Global – Antenna Responses to Media and Culture Thu, 30 Mar 2017 23:48:47 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Only Marginally More Unreal: Reconsidering CNN’s Coverage of Malaysia Airlines 370 Mon, 12 May 2014 13:30:14 +0000 Although the disappearance of the March 8 flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing was extraordinary, the initial coverage of it was not. All the major news outlets began with lavish reporting, becoming briefly and predictably singular in their focus on the missing plane. If the story had ended conventionally—perhaps with recovery of the plane, identification of a mechanical malfunction that had sent it fatally awry, or revelation of some incontrovertible evidence that the pilot or the crew had acted deliberately—the coverage would have found its way to denouement. But the story did not end conventionally, and in the absence of this, most popular media attention has merely drifted in other directions, without resolution. Updates on the search still merit passing mentions, but the biggest story about the missing plane has now become the meta-story of its coverage, and specifically CNN’s persistent and often journalistically questionable work.

While the criticisms of CNN’s approach to Malaysia Airlines 370 are by now familiar, I want to explore the possibility that CNN’s coverage is actually—albeit unintentionally—meaningful. With its reliance on speculation, dependence on simulation, and occasional swerves into absurdity, it indexes the incomprehensibility of this disaster, marked by the failures of so many systems that seemed to promise safety, visibility, and order. To be clear, I do not mean to exonerate CNN, which is rather unabashedly utilizing this as a ratings grab. Nonetheless, their coverage vividly captures the essence of this disaster.

Some measure of qualified guessing is expected, even necessary, in any coverage of an unfolding disaster; CNN’s coverage is distinguished by its continued recourse to hypothesizing, but also the amount of latitude it gives to conjecture, as when it reported, in a way that many found insufficiently incredulous, that some people believed zombies had hijacked the plane. Criticizing such reportage is important, surely, but also eclipses its significance, as CNN’s speculation starkly illuminates the enormous epistemological gap created by the plane. It also reflects the failure of the rational and technologized systems designed to track aircraft during flight or locate them afterward. The imagined world governed by those devices (organized into grids of latitudes and longitudes, synchronized time zones, and orderly networks of predictable flight paths) cannot countenance the possibility of something like this.  But CNN’s coverage shows us how far we have strayed from that map.

toy plane

This departure is amplified by the visual elements of its coverage. The now-infamous use of a toy plane as a prop surely risked trivializing the disaster; likewise its reliance on flight simulator cockpits and computer-generated images that hover around its “virtual studio.” Even as it spectacularizes the disaster, however, simulation also resonates uncannily with it. All the visual modes of searching have failed to locate the plane: satellite images, aerial surveillance, maps of ocean topography. The utterly perplexing and apparently absolute disappearance of the plane, whereby all that is solid does not melt into air but vanishes into the sea, is the sort of thing that we, with expectations that our most advanced machines will function perfectly and our acculturation to being monitored at all times, can scarcely imagine. In that context, a holographic plane is only marginally more unreal.

The only signature element of CNN’s coverage that has not yet been widely lampooned is its attention to the stories of bereaved families and friends, many of whom give interviews in which they profess hope that their loved one will be found alive. Stories like that of the daughter who has been devotedly tweeting her crew-member father, steeped in poignant absurdity, would not find much purchase in a more staid outlet. One man, Pralhad Shirsath, in an April 23 interview, asserted that the paucity and poor quality of the information from the Malaysian government indicates that they do not have enough “data” about what happened, and, by extension, to convince him that his wife is truly lost. Necessarily, the journalist pressed him, citing conclusive evidence about the fate of the plane, but the potential widower remains undaunted. CNN, by creating this universe that defies the conventions of journalism (and the sometimes cruel boundaries of common sense), has provided these mourners with a space where their bewildering grief might be articulated. Given the likelihood that it will be months, or years, or longer before the plane is found (if it is found at all), CNN’s lingering on the story mimics the looping returns of sadness in the perseverating endlessness of grief.


