Category Archives: Trends, Shifts and Developments

Klaus Schwab and power now

The power shift is twofold.  Power is shifting from the center to the periphery, and from the top to the bottom.

This is the sort of thing we would expect to hear from the organizers of Burning Man or SxSW. 

But this comes from Klaus Schwab, founder of Davos, the meeting of world leaders and the World Economic Forum each year in Switzerland.

Landler of the Times says  Schwab has "managed to keep Davos a hot ticket for three decades by latching on to the latest political and business trends."
A claim like this gives a guy a certain credibility.  Schwab found a way to create a trend (Davos) And then he found a way to make the trend ride the trends. 

These are many and include,

  • the celebrity activitist (Bono, Gabriel)
  • ex-presidents as world leaders (Clinton, Carter, Clinton)
  • the celebrity CEO (Gates, Jobs, endlessly etc.)
  • the rise of the corporation as the defacto engine of international initiative
  • the rise of the corporation as the defacto unit of international organization
  • the precipitous decline of the United Nations
  • the end of Cold War "simplicities" and the rise of a newly complicated political world
  • the globalization of the corporation
  • the globalization of the industry
  • the globalization of senior management (Coke’s Goizueta was rare, Nissan’s Ghosn is not)
  • the need for executives to network across corporations, industries and countries

Impressive, to be sure.  But still we are struck.  At the very moment that Schwab is helping wire capitalism for global light and sound, at the very moment he’s created a network to make elites more elite, he tells us that the fundamentals of power are changing.

Sure, this could be his mea culpa.  But what if it isn’t?  What if from those alpine heights, Schwab can see things that are not visible to the more mortal?  This would be good news, certainly.  Most of us think its probably a good thing that power is shifting outwards from the center and downwards from on-high.  (At least, until it gets to us, and then, whoa, nelly.)  But, really what proof do we have that power is diffusing?  I am sure that Zogby and Yankelovitch data bases might be useful here.  But we bloggers are left to our own resources.Google_trends_ray_vs_stewart_1

One of the things we could do here is to press the new trend watching tools into service.  Google Trends Lab allows us to compare search terms.  Naturally, the entire enterprise is fraught with every kind of methodological objection.  What are we measuring?  Are we not always and necessarily comparing apples and oranges?  I believe that the path to truth is probably paved with the results of many, imperfect, instruments.  The patterns that emerge are so powerful that they can aggregate effortlessly upward.   And this is everyone’s idea of a robust pattern. 

I got out Google Trends Lab to see if I could find anything that supported Schwab’s argument.  What I really wanted was something that would allow me to chart the decline of medical authority.  For my money, this is one of the surest indicators of a shift in the nature of authority.  When people begin to supplant or at least supplement the advise of an elite as elite as the medical community with the advice from vitamin and dream catcher salesman, and when they are putting their physical wellbeing at risk in the process, this is evidence that something quite extraordinary is up. 

I could not find a way to capture this.  For one thrilling second, I thought I could use Everett Koop as one term and Dr. Weil as the other.  But Everett does not register. In any case, the trick here is to find a matched pair of this kind, the better to perform what a father of American anthropology, Fred Eggan, used to call a "controlled comparison."  The good thing about Koop and Weil is that they share many similarities and one or two very big differences.  Both are well respected doctors, with one standing for a relatively mainstream approach to medicine and the other a more alternative approach.  I thought they both had advice-dispensing websites, but this is wrong.  (Koop does not). 

Then I began casting around for a matched pair from any domain or industry.  I wondered if we could compare Martha Stewart and Rachel Ray.  This works much better.  Both are celebrities, both occupy the same cultural domain, both have TV shows, both are advice givers.  Here at least we can see the terms crossing.  This may be a question of relative celebrity.  It may be a function of how much TV exposure the two receive or the attention being given their private lives.  But there is a rough chance that Martha Stewart stands for the old model of authority (the expert gives advice from on high to a grateful and deferential recipient) and that Rachel Ray stands for a Schwabian model (less asymmetrical, less expert, less imperious and more collaborative).   

