Sunday, November 30, 2008

The Rock 'N' Roll Cabinet

Poor Barack Obama. Not only must he step into one of the most untenable situations that any president has inherited, but he must do so amid already palpable levels of skepticism and criticism. The skepticism from the right is to be expected, but in recent days there has emerged criticism from the left, with some interests upset that Obama's likely cabinet will be comprised more of centrists, Washington elite, and Clinton-era retreads (or actual Clintons), than fresh-faced, mandate-endowed, change-obsessed change makers.

In fact, in picking a bunch of pragmatic but boring politicians to fill his cabinet, Obama missed out on a golden opportunity to continue the momentum from his campaign. His opponent in the election called him "the biggest celebrity in the world." And while the president-elect's Q-Rating no doubt remains high, he could have energized the American people even more by ratcheting up the star power of his administration by promoting actual celebrities to positions of power. But not just any celebrities would do--we need celebs who would help this nation regain its swagger, celebs with attitude and panache, people with revolutionary ideal and boundless enthusiasm. In short, we need rock 'n' rollers. So without further ado, is is one suggestion for the nation's first rock 'n' roll Cabinet:

Secretary of State: This one is a no-brainer. Given that he may have already made more diplomatic visits to foreign leaders than Obama himself at this point, Paul Hewson, otherwise known as Bono, is the obvious choice. Some people might say, "You can't have a foreigner in the Cabinet!" To them, I would reply "Yes we can."

Secretary of the Treasury: Paul McCartney. By virtue of being the world's richest rock star, he knows a thing or two about fiscal policy (he's learned a lot since the Apple days). Part of the reason the Beatles broke up was because he was the only one smart enough not to let Allen Klein manage their money. One drawback is he'll have to learn how to think in terms of dollars instead of pounds.

Secretary of Defense: To the best of my knowledge, only one rocker has consulted for the Defense Department--former Doobie Brothers and Steely Dan guitarist Jeff "Skunk" Baxter, an expert in missile defense technology, gets the nomination.

Attorney General: This one is tough because rockers are not known for being strict adherents to civil or criminal code. Sting is a candidate because of his experience in the Police. Alice Cooper has built entire stage shows around the concept of crime and punishment. But as far as I know, only one rock star has ever been shot trying to apprehend a criminal. Ray Davies of the Kinks deserves the nod.

Secretary of the Interior: Here is where Obama gets to make good on his campaign promise of a bipartisan cabinet. (Actually, Skunk Baxter is a conservative, but he never said he wouldn't pick two Republicans). This job has Ted Nugent's name written all over it. As a bonus, the nomination hearings would be must-see TV.

Secretary of Agriculture: Levon Helm, former drummer for the Band, put out an album last year called "Dirt Farmer." One of the Band's best songs was "King Harvest." But he's the back-up choice. Assuming Willie Nelson has his taxes paid up, and can keep his mouth shut about 9/11 Conspiracy theories, the Farm-Aid organizer is the man in line for the job. And if that were to come to pass, look for a sharp uptick in hemp futures.

Secretary of Commerce: Has any person in the history of the world succeeded in promoting more commerce with less substance than Gene Simmons? This guy is a walking economic stimulus package.

Secretary of Labor: Ryan Adams could probably cut an album every day if his record company would let him. Someone this prolific obviously understands labor.

Secretary of Health and Human Services: This one, like Attorney General, is not an easy one given that rockers struggle in this area. Scott Ian of Anthrax perhaps deserves some consideration. But when it comes down to it, the job description for this position involves helping people avoid death. And nobody knows more about this subject than Keith Richards, who will one day walk this world with cockroaches as his only companions.

Secretary of Housing and Urban Development: Our cabinet to this point is pretty white. And I don't think you can pick a white rocker to head a department with the word "urban" in the title, so this is a good chance to add some diversity. Apparently, there is a Columbus, Ohio-based rapper who bills himself as "Urban Development," so I'm inclined to give him the job.

Secretary of Transportation: There are lots of good choices here. Rockers, by virtue of their touring lifestyles, know more about transportation than most of us. But one man in particular has been on what his fans call a "Never Ending Tour" since the first Bush first took office. One of his most respected albums is named after a highway (61), he has recorded an additional song about a different highway (51), and another song about a street (Positively Fourth). He is also acquainted with the dangers involved in transportation, having suffered a near-fatal motorcycle crash. Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome, as your new Secretary of Transportation, Columbia Recording artist Bob Dylan.