Although CNN’s vigil is often self-interested and carnivalesque, the clamor against it is problematic, too. It endeavors to sanitize our visual field by expunging the traces of the logically unknowable, the empirically invisible, and the affectively unpalatable in defense of all that they threaten to destabilize. To partake of CNN’s vision of the disaster is to acknowledge that it was, and remains, both tragic and incomprehensible, and to allow those two dimensions of the event to dictate the disorderly and unpredictable terms by which it appears.


What Are You Missing? Apr 28 – May 11 Sun, 12 May 2013 13:05:45 +0000 WAYM-Iron Man 3Ten (or more) media industry news items you might have missed recently:

1) This installment starts with news that that I’m sure no one missed. Iron Man 3 made its worldwide debut, but all eyes were on China, which put up a respectable $21.5 million on opening day. In North America, our $68.3 million opening day brought IR3 within striking distance of a half-billion dollar box office after less than two weeks of release. Keeping all of that in mind, can you really blame RDJ?  But life’s not all about the Benjamins, friends. Apparently, Tony Stark is doing good business (“business”?) among pirates, who elevated IR3 to #3 on TorrentFreak’s list of the most illegally downloaded films. Haven’t seen the movie yet? Here are some other ways to enjoy the atmosphere: becoming Iron Man, keeping up with Robert Downey, Jr., on Sina Weibo, or basking in RDJ’s charisma.

2) Speculation about NeXtBox – can we make this a thing? – is picking up ahead of a launch event set for May 21. Exact details about the release date, price, and specs are yet to be revealed, but as I get on in years, I find what matters most is that I be allowed — encouraged even — to play alone. What do we know about NeXtBox? Well, apparently it supports a projector system capable of making you wish that you didn’t have so much furniture. Don’t invest in a blank wall yet, however; Illumiroom may not be ready for Microsoft’s next-gen rollout. If you’re not on Team Microsoft, there’s always the PS4 to look forward to.

3) The future is arriving at the speed of time, and next-gen gaming systems are just the start. San Francisco played host last week to the first NeuroGaming Conference and Expo, where “ineluctable modality” was just a string of cool-sounding syllables. Commercial potential for games that track player heart rate, brain waves, pupil dilation, and a host of other physiological data is still slight, but Google Glass may help start-ups find a direction. We all saw Strange Days, right? Less pie-in-the-sky are developments in controller design. Thalmic Labs’ Myo promises “effortless interaction,” bringing us all one step closer to living out our childhood fantasies or five steps closer to saying, “Remember when…?” Also, this exists.

4) Let’s pretend this is a surprise. Google Glass is coming, presumably for people more interesting than myself, and some of the source code has been released, so developers have been put on notice. What are the possibilities? Where to start: wink-based photography, making Vine videos, making and uploading YouTube videos, ARG gaming (a covert valorization of early adoption?), Facebooking, and updating your software. But it’s not all sunshine and rainbows; get a head start on worrying about surveillance, privacy, basic social interactions, keeping expectations realistic, and not looking like a jerk. And you don’t have to be excited about the tech itself to enjoy the ad campaign. White Men Wearing Google Glass has made a game of tracking down the instrument’s target demographic. So far, though, I’m most concerned about a different set of would-be users. Finally, I’m going on record. Google Glass is still only playing second-fiddle. The Large Hadron Collider (or any particle accelerator) exists; for the rest of us, there’s Google Glass.

5) First, some context: The Syrian Electronic Army has been around the digital block a few times, becoming something of a nuisance for high-profile critics of the Assad regime. The group’s latest target was The Onion Twitter account, where it posted a number of pro-Assad and anti-Semitic tweets just because they couldn’t take a joke. The Onion responded as you’d expect: one news story poking humor at the hack and another announcing tighter security. (When connectivity is a weapon, I feel compelled to point out that feelings of levity should be brief. See the end of the WaPo story for evidence.)

