Primates of Park Avenue: A Spoon Full of Sugar Helps the Medicine Go Down…

Posted on | August 28, 2015 | No Comments

Picture of Jake London holding a copy of  Wednesday Martin's book "The Primates of Park Avenue"

 

You Can Tune A Piano, When The Heat Is On, But Can You Roll With the Changes, After the Boys of Summer Have Gone?

Back in June, in the run-up to my birthday, I found myself contemplating how much things have changed since I was a kid in the 1970s. Apparently, that sort of pre-birthday nostalgia is a contractual obligation of middle age.

During my formative years, the culture of postmodernity was in its insurgent adolescence (a lot like me). It was steadily chipping away at the hegemony of cultural modernity, but it was not yet the cultural dominant.[1] At least that’s my sense of things now, looking back on it. So the 1970s and the early 1980s existed in a murky transition state, with one foot still on the familiar ground of cultural modernity and the other foot now firmly planted in the exciting possibilities of the postmodern.

Today, things are different. The culture of postmodernity–in all its ironic glory–is fully dominant. And with each passing year, the time-honored roles, categories, and clearly defined conceptual boundaries of cultural modernity (and my youth) have become either residual artifacts of history or hybrid, postmodern jumbles that resemble something familiar from the old days, but seem to mean something different now.[2]

If the culinary metaphor for cultural modernity is a Swanson TV dinner, with each food item placed oh so rationally in its own distinct section on the disposable aluminum tray, the culinary metaphor for cultural postmodernity is a compostable burrito bowl from Chipotle. Or maybe it’s a scoop of rum-infused banana, peanut butter, and chocolate-covered bacon ice cream in an artisanal waffle cone. (“It’s like Bananas Foster on steroids and Elvis Presley’s favorite sandwich all together in a single cone!”)

No more separating things. Now, highbrow, middlebrow, lowbrow, and no brow all exist on equal footing. For the first rule of cultural postmodernity is this: “Mix it all together, put a big spoonful in your mouth, and savor the weird and wonderful diversity of flavors.”

Curation, as Fredric Jameson has argued, is the highest form of artistic expression in postmodernism,[3] and an embrace of eclectic mixtures has become the ultimate mark of taste and refinement. The person who elegantly creates the most unexpected and far-flung mix of flavors earns the most cultural capital. The remaining capital goes to anyone who enjoys the mix and gets its references and allusions.

As a result, we’ve come to distrust things that feel like the divided sections of that old TV dinner tray. That’s not an interesting mix. It’s hardly a mix at all. It’s a relic from an older and more rigid time and place, an era where cultural relevance filters were typically on the supply-side and cultural elites at the top had disproportionate influence over what sort of stuff made it through the filter and into our ears, eyes, noses, and bellies.

Today, the old supply-side filters feel increasingly like one of those residual artifacts of history I referenced above. They still exist, but they’ve become less and less effective, as we’ve been overloaded with more and more information. This has forced most of us to do a lot more of our own demand-side filtering–quite a wearying experience for many people.

But it has also taught us to question things, like whether fancy job titles and educational attainment really provide the assurances of quality, legitimacy, and relevance that were attributed to them back in the day. For in the age of the Internet, where almost anyone can share their mix of thoughts with everybody, it’s become difficult to predict where meaningful commentary will come from, what it will look like, and who will be offering it. So it pays to take each bite thoughtfully and with an open mind, rather than rushing straight to judgement.

Take Feminism As An Example

When I think about discourse on feminism, I typically imagine an argument among academics or political activists. But back in early June, alt.country/indie rock musician Neko Case–performing a credible rendition of a 1980s women’s history grad student at University of Wisconsin-Madison—posted a thoughtful 17-page essay on-line about her relationship with feminism. (Do yourself a favor and download the pdf–much easier than reading her website’s white on black type.)

Things like that rarely happened when I was a kid. You needed standing to disseminate your essay to a mass audience, and even a successful musician typically wouldn’t have possessed that sort of standing. But times have changed. Now, the platform exists to easily do that. So why not?

Aside from the time it took for her to research and write the essay, it’s relatively cheap to make it available to millions of people. And if you’re somebody who is constantly being asked what it’s like to be a woman in rock music, why not put your thoughts out there unfiltered, control the message, and let people know what you’re thinking?

That’s something I really enjoy about 2015. Blogs and websites allow more artists and musicians like Ms. Case to proudly fly their intellectual freak flags and remind us how multi-dimensional they are.

Of course, people like Ms. Case aren’t the only ones getting in on this action. A few days before her feminism essay dropped, author and social researcher Wednesday Martin released Primates of Park Avenue, her memoir about being a mother in Manhattan’s hyper-affluent Upper East Side (UES).

In it, she plots a course towards the cultural mainstream, performing a credible rendition of a dishy purveyor of pop, chick lit, and proving in the process that it isn’t just musicians who are feeling freer to step outside of defined roles and explore unexpected subject matter and modes of discourse. Yale-trained comparative literature PhDs (like Martin) can do it too.

I started reading Primates in an Olmsted park by the shores of Lake Washington (Seattle’s Seward Park–one of the great ones). I finished it a few weeks later in the same spot. That seemed the best place to read Primates, as so much of its action takes place within spitting distance of NYC’s Central Park–the O.G. Olmsted.

Given that there have been something like eight articles in the NYT about this book since its release and that it has spent time in the upper reaches of the NYT best-seller list, I’m not sure it really needs any publicity help from me. But since Wednesday is an old college friend of mine, I wanted to say publicly that I enjoyed reading Primates and then share some additional thoughts on the book in the remainder of this blog post.

It’s nice when old friends, like Wednesday and my old buddy John Shaw, are given the opportunity to put their books out in the world. Back in our University of Michigan-Residential College days, while we were busy learning the value of this new thing called “inter-disciplinary education,” many of us dreamed of doing cool shit like writing books. It’s awesome that some folks have managed to make that dream real.

To the extent that I’m a feminist, Ms. Martin is one of the people who sent me off down that path many years ago, a path I continued to explore during my grad school time in Madison, Wisconsin with the help of some great feminism mentors, including Bridgette Sheridan​, Maggie Brennan​, Sara McLanahan Edlin​, Carolyn Helmke, and of course, Professor Linda Gordon.

So while I make no claims to being an expert on the subject, I suspect that I have at least a little more background in women’s history and feminist theory than many middle-aged dudes do (although much of that knowledge is 30 years old at this point).

Why am I saying this? Well, Primates has been kind of a lightning rod for controversy. And while I doubt that hurts the book’s sales any, I fear that it may be painting a distorted picture of what the book is.

Yes, it is a dishy, pop book and apparently destined to be a motion picture. Having read much of it by the water, I can say that it’s great for the beach or the park. And yes, some of it apparently nudges out of memoir territory and into the territory of the novel. But if the nut of it is on the mark, which it mostly feels like it is, I’m not sure it matters very much.

Given the high percentage of status obsessed rich people living in the UES, does anybody really doubt that the percentage of loathsome individuals living there might also be higher than elsewhere?

In any case, if you want to learn more about that controversy or read a more detailed synopsis of the book’s plot, I suggest you consult those other articles, because I’m not going to delve too deeply into those things here.

The Wheat Germ Is Not A Gimmick

What I do want to delve into is some stuff that seems to have gotten lost in all media hubbub: the academic/technical wheat germ lurking underneath the milk chocolate surface of Primates.

At the start of the book, Martin and her family move to the UES from the upscale but bohemian West Village to be closer to her husband’s in-laws and to access better public schools for their son. For Martin, the move ends up being unexpectedly jarring.

She feels like an outsider in the culture of the UES, and somewhat improbably for somebody north of 35, finds herself in the role of the ingénue. Think Anne Hathaway in the Devil Wears Prada, with all the other UES mothers collectively inhabiting the Meryl Streep role.

To cope with this situation, she imagines that she is an anthropologist conducting a field study of UES mothers and their culture, all the while slowly becoming one of these people herself (i.e., going native). This conceit allows Martin to incorporate into her narrative theory and specialized-vocabulary from both cultural anthropology and primatology.

During the course of the book, we learn that UES residents must navigate an “Honor/Shame Culture,” where overt displays of wealth, power, and beauty define the “Dominance Hierarchy,” and that the gender roles of UES men and women are typically dictated by a “Traditional Gender Script,” which places men and women into separate, sex-segregated spheres.

UES men occupy the public sphere. There, they compete primarily against other men to provide material support for the family. Wealth and money are a UES man’s most important commodities and the source of his power.

Although many UES women are highly educated and accomplished professional people, they nevertheless dominate the domestic sphere, make babies, raise them, and spend most of their time hanging out with other UES mothers who are doing the same thing. Other than their own physical beauty, children and their attainments are a UES woman’s most important commodity and therefore the main source of her power within family and her prestige within the UES culture at large.

Every UES kid can’t be a smashing success in every endeavor, so there is fierce intra-sexual competition among UES mothers to secure as many advantages as possible for their kids (e.g., getting them in the best schools, in popular social groups, etc.).