Secretary of Energy: This one is very easy. Until another rocker comes along and builds a hybrid-electric car (albeit with the help of a Kansas engineer), and then writes an essay about American energy policy, Neil Young has no competition.

Secretary of Education: Sheryl Crow was once a teacher, and it would be nice to have a woman on the cabinet. But Roger Waters wrote the most searing indictment of pedagogical malpractice in rock history. Now, it should be his job to figure out what should substitute for "thought control" and "dark sarcasm in the classroom."

Secretary of Veterans Affairs: Since Elvis and Jimi Hendrix were both military vets, they would make fine choices if they were still alive. But given that resurrecting the dead is something that even Obama apparently can't pull off, we have a more limited pool to choose from. Jerry Cantrell of Alice in Chains, in writing the song "Rooster," demonstrates a good understanding of veterans affairs, so we'll give him the job.

Secretary of Homeland Security: Security and rock 'n' roll have had a checkered association (for example, see Woodstock '94 and Altamont '69). But in actuality, the goal of this department is to prevent terrorist attacks. And one way to do this is to terrorize the terrorists, to strike fear into their hearts. So the logical thing to do is to nominate the scariest man in America for this position. And fortunately, this position is last in line for presidential succession, so we don't have to worry about Michael Jackson inhabiting the Oval Office.

I'm thinking that if President-Elect Obama went with this group, he would go a long way toward appeasing his critics. And hey, in the worst case scenario that these guys would turn out to be bad governmental administrators, at least Inauguration Day would be a heck of a party.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

New Alexandria

It is serendipitous that the director of my local library discovered my blog this week, because when I made my promise in last week's post for a proposal that would compensate creators for their work, it was the model of the public library that I had in mind.

But first, another serendipitous development in the last week: A series of articles about the dismal state of the music retail industry, some of the articles focusing on the hopes that Guns n Roses, Metallica, and AC/DC will prevent a catastrophic holiday retail season. The obvious common thread between these bands is that, beyond genre, they enjoyed massive popularity back when the only way to acquire music was to purchase it. It doesn't take a marketing genius to realize that consumer habits formed in youth carry through into adulthood. So while the record company this year looks to those who have fond memories of buying the Appetite for Destruction CD back in high school, the high schoolers of today will have no commensurate inclination to purchase a physical copy of the new Fall Out Boy disc in 2029.

But I suppose I'm merely belaboring the obvious by pointing this out. We already know that the CD is not a viable technology for the future, but we probably should realize that consumption of video content that is not web-based will also one day be obsolete. Serendipitous development #3: this weekend's "Youtube Live." The "I Want My MTV" generation may not actually watch MTV anymore, but they will probably cling to TV networks as long as possible. But I wouldn't expect such loyalty from those for whom Youtube is their MTV, and who have grown up with the expectation that entertainment be on-demand.

So what is all this leading up to? About a year ago, I wrote about my vision of a reborn Library of Alexandria, in which we would be able to access a common pool of all visual, audio, or textual content produced by humankind. The technology for such a venture seems to be in place right now or not too far off (I'm particularly interested in the development of e-readers). The infrastructure is not, but there is no reason to assume that it couldn't be. The biggest hold-up to realizing such a vision is purely economical. How can we fairly compensate someone who has created something that others want to consume, when what is created is intangible?

Ideally, the person who chooses to consume the product would be willing to pay a fee. And this has worked to an extent. Many people pay money for the legal right to download songs, movies, TV shows, and books. However, all of those items are also available for free. And many otherwise moral people see nothing wrong with accessing what is there for the taking. It seems to me that expecting the current system to work would be like expecting a sales tax system to work in an all-cash society.

