Saturday, March 28, 2009

An Attempt to Articulate the Appeal of Inarticulation

I see that my audience now doesn’t particular care what period the songs are from. They feel style and substance in a more visceral way and let it go at that. Images don’t hang anybody up. Like if there’s an astrologer with a criminal record in one of my songs it’s not going to make anybody wonder if the human race is doomed. Images are taken at face value and it kind of freed me up.

The above quotation is from Bob Dylan, excerpted from a recent interview posted on his website (done to publicize a forthcoming album). The quotation might seem puzzling to someone unaware of the extent to which Dylan's previous work has been subject to "interpretation." Starting in the 1960s, there was a sentiment that Dylan's songs contained brilliant but hidden messages commenting on and even prophesying about political and social issues. For example, Black Panther Huey Newton believed "Ballad of a Thin Man" to be a statement about race relations in America (this was portrayed to humorous effect in the 2007 film I'm Not There). Dylan was not the only one subjected to this treatment, of course. People played Beatles records backwards in order to decode hidden messages, and Charles Manson supposedly constructed his deranged ideas of race relations on the basis of his understanding of The White Album.

Even in the somewhat less turbulent 1970s, the notion that Dylan's songs contained an elaborate symbolism didn't go away. A notorious yippie published a "Dylan word concordance," in which he revealed not only what each Dylan song "meant," but what each word in Dylan's lexicon stood for.

So with that history in mind, the above quotation makes perfect sense. He seems relieved that his work is less likely today to be subject to wild appropriation by others. But fortunately, his interlocutor was not content with this statement and pressed Dylan to follow-up. And we get this exchange:

In what way?
Well for instance, if there are shadows and flowers and swampy ledges in a composition, that’s what they are in their essence. There’s no mystification. That’s one way I can explain it.
Like a locomotive, a pair of boots, a kiss or the rain?
Right. All those things are what they are. Or pieces of what they are. It’s the way you move them around that makes it work.

Of course, when he says things "are what they are," it made me think of my blog post a few weeks back, in which I explored the phrase "It is what it is." I argued that the phrase has risen in prominence as a result of a decline of "Freudianism." After considering the context in which Dylan uses the "are what they are" phrase, I am even more convinced that these trends are related. But I think I can now also make some observations about general societal changes that have resulted in Bob Dylan being able to worry a lot less about how this album will be received, in contrast to those he put out 30-40 years ago.

I was intrigued, while reading a 1970s novel awhile back, by the use of the word "analyst." It really stuck out, since almost all references today would be to a "therapist." Of course, we still expect that therapists are analytical, but the change in nomenclature indicates to me a de-emphasis on locating and interpreting "symbols." In the past, images (such as those glimpsed in dreams) were considered to be signs pointing to ideas--ideas that could only be fully articulated verbally. Now (perhaps partly because of shifts in technology) we are more likely to perceive images as ends in themselves.

Of course, the absence of language implies that there is a different sensibility to the perception of images, and I think this is what Dylan is getting at when he says his new audience "feel[s] style and substance in a more visceral way." But though the consumption of the art is "felt" and it is "visceral," note the explicit statement that the art itself still possesses both style and substance. And Dylan proceeds to tell us what makes some works of art more substantial than others: "It's the way you move them [the images] all around that makes them work."

This last quote also helps to reconcile two ironies/paradoxes: 1. That we are talking about images in the context of an aural art form and 2. That Dylan is acknowledged as a master wordsmith. The words are useful because they evoke images (in this sense the artist is diametrically opposed to the "analyst"), which are then "moved around" not just in juxtaposition of one another, but in tandem with the music, in order to evoke a visceral feeling. And experiencing this visceral feeling is what leads one to truly discover what a song "means."

Saturday, March 21, 2009

An Old Idea for Old Media

This week, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer became the 12th metropolitan newspaper in the United States since March of 2007 to end daily print publication. I'm guessing that it won't be the last. While I'll leave it for others (such as the pundits at to analyze most of the implications for society, there is one aspect of this phenomenon that I wish to explore. For all of the talk over the last several election cycles of "blue states" and "red states", with each local newspaper that either shuts down or declines in prominence, the nation becomes a little more homogenized.

