What is your fascination with my forbidden closet of mystery?
Much has been made of Web 2.0, and the shifting power structures of the media industry. Suddenly, it’s no longer about the stodgy, old-school mentality of international record companies, or the lumbering media conglomerates; it’s about the punk kid recording albums in his suburban bedroom, and the auteur shooting feature films on his iPhone.
As a society, we are increasingly aware and concerned that media is produced to view and “target” us as “market segments”It’s a great narrative. It taps into the increasing anxieties we all have about how much corporate control there is in our lives. As a society, we have become increasingly aware of how media is produced to view and “target” us as “market segments” and to sanitize true artistry to crudely cater to broad demographics.
How many times have we heard the story of an artistic visionary whose irrepressible genius was, er, repressed when a profit-motivated production company/record label/publishing house demanded some unthinkable aesthetic compromise or else!? For me, this story has been repeated so many times and about so many projects, that it’s virtually the most common trope I’ve heard about a “genius” work of art— that it was shelved because corporate accountants voiced concerns at boardroom meetings that these projects were too insular, too weird, too difficult to attract a mainstream audience, and thus had to be dropped.
“What is your fascination with my forbidden closet of mystery?”
These immortal words, spoken by ersatz police chief Clancy Wiggum to his son Ralph on the long-running television program The Simpsons pretty much sums it up. The fact that you can’t have something means you want it even more. If someone is telling you that you aren’t allowed to hear a record, well, it suddenly becomes important to find out why and what the controversy is.
Sometimes you hear these stories when they leak out through gossip and media reports. Think Nirvana’s In Utero or Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. The former was supposedly dubbed so “unlistenable” by Geffen Records that it was demanded that the entire album be scrapped and re-recorded. There’s something so poetically apropo about that story for a band whose roots were so firmly entrenched in the punk ethos. Ironically enough, this type of talk only galvanizes public interest in this suppressed content, most likely unintentionally in this case.
This story has been repeated so many times that it’s virtually the most common trope about a “genius” work of art.For the case of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, there is an oft-repeated tale of how crazy and unapproachable this album was upon completion and how record execs were just so stunned with its sounds and experimental nature that they just couldn’t release it, and dropped the band from its roster. This story is especially confounding to me because this album hardly counts as a wacky avant-garde freakout or anything remotely close. In fact, it sounds fairly run-of-the-mill to me, at least in terms of sonic quality, except for some random smatterings of “numbers stations” recordings, which maybe to people raised on Backstreet is a little weird, but the presentation is not so left-field as to create total puzzlement.
But that’s not the same thing as saying that execs actually heard YHF and felt like there was no way this could go through. But this is exactly the story that was spread at the time of release— that this monumental artistic achievement came on the heels of deliberate sabotage by a record company, who was too dense to understand its advanced artistry. Frankly, I think the story was a tremendous help in selling the album, and gave people who wouldn’t have otherwise cared (or even have a reason to be aware of this record) a reason to pay attention. Is it a coincidence that YHF ended up at the very top of year-end critics’ lists? I’m not sure, but I cannot imagine how it could have hurt it.
The Album that the Record Industry Didn’t Want You to Hear
KMD (aka Kausing Much Damage) was a not very famous rap group back in the early 90s that mostly got famous because in 1994 1) their DJ was run over by a car on the Long Island Expressway and died, and 2) that same week, their record company, Elektra, shelved their apparently already-controversial new album Black Bastards before it even came out. The album was supposedly was pulled from release for its shocking cover art, which depicted a race-baiting image of a golliwog being lynched.1
By the time the album was released 7 years later, it was a legendary album with near-mythic status, and was one of the most bootlegged rap albums of all time. This is despite the fact that most who had heard it didn’t seem to think it was particularly good.
When the album finally came out in 2001 courtesy of a small record company that had acquired the rights, it had a big sticker plastered on the front that advised consumers that it has been suppressed by a record company but was now available for the first time! The very fact that the media marketing machine was against it gave it a marketability that it wouldn’t have had on its own.
One can’t help but feel that as a society, we need these stories. We like these tales because they remind us that we’re not numbers. We’re not target markets. We are smarter than the media moguls and corporate marketing jerks think we are, and we have much better taste than they think. They serve as proof, particularly to certain sets of cultural first-adopters (read: hipsters and trendspotters) that these corporate types just don’t get it.
Of course, by stating this I don’t mean to argue the reverse, that they do get it. In fact, they often don’t. And honestly, I don’t have a lot of faith in the aesthetic sensibilities of most marketers or business leaders. Good ones are able to understand how to steal and co-opt genuinely revolutionary or merely very good aesthetic movements and resell them to mainstream audiences, despite the fact that they are risky investments and have no pre-existing markets. And I’d argue that it happens more frequently than we’d like to think. After all, throughout history, there have been few things with more cultural and financial traction than branding the rebellion against mainstream, even if that rebellion eventually becomes the mainstream.