And this brings me back to the public library model. I know that I am not the first person to propose such a solution, but it seems to be the way of the future. Almost everyone pays taxes to support a local library. Some people may choose to visit the library on a daily basis, while others may never once avail themselves of the resources they have helped to purchase and maintain. But the precedent is there. We need a national virtual public library, funded by the people, for the people. Creators can be compensated based on how often their work is accessed; since the consumer has no financial disincentive for openly accessing the work, a fair rendering can be brokered (and furthermore, there is no reason to assume creators can't also continue to be compensated through advertising). And I think that despite an uptick in taxes, most people should have more disposable income, since they won't be spending any money on books, movies, CDs, or cable TV.

Obviously, such a massive re-structuring of the entertainment industry would have ramifications on many people's livelihoods. Entire empires have been built on the premise that someone needs to help creators market and distribute their creations. But those empires are already crumbling; re-structure is inevitable, and will be less painful if there is a guided transition to a new paradigm. I think there is still a place for "middlemen" within the virtual walls of New Alexandria. Navigating the labyrinthine, Borgesian catacombs of the library will be daunting. If there can arise among us guides and chaperons to show us the way, well, they just may be able to earn a decent living.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Keeping the Genie in the Bottle

It happens every year around this time. When the NFL Network starts their broadcast schedule of regular season football games, there is a national uproar. Since the network is carried on very few cable outlets (due to an ongoing dispute between the network and cable companies over compensation), and since pro football is overwhelmingly popular in this country, much attention is focused on the supposed inability of football fans to get what they have been accustomed to over the years---the ability to watch games from the comfort of their couches.

A google news search reveals no shortage of stories devoted to the plight of the football fan: "No Clear Resolution in NFL-Cable Rift" screams a Washington Post headline this week. "NFL Network Continues Its War of Words with Big Cable" trumpets the Los Angeles Times. The New York Times reveals that in addition to two wars and economic crises, our elected leaders are on the case: "Senators Criticize NFL for Favoring League's Cable Network." And the San Jose Mercury-News aptly states: "The Annual NFL-Comcast Gripe-fest." Most of the news organizations covering this story discuss alternative options for fans who can't access the NFL Network through cable. They point out that most satellite services offer the channel. They also report that many fans are going to neighborhood sports bars that have access. However, not one of the news stories I surveyed mentioned that with minimal effort, everyone with a broadband Internet connection that wants to watch NFL Network games can do so without leaving the house and without paying a cent. (Of course, the providers of this content are not legally authorized, but considering it is a foreign website with multiple ways of disseminating the feed, there is little that the NFL can do).

You would think that the existence of this option would alter the dynamics of the of the NFL/cable feud. You would think that at the very least, it would alter the dynamics of the discussion of the feud. If news stories are reporting on people driving to sports bars, wouldn't it be a legitimate to also report that people are being driven to their computers?

I wrote a few months back about conspiracy theories, and though I am not wont to admit the veracity of most such claims, especially claims that include allegations of a media cover-up, I am now inclined to believe that there is, to some degree, a conspiracy among media outlets to suppress information about the availability of on-line content.

I don't believe such a conspiracy existed eight years ago when mainstream media coverage (and Metallica) inadvertently made Napster a house-hold brand name and its founder Shawn Fanning a Warholian celebrity. And even though Napster was dealt a legal death-blow, the victory was Pyrrhic for the record companies, who today can only dream of the kind of profit margins they turned in the pre-Napster era. But I think it can be argued that it wasn't the mere existence of Napster that killed the record companies golden goose, but rather the mainstream attention that Napster received. Especially in what was then a largely dial-up world, the pre-2000 users of Napster represented what could be described as a subculture of technology-savvy sophisticates. But once the world at large got wind of the possibility of free music, the genie was out of the bottle.

I think that mainstream news media companies, who are often owned by corporate entities that also have interest in selling various types of copyrighted content, learned a lesson from this. Today, virtually every form of popular media is easily available at no cost through multiple sources on-line. In addition to music, one can effortlessly access movies, television shows, video games, books, comic books, radio shows, and live feeds of television networks. But there is now little coverage given to this phenomenon. The Pirate Bay, a file sharing network that, with 25 million users, is roughly equal to the peak that Napster hit after Metallica sued them, has 423 hits this month on Google News, most of them on web-only technical websites. By comparison, itunes, which by some accounts has less than 25 million users, has 15,630 hits.