The newspaper has been a bit of a holdout, the last medium in which people expect to access a localized or regionalized voice rather than a centralized, perhaps hegemonic perspective. But all other media started out this way. Once upon a time it was possible for a music act to have a hit record in Pittsburgh and be unknown in Philadelphia. But with homogeneous playlists, FM radio stations are now almost indistinguishable from one market to the next (and deregulation has resulted in almost half the stations in America owned by one company, while the remaining half are mostly possessed by a few more). On the AM dial, the same syndicated shows echo through car radios from coast to coast, and even the same handful of deep-voiced individuals read station promos which sound exactly the same save for the station's call letters.

As for television, station owners realized very early on that costs associated with original programming were easier to spread around than to absorb solely, and the network was born. Therefore, the only thing that differentiates Boston's NBC affiliate from San Antonio's is the local news. But it wasn't always that way--in the early days TV stations often had identities as distinct as early radio stations. Budgets might not have been big enough to allow for technologically advanced programs, but variety shows, kids shows, and music programming all flourished.

Although local news continues to be a stalwart of each market's television stations, news alone does not serve to present and portray a given city's culture. Local newscasts generally do not allow for an exchange of opinion. They generally don't devote much time to the artistic communities within a city. The local sports scene is covered by two-minute highlight packages. In short, local TV stations have not represented a full range of the vibrancy of their communities. But then again, because of newspapers, they really haven't had to.

Now, though, with the decline of the newspaper and the simultaneous decline in network television ratings, I wonder if the time is ripe for a bold television owner to break from the traditional "affiliate" model and step all the way back to television's early days, carving out a new business model based on a very old model. I envision a station that would borrow a little bit from each of the sections that comprise a newspaper. A heavy news cycle would be supplemented with local opinion and talk shows (is it outrageous to suggest that every city could have their own Oprah Winfrey?). Every major local event would be covered live, and weekend and nighttime programming would focus on the arts and local culture (Austin City Limits is great, but is it outrageous to suggest that every city could stage live concerts with talented acts?) Local high school and perhaps college sports would be carried live.

Perhaps the type of capital needed to launch such a project is unrealistic given the economy, and perhaps some would criticize such a venture as a glorified public access channel, but I believe that such an innovation is the type of thing that is needed in media, particularly old media, today. And if the station goes belly up, at least there are less newspapers around to print the obituary.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Official Fan Clubs: A Requiem

The Jonas Brothers, Michael Jackson, the Beach Boys, The Twitter Fail Whale, Metallica, The Bee Gees, Battlestar Galactica, Beyonce, and SpongeBob.

The above list was generated through the simple process of googling the term "fan club." All of the above, along with the obligatory Wikipedia page, comprise the first page of hits. The list is stunning in its diversity, with cultural icons representative of every decade from the 1960s onward. What this might seem to imply is the constant presence and influence in society of the concept of a "fan club." However, a closer analysis reveals that there are two types of fan clubs: official and unofficial. And it might not be too much of a stretch to assert that an ongoing shift from the former to the latter is downright revolutionary.

The official fan club, which will almost always charge a membership fee, is marketed as a way to obtain a level of access unavailable to the non-member. This often manifests itself tangibly in the form of the "special offer" for exclusive merchandise, along with some kind of personalized recognition such as a "membership card/certificate." But while these tangible products are needed to seal the deal, what is really being sold is not access, but identity. There is a reason that Facebook asks for members to prominently list favorite music, movies, and books along with religious, political, and occupational affiliations. We are as apt to define ourselves by the things we like as the things we do. And if the fact that we like Metallica is central to our identity, it would be in Metallica's best interests to charge us for that.

But just as Metallica found out that it is getting harder to hold on to intellectual property rights, I think they will also find it increasingly more difficult to profit from intellectual affiliation (if they haven't already). Long before the world wide web, fandoms attempted to wrestle control of collective identity from the sanctioned gatekeepers (see "fanzines"). But with the web, the opportunities to declare independence from a prescribed fan identity abound. The need for a membership card is mitigated by the existence of a facebook group (and the ability to display this affiliation on one's profile). The opportunity to receive a newsletter is nullified by the existence of an independent message board. But most importantly, the power to identify a "fan" has been taken from the commercial entity and diffused among the consumers themselves.