The net result of all this is what Martin terms “the Culture of Intensive Motherhood,” where women are required to spurn things like careers and non-kid-related friendships to devote all of their energy to the enrichment of their children. Fail in this task and you bring shame to your family, even to the point of undermining your husband’s achievements in the public sphere. Succeed, and you may earn yourself a “wife bonus” (financial compensation from your husband that is tied to your child’s peak performance in school, etc.).

But while many UES moms are the sort of people who will do the things that others won’t (e.g, hiring the handicapped “guides” to help them jump the line at Disney World), Martin eventually learns that it’s a mistake to reduce all UES moms to hard-edged, Machiavellian masters of the domestic sphere. For despite the fierce intra-sexual competition, she receives unexpected and much needed support from some of the other mothers during a very difficult period.

Certain reviewers have been quick to dismiss Martin’s decision to incorporate anthropology and primatology terms into her narrative as a gimmick.

But now that I’ve finished reading Primates, I don’t think that’s a fair assessment, and here’s why:

First, these reviewers underestimate how much skill is required to distill the academic/technical stuff into something digestible by lay readers. They also underestimate the value and importance of making the effort to do so.

As the cultural studies scholar Lawrence Grossberg has argued in Dancing in Spite of Myself, “cultural studies…challenges not only the boundaries between…disciplines but, more importantly, the boundary between the academy and the world outside.” In Grossberg’s estimation, intellectuals “will have failed” if they “cannot speak, as intellectuals, through the popular…”

This is exactly the goal of Primates, and in my opinion, it is generally successful in achieving that goal.

Second, some of the academic/technical stuff is also quite funny, especially juxtaposed with the more dishy aspects of the book. Perhaps that went past some people, or they have a different sense of humor than I do (I’ll never escape being the son of a professor).

Third, and most importantly, I don’t think these reviewers take seriously enough how the academic/technical material in Primates affects the framing of the narrative for the reader. Indeed, as Joe Orman recently noted in an article about Seattle’s Hempfest, “Anthropologists study intersectionality..,” the way that different cultural issues intersect in a particular activity and place, like motherhood in the UES, and what we can learn from these intersections.

A book about the myriad ways in which UES moms are unhappy, backstabbing bitches, but not completely unredeemable, would still have tabloid, popular appeal. But that sort of book would lack the intersectional context of Primates, leaving the whys and wherefores of UES mom behavior unexplored. So while the reader would get a nice one-dimensional, jealous hate/envy schadenfreude hit reading about how these women behave, she or he would gain no framework, tools, or vocabulary for acquiring a richer understanding of it.

To me, that sounds like a much less interesting mix of flavors. It’s like a Thai curry without the fish sauce. The dish isn’t inedible, but it’s missing the funk that makes it special.

Technical Accounts and The Concision Problem

Academic/technical/theoretical discussions are all about providing framework, tools and vocabulary. In his book “Why?” the historian and sociologist Charles Tilly called them “technical accounts.”

Often, technical accounts are on the abstract side and lacking in the kind of linear narrative story that average people use to make sense of things. They use words and phrases that assume a lot of specialized knowledge.

In the interests of streamlining discussion, experts regularly allow one word or phrase to serve as shorthand for paragraphs, pages, or even books worth of concrete stories and other information, assuming that everybody in the conversation already knows it. This is similar to the way that lawyers use defined terms in a contract.

Unfortunately, unlike most contracts, technical accounts often don’t include a definitions section or glossary of terms. So most people find them difficult to understand, because they lack all the background knowledge that the experts possess.

As a result, you get what Noam Chomsky has termed the mass-media concision problem. In an interview back in 2002, he explained that as follows:

The kinds of things that I would say on Nightline, you can’t say in one sentence because they depart from standard religion. If you want to repeat the religion, you can get away with it between two commercials. If you want to say something that questions the religion, you’re expected to give evidence, and that you can’t do between two commercials. So therefore you lack concision, so therefore you can’t talk.

In other words, it’s very difficult to introduce new technical vocabulary in a concise fashion, let alone make a nuanced argument or deconstruct existing technical vocabulary that is perceived to be the conventional wisdom. Therefore, most academics and technical experts don’t even bother trying to get into that exercise on a mass scale, and those who do sail into an exceedingly stiff head wind. [4]

Readerly, Writerly, and The Conventions of Arena Rock

At the end of the day, pop books like Primates must also reckon with Chomsky’s concision problem.[5] For they are the literary equivalent of an arena rock show: Subtle gestures get lost in the big hall. So it’s no small matter to integrate a technical account while keeping every movement intelligible to the folks in the back rows.

To remain within the conventions of arena rock, one needs to keep things relatively big, straight up, and on the mark. Often, it’s as much about what you take away as what you add. Or to borrow some terminology from literary and cultural theorist Roland Barthes, the conventions of the arena rock form demand a text that is more “readerly” than “writerly.”

What does that mean? Well, according to Barthes, a readerly text is one that doesn’t “locate the reader as a site of the production of meaning, but only as the receiver of a fixed, pre-determined, reading.”

“Readerly” texts “are thus products rather than productions and thus form the dominant mode of literature under capital.” http://www2.iath.virginia.edu/elab/hfl0250.html

So a readerly text is one that purports to be something that the reader can take at face value.

Conversely, a “writerly” text is one that “…force[s] the reader to produce a meaning or meanings which are inevitably other than final or authorized.” http://www2.iath.virginia.edu/elab/hfl0250.html

John Copenhaver, a novelist, explains further: “Readerly texts reassure us with answers, and writerly texts ask us to struggle with the human mysteries they offer us.”

In keeping with the conventions of arena rock, the surface of Primates is a readerly commodity. But lurking underneath it, there are more writerly aspects as well. I wonder if some reviewers have missed these (or under-estimated their value).

For example, by framing a relatively clear, readerly story within a simplified technical account, Primates gives concrete meaning to terms like “Intra-Sexual Competition,” “Gender Script,” “Honor/Shame Culture,” “Wife Bonus,” and the “Culture of Intensive Mothering.”

This is valuable, because the only way to overcome Chomsky’s concision problem is to put forth new vocabulary and give non-specialists tools to assimilate it. Terms like “Gender Script” and “Intra-Sexual Competition” are not currently a part of the standard religion. Until they are part of it, it’s hard to have a society-wide, mass-media level conversation about the ideas they address, ideas that are central issues of feminism.

You can’t just say “Gender Script” on Conan or Jimmy Fallon and assume that everybody will know what that means. But by placing it in the context of a readerly story, a book like Primates has the capacity to help change that, illustrating what it means and in the process naming a feeling or experience that many people recognize intuitively but lack vocabulary to describe concisely.

I’m An Animal, You’re An Animal Too, What if God Was One of Us, Just A Stranger On The Bus, And An Animal Too?

Because Primates is set in a realm that is somewhat separated from the experience of most people, it also allows the average person enough emotional distance to engage with the ideas without getting defensive about how they might also be a part of their own life.

It’s a bit like Greek mythology, where the gods seem to have all the problems of human beings, only on a grander scale and on a separate plane. The grandiose separateness of the characters in these myths makes it easier for people to absorb their lessons.

Primates also appropriates the language of primatology, using it as a prism for examining why UES people do the things they do and what the stakes are. In the process, the book encourages us to see ourselves in this light as well, as primates governed by certain biological imperatives, and it provides us with some tools and vocabulary for doing so.

Indeed, as I read Primates, I kept thinking about how the culture of the music business is distressingly similar to the UES mom culture in many ways (not sure who should be more distressed about that–UES moms or people in the music biz—in any case, it sounds like both groups like to toss back booze and pills at all hours of the day and night).

While I was somewhat familiar with the notion of a “dominance hierarchy,” the term “Honor/Shame Culture” was new to me, and it provided me a nice phrase to sum up the ways that the UES mom culture is similar to that of the music business.

Fist City

Martin’s approach also shines a bright light on the female will to power and female competitiveness, things, imho, which are too often trivialized, or worse, kept invisible, repressed, and under-acknowledged by both participants and observers.

The “sisterhood is powerful” message of certain strands of cultural feminism has often been Pollyannaish about the existence of this female competition, either (i) attributing an essentialized cooperative spirit to relationships among women, or (ii) assuming that this competition is simply a result of false consciousness, rather than something that may be an intrinsic part of the human condition, male or female.

Perhaps it is a sign of progress that more women now feel empowered, secure and comfortable enough in the 2000s to publicly acknowledge intra-sex disagreements and competitions.

Primates, serves as an example of how this sort of discussion can be brought to the surface. Within the conventions of the form, it makes an effort to go beyond the sort of mean girls and bitches narrative that is the stock and trade of teen movies and chick lit alike–a place where even adult life remains strangely reminiscent of high school. Instead, the book endeavors to explore more explicitly the rational stakes and motivations for women behaving in these ways.

There is a tendency in the culture, especially among men, but also among many women as well, to see intra-sexual competition among women as nothing but gossip and petty, low-level, emotional sniping. But while the currency may be different than the currency over which men commonly compete, Primates shows us why the stakes are no less concrete or important.