6) How are things at DreamWorks? Awesomeness abounds.  It’s overflowing even, so they’ve sent some to China. But is ‘awesome’ for DreamWorks ‘awesome’ for everyone? It may be for a selection of YouTube content providers. Subscription channels are coming. Big Bird may be involved, but WWE isn’t biting (for now?).  As much as things change, other things remain the same…unless this happens. That would be a fairly significant development.

7) Netflix’s streaming service lost almost 1,000 titles on May 1. Users and the media took to calling the event Streamageddon, but I was partial to Apocaflix. Netflix (see, it’s right there in the name!) has begun testing new layouts, which makes me wonder if Facebook has conditioned us to complain. Then again, Netflix has its competitors to think about, and they do seem to be cropping up. If the market gets tight, there’s always money in the banana stand.

8) A smattering of stories about trademarks and copyrights… Instagram has the dubious honor of having its name informally tacked to recent British copyright legislation. Do you think Warner Bros. performed a “diligent search” before being sued for its unauthorized use of Keyboard Cat and Nyan Cat? Barry Diller is calling broadcasters’ bluffs over Aereo, and Fox is doing its best Shredder impression, claiming the court battles are just beginning. For what it’s worth, Aereo is taking steps to keep that from being the case. Also, who has the heart to argue with Harper Lee? If Gregory Peck were still around, I bet he’d get involved.

9) What’s killing cinema? Steven Soderbergh has the answer. “[F]ive and a half hours of mayhem,” you say? It sounds so Shakespearean, but I expect it signifies more than nothing. Don’t worry about Soderbergh, though, he’s got a Plan B, available for your enjoyment here.

10) What else is there to talk about? Rest in peace, George Jones, Deanna Durbin, and Ray Harryhausen. In case you’re unfamiliar with any of them, here’s the greatest country song of all time (by some accounts), an appreciation and analysis of fan appreciation for Durbin, and a primer on Harryhausen’s work. (The pay wall won’t block the videos, so click on through!) Ender’s Game is on the way. To my father’s great shame, I’ve never read it. As for Mr. Card, he depresses me too much to make a joke. Star Wars day happened. Nielsen says welcome to the family. And get ready for some AIP remakes!

11) What?! That’s right. ELEVEN! One extra for the art and science that caught my eye. Here’s a stop-motion movie using atoms as pixels, meaning there’s at least one digital format with resolution superior to 35mm film. Roger probably would have stood his ground on this one. I know people who actively change the typeface of their handwriting every few years. Earth driving is easy. The mysteries of the cosmos are out there to be discovered, but don’t forget that people can be pretty gosh darn cool, too.


Current TV, Al Jazeera America, and the Experience of the Foreign Tue, 29 Jan 2013 14:00:52 +0000 In The Experience of the Foreign, Antoine Berman looks at the implicit theories of translation that underpinned the work of the German Romantics from Herder to Hölderlin. They wanted to use translation as a way to enrich what we might describe anachronistically as the German national identity. They thought translation could facilitate the process of Bildung, a form of cultivation and enrichment whereby a young man* (or a young nation) went out into the world to experience “the foreign” before returning to see his home through new eyes:

For experience is […] a broadening and an identification, a passage from the particular to the universal, the experience [épreuve] of scission, of the finite, of the conditioned. It is voyage (Reise) and migration (Wanderung). Its essence is to throw the “same” into a dimension that will transform it. It is the movement of the “same” which, changing, finds itself to be “other.” (p. 44)

I thought of this passage when I read about the January 2nd deal to sell the U.S. cable station Current TV to the Qatar-based news network Al Jazeera. I have a longstanding interest in how TV news translates foreign experience for viewers (see here and here): How do journalists explain to viewers how members of a foreign culture understand the world and their place in it? But what makes the Current TV/Al Jazeera deal interesting is it inverts that question: How might a foreign network explain Americans to themselves? Might Al Jazeera provide something like an “experience of the foreign” for Americans? What would that even look like?

