I spent the last couple of days in Palm Springs. (I was giving a talk to NBC.)
I gave myself a day to wander around.
Palm Springs does not have superb powers of historical evocation. (For some reason I thought it would.) But you can catch a glimpse of a world built for and by several generations of celebrity, including Frank Sinatra.
At a distance of several decades and several generations, Frank is looking odder and odder. The total self confidence. The overweening self importance. All that “chairman of the board” stuff. The booze. The “dames.” The “rat pack.”
But if you talk to someone of Frank’s generation, it’s clear the guy was a god, a personification of the qualities people found spell binding.
Who, I wondered, is Frank Sinatra now? Who is the person who exhibits this perfect connection with the cultural moment. There are lots of options. Jon Stewart has a shot at the “crown.” Jay-Z does too. [Suggestions, please.] And, sure, it’s tougher to say now that we are so fragmented.
There’s a chance it’s Bill Murray. Not least because he helped unseat the lounge singer with his SNL work. But also because he has reinvented himself several times over a series of movies. Young film makers found him and found him useful.
The real reason he is the new Frank is that he is the anti-Frank. He appears to have no interest in creating that huge personality that dominates the public stage. To be sure, there is a distinct personality, one that sits on the surface of all the film work. And this personality is all about a perfect self mastery, that’s quite Frankish, even as it is an exercise in irony that scorns everything Frankish.
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.
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.
The interview demonstrates that Mr. West is maturing into a fine young man with new powers of self understanding and self control.
None of which interest me at all.
What I like about this interview is what happens when Lisa Robinson asks Mr. West:
What do you think Jay-Z has done for you?
Man, everything–served as a big brother, the blueprint, our reality. Someone to look up to.
And you were wondering how smart Kanye West is? He gives three answers, leaping assumptions as he goes.
"Jay-Z is a big brother." Good opener. Family metaphor evoked. Status difference acknowledged. Deference given.
West could have stopped there. But he’s just getting started.
"Jay-Z is a blueprint." I got whip lash and a nose bleed from this one. (The doctors say I’ll be fine. No cards or flowers, please.)
Normally, when we pile up the comparisons, we build a small universe as we go. Each term is inclined to furnish (and sound) the same semiotic space. New terms overlap a little. We build an ensemble.
But, no. West is done with the family metaphor. Now he’s on to "blue print" and an entirely new metaphor. He is telling us that Jay-Z is a world containing worlds, that he supplies that directions, the dimensions, for making music.
Holding a hankie to our bleeding noses, we understand the chances of Kanye West elaborating on this second metaphor are next to zero.
Sure enough, he calls Jay-Z "our reality."
Now Jay-Z defines the ontology of popular music. He supplies the most fundamental assumptions of music and the creativity from which it springs.
And now West goes full circle.
Jay-Z, he tells us, is "someone to look up to."
The big brother theme returns. And we’re done. Thanks for coming everyone. Please drive safely.
Now, I know what some people are thinking. Surely, this is a mixed metaphor. Surely, this is messy thinking. And this would have been exactly right 20 years ago.
But things have changed. Now we want our creatives to leap cultural frames in a single bound, to find new metaphors while still in flight, to send us careening between cultural references. Anything else seems a little thin, a little bit too much like culture before Kanye.