Does Talent Matter?

Over the weekend 12,500 screaming fans showed up at Citi Field in Queens for DigiFest NYC. They were not screaming in appreciation of some new boy band or rap star. They were screaming for Cameron Dallas, whose only apparent talent is that he looks cute. Cameron is well aware of his limitations.

 “Back in the day, you used to have to be a singer or an actor, but nowadays with social media, you can become well known just by being yourself.”

The devolution of teen fan hysteria can be charted from Frank Sinatra

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To Elvis Presley

screaming-fansTo The Beatles

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We have now arrived at Cameron Dallas.

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Except that unlike Frank Sinatra, Elvis or The Beatles, Cameron Dallas has no talent. How did we get here? Where the object of these girl’s affection does nothing but look pretty in front of his web cam. Are we so culturally bankrupt that this is the best we can do?

 

 

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St. Petersburg, Art Capital of the World

Hermitage Museum

Hermitage Museum

I’ve just spent four days exploring the art museums of St. Petersburg, Russia. I’ve spent a lot of time in the art museums of Paris, New York, Los Angeles, Berlin, Tokyo, Madrid, Rome, Florence and Venice and I think St. Petersburg has the deepest collections. I spent three days in The Hermitage and one day in the Russian Museum and I feel as if I had tasted an overview of the history of world culture from 800 BC to 1950.

In almost every era the collections are incredible. The Italians, French, Spanish, German classical work is so extensive it took me two full days to get to 1650. But what is so amazing is the the art from 1880-1930. The role of the major collectors, Sergei Shchukin and Ivan Morozov, both of whom had their collections nationalized by the Bolsheviks, is instrumental to the depth of the Hermitage modern collection. Rooms full of the most amazing Picasso’s lead you into the world of Magritte, Monet, Van Gogh andGauguin. These two Russian Businessmen seem to have bought up most of the output coming out of the major Paris painters from 1900 to 1915. Of course, when the Revolution arrived, their collections were seized and they both fled to Paris.

What is just as amazing is some of the Russian Avant Garde art from the same period, particularly Malevich and his contemporaries. What seems obvious to me is that the art made in Russia in the years preceding the Revolution, when there was an amazing amount artistic tumult in the air, is quite superior to the art made after the revolution, especially after Trotsky was purged and the artist became a servant of the party.

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Utility vs Aesthetics

 

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I had dinner in Moscow last night with a really smart Brit, who had come to Moscow to work in advertising eight years ago. In talking about the dining experience in Russia,he mentioned that many older Russians still regarded feeding yourself as a utility–maximum calories consumed in minimum time. I was reminded of a remark made by a biographer about eating with the great Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky. It was an unpleasant experience he said, because Trotsky was so intent on scarfing down his dinner that he never paused to talk.

But if the Russians may rush through dinner, they will think nothing of spending three hours at the Bolshoi ballet, or three weeks reading “War and Peace”. In Trotsky’s utopian future, technology would take over all of the grunt work of society, leave the average man time to find his aesthetic muse.

Man will become immeasurably stronger, wiser and subtler; his body ‘will become more harmonized, his movements more rhythmic, his voice more musical. The forms of life will become dynamically dramatic. The average human type will rise to the heights of an Aristotle, a Goethe, or a Marx. And above this ridge new peaks will rise.

Of course this notion of the 15 hour week wasn’t just a Socialist fantasy, as Elizabeth Kolbert points out in the New Yorker this week.

To Keynes, the coming age of abundance, while welcome, would pose a new and in some ways even bigger challenge. With so little need for labor, people would have to figure out what to do with themselves: “For the first time since his creation man will be faced with his real, his permanent problem—how to use his freedom from pressing economic cares, how to occupy the leisure, which science and compound interest will have won.” The example offered by the idle rich was, he observed, “very depressing”; most of them had “failed disastrously” to find satisfying pastimes.

Now of course neither Trotsky nor Keynes’ view of the future came true. And in cities like Moscow and Los Angeles, working the 80 hour week to “get more things” is the assumed wisdom. The mistake of the old wise men was that they thought man would gladly trade consumption for leisure—that living a modest life, rich in the aesthetics of writing songs or painting our masterpiece—would be a worthy trade.
How wrong they were.

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Thought Police on Campus

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

I’m afraid these poor sensitive sophomores can’t read “Huckleberry Finn” without a warning label.

Should students about to read “The Great Gatsby” be forewarned about “a variety of scenes that reference gory, abusive and misogynistic violence,” as one Rutgers student proposed? Would any book that addresses racism — like “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” or “Things Fall Apart” — have to be preceded by a note of caution? Do sexual images from Greek mythology need to come with a viewer-beware label?