Clearly, only lots of confirmation from many, diverse instruments would be required to proceed in trend watching of this kind.  But when do we use the internet not just as a conduit of culture, but as an instrument of  its study?


Landler, Mark.  2007.  Reworkng the A List.  The New York Times.  January 24, 3007.  here.

Edgescliffe-Johnson, Andrew.  2007.  Virtual talking shop inflates Davos guests.  Financial Times.  January 25, 2007. 

Symptoms of celebrity fatigue

Armed_and_dangerous Armed and famous debuts tonight on CBS.  Excited?  I know I am. 

At 8:00 PM, we will be treated to the spectacle of Erik Estrada, La Toya Jackson, Jason "Wee Man" Acuna, Jack Osbourne and Trish Stratus on patrol as sworn police officers.  In the words of the ABC website,

They will [be] arresting bad guys, including drug dealers, hookers and johns, wife-beaters, burglars, the drunk-and-disorderly and more.

All in a night’s work in Hollywood, California, one would think, but, no, it turns out our celebs are going to be serving in Muncie, Indiana.  (And a good thing, too.  Having lapsed celebrities arrest current ones like Hugh Grant and Mel Gibson would have been unseemly and unfair, an offense against the larger scheme of things.)

The website continues:

Funny?  Often.  Emotional?  Yes, and in surprising ways.  Serious? Always.  To these five celebrities, serving the people of Muncie is an honor that equals or surpasses anything they’ve experienced previously. 

It’s hard to believe that anyone would make programming of this kind. And still more incredible that we will watch it.  (But of course we will.  It’ll be grotesquely fascinating even when it isn’t even remotely funny, emotional or serious.) 

But you have to wonder, will the celebrity culture last forever? Could Armed and Famous (even the name is bad) be the straw that breaks the back?  Could Armed and Famous be the moment that the celebrity culture finally jumps the shark?

The celebrity culture has been with us for some time now.  Indeed it has grown steadily.  Someone must still watch the 6:00 news.  But what America really cares about apparently, are the shows that follow at 7 o’clock and 8: The Insider, Entertainment Tonight, EXTRA, Inside Edition, Access Hollywood

All the signs of over exposure are there.  Contemporary culture has a way of working things to death.  And eventually our attention wanders, and eventually we say as one, "It’s enough, already."  At the moment, of course, it is inconceivable that our passion for celebrity could fade.  But that’s just the point, isn’t it?  But there must have a time in the 1950s when it was impossible to imagine the eclipse of baseball as America’s game.  There was a time in living memory when it was hard to imagine how the land line telephone could be eclipsed.  (I remember thinking, "email?  I’m pretty sure I’ll never need that.")  The fact that we can’t imagine something is no good proof that it’s longevity is guaranteed.  This is much better evidence that the end is nigh. 

In fact, we’ve had a moment of repudiation and not so long ago.  The so-called alternative culture of the 1990s was various and changeable but on this point just about everyone agreed: celebrities were tedious bone heads, predictable, agreeable, and otherwise loathsome.  Thus were the likes of Whitney Houston eclipsed by the likes of Frank Black and the Pixies.  Thus was the 4 track studio born.  Thus did all things garage, grunge, plaid and Portland triumph over the big studios and the house-hold brand-name celebrity. 

Could an alternative moment of the 1990s come back, and go wide?  The case against this proposition is robust, if only because most of the natural competitors of the celebrity have disappeared.  There once was a time when religious leaders, politicians, professors, local heroes, all held sway.  These days, well, who really cares?

Celebrities are the perfect exemplars in a democracy like our own. They do not set themselves apart.  They do not lecture us from on high.  They do not presume to do better.  No, they suffer underwear emergencies while climbing out of limos and otherwise dismantle their grandeur, that we might identify with them more easily.  (And if that’s not enough, they marry and then divorce tragically stupid husbands who must be even now negotiating for a role on Armed and Famous.)