Indeed, the book underscores that competition is often most brutal within social groups that are vying for a limited universe of resources, relative to their white male counterparts. And even if rich white women have it way better than most people in society, the book underscores how these women nevertheless also feel the negative effects of inequitable gender relations.

But making this point is not without some moral ambiguities. Indeed, these ambiguities comprise the other major writerly aspect of Primates, and the reader is asked to sort out quite a few of them.

Are we meant to hate the moms of the UES? Or are we meant to sympathize with them, oppressed as they are by patriarchy, even with all their money and elevated social status?

What about Wednesday herself? How are we supposed to feel about her?

Is she on our side, a bohemian, intellectual, downtown gal from Michigan sent uptown by fate to serve as an anthropological spy, break the code of omerta, and give us inside information about a secret society?

Is she a double agent, working both sides of the fence, telling us how fucked these people are, letting us feel morally superior and happy that our lives aren’t as unpleasant as theirs, while simultaneously working for the other side, by drawing attention away from all the ways in which their lives are infinitely more fabulous and comfortable than anything we can even imagine?

Or is Wednesday just as bad–or maybe even worse–than the people she is describing, a class traitor and opportunist, exploiting other people’s trust in the interest of aggrandizing herself?

It’s never totally clear and if I didn’t know her, it would probably be even muddier. So you have to make up your own mind on these questions and about whether the book’s ambiguity is a bug or a feature. More than likely, all people won’t reach the same conclusion.

Every Rose Has Its Thorn

Having heaped a lot of praise on the academic/technical aspects of Primates, I should also acknowledge, in the interests of trying to maintain a measure of objectivity, some instances where those aspects of the book didn’t work quite as well for me.

Don’t get me wrong, reading Primates was as smooth and easy as downing an ice-cold quart of Stroh’s beer in Burns Park on a hot Ann Arbor summer night back in 1984. (Almost sounds like a Bob Seger tune, doesn’t it?) But it also felt like there was room to dig deeper into some of that academic stuff without sacrificing the book’s readerly tone. So it’s a little disappointing that Primates didn’t push further in that direction. If it had, perhaps it would have ended up tasting more like a pint of Lagunitas IPA (hoppy, a little more highbrow, but nevertheless smooth, accessible, and easy to drink).

In any case, and crazy beer analogies aside, here’s what I mean by “digging deeper into the academic stuff.”

Back in my Madison days, when we were discussing feminism and the plight of women in the USA, we often talked about the interrelationship of race, class, and gender. This book focuses primarily on gender, leaving race and class more in the background (actually, race is pretty much non-existent, probably because most people in the UES are apparently white, which is telling in and of itself).

And while the book is reasonably honest about the class position of the people it describes, it probably could have done a better job explicitly locating the people of the UES in a larger class context. As a friend put it to me, “There’s a lot of discussion of intra-class conflict, but not much exploration of inter-class conflict” (i.e., the conflict between rich and poor).

For example, Primates doesn’t really grapple explicitly with issues like these:

  • What sort of stuff have these people done to make all that money and what does that mean for the rest of us?
  • The members of this class are very proud of their charitable efforts. But would we have such a dire need for them if they had not helped to systematically gut the public sector over the last 40 years, thereby insuring that do-gooder agendas are increasingly set by rich people in the private sector, rather than in a more distributed and democratic fashion through governmental institutions and a more progressive tax system?
  • Are the charitable activities of rich people really altruistic or are they simply another narcissistic display ritual?
  • Is charity from the rich a fair exchange for society, given that the risks of capitalism have increasingly been socialized across all taxpayers (e.g., bank bailouts) while the benefits have mostly accrued to the kind of folks described in this book?
  • Do UES people ponder these kinds of issues at all?
  • Or are they too busy competing with each other for top rank in their internal dominance hierarchy to spend much time self-reflecting on that kind of thing?

That being said, class is still implicitly a very significant part of the book. Whether by accident or on purpose, “Primates” ends up being a case study in Marxian concepts like these:

  • how domestic labor, which is typically gendered, is undervalued by capitalism, because it is not easily commodified;
  • how the “Wife Bonus” Martin describes in Primates is an effort to put a commodity value on this domestic labor;
  • how women themselves become commodities in the culture of the UES;
  • how precarious life as a human commodity is, even when that commodity exists in a privileged space;
  • how children in that privileged space become commodities too;
  • how UES women use the acquisition of expensive commodities, like the Hermes Birken Bag, as a way of enhancing their own value as commodities (I found Martin’s discussion of the Birken Bag and its meaning to be particularly resonant and interesting); and
  • how the alienation that is wrought by capitalism affects even the so-called “winners” of the game.

Indeed, more than anything else, the book is a good reminder that Marx was right. Everybody may experience alienation under capitalism, but not everybody is alienated in the same way:

The propertied class and the class of the proletariat present the same human self-estrangement. But the former class feels at ease and strengthened in this self-estrangement, it recognizes estrangement as its own power, and has in it the semblance of a human existence. The class of the proletariat feels annihilated, this means that they cease to exist in estrangement; it sees in it its own powerlessness and in the reality of an inhuman existence. It is, to use an expression of Hegel, in its abasement, the indignation at that abasement, an indignation to which it is necessarily driven by the contradiction between its human nature and its condition of life, which is the outright, resolute and comprehensive negation of that nature. Within this antithesis, the private property-owner is therefore the conservative side, and the proletarian the destructive side. From the former arises the action of preserving the antithesis, from the latter the action of annihilating it.

The Holy Family, Ch. 4 (1845).

Elaborating on the above referenced quote, Todd Chretien explains further:

The rich may be alienated, may even be depressed at times, but as a rule, they compensate themselves with a semblance of human nature, based on their own power over society as a whole. Yes, money can buy you love! Especially–and this is crucial–because all that money buys you political power, a bit of control and the freedom to do what you want, at least part of the time, and in that freedom, the rich can recover a “semblance of a human existence.” And they fear losing this most of all.

So the rich not only feel threatened by working-class struggle because they may have to give up their money and power, they also mistake their own stunted humanity for the “universal soul” intrinsic to the proletariat and, therefore, honestly (at least as honestly as scoundrels are able) believe they are defending humanity itself by defending their own narrow privileges.

Wednesday’s own story bears this out, as she and her family entered the UES by choice and always had the option to leave it as well, which they eventually do, moving across Central Park to the funkier, but still affluent, Upper West Side.

Therefore, even if the hollow victories of rich folks are hard fought and not without substantial emotional violence and psychic costs, Primates underscores, perhaps unintentionally, that the victories remain quite significant for the winners, and filled with negative costs the rest of us pay.

Rich people tend to be opinion leaders. So their ideas, trends, and attitudes often roll downhill out of their communities and into society at-large. (See e.g., the Culture of Intensive Motherhood, which is even more damaging to average women than it is to rich women, because it sets an extremely high bar for those who lack the unlimited resources of the rich.)

At the end of the day, our entire society is diminished by the Honor/Shame Culture of places like the UES, and especially by the desperation with which many of these people fight to maintain their privileges, even when the health of the planet is at stake (e.g., the residents of Rancho Santa Fe, California don’t want to have their water rationed this summer, because it would mess up their nice green lawns).

To the extent that Primates encourages people to talk about some of that stuff, it seems worthwhile, and it’s a very enjoyable read in any case. I just hope that deeper conversation doesn’t get lost in the shock and awe of dishy controversy. But if the main outcome of the book is that terms like the “Culture of Intensive Motherhood,” “Gender Script,” “Intra-Sexual Competition,” “Honor/Shame Culture,” and “Wife Bonus” enter the popular lexicon, it will still be no small accomplishment.


Notes:

1. A couple of aspects of this statement are worthy of additional elaboration, but I didn’t want to clutter the main body of my post with them.

A.  Defining Some Terms. In this blog post, I’m using the terms “cultural dominant,” “emergent” and “residual” as Fredric Jameson uses them in his 1991 book Postmodernism or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism.

There, Jameson explains that he is wary of periodizing hypotheses that “tend to obliterate difference and to project an idea of the historical period as massive homogeneity (bounded on either side by inexplicable chronological metamorphoses and punctuation marks).” He argues that the way to avoid this pitfall is to grasp postmodernism (or for that matter modernism, romanticism, or any other ism) “not as a style but rather as a cultural dominant” (i.e. the dominant cultural formation of a particular historical moment).

This conception “allows for the presence and coexistence of a range of very different, yet subordinate, features,” and it underscores that any given historical moment consists of a heterogeneity of different styles, modes of production, and cultural practices. Nevertheless, the relative power and importance of these factors varies through time. Some styles, modes of production, aesthetic practices, etc. may be (i) subordinate but emergent in one moment (i.e, their intensity and power is growing such that they could one day be dominant), (ii) dominant in another moment, and (iii) residual in yet another moment (i.e., of gradually waning intensity and power or of a steady but nevertheless subordinated intensity).

