How Vulture got it wrong on Nicki Minaj (and what it’s really about)

You probably already know Nicki Minaj’s video Anaconda set the YouTube record for most views in 24 hours.  And read the flash-point arguing that ensued, much of which settled on the sexual politics.  Was Minaj pandering to the Male Gaze?  Some intrepid voices, like Vulture’s Lindsay Zoladz, say No: witness Drake’s blue-balled frustration when Minaj refuses to let him touch her ass.  Zoladz conveniently ignores both the title (not exactly subtle) and the chorus refrain, both of which define the male gaze:

     “My anaconda don’t want none unless you got buns, hun.”

In other words: “That juicy ass Minaj is flaunting?  Ultimately, it’s about attracting men.”  Also ignored: how uncreative is Minaj’s dancing, which consists of hackneyed, decades-old stripper moves.  Yes, Michael Jackson was sexual when he danced.  But by God, he put some art into the thing.  Minaj pretty much just … shakes it. 

But seriously, does any of this even matter?  The real motivation for the video (and everything else about Minaj) is financial, and therefore, uncomplicated.  We live in an attention economy, where  Attention = Money.  Attention has always been valuable, but this is new territory, where  attention is money.  Minaj, who is talented, is seeking her reward.  Ultimately, Anaconda is nothing more than an attention-seeking missile.   Which would be her business, except right now 12 year-old girls are practicing stripper moves in their bedroom mirrors. And learning that undressing before men, and then rejecting them, is how women express power. 

And this is how feminism dies.

The efficiency experts want you to be more “effective”. Now, they want your sleep, too.

Today’s Wall Street Journal contains a classic of “efficiency porn”: an article titled, without irony, “Sharpen Your Dream Skills” (link below). This one really needs the Stephen Colbert treatment.  In the article, Shirley Wang extols the value of so-called lucid dreaming - a sleep state where the sleeper is at least partly aware of the act of dreaming while it occurs - and, in a single headline, sums up much of life today:

            Sleepers with Greater Self-Awareness May Have a Cognitive Edge During the Day

Is this what our lives are for?  Even our dreams?  To get an edge?  The Darwinists have won, with good reason, the debate over the origins of the humankind.  But the victory places us in ruthless competition with each other, with no spiritual boundaries.  There are things valuable in and of themselves.  Yes, dreaming is connected with creativity.  Yes, great ideas come to us in dreams - occasionally.  But the notion of dreaming “skills” is obscene - a crushing of the final barrier between a personal life and endless, Darwinian competition.  This mentality is why people take their phones on vacation.  Or don’t take vacations. Enough.

            Not everything in your life is a tool. 

What about the pleasure of creativity for its own sake?  Or Dreams? To take an afternoon and play?  And not give a damn whether or not it’s making you “better?”

http://online.wsj.com/articles/the-benefits-of-lucid-dreaming-1407772779

Do you feel special? Or just especially anxious?

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Hey, girl.  Do you feel special?  You should, right?  God knows, you’ve been told that believing you’re special is central to a healthy identity.  Doubting it feels like failure. But here’s the thing: you’ll never truly be peaceful inside as long as you buy into the mythology of “specialness”.

“Special”, in our society, is not neutral.  “Special” conveys specific attributes.  It’s corporate, like Coke.Here’s a partial list of what’s implied by “special”:

  • Indomitable (most important)
  • Gifted
  • Intelligent
  • Beautiful
  • Independent
  • Creative
  • Sexy
  • Artistic
  • Unique

In other words, a kind of Beyonce-Goddess. And OK, you’re not 12, and you get that there’s some hyperbole in it all.  But this doesn’t make you immune. And you’re pretty sure that list is not you (being human, and all).

Still, you get on that.  You draw.  You take photos. You instagram and Pinterest and Etsy and work 30 hours a week unpaid as an intern for a startup.

The anxiety starts early - certainly, by freshman year in college.  Young women dragged into my creativity classes, smiles barely covering a bundle of nerves.  They were trapped between these outsized expectations and the terror of being ordinary.  Today, there’s nothing worse.  Young women hot to the touch, ready to fall apart with any criticism of their work.  I didn’t get that while I was teaching.  They came in the room with 3 threads holding them together.

