Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Puritan Virtues and Millennial Entitlement

This question hits right at the passive aggressive Cold War that seems to be the pivotal point of conflict between millennials and the elder superiors, and the very reason the term “millennial” is intoned by many of the latter with a flourish of grand distaste.  Millennials want too much from their jobs, and are entitled to the point of having a deleterious effect on the workplaces they inhabit.

I have to confess, when I was first invited for my writing to be featured in this millennial bloggers series in Huffington Post, I was concerned about branding myself with a near synonym for this haze of entitlement.  But as a matter of numbers, even though I’m towards the beginning of this birth era, most definitions of the term would label me one.  So here I am.

The most trumpeted origin of this entitlement is the self-esteem movement in education.  My headmaster delivered a fiery denunciation of said movement, and his vision was certainly reflected in the school environment.  Over 350 years after the Puritans had founded this New England school, the upholders of their hard-won virtue did not flinch –they let us know that any ounce of exaltation would come only after a full pound of debasement through labor, whether on the sports field, in the classroom, or elsewhere.

The disadvantage of this approach was a claustrophobic adolescence.  The advantage was that anyone gazing back on it from adulthood inevitably said everything afterwards was comparatively easy.  

The greatest sense of meaning and fulfillment usually only comes when an achievement is genuinely substantive and valuable to others – in a way that not too many other laborers are offering.  Yes, a sense of daily joy and interpersonal engagement can facilitate the heavy lifting, and many products that are valuable in society may not feel deeply meaningful to produce.   But some combination of talent, refinement, and hard work is fairly indispensable to the ability to achieve in the first place.

I’d like to move some boulders in my career – and not the Sisyphean type.  But I’d prefer to do it around people with a sense of humor, and the spark of wit that connects a process and a product to the human experience on the other end.  The sum total of all the above is, alas, hard to find.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

The Fire Is Spreading: Popular Music and Rebellion

The death of Chris Cornell this past week may not have been the kind of national front-page news that resulted when Bowie or Prince passed, but for students of rock history and enduring fans of one of the greatest expressions of rebellion in modern music, it was another acutely unsettling epilogue to a story that had largely been assumed finished.

Grunge was one of the most improbable musical forms ever to have reached mass recognition and popularity.  Popular music was about romantic relationships, and if it veered into dark territory, it was generally about the end of a love affair.  Grunge was about rage and dejection in nearly everything except love, and a blood-curdling cry of a generation's youth that their frustrations would be heard.  It was at once apolitical, in that songs rarely aimed to bolster specific partisan causes by name, and vastly political, in the sense that this searing screaming broadly encompassed the anger of the youth across party lines and across a range of ideologies.  There was something populist in the way scruffy kids largely from a city people hadn't paid much attention to could grab the microphone and let the whole nation know they had real concerns, too.

The biggest five grunge bands were Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains, Soundgarden, and Stone Temple Pilots.  Of those five, the lead singers for four of them have now died of suicide or a drug overdose.

While there has been a recent surge in popular music addressing issues of race, ethnicity, and identity issues -- an expression of political unrest that will surely have a prominent chapter in musical history -- there is nothing akin to grunge.  While many millennials dance the nights away to The Chainsmokers and Kygo, the lack of a broad-based populist wail inflaming the imaginations of a new generation may stand in counterpoint to the political activism that is indeed happening by day.  Yet there is more escapism than confrontation.

Bob Mould, one of the key forefathers and innovators that helped create grunge and alternative rock, once remarked in an interview about his parents' generation's musical revolution, "They sat in the park and sang with folk guitars.  We take electric guitars and blast the ---- out of them over and over again until the message sinks in...  We're not going to be passive.  We'll fight back our own way."

Will there be another revolution?  Perhaps it has not happened yet, but it still may.

Cornell's darkness might just be too much for another generation to swim into:

"Pale in the flare-light
The scared light cracks and disappears
And leads the scorched ones here
And everywhere no one cares
The fire is spreading
And no one wants to speak about it"

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Cuts, Filters, and Voids: What's the Technological Future?