No, what celebrities do is conduct experiments and we get to watch. They test propositions.  Teen girls have been careful students of Britney Spears.  Suburban homemakers are interested observers of Lost Housewives. Geeky bloggers watch the the careers of John Cusack and Bill Murray with something more than ordinary curiosity.  Millions of North American males will take cues from the Daniel Craig version of Bond. Thus will millions of North American women follow the career of Drew Barrymore. Hollywood tests new definitional possibilities.  It is our laboratory. 

Plus, celebrities are superbly modular.  Things change and we swap them out.  The Spice Girls gone.  Vin Diesel gone.  Vince Vaughn won a People’s Award last night, but he could go any moment.  Hollywood stars, as they well know, are dispensable and most have career expectancies that rival a NFL lineman on his 3rd knee surgery.  But of course there are no injuries in Hollywood.  What removes them from currency is our monarchical capriciousness.  Hollywood is ruthless because we are too. It changes the celebrity mix to match contemporary culture and our inconstant taste. 

The celebrity is robust, useful and adaptive.  But the signatures of overexposure are all there.   The trick for the forecaster is to imagine and then watch for the circumstances that might represent the final straw.  I think Armed and Famous might be it. 


McCracken, Grant.  2005.  Celebrity Culture: Muddles in the Models. This Blog Sits At The Intersection of Anthropology and Economics. October 21, 2005.  here.

American Idol: minerva taking wing at dusk

Media_week_chart Mark Berman of Mediaweek notes that American Idol helped Fox beat all the other networks combined, last night

Mr. Berman has a prediction to make:

Chris Daughtry is the definite favorite, while talent-less Bucky Covington is the most likely to bid adieu tonight. Potentially joining Bucky in the bottom three: Lisa Tucker and, unfortunately, energetic Taylor Hicks in place of oddball teen Kevin Covais. Did you ever, meanwhile, see a contestant more in love with himself than Ace Young?

I am surprised to see how easy it is to make predictions.  Everyone seems to know exactly who will win.  And there is surprising agreement.  Clearly, Kevin Covais will have to go just as surely (and for the opposite reason) that Santino Rice had to leave Project Runway.  Kevin was too nice and Santino not nearly nice enough.  (We want our icons, in music as in design, a combination of the two.)

But if we are truly a post modernist society, buzzing with variety and novelty, surely the American Idol confidence and consensus should be impossible.  Surely, the whole thing should be playing itself out as a great mystery, with, say, performances of emo that shock and puzzle.

That there is confidence and consensus tells us a) we are mostly wrong when we talk about the new structural properties of contemporary culture, or b) there is something about American Idol that smooths the way for our confidence and our consensus.  I am prepared to be talking into "A" but I have a feeling that the answer is "B."

After all, there are moments when watching AI where I find myself wondering what decade this is. No one has chosen a song penned in the 21st century.  Indeed, as Randy, Paula, and Simon are often moved to observe, clothing and makeup choices often seem to harken back to another time. This is my way of saying that American Idol is a lie and perhaps even a conspiracy.  It appears to be crafted to give the impression that American culture remains a mass culture, that happy time when every thing was known to everyone (see Monday’s post on the "death of destination television").

This is the "big brand" approach to contemporary music.  Covington is an Eagles imitator.  Daughtry is a road house rocker.  Ace does Motown.  My favorite, Elliott Yamin, a guy who looks endearingly like George C. Scott, covers Stevie.  The girls, generally, are anyone anyone wants them to be as long as it obliges them to dress in clothing that no one has worn for several decades.

As we have noted here before, the great fluorescence of cultural invention that is taking place at the moment has certain structural effects, some of them predictable, some not.  Predictably, it drives a plenitude of musical production, a fragmentation of consumer taste, and profusion of long tail markets.  Unpredictably, it creates a flight to the higher ground of broader choice. 

So much for the notion that the center will not hold.  The fluorescence of our culture at one end is forcing a new coherence at the other.  There are several benefits of this development.  One of these is that we are left with an impression that really this a mass society, that nothing has changed. And it’s a very veritable impression.  Forty million viewers.  God in heaven. 

I can think of several institutions that will buy the lie.  The business schools will say, "listen, American Idol is proof that we do not have to let contemporary culture into the curriculum.It is business (school) as usual."  Several brands, famous for the cluelessness, will also insist that American Idol is a license for complacency. 

