Saturday, January 28, 2012

The Plateau?

I clearly remember, as a child, being frustrated when hearing about how little things used to cost. It was incomprehensible that the comic books I was paying seventy-five cents for used to go for a nickel or a dime apiece, that a pack of baseball cards could be had for a few pennies, or that coins alone could get you into the movie theater. Of course, nobody told me how little the average income was in those days, so I had a rather flawed understanding of how inflation worked. The result is that I had a vague sense that things had gotten harder over the years, and I was nostalgic for an existence that nobody ever experienced.

But this melancholy was paired with a weird kind of optimism. I didn't see things getting any worse. Particularly when comic book prices were raised to a buck apiece, I saw this as a logical telos. The dollar was the central signifier--the same price that one paid for a fundraising candy bar. It wasn't conceivable that this central unit could be exceeded--no way would they inconvenience a kid to shell out a coin on top of the piece of paper they were already asking!

Now as an adult, I still find myself in a weird place. I clearly remember comic books costing less than a dollar, but now that they sell for three or four bucks a pop, it scarce seems possible that this was ever the case. I have a hard time believing that I once filled up my car with gasoline for about a buck a gallon, but I seem to remember having done that (and taking it for granted that it would always be about that much). And I have a clear memory of a point in time when no baseball player was paid three million dollars in a single year.

Actually, I can clearly recall buying a baseball magazine that listed every player in the "two million dollar" club (around 20 or so if I recall correctly), analyzing whether they were "worth it." Then I recall an offseason where Kirby Puckett and Rickey Henderson each broke the three million barrier. In hindsight, it's incredibly hard to believe that Minnesota and Oakland paid out the biggest contracts in all of baseball. It's just bizarre that Kansas City made the biggest splash in the free agency market in 1990, giving them the biggest payroll in all of baseball (they would end up with horrible returns on their financial investments).

Oakland upped the ante again by giving Jose Canseco over five million dollars per year in 1990. I remember hearing stats guru Bill James on the radio saying: "I've predicted that by the end of the decade we'll see a $10 million dollar player. We are only a few months into the decade, and we've already got a $5 million dollar guy." I still didn't buy his prediction... and by the end of the decade we had seen a $20 million player. Contracts have been signed that allow players in one year to eclipse the entirety of that 1990 Kansas City payroll.

But I find a couple of interesting aspects of the current financial status of professional sports. First, inflation over the last decade has been slight. Players aren't making all that much more now than they were 10 years ago, and certainly the percentage increase has slowed drastically in comparison to the increase over the course of the previous decade.

Second, even though players are making exponentially more money than they were 20 years ago, I perceive that the public has grown more content with exorbitant salaries. To be sure, most people would assert that athletes are overpaid (even though by objective standards they are not--knee jerk reactions don't consider the revenue that they create). But I'm not hearing as many complaints as I used to. I remember going to a Milwaukee Brewers game in the mid-1990s, where a friend of my dad's turned to him and asked "Can you believe these guys make more money in a year than you and I will make in our lifetime?" I remember an occasion in the early 2000s when I witnessed a guy turn down a free ticket to a Brewers game with the excuse that "they make too much money."

I'm not suggesting that such a sentiment doesn't exist at all anymore, but I'm convinced that it is less pervasive. It is as if we needed time to get used to the fact that athletes make a lot of money relative to most people, but now that this has been the status quo long enough, it is less objectionable. We are resigned to the present situation, even as we wistfully but vaguely hold the notion that it wasn't always this way. And at the same time, we seem to have the tacit understanding that salaries have plateaued. As far as I know, Bill James isn't predicting the emergence of a $50 million man. It all reminds me a little bit of when comic books cost a dollar.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Nostalgic for the Present

The other day, my "little" brother posted on Facebook that the song "All My Friends" by LCD Soundsystem made him nostalgic...for things that haven't even happened yet. In a strange twist of meta-irony, this comment made me nostalgic for an Onion article that I read about 15 years ago, which commented on the acceleration of nostalgia--an article I was able to unearth thanks to the retroectionary power of the Internet (I made the word up the word "retroection" to describe the resurrection of something retroactive. I don't expect it to catch on, though). The money quote from the article: "We are talking about a potentially devastating crisis situation in which our society will express nostalgia for events which have yet to occur."

Taking away the hyperbole, however, and the 1997 article actually emerges as a fascinating and incredibly prescient analysis of cultural consumption of nostalgia. (And the fact that the article predicts retroactivity may just make this the most ironic thing ever produced by an entity built on irony). I was struck by this quote:
"Before long," Williams warned, "the National Retro Clock will hit 1992, and we will witness a massive grunge-retro explosion, which will overlap with the late-period, mainstream-pop remnants of the original grunge movement itself. For the first time in history, a phenomenon and nostalgia for that particular phenomenon will actually meet."

