Posts tagged “pop culture”

We Buy White Albums

The We Buy White Albums project, earlier this year from Rutherford Chang is pretty fascinating.

Chang has collected over 650 first-pressings of the Beatles’ White Album. He considers the serialized first-press, an edition running in excess of 3 million, to be the ultimate collector’s item, and aims to amass as many copies as possible. Over the course of his Session, Chang will create an archive, listening library, and anti-store to house and grow his collection of the Beatles’ iconic record.

Chang will create a record store that stocks only White Albums. But rather than selling the albums, he will buy more from anyone willing to part with an original pressing in any condition.

I like how he’s taken a precious object that is also a ubiquitous commodity and created a very traditional experience that highlights both aspects. As archaic as the original object is, it has managed to hold onto a good chunk of it’s (non-monetary) value over the decades (writing as someone who doesn’t own, has never owned, and will likely never own the White Album). It’s a somewhat retro-futurist idea, that we have retail set up to deal with one item and one item only, decades later. And more generally retro, asking what album in the last two decades could you imagine doing this with thirty years hence? Is the White Album relatively unique in being the touchstone it represents? The way we produce, market and consume pop culture has changed. What would Chang do in 2043?

What the Bieb Means, or Embrace Pop Culture

Earlier this year I gave a talk entitled Skill Building for Design Innovators. One of the “muscles” I encouraged people to develop was embracing pop culture. This led to a fascinating discussion when one person dissented and others jumped in with their own perspective. And of course, Justin Bieber was our placeholder example of pop culture. So I was gratified to see this article in the New York Times: Justin Bieber and Today’s Youth.

One reason Mr. Bieber has captivated our attention, beyond his talent and charisma, is that, alongside Mark Zuckerberg, he is the paragon of the millennial celebrity. Born in 1994, he has hardly known a world without broadband Internet, smartphones, social media and digital imagery (and, yes, public apologies by celebrities through those same conduits). He has exploited – and been exploited by – these tools to great effect, currently ruling the Twitter roost with more than 36 million followers. That’s a lot of people for anyone, let alone a teenager, to have direct access to with a thoughtless swipe of his iPhone.

And because Mr. Bieber is so ambitious and enterprising, he can also be considered an emblem of the overscheduled, future-oriented Generation Y striver. Instead of regimented piano lessons, soccer practice and SAT classes, the entertainer has committed himself to the steady, if largely self-directed, cultivation of singing, dancing and interview skills since he was 12.

Thus, the gleeful reaction by some to Mr. Bieber’s misbehavior may connect to two directives imposed upon children today: the need to overprepare for the demanding and perilous world of work, and the loss of innocence that preparation entails.

When we laugh at his “meltdown” – one that many of us would have suffered much sooner in our teenage years had the global press hounded us, had we put in 16-hour workdays, had millions of dollars rested on our shoulders – we are doing more than merely relishing the downfall of a formerly squeaky-clean (Tiger Woods) moral crusader (Eliot Spitzer) who has a few irksome personality traits (Anthony Weiner). We are channeling our cultural anxiety over the ways we have corrupted and effaced childhood.

ChittahChattah Quickies

I gave a talk recently where I advocated for the importance of being aware of pop culture; this led to an interesting conversation (where not all parties agreed with my proposal). This set of quickies is dedicated to pop-culture-specific examples of note.

‘Les Misérables’ and Irony [NYT] – While I haven’t seen (and don’t plan to see) this movie (the stage show was enough for a lifetime), this analysis of the film’s cultural performance (and why that may explain it’s appeal to some) is pretty wonderful.

The key to what is intended by these technical choices was provided for me by Hooper himself when he remarked in an interview (also printed in USA Today) that while “we live in a postmodern age where a certain amount of irony is expected, [t]his film is made without irony.” Irony is a stance of distance that pays a compliment to both its producer and consumer. The ironist knows what other, more na?Øve, observers do not: that surfaces are deceptive, that the real story is not what presents itself, that conventional pieties are sentimental fictions.

The artist who deploys irony tests the sophistication of his audience and divides it into two parts, those in the know and those who live in a fool’s paradise. Irony creates a privileged vantage point from which you can frame and stand aloof from a world you are too savvy to take at face value. Irony is the essence of the critical attitude, of the observer’s cool gaze; every reviewer who is not just a bourgeois cheerleader (and no reviewer will admit to being that) is an ironist.

