Saturday, November 28, 2009

What NASCAR and Rap Have in Common

We have a little more than a month remaining in the decade, and I've already burned my "decade retrospective" blog post. But over the last couple weeks, I've found myself thinking some more about how the world today is different than it was ten years ago. It is easy to point out mainstream phenomena that exist today, but didn't exist ten years ago (i.e. Wikipedia and Facebook). It's still relatively easy to point out things that existed in the past, but have only become mainstream in the last ten years (such as the use of cell phones). But it is not as easy to notice when something has been "de-mainstreamed."

Last weekend, a NASCAR driver won a fourth straight championship, an incredible accomplishment by the standards of any American sport. Yet if you were to say this guy's name ("Jimmie Johnson"), perhaps a majority of Americans would picture a football coach who hasn't coached since Bill Clinton was president, while many others may think about sandwiches. Yet it wasn't that long ago that NASCAR was regarded as having achieved mainstream popularity, the "fastest growing spectator sport in the nation," with TV ratings that exceeded those of traditional American sports, and revenue through the roof. Now, ratings and revenue are in a free fall.

Meanwhile, last week I asked students in a college class to raise their hands if they were a fan of rap music. Not a single hand went up. This would have been unthinkable at the turn of the decade, when rap had crossed over into the Top 40, seemingly every hit song in every other genre had a trace of hip-hop elements, and most music videos were styled on what was going on in rap videos. Perhaps the best example of the unlikely mainstreaming of rap was when Snoop Dogg (who when he wasn't rapping about marijuana, was making porn films, and if he is to be believed, working as a pimp) was filmed for a cameo in "It's a Very Muppet Christmas Movie" (although the scene was left out of the final cut). Now, even with all music sales down, hip-hop has taken a bigger dive. In 2006, no hip-hop album made the year's top 10 for the first time in 12 years, and overall sales dropped 21% in one year (compared to 6% in the industry as a whole).

Perhaps we shouldn't be surprised that NASCAR and rap have dropped out of the mainstream (relatively speaking), but that they ever achieved such success to begin with. Both of them come out of decidedly non-mainstream milieus. What made an art form born in gritty, urban, black America into a commodity eventually embraced by soccer players? What made a sport born in southern rural white America into a commodity eventually embraced by stockbrokers?

While a book could be written (and probably has been) in response to these questions, a cursory examination reveals the strong influence of single individuals who could bridge the chasm between the original culture and the mainstream culture. When one tries to think of a rapper who could accomplish this, the obvious figure that comes to mind is Eminem. A white rapper with "street cred," he forged a cross-cultural gateway through which other rappers (and record companies) were ready and willing to come charging through.

It's not as obvious to think of a NASCAR driver who had such an obvious cross-cultural appeal, but upon reflection, the two most popular drivers of the early 2000s may have fit the bill. Jeff Gordon was born in California, raised in the Midwest, and appealed to Madison Avenue. He served as a fill-in host on Regis and Kelly and hosted SNL. However, he stayed connected to the original NASCAR base by marrying a southern girl and referencing God in every interview. Meanwhile, Dale Earnhardt Sr. was southern through-and-through, but he had a touch of Hollywood flair (he was nicknamed "The Intimidator") and as the architect of Dale Earnhardt Incorporated (DEI), he demonstrated a business acumen not traditionally associated with a southern "good ol' boy." And semioticians would say that even the cars these guys drove, Gordon's "Rainbow Warrior" and Earnhardt's black number three, hinted at an openness to cultures that were not traditionally associated with NASCAR.

But then Dale Earnhardt died. Jeff Gordon divorced his southern belle, quit talking about God, and married a European woman named Ingrid (and he also quit winning). Eminem pulled an Axl Rose and disappeared from public view. And NASCAR and rap music lost their cross-cultural equilibrium. (As a footnote, the artist formerly known as Slim Shady recently put out a comeback album that achieved modest success, but did not do much to renew the artist's stature. It appears that in this case anyway, Fitzgerald's famous quote about "no second acts in American life" is accurate).

So if there is something to this theory, we might be able to predict the next cultural phenomenon to drop out of the mainstream. First we can ask "What is currently in the mainstream, despite being more characteristic of a subculture?" One possible answer: golf. I suspect that although golf has long been regarded as mainstream, it is because the core group that it has historically appealed to has also been the core group that wields more power than any other group in American society: affluent white males. Yet I would also argue that over the last 10-15 years, golf has become legitimately mainstream. And it doesn't take a genius to figure out who can be credited with causing that.

So as we head into the final month of the decade, the big question is whether the events that happened outside of a Florida mansion at 2:30 in the morning on the day after Thanksgiving represent a temporary blip, or whether they signify the beginning of the end for golf as a part of mainstream culture.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Escape vs. Alternative

Back when I was a young Green Bay Packer fan, I would mute the volume on the TV during games and listen to the local radio broadcast team of Jim Irwin and Max McGee. This wasn't because I felt that the local guys were more skilled broadcasters. Jim, the play-by-play guy, would often have to wait until watching the television replay before he would know who it was that made a play. I doubt that Max, the analyst, could have named more than a couple guys on most teams around the league. But what they offered was something that the national broadcasters couldn't: partisanship. In broadcast parlance, they were "homers," and that is precisely what I was looking for. I might have been less informed listening to them, but the trade-off was that I was more entertained.