Too bad.  For this appearance of cohesion is, I think, being driven by its opposite. 


Berman, Marc.  Programming Inside.  Mediaweek.  March 22, 2006.  By subscription.  Sorry, I don’t have an url.  I get the Programming Insider by email. 

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Self Interrogation, or How to sound like an expert

NorthernpkwySomething strange happened when I took Molly, our cat, to the vet.  I exchanged pleasantries with Dr. Whatsit and then, all of a sudden, Dr. Whatsit assumed control of both sides of the conversation.

Dr. W.: Do I think your cat should stay here another night?

Dr. W. (without pause): Yes, I do

Dr. W. (without pause): Do I think it would be a terrible idea  to take her home tonight?

Dr. W.: (without pause):  No, I do not.

In effect, I stood there and the vet interviewed himself. 

I couldn’t help feeling that the vet was sending me a message over and above his "message" about Molly.  He seemed to be to be saying, "Listen, clearly, you’re hopeless.  You are not soliciting the information you need.  So, here’s the deal.  I am going to ask the questions you should have asked.  And then I’ll answer them."  More exactly, there now seemed to a silent "you idiot" in front of everything he said.  (Maybe, I’m just being too sensitive.) 

Did people interview themselves like this, say, five years ago?  I don’t think so. 

Trend watch: Great Rooms again

great rooms II.jpg

I am just back from a week of ethnographies in Toronto. Very interesting. Without betraying the interests of the client, I can offer a little more detail on the “Great Room” on which I posted several weeks ago.

The great room is fast becoming the idee fixe of the middle class home. People are opening the kitchen into a kind of family room, sometimes colonizing the dining room and/or the living room in the process.

The actual formality of speech, dress, meal time, and interaction has been going down in Western societies since the Victorian high water mark. To be sure, there have been several rear guard actions, with Martha Stewart and others fighting the good fight. But, in most households, formal living and dining rooms are archeological remainders. (They are actually sometimes roped off and removed from service, as Joan Kron demonstrated.) This means that living and dining rooms have been consumed more space and budget than they deserved. In a sense, the great room was merely an idea who’s time had come. (And for those of us inclined to marvel at how fast and responsive we have become as a dynamic culture, and I am one of these, the lag time here is something to think upon.)

But the great room is also a way of contending with our growing time poverty. Every one in the family is working harder, out of the home and in the home. We had to steal time from somewhere and we took it from the family meal. (Many families regard the Sunday, or Friday, dinner as an event long since passed.) The meant that the family was now spending less time together. Meal time was, after all, the highest quality time spend together. (Most families are not clear whether watching TV together counts.)

The great room is useful here too. It’s a “big box” that allows everyone to pursue disparate activities int the same place at the same time. They may only be in shouting distance of one another, but they are still in some sense together.

The great room is driven both by a need to recapture space for family use, and to create a “commons” for a group of people that is otherwise heterogeneous and potentially dispersive.

Does anybody know anybody who would be prepared to do a “back of the envelope” calculation of how many construction and furnishing dollars this trend has set in train?


McCracken, Grant. 2004. On Great Rooms. Here.

Young Republicans?

angelina jolie.jpg

After a decade during which marketing became raunchier and raunchier, the tide has now turned. There are signs that glamorous blond women and muscle-rippling playboys are no longer the answer to every marketing officer’s prayers.

Matthew Lynn reports that the U.K. retailer, French Connection Group Plc will drop its “FCUK” logo this summer. Abercrombie and Fitch have decided to cease publication of the catalogue that drew comment for its scantily clad models. Sex doesn’t sell the way it used to, apparently.

Lynn believes the change in advertising content is a matter of wear out. “Sexual imagery is now so ubiquitous in marketing campaigns, it has lost the power to shock us.”

In June, I commented on the fact that young women are adopting more modest clothing, that the bare midriff was now passé. I wondered whether this represented a deeper cultural trend than the “wear out” explanation acknowledges. Perhaps women in their teens and 20s are insisting on new terms of reference, that they are rewriting the rules of femaleness.