It’s a rare lazy morning at work, and I find myself watching another video on social media about the detrimental effects of social media.  An impassioned scruffy pundit tells me that real life relationships and a meaningful job take patience and dedication.  The video is edited in a gently frenetic style, with cuts every two seconds – presumably with a goal of crystallizing the most substantive comments in a lengthier one-on-one interview into a streamlined bite-size illumination, but with the unintentional result of reinforcing the very lack of patience that is being decried.

It’s popular now to call it the echo chamber because of increasingly political and cultural bifurcation in America – but sometimes it seems like the most resounding echo is that of mutual solitudes.  Social media enshrines moments of togetherness but also thereby draws attention to their relative rareness compared to the percentage of our daily lives spent ultimately interfacing with screens small, medium, and gargantuan.  When we interact with people online, we are afforded a frequency of interactions that is often impossible in the physical world, but those interactions are presented through a number of veils – or literal “filters” – that can ultimately accentuate the distances between us.  

And, if a tree falls on Facebook and no one “likes” it, did it really fall?

I’m grateful for the ways technology connects the aspects of me that are uncommon to the distant things and people in the world that are matched to my idiosyncratic tastes.  My career has one foot in the digital realm of streaming TV and one foot in the resolutely old-fashioned but ever-vibrant world of live theater.  Yet even in the latter space, the vast majority of promotion and transaction happens online, and lavish musicals and pioneering plays make use of effects and staging that would have been out of reach to the first generation of Broadway.  Surprising to some, but Broadway is booming, as people seek a lavish night out and something to discuss with those who accompany them there.  But then again, TV’s booming, too.

All of this while I’m in a cubicle, trying to sort through a maddening phone tree and a computer system that seems to make it impossible to complete the tasks to enable the arrival of a new intern.  In an ideal world, technology would remove the unpleasant labor from our lives and free up our time for community, and for imaginative pursuits of a wide variety.  Perhaps the economy will shift to fulfilling new roles for everyone and a superior standard of living.  Or perhaps we will find our confused spirits launched out into the capacious voids that comprise most of the universe.

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Reaching the Levers of Power: Money and the Media after the Election

Economics always felt a little to me like watching Mulholland Drive – the closer you look, the more things aren’t what they seem.

So inequality’s a tricky topic, because it is a matter of definition, while trying to avoid the superficiality of semantics.  If one person has $1 billion and another has $50,000 but both effectively live the same lives consumption-wise, there’s inequality of resources but not inequality of behavior.  And is the world harmed by the wealthier one if he or she invests it in projects that advance various fields?

I’m from an industry that’s at once a huge beneficiary of inequality and a particular victim of inequality.  Book of Mormon never would have happened if not for a few checks from some vastly wealthy individuals – there’s really no world where a government program could have funded a piece poking fun at a religion (and plenty of other taboo topics beyond that).  I’ve seen, time and time again, the more democratic a producing process becomes, the harder it is to do anything audacious.  Mormon would have been severely watered down and lost the very attributes that made it amazing.  We need people willing to throw large chunks of money around, able to afford the risk of losing, and deep-pocketed and unobtrusive enough to stay out of the kitchen when there’s already expert cooks in there.

On the flip side, inequality bars many others from realizing their potential in the arts.  Starting out as a writer, actor, musician, director, or in plenty of other artistic roles, is simply a career choice that feels too financially risky to even attempt in the first place.  And the chasm between the remuneration of Jennifer Lawrence and the pennies picked up by a moderately successful poet is extreme indeed (a reason Hollywood celebrities often appear hypocritical when bemoaning inequality).  Even for the investing side of the business, who’s to say there aren’t many others out there who would do a better job of enabling truly bold and worthwhile projects?

Many people don’t have trouble looking at a given one of said Hollywood mega-celebrities and saying, do they really deserve to earn 400 times what the average American nets in a single year?  For being charming and emotional on screen?

But I work for a television studio now, so I don’t think I’ll stick my toe in that one, not just yet.

There’s a complicated mix, some might say mess, of incentives and distortions, efficiencies and perversions, that underpin the artistic economy specifically and the broader economy generally.  And in an American society where different classes and groups are intermingling and communicating so little that tens of millions were scratching their heads on November 9, economic inequality is also a key component of a broader cultural imbalance.  How can the haves rectify the needs of the have nots if the former aren’t even listening to hear what the latter find meaningful and valuable?  Money is a starting point and something that can be better distributed, but where to start?

