The Downside Of The Applause Meter

February 24th, 2011

control.jpgLast week, I volunteered to participate in a video testimonial shoot for a well-known suite of software that provides real-time web metrics: unique visits, page views, video streams, etc.

Yes, I love the camera. I enjoy talking about my job. And I appreciate the ability to gauge and measure success. But I had an ulterior motive.

See, the rise of real-time metrics and the increasing power of search and social have driven a revolution — or at least a turbo-charged evolution — in the creative process.

Where a media organization might have once created based upon instincts and understanding of audience, now, instant results from the applause meter-like real-time feedback loop have enabled hyper-focus on producing solely what drives numbers.

Example. A media organization is forced to align resources against two, competing opportunities: a revolution in a small, Middle Eastern country (expensive, complicated), and the hot, new teen-pop phenom’s latest haircut. An absurd binary, perhaps. (And not one we wrestle with at our office; our mandate is clear.) But the decision’s made every day, and it’s not boding well for foreign bureaus.

Organizations like Demand Media and AOL (see “The AOL Way”) have (or are in the process of) building empires on the concept of “content farming” — inexpensively-produced, shallow media that drives immediate, short-lived traffic and/or long-tail, aggregate value.

At my office, I’ve been an advocate of these tools and measurements in partnership with our editorial values and rocket-fueled ideation. I volunteered, then, because I wanted to be the guy who spoke on behalf of balance and reason. We’re a business; we have to understand and serve our audience. We have to use all available research. But we have to lead with creativity, innovation and intuition.

Jackson Pollack created in a vacuum. Fellini, Scorsese, Woody Allen, and Kevin Smith all followed their own muse. The Ramones didn’t focus group their albums. Talking Heads never crowdsourced a song. Lincoln, Edison, Marconi — none of them relied on anything other the intelligence and instinct. And all of them changed the world in varying degrees.

The downside of the applause meter is simple: if we only create what panders to our audiences, we’re stuck. If no one mentions the unmentionable, explodes expectations, or shines a light into our darkest, most-uncomfortable corners, we’ll be stuck here forever on these housewife-strewn, expletive-laden, polyunsaturated red carpets.

My Sunshine

February 21st, 2011

mags.jpgDifficult to tell for sure, but I think today’s the day it clicked for Maggie.

“Oh, that sound I keep hearing from the speakers is Daddy.”

Maggie’s a handfull. I mean, she’s actually quite fun: short on tears, long on giggles and squeals. But she’s super-curious and uber-wobbly. Maggie’s primary passtime is unloading her bookshelf one-by-one, then moving on to her toy basket. There are a thousand potential bumps and bruises in-between. So if she’s awake, she needs a spotter.

I was designated spotter all day; Abs was at work. Mags and I were winding down after dinner (rice cereal with pureed spinich, apples and pears). Frankly, I was running out of tricks. So I reached for my guitar.

Abbi and I are a) OCD and b) minimalist, so what’s left of my stuff is either under the bed or in my closet. My Martin’s been way in the back for months. I hauled it out a few weeks ago, though, to play for Maggie.

Tonight was just the second time (since the lights really flickered on behind her eyes, which took a few months) I played guitar for Maggie — something I did a few times a day for twenty years. I sat on the floor and began strumming. She crawled over, mouth agape,and paused. And then she did something unprecedented: she sat there motionless and listened. Her eyes darted from one hand to the other. I watched it all compute: one hand strums, the other forms the chord. She was mesmerized.

It didn’t last long, of course; she wanted to get involved. She stretched her arm towards the strings, and pressed down, and pulled herself to stand. I kept strumming, imagining that I was tactically improving her sense of rhythm. She looked puzzled, removed her fingers, screeched, and then moved further down the fretboard.

This lasted a while — me strumming, her muting — until I decided I needed to play more quietly, something soothing to prepare her for sleep. And so I began arpeggiating. And then I began singing, “You Are My Sunshine.” Which is when I saw it register. She tilted her head almost imperceptibly, and I swear I could see it click, “You’re the guy from that song!”

Of course, I recorded “Forever Young” for Maggie. I want her to love music, and by all accounts she seems to: every morning starts with a song (“Good morning to you!”), and every dinner ends with a dance party. And of course, I put the guitar down, walked to the stereo and played “You Are My Sunshine” to reinforce the connection. I picked her up, wrapped her fingers around my thumb, and began singing and swaying. She looked at me, looked at the speakers, and then looked back at me. Up until that moment, I wasn’t sure how quickly it would click. Now I know.

And now I know what I’m buying her for her birthday: her own guitar. (I just have to figure out what to do with the first drum set already waiting for her underneath the bed).

Living In The Fish-Eyed Lens, Part II

February 16th, 2011

snooks.jpgI was in the frozen food section, just a few aisled off course in the neighborhood Food Emporium (list: coffee, half & half), when I remembered.

“You’re not a Juice Head,” Snooki said. “You’re a Lean Cuisine.”