There are cultural definitions that have a certain primacy. Gender is foundational in this way. Make a change here, and a change ripples through the social order and the marketplace. If young women are reworking our notions of gender, we must look for a substantial change in their notions of family, community, and politics. Indeed, we may be looking here at one of the “feeder” trends that helps drive the “values” issue of the recent Presidential campaign.

But it would be wrong to think of this as a mere conservatism. It is something more than simple risk adversion, the search for a higher moral ground, or a return to conventional values. One way to track this trend might be to think of it as 4th wave feminism. And if this is the case, we may look forward to yet another reinvention of contemporary life.


Lynn, Matthew. 2004. Europe’s shoppers get weary of sex in advertising. Bloomberg News. here

McCracken, Grant. 2004. Anthropology and Economics of the Bare Midriff. June 11, 2004. here

McCracken, Grant. 2004. Fashion and Economics. Aug. 8, 2004. here

Plenitude watch

custom car.jpg

Markets as difference engines:

From an article today by Phil Patton in the NYT:

The Japanese succeeded in the United States in the 70’s partly by reducing the number of options, and American makers followed suit. Choices shrank. It was left to small companies to offer optional equipment.

Personalizing vehicles has inspired the growth of a vast array of small companies offering parts, wheels, engine parts, audio equipment and so on. The market for auto accessories grew from $4.35 billion in 1990 to $8.69 billion in 2000, according to the Speciality Equipment Market Association, or SEMA, a trade organization.


Patton, Phil. Dad to Virtual Rad? New York Times. October 27, 2004.

Trend watch: the great room

I was out for an evening stroll in Connecticut over the weekend and I found myself staring into newly constructed or renovated homes. The anthropologist’s work is never done, especially when people refuse to pull their drapes.

Most of these places had very large and open spaces on the main floor, almost as if people had constructed lofts in their living rooms.

Pam knew exactly what these were: “great rooms,” she said. Apparently, great rooms are a standing fixture of the suburban home. Or, in the words of a construction firm on line:

“Great rooms have become essential components of today’s home designs. Many families plan the rest of the home around the great room. It is where friends are made, games are played and families spend quality time together.”

Interesting. It feel as if the North American family is in the process of reinstalling the great hall of the medieval home. These were spaces in which many people, engaged in many activities, worked, played and mixed. The great room, by contradistinction, is not so much about allowing external diversities to assemble, as it is an attempt to accommodate the diversities within.

About 10 years ago, apparently, someone saw that if the family was to survive its new multiplicity of personnel and project, it would have to create spaces in which people could be alone together. Atomism was the only alternative. And no family, not even a post modern one, could survive that.

If the great room is a kind of great hall, it has lots implications for the ways in which the individual and the family define themselves, and once more we are looking at the rise of what the sociologists call loose boundedness. These spaces are designed to allow and forgive diverse activities, to make the self and the family more porous (or mutually accessible), to allow diversity to find their expressive beneath a single roof.

Loosebounded spaces are, in sum, emerging to accomodate, and so enable, loosebounded definitions of the family and the self. Once more, messiness is the structural signature of our age.

Any thoughts on whether and how these great rooms work as domestic spaces would be very much appreciated.


Clark, Clifford E. Jr. 1976. Domestic Architecture as an Index to Social History: The Romantic Revival and the Cult of Domesticity in America, 1840-1870. Journal of Interdisciplinary History 7: 35-56.

Douglas, Mary. 1993. The idea of a home: A kind of space. Home: A place in the world. editor Arien Mack, 261-81. New York, NY: New York University Press.

Grier, Katherine C. 1988. Culture and Comfort: People, Parlors and Upholstery, 1850-1930. Rochester: Strong Museum.

Halttunen, Karen. 1989. From parlor to living room: Domestic space, interior decoration, and the culture of personality. Consuming Visions: Accumulation and Display of Goods in America 1880-1920. editor Simon J. Bronner, 157-89. New York and London: W.W. Norton & Company for the Henry Francis du Pont Winterthur Museum.

