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Thursday, May 18, 2006

Prepare yourself to see something really crazy. I mean, something absolutely psycho. Are you ready? Click here. Look! It’s the craziest ad guys in America! Oh my God, those guys are wearing blue jeans! And a couple of them don’t even have their shirts tucked in!! And the one on the far right, the guy with the radically long hair who’s flipping a Madison Avenue gang sign, he’s not wearing any shoes! They’re crazy!!!

It’s a cliche to portray ad men as wild, nutty “creative” types in the business press, guys who “think outside the box” and “reinvent” brands and devise campaigns that are really original or more unique. Sometimes they are depicted as bordering on subversive in the way they challenge management to question all their assumptions about their business and how to reach customers. But it hardly needs to be said that advertising is never subversive; its goals are always in the service of business, always for hire, always about selling more and grabbing market share. (Often when ads are extra wacky, it’s because the product itself is extra shoddy, or haunted by some scandals regarding quality, as is the case with VW, a primary client of those kookoo nutcases on the cover. If the ad obscures the product, it seems safe to assume the product is junk and you’ll be expected to continue to consume the ideas of the ad instead of the product.) Maybe we want to temper the contempt and manipulation inherent in advertising by lauding its cleverness; it makes us seem less vulnerable and gullible in our reaction to it. And that’s not to say ad guys aren’t actually creative, it’s just that they aren’t that much more creative than any sales person. There’s not much separating an ad man from a used car salesman, particularly when you view then from the perspective of their mutual goals. They have to get your attention, they have to disorient you so that you forget what you thought you wanted and then smoothly introduce new ideas into your head that you’ll mistake for your own. Used car salemen are on the front lines; they are the foot soldiers in the sales war that ad men are allowed to conduct on high from their executive suites in Midtown.

It seems at first that depicting advertisers are zany and creative is an attempt to redeem them of their explicitly commercial motives, make excuses for them, but really it seems an attempt to harness all creativity to entrepreneurship, buisness expansion and customer management. In our culture, creativity is measured in sales, and we are constantly reminded that the drive to increase sales is what inspires the most truly authentic creative acts. It’s become harder and harder to imagine creative acts outside of the business paradigm; that is, the impulse to create and the impulse to earn are blurred together. They seem synonymous. The growth economy’s insatiable demand for novelty absorbs all creativy to itself, and makes it seem as though creativity is merely the invention of something novel rather than the primordial act of making itself.

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Thursday, May 18, 2006

Two recent stories about blogs and podcasting have something in common- they both tout them as still-cutting edge Net technologies that are having greater and greater impact online and offline.  Unfortunately, both articles also point out a huge problem with these Net applications.  The data about just exactly how many people are tuning in is so wildly varied despite the hype that all signs point to another Net bubble that’s going to burst.

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Wednesday, May 17, 2006
by PopMatters Staff

The Futureheads

My how time flies.  After just two years, several US and European tours, and one finely crafted debut album, The Futureheads return with their exceptional second offering News and Tributes.  Ranging from dark and melodic (“Thursday”), to crunchy and raucous (“Return of the Berserker”), to just downright fun (“Skip to the End”/“Favours for Favours”), The Futureheads are making their furious mark in a quagmire of seemingly endless albums and faceless bands.  They’re back… and here to stay.

“Skip to the End” [MP3]
multiple songs [MySpace]

The Walkmen
“Louisiana” [MP3]

Asobi Seksu
“New Years” [MP3]
“Thursday” [MP3]

Russian Circles
“Death Rides a Horse” [MP3]

Tilly and the Wall
“Lost Girls” [MP3]

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Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Here is a more fleshed out version of Michael Goldhaber’s lecture on the attention economy, which I had linked to previously. It smacks of business-culture oversimplification, pitched with the hucksterish hype one must apparently use whentalking to management types, but it still offers an intersting case. If goods and information are no longer scarce in Western economies (a big if) then economics—the study of the allocation of scarce resources—should shift to attention, as its limits become more obvious the more we are oversaturated with media and data. (It seems as though one of the definitive contemporary struggles everyone goes through, one of the determining dialectics for an individual’s sense of self, is between accumulating and purging. Our personality is a by-product of how we have our cultural filters calibrated. For instance, I marvel at all the new things available to me and find the pull to acquire them irresistible; yet each new thing I get robs me of some of the value I used to find in the stuff I already had. Always the allure of quality, then undertow of quanity taking me out to sea.) Goldhaber suggests attention is even more fundamental than money, less a medium to measure value than a primary, transcendental good in itself, always valuable regardless of context, thus a suitable Archimedian point upon which to move the world and explain everything:

