial sector in any serious way.  (Um, maybe this is wrong.)  What is new, surely, is the number of commercial players who offer "identity exploration" is one of their deliverables.  Who are the best players here?  What is the state of the art?  To what extent could this be one of the futures of marketing?

Economic Man: Absent without leave in the pages of the NYT


Yesterday, David Brooks declared the displacement, perhaps the end, of economics as we know it.

Economics, which assumes people are basically reasonable and respond straightforwardly to incentives, is no longer queen of the social sciences.  The events of the past years have thrown us back to the murky realms of theology, sociology, anthropology and history. Even economists know this, and are migrating to more behaviorialist and cultural approaches.

For a guy who has distinguished himself as someone with special powers of pattern recognition, it’s a disappointing showing.  And as someone who presumes to write a blog that sits at the intersection of economics and anthropology, I feel I should respond.

First, there is some evidence that economic man is "on the run," abandoning, in the process, our dearest assumptions about the actor’s rationality and the reasonableness.

But notice, most of the irrationality that troubles the political world come from people who are not very good at being economic actors.  Most of us suspect that if the countries and cultures of the Middle East had real economies, they would be very much less inclined to take umbrage against slights, real and imagined, inflicted or merely drawn.  Certain Middle Eastern countries and cultures appear to live in a perpetual state of status anxiety, a condition exacerbated by the fact that they do not have real economies and the benefits, liberties, and dignities that flow there from.  (This argument is hardly original.  It appears to be one of the mainstays of the Bush Whitehouse.  And there is no chance that it is mysterious to Brooks who knows this White House very well.)

So, no, actually, it is a little early to start declaring the death or displacement of economic man.  He may be challenged or beleaguered where economies are diminished or compromised.  But, hey, that’s why we call him economic man.  He is unlikely to flourish everywhere.  (And surely, he would be murdered in his sleep in most traditional, face to face, societies.)

But Brooks finds evidence of the elipse of economic man in Western, market societies where "cultural differences become more pronounced, not less, as different groups chase
different visions of the good life."  But this obscures the fact economic man is the very platform on which most of this Cambrian cultural invention is made to happen. 

It was as if the species always over-estimated the constraints that needed to be imposed, and the conformity that needed to be extracted, for a social world to work as a social world.  We could read the West as an experiment in the dismantlement in these constraints, and the creation of a market economy as an "eureka moment" in this experiment.  The more this market economy established itself, the smaller proved to be the constraint/conformity rule set required for social, cultural, and political order.  Once the market economy was fully in place, once this served as the great gyroscope of the social world, individuals and groups were released to rework their cultural definitions.  Now a great profusion of cultural invention was now inevitable.  This invention may appear to efface the rationality and reasonableness of economic man.  I prefer to think it demonstrates what can be accomplished once commerce is made to serve a platform for culture. 

We are only beginning to think of ways to think about this relationship between culture and commerce.  The complex theorists give point the way by giving us models that help reveal how culture patterns can emerge from commercial ones.  Neither this larger intellectual project, nor the complexity theory contribution to it, can be unknown to Brooks. 

Certainly, it’s true that there are parts of the economics model that require renovations more dramatic than anything ever dreamed of by a University of Chicago economist.  But these will come in time.  Truly, market societies release forces and powers that now make the world various and inscrutable.  But we will come to terms with these mysteries not by displacing economic man, but seeing that he maximizes with a cunning we have yet to fathom. 


Brooks, David.  2006.  Questions of Culture.  New York Times.  February 19, 2006. 

Being Mitch Hurwitz

Tomorrow, I am doing a presentation at the Media Summit in NYC.  (1:00-2:30 at McGraw-Hill Building, 1221 Ave. of the Americas at 49th St. [6th Ave].  I think if you say you are my parent, brother, sister, son, daughter, or cousin they will probably let you in.)

The title for the session is Developing the Next Generation of Entertainment, Media & Technology Thinkers and Visionaries – Science vs. Commerce vs. Theory. 

Anna Marie Piersimoni of the American Film Institute has set the theme which is, roughly, the   rapidly changing landscape of technology, ideas and behavior in entertainment media and its affect of these on the future of university education in the field.

We only have 10 minutes, but I am going to give a presentation called "Being Mitch Hurwitz: strategies for managing new media."

