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Tuesday, Apr 17, 2007

Sociologist Duncan Watts writes up his study on how music becomes popular through network effects for the NYT Magazine. The upshot of his results are this: When we are deciding how much we like a pop song, intrinsic qualities of the music are far less important than our perception of how many others like it.


The common-sense view [of music’s popularity], however, makes a big assumption: that when people make decisions about what they like, they do so independently of one another. But people almost never make decisions independently — in part because the world abounds with so many choices that we have little hope of ever finding what we want on our own; in part because we are never really sure what we want anyway; and in part because what we often want is not so much to experience the “best” of everything as it is to experience the same things as other people and thereby also experience the benefits of sharing.


This conforms with the sociological view that musical taste is predominantly a matter of signaling which social groups you’d like to belong to—that taste is a proxy for class (this notion is elaborated at great length in Bordieu’s Distinction.) Yet we typically believe that our musical taste reflects something unique to us, is an outlet for some inner truth about ourselves that can’t otherwise be expressed. Perhaps both these propositions can be true, that musical taste is both produced by our desire to merge socially and by our own unique methods for performing the merge. But it remains absurd to assert the superiority of one’s taste in pop music; if this study’s findings are right, than such assertions are sheer tribalism—a rallying tool to uphold boundaries and exclusions.


In “Listening to Popular Music” (in the often derided 1957 anthology Mass Culture) David Reisman argued that “the functions of music our social—the music gives them something to talk or kid about with friends; an opportunity for competitiveness in judging which tunes will become hits, coupled with a lack of concern for how hits are made; an opportunity for identification with star singers or band leaders as ‘personalities’, with little interest in or understanding of the technologies of performance or of the radio medium itself.” He suggests that discrete hits allow mass participation in culture and the illusion of equality (we all share the same songs) while at the same time reiterating the atomized nature of society—everybody is isolated and in competition with everyone else. This all seems about right to me—pop music carries water for organizing society into recognizable groups, usually ones required to maintain the status quo—yet music nerds masquerade as connoisseurs. I guess I harp on this frequently because I regret all the time I’ve already wasted arguing that some band sucked or trying to convince people (or myself) that it was imperative to be into a certain album or band. I think of the stupidly smug sense of superiority I’ve derived from having “good taste in music,” as though I knew something others didn’t, when in fact I was the ignorant one—I hadn’t considered or couldn’t accept the reality of the extra-musical influences shaping my opinions. Accepting the reality of those influences seems now to be an integral step toward really hearing what you are listening to.


In his essay, Watts calls our attention to how a few key influencers early in the process of disseminating a piece of culture can have a massive, unpredictable effect on the success of that work, and the future success of all other works by that artist.


if one object happens to be slightly more popular than another at just the right point, it will tend to become more popular still. As a result, even tiny, random fluctuations can blow up, generating potentially enormous long-run differences among even indistinguishable competitors — a phenomenon that is similar in some ways to the famous “butterfly effect” from chaos theory. Thus, if history were to be somehow rerun many times, seemingly identical universes with the same set of competitors and the same overall market tastes would quickly generate different winners: Madonna would have been popular in this world, but in some other version of history, she would be a nobody, and someone we have never heard of would be in her place.


A small shift in relative popularity at a key time and place could explode into a massive difference. This seems to justify advertising and payola efforts, targeted at those key places (could they be determined), which can make a thing seem already popular as its popularity is being built. But it’s probably the case that such efforts need to corroborated by a trusted source, by the überinfluencers for instance that Gladwell writes about in The Tipping Point, for the public as a whole to buy into something—word of mouth must confirm the impressions created by media and marketing. This all creates the context in which we hear something, and that context is obviously all important—pop music is more evocative of other things (firends, feelings, places we’ve been, experiences) than it is intrinsically compelling.