Saturday, March 07, 2009

2 Legit 2 Quit?

Today I had the opportunity to do play-by-play for a radio broadcast of a high school basketball game. And though I always enjoy announcing games, some games are more enjoyable than others, with the determining factor being how competitive the contest is. The final score of today's game was 73-42, which pretty well says everything you need to know. Just to be clear, I am not writing this in order to denigrate the losing team--they actually played pretty hard. It's just that they were overmatched by a more talented squad. The winning team is the #1 seed in the region, state ranked, and they were the home team to boot. And it was undeniably clear long before the game was actually over today what the end result would be. Much of the second half was academic, a formality, or "garbage time," depending on what term you wish to apply.

And though I didn't allow my mind to wander into abstract territory while I had the immediate task of announcing the game, as I reflect on the experience several hours later, I can't help but ask an absurd hypothetical question. What if the coach of the losing team, upon the completion of the third quarter, had gathered his guys together and said, "Fellows, you've played hard, you tried your best, but it is now apparent that they are the better team. So let's shake hands and go to McDonalds," and then proceeded to inform the officials and the opposing coach that they were forfeiting the fourth quarter? Chances are this would have become a national sports story, if not a national news story, probably debated by TV pundits, sports radio talk show hosts, and newspaper columnists. All this despite the fact that there would be no practical difference in the end result. Either way, the team loses.

Such a decision does have a historical precedent. In the very first ever Rose Bowl in 1902, Stanford quit with eight minutes left, down 49-0 to Michigan. Since we were still in the process back then of constructing social "rules" for organized sports, and the taboo against quitting hadn't yet been encoded, this was probably regarded at the time as a reasonable action. In most areas of human endeavor, when an outcome is assured beyond reasonable doubt, we don't belabor the process of assuring it. In fact, we've invented and circulated a cliche ("beating a dead horse") to describe and discourage such a behavior. And furthermore, we even uphold this principle to some degree in sports. When a team wins four games in a best of seven series, the series ends. Why then do we insist that a team down 27 points in a basketball game inbound the ball with .4 seconds left, when the mathematical possibility of the team winning is the exact same as a team down 4-1 in a best of seven series?

I think there are two somewhat related factors at work which make the idea of quitting during a game anathema. First, there is the notion that to concede is to surrender, to commit an act of cowardice. The reason that doesn't work for me is that the team showed up in the first place. I'd admit that there would be something cowardly about saying, "Hey, we don't stand a chance today, let's stay home and go to McDonalds." But where is the shame in showing up, trying your best, and then looking at the situation objectively and realizing at some point during the game that victory is literally impossible?

Though I would like to see concessions occur at all level of sports, I anticipate that many would object furiously to the idea of high school coaches taking kids off the court or the field. "What does that teach kids about perseverance?" they might ask. I would respond that it teaches kids to pick their battles (an important life lesson) and to live to fight or play another day (no small consideration in a sport like football where catastrophic injuries can happen on any play). I think it also teaches respect for an opponent. It is an act of great sportsmanship to look an opponent in the eye and admit "I concede that you are better."

Finally, it would help kids to prioritize the importance of athletics in life. I love sports, but I think to slavishly insist on ritualistically following the rules when the rules have outlived their usefulness (as the whole purpose of rules is to aid in determining a victor, so when a victor is already assured, the rules are useless) imbues an unnecessary sanctity on the proceedings.

To understand the second reason why giving up during a sporting event is taboo, I think we need to consider the one "sport" where the practice is not only acceptable, it is normative. In competitive chess, no one actually gets to the point where their king is captured. The loser, upon realizing the inevitability of this occurrence, concedes. Of course, the difference between this and other sports is that chess is entirely intellectual. And though intellectual strategy has made its way into almost all athletic competitions (think of how often announcers refer to strategy as a "chess match"), I think there is a resistance among athletes in the "physical" sports to becoming too aware of the intellectual components of their endeavor. The athlete and coach already have a lot to think about in a game; to consider the point at which a comeback is impossible is an intellectual burden that might be too great to bear,. To expect athletes to think in terms of inevitabilities is a lot to ask; in fact, it might be the hardest concession of all.