My slides:

Slide 1: We hold these truths to be self evident

that there are
new consumers
fragmentation of taste and preference
newly participatory, newly aggressive
new producers
cable outlets, video games, bloggers, fan fic, etc.
new media
DVD, internet, mobile phones, cable, etc.
that the entertainment industry is struggling to catch up
that the university world is well behind the curve
this is an opportunity to make ourselves useful
my approach: a Harvard Business School model
a transmedia model
Mitch Hurwitz has a problem, we can help solve it

Slide 2:

Strategy 1: a business model Mitch Hurwitz & Arrested Development
4.3 million viewers a week too small for Fox, not bad for TNT (e.g., The Closer)
a case of long tails, fat middles (& arrested development)
thinking technologies, i.e., more nimble business models
what we need, very precise measures:
the break even numbers for each production model
how much does it cost MH to make AD for PT, cable, DVD, etc.
the break even numbers for each channel
how many viewers/buyers does MH need for each channel
the momentum indicators
who is watching, how fast are they signing on, can MH wait?
loyalty vs. churn measures do we keep viewers or entertain new people every week?
loyalists, are they dense or distributed? informed or not? in or pending?
a predictive model MH could have used

Slide 3:

Strategy 2: Transmedia
what MH might have done in the first instance
transmedia as a way of building an audience
(e.g., Batman, several comics, several movies, fan fic)
Henry Jenkins.  Transmedia.  Cultural Convergence.  Forthcoming.
alternative ADs licensed or merely encouraged
fan fic, internet,
dividing the labor across several creative streams
let them run, unapologetic difference,
complete cocreation compliance
opportunities for engagement/participation/knowledge
solves the diffusion problem of strategy 1
MH doesn’t have to start cold, people know about it, and bec. they are coauthors they tune in to “see what you’ve done with the idea”
in the meantime, MH then scales up steadily to prime time AD starts small: internet, small cable, big cable, network, prime time

Slide 4: the academic contribution

1) to determine the alternative producing communities, how they work, how MH draw upon them
2) to build this knowledge into the curriculum so that students leave the academy with a fuller knowledge of contemporary culture, and how they can make a living in this culture
3) bringing business models to the liberal arts (yeah, right)

For more details on the conference here.

Session Participants

Moderator, Anna Marie Piersimoni, Director, Internet Communications, Director, Media & Technology, American Film Institute    
Allen Sabinson, Dean of Antoinette Westphal College of Media, Arts & Design. Drexel University     Carol Wilder, Associate Dean & Chair, Media Studies & Film, The New School    
Paul Levinson, Ph.D., Professor and Chair of the communication and Media Studies Department, Fordham University    
Scott B. Barnett, Assoc. Director of Academic Computing, Sarah Lawrence College

Ovidian capitalism


If you’re not a Marxist at 20, there’s something wrong with your heart.  If you’re still a Marxist at 30, there’s something with your head.

So say the English, and quite right too.  When I was 20, I was persuaded that capitalism was the villain of the piece.  I believed there must have been a historical turning point when good hearted villagers devoted to mutual aid were so corrupted by the marketplace that they now lived lives of suspicion, estrangment, and desperation.  The professor from our sociology course in second year sung us this, the "cash nexus," lullabye so often we know it by heart. 

Most of us snap out of it.  (Not that sociology professor, of course. He’s got tenure.)  For many of us, capitalism is then a grim reality, something to be obeyed as the arbiter of our work-a-day lives.  If we think about capitalism…well, mostly we don’t think about capitalism. It is an ineluctable force, and mostly an impenetrable one.  We could become economists, but unless we have the good fortune to become Tyler Cowen, we are taking orders in a dismal science, committing ourselves to the tedious reckoning of the collective effects of all that getting and spending.  Capitalism, impenetrable perhaps but never mysterious.  Most of us would rather sell aluminium siding.

Not so fast.  Selling aluminium siding is a lot less fun than it looks.  And besides there is another way of looking at capitalism that makes it a good deal less dismal and rather more fascinating.  It is to say that capitalism is a transformation machine.  It allows for all things to be reckoned relative to one another.  It allows almost anything to be turned into almost anything else.  In one of the great Ovidian exercises of the 16th century for instance, a man could turn himself from a striving, grasping commoner into a gentleman, and he could do this merely by turning iron (mongering) first into gold and then gold into a manorial home, a well appointed wardrobe, and table growing with silver and hospitality.  (That the English were better at this transformation than the French explains, I believe, a substantial part of the relative wealth of these nations.) 