But isn’t the message to be enlightened and just know that you’re special?  Unfortunately, that’s not how human psychology works.  We are, literally, wired to compare.  Which is why so many people use the most glamorous picture possible online.

           Katy Perry says she feels you, girl:

            Do you ever feel like a plastic bag
           blowing in the wind?

 “Yeah, actually.  I mean, that’s a crap metaphor (plastic bags don’t have feelings), but I feel that way sometimes.  What should I do?”

        Ignite the light! Let it shine!

“Um, that actually makes it worse  …”
            Own the night! Like the 4th of July!

"I’m not sure my work is really all that …”
            Baby, you’re a firework!
            Come on, let your colors
burst!

“I don’t know what I could possibly do that that would … ”
            Make ‘em go, “Aah, aah, aah!
            Leave ‘em all in awe, awe, awe!

Hey, Katy Perry! That is terrible advice, especially for someone already stressed about her self worth.  Can you imagine a therapist saying this?image

  You walk into the therapist’s office and say:

            “Hi.  I’m … I’m just riddled with doubt about myself.  I mean, I know this is a crap metaphor, but sometimes I just feel like a plastic sack drifting along the street.  What should I do?’

            Ignite! Shine!

            “What does that even mean?”

            Let your colors burst!  Make people go Ahhhhh!

            “You mean let other people determine my worth?”

            And don’t you stop until you leave them in awe!

"But isn’t that the whole problem? Trying to make other people like me, instead of finding peace inside myself?"

           Seriously, Katy Perry.  You are a monster.  

This isn’t theory for me.  I made myself somewhat miserable for years trying to be special.  I got defined as “the smart kid” very early - I only went to 1st grade for 2 weeks, for example - and musically, I seemed to start on 2nd base.  I got praised.  But by high school, being “special” had become my identity.  So, by high school I was dancing away from myself and into the arms of the expectations of others.  It wasn’t enough to be good.  I needed to be a firework.  To leave people in awe.  Unsurprisingly, this expectation made me unhappy.  Not miserable.  But nowhere near as happy and liberated and peaceful as I could have been.  Talent doesn’t protect you from this misery, by the way.  I’ve never met Kanye West, but is there a more obviously unhappy human being?  There’s no other explanation for his petulant outbursts.  I actually feel sorry for him - to have so much affirmation, and yet still need more. 

This expectation is why so many people go on reality TV.  Having given up being “special” in any healthy way, they have said, “OK.  I’ll be special this way.  Because by God, I’m not going to be ordinary.”

Somewhere inside you, there’s a you.  You can’t possibly love her while trying to be so damn fabulous.  Holding yourself even slightly hostage to the expectation of fireworks and specialness is a recipe for unhappiness.  It will poison your relationships and your work.  It’s a recipe for losing yourself. Let it go.  Just be you and don’t worry about how special it is or isn’t.  Find some peace.

Sorry for getting harsh on Katy Perry.  “Hey, Beyonce, Taylor Swift, and Lady Gaga?  See all those girls in your audience dressed like you?  Stop exploiting them with your bullshit.”

If the Supreme Allied Commander asks to borrow your hat, give it to him.

Sometimes, it’s all about being in the right place.  A family story for the Arvins concerns a hat and coat Dad loaned to Dwight “Ike” Eisenhower on the day Ike declared his candidacy for President.  Dad, then a staffer for U.S. Senator Frank Carlson, was standing next to Eisenhower when the group left the Sunflower Hotel to make his speech. It was a blustery, rainy day.  Eisenhower said, “Son, your hat and coat have just been requisitioned,” and Ike wore the hat and coat through the day.

Dad was certainly rewarded.  Eisenhower walked off stage, turned over the speech, signed it, and gave it to Dad.  Fair trade, right?

While in Kansas laying my Mom’s remains next to Dad’s, I took a flyer and reached out to the Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum - did they really have such a hat?And had Ike really given Dad the famous speech?

William Snyder, Supervisory Museum Curator, quickly got back to me.  Not only would he retrieve the speech so I could see it, but,: “I am happy to tell you … that your father’s hat has had a place of importance on display in the Presidential Gallery in the Museum.”  This, with an invitation to visit.