Colleges across the country this spring have been wrestling with student requests for what are known as “trigger warnings,” explicit alerts that the material they are about to read or see in a classroom might upset them or, as some students assert, cause symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder in victims of rape or in war veterans.

The warnings, which have their ideological roots in feminist thought, have gained the most traction at the University of California, Santa Barbara, where the student government formally called for them.

In a spring when commencement speakers have been banned from campuses, it feels like the PC crowd is completely dominating the rhetoric on campus. The very notion that we can’t hear speeches or read literature that might make us a bit uncomfortable is totally frightening to me. I must say that I am not encountering this at USC, yet. My basic beef is with post modernist writing, which for the life of me is like a secret code, meant to obscure meaning.

Part of the problem with this identity politics view of education is that it confuses content and context. I have been saying for years that many young people have almost no sense of historical context. How could you possibly read Mark Twain without any sense of what growing up in Missouri in 1840 was like? How could they have gotten all the way through high school and not really understand the American Civil War or the fall of the Roman Empire? And remember what Marquez said about history“I cannot imagine how anyone could even think of writing a novel without having at least a vague of idea of the 10,000 years of literature that have gone before.”

Perhaps every entering Freshman should be required to read and take a test on JM Roberts’ The Penguin History of the World before they arrive on campus. Then their poor sensitive souls might not be so shocked by Greek tragedies.

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United States of Secrets

APphoto_Digits

The Frontline documentary, United States of Secrets, Pt. 1 is one of the most important television programs of the last decade. It is a tale of how Dick Cheney and his lawyer David Addington, remade the surveillance policies of America in the wake of 9/11, without regard to the Fourth Amendment or other inconvenient truths of the Constitution. What is most astonishing is how clueless George Bush was to what was going on in his government. “The Program”, which the NSA ran, was authored in Cheney’s office and when 13 senior officials of the Justice Department (including the Assistant Attorney General and the Director of the FBI) threatened to quit if the program was reauthorized, Bush was totally blindsided, completely unaware that anyone in his administration objected to warrantless surveillance.

We all know the story of Edward Snowden, but what the Frontline film does is show the stories of countless insiders at the NSA who knew the program was unconstitutional and fought from the inside to get it changed long before Snowden gave the documents to the press. Many of them like House Intelligence committee staffer Diane Roark risked their careers to try to stop it. And many of them hoped when Barack Obama became President that the program would be terminated. But it was not to be. Obama talked transparency on the campaign trail in 2008, but once he became President, he not only maintained The Program, but also pursued the insiders what had tried to alert the press with relentless ferocity.

One of the Dept. of Justice officials, Jack Goldsmith describes Addington’s authorization which Bush signed as filled with “inadequate legal reasoning and flawed legal opinions.” When he and James Comey blocked the re-authorization by the Attorney General, Cheney simply ignored it and got Bush’s counsel Alberto Gonzales to sign the re-authorization.  Gonzalez and NSA Director Michael Hayden are both remarkably candid on camera in saying that they wanted to do whatever the President wanted and that Bush’s powers as a war time President topped the constitutional problems presented by the Fourth Amendment.

What is equally remarkable is that Frontline takes on the new York Times, whose Executive Editor Bill Keller turns out to be completely cowed by his meetings with Bush and Hayden. For those of us who grew up on “All The President’s Men” and the image of the courageous editor who is not afraid of the White House, the Times willingness to kill a story by James Risen before the 2004 election, that would have revealed “The Program”, is a true profile in cowardice. Next Tuesday, Frontline turns the lens on Silicon Valley and the role Google and Facebook played in the government’s panoptican of surveillance. That should be must see TV.

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Is the Music TV Show Dead?

americanidoljudges

Fox began airing American Idol in June of 2002 and for eight straight years it was the number one rated TV show in America. It so outdrew the competition that the other networks pretty much gave up trying to counter program it. But now it is fading fast and even it’s newer rival The Voice is having a hard time drawing the younger audience advertisers crave. Bill Carter suggests that this is just one more example of too much of a good thing.

It is hardly the first time television has burned out a genre through mass imitation and overexposure. Networks rode westerns into the ground. They exhausted the audience with singers trying variety shows. At one point, almost every night had a newsmagazine. And, most famously, ABC ran the sprockets off its game show hit “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire,” with four episodes a week at its height, leading to a plunge in ratings and its relegation into syndication.

But I think there is something more to it than that. Idol arrived at that particular moment in American culture when our feelings were still raw from 9/11. The country needed a little old-fashioned simple entertainment in which multiple generations could share an experience. Simon Cowell, the Svengali behind Idol was smart enough to choose singers in the early days like Kelly Clarkson, Carrie Underwood, Jennifer Hudson and Taylor Hicks that could appeal to a broad demographic. And so for a while Idol could actually manufacture stars. But by 2011, that stopped happening. The fans grew tired of the highly produced pop and all of the me too shows like X Factor and even The Voice have failed to produce the kind of platinum selling artists that Idol turned out.