According to Jameson, even if “all the features of postmodernism…can be detected, full-blown, in this or that preceding modernism (if not, indeed, of the even older romanticism),” their meaning and importance wasn’t necessarily the same as it is today, because the context was different and the blend of emergent, dominant, and residual styles, modes of production, and cultural practices was therefore different.

“[E]ven if all the constitutive features of postmodernism were identical with and coterminous to those of an older modernism…, the two phenomena would still remain utterly distinct in their meaning and social function, owing to the very different positioning of postmodernism in the economic system of late capital and, beyond that, to the transformation of the very sphere of culture in contemporary society….”More than at any previous time in history, “…aesthetic production today has become integrated into commodity production generally: the frantic economic urgency of producing fresh waves of ever more novel-seeming goods (from clothing to aeroplanes), at ever greater rates of turnover, now assigns an increasingly essential structural function and position to aesthetic innovation and experimentation.”

Indeed, the “…whole global, yet American, postmodern culture is the internal and superstructural expression of a whole new wave of American military and economic domination throughout the world: in this sense, as throughout class history, the underside of culture is blood, torture, death, and terror. So “it [is] only in the light of some conception of a dominant cultural logic or hegemonic norm that genuine difference [can] be measured and assessed.

So even if all of today’s cultural production is not postmodern in the broad sense of the term,…”the postmodern is…the force field in which very different kinds of cultural impulses…must make their way.” For without “some general sense of a cultural dominant, …we fall back into a view of present history as sheer heterogeneity, random difference, a coexistence of a host of distinct forces whose effectivity is undecidable….”

Therefore, Jameson’s conception of the postmodern “is a historical rather than a merely stylistic one,” stressing “the radical distinction between a view for which the postmodern is one (optional) style among many others available and one which seeks to grasp it as the cultural dominant of the logic of late capitalism…” Indeed, “…the two approaches …generate two very different ways of conceptualising the phenomenon as a whole: on the one hand, moral judgments (about which it is indifferent whether they are positive or negative), and, on the other, a genuinely dialectical attempt to think our present of time in History.”

B.  Just When Did Postmodernism Become the Cultural Dominant?  In periodizing when postmodernism become the cultural dominant, some may protest that it was already the cultural dominant during my formative years in the 1970s and early 1980s. I wouldn’t fight that position too strenuously, as long as anybody taking it acknowledged that postmodernism’s dominance was not as complete in this period as it is today.

Or to put things a different way, even if we consider cultural modernism to be a residual cultural formation by the 1970s and 1980s rather than the waning cultural dominant, a lot more of its residue was still present in this period than in the period after 1992. For the Reagan years were not kind to cultural modernity, as the administration aggressively sought to dismantle public funding for non-profit cultural institutions and creators, lobbied for market-based solutions to every problem (including non-profit funding), and in the end, hastened the demise of the semi-autonomous sphere of culture, which is discussed further in footnote #2 below. [return to article]

2. In The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, Fredric Jameson argues that postmodernism is “inseparable from, and unthinkable without the hypothesis of, some fundamental mutation of the sphere of culture in the world of late capitalism, which includes a momentous modification of its social function.” Developing this idea further, he adds the following:

Older discussions of the space, function, or sphere of culture (mostly notably Herbert Marcuse’s classic essay “The Affirmative Character of Culture”) have insisted on what a different language would call the “semiautonomy” of the cultural realm: its ghostly, yet Utopian, existence, for good or ill, above the practical world of the existent, whose mirror image it throws back in forms which vary from the legitimations of flattering resemblance to the contestatory indictments of critical satire or Utopian pain.

What we must now ask ourselves is whether it is not precisely this semiautonomy of the cultural sphere which has been destroyed by the logic of late capitalism. Yet to argue that culture is today no longer endowed with the relative autonomy it once enjoyed as one level among others in earlier moments of capitalism (let alone in precapitalist societies) is not necessarily to imply its disappearance or extinction. Quite the contrary; we must go on to affirm that the dissolution of an autonomous sphere of culture is rather to be imagined in terms of an explosion: a prodigious expansion of culture throughout the social realm, to the point at which everything in our social life–from economic value and state power to practices and to the very structure of the psyche itself –can be said to have become “cultural” in some original and yet untheorized sense.

In other words, according to Jameson, there are no longer any “Archimedean footholds for critical effectivity,” no outside we can retreat to in the hopes of seeing things more clearly (i.e., no more rarefied and semi-autonomous spheres–like the realm of art or the non-profit organization–where different rules and values trump the iron rules of the market).

Now, aesthetic production is a fully integrated part of consumer production more generally, so there’s just one big pot, all of us are soaking in it 24/7/365, and our challenge is to try and somehow locate ourselves and understand our position within this enclosed space. [return to article]

3. Jameson’s discussion of curation begins at around 18:38 in the linked video [return to article]

4. Neko Case touches on these challenges in her feminism essay, discussing the difficulty of trying to address a subject like feminism in a nuanced fashion within the context of the typical magazine interview. Indeed, one of the reasons she wrote her essay was to get around that problem. [return to article]

5. To be fair, I should also note that most book reviewers in the mainstream media also bump up against concision challenges as well. More likely than not, this has affected the level of nuance with which some of them have been able to address the more academic aspects of Primates. [return to article]

 

 

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Hondo II: Random Memories of Dick Lurie’s Guitar Studio–Cleveland Heights, Ohio

Posted on | May 22, 2015 | Comments Off on Hondo II: Random Memories of Dick Lurie’s Guitar Studio–Cleveland Heights, Ohio

My brother recently posted the picture below on Facebook. He said it immediately took him back to the Dick Lurie Guitar Studio in Cleveland Heights, Ohio. I knew just what he meant, and so did a bunch of other old musician friends from Cleveland’s east side. For Dick’s store is where we each began our personal journey with the guitar or the bass.

Ben and I studied with Dick himself. Later, my brother also studied with Bill Jeric, who apparently had been a member of the James Gang at some point. Bill was the rock teacher.

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Dick, who was probably around 60 at the time, had a long history as a local jazz player and session musician. He was also quite a character. But whatever his eccentricities, you’ve got to give the guy all due respect: He managed to make a career out of music, and that is no small accomplishment.

As for the store, well, I’d say in retrospect that it was more of a front for the guitar lesson business that happened in the back. Over time, I came to realize that there were better places to go looking for guitars (e.g., there’s probably a good blog post to be written about Barry’s Mayfield Music, which wasn’t far from Dick’s studio).

Dick didn’t actually have that huge of a stock of instruments and amps in his shop, and a lot of what he did have wasn’t necessarily top of the line (more Hondo II guitars and Marlboro amps than Gibson, Fender, and Marshall–although he did get a Mesa Boogie combo in there at one point). This was mostly stuff for beginners, and one imagines, stuff where the manufacturers were more willing to offer a store owner favorable credit terms.

But as a 15 year old kid, there was plenty to be learned in Dick’s store, and the dudes behind the counter were always kind to us in our ignorance. Whether they were actually cool, I’m not sure, but at the time, they seemed pretty cool to me, because they were already inside of a world that I very much wanted to enter. So any little tidbit they laid down about that world, I was going to scoop it up has fast as possible.

We had no Internet back then. We just had guitar shop dudes, Guitar Player Magazine, and our own over-active imaginations.

Anyway, with that brief introduction, I give you a few random Dick Lurie memories:

1. Christmas Eve 1978:  My dad, my brother, and I entered Dick Lurie’s for the first time on Christmas Eve 1978. Ostensibly, we went to get Ben a bass as a Christmas present. Our dad knew Dick, because he taught guitar in the music department at Cleveland State University, where dad also taught.

While we were in there, my dad turned to me and asked “You see anything you want here?” After I timidly said “Maybe a guitar would be cool,” my brother walked out the door with a low-end Fender Precision Bass copy, and I walked out the door with an electric six-string that said “Alpha I” on the headstock and made a Hondo II Les Paul copy look like the real thing.

Imagine two pieces of 5-ply plywood glued together to double the thickness, then cut into a Les Paul shape, finished with a bad red tobacco-sunburst, some humbucker shaped pick-ups, and some volume and tone nobs (no pick-up selector switch). That was the Alpha I.

But it wasn’t a bad guitar for what it was. Action wasn’t bad, intonation was okay, and down the line, after I got some new tuners on it, it stayed in tune pretty well.

Kind of sad I don’t have that guitar. It got left behind when I moved away from Ann Arbor in 1985. Pretty sure it’s the only guitar I’ve ever owned that I don’t still have (I don’t really have that many guitars compared to a lot of other folks I know).

2. The Basement. Dick gave his lessons in a room in the basement of the shop. So you’d walk down the stairs and wait outside for the lesson in front of you to finish up. You’d hear the music without seeing who was in there and the quality could vary wildly. You never knew who would come out, a 7 year old girl with a tiny classical guitar, or a 45 year old man with an Gibson ES-335. And the quality of the music bore no correlation to who came out.