Watts emphasizes the unpredictability of what will eventually be popular, hoping to discredit the impression that the market vindicates preexisting preferences rather than contributing to shaping them—in other words the market is not transparent and neutral as a medium; it compounds the rewards it gives and affects the exchanges which take place within it. This is a useful lesson to be reminded of over and over because as Watts points out, we tend to ascribe logic retrospectively where there was none:


sudden shifts in consumer demand can still arise, persist and then shift again. These shifts often come as surprises but are soon explained away as mere reflections of changing public sentiments. Yet while in some sense these markets do reflect what people want, that is true only of what they want right now. If markets not only reveal our preferences but also modify them, then the relation between what we want now and what we wanted before — or what we will want in the future — becomes deeply ambiguous.
Our desire to believe in an orderly universe leads us to interpret the uncertainty we feel about the future as nothing but a consequence of our current state of ignorance, to be dispelled by greater knowledge or better analysis. But even a modest amount of randomness can play havoc with our intuitions. Because it is always possible, after the fact, to come up with a story about why things worked out the way they did — that the first “Harry Potter” really was a brilliant book, even if the eight publishers who rejected it didn’t know that at the time — our belief in determinism is rarely shaken, no matter how often we are surprised. But just because we now know that something happened doesn’t imply that we could have known it was going to happen at the time, even in principle, because at the time, it wasn’t necessarily going to happen at all.



It’s a repeat of the lesson Thomas Schelling’s Micromotives and Macrobehavior hammers home—that the dynamic nature of events alters our preferences over time, so that the choices others make shape our choices and the contribution our behavior makes to a system alters the desirability for everyone, ourselves included.


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Monday, Apr 16, 2007


Jackpot! Finally, a week where any one of the seven selected titles would make a fine addition to your own personal DVD collection. These situations are rare, so they demand celebrating. Better yet, there are several other titles – Overlord: Criterion Collection, Freedom Writers, The History Boys – that have their positives and negatives as well. Sure, some are better than others, with one offering in particular clearly meant as fodder for a future sequel release (say, around 4 May???), but with previous Tuesdays providing a paltry selection of acceptable, let alone good releases, you won’t hear SE&L complaining. In fact, picking the disc to highlight was a difficult if not next to impossible process. In the end, it came down to interest and popularity over art and added content. Still, you won’t be disappointed with any of the digital presentations available on 17, April, beginning with:


Spider-Man 2.1


Okay, it’s an obvious cash grab, a chance for Sony to milk the fanbase out of a few more bucks before they role out Part 3 the first weekend in May. Still, even with its cynical status as a marketing ploy, you can’t deny the power in Sam Raimi’s perfectly balanced comic book adventure yarn. Alfred Molina is an excellent Dr. Octopus, bringing the right amount of horror and humor to his villainous role. Similarly, the rest of the cast continue to push the boundaries of their characters’ core, including Tobey Maguire’s Peter Parker, a young man having a hard time dealing with his newfound import. Granted, this new DVD fleshes out the fight scenes, adding bits and pieces here and there to warrant the revamp. And we do get a couple of conversations that help explain away some of the movie’s more muddled motivations. While purists may balk at this non-directorial cut, and completists will plotz at the wealth of new added content, this remains an unnecessary double dip of a really great fantasy film.

Other Titles of Interest


Brute Force: The Criterion Collection


It’s time for another installment of moral men behind bars as the preservation experts over at C2 give this 1947 melodrama a thorough DVD workout. Director Jules Dassin, who would go on to helm the unusual noir Naked City and the truck driving thriller Thieves’ Highway, does a similarly startling job here, giving a young Burt Lancaster the fascinating role of a concerned convict up against a corrupt guard.

La Haine: The Criterion Collection


Race and its overriding social issues is not just an American quandary. In 1995, young filmmaker Matthieu Kassovitz decided to illustrate the strife and unrest growing in the French suburbs via a story of police brutality and friendship avenged. Playing like a documentary, thanks in part of the director’s decision to film cinema verite style, what we end up with is a universal statement on human intolerance and dignity destroyed.