“Les Misérables” defeats irony by not allowing the distance it requires. If you’re looking right down the throats of the characters, there is no space between them and you; their perspective is your perspective; their emotions are your emotions; you can’t frame what you are literally inside of. Moreover, the effect – and it is an effect even if its intention is to trade effect for immediacy – is enhanced by the fact that the faces you are pushed up against fill the screen; there is no dimension to the side of them or behind them; it is all very big and very flat, without depth. The camera almost never pulls back, and when it does so, it is only for an instant.

Netflix to Deliver All 13 Episodes of ‘House of Cards’ on One Day [NYT] – I’m intrigued by how technology affords shifts in media consumption and then how those shifts inform the content of the media itself.

Netflix will release a drama expressly designed to be consumed in one sitting: “House of Cards,” a political thriller starring Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright. Rather than introducing one episode a week, as distributors have done since the days of black-and-white TVs, all 13 episodes will be streamed at the same time. “Our goal is to shut down a portion of America for a whole day,” the producer Beau Willimon said with a laugh. “House of Cards,” which is the first show made specifically for Netflix, dispenses with some of the traditions that are so common on network TV, like flashbacks. There is less reason to remind viewers what happened in previous episodes, the producers say, because so many viewers will have just seen it. And if they don’t remember, Google is just a click away. The show “assumes you know what’s happening all the time, whereas television has to assume that a big chunk of the audience is always just tuning in,” said Ted Sarandos, Netflix’s chief content officer.

Muzak, Background Music to Life, to Lose Its Name [NYT] – Do we mourn when a derided brand goes away? The awful experiences that brand promised us – and perhaps much much worse – still seem to be on offer. I will shed no tear.

The Muzak name – long part of the American vernacular, if sometimes as the butt of jokes – will be retired this week as part of a reorganization by its owner, Mood Media. The company is consolidating its services under a single brand, Mood, thus eliminating the Muzak name…”We have a team of music gurus, visual specialists, sound and scent-tech experts,” Mr. Abony said. “We develop compelling, consistent experiences that connect our clients with their customers. The new brand signifies the integration of the company.”

ChittahChattah Quickies

Mermaids poised for their mainstream splash [SF Chronicle] – Here’s an emergent trend that we’ll all want to get in front of, whether it’s cultural literacy or presents for friends and children, or perhaps cashing in before it the bubble bursts.

Mermaids are about to swamp vampires and zombies as supernatural rainmakers in popular culture. Photographer Mark Anderson is releasing a book called “M: Mermaids of Hollywood,” that features Anna Faris, the Kardashians, Kristen Bell and others in tails. Carolyn Turgeon, author of “Mermaid: A Twist on the Classic Tale,” has agreed to run a new magazine, Mermaids & Mythology. The true beneficiaries of the mermaid bull market are small-business owners who cornered the mermaid market before there actually was one. Eric Ducharme, who lives near Tampa, makes about seven latex tails a month for $500 to $700 and since December has created 25 silicone ones for $1,600 to $5,000, including one for Lady Gaga. The Weeki Wachee Springs Underwater Theater, also near Tampa, started its mermaid shows in 1947. In danger of closing just a few years ago, it’s now hosting sold-out camps for adults who want to swim with tails.

Masked Protesters Aid Time Warner’s Bottom Line [NYTimes.com] – The mask wearers have been seen here in the Bay Area recently, in protests against the BART transit system preemptively disconnecting cell service in advance of a protest. There’s clearly a market for knockoff masks, which may lead to some corrective corporate actions, which may in turn lead to more protests and indeed an entire economic turnaround.

When members [of Anonymous] appear in public to protest censorship and what they view as corruption, they don a plastic mask of Guy Fawkes, the 17th-century Englishman who tried to blow up the Houses of Parliament. Stark white, with blushed pink cheeks, a wide grin and a thin black mustache and goatee, the mask resonates with the hackers because it was worn by a rogue anarchist challenging an authoritarian government in “V for Vendetta,” the movie produced in 2006 by Warner Brothers. What few people seem to know, though, is that Time Warner, one of the largest media companies in the world and parent of Warner Brothers, owns the rights to the image and is paid a licensing fee with the sale of each mask.

Come On, Feel the Mud [NYTimes.com] – This interactive feature has some lovely, if muddy pictures, but mostly I was struck to learn that there’s a Polish Woodstock. If nothing else, we are clearly a decades past the dawn of political correctness where that phrase could only be the punchline to an offensive joke.