A number of analysts have provided useful accounts of the deal and its implications. (Here’s what the New York Times had to say, and here’s the Columbia Journalism Review.) Current TV began in 2005, a creation of Al Gore’s. At first, it had a populist, DIY-inflected approach, and it solicited videos from viewers. It evolved in the following years, never finding much of an audience. Most recently, it tried to brand itself as a liberal news outlet, and in 2011, it hired Keith Olbermann, formerly of MSNBC. It fired him a year later, but the image stuck. When the Al Jazeera deal was announced, pundits on Fox News began to rave about links between liberals and Osama bin Laden, leading the Daily Show‘s Jon Stewart to call the announcement the “first Fox boner alert of 2013.”

Al Jazeera, of course, is a network with a global reach that has so far failed to penetrate the US market. Al Jazeera English is currently available only in New York, Washington, DC, Burlington, VT, Toledo, OH, and Bristol, RI, for a total reach of just under 5 million viewers, although people can stream it online. What Al Jazeera gains in the deal with Current TV is not so much the network itself as access to its viewers. Current TV is available to about 40 million cable and satellite subscribers, although some cable operators dropped it after the deal with Al Jazeera was announced.

What makes the deal interesting to me is that Al Jazeera plans to launch Al Jazeera America instead of airing Al Jazeera English. Rather than focus on the majority world, as Al Jazeera English has done, Al Jazeera America will focus on domestic news, but from a perspective other than that of its major commercial competitors. As commentators like Danny Schechter argue, it could succeed precisely because it reaches viewers who don’t find themselves represented elsewhere:

An Al Jazeera America needs to plug in to and resonate with American sensibilities and our mix of opinion from A to Z, not just A to B. It needs to understand our country’s growing anger and frustration with such issues as inequality and dissatisfaction with posturing politicians of all political stripes.

In other words, Al Jazeera America’s “translation” might have a paradoxical effect: its “foreign” lens might bring into sharper relief distinctive (and distinctively) American perspectives that are absent from CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and even NPR.

Of course, I’m not sure Al Jazeera America is the right network or the only network to provide a foreign lens for Americans to examine themselves. And Matt Sienkiewicz is right to encourage a healthy skepticism where Al Jazeera’s claims are concerned. Nor am I so naive as to believe it will attract many viewers who aren’t already inclined to think outside of a “mainstream” American framework. But its potential to do something new will make it a very interesting network to watch.

* “Man” is the historically accurate term here — the Romantics were writing in the eighteenth century.


Little England: The London 2012 Closing Ceremony Tue, 14 Aug 2012 17:01:19 +0000 In keeping with the Shakespearean shadow that loomed over both ceremonies of the 2012 London Olympic and Paralympic Games, if the opening ceremony was full of sound and fury, the closing ceremony signified nothing.

This is by no means to suggest that Kim Gavin, the director of the closing ceremony, is a tale-telling idiot, considering his impressive c.v. as director and choreographer, including massive events staged at Wembley Stadium (such as the 2007 Concert for Diana and Take That’s Circus tour appearance in 2009). But when seen through the lens of Danny Boyle’s triumphant opening ceremony that conjured a childlike view of Britain where healthy fun is made (“Chariots of Fire” with flatulent coda); where juxtapositions thrive, whether goofy (James Bond with the Queen), fascinating (Dizzee Rascal with Elgar), or weirdly profound (Kes with Four Weddings and a Funeral); and where an acute sense of right and wrong endures; when seen through this lens, one cannot help feel let down.

And, for the most part, let down horribly we were. Since the ceremony aired on 12 August, other critics have discussed its dullness and laziness, as well as its lack of narrative thrust. This latter fact is to be expected, considering that, unlike with the opening ceremony, there were no clear narrative markers. So, for instance, Blur’s “Parklife,” as performed by the Massed Band of the Household Division, following Madness performing “Our House” (complete with flying harness saxophone solo) was arguably done for the sake of spectacle, one fabulous element of “the best aftershow party there has ever been” (as Gavin himself claimed before the ceremony aired), rather than to explore variations on a theme.