1 One wonders why, however, the record company didn’t just change the artwork if that was the point of contention; Metallica’s first album originally had the charming title Metal Up Your Ass and was accompanied by the even more charming image of a clutched knife emerging from a toilet bowl. Elektra Records did not approve. But instead of abandoning the project from the fledgling metal band (who could have easily been dropped), Elektra simply attached a new title, Kill ‘Em All, to a way classier image, a shadowy hand dropping a bloody hammer.
when public enemies hit the mainstream
As I write this, there are massive revolts occurring across the world; in Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Iran, and why, even here in Madison, Wisconsin. Indeed, revolution is pretty popular at the moment. But then— rebellion has always been popular, and as far as I can tell, it has always been cool, especially with the youth.
But one of the most interesting aspects of rebellion is how, after some countercultural nuisance spends years enraging, irritating, and aggravating the mainstream, it eventually permeates it. It is at this somewhat perplexing juncture that this formerly toxic social element is repackaged and sold by mainstream entities as perfectly respectable and worthy of celebration. And deserving of our money, of course. This year’s (2011) Super Bowl featured two ads that perfectly illustrate my point.
The first Super Bowl ad was one featuring Eminem. This ad, by Chrysler, told an elaborate narrative about the auto industry, a story involving strength, conviction, and vision, followed by a subplot about hardship, regrouping, and an eventual Biblical-style resurrection. Chrysler employed two metaphors to develop this tale of the auto industry’s Second Coming. One was somewhat direct: the tale of Detroit, which due to the failures of the auto industry, had undergone at least most of the ad’s described trajectory of riches-to-rags-back-to-riches. The second metaphor employed was more indirect, and told courtesy of one of Detroit’s most famous native sons: Eminem, whose personal life saga has also thematically mirrored the narrative recounted by the ad. Yet, despite this, Eminem is an interesting choice of a mascot for the notoriously conservative American auto industry.
“Ten years ago, Eminem was being held personally accountable for the downfall of society. And now here he is being asked by Chrysler to hawk cars for them.”It might be hard to recall, but nary 10 years ago— and as few as 6 years ago— Eminem was being held personally accountable for the downfall of society. This might sound like an exaggeration, but it is not. Countless news sources like CNN, a litany of advocacy groups, and innumerable prominent politicians (including no less than President George W. Bush himself, in fact) described through recurring soundbites Eminem’s personal role in elevating school shootings, teen drug abuse, domestic violence, homophobic hate crimes, and various other signs of declining social order. And now here he is being asked by Chrysler to hawk cars for them.
Many commentators from the public sphere lamented that Eminem had ‘sold out’ by appearing in a car commercial (despite the fact that plenty of Eminem’s close contemporaries and labelmates like Snoop Dogg, 50 Cent, and Dr. Dre had all done it before). But to me, the far more noteworthy element of this story is that a Big Three automaker wanted this erstwhile scourge on society to represent them. But they did, and it seems like few people in the mainstream thought twice about it once they saw the ad. While some questioned whether he was the right candidate for the tone of the ad, there was little controversy about the appearance of a guy who once recorded a jaunty little tune about brutally murdering his ex-wife while his young daughter looked on. Though his Slim Shady persona was jarring and disturbing to the American mainstream in the years of 1997 to 2003, now he’s just another familiar celebrity face.
The same thing has happened to Ozzy Osbourne, our second case-in-point. I wasn’t around for Black Sabbath’s heyday in the early 1970s, but from my understanding, people genuinely though of Ozzy and company as Satanic and poisonous to our childrens’ souls. Their proto-metal featured dark and disturbing imagery, impossibly heavy guitar work, and lyrics about nightmarish and supernatural phenomena. In the 1980s, Ozzy was even sued by some parents for allegedly causing kids to kill themselves (though he was eventually acquitted). And here is Ozzy Osbourne on Super Bowl Sunday, selling us on Best Buy with his good chum, teen heartthrob Justin Bieber (whose popularity, incidentally, is also considered by many to represent a serious decline in American society).
Of course, this ad comes on the heels of many years of Ozzy being in the public spotlight. But it’s still interesting to note that his popular reality TV show did little to cement the idea that Ozzy is a responsible, upstanding individual that represents the paragon of American virtue. Quite the opposite, in fact; it documented in graphic detail just how messed up he still is. But the cycle of the mainstream re-appropriating countercultural values means that America loves Ozzy anyway.
Converse, the Clash, and Metallica
Interestingly, the cases of Eminem and Ozzy are not isolated incidents. Such examples abound. I was recently in a normal, everyday shoe store and saw an entire wall of countercultural icons that had been packaged and sold as rebellious accoutrement by Converse. Look at the bands featured here:
The Clash, AC/DC, the Doors, Metallica, Jimi Hendrix. These bands at one time symbolized a serious rejection of mainstream sensibilities and aesthetics. Two of them were viewed as harbingers of dark, anti-Christian devilry; two more were icons of overt sexuality, drug abuse, and debauchery; and the last represented virulent anti-establishment politics. But here, Converse has commodified their images and symbolism (i.e. the fact that ‘the man’ hates them and views them as a threat to social order), and explicitly resells their names as pre-packaged rebellion in the form of fashion accessories:
Looking at these shoes invites the questions: who is buying these products? What is the demographic, and what is the psychographic?