The original Woodstock festival was known for both its music and its mud. Although it is no relation to the American festivals, the Woodstock Festival in Kostrzyn nad Odra, Poland, does its best to recreate the experience by building giant mud pits in which thousands of young Poles writhe and wrestle to a hard-driving beat. Now in its 17th year, the Polish Woodstock mixes older Western rock bands like Prodigy and Helloween with popular Polish acts like Laki Lan and Enej. Despite the aggressive music, the vibe in the mud pit is much more summer of love. “We are moshing, we are throwing sand and dirt, but it’s really friendly,” said Michal Knapinski, 16. “When someone falls, there are hundreds of hands pulling him up.”

Skill Building for Design Innovators (from CHIFOO)

At CHIFOO in Portland this week, I presented Skill Building for Design Innovators.

How can you broaden your sphere of influence within the field of human-computer interaction? You can start by building your muscles! Steve will take a look at some fundamental skills that underlie the creation and launch of innovative goods and services. He will discuss the personal skills that he considers to be “the muscles of innovators” and the ways you can build these important muscles, including noticing, understanding cultural context, maintaining exposure to pop culture, synthesizing, drawing, wordsmithing, listening, and prototyping. Along the way, he will demonstrate how improving these powerful skills will equip you to lead positive change.

Here are the slides and audio:



Listen to audio:

To download the audio Right-Click and Save As… (Windows) or Ctrl-Click (Mac)

There goes my hero…

Exploitative sellout and marketing disappointment, or layer cake of irony?

I saw this Kurt Cobain-branded Converse All-Star recently on the bargain racks at Ross. I laughed, I cried.


Detail of another shoe in “The Kurt Cobain Collection,” from the Converse website

Seattlest had a pithy take on it:

Kurt Cobain shaped the country’s rock music landscape while wearing Converse sneaks. He blithely, angrily altered Seattle’s future, ripped a hole for the city on the map of pop culture, all while wearing Converse. He went nuts on stage. He whispered and screamed. He played the shit out of guitars. He shot up and nodded off in the shoes.

Kurt killed himself while wearing Converse. The shoes were prominent in the image that famously documented his death. Naturally, then, Converse will begin selling Kurt Cobain-“inspired” shoes this May. It is, apparently, the “Converse Century,” after all. What better way to celebrate?

The full piece here.

I love memes

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I heart memes license plate, California, 2009

And who doesn’t. We all want to belong somewhere. Even if it’s in an alternate subcultural universe, it’s comforting to know that your thoughts are connected somehow to the hive mind.

For anyone wanting a walk down short-term memory lane, The Internet Meme Database should suffice. And for those who want it live and in-concert, MIT will be hosting the second ROFLCon Internet culture conference in April 2010.

Get our latest article: Living In The Overlap

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My latest interactions column, Living in the Overlap, has just been published. I riff on the relevance of pop culture, the spaces between disciplines and the importance of resisting the urge to label and categorize everything neatly.

Here’s a bunch of stuff I haven’t tried: Project Runway, High School Musical, American Pie movies, robot wars, molecular gastronomy, Halo 3, Dancing With the Stars, Frisky Dingo, sudoku, biopics, House, Desperate Housewives, Portishead, Fifty Cent, Dane Cook, The Da Vinci Code, The Life of Pi, Marley & Me, The Lovely Bones, Augusten Burroughs, and Mitch Albom. I’m mildly curious about some; intensely disinterested about others. A lot of it might make a “sophisticated” individual uncomfortable. But my profession is identifying and establishing the connections between people, culture, brands, stories, and products, and that means it’s absolutely crucial that I know a little bit about all sorts of stuff that I may personally regard as crap.

Get a PDF of the article here. To receive a copy of the article, send an email to steve AT portigal DOT com and (if you haven’t given us this info before) tell us your name, organization, and title. We’ll send you a PDF.

Other articles

Pop Culture Osmosis, Tokyo (part 2)

(also see part 1)

What sort of stuff is “popular” in another country? How do we, as visitors, experience, catalog or contextualize pop culture?

Tokyo’s Shibuya district is the throbbing heart of Japanese youth culture, overflowing with pedestrians (and vehicles), with dense ground-to-sky advertisements for music and electronics and clothing.

Upon arrival, we see a truck driving by advertising an upcoming album release by Ayumi Hamasaki.
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In fact, we see this truck – or others like it – constantly. We’ve never heard of Ayumi, but clearly someone wants this album release to be a big deal.

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One evening, we notice large crowds outside Yoyogi National Stadium. Turns out it’s an Ayumi Hamasaki concert.
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(Notice the suitcase, featuring her logo.)