So while clearly there is a flourishing community of on-line users accessing forbidden content, there is also a gigantic underclass of consumers who are blissfully ignorant of what is out there. And corporate America (and their media partners) seem willing to concede a certain segment of the market in order to keep tapping the wallets of the uninitiated.

It will be fascinating to see how long companies are able to delay the inevitable. At a certain point, one would have to think that this dam must burst. Next week I will propose a plan for compensating content providers in a world where everything is free.

Saturday, November 08, 2008

The Day Obama Won

"The Day John McCain Lost the Election"-- This was the headline of a recent Slate article. The body of the article revealed the position that after of the events of September 24, 2008, McCain was toast. That was the day that he "temporarily suspended" his campaign to attend to the economic crisis, only to emerge from Washington and resume campaigning with nothing accomplished and nothing to show.

While this certainly was a significant moment in campaign '08, I think it overlooks "The Day Barack Obama Won the Election," which was actually a little over seven years prior. September 11, 2001, to be exact.

Of course, this defies the conventional wisdom that 9-11 was politically advantageous to the Republicans. To be sure, the GOP got a lot of short term benefit and political capital as the party perceived to be better equipped to prevent a re-occurrence of this tragedy. But I believe that when assessing the impact of that day on not just American politics, but American culture as a whole, we can apply a corollary to "Amara's Law," which states that we tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run.

While 9/11 had immediate tangible effects on geopolitics worldwide, the lasting effect and legacy of that day might turn out to have less to do with foreign policy than with undermining a seemingly immobile cultural paradigm--which I will call, for lack of a better term, "The Age of Irony." I use this term to describe a general postmodern sensibility that anything and everything can be subverted through detachment and mockery, that such subversion is desirable, that the only real virtue is sophistication, which is defined as the absence of earnestness, or taking oneself too seriously, which is the only real sin. In other words, this was the the outlook on life that made Seinfeld the highest-rated TV show of the 1990s.

This paradigm was seemingly ensconced as dominant, the teleological culmination of all previous paradigms, precisely because it eschewed teleology as a legitimate phenomenon. Whereas worldviews were previously supplanted by other worldviews in the name of "progress," this particular worldview declared progress a dated concept, and declared itself outside of (and hence above) such considerations.

What was always evident but never acknowledged by purveyors of this philosophy was that progress can only be deemed deficient if a society has matured sufficiently enough to allow introspection. In other words, such a philosophy is only hatched after an incubation, and security is necessary for incubation. Thus, only areas of the world which achieved some degree of economic and political stability embraced The Age of Irony.

With this in mind, it becomes easy to see how irony is not a transcendence of progress, but a resistance to progress. Change can bring about positive or negative results, and if the status quo is acceptable, change might not be worth the risk. And change requires passion, so irony, the absence of passion, serves as a check on change.

But irony as a resistance mechanism is only workable insofar as people are secure. Once security, or even the perception of security, is altered, all bets are off. And all this is a very long-winded way of saying that the pundits were right in the immediate aftermath of 9/11: Irony was dead.

It may have taken a few years for the full effect of this truth to materialize, but it was fully evident on election night. Many people were quoted as saying they never thought they'd see a black president in their lifetime. However, I had a different reaction. I never thought I'd see people dancing in the streets after a presidential election in this country in my lifetime. That was something that happened in newly formed democracies, not in the "too cool" USA.

So while analysts debate whether Obama is a "post-racial" president, I perceive him more as a "post-ironic" president. He was elected because he was the candidate most compatible with the new epoch. I don't doubt that the fact that he looks different from all previous presidents played a part in this, but I also think his relative youth was a big factor. When a paradigm shift has occurred, the youngest are in best position to both understand and benefit from it. And of course, his oratorical and rhetorical skills were in complete harmony with the spirit of the age. "Yes We Can" would have been as open to mockery as "I feel your pain" was 16 years ago, or "A kinder, gentler, nation" was 20 years ago. But in the post-ironic era, it worked brilliantly.

Yet in the final analysis, we will have a president with the middle name Hussein largely because of the actions of Middle Eastern terrorists. So perhaps irony isn't completely dead, after all.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Pirates, Elvis, and Superman

One day when my mother was in grade school, her teacher told everyone in the class to draw a dog. So she drew a picture of a crying dog in a cage, with footprints leading away from the cage. For this, she was castigated for not following directions. She cited this story on more than one occasion when I was growing up, as part of a larger thesis that adults should not stifle a child's creativity.