I’m not presumptuous enough to start to catalogue these ills, but I can start with a plea for the beneficiaries of the increasingly skewed distribution of wealth – I think some of the very best and most innovative art and entertainment are not being made now, because no one’s giving them the resources.

But in return, those who are given the privileged access to control the levers of resource distribution in a field as resource-intensive as major media need to do a far better job of giving respectful and genuine space for the voices that are not being heard, including those with whom they disagree politically and culturally.  Hollywood celebrities came out in force with denunciations this year, and even the minority conservatives in the major media outlets seemed broadly unified against Trump – ironically a man whose TV show sat atop this competitive industry.  At the same time, Trump saw stupendous grassroots support and donations – his supporters may not have had much money to give, but they gave it with a passion and a dedication that perhaps no other politician elicited from them in this generation.

Trump was not irrational in saying that the cameras never (well, rarely) pulled back to show the huge crowds of the faces behind these donations.  Before the “elites” can rectify economic inequality, they need to start with rectifying the communication inequality that is now eating away at the bonds that are supposed to bind the country together.  For if those bonds become completely broken, any effort to fix the other aspects of inequality will likely fail to redistribute the resources where they are truly needed.

Friday, November 18, 2016

The Great Recalibration: College-Educated Voters and the 2016 Election

Many gallons of ink have been poured analyzing the white working class’s role in Trump’s victory, but far fewer on another phenomenon that’s only recently come to light (and seemed in doubt before the election): Trump wasn’t that far off from winning college graduates as well, independent of race.  The Times showed him losing 45 to 49 versus Clinton among college graduates, a far cry from the blowout that was supposed to happen among the more educated group.

This was a group that Peter Thiel singled out as well during his speech on Halloween:
“Our youngest citizens may not have huge medical bills, but their college tuition keeps on increasing faster than the rate of inflation, adding more every year to our $1.3 trillion dollar mountain of student debt.  America has become the only country where students take on loans they can never escape, not even by declaring bankruptcy.  Stuck in this broken system, Millennials are the first generation who expect their own lives to be worse than the lives of their parents.”

Thiel was crossing various lines that are not often crossed: a prominent figure from Silicon Valley contradicting the liberal plus libertarian ideological strains that are dominant there, and a gay man granting support to the standard-bearer of a party that LGBT people have consistently shied away from (though Trump managed to increase the tiny share to 14% this time around).

The indefatigably contrarian Thiel has made literally billions at the acme of the tech industry, a world that looked like it was starting to despise him for endorsing a candidate that threatened various of the ways that their business worked (especially that expansion of the H1-B visa class for skilled foreign workers that Mark Zuckerberg was pushing so hard for).

It is unsurprising that the voices that are most included in the national dialogue are those of the most secure and successful (few of whom would “expect their own lives to be worse than the lives of their parents”), and so Thiel viewed himself as speaking for the others who had paid a hefty sum for an education without reaping vast rewards in return, others whose anxieties could at best be shared with their friends.  But on election day, the voters who had remained fairly quiet in the discussion beforehand delivered a resounding cry that was heard the world over.

Making accurate assumptions about the psyches of these voters as a group is difficult, because so many of them won’t self-identify, and even the ones who do may not actually divulge the truly intimate details of what motivated them.  This is particularly true of the heavily scrutinized and protean alt-right, whose lifeblood seems to be in relatively anonymous circles online.  While the actions of various trolls have achieved great notoriety, the relatively low volume of online alt-right activity still leaves a massive question mark over the numerous millions of voters with undergraduate degrees – whether they secretly sympathized with alt-right viewpoints on immigration, affirmative action, and free speech, or whether they were driven by Thiel’s more respectably phrased appeals to a robust middle class and the value of communities that had been slowly dissolved by forces of trade and globalization.