 So, the day before Mom’s Kansas service, we arrived in Abilene, KS and were greeted at the Museum’s door by Troy Elkins, Ph.D candidate in history at the Kansas State University and full-time display technician at the Eisenhower Museum.  In his hands was a plain folder.  Troy ushered us to a well-lit area, opened the folder and revealed:

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In Dad’s description of events, Ike had turned over the speech, signed it, and given it to him.  Troy turned to the last page and turned it over.

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Troy explained that the previous curator had, in fact, confirmed the contribution had arrived via Dad, together with correspondence between Dad and Eisenhower.  Museums are all about physical links with history,  so - with some other artifacts and a little creativity - an exhibit was designed in 2002 to feature Ike’s speech.

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 Here’s a view of the lit panel:

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And Dad’s hat: image

So cool to think of Dad at Ike’s side at that moment - and how he, a former Army man, must have felt watching the Supreme Allied Commander wearing his hat and coat as he walked out into history.

Finally: a shot of me, Troy and the Eisenhower speech:

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Awesome, awesome experience.  The staff couldn’t have been nicer or treated us with more respect.  After we left, I pictured my Dad on that day, with Ike spontaneously giving him the speech; Dad keeping it until the Museum opened, and then donating it to history.  But I’ll settle for the signed letter Ike sent to Dad thanking him for the loan of the hat and coat “on that cold, windy day”.  It’s in my office.

"Go Beyond Your Nerve."

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 Kay Arvin, 20 years old

A great lady has passed away.  Kay Arvin was blinded by an accident in 1945 when she was 23 years old.  Undaunted, she went to law school.  She was the 1st woman to try a case in her state’s Supreme Court and win.  She was listed in Harvard’s Best Lawyers in America.  She was a district judge.  She wrote a book and sculpted in wood and clay.  She taught university students in Singapore.  She represented the interests of battered women and went to prisons to interview women incarcerated for murdering physically abusive husbands.  She was given the Brotherhood Award by the National Council of Christians and Jews.  While 1970’s pundits debated feminism, she quietly embodied its best attributes.  She scoffed at the idea of “having it all”, and instead embraced difficult choices with intelligence and heart.  She raised a family, kept house, loved her man, and was loved in return.  She was equally modest, pretty, and formidable - a very rare combination indeed.

The following words are taken from my remarks made at her memorial service, held in Nashville.  Goodbye, Mom.  I love you.

                                           _____________

I once watched a great spiritual teacher demonstrate a gesture for placing his attention in the present moment.  He held out his hands with palms facing and said, “Imagine that everything in the past is here, to the left of your left hand.  If you press a little, you can actually feel a little resistance.  Now, imagine that everything in the future is here, to the right of your right hand.  You are here - in the present, with the past and the future locked away, irrelevant to this moment.”  I’ve found this little gesture useful from time to time.  But I wish that I could push this barrier back right now.  I wish that I could drift into the past, to my childhood, and take 1 more walk with my mother across our fields in Kansas.  When I was a boy, we would walk out carrying a basket and a blanket, her hand trusting my arm.  We would sit beneath an immense sky and talk about the wide world.  But the line between now and the past doesn’t move. 

My mother is gone.

What a life.  People assume that having lived with her for so many years, that we would somehow have become accustomed to her extraordinary talents and grit.  But I remain as astonished as anyone.  I am filled with admiration for her and with gratitude to have spent so many years in her company.

So many have and will remark on her accomplishments that I want to speak of her as a mother.  She mothered my brother Scott and me in the best sense, meaning, she protected us when necessary yet respected us as thinking, feeling persons.  She was the most exquisite, patient listener.  It’s true she was unable to read faces.  Instead, she read voices. 

Because of Mom, I grew up describing the world - not just what was happening, but how some small detail might comment on the larger whole.  As a result, we developed a shared understanding of a single language.  What I will miss most is the sense that, when speaking with her, everything - every small shade of meaning - was fully grasped.  A pause.  An emphasis.  An irony.  No joke was too inside to be caught and often returned with backspin.  To be so fully understood, even when we disagreed, was priceless. image

Me and Mom, then 84 years old.

