Tag Archives: culture

Cultural arbitrage

This video by Ingrid Michaelson, called Girls Chase Boys, uses this video by Robert Palmer called Simply Irresistible.

If intellectual arbitrage is the movement of meanings or models from one academic field to another, cultural arbitrage is the movement of meanings or models from one part of culture to another.

So Michaelson moves the theme, the meme, the dream out of Palmer and uses it for new purposes. Men become sexual objects (where before it was women).  Michaelson describes an independence from men (where before it was Palmer claiming a “dependence” on  women). The idea of a sexual object is put in play.  Our culture changes course…a little.

This is a complicated maneuver.  A cultural artifact is being created out of existing cultural materials.  With a twist.  Meanings are being lifted, changed and reapplied.  (Something burrowed, something blue.)

Sampling is the simplest example of cultural arbitrage.  Jay-Z took a show tune from the Broadway production of Annie and dropped it into his song “Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem).”  This is not the first thing you would expect to hear in the music of self proclaimed “Marcy Projects hustler” but it worked beautifully, giving a strange vitality to both the song and the sample.

Michaelson had finished her song when she saw the Robert Palmer video and went, “oh.”  Somehow you just know at once that something when transplanted will give off new meanings.

The academic world has spend a lot of the time thinking of cultural arbitrage as a matter of “appropriation.”  Who owns the original?  Is this originator properly acknowledged and compensated?  This is an important question…though I am not sure why we felt we had to devote the whole of the 1990s to talking about it.

But the bigger, more pressing question is how to take advantage of  cultural arbitrage.  The Onion does a fine job.  After all, most metaphor and a lot of humor turns on arbitrage.

If I may quote myself, here’s what I said in Culturematic about what may be my favorite example of arbitrage:

Some years ago, The Onion pictured Alan Greenspan and his Federal Reserve Board team destroying the penthouse of the Beverly Hills Hotel.  In their “coverage,” The Onion gives us a dispassionate treatment of televisions being kicked in,  mattresses hurled from the balcony and the inevitable police intervention.

“Monday’s arrest is only the latest in a long string of legal troubles for the controversial Greenspan, who has had 22 court dates since becoming Fed chief in 1987. Economists recall his drunken 1994 appearance on CNN’s Moneyline, during which he unleashed a profanity-laden tirade against Bureau of Engraving & Printing director Larry Rolufs and punched host Lou Dobbs when he challenged Greenspan’s reluctance to lower interest rates. In November 1993, he was arrested after running shirtless through D.C. traffic while waving a gun. And some world-market watchers believe the international gold standard has still not recovered from a May 1998 incident in which he allegedly exposed his genitals on the floor of the Tokyo Stock Exchange. The Tokyo case is still pending.”

Thus did The Onion bring together two things: the dour keeper of the economy and the self-indulgent chaos of the rock star.  It performed a careful act of transposition.  Every line of The Onion “story” is lifted from a typical newspaper report.  Journalistic details are lovingly preserved.  (“The Tokyo case is still pending.”)  Only the names and occupations are changed.

Some of the power of cultural arbitrage comes from that double movement it inflicts on us.  As when we read this passage, the meaning takes and then fails.  We transfer the meaning and then stop transferring it.  We say, “Yes, got it.  Greenspan as a rock star” and then we say, “No, this is impossible.  I can’t think this!

Arbitrage is an engine of creativity.  And often the trick is to bring together parts (aka meanings) of our culture that rarely go together.  As in the case of this account of the Fed on a rampage.  It takes an outrageous act of imagination to glimpse the possibility.  And then we delight in the difficulty of thinking it.

But some cultural arbitrage comes from much smaller, more subtle acts of comparison.  Finally, we can collapse this strategy to the vanishing point.  As when Stephen King talks about the horror of discovering that everything in a home has been replaced with a perfect replica.  No real difference, accompanied by a whiff of oddity, this is the small act of arbitrage, but it carries, as King shows, big effects.

Popular culture is in the arbitrage business, as one actor is cast against type, or a picture is made to migrate across genres.  Morning television is in the arbitrage business when it puts Charlie Rose, Gayle King and Norah O’Donnell in the same studio.  It’s the differences and the emergent harmonies that make this show work while others struggle.

Speaking of TV, here’s another outtake from Culturematic.  It shows a casting machine for NCIS.  The idea here is to see what difference a different set of actors would make.  The sweet spot is in the middle of the chart.  (Don Cheadle territory). The alternatives close in are insufficiently different to release much frisson.  The ones far out (towards the bottom of the chart) are too different for the narrative to hold.

recasting NCIS

We spent so much time debating appropriation that we have yet to make a systematic study of cultural arbitrage.  But this is one of the workhorses of contemporary culture.  And with conscious study we can make it still more productive.

Does capitalism have thermals (aka, the evolution of Paramecium, Inc.)

A couple of months ago, I had the good fortune to have lunch with Napier Collyns.  Mr. Collyns is one of the founders of the Global Business Network and a man with a deep feeling for the rhythms and complexities of capitalism.

I came home and banged out this little essay.  It’s an effort to think about the possibility that “value” goes from the material to the immaterial.  A company might begin by making hammers but sometimes it ends up making value that is  less literal and more broad.

Does capitalism have thermals?

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A bigger picture may be called for when we think about capitalism.   In his famous essay, Marketing Myopia, Theodore Levitt encouraged people to ask, “What business are you in?”   The question had a strategic purpose: to rescue managers from their literalism.