Rybczynski, Witold. 1986. Home: a short history of an idea. New York, N.Y: Viking.

Culture and Consumption in the WSJ

Two stories in today’s Wall Street Journal show new trends (and old patterns) in the ongoing relationship between culture and commerce.

Story # 1: Postcard from the edge

The WSJ says Neuvo Casual, men’s clothing with a Latin flare, could be a ‘transformative trend.” It is “colorful, sexy clothing that offer a dressier take on the usual chinos and tops.”

Plainly, this is a market that was going to happen in any case. A newly prosperous Hispanic community is 14% of the US population and 20% of the youth population.

What interests the clothing industry are the cross-over possibilities. Neuvo Casual can now be seen in the Perry Ellis International line and at J.C. Penny’s and Mark’s Wearhouse.

Several things catch the attention of the anthropologist:

1) the gender war continues:

The old code said that extravagant, elegant, sensuous clothing belonged to women and that men were supposed to hew to the plain, the sturdy, the unornamented. Both African American and Latino men, some of them, are prepared to make their gender claims in the language of extravagance. They are inclined to make the male the “marked species” and this takes us back to male strategies from the 16th century in which men expected to be more splendid in their clothing than women. There is plenty of other evidence that men are preparing to reclaim their status as the “marked gender” and this will have interesting implications for the highly dynamic gender contest that continues to play out in North American culture.

2) the ceremonialization of casual life continues:

The conventional cultural distinction in North America has been to dress up for work and special occasions and distinctly down for casual occasions. Nuevo Casual takes up a position in between. “It’s a hot look that fits into what we call the “missing middle” in casual sportswear. It gives the guy a sportswear option that’s jazzy and elegant and still fun to wear to go out to dinner or to a party,” says a J.C. Penny’s spokeswoman in the WSJ.

3) the margin and the middle speak to one another:

Most strikingly, the Nuevo Casual trends marks once more how porous the mainstream continues to be. The influence of the “margin” is now par for the course. Outliers, like the gay community, African Americans and Latinos, now routinely influence a community that scorned and stigmatized their aesthetic choices as recently as the 1950s.

Story # 2: Nostalgia already?

They’re back. Pong, Centipede, Asteroids and Missile Command have been reissued.

The numbers are tiny: around $250 million in sales in an industry that racks up $10 billion. But everyone is apparently surprised how fast these little games are doing.

The anthropologist notes three things:

1) how fast things move:

These games are only 20 years old. Technology moves so quickly they have been supplanted by many generations of innovation and their “stick figures” now looked ludicrously primitive when compared to what we get from X-Box and the Sony PlayStation. Or to put this in terms that an anthropologist can understand: 20 years is one human generation and it is 5 or 6 technology generations. The “pour through” rate is phenomenal. Many people have noted our speed of change, but we have lots of work to do to understand what happens to cultures that attempt to change this fast.

2) how intense the nostalgia is:

These games are only 20 years old and they are crude, but the consumer is responding to them, the WSJ says, with a deep feeling of nostalgia. These games return as “old friends.” They come back to us as time capsules from a distant world. The faster we move, the less time it takes for the nostalgia effect to kick in. If nostalgia is a way of mourning a world we have lost, what do we say about a culture that is mourning not the 18th century but 20 years ago? We get to the future faster, we look back to the past more longingly.

3) the “plenitude” effect in effect:

One of the things the post war social scientists failed to predict was how powerfully the world would multiply with options. In this case, we are looking at an inclination to hang onto the old even as we embrace the new. The post war social scientists accepted the prevailing notion that said that the juggernaut of modernism would cut away the past as we entered the future. Perhaps it’s the nostalgia effect again, the faster we go, the more we multiply, the more we want to take the familiar with us, even if its just 20 years old.


Agins, Teri. 2004 Nuevo Casual. Wall Street Journal. May 21, 2004, p. B1.

Pereira, Joseph. 2004. Atari, Sega and Pac-Man are Back in Retro Splendor. Wall Street Journal. May 21, 2004, p. B1.