“One of the benefits of having counterculture come pre-packaged is that much of the thinking has already been done for you.”The first thought that comes to my mind when considering the target consumer for these shoes is of the movie Juno. The protagonist of Juno is an uber-self-aware teenager (played by Ellen Page) whose entire goal in life seems to be to mash as many trendy references into her dialogue and personal consumption patterns as humanly possible. As far as is discernible, however, Juno is not interested in appreciating these references on their own terms (e.g. actually listening to their music); instead, she is far more interested in exploiting them to gain social capital and acceptance from her social network, which she does through incessant name-dropping.
Are people like Juno the target market? Probably. There’s a big pressure in our consumer society these days to not necessarily show that you like anything, but to show that you get all the right references; to demonstrate that you’re hip enough to at least know what good taste is, even if you don’t necessarily have it yourself. And as an added bonus, as the shoe below demonstrates, one of the benefits of having counterculture come pre-packaged is that much of the thinking has already been done for you.
It’s not hard to understand why all this happens: Capitalism knows full well that anything popular enough to get our attention is probably popular enough to sell. And at its heart, marketing is all about meeting untapped consumer desires— even when the untapped desire is to undermine the very system that is providing the raw materials used to fight it. It’s an irony that is most likely lost on the people who end up buying Clash shoes. But hey, if rock’n‘roll is about rebellion, maybe the most rebellious act you can do these days is actually just admit to conforming.
“A Nation of Rebels: Why Counterculture Became Consumer Culture” by Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter, 2004.
on understanding and addressing motives
A few years ago, I was consulting for a well-known company with a large vehicle fleet. Higher-ups were interested in the company’s environmental impact, and wanted to know the best way to reduce their carbon footprint given “X” dollars of investment. They were thinking of maybe of replacing their vehicles with hybrids. My team and I, being the intrepid businesspeople that we were, collected figures, ran some numbers, and came to a solid and convincing conclusion about what they should do.
Standing before company execs, we went through a number of concise charts and calculations demonstrating our work. Then we stated— with some sense of pride for our thoroughly researched and unintuitive conclusion— our genius strategy: on retirement of vehicles, the company should replace its gasoline powered vehicles with diesel powered vehicles.
It was in the moment of silence that followed that I believe we lost them.
Sure, we told them:
- Diesel vehicles are much cheaper than hybrids and one could thus buy many more of them with the same amount of money
- Diesel engines are much cheaper to maintain and replace
- Hybrid batteries have high carbon footprints of their own, and disposal is a serious and largely unconsidered issue
- Diesel fuel is cheaper than gasoline
But ultimately, we sensed that something hadn’t quite translated. There were some questions and some comments by the company’s representatives, but they didn’t look convinced or excited by our presentation. The question of what happened, of course, is blindingly obvious to the onlooker. The company had already made up its mind about its strategy— they were going to get hybrids—, and our proposal simply did not fit into their plan. More to the point, we simply took their words about wanting to reduce environmental impact at face value, without taking careful stock of what their motives might be.
If you look at the business environment with regards to carbon footprints, the United States tends to be fairly hands-off at the moment. Generally there aren’t very many penalties for generating negative externalities as long as your company happens to create jobs and contributes to the economy. That is, no company is going to face government intervention because employees create air pollution while they drive around; the penalty for driving around comes almost exclusively in the form of fuel expenses and maintenance costs of the vehicles. Thus, any potential benefit that comes from reducing carbon footprints comes from these cost savings— and from creating a positive impact in the PR department.
Ah! The PR department. That was the critical element that we had missed. Somewhat naively, we had overlooked that the main intent of the carbon footprint reduction initiative was not the reduction itself, but in looking good for doing it. We had yet to learn that part of marketing is understanding that it’s as much about the story you can tell as it is about the reality. And the bottom line here was that “we care about the environment so we’re going to buy, errrr, smog-spewing diesel trucks” was not as compelling a story as “we care about the environment— that’s why we’re replacing our gas-powered vehicles with green technology hybrids!”
In other words, while doing the right thing is without a doubt a good thing, effective sustainability campaigns will definitely need to place the image factor high on the set of priorities. Something to keep in mind.
the implications of popular song in commerce
“I was one the people who reacted violently the first time I saw the  Nike commercial [using the Beatles song “Revolution”]. I think I was in a hotel room somewhere, and I was jumping up and down! I was real pissed off. Goddamnit, I was mad, you know, because when John Lennon wrote that song, he wasn’t doing it for the money. And to be using it for any corporate thing… it made me angry.”
- John Fogerty, quoted in Rolling Stone, December 10, 1987
“For me and my generation, that song I watched John Lennon creating at the Abbey Road studios was an honest statement about social change, really coming out and revealing how he felt. It was the truth— but now it refers to a running shoe.”
- James Taylor, quoted in Musician, April 1988
“The most difficult question is whether you should use songs for commercials. I haven’t made up my mind… Generally, I don’t like it, particularly with the Beatles stuff. When twenty more years have passed, maybe we’ll move into the realm where it’s okay to do it.”
- Paul McCartney, quoted in Musician, February 1988
“If it’s allowed to happen, every Beatles song ever recorded is going to be advertising women’s underwear and sausages. We’ve got to put a stop to it in order to set a precedent. Otherwise, it’s going to be a free-for-all!”
- George Harrison, quoted in Musician, November 1987
“John [Lennon]‘s songs should not be part of a cult of glorified martyrdom. They should be enjoyed by kids today.”