In the early days of the railroads, managers were preoccupied with laying thousands of miles of track.  The next generation devoted itself to making a magnificent delivery system for industrial America.  With the rise of the automobile, the truck and the plane, things changed.  But the conceptual shoe didn’t fall for management until Levitt gave them a big picture. “You’re not in railroads, you’re in transportation.”

There is perhaps an inevitable developmental pressure.  As the world becomes more complicated (and capitalism routinely makes the world more complicated), the ideas with which it is understood must become more sophisticated.  One minute we’re laying track.  The next, we’re wondering how to compete with things that fly.

The only way to grasp the intellectual challenge is to generalize.  This helps break the grip of literalism, the one that says, trains are trains and planes are planes.  No, says Professor Levitt, trains and plains are the same thing but only if we move to a higher vantage point.

A second thermal comes in the shape of commodity pressure.   In every market, incumbents eventually draw imitations (aka “knock offs”) into play.   The incumbent is faced with two choices.  It can engage in a “race to the bottom” that occurs as incumbent and imitator sacrifice margins until everyone finds themselves mere pennies above cost.  (Thus does the innovation has become a commodity.)

Or, the innovator can climb the value hierarchy, moving from simple functional benefits that the imitators can imitate to “value adds” they cannot.  Thus did IBM find itself challenged by off-shore competitors who offered bundles of software and hardware at 40% of what IBM was charging.

Customers snapped up these cheaper alternatives, only to discover that the commodity player was not supplying the strategic advice and intelligence that came with the IBM version of the bundle.   Now IBM had to learn to talk about this value, and to make more of it.   They were obliged to cultivate a bigger picture.

Here’s another “thermal.”  Premium players traditionally defend themselves from commodity attack by creating higher order value that almost always comes in the form of idea and outlook.  Thus Herman Miller, the furniture maker, confronted by an off-shore competitor that was prepared to make chairs for much less, redoubled it’s effort to sell not just chairs but new ideas for what an office could be.  This thermal intensified as new commodity players have emerged from China, India, and Brazil.

Paramecium, Inc.

We could argue that capitalism has thermals from almost the very beginning.  In this beginning, enterprise were inclined to be structurally simple, a single cell mostly oblivious to the world outside itself.  Call this “Paramecium Inc.” or Level 1.  The enterprise makes hammers.  It assumes someone out there wants hammers but the focus of attention is on the hammer.

Eventually someone comes along and says, “actually, what the company makes matters less than what the consumer wants.”  Thus spoke Charles Coolidge Parlin in 1912 when he asserted that the “consumer was king.”    Closing the gap between company and consumer has been a work in progress.  New methods, theories, and resolve have come from the likes of Peter Drucker and A.G. Lafley, and somehow the gap persists.   But at least the Paramecium is evolving, reckoning with things outside itself.  This is Level 2.

In time someone says, “we need to think more systematically about our competitors.”  This is the long standing focus of Economics, but in the late 1970s, Michael Porter offered a new approach and strategy proved influential.  Here too the organization is sensing and responding to the world outside itself.  It is scaling not so much up as out.  We are now at Level 3.

With each new Level, we “dolly back” to see more of the world. Our “paramecium” is increasing aware of itself and the world outside itself.  This is a movement from the narrow to the broader view, from the local to the global, from the provincial to the cosmopolitan.

Level 4, collaboration, has several moments.  The enterprise, once less solipsistic, can entertain partnerships.  The organization that once insisted on a crisp, carefully monitored border now consents to something that looks more porous.  The Japanese influence helps here.  So did the “outsourcing” movement.  Most recently, with the advent of new media and digital connections, collaboration expands to include still more, and more diverse, parties.

In Level 5, we are encouraged to see that the enterprise must reckon with the meanings, stories, identities, subcultures, and trends with which people and groups construct their world.  Noisy and rich in its own right, culture supplies some of the “blue oceans” of external opportunity and the “black swans” of external threat.  A great profusion of consultancies and aggregators springs up to cover culture.

Level 6, context, was once merely a field or container for all the other levels.  But now the field has come alive, no mere ground but now a source of dynamism all its own.  In this bigger picture, the enterprise can feel itself a tiny cork in a veritable North Sea.  Disruptive change comes from all directions.  Strategy and planning become more difficult, and some enterprises descend into a simple adhocery. The world roils with deliberate change and its unintended consequences.

There is an intellectual challenge at Level 6.  Making sense of a world that is so turbulent, hard to read, and inclined to change is difficult.  Indeed identifying the unit of analysis is vexing.  Are we looking at “trends,” “stories,” “scenarios,” or “complex adaptive system?”   Should the enterprise do this work by hiring x, y or z?

“Context” is a wind driven sea.  The horizon keeps disappearing, navigational equipment is dodgy, the world increasingly unfamiliar, inscrutable and new.  We are to use the language of T.S. Kuhn, post –paradigmatic.

The movement of levels 2 through 4 has been conducted under expert supervision.  But Levels 5 and 6 are vexing partly because there is no obvious intellectual leadership.  Even the “experts” are challenged.  The problem created by Levels 5 and 6 are simply unclear and we continue to disagree on even simple matters.

Reading this through, a couple of hours after publications, it occurs to me that there is for some corporations a Level 7.  This is where the corporation embraces its externalities and takes an interest in the larger social good that can come when the corporation thinks about what value it can create for creatures other than itself.