The word I’ve heard my entire life in reference to Mom is ‘courage’.  “How courageous she is,” people have said to me a thousand times, always offered with generosity and kindness.  But I’ve never felt courage was the right word.  Can we be courageous for nearly 60 years? The great things she accomplished pale beside the countless thousands of small difficulties she faced without complaint.  For me, her professional accomplishments are of no greater significant than the fact that she could so gracefully manage the continuous inconveniences of her life.  The paperclips on money to keep the bills straight.  The complex system of bottle caps she devised to keep her medications in order.  The willingness to search for an hour for some ridiculous item that was in plain sight 2 feet away on a different table.  I cannot imagine the internal discipline required to face these absurd dilemmas and never - and I do mean never - complain.  Never to say, “It’s so unfair.”  I can’t find any particular word to adequately describe this characteristic.  She chose to accept what could not be changed and to wade into everything that was possible.  And she chose it day after day after day.  Emily Dickenson wrote,

“If your Nerve deny you, Go above your Nerve.” 

This is what Mom did.  She went above her Nerve.  This is how a blind woman in the ‘40s goes to law school and ends her last semester living alone, after Dad finished and moved to Wichita to begin working.  This is how a blind woman chooses to raise a family.  This is also how a blind woman organizes her closet so she never - ever - wears something that doesn’t match.  Or how she learns to use a computer in her 80’s.  Or, finding herself a widow at 90, chooses to remain independent and live alone. This living beyond her Nerve is how my mother built her life, 1 decision at a time. 

She risked everything in the confidence that God was real and would catch her if she fell.  So, she became a tightrope artist.  While not breaking down barriers for women, she cooked and cleaned and did laundry and made my father feel invincible when he needed it.  She grew flowers and sculpted and made lovely woodcarvings, including this little thrush. 

I saw this little bird perched on her patio shortly before Dad died.  When I asked her where she got it, she said, “I was gardening and came upon this piece of wood.  It just seemed to me that it wanted to be a bird.” image

As I run my fingers over this little bird, I can’t imagine how she made it in complete darkness.  But there are several pieces like this at my house, each as mysterious as the last.

There is a temptation to saint those who struggle.  To put a bow on difficulty when we see it redeemed by grace and effort.  But Mom, while deeply spiritual, did not pretend pain was anything less than itself.  I once asked her if perhaps her blindness had not in some way enabled her extraordinary life.  She would certainly not have gone to law school, for example, since she only went because she was bored sitting at home while Dad attended classes.  And so on, through many twists and turns, so that by confronting her limitation, she ended up growing into the person she became.  She considered this idea for a moment and then said, “That’s true.  But I would give all of it up to see your face.”

This kind of faith is the reason I can still call myself a Christian.  I distinguish this faith utterly from the kind of “prosperity gospel” nonsense I see on TV.  The idea that a Christian life, well-lived, is to be a string of victories.  Bad things happen, and sorrow is sorrow.  The best of us make peace and grow.  But the wound remains.

Mom began every day by repeating a potent phrase.  “Rest your head a while on the windowsill of heaven, turn your face full toward God, and greet the day.”  For some people, this would be a platitude.  For her, it was the choice to trust God to make possible what seemed impossible.  Greet a day in the dark.  Greet a day nevertheless full of possibilities.  Greet it fully, with the mind engaged, open to anything.

Nothing said here can be fully appropriate to mark the end of her story.  Tomorrow would have been her 92nd birthday.  Looking back on her life, I see an admirable person who chose, repeatedly, to live as fully as possible.  She was abandoned by her father but found genuine love that lasted 67 years, until my father’s death.  She was blinded by a fateful accident, but built a life in full.  Tonight, we will open a very good bottle of champagne and drink to her memory.  I encourage you to do the same.  A few tears are fine.  But then smiles, surely.  And a “bucking up” - a stiffening of resolve. 

If you want to honor her memory, try something new in your life. 