Trump’s movement is often lumped together as “far-right” along with France’s National Front and other European nationalist parties, but it is interesting that Steve Bannon and many others from within the movement rather envisaged, as he put it, “an insurgent, center-right populist movement that is virulently anti-establishment.”  It is fair to say that many of these burgeoning political movements in the US and Europe are indeed more moderate on economic issues (cf. Thiel’s argument about infrastructure spending and making government function better rather than annihilating it) and more restrained with the military (as Trump recently reiterated his call on 60 Minutes to pull back from foreign adventures and spend more money on – drumroll please – infrastructure spending).  What is noteworthy with Trump that distinguishes him a little from some of the European movements is his more moderate stance around social issues as well.  How often have Republican candidates given contributions to Planned Parenthood?  His early donations to AIDS funds, strong relationships with gay folk in entertainment, and spirited appeals to the value of the LGBT community in the wake of the Orlando massacre and at the RNC convention put him well apart from so many other prominent Republicans, and especially from the more marginal religious populists of recent election cycles such as Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee.  “Far-right” might apply to certain policies (perhaps why Trump modified proposals such as the temporary Muslim ban), but, when words matter, the term may also be an attempt to keep the nationalists at bay.

Which brings us to immigration.  I am truly curious what proportion among those post-collegiate voters agreed with his general trend on immigration.  Returning to the Times data, only 32% of all voters who said immigration was the most important issue to them voted for Clinton.  Clearly Trump harnessed a passionate base of voters who saw in him a presidential candidate who seemed likely to follow through on a truly conservative immigration policy, and clearly the fear that Latinos would completely abandon him proved false, as he pulled a greater proportion of them than Romney or McCain.  Nationalist views are usually attributed to less educated voters, but there has been significant intellectual output on the conservative side of the issue, from Harvard professors Samuel P. Huntington and George Borjas, the latter of whom argues that immigration has played a major role in our national inequality and in the erosion of the middle class.  My professor Ed Lazear at Stanford provocatively argued that assimilation tended to stop working when the numbers of any specific first-generation group became too high.

I suspect that cultural conservatism is more prevalent among the college-educated than has been thought, but I would be curious indeed to see deeper research into attitudes here.  Many of the polls taken have had leading questions (“do you support a path to amnesty if the following conditions are satisfied…?”), and haven’t drilled down on education level while also probing into what may motivate their attitudes.

It will be vital to both parties to understand what is happening in this dimension, as few pundits in either seemed to understand it before the surprise victory.  Trump may have found a new balance of policies that will have lasting potency in terms of channeling the populist energy and discontent that fueled an unprecedented sea change in our political landscape – and one that seems likely to echo in Europe in the coming months.

Monday, October 10, 2016

Beyond the Chalkboard

How do you offer an education of indisputable practical value in a field as nebulous and inconsistent as the arts?

There are plenty of technical skills most ambitious people in the arts wouldn’t turn down, that would be helpful to know, to navigate the increasingly byzantine system of information funneling and social media promotion that has been set into motion by the appropriately titled world wide web.  It seems that no matter how high an echelon on the intellectual heavyweight ladder, very few are above Twitter, and the vast majority know how to get their voices disseminated to the right recipients.
There are tips and tricks to pick up online for this realm, but perhaps of greater significance for a successful career in an industry always having to argue for its own value to society are psychological fortitude, pragmatic self-reliance, and a core sense of self-worth (or at least a moderately inoffensive egotism).  The greatest visionaries are the ones who can impose a structure where there was nothing, or upend a preexisting structure and replace it with a superior one.  How can school, which is in practice a highly structured program of input and output, teach the very thing that stands opposite to it?

I remember the first time Broadway producing was explained to me – something, for sure, I had never fashioned as a future for myself in college or high school, but which fell upon me through social interactions in my first year in New York – I was dumbfounded by the wild west aspect of it, even compared to the rest of the notoriously disorderly entertainment sector.  Even sitting encased in the security and shelter of an apartment, there is an irrational sense of imminent terror sometimes just staring at a computer screen, having no meetings in a day, having no office, and feeling – real or imagined – the glaring eyes of elders wondering what you’re wasting your time with.  Why was there a pit of nagging insecurity and fear in my stomach as I was calling people to pitch them on Book of Mormon?