- Yoko Ono, quoted in ENS, May 14, 19871
You Say You Want a Revolution
The Beatles have always been held apart from their contemporaries. They occupy a special space that confers them godlike status; their greatness is woven into the very fabric of our collective history and aspiration. They embody the pure ideals of peace and love, the hope and promise of a better world. Indeed, they transcend the crass realms of commerce. Which is exactly why they have been so successful in commerce.
Of course, since that highly controversial Nike ad aired in 1986, we’ve seen any number of Beatles songs in commercials, to less and less fanfare. From the use of “Getting Better” in a series Philips flat screen television ads that started in 1998, to the use of “Hello Goodbye” in Target Commercials in 2008, and of course the Apple ads hawking the Beatles’ own music in 2010, the Beatles have had immense success in the commercial sphere.
It’s interesting to note that despite the fact that the Beatles are “special” in the musical canon, the prevalent feelings of distaste that punctuated the initial use of “Revolution” wasn’t reserved for the Beatles. For the longest time, any use of popular song in commercials was polarizing. In the late 90s, Burger King used Modern English’s haunting “Melt with You” to sell a double cheeseburger, and the Gap used Queen’s “Crazy Little Thing Called Love” to promote a fall fashion line.
You Tell Me that It’s Evolution
When the popular song catalog started being mined for commercials, it seemed like the only people who found these ads charming were people who hadn’t heard the original songs before, and thus weren’t attached to them in any personal way. To everyone else, such ads seemed the height of distaste, the grossest expression of corporate scorched-Earth mentality, where the soundtrack of our lives were being exploited thoughtlessly to get people to buy crap.
Over the past decade, however, there has been a noticeable shift in how the public has perceived these ads. Much credit can be given to Volkswagen’s use of Nick Drake’s and other semi- or genuinely obscure artists like Richard Buckner in their ads. Something was less offensive about the use of these less recognizable songs, especially since many of these songs seemed like songs worth hearing, and the ads seemed to focus on the music as much as the products themselves. The ads came off as a genuine artistic statements about abstract concepts like wonder and marching to one’s own beat, rather than contrived attempts to sell people on things. Notably, the music featured in these ads actually generated sales of not only the vehicles, but also the music; in fact, nearly all the success in Nick Drake experienced in his entire career (granted, mostly posthumous) can be traced almost exclusively to Volkswagen ads.
Bob Dylan’s much-discussed entree into the commercial genre came in 2004, when his music and his person were featured in a Victoria’s Secret ad. If you listened very carefully when Dylan’s grizzled face appeared on the screen next to a scantily clad woman wearing racy lingerie, you could faintly hear the ghost of George Harrison groaning. What was Dylan thinking? Here is a man whose influence in the counterculture was incalculable— definitional, even— and here he is part of the corporate machine, veritably spitting on his legacy and the ideals that gave him his status in the first place! In retrospect, it appears Dylan was more clever than it may have initially seemed.
You Tell Me It’s the Institution
Walter Benjamin argued in his 1936 essay The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction that the endless copying of a work— like the ubiquitous use of Beatles songs or the plastering of Bob Dylan’s visage everywhere— would destroy its unique value, devaluing the market with a flood of replicas. However, in the intervening years since the publication of Benjamin’s work, we have seen that not only did Benjamin misfire— but he was dead wrong. What Dylan correctly understood was that in the postmodern landscape, the ubiquity of a text radically increases the value of an original. Ergo, the more you see images of Bob Dylan and hear reproductions of his music, the greater the brand equity of Bob Dylan, the more you’ll pay to see him in concert, the more valuable his music becomes.
It’s not hard to see where Benjamin went wrong. His assertion stemmed from an economic assessment of the situation (as a text’s supply increases, its value must decrease because it is easier to acquire). However, what he failed to take into account was how a text’s very ubiquity causes it to be woven directly into the fabric of culture, which undergirds a society’s entire system of perception and values. Though Dylan might have made his mark in non-commercial settings in the 1960s and 70s, his appearance in consumer culture cements his relevance to the present.
Likewise, placing Beatles music in advertising, which might in one sense cheapen the music through decontextualization and reappropriation for nakedly commercial interests, also creates yet another avenue for the music to permeate and influence society. The commercials end up breathing new life into the songs simply by virtue of exposing new audiences to them (or re-exposing old audiences), and by removing them from the cutout bins of decades past and situating them as timeless pieces for any era.
Nowadays, the mark of a real hit song is not where it places on the Billboard charts, but in the number of different mediums it can fully permeate, and ultimately, how inescapable it is. A song that has dozens of YouTube videos dedicated to it, is played on the radio, is shown on MTV, is in commercials, is racking up sales on iTunes, and is featured on a video game like Rock Band— well, that’s a hit song that people are probably going to remember.
1 All quotes taken from “Beatlesongs” by William J. Dowlding, 1989.
How would this man fare in his attempt to hug random pedestrians if he didn’t have a sign? What makes the sign such a powerful legitimizing tool for something that many people would consider an otherwise sketchy activity?
on jumping the hurdles on the road of authenticity
I spent last weekend in a place called Door County. People from all over the upper Midwest travel to this area of Northern Wisconsin for its natural beauty, bucolic charm, and for something called “fish boils.” A fish boil is exactly what it sounds like— a dinner consisting primarily of two pieces of boiled whitefish, served alongside a couple boiled potatoes and a couple boiled onions. In the world of Door County, this remarkably simple set of unseasoned (with the exception of salt) ingredients dunked into hot water can run you upwards of $20 per person. What’s more remarkable is that people come in droves, cash in hand, to get a taste of the famous Door County fish boils, which in description does not sound all that appetizing.