Cultures go through periods of manufactured pop followed by periods of more authentic and rougher artistry. Think about the transition from the wildness of Elvis and Little Richard in the mid 1950’s to the totally manufactured pop of Frankie Avalon and Fabian in 1960 and then back to rough reality of Bob Dylan in 1964. My guess is that we are in one of those periods where the rough authentic music is what is popular and the idea that Simon Cowell or Blake Shelton can “make a star” is fading into the sunset.

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Digital Monopoly Capitalism

Amazon1-master675

This week it was revealed that Amazon has been bullying the publishing house of Hachette to give it better terms.

Among Amazon’s tactics against Hachette, some of which it has been employing for months, are charging more for its books and suggesting that readers might enjoy instead a book from another author. If customers for some reason persist and buy a Hachette book anyway, Amazon is saying it will take weeks to deliver it.

The scorched-earth tactics arose out of failed contract negotiations. Amazon was seeking better terms, Hachette was balking, so Amazon began cutting it off. Writers from Malcolm Gladwell to J. D. Salinger are affected, although some Hachette authors were unscathed.

Amazon has a near monopoly position in the distribution of books. The supreme irony is that government regulators are so clueless to the effects of monopoly that they brought an anti-trust case against Apple, a relatively minor player in the books business instead of Amazon.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. The Web’s supposed low barriers to entry would allow a very competitive landscape, but it hasn’t turned out that way. In search we have a monopolist in Google. In smartphone operating systems we have a duopoly in Apple and Google. And we soon might have a near monopolist in Broadband in Comcast and certainly a duopoly in mobile phone service in AT&T and Verizon. It turns out the Internet is very good a creating “winner takes all” scenarios. Continue reading

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WT-Friday

Johnny Manziel

Johnny Manziel

Johnny Humble

There was a point about two hours into last night’s NFL Draft where the supremely arrogant Johnny Manziel seemed like the kid that no one wanted to pick for their kickball team. After the 20th pick had gone by and Johnny was still in the corner drinking his water bottle I wondered if he was going be like Christine Lahti who was on a bathroom break when it was announced she won the Golden Globe. He was eventually picked by the Cleveland Browns and he came on stage with his usual “show me the money” bravado, but I doubt the money will be quite as much as if he had been picked number one instead of number 22.

Dr. Dre

Dr. Dre

Apple-Beats

For the life of me, I can’t figure out why Apple would spend $3 Billion to buy Beats. Obviously I’m happy for Dre and Jimmy Iovine and I hope they continue to be so generous to USC. But Apple could easily make a much better headphone, as almost any real audio engineer will tell you that there are 20 headphones on the market with much better sound. What Beats does have is marketing, but after all that is something that Apple does better than almost anyone else. The folks over at Re-Code suggest the reason is for Beats streaming music service. But I Tunes Radio is already just as good as Beats and probably has more listeners. All this does is muddy the I Tunes brand message.Tim Cook, Apple’s CEO has been under a lot of pressure to spend his $150 Billion cash hoard, but this just seems like a panic move.

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Tyranny of Choice

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Brian Roberts, who runs Comcast, should take a look at this chart. In the last seven years our cable bill has almost doubled and part of the rationale for this is that we have so many more channels to choose from. But as the Nielsen report released today shows, even though cable providers now offer almost 200 channels to the average home, we watch only 17 channels, just like we did eight years ago.

In every other part of the media business the same expansion of choices is leading consumers to follow the crowd towards the hits.

 However many niches there are, in other words, film-goers or TV viewers still want to watch what everybody else is watching, and musicians still manage to release mega-hits. Indeed, in a world that celebrates individualism and freedom, many people decide to watch, wear or listen to exactly the same things as everybody else.

Where this all becomes relevant to the current Net Neutrality debate is a technical barrier that none of Copyleft activists who are protesting in front of the FCC have bothered to acquaint themselves with. Comcast and every other cable company has 750 MHz to deploy their service. It is currently allocated like this.

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Only 200 MHz is allocated to downstream broadband data. This 200 MHz is shared with everyone else in your neighborhood on a “node”. That’s why on a Thursday night when you are trying to watch Netflix you get the buffering instead of the video. As the number of Over the Top (OTT) players increase (Amazon, Yahoo, AOL, You Tube, Hulu, Netflix, Crackle, Flixster, etc) this is going to be even more of a problem for the cable companies, especially when they start serving up 4 K streams. It won’t a problem for any one like Google Fiber, Verizon FIOS or EPB that is running fiber to the home, but for cable it is a real issue. At some point Comcast is going to have to cut the number of video channels it is carrying. They will go to Viacom and say “we don’t want the third, fourth and fifth MTV channel”. They will go to Discovery and say, “get rid of the Discovery Military Channel”.