And that actually kind of happened. A few years later bands like Creed and Nickelback would emerge as spot-on iterations of "late-period, mainstream-pop remnants of the original grunge movement," at the same time MTV was putting out specials around the fifth anniversary of Kurt Cobain's death. (And in recent years the National Retro Clock flipped back to 1992 again).

Then consider this quote from the Onion:
According to the report, retro-kitsch aesthetics—previously the domain of a tiny group of forward-thinking, backward-looking alterna-hipsters, or "retro-cognoscenti"—have become so prevalent in the national pop-culture psyche over the last decade that they have been absorbed into the marketing strategies of major retail chains and mass-media promotional campaigns.

And compare with this quote from Simon Reynolds in the Slate article linked above (which was published last year):
what is striking about the recent "9ties R Back!" blather is the absence of any real sense of "by popular demand." The retrospection feels rote, the predictable upshot of the way that commemorative cycles have become a structural, in-built component of the media and entertainment industry. This revival is largely top-down, not grass-roots.

The Onion
also identifies 2005 as the year when the "nation will entirely run out of past," which is about the time Facebook started taking off and our culture arguably shifted from innovating to curating. In his book Retromania, Reynolds argues that this shift is to be lamented. While The Onion jokes about a "national retro crisis," Reynolds believes that this is precisely what has occurred to our culture, that we are too obsessed with the past to forge new trails.

But I'm not totally convinced that new trails are all that necessary. Perhaps this is the predictably conservative sentiment of a thirtysomething parent who has seen enough change in pop culture to be satiated and content with stasis. But I also consider the implications of the conviction that creative innovation is necessary. To urge society to "progress" is on some level to condemn the past. Is it a fact that someone who died prior to 1950 lived a lesser life than us for having never known rock and roll? Is someone who died in 1990, old and full of years, to be pitied for having missed the grunge explosion? Are we to shed a tear for all those who passed on before they were entertained by Seinfeld or The Sopranos? For that matter, for all the souls who have departed this Earth prior to the invention of television, are we to feel that they have missed an essential experience of what it means to be human? (Or is it more likely that raised up to peer at our existence, they might levy that exact judgement against us?)

If we admit that it is possible to have lived a fulfilling existence prior to any particular idiom's genesis, then we have to admit that it is okay for us to wallow in stasis and in "retromania." And it is not like the last decade saw no worthwhile innovation...we had LCD Soundsystem, after all.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Sick of it?

In a poll conducted three months ago, 83% of Americans reported that they were already sick of the 2012 presidential race. Now, the results of this poll have only been reported by one source, and that source is an online satirical magazine, but still... anecdotal evidence leads me to believe that there is a veneer of validity behind this assertion. And if this is the case, Americans ought to be pleased with the rapid winnowing of the GOP presidential field, even though fewer than one-third of one percent of the national 2008 electorate has so far turned out to vote.

Meanwhile, a Google search of "sick of Tebow" yields over 5.8 million hits. I guess CBS is glad the Broncos lost last week, since so many people are so sick of Tebow that they wouldn't have watched the AFC Championship game had he been in it. (Despite the fact that ratings for games involving Tebow the last few weeks were up dramatically over similar games a year ago...and despite CBS now reaching out to try to get Tebow as a guest analyst this week).

These two examples illustrate a couple of fascinating trends in our culture:

1. Events and phenomena are getting more drawn out and more saturated. The calendar season for every major American sport is significantly longer than it was 50 years ago (barring a labor interruption of course). Academic calendars have been lengthened. The presidential campaign season is insanely longer than it used to be. Christmas starts in October. The reasons behind these lengthenings may be various, but nothing seems to be getting shorter. As for saturation, I think that can be largely attributed to the media climate. With many media sources now competing for attention, they ride the "hot hand" and give special attention to what is "trending." And in the case of the media feeding culture, I don't think it's impossible that supply may inspire demand.

2. While events and phenomena get longer, our attention spans have gotten shorter. The same media climate, the sheer number of things that are now accessible to us, lead us to impatience and instant gratification. Remote controls and mouse clicks give us the power to sift through content rapidly. And consequently, we grow impatient with things that are overexposed.

3. While we complain about overexposure, we also don't want to miss out on trends. Especially since the death of a monoculture, the few elements that remain that carry mass interest and appeal--such as presidential races and NFL football--will naturally be even more saturated.

So we are stuck in a loop where we are implicitly demanding saturation, annoyed when it happens, but then left wanting more when it finally ends (which leads us to look for something else to obsess over, starting the cycle all over again). So while it might not be inaccurate to say we are "sick of" something, we should also admit that this is not synonymous with a desire for it to end.

Saturday, January 07, 2012

Why "Tom"?