It’s hard to understand why people are so eager to shell out what seems like a lot of money for inexpensive food that could easily be prepared at home. After all, it really does not require any level of culinary expertise to boil food. It’s also worth noting that despite the ease with which a total novice cook could boil a dinner, boiling is probably one of the least popular forms of cookery. And, I should add, I’ve met exactly zero people who have confessed that they crave eating whole onions cooked in any manner, much less boiled.
One of the first things people will tell you about fish boils is that it isn’t so much a meal as it is “an experience.” This is hard to dispute on account of the pre-dining ritual that occurs as a central part of the Door County fish boil. A large kettle filled with water is heated by fire as a group of diners stand around and watch. A so-called “boilmaster” ceremoniously dumps onions, potatoes, fish, and salt into the bubbling brew. After 10 minutes of heating, kerosene is thrown onto the fire, causing the fire to momentarily flare up in a visceral and visually arresting manner. The rapid increase in heat causes the mixture in the kettle to boil over. Apparently this flushes the fish of its oils (it’s unclear to me why eliminating the oils is a good thing, but the raging fire is fun to watch). The food is then taken out of the water and served.
When probed about it, an employee at a small town visitor bureau confessed to me that people who live in Door County area don’t eat fish boil, and many have never even tried it once despite the fact that outsiders came from hundreds of miles away to get it. Some locals who have eaten fish boil, I was told, did it under the pretense of “doing that touristy thing” in order to understand what the hubbub was about. These revelations do not come much as a surprise.1 Lots of places have things they are famous for that only outsiders appreciate. When I lived in the Bay Area, I found that hardly anyone who had lived there for any period of time had spent an afternoon riding cable cars, going to Fisherman’s Wharf, or riding the boat to Alcatraz. Consigned to being tourist elements, these things are almost entirely out of the psychic purview of the average Bay Area denizen (except when relatives come into town and want to see them!).
Nevertheless, there are good reasons why certain things become famous. Just as the cable cars of San Francisco are unique, the fish boils of Door County are also unique. And it’s not just that these things are unique; they actually factored into the traditional cultures of these places at one time. They are sold as authentic expressions of regional culture. The fish boil was a tradition of Scandinavian settlers of Northern Wisconsin, and as you might figure from a meal of boiled onions and fish, this tradition was born out of extreme poverty and lack of food availability. It had long fallen out of common practice in the area, except for events like church fundraising dinners (again, a context where frugality was a virtue). It was only after a businessman who owned a place called the Viking Grill decided to package it and market it to tourists in the early 1960s that it gained popularity, and moved from the province of outdated tradition to that of the tourist trap, entirely bypassing the possibility of being a normal food for normal people living in the region.
What is fascinating about all this to me is how easy it is to get people to implicitly believe they can’t have the “real” experience without consuming certain things:
If you didn’t see the Pyramids, you didn’t really go to Egypt. If you didn’t see the Eiffel Tower, you didn’t really go to Paris. If you didn’t experience a fish boil, you didn’t really go to Door County. These sorts of hurdles extend far beyond simple tourism in half-serious cultural truisms that we’ve heard repeatedly. Some examples:
- If you remember the 60s, you weren’t there.
- If you’re not drinking Guinness, you aren’t drinking.
- If you don’t have children, you cannot fully experience the joys of life.
Here, specific acts of consumption, through various means (sometimes deliberate acts of marketing, sometimes through more obscure mechanisms), become socially-mandated pre-requisites for entry into an entire category of human experience. At that point, to partake in the consumption category without partaking in the specific consumption pre-requisite almost becomes an act of fraud, or perhaps worse, alarming ignorance.
As denizens of a post-modern world, seeking out authentic experiences is an all-consuming pastime, but what’s truly remarkable is how we’ve been trained to collect proof of our authentic experiences in the form of photographs, souvenirs, and artfully retold stories of our times spent doing things in these exotic environments. If you ask me, the reason why Door County visitors go to fish boils has nothing to do with people wanting to try boiled fish per se; it’s about wanting to experience an authentic tradition, which serves as an insurance policy against the possibility of doubts being raised (possibly by oneself) about whether one actually went to Door County. Not went, really— went went.
1 Something about the way this tradition has been marketed in Door County literature has the feel of a “tourist trap.” For starters, it seems awfully expensive for something that is supposedly a tradition actively practiced by locals— especially when the foods involved are inexpensive and cooked in a manner that should be incredibly cheap. Also the fish boil comes up way too frequently in literature about Door County, as if a concerted effort is being made to hype up the fish boil as something really special, a sort of anachronism whose bygone quality defines Door County as a whole. People talk about San Francisco sourdough and New England clam chowder and New Orleans Po’ Boy sandwiches, but despite the historic import of these foods in regional tradition, they aren’t employed as central metaphors in nearly every single piece of literature about these places. And then there’s the highly ritualistic aspect of the fish boil. The fact that it is an event that diners are specifically asked to make reservations for and told to come 25 minutes early to witness is unusual. It transforms a solitary meal into a community event, just another dinner into a highly photograph-able spectacle, one that is be easy for people to showcase to their friends at home. The roaring fire— itself a genuinely quaint symbol of an authentic retreat from modern life— couldn’t but help in this context.
how much meaning is embedded in a single beverage?