This, mind you, was for a show being developed by two of the most popular comedic minds of their generation (Trey Parker and Matt Stone) and being produced by one of the greatest living producers in the world (Scott Rudin).  So, for the nameless young person sitting down to write a poem, or a play, or maybe even something beyond the strictures of our current genres, this must either be time stolen from the spare hours outside the demands of a day job (which increasingly means an all-consuming job tied to a smartphone) and outside the commitments of a meaningful social and romantic life – if there’s much of that time to be found in the week.  It’s easiest to just keep this feeling like an avocation, that, in a world of flukes, might just eventually mean something to a lot of people, or, second best, mean a lot to some people.   (Hey, I love Sony, and I love my friends, but I can’t pretend there weren’t sacrifices made even in writing this humble blog.)  For the ones who have achieved some modicum of success, or others who are just going for broke (most commonly the actor running around town to auditions, usually with a part-time service gig), the specter of failure and the suffocating pressure of converting emotions and ideas into dollars and cents can feel like just too frigging much to handle.

This is part of why so many accomplished artists bemoan producers and businesspeople who work behind the scenes – there is a deep-seated sense that many of the latter sully a noble craft by altering heartfelt art in the name of primal commerce.  There’s a particular disconnect when writers or others critiquing the political structures and corporate or financial levers of society are forced to submit those very personal and humane reflections to the very system they are trying to alter.

But I’ve also heard equally emotional denunciations of the scholastic sector, both higher and, uh, less than higher education, from accomplished writers who felt that the culture of extreme critique suffocated the actual endeavor itself to the point of nullifying it.  In this sense it’s an extension of the repressive money machine that boxes them in, another transactional phase (“a mantra of ‘pay for everything’ unifying every part of the life cycle in a consumerist society, from the hospital to the hole you’re buried in”).

Further, the very lack of structure outside companies, schools, or other large organizations, may be the very thing that facilitates art in the first place.  Look at how few great filmmakers, writers, visual artists, or musicians are professors at universities.  Some of them do adjunct work on the side, though if you ask them about it they may secretly tell you it’s to get good health insurance, or to supplement some money.  So much of the critical culture of academia is inimical to whatever circumstances create something of strong and open emotion.

Heck, look how many living greats dropped out of academic programs: whether Cormac McCarthy or Tom Stoppard as writers, Bob Dylan and John Lennon in music, Al Pacino and so many other actors.  Hardly people one would peg as “uneducated” or unsophisticated, and yet they did forego what for so many is a non-negotiable rite of passage.

There aren’t a ton of “job jobs” out there in the arts.  Some require internships or apprenticeships with no pay or so little pay that a cash-strapped debt-ridden college graduate (or double-debt-ridden higher degree graduate) may find prohibitive in his or her financial situation.  Even trying to get one of those unglamorous corporate-side jobs out of business school at Stanford, my career counselor explained to me that this industry refused to behave like any other, that these jobs were “hard to come by” and that most of the few students who did attain them “knew someone.”  One movie producer I found through this network explained to me that I needed to “go through the top of the organization rather than the bottom.”  Would you care to introduce me?

Well, I found my way somewhere good, but I’m humbled for sure next to the imagination and audacity of the real greats, whose work I’m trying to promote.  Making something out of nothing – seeing a vision that none of the billions of other souls on the planet are privy to, or expression that vision in a fashion none of them is capable of, with a resonance that prompts a meaningful mass of people to carve time of their busy day for something that is under any pragmatic calculation non-essential.  How can you train someone for that?

I do think it’s important for the benefactors and patrons behind the arts to place emphasis on and resources behind programs that give artists structure and a meaningful social milieu when they are done with school.  And I do think there are many ways that school can foster imagination and cultural expression, and emphasize their value.  But the central work of a visionary must still chart a lonelier road.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Trust Me, I'm a Broadway Producer

Trust isn’t the first word that comes to mind when the topic is Broadway producing.

And it wasn’t my first thought either when I was starting out.  It’s hard to know whom to trust in an industry notorious for inflated or mendacious promises, hard to establish trust with the elder agents of power in a heavily relationship-based sphere, and hard to trust even yourself when your early ventures are likely to be enormously risky endeavors.  Broadway takes it to another level, even within entertainment, as established so unforgettably in the smash The Producers, which reinforced in the public’s mind the image of theater producers as the upper-crust incarnation of used car salesmen, swindling little old ladies into investing in a production the former just knew would fail (until it didn’t).  What other industry would make a pageant out of its own dirty laundry?