But it is the two former qualities mentioned above that I found especially egregious in the closing ceremony’s view of Britain. Called “A Symphony of British Music” (a title arguably loaded with class connotations), the (mostly English) music chosen for the ceremony reminded me of Theodor Adorno’s formulation in “On Popular Music,” that “the composition hears for the listener.” Mechanized and standardized pop is an easy target, to be fair, considering the Simons (Cowell and Fuller) made their svengali presence known with the appearance of One Direction and the Spice Girls, boy- and girl-bands whose bots were chosen for such ill-defined marketable reasons as “demographic appeal.” But on an aesthetic level, the musical choices and performances were so bland as to be unmemorable. True, George Michael’s initial offering (“Freedom ’90”) teased tantalizingly electric proceedings, but this symphony sounded off-key.

Perhaps this was because of the unpreprocessed emotion of the 17 days’ worth of athletics which came before the closing ceremony: the best efforts of NBC, the BBC, and Tumblr aside, it’s impossible to recreate the glorious spontaneity of Mo Farah’s wide-eyed beaming, McKayla Maroney’s devilish moue, or Jessica Ennis’ tears in a massive pyrotechnic-sprayed choreography explosion. In stark contrast, the “spontaneous” moments of “cheeky” juxtaposition in the closing ceremonies (Fatboy Slim on a giant octopus! Annie Lennox on a ghost ship! Russell Brand on a bus!) seemed less childlike than familiar, focus-grouped to within a note of its life, with the intention of pleasing everybody and ending up pleasing very few people at all.

As a result, what could have been a chance to celebrate the achievements of the multicultural parade of athletes that entered the stadium (for me, the only moment in the closing ceremony that gestured towards Boyle’s humanistic vision in the opening ceremony) ended up being an empty charade of tired (at best) and xenophobic (at worst) performances, of which Eric Idle’s attempt at bhangra, where the object of the unhealthy fun was the unnatural and exotic movements of the dancers and not the white person attempting them, was the most glaring.

What is more, if the opening ceremony used the past to remind us that a nation’s evolution depends often on the marginalized (not for nothing did Boyle include suffragettes, Afro-Caribbean immigrants, and trade unionists in its opening sequence), the closing ceremony used the past only as an old newspaper from which reassuring headlines and articles could be clipped. From the tie-dyed Union Jack painted on the floor of Olympic Stadium, to the Michael Caine quotation from The Italian Job (Peter Collinson, 1969) that began the night, to the tributes to John Lennon and Freddie Mercury, to the appearances of the Who and Pet Shop Boys, to the inclusion of songs by David Bowie and Electric Light Orchestra and Kate Bush and the Bee Gees, to the recreation of the cover of Pink Floyd’s 1975 album Wish You Were Here: ultimately, these backward-looking and regressive beats seemed like the expressions of a nation of Little Englanders, wanting nothing more than a return to the insular “good old days,” before the Eurozone crisis and the riots.

A more progressive ceremony, one closer to the vision of London 2012 proposed by Boyle on 27 July, might have highlighted more contemporary performers like Emeli Sandé, Taio Cruz, and Tinie Tempeh (all of whom, to be fair, sang more than one number during the evening), a musical Team GB whose multicultural background and thrilling sounds would undoubtedly make Conservative MP Aidan Burley and Daily Mail scribblers collapse in race- gender- and class-based heaps of fury. And that would signify everything.


]]> 1
Being British: The London 2012 Opening Ceremony Fri, 27 Jul 2012 08:00:10 +0000 The opening ceremony for the 2012 London Olympic and Paralympic Games is going to be one hot mess of a spectacle.