Like most people who maintain a blog, I spend a lot of time thinking about cultural phenomena-- what makes some things popular with a mass audience, some things popular with a niche audience, and other things not particularly popular with anybody. Perhaps it is obvious, but I've found that the second category is the most difficult to understand, followed by the third category, with the first being the easiest. At least I thought I had it all figured out.

I decided that the formula to becoming a popular mainstream recording artist was to construct narratives in accessible formats, with just a tinge of novelty. My theory was heavily influenced by Chuck Klosterman's analysis of the popularity of what he calls "Wal-Mart country music" in Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs. His argument for why Eminem became the most popular rapper in the nation had nothing to do with racial dynamics, authenticity, or for that matter, beats: "He enunciates better than any rapper who's ever lived. He's literally good at talking." Klosterman goes on to explore how important lyrics are in modern country music, and how much they resonate with their audience--Wal-Mart shoppers (i.e. the mainstream).

I ran across this article a few years ago, which explores the power of narrative to shape our view of reality. While again the country music genre may provide the most readily apparent examples of narratives, I've come to realize that a large percentage of the most popular songs have at least a simple plot outline. While the Beatles are one of the most critically-acclaimed bands of all time, I think their popular success can be attributed to the sheer number of narratives they conveyed. For every "Revolution #9," there was an "Ob-la-de Ob-la-da," which told a rudimentary story. (And of course, they enunciated well).

But while the audience wants accessibility and familiarity, there needs to be some element, however small, which serves to set the product apart from other products. "She Loves You" was an accessible mini-narrative that could have been written by any number of bands--until the "Yeah, yeah, yeah" chorus made it distinctive. Or sometimes it's not the content but the packaging that makes something stand out. Did the Beatles popularize the moptop hairstyle or did the moptop hairstyle popularize the Beatles?

And extrapolating from the recording industry, I determined that some combination of accessibility, narrative, and novelty results in popularity. And I found a lot of confirming evidence and very little to disconfirm my theory. But then my son became a fan of Thomas the Tank Engine.

He's not quite two years old, so he is too young to follow a plot. His still-limited vocabulary means that not much is truly accessible to him. And yet he has developed a true attachment to a select group of fictional characters, including the aforementioned Thomas, Superman and Batman, the Veggie Tales cohort, Curious George, and of course, Elmo. Recently, he's been making his initial forays into capitalistic interpolation. Yesterday in the grocery store he caught sight of Veggie Tales fruit snacks, pointed at them, and excitedly kept repeating "Tales, tales, tales!" (This was a particularly short interpolation period, since his first exposure to Veggie Tales came in the form of a couple of DVDs he received from relatives at Christmas). And then today in a department store he ended up with a Thomas the Tank Engine T-shirt after he pointed and enthusiastically exclaimed "Tom!" (He later repeated this exclamation in the car even with the shirt out of sight, and then tried to put it on at home even before he had his coat off).

What I am trying to figure out is why he prefers some characters over others. He seems to have some affinity for the entire Sesame Street cast, but he clearly favors Elmo. Why does he love Thomas, but show apathy toward the tank engine's PBS colleague, the Cat in the Hat?

Some may suspect that parental influence is the decisive factor, that his mother and I must have displayed our own preferences and that he is picking up on our cues. Or that sheer exposure is decisive in forming his attachments. I don't discount that his affection for Superman and Batman is in large part a consequence of his father's demonstrated attachment. And his fondness for Curious George is probably related to the fact that A)He owns two Curious George books that are frequently fodder for bedtime stories and B)The Curious George cartoon airs in the morning at a time when his parents are getting ready for the day and an electronic babysitter is helpful.

But that still doesn't explain his Elmo affinity. And "Tom" and "Tales" have only been introduced to him casually--he has taken the initiative in implicitly declaring his partiality for them. I wonder if there isn't something elemental in his valuations, something that might even inform why we esteem what we do. I stumbled onto another theory of popularity a little over one year ago, in which I hypothesized that we are drawn to things that combine the familiar and the strange. Thinking about what some of my son's favorite characters have in common, there is a thread of anthropomorphism, which is almost by definition a combination of familiar and strange. A train car with a human face, for example, qualifies.

But aside from Curious George, who has extenuating circumstances, there is another common thread among all of the favorite characters--primary colors (red, blue, and green). My favorite superheroes have always been Superman and Spider-Man. These characters have also been the flagship characters for their respective comic book companies. There is really not a lot that these characters have in common, though, except for having a red and blue color palette. Could that be an underlying reason for their enduring popularity?

Perhaps all of my theories are not unrelated. Maybe the primary color comprises the "familiar" in the familiar/strange dynamic. Maybe the primary color makes the product accessible, and for a child, maybe the specificity inherent in a name is enough to constitute a primitive narrative. It is frustrating to realize that by the time my son is old enough to tell me why he likes certain fictional constructs, his reasons will have probably changed. If only he could enunciate better... But I suppose he enunciates well enough to get his parents to buy him things he wants.