Lucrative though The Producers was for its own producers, the show was, and is, the bane of any current Broadway producer’s professional existence.  As a producer, compellingly explaining a uniquely structured investment class to the uninitiated is an art itself, and an uphill battle as well when an ignominious haze already hangs over the endeavor.  If I had $20 for every time someone referenced Bialystock and Bloom, or the general poor reputation of theater investing, I could probably capitalize a small-scale production.  But alas, that ain’t how it works.

Indeed, the scale inherent in mounting theatrical productions means producers, investors, theater owners, and plenty of other stakeholders are taking an elaborate risk with each new production.
Unlike Hollywood, there’s little in the way of “studios,” other than Disney, and so each new show is a separate Limited Liability Company, with a separate capital raise.  Raising over $10 million for a new musical is a fierce task, and it’s no surprise that institutional investors won’t go anywhere near this “high-beta” asset class.

I try to counter the fervor of most skeptics with the fact that on Broadway, lightning does strike in the same place.  In some cases, four times: Jeffrey Seller was in his early 30s when he first produced Rent on Broadway, and since then he has produced Avenue Q, In the Heights, and Hamilton.  David Stone was also in his early 30s when he first produced The Vagina Monologues, followed by Wicked and Spelling Bee.  Across the pond, Cameron Mackintosh has had Cats, Les Mis, Phantom of the Opera, and Miss Saigon.  A significant majority of Broadway shows lose money for their investors, but there are commonalities among the ones that don’t, and common figures shepherding the bolder productions to their respective successes (people who appreciate those commonalities).  Go through the above list and try to step back in history to before each came out, and you may remark that many of these must have seemed like rancid ideas beforehand: a rock adaptation of La Bohème set in the East Village, a hip-hop show about the first Secretary of the Treasury, a musical about a group of singing cats…

When I first told people about Book of Mormon back in 2010, it sounded just as commercially unappealing, if not even more so.  A musical about a religion practiced by less than two percent of the US population, that was flamboyantly disrespectful of said religion, and that was written by frat boy heroes and eternal provocateurs Trey Parker and Matt Stone – recognizing that the minority of South Park fans who had ever seen a Broadway show probably had been coerced.  I was 24 years old, had never invested in or raised money for a Broadway show, wasn’t part of any organization that would lend me any credence or gravitas, and was quite ill at the time.  That’s where trust’s legally blind cousin came in – faith; how appropriate for a show that dared to name itself The Book of Mormon.

Because the ultimate trust is trusting those who don’t have an extensive track record to point to, and recognizing that the greatest visionaries and disruptors generally don’t come from the very establishment that is being upended.  Scott Rudin had an extensive history of film success, and a number of acclaimed plays to his name, but taking a large scale musical straight to Broadway, with little beforehand but a small private workshop, required a level of faith that ultimately meant the large majority I told about this show turned me down on the opportunity to invest – even some who had been at that tiny workshop.  After all, Rudin had plenty of commercial failures as well, just as Seller, Stone, and Mackintosh did.

There’s some irony in how so many of the attempts to assemble sure-fire hits can be massive failures – Spiderman took a platinum director (Julie Taymor of Lion King), massively successful music writers (Bono and The Edge), and one of the most popular superhero franchises of all time, and learned the hard way that creativity doesn’t work so well when it’s handed down to the artists like a homework assignment.

No, Hamilton, Book of Mormon and plenty of other smashes came out of the creators’ own organic interest in eclectic ideas: during drinks after a show, or picking up a book on a Mexican vacation.  Taking the momentum of these widely appealing shows to transform Broadway from niche culture to broadly appreciated live entertainment will require faith in the notion that great theater can come from anyone, and be about anything.  People crazy enough to take a massive risk on a young artist with nothing but a new idea, and burning with a proselyte’s zeal to bring it to as many as possible.  Then Broadway can – as it has increasingly started to do – be vital and visionary enough to enter into a national conversation that stretches far beyond a mile in Manhattan.