I was in a strategy session a couple of years ago when a guy from Pepsi, I believe he was actually the CMO (let me check my notes), actually said, “I am committing my organization to solving every environmental problem it has in its purview and can get its mitts on.” Wow, I thought, this is capitalism writ large.

A new name for this blog

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

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

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

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

I have four convictions.  Open to discussion and disproof.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks

To Russell Duncan for taking the photograph.

Second Look TV

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sure it’s good for the game show, but how about the host?

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I had a look in on Let’s Make A Deal this morning.

Wayne Brady is the host.  Drew Carey is the host of Wheel of Fortune.  Both are “graduates” of Whose Line Is It Anyway?  Improv has come to day time television

The use of improv comics is a great way to animate a game show genre, now decades old and in danger of becoming formulaic, in spite of all that ingenuity and enthusiasm coming in waves off an extremely “amped” audience.

An improv comedian can turn a split second into something funny and fresh.  Hey, presto, new blood for old shows.  On Whose Line It is Anyway? Brady was fearless.  Clearly, it doesn’t bother him that he was called upon to work without a net.   No script.  No direction.  No advance warning.  He could handle anything the show threw at him.

But here’s the question.  Even as we acknowledge  what Brady gives to the show, we have to ask what the show is taking from him.  What is it like for someone this good at novelty to be stuck in something that is rarely very novel at all?  I wonder if he feels like those World War II aces who were called upon to pilot space capsules in the early days of NASA.  Accustomed to maximum control, they were now, in their language, “spam in a can.”

This is a tension in the entertainment biz.  How do we deliver the soothing samenesses that come from genre and formula without creating something that ends up being stupefyingly dull? As it is, Let’s Make a Deal skews way too far in the direction of formula.  This doesn’t just test the patience of the TV audience.  It must also test the endurance of the host.  For someone who can turn .5 seconds into comedy riches, 60 minutes of predictability must feel like an eternity.  Five times a week.

Image courtesy of Creative Commons and Wikipedia.  Author attribution:  DaniDF1995

Stephen Colbert replaces David Letterman. Please help us figure out what this means!

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This just in.  We learned moments ago that Stephen Colbert will replace David Letterman on late night television.

We can identify the cultural significance of David Letterman .  He came to prominence on the back of a cultural trend, the Preppie revolution.   Letterman was the guy who liked to stand in a window in Rockefeller Center and proclaim through a bull-horn, “I’m not wearing any pants.”   This was preppie humor, a frat boy prank.

Below is my cheat-sheet treatment of the Preppie revolution as it appeared in Chief Culture Officer.

I would  love it if people would give offer a brief account of the cultural movement that brought Stephen Colbert to prominence and the shift in culture  his rise represents for us.  Don’t feel obliged to give a detailed account.  We can make this collaborative.  Just take a different piece of the puzzle and I will try to piece together when all “results” are in.

Here’s the passage from my Chief Culture Officer:

The preppie convergence began to form visibly and publicly around 1980, but we if we were astoundingly well informed and gifted, we could have seen it coming ten years before.  Doug Kenney founded in National Lampoon in 1970 with staff from the Harvard Lampoon.  And we could have tracked the success of this convergence as this publication began to scale up.  National Lampoon published parodies of Newsweek and Life, the 1964 High School Yearbook Parody (1974), and a well received issue entitled Buy this magazine, or we’ll shoot this dog.  By the end of the 1970s, Lampoon circulation had reached nearly a million copies per month.  And by this time even the dimmest trend hunter had it on their radar.

Sales is one thing.  We should also be alert to the migration of talent.  In the case of the preppie convergence, we needed to be paying attention when the world started raiding the Lampoon for talent.  Kenney left to write movies.  Michael O’Donoghue left in 1975 to become head writer for Saturday Night Live.  P.J. O’Rourke left to write for Rolling Stone.  The National Lampoon spoke with the voice of the ruthless private school boy.  Apparently this was now in demand.

We should have noticed when the preppie convergence began to colonize the movies.  We should have been paying attention when the preppie thing migrated to the movies.  Kenney created Animal House in 1978 and Caddyshack in 1980.  The first featured Tim Matheson, the second Bill Murray.  The prep also appeared in Bachelor Party (1984), played by Tom Hanks.  Perhaps most famously, the prep turned up in the 1982 NBC series Family ties in the character of Alex P. Keaton, played by Michael J. Fox.  He also appeared in the 1982 late night comedy show in the person of David Letterman who gave voice to prep form by standing in a window of Rockefeller center and announcing with a bull horn, “I’m not wearing any pants.”  (Preps loved to be vulgar and clever at the same time.  It’s a frat thing.)

Everyday language began to vibrate with new phrases: “go for it,” “get a life,” “get a grip,” “snap out of it.”  It was easy to see how these spoke for the new convergence.  People were impatient with the old pieties.  That was 60s idealism, and people were done with that.

Convergences must shake the webs of the publishing world.  (Or they cannot be convergences.) One of the best sellers of the period was Lisa Birnbach’s The Preppy Handbook in 1980. This was 200 pages of detailed instruction: what to wear, where to go to school, what sports to play, what sports to watch, what slang to speak, how to be rude to a salesperson, and how to mix a Bloody Mary.  If the National Lampoon had supplied the new character of the decade, here were instructions of a much more detailed kind.

