You can’t handle “your truth”!

Oprah Winfrey’s Golden Globes speech sure struck a chord, didn’t it? The erstwhile talk show host and current media mogul said enough to spur online discussion of a made-for-TV 2020 Presidential matchup.

There’s certainly plenty to say about what the whole concept says about current affairs, politics, and culture.

Ben Shapiro of The Daily Wire and the Wall Street Journal’s Byron Tau, among others, picked up on a phrase Winfrey used, “your truth.” The context (from the full transcript):

What I know for sure is that speaking your truth is the most powerful tool we all have. And I’m especially proud and inspired by all the women who have felt strong enough and empowered enough to speak up and share their personal stories.

This is one of those tricky phrases that means different things to different people, which makes discussion difficult. Critics of Winfrey’s phrasing note that the truth is the truth. People may have different perspectives or opinions, but objective facts are objective facts.

That’s certainly accurate, from a certain point of view. One person may look at a three-dimensional cube and, seeing only one side, claim it’s a square. Their perspective – or lack of it in this example – does not change the objective fact that this is a cube.

That’s not really what Winfrey’s talking about, though.

As the mentions in her speech, Winfrey’s life experience meant living through turbulent times when being black carried overwhelming social baggage. As a woman in show business in the 1980s, she likely had to deal with the same harassment issues that are only now being brought to light. Today, you may look at Oprah Winfrey and see the “truth” of a powerful, car-giving-away, bread-loving media empress who could build or ruin a career at whim. Her vantage point is different; when thinking about her “truth” Winfrey also remembers the local news anchor struggling her way up the ladder.

“Truth” is a strong and probably miscast word for perspective, but intentionally so. Its strength validates experiences. In the immediate context, it validates women who suffer harassments in all walks of life, and see those experiences echoed in the current mess in the motion picture industry. It isn’t just your story, Winfrey seems to say; for you, it is the absolute truth.

There’s a parallel to draw from President Donald Trump’s campaign rhetoric, which so famously used language that most politicians did not, and Winfrey uplifting her audience through subtlely coded language. In each case, it fosters a connection with the audience that just about every speaker tries for, but which few can establish.

The next election sure ought to be fun, huh?

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Two Forgotten Christmas Classics Turn 30

A Garfield Christmas Special / christmastvhistory.com

According to IMDB, A Garfield Christmas Special and A Claymation Christmas Celebration both premiered on December 21, 1987, on CBS. They both turned 30 this week.

You can be forgiven for forgetting: Neither seems to have aired on a major network this year… or in the past several years, for that matter. But both used to be seasonal staples for CBS.

Christmas specials tend to fall into one of two broad categories: Either a grumpy killjoy learns the “true meaning of Christmas” (the myriad re-tellings of Charles Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol” fall into this bucket) or a hero must “save Christmas” by making sure Santa Claus can make his rounds. (One might argue the existence of a third category about finding love for the holidays. I highly recommend the We Just Saw a Movie podcast, which has explored this odd genre in great detail over the past two Yuletides.)

A Garfield Christmas

A Garfield Christmas Special falls into the first category, inviting us to the Arbuckle family farm for a “good old-fashioned Christmas.” There are no human children characters, but thirty-something brothers Jon and Doc-Boy Arbuckle prefigure criticisms of today’s millennials by immediately reverting to childlike behaviors. (Also, we learn that Mr. Arbuckle paid for nearly a quarter century of piano lessons for Doc-boy. That’s… odd.) Garfield, for his part, plays the closest thing the episode has to a Scrooge; while not openly hostile toward the holiday, he welcomes Christmas with a shrug and a trademark, “big fat hairy deal.” He has a heart-to-heart with Grandma Arbuckle (a stereotypical 80’s “sassy old lady” in the mold of Sophia from the Golden Girls) about her late husband, then both gives and receives thoughtful gifts to inspire a change of heart.

As a media franchise, Garfield doesn’t get a lot of credit for its subtle, Letterman-esque sarcasm. There’s passive-aggressive friction between Grandma Arbuckle and her daughter-in-law. There’s Mr. Arbuckle, wondering aloud why he has to entertain his grown offspring with children’s stories, while his wife enables their sons. The family gawks at the Christmas tree that probably looks like every Christmas tree they have put up for decades. Doc-boy spends Christmas morning wearing a bunny rabbit onesie; Jon receives a horrible oversized sweater but seems fairly appreciative nonetheless.

The Arbuckle Family Christmas is at various time silly, ridiculous, tedious, immature… and ultimately perfect because it belongs to them. Garfield himself summarizes the message: “It’s not the giving, it’s not the getting, it’s the loving.”