My guess is that in five years we will be back to 100 broadcast channels and everything else will be delivered on demand OTT. Needless to say, Viacom, Scripps, Discovery, Turner are not going to like this outcome, but in the end it will be a much better consumer experience. The irony is that the folks at the FCC actually understand what the problem is and are trying to solve it, while the “Free the Internet” crowd and the cable companies have their heads in the sand.

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The Internet and Art

Monkeys-typing-Shakespeare

Every year the New York Times movie critics A.O. Scott and Manohla Dargis write a series of memos directed to the media barons whose financial choices affect the creative output the two critics review for a living. Buried among longer memos about hiring more female directors and making fewer super hero sequels was this pithy memo from Scott.

To: The Internet

Cc: Everyone who writes about “the Internet”

From: A.O.S.

Subject: Stop confusing quantity with quality. Stop hyping the revolutionary potential of “data,” “innovation” and other empty abstractions. Stop trying to fix things that weren’t broken and breaking things that you can’t fix. Just stop.

[This message has no content.]

For someone like myself, running the USC Annenberg Innovation Lab, the recognition of the basic truth of Scott’s critique is painful. But technologists need to confront the reality that putting the value of “disruption” above all others, they are currently destroying the artistic soul of modern culture with no real plan on how to rebuild what they have broken.

Consider the music business. Revenues to artists worldwide have fallen by over 50% since Napster was introduced in 2000. Even though it is now possible to access any song on any device anywhere in the world, as I wrote last week,

Spotify had gross revenues of over $600 million last year, but an artist would have to have more than 4 million plays per month to make the minimum wage of $1,160 per month.

The response of the tech community to this crisis is to suggest to musicians that they “get a real job”, by which I assume they mean writing code for some me too social sharing app that further destroys the music business.

As broadband speeds increase around the world this creative destruction tsunami is about to wreak havoc on the film and TV business. There are already far too many TV channels pouring out a torrent of junky reality shows and now we have Yahoo, AOL, You Tube, Amazon, Netflix, Crackle and probably hundreds of other OTT players throwing more crap against the virtual wall to see what sticks. As Scott says, “stop confusing quantity with quality.” In the course of human history, a limited number of people in any given generation could be considered real artists. Walk through the Prado and count the number of Spanish artists working in 1620 that stood the test of time. Valazquez, El Greco and maybe a couple of others. That’s it. You can count the number of great Rhythm and Blues artists of the 1940’s and 1950’s on two hands. By the Infinite Monkey Theory, that their typing would eventually yield Shakespeare, one would imagine that the 100 hours of video uploaded to You Tube per hour (876,000 hours per year!) over the last 9 years would have yielded us a Kubrick, Scorsese or Welles. If it has, no one has brought that filmmaker to my attention.

Now I know that no one in Silicon Valley is going to yield to Scott’s injunction to “just stop”, but I do think it is incumbent on Larry Page, Mark Zuckerberg and the other Tech billionaires to consider how they are destroying the artistic patrimony of our country. Last weekend I got a freebie to see Avicii, the Swedish DJ who makes more money off the live music business than almost any musician living, by remixing the work of other artists and knowing how to bring a room full of buzzed kids to a fever pitch through the largest bass speakers in the world. Was it art? Will we care about it in 20 years? Will anyone even know it existed in 200 years? The answer to all of the above is no.

But I believe that in 200 years some young guitar player will still be listening to Robert Johnson’s 1936 recording of “Crossroad Blues” and marveling at the raw power of both his voice and his guitar playing in the same way that a 15 year old Eric Clapton was moved to take up the blues life. We are currently in a state of cultural amnesia because the trivial firehose of the now that pours out of our smartphones leaves neither time nor guidance to consider the cultural banquet our forefathers have created. When was the last time you looked at one of Chaplin’s silent films or even Casablanca or Singin’ in the Rain? Writing about Gabriel Garcia Marquez a few weeks ago, I quoted this line, “I cannot imagine how anyone could even think of writing a novel without having at least a vague of idea of the 10,000 years of literature that have gone before.” 

It may be that in twenty years, if the folks at Oxford are right, and fifty percent of the current jobs have been computerized, everyone will have the time to be an artist because there won’t be any other meaningful employment for anyone but bankers and teachers (Irony alert). I assume by then there will have to be some sort of guaranteed income to keep folks from attacking the gated communities of the 1%. But I still doubt that anymore than a few folks in any generation will pass the historical “who cares” test. I can hear now the accusations of elitism. Who am I to say what is good and what is bad? You don’t have to take my word for it, because time always sorts the great from the merely popular. Remember Milli Vanilli?

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