Take a risk.  Read poetry.  I suggest her favorite, the unapologetically acerbic Edna St. Vincent Millay.  Pray fervently and without artifice, as she did.  Stare down fear and when fear stares back, go above your Nerve.  Swallow the hardships of your life again and again, until you do it reflexively.  Never, ever tell a story about “the nice blind lady who was so courageous.”  No, no.  Tell a story about a great lady who made a trapeze out of life and always climbed back on when she fell.  About a lady who traveled the world hand-in-hand with a man she adored.  A lady who snuck into a lifeboat with her husband to spend the night while crossing the Pacific.  A lady who wore a red, white and blue pin every 4th of July.  A lady who practiced the law with grace and dignity.  A lady who saw more of the world, more deeply, than most people see with perfect vision.  Tell a story about Kay Arvin, my Mom, and one whom so many loved.image

          Mom and Dad out in Honolulu, 1945.  Dad’s slightly in love.

 

Gaining Creative Confidence

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Today, the Wall Street Journal illustrated beautifully (and unintentionally) our societal crisis in confidence.  An article by Elizabeth Bernstein (http://is.gd/rdcpkO) touts the benefits of celebrating intimate relationships with little niceties: love notes, compliments, filling up our beloved’s car with gas.  The article, in sum, says this: Be nice to your partner.  She’ll appreciate it, and you’ll feel better, too.  Also: don’t do it so often it becomes an expectation, but often enough for it to count.  To support these utterly obvious findings, the article calls on a Professor of psychology and brain science (!), a postdoctoral scholar at the Institute of Personality and Social Research (!), and - rather low on the academic totem pole - a licensed marriage and family therapist.  The article - itself a celebration of the current fetishizing of data, includes no less than 13 references to data to support appreciating your spouse, taken in order:

  • Experts say
  • Studies show
  • Researchers call it
  • The research was
  • Research shows
  • Researchers call this
  • Studies show
  • Experts say
  • Studies show
  • Experts say
  • Research shows

Do we now need a brain scientist to tell us to be nice? How have we lost our confidence in such obvious things?  As a society, we rise and shout, "Give us the data!"

Here’s the problem: We need to trust ourselves - and what we know, deep down - to live, to act, to create.  Without a powerful inner compass, we’re lost.  I know - I’ve been lost a few times, and had to remember how important this is.

The Germans have a word that’s fun to say: Grenzbegriff - which means, “That which is real but beyond analysis and description.”  As a creative person, I depend on this.  There have been lots of times people thought I was nuts, but I saw the grenzbegriff - and went forward.  Think of the movies that tested poorly but went on to become hits, or significant creative achievements later termed brilliant.

If your motivation is strictly mercantile, fine - but most of us see creativity as something personal, something with human significance.  Sometimes, you need to believe in something you can’t test, you can’t get into data.  You have to believe.  Faith is a central creative characteristic: faith that something that doesn’t exist can exist.

Still, how can I find my confidence in a world where we can’t find North without a GPS?

I got good news, people. You gain confidence by making stuff.  No tricks.  No hacks.  No research required.  You want confidence?  Go make stuff.  Keep doing that until you get better. 

We Interrupt This Blog To Get Some Things On The Record

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(For regular readers, I spent about 20 years as a producer in Christian music, and worked with a legendary, tortured genius named Rich Mullins.  He died in a crash after a concert.  A film has been made about Rich’s life, and this post concerns that film.  We’ll be back to regular “creativity” programming next post)

About a year ago, I got a phone call from a guy named Dave Schultz, who said he was making a film about the late recording artist Rich Mullins.  I was Rich’s producer, so I was naturally interested in Dave’s vision.  He said he’d call back.  He never did.  Last night, I went to see the film he made, Ragamuffin.

(Earlier today, I reached out to the film’s writer, Ashleigh Phillips, and relayed much, but not all, of what I’m including here.)

 I’ll begin with some impressions of the film, try to set the historical record a bit straighter, and end with a Rich story I’ve never publicly shared before.

About the movie: I walked into the theater with apprehension.  Mostly, I didn’t want it to suck.  Most “Christian” movies do, of course, because there are so many dramatic problems in message movies.  This is true of all message movies, by the way.  Try to sit through The Day After Tomorrow.   But Rich was a special guy, and a cheesy movie about him would have been painfully ironic. 

The movie isn’t cheesy.