Ben Affleck, pop culture quiz

Adam Sternbergh asks the right question. Why is Ben Affleck such a big star? His career has not been distinguished by great films, or even by very popular ones. Tom Cruise and Harrison Ford, his predecessors in the parthenon, had big hits and several of them. Ben’s stardom is much bigger than his middling career seems to warrant.

But Sternbergh boots the answer! What is missing here is Oscar night 1998. This was the year when Ben and Matt won for Good Will Hunting. But what was more telling than the award was that they showed up to receive it.

It was left to Joan Rivers to sum up the obvious. “You are the only guys here your age! We’re glad you’re here!” And indeed Ben and Matt where the only ones under the age of 35 in attendance. They had come from an award but, as Joan pointed out, really, they were the prize.

It felt as if something generational was happening. Ben and Matt had agreed to show up and Hollywood, always sensitive to demographic realities, was eager to give them an Oscar for their trouble (and, oh yeah, that film, whatever). It was no cynical payoff. Ben and Matt were genuinely pleased to be there but it was like a visit from royalty. They were making a gesture, generously, happily, but it was a gesture nevertheless.

The reason Ben and Matt were such a hit, the reason they got Oscars for showing up, is the story of the 1990s. This began with the demographic exclusion that took place in the very late 80s, it matured into the great Seattle refusal of the opening years of the decade and it became by mid decade the great indie alternative in film–a development so robust it could make Steve Buscemi a household name without any studio work and see to the rehabilitation of the career of Harvey Keitel–an event most thought impossible. The 1990s may have started with the wrenching discovery that Generation X was not wanted on the voyage and by mid 90s it turned out that it was Hollywood that had missed the boat.

People under 35 weren’t at the Oscars because they had been refused in the first case, refused to come in the second, and were just much too busy to make it in the last.

Everything that Sternbergh says is no doubt true but this, I think, is the real reason Affleck is such a big star in spite of his not so stellar record. He didn’t exist, so Hollywood had to invent him.

[for the Sternbergh article in question, go here]

Eddies in the mainstream

How cold is it in Montreal? It’s so cold many of us will not survive the night. This may be my last journal entry.

A couple of weeks ago (see entry for Oct. 3), I was surprised to learn from Entertainment Weekly that Vin Diesel was being heralded as the new action star to some extent because, as an Hollywood agent put it, “there’s a shortage of action stars in Hollywood.”

Then a couple days ago, a NYT article by Cathy Horyn called “Young Stars of U.S. Fashion Can’t Seem to Find Right Fit.” (December 7, 2002). The title of the article is misleading because the gist of the piece is that there is now a shortage of young fashion designers.

“Since 1998, when Isaac Mizrahi closed his doors, a succession of promising stars have gone out of business – Daryl Kerrigan, Pamela Dennis, Todd Oldham and last month, Mr. Bartlett, who in 1997 was the industry’s top men’s wear designer.”

A shortage of action stars and fashion designers? Is this the historical outcome of the great exclusion that happened in the very late 80s? People raised with Michael J. Fox expectations (Beemers, law school, yuppie riches) found themselves shut out. It wasn’t really until the thing got rolling in the mid late middle 1990s, that they were let back in…and nothing in this new regime encouraged people to think about action adventure or clothing design.

It’s 12 years later. Hollywood and the design world look for the next generation…and parts of it are missing. Some of this is the work of exclusion. But some of it is the result of refusal. The alternative values of the 1990s scorned action stars and fashion design, one for its preposterous gender constructions, the other for its self aggrandizing vanity. And some of it was both: those who learned to disdain action and fashion were disinclined to enter it.

But the larger question: is there a hole in the demography? Are parts of Gen X still missing?

American culture post 9/11

I just got an email for Elizabeth Molinaro, one of the ablest students in a class I taught at the Harvard Business School. Elizabeth emailed everyone in the class with this question: What are you seeing/sensing that you might label a cultural/lifestyle/environmental shift?