A Claymation Christmas Celebration

Remember when the GEICO cavemen got their own sitcom? Decades before that debacle, the stop-motion animated California Raisins went from selling dried fruit to multi-media stardom.

The signing raisins were the grand finale of A Claymation Christmas Celebration. Claymation is the rare children’s Christmas program which doesn’t fit into the categories mentioned above; it has more in common with variety specials by the likes of Michael Bublé. Six short, unconnected, musical vignettes fit around the banter between Rex and Herb, a couple of dinosaurs trying to find the definition of the word “wassail.” (They eventually learn from a  band of leprechauns or elves who appear to be driving with open containers.)

Each song is a unique take on a classic. The Magi Melchior, Caspar, and Balthazar sing the traditional verses of “We Three Kings,” while their camels provide jazzy, upbeat improvisational choruses. Walruses ice dance to “Angels We Have Heard on High” while inadvertently tormenting a waddle of penguins. The Carol of the Bells is played by an orchestra of anthropomorphic bells who whack themselves with mallets (including one who has apparently taken a few too many hits). And the California Raisins improvise after missing a bus by crafting their own magic sleigh to the tune of “Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer.”

There’s no story to be had here, but each vignette is funny in its own way.  And the music is fun. (There is also something to be said for true, stop-motion claymation. Imagine the painstaking process of sculpting the characters and bringing them to life.)

Why We Don’t See Them Anymore

In the late 1980s and into the 1990s, Garfield and Claymation were holiday television staples. They aren’t anymore. That’s probably fine.

Cynically, one might blame it all on merchandising. Suction cup Garfields don’t adorn every third car anymore, and dancing clay figures aren’t selling dried grapes. Why devote prime airtime to specials that advertise yesterday’s product when Olaf’s Frozen Adventure could start building excitement for the upcoming-but-still-far-away Frozen 2?

On the other hand, yesterday’s Christmases are yesterday’s Christmases. Today’s Christmases are the wholly owned domain of today’s kids.

Garfield hugging Odie might inspire misty-eyed memories for me, but I can buy Garfield on DVD or watch him on YouTube if I need a nostalgia fix.

Other people (like me) grew up watching this stuff, but my kids don’t know Garfield. They know Olaf the snowman. We watched his special this year, and we all liked it. It was an imaginative story which doesn’t fit into either the “grump finds Christmas Spirit” nor the “save Santa/save Christmas” categories, and that’s a bit refreshing. The music was catchy, and the messages about Christmas traditions and being with loving family were there.

The characters might be different, but the best Christmas stories run a little deeper than that. Maybe, 29 years from now, my kids will look at the calendar and think, “Wow, that Frozen special is 30? That reminds me of when I was a kid…”

 

 

Heroes versus role models

This week, Louis C.K. confessed and verified accusations of his inappropriate behavior from female comics and colleagues. This controversy shares its news cycle with sexual misconduct accusations against Roy Moore, a candidate for the United States Senate who was the darling of a certain strain of religious conservatives.

The chain of accusations continues to grow. It looks like Kevin Spacey, a great actor, has acted less-than-great as a human being. Harvey Weinstein, a champion of offbeat films, proved all too adherent to one of Hollywood’s longest-standing clichés. Bill Cosby, America’s Dad in the 1980s, is now America’s creepy old man who allegedly drugged and took advantage of women.

If you count yourself as a fan of C.K., or Moore, or any of the many figures having their very serious flaws exposed, you’re excused for feeling let down. Really, who can you root for anymore? It seems like any time you put your faith in someone, you’re setting yourself up to be let down.

Oddly enough, it reminds me of a chapter on role models in one of my favorite books, Success Is a Choice – written, appropriately enough, by Rick Pitino.

Pitino, one of the most successful college basketball coaches of the past 30 years, is currently on unpaid vacation thanks to his association with an alleged recruiting scheme currently under FBI investigation. It’s not the first – or even the worst – scandal during his time at Louisville. In many aspects, Pitino has become an abject disgrace.

Pitino, perhaps presciently, defined the term role model narrowly:

Role models are not necessarily people you admire or people you are fans of. … Role models are people you can emulate, people you can learn things from. And you’ll find them everywhere, from the person sitting next to you at work to someone in your family. A role model is anyone who has anything to teach you on your journey to success.

Growing up, many of us have heroes – parents, grandparents, teachers – who can do no wrong in our eyes. As we get older, we may admit actors, musicians, or athletes into our pantheon of heroes based on what we can observe of them – how they come off on screen, or how far they hit a baseball.