I always thought this "conversion," or "transformation" effect was the proper domain, or at least the likely preoccupation of the anthropologist.  And I figured that it must be a latter day revelation.  But this all ended when John Wheeler.  In 1601, Mr. Wheeler published A Treatise of Commerce.  He wrote this book in his capacity as the secretary of the Society of Merchant Adventures. And indeed his Treatise is generally dismissed as a piece of sustained shilling by Wheeler on behalf of his employers.  At their most generous, historians call the Treatise an early pamphlet in the field of public relations. 

Oh, but it’s much more than that.

In the opening pages, Wheeler wants to observe how much of the world is now part of the marketplace.

For there is nothing in the world so ordinary and natural unto men, as to contract, truck, merchandise, and traffic one with another, so that it is almost unpossible for three persons to converse together two hours, but they will fall into talk of one bargain or another, chopping [i.e., bartering], changing [i.e., exchanging], or some other kind of contract. 

Everyone does it.

The Prince with his subjects, the master with his servants, one friend and acquaintance withanother, the captain with his soldiers, the husband with his wife, women with and among themselves, and in a word, all the world choppeth and changeth, runneth and raveth after marts, markets and merchandising.

And then Wheeler reaches out of his workmanlike treatise for something like the sublime.  Having glimpsed how commerce was now implied everywhere apparently with everyone, Wheeler now proposes a reciprocal effect: that commerce must be a conduit of culture.

            … all things come into commerce, and pass into traffic…


Wheeler, John.  2004 (1601).  A Treatise of Commerce.  Clark, New Jersey: The Lawbook Exchange, Ltd. 

Misreading Adam Smith (and, why we love technology)

Adam_smithSorry not to have posted yesterday.  I am in Pasadena for a conference and only narrowly survived JetBlue passage from JFK.  It is 6 hours in the air, 9 all together and it took awhile before powers of thought and speech returned.

I had the occasion to observe how powerfully the JetBlue brand manages to make the best of a bad situation and very close quarters.  And I have never been so grateful for the good company of bad TV.  But there is a limit to what even great brands to do, and over 6 hours, the press of fellow passengers makes the whole thing feel like steerage, or, possibly, that we have been kidnapped and stuffed in a trunk.  My advice: use this airline only for shorter flights, and then be careful to sit in the back of the plane where there are two extra inches of room.

I also had occasion to read a little Adam Smith, specifically passages from The Theory of Moral Sentiments.  (I don’t care how crowded the plane, there’s always room for the other Scottish philosopher.)  As an anthropologist interested in economics, you would think that I know my Smith left, right and center.  The truth is otherwise. 

Too bad.  Because here I discovered Smith offering a very anthropological account of why we care about technology.  The second paragraph could have been written to describe any one of us, burdened as we usually are by a laptop, PDA, cell phone, and Blackberry.  As Smith says, we "walk about loaded with a multitude of baubles."

A watch, in the same manner, that falls behind above two minutes in a day, is despised by one curious in watches. He sells it perhaps for a couple of guineas, and purchases another at fifty, which will not lose above a minute in a fortnight. The sole use of watches however, is to tell us what o’clock it is, and to hinder us from breaking any engagement, or suffering any other inconveniency by our ignorance in that particular point. But the person so nice with regard to this machine, will not always be found either more scrupulously punctual than other men, or more anxiously concerned upon any other account, to know precisely what time of day it is. What interests him is not so much the attainment of this piece of knowledge, as the perfection of the machine which serves to attain it.

How many people ruin themselves by laying out money on trinkets of frivolous utility? What pleases these lovers of toys is not so much the utility, as the aptness of the machines which are fitted to promote it. All their pockets are stuffed with little conveniencies. They contrive new pockets, unknown in the clothes of other people, in order to carry a greater number. They walk about loaded with a multitude of baubles, in weight and sometimes in value not inferior to an ordinary Jew’s-box, some of which may sometimes be of some little use, but all of which might at all times be very well spared, and of which the whole utility is certainly not worth the fatigue of bearing the burden.

Now, its clear that Smith wants to make this argument to take issue with ideas of utility he wishes to correct, and it is clear that to use this argument for my own purposes, I am misreading it, or at least removing it from its proper rhetorical and logical context.

But, hey.  (Now that’s a nice little anthropological moment, isn’t it?  You know exactly what I am doing with "but, hey" [telling you that I am going to do what I know I should, strictly speaking, not do] but you are capable of that interpretation only because you have occupied this culture for the last 20 years.  Mr. Smith, on the other hand, would be mystified.) 