The so-called “Beer Summit” occurred today. The premise of this meeting between Barack Obama, Henry Louis Gates, and James Crowley— a Cambridge police officer— was the culmination of a lot of recent speculation about latent racist attitudes, profiling, and the state of race relations in America. The event hinged on an incident in which Gates was trying to get back into his house after apparently being locked out, and being challenged by a white police officer for appearing to be breaking-and-entering. Allegations about police making assumptions about black men committing crimes were made and it soon turned into the subject of a national debate.
But Obama, ever the diplomat, invited the parties over to the White House garden for some beers (one each) and a bit of mano-a-mano discussion. A lot could be said about the political nature of this event, but what I’m interested in is what apparently the media made a big fuss about: the beer that each individual was going to choose to drink at this event.
It’s fascinating that a single beer could be so embedded with symbolic meaning. This is the nature of the post-modern world, in which many brands are reservoirs of symbolism and fit so prominently into the public’s schemas about social groups. As I mentioned in a previous post, David Foster Wallace once commented that he’d read books in which a character’s personality could be succinctly conveyed simply by naming the brand of T-shirt the character wore. That’s how much meaning we associate with certain brands. Thus, it was a matter of apparent great symbolic import what beer these gentlemen were having on this momentous occasion.
Gates, a Harvard professor, chose a Samuel Adams Light, while Crowley chose a Blue Moon (with an orange slice). Obama, ever the epicurean (what with his much-ridiculed taste for arugula), chose Bud Light. This invites the question of why, if you were the ostensible leader of the free world, you would ever choose a Bud Light. Maybe I’m more of a beer snob than I realize, but of all the world’s beers I could choose, Bud Light would be somewhat at the bottom of my list. Perhaps I am being a bit presumptuous here, but it seems highly unlikely that a man of Obama’s stature and taste would voluntarily choose a Bud Light if given unrestricted choice.
But of course, we have to think about the symbolic value of his choice. Bud Light is the best-selling beer in America, and has been since 2001; apparently it accounts for a massive 22% of case sales in the United States! It carries with it so many symbolic, populist overtones. It’s what any blue collar American would drink. Not like that elitist, hoity-toity microbrew stuff, and especially not one of those foreign beers that wasn’t brewed on our shores.
According to a Republican strategist quoted in an article from Bloomberg, Obama is “trying to send a message that he’s an average American… [He could] complicate that by making an exotic choice, or an import, or too expensive.” Indeed, imagine what the news sources would say if he drank, say, a Heineken, a Sapporo, or a Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. He was already skewered by Fox News’ Sean Hannity for asking for Grey Poupon at a diner several months ago.
There is a rather unexpected complication to Obama’s choice, however. Budweiser was sold to the Belgian company InBev back in July 2008, making Bud Light not quite an American beer. Sure it’s brewed here and it’s a traditionally American brand, but it’s no longer owned by an American company, so perhaps it can’t be viewed as wholly American as say, Coors.* Nevertheless, I think most Americans probably still view Budweiser as a culturally American beer and don’t really know much or care much about the location of the headquarters of the huge international beverage conglomerate that owns it.
Bud Light, viewed strictly on symbolic terms and with the intent of being an uncontroversial choice for a nation who, during the 2004 presidential election was inexplicably obsessed with choosing the candidate who one would most like to have a beer with, was a good selection. It’s a best-seller, has no particular subculture attached to it, and is sold pretty much everywhere. It’s hard to beat that. As Al Ries, an Atlanta-based marketer told Bloomberg, “Leading brands tend to be a very safe choice for a politician because, in a sense, they’re saying to the public, ‘You picked it, not me. I’m just reflecting your choice.’”
Interestingly, little commentary has been made on Crowley’s choice. The police officer was easily the most blue-collar fellow at the table, and chose what is probably the most “elitist” beer (if such a concept can be meaningfully applied) in terms of popular conception. Most people likely have not even heard of Blue Moon as it is the type of beer that is typically served in “uppity” and yuppy-type hangouts, not roadside dive bars. In reality, however, Blue Moon is rather surreptitiously brewed by Coors, though they do not advertise this and do not have the Coors name listed anywhere on any Blue Moon products. The company (rightly) assumes that the Coors name will reduce the brand equity of this macrobrew masquerading as a microbrew.
Gates’ choice was a sensible one; he lives in Cambridge, just outside of Boston, and he chose a beer that is brewed in Boston, perhaps a symbolic nod to his affection for the area despite his recent conflicts.
All in all, somewhat interesting choices made by all three gentlemen. I would, however, have loved to hear what kind of public commentary would have been made had Obama chosen the ultimate in a confounding beer with multiplex meanings: Pabst Blue Ribbon. Is he kowtowing to rednecks? Bikers? Hipsters? Cheapskates? In a perfect world, he would have chosen it, and it would have been a wonderful and puzzling mystery to unravel.