Sometimes, the 7 year old was way better than the 45 year old. Not everybody draws the long-straw of musical ability, but even for people without a lot of natural ability, studying music can still be very worthwhile. Dick treated each student with respect, as long as he believed that they had made an attempt to practice since the last lesson. (I must confess that I wasn’t always so good about that.)

Picture of Dick Lurie

Dick Lurie with Guitar. I wonder if it’s an Aria Pro II?

 

3. Master of the Instrument. In one of our first lessons, I remember Lurie asking me “Mr. London, do you want to play the rock and roll or do you want to be the master of your instrument?”

What was I supposed to say to that? For better or worse, I chose master of my instrument. Maybe if I’d said “play the rock and roll” he would have passed me off to Bill Jeric. But I didn’t say that. So I stuck with Dick.

And while I have not yet achieved the goal of mastery (e.g., never have learned to sight read music), what I learned from Dick Lurie in my year of lessons was a strong enough foundation that I’ve been able to teach myself ever since (e.g., the importance of alternative picking with a flat pick, the barre chord forms, etc).

Kind of sad I didn’t come to Lurie much later in life. It would be great to learn about all that chord melody stuff now that I appreciate it more than I did back then.

4. Please Please Me. At some point, towards the end of my time taking lessons with Dick, he announced that we were going to work on a rock song (perhaps he could sense that my interest was waning and he was trying to keep me engaged). He pulls out the sheet music to “Please Please Me” by the Beatles.

That’s an amazing song, and I was excited to be playing it. But to a kid who had not yet been playing the guitar for even a year, it might as well have been jazz, with it’s mix of major and minor chords. Not exactly a three chord Chuck Berry song or “Sympathy for the Devil” by the Rolling Stones.

Needless to say, I struggled with it, and I probably stopped taking lessons not too long after that. So I never mastered it for him. But by then, I’d joined a band as the bass player and I was hooked for life. Even though I quit the lessons, I kept playing, and eventually I figured out how to do it, after spending more time self-studying some easier three-chord material. In any case, whenever I hear “Please Please Me,” I always think of Dick.

4(a). The Atkins Super Axe. Dick’s shop had a black Gretsch Super Axe with the built in compressor, phase shifter, and maybe one other effect. In a shop filled with a lot of Asian-made copy guitars, it was kind of the Holy Grail guitar.

Despite Chet Atkins assertions in the ad above, it never seemed like a rock guitar to me. But even so, I thought it was pretty cool. If only playing it would transform you into Chet Atkins too. That would have been worth every penny and more. Wonder if Dick ever managed to sell it, and if so, who bought it?

4(b). Gretsch Hockey Stick Guitar. They also had a couple of Gretsch TK-300s in Dick’s store. This is one of the odder electric guitars around. This definitely was intended to be a rock guitar, and I guess I kind of saw it that way, although I don’t think I thought it was very cool back in the day (apparently the marketplace didn’t think it was very cool either). But in retrospect, I kind wish I’d gotten one.

David Kleiler, of Boston’s Volcano Suns, had couple of these back in the late 1980s and early 1990s. They always sounded good. My memory is that they had pretty thin neck as well and they seemed solidly built.

5. The Polytone 101.  The tattered remains of the Polytone 101 that we got from Dick now resides in our basement. The transistor amp inside it died over 30 years ago now. But it’s still had some use as a speaker cabinet.

Dick was big on Polytone amps. And for jazz playing they are still well-regarded. Back in the early days of the Presidents of the United States of America, I seem to remember that Chris Ballew played a Polytone. Always thought of Dick when I saw that amp.

6. MXR Graphic Equalizer. We purchased a blue MXR graphic equalizer from Dick’s shop. It was the first effects pedal we ever got. If you turned every band up to 10 and crunched down hard on a power chord, it would almost distort the Polytone’s transistor amp (but not quite).

7. The Great Guitars. Each year, Dick would promote one or two great guitars concerts with people like Joe Pass, Barney Kessel, Charlie Byrd, and Herb Ellis. It’s only as I’ve gotten older that I realize what a gift it was to be able to see all those dudes play before they died. Joe Pass, in particular, was a mind blower. Thanks Dad. Apparently, these concerts were pretty formative for some other folks too.

I don’t have kids, but for those who do, remember this: When you take your kids to see music you think is worth their while, don’t assume that it hasn’t been worth their while just because they’re not jumping up and down and thanking you after its over.

Some stuff needs to stew in your mind for a long time before you truly appreciate its value. But when you finally do, you really appreciate that your parents cared enough about you to share that wisdom with you, even if you didn’t understand all of it in the moment.

8. Tommy Tedesco Instructional Book. When I recently watched the Wrecking Crew documentary, my mind immediately flashed back to a book or poster for the book that was in Lurie’s shop back in the day. Tedesco is sitting Buddha-like on a stool with his classical guitar and tinted shades. He seemed old and not very cool to my 15 year old self (although by the looks of it, he’s younger in the picture below than I am now).

I had no idea how much amazing music he had played on. I also learned in the Wrecking Crew documentary that Tommy got into the instructional book and seminar business in the late 1970s and into the 1980s, because studio work for the Wrecking Crew started to dry up, as a younger crop of musicians came on the scene and styles changed.

But like Dick Lurie, Tedesco was a survivor, and he kept figuring out ways to make a living from music. I didn’t understand that at 15. But I admire it a lot at 51.

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Apple and Personality-Based Marketing/Publicity in the Music Space

Posted on | February 26, 2015 | Comments Off on Apple and Personality-Based Marketing/Publicity in the Music Space

Apple Computer Logo

By Apple, Inc. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

I was on Facebook earlier today and came across the comment below from Tim Quirk. It’s apparently about Apple’s new streaming music service, which is slated to launch later this year. Tim’s a musician and has also spent time working at Rhapsody and Google Music, amongst other places.

WHO’s telling you to listen is far, far less important than WHAT they tell you to listen to. Also, GETTING you to actually listen.

Reading the comments underneath Tim’s post, I came to understand that it related to his criticism of what he asserted was the personality-based approach that Apple seems to be using with its new service.

One commenter, Jamie Dolling, asserted that the new service was as much about “personality as it is about music,” and worried that this approach couldn’t help but “poison the water.”

Subsequently, Jon Maples, a digital music consultant formerly of Rhapsody, indicated that it was the same..old…’human music curation’ approach without any understanding of what the listener actually wants.”

I started adding my own comment on that post, but as its length ballooned it seemed to be morphing into a blog post. So I moved over here.

Anyway, here’s my take on this stuff.

As Tim correctly points out, getting listeners to break out of their default is the challenge, because most listeners just want to keep listening to the stuff they are already familiar with (and consume the same products over and over again as well).

To my mind, personality-based approaches to marketing and publicity can be one way to accomplish that goal. Even if there’s an element of bullshit, snake oil to it, they wouldn’t still be using it if personality-based publicity and marketing didn’t sell shit.

For many people, who is telling you to listen/buy is inextricably bound up in what they are telling you to consume. That’s the whole point. It’s a gestalt experience.

The further you move to the right in the diffusion curve on anything new, the less likely consumers are to use their own research and judgment when making buying decisions. These people are much more likely to look to trusted people (opinion leaders) for signals about what choices to make.

This is not a new thing. It’s as old as consumer capitalism (or actually even older still). And while I pride myself on doing my own research on lots of stuff and making my own decisions, there’s lots of other stuff where I just don’t care enough to do that. I want somebody else to point me to an answer that is good enough (or better still, great). The whole point of doing that is that I don’t know what good is, so I can’t really effectively evaluate the quality of the thing being recommended. If I could, I wouldn’t need somebody else’s advice.

So the personality/trustworthiness of the person making the recommendation is extremely important. It becomes a proxy for the knowledge I lack about the thing being recommended, because, rightly or wrongly, I do feel comfortable evaluating what I think about the person doing the recommending.

The logic goes something like this. I don’t trust my judgment about what cool clothes are. This person over there seems to be a person who I think is cool and has on cool clothes (or at least a person who I understand from their reputation is supposed to be cool and wearing cool clothes). Therefore, their judgment about cool clothes is probably better than mine. So I’ll see what they think I should wear, and moving forward I’ll look to them for more clues and cues on that subject.

Unlike data driven metrics, this isn’t just about figuring out what I want. It can also be about creating a new want, because while I may know what I think I want, I may not actually know what I want all the time. Data driven metrics may do a good job of figuring out what I think I want right now or even what I might want based on what I have wanted in the past, but they don’t do such a good job of determining what I don’t know that I want right now but what I might nevertheless want in the future if it was put in front of me in the right way. The right sort of charismatic curator/opinion leader has the ability to do that.

For many people, music is something they are unsure about. It’s also something where they don’t want to have to filter through all the noise to get to the signal. They like having music around. They also know that what music they like says something about them, so there’s something at stake there beyond just the hedonistic experience of consuming the music.

But in many cases, they just want to be pointed towards some good stuff. If liking this good stuff also seems to help make them seem a little bit less uncool, well, even better. Because in 2015, nobody wants to seem uncool, not even middle-aged people like me. Indeed, seeming/feeling less uncool may be just as important–or even more important–than liking what has been recommended.