It is as if Smith is saying that there is something about the object that serves as an expression of its use, that it works, when we look upon it, as an anticipation of itself, as a kind of prediction of its efficacy.  It’s as if Smith is saying that we treasure the object, that we take pleasure in the sight of the object, because it is a time machine showing us what it can do. 

The view of the object (watch or PDA) treats it as a statement of the owner’s enablement or potentiality.  And clearly the other Scottish philosopher was on to something.  Objects add enablement to the owner.  Without apology or hesitation, we claim this enablement as our own.  Nice work, Mr. Smith.   The utility is not (only) the function.  The utility is not (only) the enablement.  The utility is (also) that new confidence that in a world of astonishing complexity and dynamism, we are enabled. 

The trouble with anthropology and economics is that they meet only at an intersection, and then proceed, without a second thought or a fare thee well, in different directions.  So it’s charming when we may suggest, however dubiously, that this was not always so, that a founding economist saw us whole. 


Smith, Adam.  1759. Of the Effect of Utility upon the Sentiment of Approbation Consisting of One Section.  Part IV of The Theory of the Moral Sentiments.  Available on line here


Thanks to Virginia Postrel for bringing this passage to my attention.  See Virginia’s website here.

Higher education, finally

MitWe have a problem in higher education.  Students must now choose between cultural studies and professional studies (specifically, business school).

If they choose the former, they swear off real engagement (and full employment) in the world.  If they choose latter, they swear off a deeper knowledge of the culture in which they will compete.

This is a long standing problem.  It plays out that distinction between the "world renouncing" liberal arts and the "world embracng" professional studies.  But it is a problem that has been made more grevious by two things: the continual retreat from the world performed by cultural studies and the continual interpenetration of culture and commerce in the marketplace.  The rapproachment of the two fields is, in other words, both more difficult and more urgent.

Let me put this more concretely.  Most business schools do nothing to advance the cultural literacy of the MBA graduate.  This despite the fact that success in marketing, innovation, management and the capital markets now turns more and more on a mastery here.  I noticed this particularly at the Harvard Business School, where almost without exception knowledge of contemporary culture is excluded from the classroom.  Occasionally, when teaching there, I would make a contemporary culture reference (Righteous Babe Records, the early long tail experiment by Ani DiFranco, say).  Students would look at me in astonishment, either because they had never heard of Ms. DiFranco, or because they knew her music perfectly well but never "in a million years" expected to hear her name spoken at HBS.

I am on record as believing that cultural studies has  systematically removed itself not just from real world usefulness but from any intellectual vantage point that would allow us thoughtfully to examine the interactions of culture and commerce.

The question has long been who would step up and create a program in the excluded middle?  Who would establish a rapprochment between these two worlds? Who would create a program that was fully informed and fully engaged?

I wonder whether blogging might someday serve this role.  How would we turn the materials that issue from the blogging world into the stuff of a higher education?  Interesting question, one that my new colleagues at Corante may well someday answer.

In the meantime, I am happy to report that the Comparative Media Studies at MIT is making extraordinary strides.  I realised this when responding this morning to a request on the part of a Dartmouth undergraduate who asked me to recommend a graduate program.  My reply:

Dear Sarah,

Thanks for your note.  I am happy to make myself useful in the review of some of the options, but I have to say I was yesterday  (belately) getting to know the people at the Comparative Media Studies Program at MIT, and it’s a really impressive program (and probably your best choice).

The graduate students would be a joy to have as colleagues.  […] 

The core of the enterprise is Henry Jenkins, and he is the odds-on-bet for the most gifted/prolific/seminal/formative guy in the field of contemporary culture.  He is well published which gives you a chance to have a look and decide if his approach works for you. 

Finally, the program appears to be breaking out of that world renouncing reflex of the academic world and is now working with some of the cultural producers in contemporary culture (e.g., MTV) in the creation of a real partnership.  This effectively collapses the distance between cultural studies and the business schools, using one to make up the deficit of the other.

All in all, it’s a pretty good choice for graduate study, equally useful as preparation for further academic study or a career in the world.  Hope this helps.  Let’s talk if there is anything I’ve left out or can elaborate on.  Best, Grant


McCracken, Grant. 2005. Culture studies and capital markets: parallel or converging?
November 08, 2005. here.  (for more on my unhappiness with Cultural Studies)

McCracken, Grant. 2005. Professor Quelch and the marketing manager
October 11, 2005. here.  (for more on my unhappiness with the b-school world)

Rap and the esteem economy


In Freakonomics, Steven Levitt contemplates an important puzzle: that, in the 1990s, violent crime in the US fell suddenly and steeply.  