My answer:


Great to “hear” your voice again. I guess the thing that strikes me, well, there are several, but here’s one:

9/11 created a great lining up of the heavens–a return to all the old verities and traditions as we closed the wagons against the intruder, and now, little by little, we are returning to the full diversity of American life. (And by “diversity” I mean the vast experimentation that goes on everywhere, not only the distinctions of race and gender that are normally indicated by the term…though goodness knows race and gender have been a couple of the engines of this experimentation.)

There will always be an irreducible remainder here, a changed sense of Americanness, but slowly and surely it is a return to business as usual, and this is individualism in the marketplace (so that great outpouring of collectivity now goes away) and in the cultural world (so that “we must honor elders” feeling for orthodoxy is starting to go away too).

In a way this is a part of the war effort: after all, it is in some sense a struggle between open and closed societies. But something has changed in the tone of the diversity, and I can’t quite tell what. Sometimes I wonder whether it is a new sense of unease. It’s as if we (if a Canadian may include himself for a moment), we have a new sense of how rare we are, how risky our experiment is, how alone we are. It’s as if we have discovered that we are walking on a catwalk we had never seen before and we are much higher up than we had ever guessed. Some of the play and the optionalness of our experimental world seems to have disappeared. What we used to do for fun, we must now do out of necessity.

The larger question, however, is clear: we are returning to the “trend of trends,” a culture with hundreds of little sailing ships out there in the harbor. Very few men of war left on the horizon. Surely, one or two of these little sailing ships will come ashore bearing a message that changes all of our lives, but more and more we are a culture of many trends, rather than one or two single ones.

Needless to say, this makes marketing harder to do, and much harder to sell. Clients still want monolithic explanations. But frankly I believe it means that advantage goes to people as smart as you. They used to say that marketing isn’t rocket science…but I believe that’s changing. And this must mean that in marketing, only the smart will survive. So maybe that’s my trend: the field of marketing is driving out bad and pulling in good.

Best, Grant

Hiya Gaia

Last night I was coming home from dinner through the ornate, lo-fi, rain slick streets of my neighborhood in Montreal. It was about 10:00. And there, in the rain and the dark and October, was my neighbor…gardening…with a pick ax.

She was struggling to remove the ashphalt between her building and her sidewalk. The idea was to plant vines that would take root in the earth and cover the 3 stories expanse of the wall above her. This summer she put down planter boxes and grew climbers. But what she wants is one of those high, deep vineries. We have one down the street, it covers the entire wall, standing, in full leaf, about 4 inches deep, and serves as a kind of bird condo, with hundreds of sparrows, mostly, coming and going, and carrying on. and holding forth. For this she needs plants that can take deep root.

Montreal, and especially the plateau, is filled with acts of reclamation/reforestation. My own contribution, planters on my 3rd story balcony, with sun flowers, morning glories, “meadow” flowers, and a little tree that is quickly out growing its box and will shortly have to be transplanted to the mountain. Everywhere you look people are planting as opportunistically as nature herself. Give us a horizontal surface, we give you a garden.

Victorians would have got this, I think. They were digging out from the predations of the industrial revolution. But not the 1950s, a decade quite in love with asphalt. I used to keep an eye out for those period post cards that put the motel, the shopping centre, the factory, high and way back in the image, the better to show off the expanse of asphault that was their pride and joy.

We dug for some time, and eventually a great chuck of ashpalt sprang from the earth. Eight inches deep. Why did they pour so much of it? And one little vine took root.

Vin Diesel, endangered?

I picked up the latest Entertainment Weekly to figure out why and how Vin Diesel has become such a big hit. (Yes, I saw Fast and Furious. I still didn’t get it.)

Here’s what they say:

“What’s going on,” explains one Hollywood agent, “is that there’s a shortage of action stars in Hollywood.”

How could Hollywood run out of one of its staples.

I figured this would be a good problem to put before popular culture experts not least because it cannot be (well) answered with the usual platitudes about Hollywood. You actually have to know something the industry and the moment in the industry.

Second, this is a genuine wobble in popular culture, something truly anomalous. It satisfies the anomaly test: “If someone had written an essay 10 years ago saying that Hollywood would someday run out of action stars, would anyone have taken it seriously?” The answer here has to be no.

So what happened? How and why fail to produce more action adventure stars?