So yes, Apple’s new music service is a publicity/marketing platform. And yes it appears to be personality-based. That’s because the biggest objection that the music industry seems to have about many of the other streaming platforms is this:

They may deliver a good user experience to certain users, but despite many assertions to the contrary, they have not yet proven themselves to be particularly good marketing/publicity platforms for companies trying to focus demand on a limited slate of new releases (the only way to generate the kind of cash they need to stay in business long-term). They can service demand when it arises. But they don’t drive demand or significantly shape it.

Moreover, to the extent that these services create new wants in people, the want pattern is much more diffuse than in the old system. So the old-line music industry is still trying to find a marketing/publicity platform that looks and works more like terrestrial radio did in the glory days, because that was a great platform for focusing demand on a limited slate of new releases. It had a focused want pattern.

It’s a fair criticism to say that trying to find that sort of platform is a pipe dream. That we’re in a new reality now, and the desire for that sort of platform reflects an unwillingness to get with the times. But there remain very practical reasons why that sort of platform would still be useful to the music business. So it makes a certain amount of sense that its members continue to chase it.

Apple seems to be taking a stab at trying to provide that sort of platform with a more personality-based approach. But just because Apple may, in part, be trying to solve a problem for the music industry, that doesn’t mean their solution is inherently at odds with the user/audience.

After all, terrestrial radio has often been a personality-based marketing/publicity platform both for labels and all the advertisers that subsidize it. But it’s also beloved by many users, because they value both the curation and the personalities they find there. Often, those things cannot be separated.

That doesn’t mean that human curation is always good. Indeed, on average, algorithmic approaches may now be better at delivering a good-enough experience that is more personalized than the average human curation experience.

But when human curation is good, I think it remains the gold standard for curation, even when it is less personalized. Maybe I’m showing my middle-age here, but that’s how it seems to me. That sort of curation is inherently personality-based. That’s a big part of its appeal. You trust the curator enough to give up control and let them take you on a journey of discovery.

In the process, you bond with them, for being associated with a cool personality has the capacity to make you feel cooler and a part of the world they have created around their personality. That experience creates a want in you.

An algorithm rarely makes you feel cooler like this, because it’s a tool. You might use it for the purpose of doing your own research and discovery.  It might even show you some things about yourself that neither you nor other people readily see. That, in turn, might allow you to feel cooler when you deal with other people, because of the knowledge you’ve gained. But even when the algorithm is doing a good job delivering quality suggestions to you, it still makes you feel a little bit more like a data point and less like a human.

A friend of mine recently started a Spotify mix-tape group on FB. Each week a different member delivers a 90 minute playlist to the group (a virtual mix tape). So far, this experience has been infinitely better than any algorithmic experience I’ve ever had, because each group member actually takes into account what other people have done and who the audience is.

So if somebody included a track last week, that track isn’t likely to be in this week’s mix and more than likely neither would that artist. Although if it made aesthetic sense in the context of the mix to include the same artist or track two weeks in a row, maybe it would be in there anyway. But in any case, these mixes have a much richer sense of the many contextual factors that contribute to creating a good mix. The same is true of a great show on a non-comm radio station like KEXP. As a result of this, these kinds of mixes reinforce a sense that the group members are part of something bigger than themselves.

Of course, if that mix tape group was me and 25 kids who are under 15, the quality of the curation probably wouldn’t seem as good to me, although I’d probably still hear an occasional great tune I would have missed otherwise. I’d also feel more like an interloper in that group. Maybe that distinction is actually demographic rather than personality-based. But to me, issues of demographics and psychographics are embedded in the idea of personality-based branding. You are buying the gestalt experience that you associate with that person or company.

This is why an anonymous human curator is less valuable than a curator with a personality/reputation that is known and trusted by users, even if the choices of the anonymous curator are objectively just as good as or better than those of the known curator. The lack of an identifiable personality makes it harder to evaluate the utility of the suggestions. And once you’re dealing with that problem, you’re pretty much right back where you started. The curator is no longer solving a problem for you. Now, you need a curator to sort out the anonymous curators for you.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that I don’t use algorithmic radio ever. I do. A group of my college friends made a playlist that encompasses many of the songs that were on the jukebox in the coffee house that was in the basement of our dorm at the University of Michigan (the Halfway Inn). Spotify generated a radio station based on that playlist, and it works pretty well, although it still does a poor job of managing repeats of the same song and multiple related songs by the same artist or by related artists (e.g,. Velvet Underground and solo Lou Reed).

A good human curator does not do these things. That’s part of the artistry. They take those things into account. Like I said above, they have a better and richer contextual awareness. Also, part of the reason that particular Spotify station works as well as it does is because it’s based on a playlist that was human curated. So it’s bootstrapping on the contextual awareness of the people who compiled that list.

If enough people trust a guy like Zane Lowe, some of that is his personality. But his personality and that trust is also a function of his talent for curation.

Grunge/Alternative rock broke on commercial radio back in the ’90s in no small part because of Seattle DJ Marco Collins. The relationship that people had with Marco at that time was very much personality driven. They liked him. He was a dynamic on-air personality, and they thought he was cool. But a big part of the reason why was that they came to trust his taste.

If Marco said something was cool and played it on the radio, people gave it the extra listens they needed to appreciate why it was worthwhile, even when their first impression might not have been great. Twenty years later, his impact is clear enough that somebody recently made a movie about him.

Some people have that intuitive gift for knowing what new stuff people will like if they just give it a chance. Computers are also getting better and better at deducing that information based on prior user behavior. But I’m still not sure those two approaches always lead you to the same place.

What’s that term? “Filter Bubble,” where your perceived options keep getting smaller and smaller as the search algorithm feeds back based on your previous choices. At its best, human curation seems less prone to the filter bubble (although it has its own problems and risks–e.g., it’s probably more prone to personal politics and lobbying, which can create a bureaucratic capture problem that undermines trust–See e.g., payola). But human curation only works if people trust the human curators and don’t have to invest too much energy vetting them.

Apple is a high profit-margin, gold standard brand. That’s why people pay extra for it. Its whole message is grace, ease of use, and quality (even if these things are not always actually true). Historically, it’s been about finding the spot where technology and people align. You know, a mix of art and science.

That’s the value proposition it is selling. The personalities are at least theoretically in the service of that. They are supposed to be part of the art that interfaces with the science and tech.

Part of the art is also the fashion sensibility. Undoubtedly, that’s part of what must have attracted Apple to Beats. I have mixed feelings about that. My feathers get ruffled thinking about paying hundreds of dollars for a pair of headphones that may be fashionable but ultimately aren’t very good sounding headphones for the money.

But at the end of the day, I guess I’m a bit of an engineer at heart. I value function over fashion, and I especially hate the idea of paying a premium for something just because it is perceived as being fashionable. Nevertheless, I also recognize that many people are not like that, and that these kind of people are more than willing to pay a premium for something they perceive as fashionable. Indeed, in many cases they are the highest margin consumers.

The personality-based approach also dove-tails with Apple’s history and culture. Before the death of Steve Jobs, it was a personality driven company. It’s also an opinion leader brand. So while it collects plenty of experience data from users, it has not historically solicited explicit input from the public about what it wants. It doesn’t have the same sort of beta-testing developer blogging, two-way conversation that many other companies have as they develop their products.

I once had conversation with a Boeing IT guy in a bar here in Seattle. He said they loved Microsoft, because they were much more open with his department about what they were working on and where it was going.

Typically, Apple hasn’t shared where it’s going until it releases a product for the public to see. It’s not looking for that sort of approval and feedback. When it releases something, the message is this: “Here’s our new thing. We’re cool. We think our thing is cool, and if you try it, we’re confident that you will think our thing is cool too, even if you don’t understand right this minute why it’s cool.”

Over the last decade, it’s had a pretty good track record doing that. So even when it does something that other people have arguably already done, it typically re-contextualizes it in a way that makes it sit differently with the public

We’ll see if Apple’s new music service provides that sort of bold leadership and delivers on the idea that theirs is a place where art does a better job meeting science than at other places. We’ll also have to wait and see whether their approach resonates in the market.

If it just ends up being a re-branding of the Beats music service, then I think the answer will be “no.” While there was nothing really wrong with Beats and it looked cool, at the end of the day, I didn’t find it qualitatively different from its competitors, either in terms of user experience or curation.

So to succeed, imho, Apple will need to extend things considerably on the personality front and keep their curated playlists and other personality-based offerings far more dynamic than they were on the old Beats service. Otherwise, it’s just the same wine in a different bottle.

 

 

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Now I get it: Self-Driving Cars are the Spotify of Auto Travel

Posted on | February 24, 2015 | Comments Off on Now I get it: Self-Driving Cars are the Spotify of Auto Travel

I just read a pretty useful article on the Vox site about self-driving cars. It could turn out to be wrong in many ways, but a few things clicked for me after reading it, like a better understanding of why Apple or Google might want to get involved in the automobile space, and why their expertise might make sense there too.