It’s flawed  - it’s flabby, probably a half-hour too long - and has some other issues.  But it feels like a story about a real person, and I recognized that person as the real Rich Mullins.  A version of him, certainly - but true in its way.  The film has heart.  Also: to Ms. Phillips’ credit, there’s very little Christian speechifying in Rich’s filmShe deserves a lot of credit for this.

I think making a movie about a person in an existential crisis is about as difficult a task as there is in film.  It’s such a weak engine, compared to say, “Saving the World”, or “Getting the Guy Who Killed Your Father”.  Hell, Batman combines bothBut, “Tortured Artist Finally Understands God’s Love” - that’s got about 1 cylinder, Baby.  Yet the Philips screenplay, directed by Schultz, gets that engine to run. I felt stuff watching the film.  There are a lot of technically brilliant movies that don’t do that. So, I say, “Well done, guys.”  And especially to Ms. Phillips, who had the most difficult job. 

Something I wish had been brought forward: how wickedly funny Rich was.  My man was King of Sarcasm, and you did not want to be on the receiving end of that (especially women, with whom he had a complex relationship generally).   But I can sincerely recommend the movie, and I didn’t think that was going to happen.

Next, a bit of historical housekeeping. The film depicts Rich’s relationship with Reunion Records are far more adversarial than it was.  It shows 2 executives, who clearly represent Mike Blanton and Dan Harrell, basically being materialistic jerks and condescending to Rich. They beg him to make “happy” songs and intimate his playing and material could be better. (Unfortunately, a scene like this is in 1 of the trailers).  Now, I know this is going to make the heads of some fervent Rich fans explode - but at no time did Reunion pressure Rich to change his music.  Ever.  I made 8 records with the guy.  I was in every song meeting.  Obviously, I was present when every note went down.  And I never had a single conversation with anyone at Reunion to change one note or word of his music (I was not an employee of Reunion, but an independent producer).  You know what Reunion did? Gave us money and left us alone.  In fact, I was left completely alone 90% of the time, because to my consternation, Rich was rarely around for a Rich Mullins record (more heads exploding, probably).  Every record began with the same ritual:  “Please, Rich.  Stay in the studio.  How am I supposed to do this if I can’t even ask you what you think?”  But Rich was remarkably passive in the studio.  On the few days he showed up, he left early.  Off to pals, and sometimes, a bar.

Mike and Dan were, and remain, businessmen.  But the movie gets them fundamentally wrong.  If anything - and I shared this in my email to Ms. Phillips - Mike Blanton’s great flaw is irrational optimism - the faith that somehow, everything is going to work out.  This is the flaw of every successful producer, though: faith to believe the unbelievableYes, Rich and Reunion fought sometimes.  But the people there loved Rich Mullins.  I watched the film with Rich’s A&R guy on my right, who is as soulful a guy as there is.  To my left was one of Reunion’s former staffers, who broke down into tears during the film’s end credits, when some actual footage of Rich is shown.  Reunion, as a group of people, loved Rich Mullins.  You fight with the people you love sometimes.

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I’m the guy on the left with the magnificent porn ‘stache

For those interested in the experience of recording Rich’s Ragamuffin record, considered his greatest work, here’s an interview I recently gave with Christianity Today on that: http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2013/october-web-only/legacy-of-rich-mullins-ragamuffin-band.html?paging=off

Okay, a story never-before shared. Rich wrote a page of prose most days.  He had notebooks full of the stuff. Now, it happened we finished a record early in the morning.  Rich had a flight out in just a few hours.  I left the studio about 3 am, and I was asleep when the phone rang.  It was Rich, calling me at 5 am.  “I left my notebook in the studio.”

            “Okay.  I’ll go out and get it tomorrow.”

            “No.  You have to drive out and get it tonight.”

            “Umm, it’s 5 am, pal.  I’m exhausted, and anyway, the studio’s locked.  I’d have to wake up the manager and I don’t think that would be appreciated.  I tell you what.  I’ll have the manager get it in the morning and hold it until I get there.”

            “Please.  You have to get it.”

            “I don’t follow.”

            “You have to get it tonight, and you have to destroy it.”