The consensus was visible in public life.  Suddenly Harvard Yard, never especially presentable in its architecture, appointments, or personnel, filled with glossy teens in down vests, Norwegian sweaters, and Top-Siders, all newly minted by L.L. Bean.  Some of them were the children of Old Money following ancestral footsteps into the Ivy League.  But most were kids from Boston University who believed that the Yard was a better lifestyle accessory.

The convergence began to recruit ferociously.  A young woman remembers.

As a teenager [my mom] was pulling The Preppy Handbook out from under my [sleeping] cheek.  These were the mid-80’s, and I just lapped up all that puppy/yuppie/J. Crew catalogue/Land’s End stuff.  I didn’t want to live in Wisconsin; rather, I wished my parents played tennis and would send me away to Phillips Exeter.  In fact, I waged a two-year send-Ann-to-Exeter campaign (“or, hey Choate would be O.K. C’mon, at least consider the University School of Milwaukee!”).  I wished we summered on Martha’s Vineyard and wore penny loafers without socks.  I wanted to ski in Vermont during Christmas vacation like my copy of The Preppy Handbook recommended.  […] I wanted to live far away from Wisconsin and my family and come home only at Christmas.  As pathetic as it sounds, deep in my soul I wished I owned a navy-blue blazer with my school’s crest embroidered on the lapel and wore grosgrain ribbons in my hair.  I daydreamed about the day when I would go to East to college, and I believed I would.⁠1

The preppie convergence would sell a lot of cars for Chrysler (Jeeps) and, eventually, a lot of SUVs for everyone.  It would sell clothing for L.L Bean, Land’s End, J. Crew, Ralph Lauren, and eventually Tommy Hilfiger and the Gap.  It would sell a ton of furniture for Ethan Allen and eventually Sears.  Downstream, it sold a lot of watches for Rolex and a lot of cars for BMW.  Eventually, it would serve as the foundation for Martha Stewart and her brand of status.  It would shape and still shapes what boomers wear on the weekends.⁠2

The tide turned again.  Repudiation was coming.  We might have seen, as I did, graffiti on a Tom Cruise movie poster that read, “die Yuppie scum.”  Another was Gordon Gecko in Wall Street (1987), a film Roger Ebert hailed as a “radical critique of the capitalist trading mentality.”  The prep hero was now tarnished.  (Life soon imitated art, with the fall of Michael Milken, the junk bond trader indicted in 1989 for violations of federal securities and racketeering laws.)  The third was the movie, Heathers (1989) in which teens excluded by snobbery take a terrible revenge against the preps.  The fourth was the publication of American Psycho in 1991.  This was, among other things, a vilification of the prep.  At this point, the big board should be flashing with warning signals.  Something new had made it up out of the college campuses of the world, past all the little gates, and on to the big screen.  Pity us if this is our first warning.

I was doing research with teens in 1990 and, almost to a person, they were saying, “well, I guess you could say I’m a Prep, but I don’t really think I am.”  Or, more forcefully, “The last thing I want to be called is a Prep.”  This was coming from kids who were still wearing buttoned down shirts and Top Siders.  Teens were moving on, some to the emerging subculture of rap, some to a brief revival of the hippy regime, still others were taking an “alternative” turn.  We do not have access to this data, but we can assume that sales figures for Ralph Lauren, Rolex, BMW, and the other “flag ship” brands of the decade fell sharply.  Presumably, furniture and textile stores suddenly found it difficult to move their “duck” and “sailboat” motifs.  What convergences give, they take away.

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1 Stroh, Ann. n.d. The Preppy Handbook and other myths.  This document may be found at http://www.sit.wisc.edu/%7Exanadu/preppy_handbook.html.

2 For the connection between the prep or yuppie movement and BMW, see Greyser, Stephen and Wendy Schille. 1991.  BMW: The Ultimate Driving Machine Seeks to De-Yuppify Itself.  Harvard Case Study, 9-593-046, December 27, 1993.  Steven Greyser is an Emeritus Professor at the Harvard Business School.  Wendy Schille was a research associate at HBS at the writing of this case.

Midori House: a culture accelerator

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Intelligence gathering, pattern seeking, culture watching, early warning wanting, this is the name of the game for everyone in the creative space.

But it is one thing to gather this knowledge, and another to put it to use.

One interesting case study here is Midori House, which I visited last year.  (I am rolling it out now because I am on the road and serving up topics I have written about but not yet posted on.)

“Being Tyler Brule is a full time job,” says the intern, with a touch of irritation.  Tyler Brule (pictured) is the head of Monocle and Winkreative, this kid’s boss, and a man not to be crossed.  I wonder if the intern understands what this indiscretion could cost him.   Or perhaps, young and impossibly handsome, he just doesn’t care.

The intern is giving me a tour of Midori House.  It stands in a London courtyard, about 90 feet long, 40 feet wide, and five stories high.  It’s about the size of a  ferryboat or small cruise ship.

I am here to be interviewed on the Monocle radio station.  This surprises me because I thought Monocle was a magazine.

And Monocle is a magazine, quite a famous one, in fact.  But it is also a design studio, advertising agency, strategy consultancy, and, yes, a radio station.   Typically, we see these 5 functions spread over 5 separate companies.  Bringing them altogether into so small a space would, in the old days, have brought a charge of indecision or promiscuity.

These days it’s a smart thing to do.

All of the Monocle bits and pieces run on the same thing: a knowledge of, and a feeling, for the state of our world.  Indeed, I found myself wondering if there was a pipe in the basement through which intelligence comes pouring into Midori House.