That is, if all news reports as of this posting are to be believed. And therein lies a problem with coverage of a massive media event in which tens of thousands of performers, staffers, security, and volunteers are taking part, and at which rehearsals are open to select members of the public: there’s a fine line between reportage and speculation, between anchoring a story with hard facts and sketchy details, between making audiences aware of a story’s own shortcomings and unashamedly trolling for pageviews. It’s a wonder that Sebastian Coe, head of LOCOG (London Organizing Committee of the Olympic Games and Paralympic Games) even bothered to sign off a Tweet with #savethesurprise. Coe should recognize that, in an information landscape driven by the engine of social media and fueled by unnamed sources and cameraphone artifacts uploaded to YouTube, keeping everything under wraps is (nearly) impossible.

As other Antenna writers have noted, the media texts surrounding the 2012 London games serve to brand Britain. And the opening ceremony seems to be no different. But what sort of “Britishness” might be on display? I raise this question with the caveat that, come Friday, July 27, some of what I’m about to explore might not be entirely accurate.

Based on aerial paparazzi photos of the Olympic Stadium during the construction of the ceremony, and on its reveal in June 2012 , artistic director Danny Boyle’s vision for the opening ceremony seems like it has come straight from the mouth of one of the unnamed children babbling at @PreschoolGems. There will be geese, goats, horses, cows, people playing cricket on a village green, farmers tilling the soil, maypole dancers, factories, an oak tree, and clouds that produce rain. Not to mention recreations of Glastonbury Tor, the River Thames, and the Houses of Parliament. Boyle seems like Caden Cotard in Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York (2008), the obsessive director who recreates the minutiae of his New York life in an abandoned warehouse in Manhattan. (An apt comparison, for, according to reports, Boyle’s crew is arguing with the crew that will be filming the sporting events over the placement of their cameras. And besides, what is London’s Olympic stadium when it’s not being used but an empty warehouse in London’s East End?) Another promotional text, the BBC’s London 2012 trailer, similarly riffs on the idea Boyle is deploying, that of “Stadium UK,” wherein the nation (literally) comes together in a giant stadium.

Stephen Daldry, Boyle’s executive producer, has said the ceremony will be “a journey that will celebrate who we are, who we were and indeed who we wish to be.” It’s fascinating to map that formulation on the reported tripartite structure of the ceremony, called “Isles of Wonder” (more on that below), which will celebrate Britain’s “green and pleasant land,” demonstrate the “dark satanic mills” of the Industrial revolution, and segue into Mod(ern), contemporary, and future British life.

Except the lyrics to “Jerusalem” (the song developed around William Blake’s poem “And Did Those Feet In Ancient Time,” which is probably its better-known iteration), from where the titles of the ceremony come, celebrate England, not Britain. The music and musicians attached to the opening ceremony are overwhelmingly English. The cultural events promised to be highlighted, from the high-culture Proms and the cricket match to the low-culture Glastonbury Festival, are quintessentially English. Maypoles topped with daffodil, flax, and thistle and short films of choirs singing “Cwm Rhondda,” “Danny Boy,” and “Flower of Scotland” seem like insufficient tribute to the three other British countries that aren’t England. Indeed, in spite of Boyle’s stress on the inclusivity of the opening ceremony, what ultimately is elided is Britishness.

Yet, for all intents, the Britishness that gets replaced with Englishness in the ceremony promises to be a specific kind of Englishness. In spite of the slow gentrification of the East End that the Olympic stadium promises, most of the performers hail from the East End, known in the (inter)national imagination as a working-class, poverty-stricken, and crime-ridden area. Of course, Boyle giving work to the un- or under-employed could be read through the same lens as his work with “real” slum children in Slumdog Millionaire (2008); that is to say that he’s ultimately exploiting them with this patronizing gesture. There is a strange disconnect between the fact that rehearsals for a ceremony costing the British public 27 million pounds ($42 million) are taking place in the Ford Dagenham plant, site of the strike that led to the Equal Pay Act 1970, the first British legislation aimed at ending pay discrimination based on gender. But  that’s part and parcel of Boyle’s interest. While he’s certainly no longer the same tyro that wowed critics with Trainspotting (1996), his work has been largely consistent, in that he’s invested in giving the marginalized a voice.