            “You don’t want it?  I thought that’s what this was …”

            “You have to destroy it, and you have to promise me you won’t read it.  I can’t trust anybody else to do that.”

            So, there I was: exhausted after a 20 hour day, at the end of a record, and Rich wants me to drive 45 minutes back out to the studio, wake up the manager (who closed up for us at about 2), get a notebook, and - without opening it, mind you - destroy it.  Now, ask yourself? Could you refrain from looking, given what kind of incendiary stuff must have been in it?

I drove out to Brentwood, knocked on the door, got the studio unlocked, retrieved the notebook, got back in my car.  Held the notebook on my lap.  Knew if I thought about it too long, I’d look.  Drove to a big dumpster behind a grocery store and threw it in.  Drove home.  I never opened the notebook.

 

 

 

Google’s Tim Quirk’s plan for music is to turn it all into advertising. Meet the Anti-Steve Jobs.

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It’s not news that Google values almost everything as advertising. Its economic model is built on using things to sell other things.  It’s circular for everyone but Google, because Google sits in the middle and collects revenue on ads and sales for things it doesn’t produce, stock, or deliver.  And this model has proved fabulously effective at generative wealth for Google.  But how far does it go?  This Google way of seeing - that the inherent value of a thing is to sell another thing - is there a limit?

No.  Quirk may actually believe what he says in the quote above - that music can’t be devalued - but  because he’s completely inculcated in Google Think, his practical ideas make music < ads, because at Google ads > E, where E is everything else.  So, his idea to save music is, quite naturally: turn ALL of it into ads.

We saw just how deeply his view runs at The Big Bang Forum held last week.  BBF is a kind of Davos for the music business, where music people get together with tech, distribution and venues people to talk about Big Ideas.  There are always stars at these kinds of conferences.  One of this year’s was Quirk, Google’s head of programming for Google Music.  As you would expect, it’s not possible to be an executive at Google without looking at the world its way - to drink the full liter of Google Kool Aid.  To see, in effect, all things as advertising for other things.

Even, and especially, music.  Now - I don’t mean “use music in advertisements sometimes.”  Quirk’s view is more fundamental, more essentially GoogleIn his view, music is advertising.  How do we know?  From his suggestion for How To Save The Music Business.

1st, Quirk 1st reaffirmed the “tiered fan” model that everyone recognizes:

            There’s the general public, which will mostly no longer pay for music

            There’s the fan, who will pay something for particular artists.

           There’s the “super-fan”, who will pay almost anything for special features, extra access, videos, early tickets, meet-and-greets, and merchandise.  These people are gold.

Now, to Quirk’s BIG GOOGLE IDEA to save musicQuirk says music should be presented as apps, which are given away. So, if Drake has a new record, it’s distributed as a stand-alone app that’s free.  When you open it, you can listen to (most of) the music for free, but then you’re invited into the inner sanctum of tiered access for which you pay.  More songs, or early-access tickets, or videos, or the chance to buy a Drake hat.  In other words, the music serves only as advertising for other stuff.  Sure, you might like it as a listening experience.  But it’s only monetary value is advertising.

 Okay - that’s how Google thinks, so this is natural.  But let’s look at it.

 1. We need a revolution that not everything exists just to sell something else.  Seriously. It’s a sickness.  Music - for God’s sake - if not music, then what?  Is a Bob Dylan record just a way to sell a Bob Dylan hat?  Jobs loved music for its inherent value, which is why he created a platform that paid people for making it.  He didn’t mind making a few billion for his investors along the way, but at least he valued music at some level for itself.  Google’s greatest value is to turn everything into advertising, so Quirk proposes to do that.  It’s just a cultural thing, baked into the executives.

 2. Quirk’s solution is the 1st to actually eliminate paying writers by design.  It’s already very hard for writers.  Mechanical royalties are down and streaming services pay next-to-nothing.  But Quirk’s idea to give all music away to sell something else means writers would be paid nothing by design.  And that’s a new way of thinking that reflects Google’s values. Advertising > Everything.