* You could tell that around the time of the sale of Anheuser-Busch to InBev that the company got kind of nervous about how its customers might perceive this traitorous act of selling out a quintessentially American brand to Europeans; they responded by creating and heavily advertising something called Budweiser American Ale, repeating the world “American” many times in the ads to reinforce the idea that this was a American drink.
1. The Bloomberg Article
2. “How Brands Become Icons: The Principles of Cultural Branding” by Douglas Holt
the ubiquity of imaginary places
At one of the big casinos in Las Vegas, you’ll find an elaborate scene that perfectly captures the beauty of Venice. There, you can sit aboard a slow-moving gondola with your sweetheart, while a mustachioed Italian man quietly ferries you from dock to dock. All the while, the gentle aroma of Ciabatta bread wafts through the air, and the warm sound of a concertina drifts through the background. The entire experience is one that perfectly reconstructs the feel of Venice.
The only thing is, if you went to the actual Venice, you would never have an experience like this. You can ride a boat in the real Venice, but it won’t be romantically quiet, there won’t be the smell of Ciabatta bread, and Rossini won’t be playing. Instead, it would smell like bilge, the ferryman will be hurrying to get you to your destination because he can make more money if he gets more passengers, and the only sound you’ll hear is the sound of water splashing all over your clothes.
Yet, despite this apparent artifice, you can identify this scene as Venice. It’s impossible to mistake it for anything else. This scene in Las Vegas recreates the idyllic, popular conception of Venice, the Venice that resides in our minds. This Venice is a place that does not exist in real life. It is a composite of pieces of our collective consciousness. It’s all the things we’d expect to see, hear, smell, and sense in Venice, but which don’t really coalesce in this way when you’re actually there.
This concept is known as hyperreality. It’s such a strange concept, but it’s one we’re all intimately familiar with in some way, because hyperreality has been sold to us in so many ways, and on a daily basis. Disney World has been described as the ultimate expression of hyperreality— and it’s one of the first vacation spots that many children around the world go to, and it creates many people’s impressions of other countries. Some of our most enduring perceptions about what romantic relationships are ‘supposed’ to be like and the way we’re ‘supposed’ to act in them stem from the way we’ve seen them in movies. The way we think women are supposed to look (including such things as ideal weight and flawless complexions) are rooted in heavily-touched up photos that have little to do with reality, but everything to do with a reconstructed, idealized reality.
The reason I bring all this up is that the other night, I went to a bar that I had never been to before. The moment I walked in, I felt like I had been transported somewhere else. The decor was somewhat anachronous; there were antique-looking green Victorian style chairs arranged around dark, ovular wooden tables, the walls were filled with bottles of obscure beers and liquors I’d never heard of before, the wood-framed bar looked like it was from another era entirely. The ambiance generally reminded me of what I imagined a somewhat upper-crust English pub would be like in the 1950s, where corpulent, monacled gentlemen might tease their handlebar mustaches and puff away at their tobacco pipes while perusing the Sunday Times.
We see places that try to re-create themes from popular consciousness somewhat frequently. Think of T.G.I. Friday’s, a corporate restaurant chain whose walls are covered from top to bottom in weird, rustic nostalgia that manages to both capture the oddest fringes of Americana while presenting it all as a completely normal and commonplace series of images (when was the last time you ate dinner next to a 20ft long wooden swordfish wearing a Brooklyn Dodgers baseball hat— besides the last time you were at T.G.I. Friday’s, that is?). Oddly, this forced aesthetic of post hoc historification and semiotic mythmaking is comforting for many people. But that’s a particularly extreme example; I’ve been to plenty of Mexican restaurants that try to simulate the experience of being in small-town Mexico with the aid of huge murals; townscapes replete with children playing in the street, lifesized buildings painted on the restaurant walls, and pastel-colored senoritas standing on flowered balconies and under large arched doorways.
But something unsettled me about this bar I was at. There was a shaggy green carpet underfoot (which incidentally is not the type of flooring you typically want in a crowded bar), and the place had the musty smell of genuine antiquity. This place, it seemed, really had been around since at least the 1950s (a notion confirmed by the menu).
And then it struck me what had been bothering me. The sum total of my lifetime experience with these sorts of themed pubs had been with re-creations and remodeled versions— never with the real thing. And now, here I was at the real thing! My impression— and expectations— of what a place like this was supposed to be like was based entirely on hyperreal simulacra of it, pieced together from such places as spy movies, books, television shows, and other themed establishments. When you see the “real” version of a hyperreal place, I tend to think that you’re not really prepared for it because it has a way of defying your rather unrealistic expectations of it— which creates the very bizarre problem of something authentic ostensibly lacking authenticity.
If your image of something is based on an idealization of it, how can the real thing ever hold up? An idealization usually means that the gaps are all filled, the blemishes smoothed away, and the diffuse themes that define a place or idea are effectively condensed into a consistent, concrete, and easily digestible series of images; such simulacra allow you to imbibe prevailing themes very quickly, where by contrast the “real thing” typically takes some time for your mind to synthesize into a overarching gestalt.