But, just as in a money economy practically everyone must have some money to survive, so attention in some quantities is pretty much a prerequisite for survival, and attention is actually far more basic. This has always been the case for tiny babies. About the only thing they can get for themselves, or can give, is attention, which they begin to do within a half hour of birth, by smiling at those who smile at them. Without attention an infant could never satisfy its material needs, for food, warmth, fresh diapers, being burped, and so on. At a slightly later stage infants and toddlers need attention if they are to develop any sense of themselves as persons, and neither of those needs ever completely goes away. So even if you do not especially make a point of reaching for attention, even if you are very shy and reclusive, you still probably cannot do without some minimum, which however reluctantly, you may have to fight for. And no matter how humble you now may be, at some time in your own childhood you certainly sought attention, or you wouldn’t be here.

As we move towards an attention economy in a fuller sense, the ethos of the old economy which makes it often bad taste or a poor strategy to consciously seek attention seems to be giving way to an attitude that makes having a lot of attention rather admirable and seeking it not at all to be frowned upon. Think of the sorts of things people are now willing to admit about themselves just to get on the likes of Oprah or the Sally Jesse Raphael show. Even the President of the United States is willing to discuss his underwear on nationwide television.

Goldhaber points out that a culture fixated on the distribution of attention will privilege individuals over communities: “It is no coincidence that some of the most popular uses of computers, fax machines, networks, phone systems, etc., have more to do with getting attention than with directly aiding what they are supposedly about, increasing productivity of an organization or society as a whole.  For an important truth is getting attention is of primary value to individuals rather than organizations, and attention also flows from individuals.” I wonder to what degree the entertainment industry abets the process of investing attention with value, no matter what kind of attention it is, elevating attention to the status of gold, a basis for all other value. Are the pleasures of attention really transcendent, or has the advent of a relentless 24-hour global entertainment industry devoted to exploiting fame made it seem so?


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Tuesday, May 16, 2006

I haven’t heard the new album from Bucks County’s finest, Pink, (okay, I haven’t heard any of her albums, but I do know a guy who claims to know a guy who claims to have made out with her in high school) but this article from The American Prospect by Devin McKinney piqued my interest. McKinney argues that Pink could be on the vanguard of a backlash against the feminist backlash.

Many teenagers manage to elude the stupid-girl virus. But as many as escaped it 30 years ago? Pink’s song asks precisely the right question—are we going forward or back?—and spots the single salient detail in what seems to be no more than the latest pop style for girls. Namely, that vapidity and vacuity are not mere byproducts of stupid-girl style—they are key to its chic. Where competence and self-sufficiency were once considered essential to the pop-cultural female image, now the behavioral accessories are docility, ditziness, and a dazed willingness to spread—with maybe a dash of diva sass for tossing at some predatory ‘ho.”

However, McKinney also worries that teenagers may end up thinking Pink’s negative message is what’s stupid—if they were right-wing dogmatists rather than teenagers, they might call her a cynic. Of the You Tube videos of girls’ lip-synching to the song, McKinney notes, “you can’t tell if these mirror starlets are making fun of stupid girls or being them—recasting Pink’s wrathful screed as their sitcom theme, their vindication as a subspecies of modern celebrity: stupid girls who emulate stupid girls to the tune of ‘Stupid Girls’.” Perhaps pretending to be stupid in order to get an audience can be considered a special kind of smart. I am sure there are some “optimists” out there willing to argue for that kind of empowerment. But I tend to agree with McKinney.

Pink should also be thanked for churning up something we pluralistic pop punters don’t always like to admit: that, as liberating as it can be for some, for others popular culture is a plastic bag over the mouth, a caul suffocating the abilities and the imagination, allowing only the merest possibility of escape from the blandishments of consumerism and the brain-dead end of tabloid celebrity. The way it happens, these “others” are usually girls.


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