Picture of a Google Self-Driving Car

By Steve Jurvetson [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

I’m not a huge fan of Uber for a variety of reasons, but if you think about Uber-like companies deploying driver-less cars on a broad scale, that would mean a huge shift in the role of cars in our society and how we interact with them.

It’s a move from car as a widget that a car company sells you to car as a service to which a service provider sells you access. Repairs? That’s their problem. Gas or electricity? It’s baked into the price. Parking? Don’t need as much of it, because like a taxi, these cars don’t sit still most of the time. They move on to a new user who needs a ride. So those are some potentially cool features. On the other hand, if you want to jump in the car on two minutes notice and go somewhere, well, that may not always work so well.

At the end of the day, a self-driving car service like that would be very similar to a service like Spotify in the music space (or Netflix in the movie space). Instead of buying the hard product CD or DVD widget, people buy the right to access the same music or video from the service provider.

We’ll see how it all plays out, and I’m not sure if I’m totally sanguine about that outcome, particularly if Uber is a big player. But it is interesting to see how the success of services like Spotify, Netflix, and Office 365 have started to expand the adjacent possible of this sort of business model outside of the realm of intangibles, like digital music files, and into the realm of large tangible things, like cars.

Obviously, technological changes are driving some of this shift. But to a certain extent, it’s also about changing people’s cultural expectations around the value of “ownership” of a thing vs. access to the service that the thing has historically provided to us.

In the final analysis, the project of 20th-century, consumer capitalism was about extending the possibility of widget ownership as broadly and as deeply as possible. But as the Internet continues to link more and more people and information together, it’s those intangible linkages that provide much of the innovation and the power, rather than the widgets themselves, which are much more conduits for those linkages (i.e., more commoditized).

So more of the value is in the service itself rather than in the widget that delivers the service. And particularly if the service is delivered via centralized cloud servers, it’s much easier for a service provider to control access to the underlying service. As a result, digital piracy is much harder for the average user to accomplish. It also makes it easier for the service provider to roll out updates and security fixes. On the other hand, individual privacy rights may suffer when everybody’s information lives on a central server (self-driving cars would be no different–it would be much easier to track people’s movements if most travel happened in self-driving cars).

That doesn’t mean there is no money to be made making and selling certain classes of widgets (e.g. smartphones), but as more and more classes of activities are being mediated through the same widget, the markets for a lot special-purpose widgets have started going by the wayside.

We’ve already seen that process starting to play out in the context of things like music, books, and movies. But if it continues into things like cars, that’s going to mean some disruptive long-term changes that dwarf anything we’ve experienced thus far. It’s not quite the Jetsons. But it’s getting closer.

Anyway, nothing really profound in this post. Just some quick thoughts that came clearer for me. So apologies in advance if this is some Captain Obvious stuff.

Update:

A friend asked me the following question today after reading this post:

What about taxis? Don’t they already provide the service-based model for auto travel I’m talking about above?

Of course, the answer is “yes,” up to a point. With a taxi, you are buying the service instead of the vehicle, but the proliferation of the taxi is far more limited than the proliferation I imagine if the driver-less car were to really take-off. At best, at least in most American cities and towns, Taxi service is currently an adjunct to private cars and transit.

The networked nature of the driver-less car also makes it more easy to imagine the viability of a subscription plan for driver-less car service rather than the metered fee-for-service approach of taxis. This is what would make such a service the Spotify of auto travel, either a capped or all-you-can eat subscription within a given geographic area.

In this regard, the driver-less car might be more like public transit, where you buy a monthly pass. Indeed, it might work as a sort of compliment to public transit, ferrying people to and from trunk lines where it’s not efficient for them to provide service. This would mean less space needed for parking and less traffic on the roads, particularly if there was a way for multiple people to easily arrange to share a driver-less car to a shared destination (or where it’s efficient to hit contiguous destinations in the same trip).

 

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Five Reasons The Music Industry Hates Pandora The Most

Posted on | December 5, 2014 | 1 Comment

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Note 1: I’ve been chipping away at this post for about eight twelve months off and on. I finally managed to bring it in for a landing yesterday night. File it under #slowblogging and #longreads.

Sam Lefebvre’s recent cover story on Pandora in the East Bay Express overlaps some of what I discuss here, and it’s well worth reading. That said, as our respective focuses aren’t the same in every regard, I’m hopeful that this post will serve as a useful compliment to Lefebrvre’s piece.

Note 2: This post was updated on December 8, 2014 with a bit of new content based on some comments I received when it first went up. I expect there will probably be more substantive updates as time goes by, and if that happens, I’ll let you know right here.

Note 3If you’d rather read this post off-line, feel free to download a copy of it in pdf, MOBI, or EPUB format. Apologies in advance for any formatting anomalies. I’m not yet a wizard at doing ebook format conversions.

***

Of all the dedicated digital music streaming services to come on-line since 2000, none has drawn the ire of the music industry quite like Pandora.

On its face, this may seem peculiar. After all, Pandora is a legal, royalty paying service. It has passed 250 million registered users in the U.S. Moreover, despite loud protestations to the contrary, there’s a credible argument to be made that, on a per listener basis, Pandora actually pays more royalties per spin to both songwriters and master rights-holders than does terrestrial radio.

So shouldn’t Pandora be a win for record labels and music publishers? Aren’t they being irrational in hating Pandora more than all the other services?

Succinctly, no. Pandora has been more disruptive of established music industry practices than any other major legal streaming music service. So the music industry has some very real reasons–both financial and aesthetic–to hate Pandora.

This post is a deep dive into five of those reasons. I’ve tried to keep my thoughts in plain English. But fair warning: I do get into some technical legal stuff towards the end. You can’t grasp the full picture without it. Read more

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The Importance of Getting Your Vitaman D Levels Tested

Posted on | June 14, 2014 | Comments Off on The Importance of Getting Your Vitaman D Levels Tested

Latitudes of continental U.S. population centers. From October to March, most of the U.S. does not have enough sunlight to create the vitamin D you need.

The NYT reported today that low vitamin D levels have been tied to premature death. This finding underscores an important point: Especially if you live in a place like Seattle (actually, anywhere north of Arizona), it’s important to get your vitamin D levels checked regularly. There is a good chance that sunlight alone isn’t giving you all the vitamin D you need. Consequently, your levels may be low if you aren’t supplementing.

This is particularly important if you don’t work an outside job. Moreover, the older you get, the more likely it is that your vitamin D levels will be low. So for those of us over 45, it’s time to start paying more attention to this metric.

When your doctor orders blood work for glucose, cholesterol, etc., make sure s/he includes a vitamin D test as well. Trust me on this. You may be surprised what you find.

Recently, I asked for a vitamin D test. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have had one, because my doctor had not suggested it. I found out that my levels were quite low, which was odd to me, because a few years ago they were quite high. But I was supplementing around the time of the last test, and I had not been supplementing lately.

Now, I understand just how much vitamin D levels can vary over time, and how supplementing can raise them up. But if you stop supplementing and spend a lot of time indoors, as I often do, they can go way down again.

That’s why it’s important to supplement and get your levels tested periodically. It’s the only way to get a rough picture of where things stand.

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Recap: the Beastie Boys Vs. GoldieBlox–A Drama in Four Acts

Posted on | June 11, 2014 | Comments Off on Recap: the Beastie Boys Vs. GoldieBlox–A Drama in Four Acts

Back in March, the Verge reported that the Beastie Boys had settled their lawsuit against educational toy company GoldieBlox. That suit alleged copyright infringement, trademark infringement, false advertising, false endorsement, and unfair competition, stemming from GoldieBlox’s unauthorized use of the band’s song “Girls” in the company’s popular Internet promotional video.

Photo by Masao Nakagami

According to the Verge, “[a]s part of the settlement, GoldieBlox will no longer be able to use its parody of the Beastie Boys song “Girls” and will publish an apology to the band…The toy maker will also make a donation based on a percentage of its revenues to a charity selected by the Beastie Boys that supports science, technology, engineering, and mathematics education for girls — the very subjects that GoldieBlox’s toy lines try to promote.”

Until recently, the specific amount of GoldieBlox’s donation was unknown. But on May 12, 2014, Digital Music News reported that the amount of the donation had recently been detailed in court filings from the Beastie Boys’ copyright infringement lawsuit against Monster Energy drink: To compensate for its unauthorized use of “Girls,” Goldieblox will donate 1 percent of its gross revenue to the Beastie Boys’ specified charity until it has paid a total of $1 million.

With this final piece of the puzzle in hand, now seems like a good time to offer a little recap commentary on the GoldieBlox drama, highlighting a couple of the important story lines and the lessons they offer for content users and content owners.

So I give you the Beastie Boys vs. GoldieBlox–A Drama in Four Acts. Read more

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A few thoughts on Seattle’s New Minimum Wage Proposal

Posted on | May 5, 2014 | Comments Off on A few thoughts on Seattle’s New Minimum Wage Proposal

Lots of discussion and some confusion about the mayor’s recently announced minimum wage proposal (actually it’s the work of a committee of business, labor leaders, and politicians that he convened).