The definition Pitino used for Success Is a Choice, gives role models a much narrower influence. You might read stories about how Derek Jeter showed up to spring training weeks early to put more prep work into his upcoming season; that doesn’t mean you have to hold on to grudges as Jeter famously did during his playing career.

Or, you can use Pitino’s book as a blueprint for success, while still recognizing his ugly failures to follow his own plan.

Role models are useful, but you can’t extrapolate an entire personal profile from a favorable characteristic or two. This distinction becomes more important with each scandal showing that those with prominence and power don’t always behave well.

 

 

Weinstein, Trump, and the nature of power

During a Twitter back-and-forth with CNN’s Chris Cillizza, singer John Legend made a point about the recent Harvey Weinstein scandal in the context of President Donald Trump’s own checkered past with women.

In that second tweet, Legend appears to suggest we ought to expect more from elected leaders; at face value that’s not particularly controversial. A completely acceptable and probably right thing to say.

Setting aside the particulars of Weinstein’s sins and Trumps unacceptable language for now, think about the nature of the Presidency. In most cases have eight years to promote and enact their philosophy before someone of the opposing party jumps in and undoes all the hard work. They toil in the world of politics – a world of little interest to most Americans.

Weinstein? He boasts a much longer shelf life. His film production career stretches back about four decades. His hands have touched a range of work as a producer or executive producer, from the boundary-pushing Pulp Fiction to the family-friendly Air Bud; he has been connected to some of the most influential independent/art house films but had plenty of commercial successes in between. He has been influential, and think how influential television and movies are in shaping culture.

Trump will be gone in either three or seven years, depending on how 2020 goes. Some will surely blame him for lowering American political discourse or making discussions crass, but only those who haven’t been watching for the past 20 years or so. Outside of launching a nuclear war (stay tuned?) what lasting legacy will Trump have in politics?

Obviously, Trump is a public figure and role model, so how he treats or talks about women naturally reflects something about our society. Weinstein has been on the cutting edge of Hollywood for four decades. John Legend had a point: We should aspire to elect leaders who represent the best of what we imagine our society can be. But people like Weinstein are the ones shaping our imaginations. As Andrew Breitbart is so often quoted as saying, “Politics is downstream from culture.”

American League East teams explained as members of Genesis

Are you new to the American League East? You picked a great time to start paying attention: Over the past two seasons, each of the five teams has been in contention for the division lead.

But learning the historical context for each of these franchises within the division can be daunting. To make it easier, you can think of the AL East teams in terms that every American schoolchild knows: the members of the British rock band Genesis.

Yankees: Phil Collins (vocals, drums) – The Yankees have been consistently successful over the years, to the point where they inspire hatred. Some criticize them as overly corporate and formulaic. Many hate to admit it, but the entire division is most successful (and really most interesting) when the Yankees are performing at a high level. October nights are made for Yankee Stadium.

Red Sox: Peter Gabriel (vocals, flute, fox-with-a-dress costume) – The Sox used to be the face of the division in the decades before selling off Babe Ruth. Since then, they have their moments of greatness. They are content (and quite successful) doing their own thing.

Orioles: Tony Banks (keyboards, backing vocals)Since the Earl Weaver days, the Orioles’ success has usually been built on strong fundamentals. Other teams usually spring to mind when you think of the AL East, but when Baltimore is strong, the division is deep and competitive. Even if they aren’t in the thick of the pennant race, the O’s usually have enough talent to have a hand in the division race.

Rays: Mike Rutherford (guitars) – Tamba Bay gets overlooked, but (like the Orioles) they tend to have a hand in the division outcome, even when they aren’t at the top of the standings. They could win the division someday, all they need is a miracle.

Blue Jays: Steve Hackett – They were out of it for so long you almost forgot they were even in the division. But they occasionally pop back up and it’s just like old times.

Tigers: Anthony Phillips (original guitarist) – Hey, remember when they were in this division? Right at the beginning, after the re-alignment in 1995 but before the 1998 expansion. They were even in first place for a bit that year. They’ve had a pretty nice run since leaving the division, probably better than they would have fared if they had stayed.

Mets and Nationals: Daryl Stuermer (concert guitars) and Chester Thompson (concert drums)  – The Mets and Nats aren’t in the division, but thanks to annual interleague geographic rivalries you still see them every year.

 

 

Prime-al behavior

Amazon held its now-annual Prime day this week. Three years in, it’s safe to assume the tradition isn’t going anywhere soon; Sales were through the roof, and other retailers even started to piggyback their own deals off Amazon’s hype machine.