Though I personally stopped this practice when Jim and Max retired after the 1998 season, I know that some fans still would rather listen to Wayne Larrivee and Larry McCarren than the network broadcasters du jour. I recently saw a message board thread in which someone asked for help in figuring out a way to technically synch-up the radio feed with his cable system. He got some helpful responses, but he also get this unsolicited commentary:

I've always thought fans who dislike network broadcasters need to look inside. If you feel like the network is biased against your team, chances are you're too blindly biased for your team to realize the nature of its true weaknesses.

I find it more interesting to notice when national broadcasters are wrong than be fed propaganda for a team I'm already a fan of. I don't need some guy paid by the team to tell me a guy isn't failing when he really is.

This post intrigues me. I'm intrigued by the notion that the original poster needs to "look inside." Does one's choice of which football broadcast they are to consume really call for introspection? I'm also intrigued by the implications of the second paragraph. Even granting the premise that a broadcaster paid for by a team is spreading "propaganda" (which I think is a bit of a stretch), would that really be a problem? Now, when it comes to news coverage, I'm very much against the idea of state-run media. It is obviously preferable to have an independent fourth estate. But must we be looking for the same standards in sports coverage?

But all that aside, probably the most intriguing part of the post for me is the idea that one could find it "interesting to notice when national broadcasters are wrong." Isn't the game entertaining enough? Must we have a secondary game of trying to internally prove our own intellectual superiority over the broadcasters?

In considering these questions, I find myself also contemplating the recent debate about instant replay in baseball. Given a rash of umpire mistakes in this year's play-offs, there has been an increased call for incorporating options for the use of replay technology. Baseball commissioner Bud Selig has been steadfast in resisting such proposals, saying that reviewing umpire calls would disrupt the flow of the game.

I think it can be reasonably predicted what type of fan would agree with Commissioner Selig. The same fan who prefers listening to local announcers over the national announcers would tend to be against replay. On the other hand, the type of fan who finds it "interesting to notice when national broadcasters are wrong" are going to want replay.

One could observe that I am dividing fans into two categories: those who want an emotional experience from games and those who are engaged in a more logical/rational approach to appreciating sports. But I think the divide goes a little deeper than this distinction.

We often hear that sports offers an "escape from reality." And I think that for a number of people this is true. But for others, sports offers not an escape, but an alternative reality. For this type of fan, immersion in a single game is supplanted by immersion in the foundations, the machineries, and the complexities of an entire league. This is the type of fan who will understand rules governing the salary cap structure. They will understand the difference between a baseball player being "optioned" and a player being "outrighted." Such a fan is also likely to want to construct his or her own league. So called "fantasy" leagues, for being a "fantasy," often have rather intricate (and even tedious) rules. And in some of these leagues, there is nothing fantastic about the cash prizes awarded to the winners.

I don't think fantasy sports are fundamentally different from multi-player role playing games. And the rise of RPGs has been roughly simultaneous with the rise of fantasy sports and the emergence of this type of sports fan. But I think it is important to note that the popularity of "World of Warcraft" hasn't killed Trivial Pursuit. There are still a number of people out there who would rather play a simple board game than become immersed in alternate worlds. It's easy enough for manufacturers and retailers to account for both of these audiences. But with sports leagues, it might be a more difficult task to satisfy two fanbases. Perhaps a good start would be to make sure that local radio stations employ only "homers."

Saturday, November 14, 2009

The Death of the Signature Song

Being a Bob Dylan fan, I find myself constantly annoyed whenever the Bard from Hibbing is covered by the mainstream media. I can live with reporters not having the passion for his music that I do. I can live with excessive attention placed on his iconic nature rather than on the songs that he has written. I can live with constant references to his vocal timbre while his vocal skills of timing and phrasing are ignored. I can live with the obsession with his lyrical prowess while his musical abilities are minimized. I can live with a focus on his 60s accomplishments at the expense of his more recent achievements. What I can't stand though, are all the terrible puns on his song titles that populate seemingly every headline or lead paragraph.

For example, when neighbors complained about Dylan's porta-potty awhile back, news outlets gleefully ran with "Blowin in the Wind" references. A few months later, when he was mistaken by New Jersey police for a vagrant, CNN couldn't wait to reference "Like a Rolling Stone." NPR couldn't resist an entire blog devoted to puns on Dylan song titles after an erroneous report that he would be voicing GPS systems. Probably the most popular song title to pun is "The Times They Are A-Changin." A California paper recently managed to combine that song with "It Ain't Me Babe" by announcing Dylan's new Christmas album with the headline "Christmas Time It Is A-Changin' Babe."