The implications of this are curious. What does this mean in a world filled with images— manipulated, editorialized, and spread across the globe through various digital channels? These images will form our impressions of the world around us, whereas in the past, our own experiences were what defined our understandings of the world. Will everything we ever see in real life from here on out be a replication of something we’ve seen in a movie first? Which is the real when the fake is our first experience, and hence the first real to us? And what does all this mean to our interpretations and expectations of reality and our interactions with the world and our peers?
And now that I step back a bit and reflect on my experience at the bar, I have to face an unusual epistemological question: how do I know that this place I was at was a “real” bar that was essentially unchanged from the 1950s?
but we like it when we see it
A song like the Beach Boys’ “Barbara Ann” would never come out today. Well, at least not in the way we know it. It’s not the charming, perhaps quaintly theme of high schoolish-infatuation that makes it unusual so much as the production. Recorded for the Beach Boys’ Party! album, it features a lot of off-key singing, missed cues, laughter, and an all-round lazy production. Ordinarily, this would be considered a disastrous performance and the master tape for this recording would be locked away in some vault so no one could ever hear it. But instead, it reached #13 on the Billboard charts in 1965 and remains one of the Beach Boys’ most iconic and loved songs.
These days, it’s not uncommon to hear about artists and producers recording and re-recording hundreds upon hundreds of takes to get everything just perfect. But in my opinion, there’s something missing from recordings that are too clean and polished. They might be technically flawless, but they tend to miss something— the human element.
Some of the best drummers in the world don’t keep a perfectly steady beat. A perfectly steady beat can be made by a machine, and you can tell immediately when a machine is doing it— not necessarily by the sounds themselves, but by the mechanical playing style. The human mind can recognize that sort of level of sterility, and we intuitively understand that good drummers swing.
In art as well as business, I believe that people do not, as a whole, respond with giddy approval to perfection that doesn’t seem honest (that is, refined to hide flaws that should be there). And by that, I don’t mean that people want service providers to screw up, or they want their products to be defective. What I mean is that people don’t want things to pretend like they are something that they’re not. While the providers of these products and services often want perfection, and spend a lot of time and money on getting it, ultimately this process is useless if no one can relate to the finished product. Something gets lost in that process of refinement— uniqueness and authenticity.
Maybe people won’t hate you for your sterile product, service, or corporate image. But I think they’d love you more for your quirks. And I’m not talking about fake quirks designed to engender exclamations of how endearingly quirky you are (see: Juno, a movie littered with some of the most forced efforts in quirkiness I have ever seen).
It’s a question of authenticity. Can we believe you are who you are claiming to be? And moreover, is this image that you are projecting something that we actually want to see?
Further reading: , by Seth Godin
trust the guy who has no idea what he’s talking about
The geniuses at Burger King’s ad firm have been deeply committed to their long-standing tradition of churning out increasingly edgy and attention-grabbing (read: disturbing and borderline offensive) commercials. The latest in its decades-old string of abominations is the controversial series of commercials it is calling “Whopper Virgins.”
Here’s the basic idea: Let’s take a Big Mac and a Whopper around to isolated communities around the world— communities that are steeped in their local traditions and largely unaffected by trends in globalization— feed them these sandwiches, and see what they prefer.
Many observers were aghast by the company’s use of tribal peoples to hawk fast food; BK’s apparent lack of compunction in traveling to remote areas of places like Tibet, Thailand, and Romania to film natives eating greasy Western-style burgers apparently reeked of exploitation and cultural insensitivity. Gee, who would have thought?
But let’s leave ethics aside for a minute, and think hard about what this ad’s message is trying to tell us: It’s saying that people who have never had a burger before prefer the Whopper. This, apparently, is supposed to make you feel confident that the Whopper is the superior burger. I find this an odd conclusion to draw.
If the Miller Brewing Company told you that they’d served a 21 year old kid who’d never had a drink in his life a Miller High Life and a Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, and the kid chose the Miller, you’d probably wonder about their line of reasoning in stating that this shows Miller to be the better beer. In this case, the kid’s choice of Miller as the winner alone calls his judgment into question, but the fact that the kid has no experience in drinking beers should cause you to wonder about his qualifications in making a particularly informed judgment. In fact, you’d probably be a lot more convinced by the judgment of someone who had drunk thousands of beers over his life, including hundreds of different brands. A borderline alcoholic with a good job and a taste for la dolce vita might be a good choice. Why on earth would you trust someone who didn’t know what he was talking about? You’d be more inclined to trust a connoisseur, or at the very least, someone whose tastes resembled your own.
And speaking of people whose tastes are like yours, Burger King is soliciting the culinary opinions of people who whose cultural palates differ wildly from that of typical Westerners. Tibetans, for example relish Yak’s milk, whose smell alone would make most people in the U.S. nauseous. Do you trust their judgment in eating a broiled piece of meat smothered in western condiments like pickles, ketchup, and mayonnaise? Most of the aforementioned ingredients aren’t even available in Tibet. Why would anyone think they’d be good judges of what a Westerner might seek in a sandwich? Imagine if you were asked by a Chinese restaurant to compare the relative merits of their jellyfish entree with one made by the restaurant’s competitor. How confident would you be that you had any qualifications whatsoever to make an informed judgment? And how much credence should be given to your opinion, anyway?