Let’s say someone in the design house is working on a project for Burberry, the clothing brand.  They go to the basement and pour off a pint size container called “the latest thing in luxury clothing.”  Someone working for the ad agency is looking for information on the way housewives think about breakfast.  The pipe provides here too.  The book review man for Monocle, is always on the look out for new books but for that great cloud of ideas and sentiments that make our culture now.

It sounds a little complicated, but there is a big idea here.  In fact, Monocle has found a way to maximize its return on investment.  What flows in from that pipe is used 5 times, as design, advertising, strategy, print on the page and words in the air.   Everything it learns, it turns to advantage.  If the print client doesn’t want something, the strategy client will.  And sometimes, a single understanding of the world pays off in all 5 of the Monocle faces.  And that, ladies and gentlemen, is what you call a robust ROI.

And this is no simple “pass through” model. Monocle accelerates what it learns.   Inevitably, the people designing for Burberry end up talking to the ad people.  The ad people reply with their latest learnings.  And everyone listens to Dan, the book reviewer, because he knows what’s happening in the world of arts, letters and ideas.

And together the Monocle team members multiply their knowledge until Midori House rises on a tide of intelligence that may not exist anywhere else in London.  And this is a city famous for its sensitivity to the new.  London is filled with watchers of culture and makers of culture, people trying to divine and deliver the new.  Accelerators of the Midori House kind, there could be something to this.

Imprecision, culture, and Nick Kroll

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brands Being Human

Subaru is doing great work for the SyFy’s  Being Human.  Here’s one example:

This is an insider ad.  You have to know the show to get what’s happening.  These are werewolves.  They’ve gone into the woods to “turn.”  The brand has found the spirit of the show and “had a little fun with it.”  Romantic feeling is imposed on something that will shortly turn nasty and violent.  Clever.  And this is absolutely in the spirit of Being Human which plays with genre expectation constantly and well.

Here is Being Human in action.  In this scene, Sally, the ghost, discovers that her house is up for sale and she decides to discourage home buyers with a ghostly trick.  Ooooooooooo!  In this scene, remember, she is invisible.

Generally speaking, Subaru has done a great job claiming a nest of companionable, cozy, domestic meanings for the brand.  It has attached itself to “family” as well as any brand in the biz.  (And that’s saying something, considering that so many brands are trying to make this connection.) Recall the Subaru ads that feature dogs aging and kids practicing for their driver’s license.  This is great work but it may leave the Subaru brand defined as something perhaps a little too domestic and of-this-world.

The Being Human work manages this problem beautifully.  A brand that verges on the humble and everyday becomes suddenly exotic and even daring.  The Subaru meanings expand wonderfully.

Notice how elegantly this is accomplished.  The Being Human work is site-specific and exists, in effect, only for the Being Human audience.  There is no danger  that the broader Subaru market will see this work and no danger that it will transform their “cosy” associations with the brand.  This is brand surgery.

Another thing I like about this approach is that it is the opposite of product placement.  Instead of jamming the product into the show, the show is allowed to find its way into the “brandscape,” to use John Sherry’s term.  And both the show and the brand profit.

Product placement is often an absolute tax on a show.  You know that moment when the appearance of the product suspends your suspension of disbelief.  You might as well stop watching and thousands no doubt do.  I don’t care how much the show makes from product placement.  In many cases, the artistic price is too high.  Plus, as a strategy, this is just plain dumb.  It says in effect, “People aren’t watching our ads! Ok, so let’s force them to look at the product!  We’ll make them watch us!”  You’ll make them watch you?  This is your idea of persuasion.  This is your idea of managing meanings? Really?

There’s another Subaru ad for Being Human that feels, to me, less successful.  It shows three actors acting like characters from the show.  See it here:

This execution feels wrong to me and it serves I think as a useful test of where this strategy can work and where it fails.  When the ad is merely leveraging the creative original, it feels like a pale imitation and it provokes, I think, a relative loss of value.  By which I mean, more is taken from the show than is returned to it.  The brand is merely exploiting the dramatic riches of Being Human and not taking possession of them for larger creative play.  In the immortal words of T.S. Eliot, “bad poets borrow, good poets steal.” This spot borrows where the first one steals.  This is not as bad as product placement but it isn’t a lot better.

Carmichael Lynch, the agency in question, has done great things for Subaru.  There is a cultural sensitivity at work here that really is exceptional.  And our opening “werewolf” ad breaks new ground.  Letting the brand out to play in an ad, in this way, is to let the brand out to play in the world.  And this is one of those cases, where brand and ad are working together, borrowing meanings from one another, to their mutual benefit.   Both brand and show get bigger, richer, and more interesting.

But what might be more remarkable is the fact that the Carmichael Lynch work takes Subaru almost no other automotive brand is prepared to go.  This is daring.  It is clever.  It participates in popular culture.  It makes the brand a living, breathing presence in the life of the consumer and our culture.  It takes the brand a little closer to being human.

Acknowledgments

Dean Evans, CMO, Subaru

I am hoping Carmichael Lynch will send me names of the creative team so that I can give them a mention for this really exemplary work.  Watch this space.

miraculous ascensions

What are the odds that this actor:

Movie-Stars-Who-Started-Out-TV

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

would become this actor:

True-Detective-1x05

 

 

 

 

 

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

KIKA_Matthew-McConaughey_kika2866967.jpg_26703

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

would become this actor:

BOB.v19-26.March17.Podhoretz

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

dragnet_square

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

would become this show:

true_detective_ver2_xlg

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

Fred Armisen and the mysteries of culture and creativity

Fred_ArmisenThis is a lovely puzzle.