To me, the most useful quick and dirty metric for thinking about the proposal is to look at the proposed minimum wage increase in 2014 dollars and then ask how it relates to the current minimum wage.

That’s the number you get when you do this equation:

Proposed Seattle Minimum Wage in 2014 dollars/Current Washington Minimum Wage

If the final minimum wage increase ends up being $13.25/hr in 2014 dollars as Goldie has argued on his Horse’s Ass blog, that is a little more than 1.4 times what the current state minimum wage is now (and 1.7 times the current federal minimum).

Fifteen dollars an hour in current dollars would be around 1.6 times the current state minimum and almost twice as high as the current federal minimum.

Some people didn’t want to raise the minimum wage at all. Some people wanted it to immediately be 1.6 times greater than it is now. Those are the two polar extremes.

But everybody who supports raising Seattle’s minimum wage didn’t necessarily support immediately making it 1.6 times higher than it is now. Indeed, I suspect as more people have drilled down on the details, they’ve come to understand that this is an issue with a lot of moving parts and dependencies.

One poll showed that 68% of Seattle voters favored raising the minimum to $15 an hour, but I doubt those people are a monolith. What that poll shows is that Seattle voters want substantive action on this issue. That’s why business can’t just put its head in the sand and stonewall.  Nevertheless, the poll doesn’t say that every single member of that 68% would oppose a reasonable compromise.

That seems to be what Murray’s commission has delivered: a compromise proposal that gets us to a minimum wage around 1.4 times greater than it is now, which is about where I thought things would end up. It’s a big enough increase to show meaningful substantive action on the issue and no bigger.

If this plan passes the Council, I can see why some of the more hardline folks on the left will be disappointed. They haven’t had this much wind in their sails on an economic justice issue since the early 1970s. But I can also see why organized labor is going to walk away feeling pretty good about the outcome.

This is precedent they can use moving forward, and it’s probably closer to a number that can play in less liberal and affluent cities than Seattle. So it doesn’t seem like some crazy anomaly.

I hope the hardline folks will eventually put things in perspective, follow suit, and feel good about it too. It’s a marathon, not a sprint.

If you had told most left-of-center folks in 2012 that Seattle business leaders in 2014 would sign off on raising the city’s minimum wage to 1.4 times the state minimum (already among the highest in the nation), I think most people would have seen that as something to be psyched about.

It may not be a perfect win, like the Seahawks blowing out the Broncos in the Super Bowl back in January. But it’s a win nevertheless

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The Universe Had A Plan: “Go Hawks!”

Posted on | January 19, 2014 | Comments Off on The Universe Had A Plan: “Go Hawks!”

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Back in 1977, I was starting 9th grade in Champaign, Illinois. One day, a kid in my class told me that if you wrote a letter to a pro sports team and told them you were a fan, they would send you free stuff.

The Seattle Seahawks were a brand new NFL franchise back then. Unlike the other expansion team, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who were one of the worst teams in NFL history, the Hawks had been reasonably competitive in their first season.

I thought the Seahawks helmets were super cool. They also had a left-handed quarterback: Jim Zorn. I thought that was cool too, as I was left-handed.

With the help of my mom, I wrote the Seahawks a letter saying that I was a big fan of their team. A few weeks later, I got an envelope back from them. Inside, was a decal that looked a lot like the picture above. I put that decal on the window in my bedroom.

Fast forward to 1992. My brother and I are driving across the country from Boston to Seattle, where he had lived since 1989. I am in the process of moving out there too.

We drive through Champaign on the way there and spend the night hanging out with my old friend Larry Crotser, who happens to be in town from Chicago that weekend visiting his parents.

The next day, Ben and I drive by our old house to take a look at it. There’s a guy out in front of the house next door, and we strike up a conversation with him. He indicates that if we knock on the door at our old house, the teenage son of the owner is there and he suspects that the son will let us see the inside of the house.

We go over and knock on the door. Sure enough, the son is home and after we explain who we are, he invites us into the house for a tour. They’ve done a lot of nice renovations on the inside. But while some things are definitely different, a lot of it is just as we remembered it.

When we head upstairs, we walk into my old bedroom. That’s when I see it: The Seahawks decal is still on the window there.

Later that day, after driving around town some more, we got in the car and continued the trip west to Seattle, where I’ve lived ever since.

In 2005, my parents moved to Seattle too. Now, the whole family is living here.

But long before any of us got to Seattle, the universe apparently knew that we would all end up here one day rooting for the Seahawks.

***

A year ago next Sunday (Jan 26), my dad passed away here in Seattle. Since my folks moved out here, Sunday football has been one of our family rituals.

I’m really happy I got to watch so many games with my dad in the years before he passed. Parkinsons took a lot of stuff away from him. But it never took away watching football, which was one of the last things he had left, and something he enjoyed to the very end.

I watched the NFC championship game with him last Jan 20, six days before he died. If he’d held on another week or two, we  undoubtedly would have watched the Super Bowl together as well.

In a little while,  Antonia and I will be heading up north to get my mom. Then, we’re going to my brother’s to watch today’s game with Ben and his family. Although my dad won’t be there, I know he’ll be with us in spirit for sure.

UPDATE 1:

Well, the Hawks played hard, got a few home team breaks, and managed to pull out a 23-17 victory. So we live to play another day.

Early in the season, my nephew developed a special celebration he’d do when something good happened for the Seahawks (a score, interception, sack, etc). It was also a tribute to my dad. He called it the “Conductor” (among other things, my dad was an orchestral conductor).

First, Max would tap the an imaginary podium with his imaginary baton. Then, he’d raise his hands up in the air and start conducting his imaginary orchestra. In my mind, they’re always playing a beautiful celebration song.

Let’s just say we were all doing the Conductor today at the end of the game after Richard Sherman tipped Colin Kaepernick’s pass in the end zone and Malcolm Smith grabbed it for an interception.

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Next stop: Super Bowl. No sleep till Jersey!

Here’s hoping our imaginary orchestra is playing another celebratory song on Feb 2.

Go Hawks!

UPDATE 2 (2/2/2014):

Seahawks beat Broncos in the Super Bowl 43-8!

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The Universe did have a plan.

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Carl Wilson in Slate: What you can learn about music—and humanity—from the YouTube comments on Bob Seger’s “Night Moves.”

Posted on | November 28, 2013 | Comments Off on Carl Wilson in Slate: What you can learn about music—and humanity—from the YouTube comments on Bob Seger’s “Night Moves.”

A nice post from Carl Wilson in Slate the other day. You’ll want to check out the whole thing for sure, but here’s a little appetizer:

This is the insight that both Slutsky and Barber have flashed on intuitively, I think, in choosing the comments on songs (out of all the YouTube offerings): that music, because it can be background and foreground, because it is about sculpting time, often insinuates itself into our lives more in the way that people and events do than in the manner of a movie or a painting. It’s a medium of echoes, inherently conversational. The way that we address it, whether coherently or inchoately, is in turn musical.

As an alum of the University of Michigan, I always think of Ann Arbor when I hear Bob Seger (especially “Mainstreet”, but “Night Moves” can do it too). I also think about growing up in Champaign, Ill, another midwestern college town.

Like a number of other artists who hit in the mid 1970s, Seger was over 30 and a grizzled rock vet by the time “Night Moves” finally hit. And while I enjoyed his work during my teenage years, his popular songs from that period (similar to those of groups like Fleetwood Mac) often reflect what I would consider to be the concerns of a people who are now firmly adults (something I’ve realized when I’ve listened to these songs over the last couple of decades).

One of those concerns is undoubtedly the dawning realization that time is not standing still. I don’t know about anyone else, but in my late 20s and early 30s I had my first experience of feeling my youth was starting to slip away. That engendered a pretty heavy wave of nostalgia. Then, that passed. Now, at 50, I realize that 30 was still quite young (and I sometimes have nostalgia waves about that time). I bet my mom, who will soon be 81, feels the same way about being 50.

It’s apropos that somebody would single out Bob Seger and “Night Moves” for this sort of discussion, because it is, of course, a song about nostalgia and the very time sculpting qualities of music that Carl describes above. (“Woke last night to the sound of thunder, how far off I sat and wondered. Starting humming a song from 1962. Ain’t it funny how the night moves. When you just don’t seem to have as much to lose. Strange how the night moves. With autumn closing in…”)

The same is true of many other Seger hits from this period (e.g., “Old Time Rock and Roll”, “Against the Wind”, “Rock and Roll Never Forgets”, “Still the Same”, “Like a Rock”). Unlike his earlier regional hit “Ramblin’ Gamblin’ Man”, which is very much in the present tense (ain’t good lookin’, and you know I ain’t shy…), Seger’s post-Night Moves work is filled with nostalgic paradise lost stories in which music regularly plays a starring role.

On this Thanksgiving morning, I think it’s time to go put some Seger on and think about the good old days.

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