Levitt reviews, and finds wanting, the usual explanations. He says the drop in violent crime cannot be exhaustively explained by any one, or combination, of the following factors:

Innovative policing strategies

Increased reliance on prisons

Changes in crack and other drug markets

Aging of the population

Tougher gun control laws

Strong economy

Increased number of police

All other explanations (increased use of capital punishment, concealed-weapons laws, gun buybacks, and others)

Levitt has his own, now famous, account: legalized abortion diminished the population most likely to commit crime, specifically teens brought into the world by reluctant mothers. (2005:139)

I think we are still missing something. Call it the “esteem” or “Goffman” explanation. 

As Levitt points out, we are talking not about crime but violent crime (2005: 121). Lesser crimes, burglary, robbery and auto-theft, for instance, have a “direct financial motivation.”  Violent crimes (assault, rape, homicide) appear to have an extra-economic motivation. They damage not only the material interests of the victim, but something more. Victims of assault and rape say that they feel diminished and even humiliated, and that this immaterial loss creates injury every bit as grievous as the loss of money and possessions.

Violent crime is a crime against esteem, as much as it is a crime against property.  (By “esteem,” I mean the value attacked to the individual by the individual and by others. We could also call this “face,” as Goffman did.)  And it is as a crime against esteem that it is sometimes committed.  This is to say that the diminishment and humiliation felt by the victim is no mere accident of the crime, but the very outcome the criminal sometimes intends.  

If violent crime began to fall in the 1990s, the anthropological question is this: why was the need to commit crimes against esteem felt less urgently than before? What had changed? 

To answer this question, we must answer several smaller questions. First, we must ask who would commit violent crime as a crime against esteem.  I think violent crime is mostly like to come from those who have suffered attacks upon esteem of their own.  Those who live in poverty are often subject to belittling stigma and stereotype. (These are “violent crimes” of an endemic, slow motion, rhetorical kind.) 

When committed by this group, violent crimes may be seen to have an element of retribution and, possibly, redistribution.  Victims are punished for having so much esteem when the criminal has so little. It seems to me unlikely that the criminal also hopes for redistribution. The criminal doesn’t get to “keep” the esteem he/she “takes” from a victim. (This is of course an ethnographic question that should not be answered from an armchair.)  But something like redress has been accomplished. The criminal might not have more esteem, but the victim does at least have less.

What, then, has changed for those who come from poverty, that they should feel the need to commit crimes against esteem less urgently. I believe the answer to this question comes from the single most important development in musical taste of the last 30 years, the rise of the musical form variously called rap, hip hop, gangsta and here called rap.  

Rap bestowed new esteem upon impoverished urban teen.  As long as it remained the possession of impoverished teens, black and white, it did not change the esteem equation.  But sometime in the late 1980s, it crossed over into the mainstream, black and white.  Beastie Boys and Run-DMC were calculated to have cross over appeal, and the former’s Fight For Your Right entered the top ten in 1986.  In 1988, Public Enemy released It Takes A Nation and NWA released Straight Outta Compton. Gangsta rap was now headed for the suburbs. And once this diffusion of musical form had taken place, the position of the impoverished teen went from scorned loser to a creature of standing, status, and credibility.  So utterly did rap win the day that, with a brief but interesting interruption in the form of “alternative music,” the children of the suburbs now wanted very much to walk, talk and otherwise conduct themselves as if they came from very different socio-economic origins.

The rise of rap represented a massive transfer of esteem from the teens of the middle class suburb to those of the impoverished city. There was in short an abrupt and thoroughgoing reversing of the asymmetries. Those who once suffered esteem shortages now enjoyed whacking, great surpluses. Violent crime? To protest what exactly?  To exact a revenge?  To appropriate esteem?  Violent crime was now an antique of another age, the dangerous preoccupation of another generation, an activity that was now just odd.  I believe this is why violent crime began to drop in the early 1990s.  As the suburbs began to absorb rap, the esteem economy began to tip in a new direction.  Violent crime has become an increasingly pointless enterprise. 


Bourois, Philippe. 1995. In Search of Respect: Selling Crack in El Barrio. New York Cambridge University Press.

Levitt, Steven D. 2005. Freakonomics: a rogue economist explores the hidden side of everything. New York: William Morrow.

post script: sorry this is a little rushed. relatives for dinner!