Of course, Dylan is not the only artist subjected to this treatment. I have seen more than enough Beatles puns in my life (oops, couldn't resist). And it isn't necessarily a baby boomer phenomenon. I still remember a ridiculous headline I saw in the mid-1990s in reference to Sheryl Crow: "All She Wants to Do is Win Some Grammys."

However, I don't remember seeing any song title puns recently when Taylor Swift swept the CMAs. Come to think of it, nor did I see any when Kanye West got headlines for interrupting Swift at the VMAs. And for all the times that I've seen Miley Cyrus/Hannah Montana's name in print, I don't think I've ever seen a reference to a song title. Ditto for the Jonas Brothers. I've seen Britney Spears's name an awfully lot, and I have seen plays on "Oops I Did it Again," but that song is older than itunes.

I suppose it is not profound to notice that since the dawn of the digital age, there have been few additions to the canon of popular songs. But I'm not sure that I've ever seen anyone draw a link between the digital era and the death of the "signature song." I'd have to say that "Hey Ya" by Outkast in 2003 might go down in history as the last time a musical act and song title were synonymous. (Though I guess one could make a case for "Rehab" by Amy Winehouse).

So what does it mean that it is apparently now possible for an artist to achieve breakthrough success without the benefit of a consciousness-penetrating song? On the downside, record companies will probably invest less in A&R and put even more emphasis on style over substance than they already do. The upside is that we won't have to live with terrible puns anymore. Things Have Changed.

Saturday, November 07, 2009

On Concert T-Shirts

Growing up in the state of Wisconsin, I have seen many versions and many permutations of Green Bay Packer apparel. I've seen T-shirts that commemorate Brett Favre (going as far back as the 1993 "Favrecandoit" Fahrvergnugen spoof) and T-shirts that mock Brett Favre (the recent "We'll never forget you Brent"). I've seen T-shirts that celebrate a single regular season game (such as the 1989 shirt that read "After further review, the Bears still suck"). I used to own a "Nitschke never wore an earring" sweatshirt. My wife currently owns a pink A.J. Hawk jersey. And of course, going back to the Super Bowl years, there were any number of "champion" T-shirts (I once possessed a "1995 NFC Central Division Champion" sweatshirt). But one thing I've never seen is a Packer shirt with a schedule on the back.

The very idea of such a shirt may seem ridiculous, but for some reason, it wasn't considered ridiculous when pretty much every major touring rock band of the 1980s put out a T-shirt with their schedule on the back. And actually, as a kid, I remember being fascinated with these tour itineraries. Unfortunately, because they were not sold in retail outlets, my only opportunity to read them involved surreptitiously snooping around behind people's backs (literally). And to make matters worse, the type of people who would wear Def Leppard concert T-shirts in the 1980s were the type of people most likely to intimidate a little kid. (And they were also the type of people likely to have hair long enough to obscure the first couple of dates).

To be clear, I couldn't have cared less about the front of the T-shirt; I had no concept of the finer distinctions between Motley Crue and Poison. My interest at the time was entirely in the geographical aspect of the shirt. I was fascinated to see how the band moved across the country. And I was always thrilled to see a local city (Milwaukee or Madison, or sometimes both) listed among the more foreign locales. This was somehow a personal validation-- the fact that I lived in some proximity to a city that could get listed on the back of a T-shirt that was sold throughout the nation was a boon to my self-esteem.

But as I got older and more cynical, my fascination with these shirts turned to bemusement. I wondered why the fans of a particular band would want to advertise a list of concerts that, save for probably one of them, they didn't attend. Why should a fan care that the band that they saw in Madison on July 9th had happened to play Topeka on July 27th? And why would they care to such a degree that they would want to impart that information to anyone happening to sit behind them in algebra?

But I think this all sounds more ridiculous now than it was then. Today, any fan of any entity (be it a rock band, a movie, or a breed of dog) can go on-line and commune with fans of that same entity, without regard for geographical limitations. But we forget so quickly that it wasn't always like that. Before the Internet, the concert T-shirt was pretty much all there was to unify a fandom. (Unless the fandom was already geographic in nature, which explains why there was no such thing as a T-shirt that listed the Packers 1986 schedule).

But the concert T-shirt fulfilled another need, too. Fans, particular young fans of the pre-Internet era, often had a paradoxical desire. They wanted to be part of something bigger, to feel like the band they were giving their affection to had a cultural relevance. But they also wanted to be unique--it was no good if everyone else was into the same thing they were. The concert T-shirt allowed them to have it both ways. The rarity of the shirt (again, it was not sold in stores) allowed one to possess an artifact that validated one's sense of individuality. Yet the list of cities on the back reinforced that the wearer was a link in a powerful chain, that fans across the nation or the world were united in their adulation.

Yet this phenomena is by now a thing of the past. It has become a cliche that technology has "shrunk the world." It has also shrunk the market for certain products, the concert T-shirt among them. And this is apropos, since most of the shirts themselves, printed on cheap cotton, probably shrunk years ago.