More than 48 hours after the Grammy red carpet closed, it’s still coming back to me.

“MTV News’ Grammy Pre-Show” was helmed by Sway Calloway, with an assist from “Jersey Shore” star Nicole Polizzi and Rock Editor James Montgomery. I was on hand to Executive Produce.

I’ve worked a dozen VMAs, Oscars and Grammys, but the scale of the production never fails to flabberghast me. The white-tented red carpet runs nearly two city blocks, buffeted by satellite trucks and Star Wagons from E!, ET, Access Hollywood, CNN, and TV Guide. Thousands of crew are employed.

The carpet opened at 1pm. Snooki arrived, leapord-print slippers at the ready just prior. I spotted Lou Reed (black boots, t-shirt and sport coat) first, then Metallica’s Dave Mustaine.

Sway began with producers: David Guetta, and Alex Da Kid. Snooki lept to the mic for Vampire Weekend; it was tough to know who was a bigger fan. Lady Gaga passed in her egg seconds before we called “Action!”

We were live for over two hours, ten of us and a TriCaster (digital video mixer) on an 8′ x 8′ platform. It was a dizzying, adrenaline-fueled, star-studded afternoon.

Kim Kardashian, Miley Cyrus, Paramore, Bruno Mars, BoB, Drake, Nicki Minaj, Jennifer Lopez, Tyrese, Jennifer Hudson, LL Cool J, Marky Ramone, LaRoux, Crystal Bowersox, Kathy Griffin, Swizz Beats and “Glee” star Matthew Morrison all stopped to talk.

I don’t remember much beyond a thousand micro-directions, emails, Tweets and one dirty look from “The Insider” hostess Lara Spencer. And a few seconds in the middle of it all when I showed Nicole photos of Maggie.

“Does it change your life like they say?” she asked.

“More,” I answered.

“I can’t wait.”

I do recall walking Snooki back to her hotel. Dusk was settling over the LA Live complex: part sports arena complex, part mall. Nicole was legitimately exhausted from hours on the red carpet. Hundreds of teenagers (and their parents) swarmed us, scurrying ahead, snapping pics and shouting.

“Snooki! Snooki!! Snooks!!! Will you take a photo?”

Nicole averted her gaze as my colleague and I endeavored to decline on her behalf. Her fans were persistent, insistent, if not indignant. Periodically, she’d stop and smile. I settled her into a lobby banquette with her boyfriend, Jionni.

“Can I get you a drink?” I asked.

One delicious, well-earned shot of Patron later, Nicole and Jionni climbed into their BMW and disappeared into the urbanglow.

Nothing Is Cool

February 10th, 2011

bw.jpg“Are you cool?”

The year is 1996, and — while I’ve finally ditched my pleather pants, green lame shirt and blue fingernail polish — I most definitely am not.

Nightengale Bar is sparsely-populated. My band, Benjamin Wagner Deluxe, is set up in front of a mirrored wall and killing time before our enviable set time (Monday at midnight). We mill between the pool table and bar, swilling free Bud Light (our sole compensation) and joking awkwardly.

Jeffs Leadweight and Roberts (names changed to protect the innocent) and I are an odd bunch, more happenstance than happening. They’re neither art school recruits nor Village Voice hires, but instead the first two guys I could find. Leadweight is a sweet but aging punk drummer with imprecise time and a three chins. Roberts is a socially-phobic virtuoso who’s basically slumming it.

I ran by Nightengale Sunday morning, the first third of my now-weekly long run (Goal #7 of my “Eleven For 2011”). And as I did, I flashed backed to that winter’s night (Set List Sample: “Lottery,” “You Decide,” “Pretty Wasted,” “Jackie Chan”), and that question.

“Are you cool?”

Abbi and I spent the bulk of our Saturday afternoon (the windows are narrow between Maggie’s naps) at a frame shop on the Upper East Side; our walls are still bare after three years together. We’d accrued four prints over the years: one, a modernist splash of color, another, an infographic; a photograph of a little boy reading a book and one that reads simply, “We Are Good Together.”

Deferring to my wife’s artistic vision for mats and frames and floating prints, I bobbed and weaved and danced and sang to keep Maggie entertained for nearly two hours. The store was crowded with shoppers, still I played peak-a-boo and hide-and-seek and generally did whatever it took to keep Maggie (and Abbi) smiling.

And when the value of that distraction waned, I walked her across the street to TK Church. As her wide, blue eyes scanned the domed ceiling and stained glass, I whispered into ear, “This is where people come to pray. You can talk with whoever you want to here.” We lit candles in memory of her grandmothers, then traipsed back through the light drizzle and resumed our bobbing, weaving, dancing and singing.

By the standards of almost any of my previous incarnations, our Saturday afternoon at the frame shop was utterly uncool.

By the standards of one new father, it was a silly, moving, delightful afternoon building a nest with my beautiful wife and precious daughter.

“Nothing,” as Michael Stipe sings in “Man On The Moon,” “is cool.”

Which is a beautiful revelation fifteen years beyond.