Parked alongside the stadium are a number of Ayumi Hamasaki tribute vehicles
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Passing by the next night, New Year’s Eve, there is an even more extensive display of tribute vans.
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Assuming (and I do) that these vans were made by fans, and not record company plants, then at this point it becomes impossible to deny the obvious: she is huge. The larger-than-life marketing messages are appropriate given the enormous popularity. The foreigner’s reaction of “Well, we’ve never heard of her” is only a temporary refuge in the face of the demonstrable devotion.

Consider this: in a major city in the world there’s an performer where fans decorate their vehicles with her face on the outside and displays on the inside and tailgate together with their custom vans before concerts. And you’ve never heard or heard of her. (Disclaimer: doesn’t apply to you if you’ve heard of her).

And: spend a few days in this major city and you will learn about this performer over and over and over again and wonder how you could have possibly not heard of her before.

Pop Culture Osmosis, Tokyo (part 1)

What sort of stuff is “popular” in another country? How do we, as visitors, experience, catalog or contextuallize pop culture? More posts on this to come.

Being in Japan means constant encounters with kawaii, or cute, characters. Some will be familiar to visitors, whether imported (i.e., Stitch, Snoopy, Miffy, Mickey, Pooh, Pink Panther) or domestic (i.e., Hello Kitty, Totoro, Domo-kun). We were intrigued to come across a new character, then, and wondered who he was.

A display at Tokyu Hands featured this plush toy and a catchy song, in Japanese.
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Then we saw him (with friends) in an arcade window.
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And then we saw a complete window display in Harajuku featuring this (presumed) bug.
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And that gave me something to Google: bug, and mono comme ca (the name of the store). Success! It’s the Bottom Biting Bug (Oshiri Kajiri Mushi).

As my New Year’s Gift to you all, then, here is the video, with subtitles in Japanese and English. This is what started it all, and is an awesome, awesome earworm. Someday soon, very soon, you will awaken with a slight startle, and as the real world comes into grey focus, you’ll grasp at the fading threads of your dream only to realize that it’s been the Bottom Biting Bug song as your internal, nocturnal soundtrack.

Biting is important business, indeed.

Note: the first of what should be over 1000 images and stories are up on flickr here.

Art theory jargon (could be designer-y jargon?)

A recent comment by Candy Minx introduces me to another word I don’t know: flaneur. Wikipedia sez it’s “a detached pedestrian observer of a metropolis, a ‘gentleman stroller of city streets’.” Reminds me a lot of reading blogs, with the ironic distance we keep; tracking memes, gossip, interesting stories, across a densely linked architecture of information, a metropolis of a new sort, perhaps.

The history of the term, perhaps, and I’m way out my depth here (hoping that by attempting to explain it naively I might somehow learn a little bit), connects to a time when pop culture was gaining relevance in contrast to “art” – something that was kept hidden away in galleries or museums or opera houses. The culture of the street being recognized as its own thing, and the emergence of a connoisseur for that culture. I’m sure you can draw a wobbly line from the flaneur to the trendspotter, although the motivations seem vastly different.

Klosterman Rock City

I’m psyched to see Chuck Klosterman (who I’ve gently raved about before) resurface (after SPIN) at Eqsuire, where he is writing of-the-moment (and sometimes controversial) stories about (pop) culture topics, such as The “Snakes on a Plane” Problem

I worked in newspapers for eight years, right when that industry was starting to disintegrate. As such, we spent a lot of time talking with focus groups, forever trying to figure out what readers wanted. And here is what they wanted: everything. They wanted shorter stories, but also longer stories. They wanted more international news, but also more local news. And more in-depth reporting. And more playful arts coverage. And less sports. And more sports. And maybe some sports on the front page.

When it comes to mass media, it’s useless to ask people what they want; nobody knows what they want until they have it. If studios start to view the blogosphere as some kind of massive focus group, two things will happen: The first is that the movies will become idiotic and impersonal, which is probably pre¬¨dictable. But the less predictable second result will be that many of those movies will still fail commercially, even if the studios’ research was perfect. If you asked a hundred million people exactly what they wanted from a movie, and you used that data to make exactly the film they claimed to desire, it might succeed. Or it might not. Making artistic decisions by consensus doesn\’t work any better than giving one person complete autonomy; both strategies work roughly half the time.

I don’t know that Klosterman is the next Gladwell; I hope he doesn’t get managed/edited into that role. He’s more about looking again at something we’ve all been looking at than in coming up with wild connections between things we didn’t know were related. And he’s (still) focused on telling stories, often about himself. The pop culture beat is an important one, and even though it shifts near-seamlessly into implications for marketing and business (umm, hello, this blog, case-in-point?), I hope Chuck can sit that part of it out and stick to what he’s done best (rather than entering the dark waters of populism that this piece focuses on).

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