Other big shopping days are big shopping days because of consumer behavior. Black Friday became Black Friday because it was a weekday most people had off without any holiday obligations. Car dealerships and mattress stores, who both sell things you want to see and test before you buy, know you have some extra time over a three-day weekend, so they run promotions during Presidents’ Day, Memorial Day, and Labor Day.

Prime Day is different. Amazon created a big shopping day at a time when people specifically do not typically shop. Now that news outlets pay attention and other retailers circle the day on their own planning calendars, you could say Amazon has created a holiday out of thin air.

So is Amazon controlling our brains?

Maybe a little bit, but not any more than any other retailer.

A store (that isn’t going out of business or trying to liquidate inventory) generally has two reasons to put out a “Sale!” sign: 1) Everyone is shopping and they want to entice people in; or 2) No one is shopping and they want to entice people in. Amazon clearly opted for the latter – and as the world’s foremost digital retailer has a near-limitless variety of things to put on sale

Amazon clearly opted for the latter – and as the world’s foremost digital retailer has a near-limitless variety of things to put on sale to lure people in off the metaphorical street – a near limitless number of people they can reach, to boot.

A more direct comparison might be so-called “Hallmark Holidays.” Some are lame even if well-meaning. (Grandparents’ Day never really took off, did it?) But look at how Valentine’s Day, Mother’s Day, and Father’s Day affect consumer behavior and cultural trends in February, May, and June, respectively. Mother’s Day offers a particularly good example – after a Presidential proclamation made it “official” in 1914,

Mother’s Day offers a particularly good example of how a made-up holiday can take off. Within a decade after a Presidential proclamation made it “official” in 1914, the mother of Mother’s Day, Anna Jarvis, bemoaned the “profiteering” and opportunism around the day.

It’s easy to say the public is duped into spending money on these days. But the genius behind Hallmark holidays and Prime Day isn’t in creating demand, but focusing consumer behavior. Most people want to express their appreciation for Mom, but Mother’s Day gives them a specific day to do it. Amazon knows that people are usually motivated to buy with good deals, they just picked a day.

Amazon knows that people become motivated to buy stuff when they find good deals. They just picked a day. Now everyone is along for the ride.

 

 

 

 

The benefit of fanboys and fangirls

Last week I posted something on Medium about how Walt Disney World blows other theme parks away – not by being the best theme park, but by telling the best stories. Toward the end, I made a passing reference to Disney re-invigorating the Star Wars franchise.

Maybe that comes off like a dig at George Lucas (not like he would care). It’s actually pretty common for a good media franchise or a political movement to enjoy success beyond its originator.

This year marks the Star Wars franchise’s 40th anniversary. It’s easy to pretend like that has been four decades of uninterrupted cultural significance. That isn’t the case. Sure, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Star Wars built an empire (ironic) of movies and merchandise. By the late 1980’s, though, the franchise flagged; Star Wars looked to have run its course. Something else would surely dominate the 1990s, the 2000s, the 2010s.

Then came Timothy Zahn’s book, Heir to the Empire – the first of three books which would form the closest thing to a sequel trilogy until, well,  2015 kicked off a sequel trilogy. Zahn invented characters, planets, and concepts that felt at once new and wholly consistent with the original movies.

People forget just how fringe Star Wars was circa 1990. Zahn’s novels set the foundation for a library of books, comics, video games, and other media that made Star Wars a marketable commodity again.

All of this was done with the guidance of creator George Lucas – but, notably, without his direct control. That was before the dark times. Before the prequels.

Years after that unsatisfying, CGI-heavy 1999-2005 prequel trilogy, Lucas again turned over the keys – this time to Disney. And it all happened again. The Force Awakens and Rogue One were box office hits. The Last Jedi will be released this coming December, but not before fans examine each trailer release the way Moon landing conspiracy theorists watch video of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin bouncing around in that southern California sound stage.

The Star Wars franchise is invigorated again and, just as in the 1990s, someone else is leading the charge.

It isn’t surprising that Star Wars fans connect better with the works of fellow fans.  Translating this to another industry: What images spring to mind when you think of Barack Obama’s historic 2008 campaign? Maybe Shepard Fairey’s “Hope” graphic or the “Yes We Can” video. Neither was produced by the campaign itself, though the campaign was happy (and smart) to reap the benefits of their influence.

Why does this happen?  Here’s a theory: Fans have enough detachment to see what makes their obsession interesting. George Lucas might have built an excellent story explaining Darth Vader’s motivations for his descent into evil; he forgot how much the likable characters, practical special effects, and witty dialogue had to do with drawing viewers in. Obama’s 2008 campaign was known for it’s “hope and change” rhetoric. The campaign spoke about “change,” but it was the supporters who started talking about “hope.”