Fred Armisen is very good at making comedy, on SNL and more recently on Portlandia.

But he can’t always tell what’s going to work.

Here he is in an Entertainment Weekly interview making the puzzle clear.

Sometimes you do [a sketch] that’s good on paper and all the elements are there, but for some reason when you watch it, you can see … it doesn’t make it. We did this one where we’re both ambulance drivers. […] It seemed like such a good idea on paper; we were so excited about it. But it just didn’t work. Things that seem clear to us in our mind, sometimes when they’re on the screen you’re like, ”What is happening? What am I looking at?”

This is very interesting anthropologically.  Most of the time, Armisen is right.  A sketch works as well in practice as it did in concept.  But every so often it just doesn’t work.  Actually, it fails so badly  Armisen  ends up asking, “What am I looking at.”  It seems pointless.  Dead.

A magic ingredient  is missing.  The ghost in the machine.  The god in the details.  The spirit in the sketch.  Or something.  And that’s the puzzle: what’s that something?

Photo courtesy of Tammy Lo http://www.flickr.com/photos/tammylo/240569810/

Kim Kardashian and Lena Dunham: compare, contrast, explain (a Minerva essay contest)

Flock-O-MinervasAssignment 1:

Kim Kardashian and Lena Dunham.  Compare, contrast, explain.

Prize: a Minerva prize and statue

Who may enter: anyone may enter.  Just send us an essay that answers the question.  Send your answers to grant27@gmail.com.

Deadline for submissions: December 15, 2013

Fuller details:

Designers, anthropologists, strategists, ethnographers, writers, artists, activists, musicians, digitists, and other cultural creatives live or die by their knowledge of culture.  The more we know, the more adroitly we know it, the deeper our mastery of this knowledge and the forces that produce it, the more surely we will flourish.

So here’s a test of your knowledge.  Who are Kim Kardashian and Lena Dunham?  As young American celebrities, they are conspicuous parts of popular culture.  They express trends already in motion “out there.”  This makes them cultural “effects.”  But they also shape and clarify things that are beginning to emerge.  This makes them cultural “causes.”

Who are these women and what do they say about our life and times?  What are the causes (trends, events, developments) of which they are effects?  And what are the effects (trends, events, developments) of which they are causes?  What shaped them, what are they shaping?

You’ve got lots to work with.  These women have made many stylistic choices, in voice, language, clothing, emotional style, music, make-up, hair, homes, bars, neighborhoods, restaurants, rituals, ceremonies, friends, boyfriends, husbands, celebrity.  They have fashioned detailed, vivid, public personae.  X-ray these, please.  These are very different public performances.  Review them, please.  At the very least we are looking at very different visions of femaleness.  Give us the what and the how.  And the why.

We are not looking for ridicule.  Kardashian and Dunham are high profile and attract lots of comment and some derision.  That’s not our job.  Nor is this a popularity contest.  We don’t care if you like one of these women more than the other.  Your job is to write a beautifully thoughtful, balanced, dispassionate, detailed, insightful piece that might help someone in the year 2113 figure out who these women were and “what they stood for.”

The differences will be readily apparent.  The similarities perhaps not so much.  But it’s worth remembering that these women come from the same culture, they live in (roughly) the same moment.  Honor the differences but see if you can spot the commonalities.  (And marvel that American culture can produce two entirely credible woman who are so dramatically different.)

Assignment 2:

Tell me what the world looks like if you are Kim Kardashian.  Tell me what it looks like if you are Lena Dunham.  Report what their experiences, and views of the world, are from the inside out.  Feel free to comment on any or all of the following; voice, language, clothing, emotional style, music, make-up, hair, homes, bars, neighborhoods, restaurants, rituals, ceremonies, friends, boyfriends, husbands, and/or celebrity.

This is the “identity” version of the question.  Some people found Assignment 1 inaccessible.  My fault.  So, if you prefer, treat this second assignment as your question.  One way to do this is to give us a 300 word diary entry for Kardashian and a 300 word entry for Dunham.  Give us 400 words (give or take) of annotation for things in the diary entry.  As in “KK prefers to shop here at [Tiffany’s?] because…”  and “we believe this hairstyle became fashionable in the south of France about 12 months ago.  It entered the US style scene and KK’s world through the dance scene and specifically Club [X] in Los Angeles.  We believe this style matters because…”

Assignment 3:

What should the question have been here?  What was the best way to invite people to compare, contrast and explain Kim Kardashian and Lena Dunham.

In both cases:

We only want 1000 words.  Because if it’s good enough for a Oxbridge college, it’s good enough for us.  The winner will win a Minerva statue and a measure of immortality as a Minerva winner.  (Hey, it will look good on your c.v.)

The Minerva Judges:

Caley Cantrell, BrandCenter, Virginia Commonwealth University

Noah Cruickshank, AV Club

Janet Kestin, Swim

Leora Kornfeld, Harvard

Adrian Ho, Zeus Jones

Ruby Strong, Lord Byng

Nancy Vonk, Swim

Meanings, Models and Men in Black

imagesDriving to JFK airport today, I looked at the remainders of the 1964 World Fair and thought, as I almost always do, how successfully they were used in Men in Black, the comic book and the movies.