 3. Music as Apps is retrograde technology. This is the shocking one for me.  Do your really want a separate app for every record you listen to?   The brilliance of iTunes was to bring all music into a single icon on a phone or desktop.  It runs fairly lean, because it’s primarily a locker.  The massive data streams to you once or several times, but always within a single program:iTunes. Or, for that matter, Google Play or Spotify.  Quirk’s idea to turn every record into an app means to unbundle iTunes - to turn every record you “own” into its own program.  How much memory would that take?  Also: picture the bloodbath for icon space.  And these individual programs - remember, they’re not music, but just platforms to keep selling you other stuff.

 And that brings us to the final thing Google wants to turn into advertising: You.

Anna Wintour is the Big Winner in the Lena Dunham Cover Bruhaha

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There’s been controversy over Girls Creator Lena Dunham’s Vogue cover, mostly centered on the retouch/no-retouch issue.  That’s mostly bull - of course Dunham was retouched, and it doesn’t matter that Dunham’s brand is “authenticity”.  A brand is still a brand.  The real winner of this escapade is Anna Wintour, who has once again made her brand relevant.

Creativity requires insight + expertise.  Wintour is fantastically creative, but not in the area of fashion.  She has fabulous taste of course, but taste is an opinion about someone else’s work.  Wintour’s creative expertise is in business.  Namely, in managing the brand that is American Vogue. 

 Vogue has always walked a tightrope with its covers. The Diana Vreeland era featured nameless models who showcased true haute couture, the kind of clothes few mortals could afford and fewer could imagine wearing.  These covers gave artistic credibility for the ad pages inside, which promoted more accessible products.  Wintour’s insight (remember, creativity requires it) was to recognize she could dramatically increase the economic power of her brand by linking it to the broader world of celebrity.  Her expertise was identifying (and wooing) the precise celebrities who could serve her interest without damaging the credibility of her brand.  This is harder than it looks.  A single Kardashian could wipe out millions from her brand equity.She nearly lost her footing, though - only a last minute save kept Lindsay Lohan off the cover, which would have certainly caused a number of more-desirable icons to think twice about agreeing to a cover.  It’s hard for most mortals to understand, but there is a level of celebrity so high that even a Vogue cover takes some wooing.

 So: Lena Dunham.  The least conventionally-attractive person ever to appear on a Vogue cover, which is the point, as Wintour surely knows.  Lena Dunham is not a model, she’s a question.  The question is, “What is beauty for people under 30?  Is it about to change?”  Anna Wintour has moved this question to her brand, and given a few million people who never look at Vogue a reason to do so.  Most important - Wintour has done this without making it more difficult to get the next, more traditional star, to say yes next month.

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     RADIO IS LAYING ON MORE ICE TO SAVE ITS TRAPPED SHIP

 Remember that Russian ship that got caught in the ice a couple of weeks ago?  Well, it pulled safely into port at last yesterday.  It also serves as a lovely metaphor for the state of radio at the moment.

Today’s WSJ released an analysis of how radio is responding to the creative destruction of Spotify, Pandora, etc.  They’re getting more conservative.  This makes sense, short term.  It’s easy, and it pays a quick dividend.  Long term, it’s deadly.

Using research from Mediabase, the WSJ’s Hannah Karp reported that radio is playing far fewer songs than a decade ago, which necessitates many more repeats.  The reason is simple: programmers are afraid that even a few seconds of something unfamiliar will cause listeners to bail.  Here’s the stats:

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Now, a basic principle in business is that the more calcified is a convention, the greater the impact of a disruptor.  Think file-sharing vs. old media record companies.  It’s just devastating.  This is what Spotify, Pandora, etc. are doing to terrestrial radio - these companies are icebreakers slicing through the iceberg of traditional radio, that seems like it will always be around.  Radio’s response: lay on more ice.

Get more conservative.  Put more chips on the same hand.  In other words, don’t innovate at all.

Look for lots of stations to fail at this - and a few to thrive.  Because just as radio stations are picking very few winners for their playlists, the market will pick very few winners among stations. 

 There is an alternative, of course: radio can come together and think about how to be the icebreaker.  Here’s 3 questions to start the conversation … icebreakers, if you will:

1. Can you predict when the iceberg strategy will fail?
2. Is it desirable for your business model to expand listening opportunities - more artists and songs?
3. How can you become the icebreaker, and not just lay on more ice?