So this was likely why she allowed me to go to school one day dressed as a pirate. I clearly remember I was in second grade, which would have made me seven or eight. And like pretty much all boys that age, I thought pirates were cool. I honestly don't think I was trying to get any extra attention or notoriety. It was not a stunt. I just wanted to be a pirate. I'm no longer sure of the exact details of the costume, but I remember a makeshift eye patch, a bandanna, and a cardboard sword being involved.

I'm not sure exactly what kind of a reaction I was expecting, but I remember being surprised by the one that I got. Immediately upon being picked up by the school bus, I was greeted with jeers from the older kids. The ones who were not scornful were nonplussed. "Why are you dressed like that?" one asked, "It's not Halloween." I was equally nonplussed by this question. "It doesn't have to be Halloween for you to dress up," I retorted. And though I stubbornly held to this ideology all day, I don't recall ever again attempting a non-Halloween identity shift.

While many have theorized at length about the cultural need fulfilled by a national dress up day, I have seen less about the reaction afforded those who choose to appropriate the idea for non-sanctioned occasions. One exception would be Chuck Palahniuk's essay "My Life as a Dog," in which the author performs the social experiment of walking around tourist areas in Seattle in a large dog costume, and is subjected to stonings, beatings, and hurled epitaphs. The implicit argument is that if you step outside of a set of prescribed social identities, you will be punished. And though this societal self-policing is on some levels reprehensible, it is also understandable. If people were allowed to whimsically and chameleonically alter their identities willy-nilly, the threat to society would be grave. Every aspect of our society, from our economic laws to the structures of familial relationships, are built upon the assumption that who we were yesterday is who we will be tomorrow.

Yet there are people who are allowed to flaunt this dictum. Obviously, celebrities, particularly entertainers, fall into this category. Actors are paid to constantly re-invent themselves. KISS has probably made just as much money during the Christmas season as they have during Halloween. The cultural role these entertainers serve as obvious: as much as we know we can't engage in theatrical identity posturing, (and as willing as we are to punish those who do) we still want to. Seeing some get away with it allows us to project ourselves onto them.

But then there is still another group that is allowed to break away from the restriction on playing "dress up". They are the impersonators, the people who take on the identity of a famous other. Most famous (or infamous) of these would be the Elvis impersonators. This phenomenon has been the subject of much academic study, with many researchers speculating that there is a whole lot more to it than the motivation of financial gain. According to one Gael Sweeney, the phenomenon...

offers a spectacle of the grotesque, the display of the fetishized Elvis body by impersonators who use a combination of Christian and New Age imagery and language to describe their devotion to The King. 'True' impersonators believe that they are 'chosen' by The King to continue His work and judge themselves and each other by their 'Authenticity' and ability to 'Channel' Elvis's true essence. True impersonators don't 'do Elvis' for monetary gain, but as missionaries to spread the message of The King. Especially interesting are those who do not perform, per se, that is, they don't do an Elvis act, they just 'live Elvis,' dressing as The King and spreading His Word by their example.
Though not as prevalent in pop culture as Elvis impersonators, I've noticed a definite phenomenon in recent years: Superman impersonators. Many applied for a recent opening as the "official town Superman" of Metropolis, Illinois. At that town's "Superman Celebration" this summer, a world record was established for the number of people dressed as Superman in one place. There is a guy who makes his living dressing as Superman and walking down Hollywood Boulevard. NPR recently profiled a different guy who goes out a couple times a week dressed as Superman.

What do Elvis and Superman have in common? As you can see by clicking on their names, there is no shortage of people who theorize that they can serve as "messianic figures". (The other thing they have in common is this guy.)

So it would seem that the only thing that would allow a non-celebrity to be able to dress up with impunity outside of the Halloween holiday would be to adopt a messianic identity. But just as there are rules that govern one's ability to assume an alternate identity outside of the context of a sanctioned festival, the festival itself apparently has boundaries. Consider the case of an 8th grade boy in New Jersey who was sent home from school for adopting a taboo identity, that of a first century Jewish carpenter.

I wonder what his mom was thinking letting him go to school like that.