In the World’s Fair, they are observation towers.  In the film and books, they become alien spacecraft.

To use my parochial language, this makes them “culturematics” and that’s because they repurpose culture and change the meanings of one thing (towers) into another (spacecraft).

Men in Black is filled with repurposing of this kind.  My other favorite: turning bad, incredible newspapers into a one of the few sources of information the MiB take seriously.

Ok, a third.  A creature arrives from outer space and demands a weapon from an earthling farmer.  This scene turns the warning “you may have my weapon when you pry it out of my cold, dead hand” into a negotiating position that the alien takes literally and accepts.  “That arrangement is satisfactory.”

You get the little jolt when something in your head changes meaning in this way.  Good metaphors always have that effect.  I get a little vertigo.  “Wait, those meanings that belong there don’t really belong there!?!  Oh, ok, they do. Very well.  Carry on.”   (I am not saying all metaphors are culturematics.  Because most metaphors are not experimental.)

The answer to the mystery of this meaning relocation may lie in the book I took to read on the plane: The Power of Impossible Thinking.  I am not crazy about the title (a little too Norman Vincent Peale for me) but I love the contents.  It’s by Jerry Wind and Colin Crook, both at the Wharton School.  I know Jerry a little and like him a lot which makes especially irksome the fact that I missed this book when it came out in 2006 and found it only literally a couple of weeks ago.

Power of Impossible Thinking argues that there is no real world, an assertion sure to warm an anthropologist’s heart.  What there are the models in our heads that help form what we see in the world.  So there is no economic action, no managerial initiative, no strategy, no insight, no decision, that is unshaped by the models, or as I would prefer, the meanings in our heads.

When an artist like Lowell Cunningham or a film maker like Barry Sonnenfeld reaches into your heads and reworks that World’s Fair observation towers, they have changed the meaning (or the model) in our heads.  And this is one of the reasons we write comix and go to movies, for the frisson of meaning (model) relocation, prefigurement, reconfigurement….whatever you call it.  We like that.

This makes especially puzzling the fact that when we are all “large and in charge” and working for an organization of some kind, we don’t like to hear about meanings or models.  We look at a book like Chief Culture Officer or The Power of Impossible Thinking and go, “no, really, is this quite necessary?  I don’t think so.”

So I admire that Jerry and Crook took this on.  It is a very tough sell.  Meanings and models are a little like the dark energy of enterprise world.  Yes, it’s out there but frankly managers  don’t know exactly what it is, how to think about it, or what to do about it.  And talking about it just makes  heads hurt.  This makes getting meaning or models into decision making and managerial discourse is ever so difficult!

Worse than that, I think people in their enterprise modality think of themselves having a “swift self.”  (This was an idea that came out of research I did for a book called Transformations.  More detail there.)  People in enterprise mode see themselves as being aerodynamic, the better, the quicker to assimilate data, make decisions, and act.  They love this swift self.  It’s a thrilling way to be.  But they often find that it eventually hollows them out, estranging them from family, friends, and other aspects of the self.   Still, it’s great fun while the party lasts.  In this swift self modality, the individual is  formidably capable, forging a smarter, clearer path to market share, say, or the creation of potable water in the Third World.

My favorite example of the swift self is Khalil Younes, a young man I got to know when consulting in Atlanta.  He was equal parts French, Lebanese and Harvard Business School and in his elegant, formidable way simply stared at problems til they dissolved into solution(s).

Here’s the problem.  In the swift self modality, people see themselves as a creature who cuts through the ideas and confusions that stand between themselves and satisfactory outcomes.  What Jerry and I call meanings and models, they think of things they are supposed to cut right through.  In their world, meanings and models are  the things that get in the way.  As a swift self, Khalil is reason.  He is Occam.

When Jerry and I ask Khalil to look at the meanings and models that mediate between the understandings and the world, it may well sound as if we are insisting on the impairment of this swiftness.

I think it’s likely for the swift self to reply with something like “Look, I have managed to be capable without entertaining the meanings or models you claim are active here, what are the chances this knowledge will make a difference?  On balance, I’m guessing it is more likely to interfere, taking more than it gives.”

This is not a bad argument until we get to the meat of the argument that Jerry and I are making and that is that the world is getting faster, more confusing and less scrutable.  And in circumstances like these, it makes sense to look hard at the meanings and models we use as instruments of apprehension…because when we don’t do this, we often can’t see the opportunities or the dangers now at hand.

Anyhow, I have just started the book and I will report back when I know more.   At a minimum, I think those who are Chief Culture Officers (or fellow travelers) might look to The Power of Impossible Thinking as another and perhaps a better way of communicating cultural understanding into the organization.  “Mental models” does sound a little less obscure than “meanings” and even this would be an improvement.  This might make a good Google Plus hang out at some point.  Anyhow, more to come.  I want to get this posted before I run out of internet service on board.

(Filed from 32,000 feet somewhere on the way to Austin.)

Witness De-Relocation, a new game for summer.

Here’s a game that will give you hours of fun.

Play it with friends and family!  At the beach!

Three steps:

1. Assume everyone you meet is in witness relocation. Everyone.

2. Come up with the “real story” for each of them.

An example: My wife and I recently decided that our new neighbor was caught in the Bernie Madoff scandal, having served as one of Bernie’s assistants. In exchange for testimony, she was renamed and relocated. (As far as we know, this is completely untrue.)