The Last King of Scotland


Forest Whittaker took home his first Oscar for this portrayal of Ugandan madman Idi Amin in what is otherwise a very average motion picture. But no matter the flaws in the dramatization and fictionalization of the main character, a Scottish doctor who soon becomes Amin’s private physician and confidant – there is no denying Whittaker’s powerhouse performance. It will stand as a personal triumph long after the film itself has fallen out of favor.

Notes on a Scandal


It sounds like a tawdry tabloid tale – a young teacher seduces one of her male students. To make matters worse, a dowdy old spinster discovers the tryst and blackmails the naïve instructor. Of course, motives are never exactly what they seem, and with Judy Dench and Cate Blachette in the leads, what could become clichéd ends up playing as very powerful and rather personal. Not given enough respect come Awards time, DVD provides the perfect opportunity to catch up with this tripwire title.

Smokin’ Aces


Stylized action has its advocates. Both Quentin Tarantino and his Hong Kong counterpart, John Woo, have fashioned an entire career out of making violence and gunplay seem practically poetic. Now Narc‘s Joe Carnahan wants to try his hand at over the top mayhem, and the results are rather mixed. He gets the firefights and attitude right, but somewhere in between his affinity for stunt casting and a lack of clear characterization, a potentially great film finds itself marginalized.


And Now for Something Completely Different
True Confessions


The reteaming of Godfather aces Robert DeNiro and Robert Duvall seemed like a match made in movie heaven. Fresh off his work in Raging Bull, and still carrying a bit of weight, Mr. Method decided to take on the role of a corrupt priest trying to hide a horrible murder from his detective brother – the aforementioned Corleone counselari. Using bits of the famed Black Dahlia murder, and lots of distinctive LA period set pieces, director Ulu Grosbard laid on the atmosphere in thick, moody slices. It was quite a chance of pace for the famed Hollywood rebel, a man whose previous films had been experimental and almost neo-realistic in style. Some found the pacing slow and the plot overly complicated. But with fine work from the stars, and a single sequence of awful implied violence, this anti-noir became a minor masterwork.

 


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Monday, Apr 16, 2007
by John Dorschner [McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)]

MIAMI - The Pulitzer Prize, the American newspaper industry’s highest honor, was awarded Monday to Debbie Cenziper of The Miami Herald for House of Lies, a riveting series on widespread problems in Miami-Dade County’s public housing agency.


Winning in the category of local reporting, Cenziper led a team that wrote more than 30 articles in the 2006 series, which revealed developers took millions of dollars in taxpayer money to build affordable housing for the poor, but failed to deliver, leaving thousands without their promised homes.


The series led to massive changes in the county housing agency and the arrest of three developers.


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Monday, Apr 16, 2007
by David Saltonstall [New York Daily News (MCT)]

NEW YORK - The New York Daily News’ Editorial Board won the Pulitzer Prize Monday for its groundbreaking series of editorials, “9-11: The Forgotten Victims,” which documented the growing medical fallout from the World Trade Center attacks.


In riveting, persuasive prose, the five-month series established how breathing the atomized air of the World Trade Center after 9-11 had sickened more than 12,000 emergency responders, at least five of them fatally.


The series also forced all levels of government to reexamine their initial medical response to the attacks, and in many cases react with a range of new benefits and services for rescuers, volunteers or their surviving family members.


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Monday, Apr 16, 2007
by PopMatters Staff
LEEROY STAGGER [Photo: Sarah Rhude]

LEEROY STAGGER [Photo: Sarah Rhude]


Leeroy Stagger & The Sinking Hearts
Depression River [MP3]
     


Where I Live [MP3]
     


Satellite [MP3]
     


Parts & Labor
Fractured Skies [MP3]
     


Lifesavas
Gutterfly [MP3]
     


Casper and the Cookies
Sid from Central Park [MP3]
     


Part Chimp
New Cross [MP3]
     



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