Here’s how our “de-relocation” continued:

Life with Bernie was an odd outcome for someone raised by a woman who was raised on the commune founded by D. H. Lawrence and Georgia O’Keefe in the Southwest many, many years ago, someone who had, as it happens, done time of her own for breaking into the Santa Fe institute and stealing top secret plans for complexity theory.

How would someone like this find her way to New York City and into the employ of Bernie Madoff, you ask? Well, because she had a heart murmur, a speech impediment, a lust for life, and/or served briefly as the President of Columbia University and, yes, Columbia Records, it just so happened… [Off you go.]

3. When you are introduced to the person in question, be sure to murmur, “Yeah, right” when given the “cover story,” and be sure to use broad winks and rolled eyes to let them (and your significant other) know “you’re not falling for it.”

Rinse and repeat.

Pop music’s dark passenger

I was listening to Justin Timberland’s Mirrors the other day and at the 2:03 mark, something weird happens. It’s as if the song suffers a sudden loss of blood pressure.

The tempo so far has been driven by a calm but persistent momentum. A horse traveling at a canter, leisurely but insistent, the base line supplied by instruments and voices.

And then the momentum suddenly glides! The baseline stops. At 2:03 strings come in and fall away. And you think they are going to keep falling until strings come in again at 2:04. Between 2:03 and 2:04, there’s free fall.

It feels like the song is over. Then those second strings come in, just in time, to catch the song and prepare for a return to canter.

Not quite a resurrection. More like a save (in the baseball sense of the miraculous catch).

It’s hard to see what this intrusion means for Mirrors. The first time I heard it, it seemed to me that the song was wheeling (as trains do) and now moving off in a new direction. But Mirrors comes out of this swoon the song it was going in. Nothing has changed. (Unless I’m missing something. You can tell that I don’t know anything about music. So something might have changed and I can’t see it.)

I might have ignored this aspect of Mirrors, except that it reminded me of the music that accompanies a recent Microsoft ad. This is Labrinth’s Express Yourself. This is a good natured, peppy, confessional little song that comes with an admonishing chorus: Express yourself!

No sooner has this chorus started than (at 0:54) it sounds like a Paris ambulance has decided to take a short cut through our “listening experience.” Klaxon blaring! Get out of the way! This is an emergency!

It’s glorious, great confusion, as the song has suffered a blowout, lost its stability and fights now to get things back under control. Express Yourself on two wheels! Look out!

Popular music has often cultivated this conceit, that it is a lord of misrule capable of summoning terrible confusions and disorders. In fact, “Look out!” is exactly what guitarist sometimes mutter at the beginning of a solo, as if chaos were now to be unleashed. I am not always buying it, but I am usually charmed. “A” for effort and grandiosity.

Again, it’s not clear what the Paris ambulance adds to the song. It sounds out of place. Not quite in error. Not entirely apt.

And this reminded me of that moment in Beyonce’s Single Ladies (Put a ring on it) where we get (at 0:52) what struck on first hearing as “dread chords.” They come in like a low pressure zone, dark, menacing, and if this weren’t a pop song, majestic.

These three things are anthropologically obvious…or at least probable.

1) That music is one of the most cultural of cultural artifacts. What works in one culture is strange and unpleasant in another. We are extremely particular about what we like and what we don’t.

2) That music is rule bound. The rules specify, among other things, how sounds should be chosen and combined. Some selections and combinations are so conventionalized, they become genres. But what confines some artists frees other, and part of the fun of musical creativity is seeing what an artist can make these rules do, by stretching them to the breaking point and in some cases deliberately violating them. This is what keeps music “fresh.”

3) Some of the rules of music call for “harmony.” Some sounds go together, some do not. It’s a largely arbitrary arrangement. It varies between communities and it changes over time. But at any given time for any given group, the rules say some sounds go together more surely than others.

And what we are looking at in the case of Timberlake, Labrinth and Beyonce are sounds that so clearly don’t go with the surrounding sounds that they seem to qualify as intruders. They remain separate and different. They are passengers. Stowaways even.

The simplest explanation for these dark passengers is that they are post hoc efforts to give the song additional depth and credibility. The artist says, “oh, God, we’ve gone too far. This is bubble gum. Do something!” And faithfully, the tune smith or the producer comes up with a sound that “runs against type” as we used to say of casting Broadway or Hollywood actors.

But I think there’s another explanation. Or, better, I wonder whether we should search for the explanation elsewhere. I wonder if culture, and in this case pop culture, is changing. Changing so much that unitness is breaking down. Cultural rules once said what a unit was and how to constitute it, not least how to specify what goes in a song and what does not. This is what gave a song its “thingness.” This is what allowed the artist and the listener to agree that, yes, this is a song.

If its possible now to smuggle music into a song that doesn’t quite go, well, that would be interesting. After all popular culture has been ruthlessly crafted. Artists are controlled by conventions and producers who are controlled by genres and labels who are controlled by sales numbers. Even in an era of indie and alt musical producers, music is crafted quite carefully. Rules are honored. Conventions play out.

But if an artist/producer/label can now allow dark passengers, musical moments that are not just cast against type, but markedly different in tone and character, then what we call a “song” is changing. And if that’s changing, well, think what else must be changing.

Post script:

On changing in music and the music biz, see the remarkable work being done by Leora Kornfeld over at Demassed.