This same interest in the marginalized is inherent in the title of the ceremony, “Isles of Wonder,” Boyle’s squinted-eye interpretation of a line spoken by the monster Caliban from The Tempest. Here, Boyle, perhaps unwittingly, sees the ceremony to be an expression of his radical politics. Yes, the monologue in which Caliban speaks the line, “Be not afeard. The isle is full of noises, / Sounds and sweet airs that give delight and hurt not” celebrates the beauty of the island, but he delivers the monologue immediately before he plots to destroy his master Prospero. And yes, in the narrative of the play, Caliban’s revolution may ultimately be ineffective, but it’s revolution nonetheless.

It’s important to note that the first line from the quote above will be engraved on the largest harmonically-tuned bell in the world, which will feature prominently in the ceremony. It’s not idle fancy to hope that the ringing of this bell can mean both a celebration of Britishness and a collective yell by a great British son seething with populist anger.


]]> 1
Imported by Justin Bieber: Carly Rae Jepsen and Transnational Stardom Fri, 06 Apr 2012 02:38:37 +0000 When I clicked on a Twitter link promising Justin Bieber, Selena Gomez and Ashley Tisdale performing a lipdub, it was out of an ongoing curiosity with how these young stars are navigating their early stardom, prompted by an airplane viewing of Bieber’s concert film/biography Never Say Never, a recent screening of High School Musical for a franchising course, and the continuing influence of sharing a department with someone working on tween stardom (the wonderful Lindsay Hogan).

What I did not expect, however, was the cognitive dissonance when I realized the lipdub was to a song by the third-place finisher from the fifth season of Canadian Idol, Carly Rae Jepsen. This particularly discovery has sent me into a mode bordering on obsession, not so much with the song itself – although “Call Me Maybe” has been stuck in my head for a while now – but rather with the intricacies of this transnational stardom originating from my home and native land.

Specifically, I’m interested in how the narrative of Jepsen’s previous success in Canada is being elided as she gains American success (the song hit the U.S. Billboard Top 10 this week, and currently sits in 6th position on iTunes) and as she is presented as Justin Bieber’s “found artist” and protégé, introduced to American television audiences on the March 23rd episode of The Ellen Degeneres Show.

Despite the awkwardness of an 18-year-old mentoring a 26-year-old who entered the music business before he did, Bieber is very much the reason for Jepsen’s breakthrough success in America. In a fascinating display of his growing starpower, particularly through social media, Bieber tweeted to his nineteen million followers about “Call Me Maybe” while home in Canada over the holidays, and continued to tweet about the song in subsequent weeks, with his girlfriend, Selena Gomez, joining him. Jepsen lacked American representation, Bieber’s manager Scooter Braun has recently started a record label, and thus a logical connection was made: Jepsen signed with Braun’s label, Schoolboy Records, and the lipdub video was an incredibly clever (and enormously effective) way to leverage Bieber’s star text (and the star texts of his famous friends) to help launch the single in addition to copious tweets from Bieber et al. encouraging fans to purchase the single on iTunes.

However, the way the narrative has been presented on Ellen and elsewhere, you’d swear Bieber had wandered into a random coffee shop and discovered Jepsen sitting on a stool with her guitar playing to a handful of disinterested patrons. Her own star text may be confined to Canada, but it is not insignificant: a second-runner-up on Canadian Idol, Jepsen transitioned into a series of generally well-received singles that received solid radio play. Bieber heard “Call Me Maybe” on the radio in Canada, meanwhile, because it was already on its way to being the number one single in the country, only the fourth single by a Canadian artist to earn this distinction since 2007 – while Bieber’s tweeting throughout January was no doubt helpful in this endeavor, the single was already a hit before he laid claim to it.

It has resulted in a fascinating case study of transnational stardom, or perhaps more accurately a case study for how difficult it is for stardom to remain transnational when moving into the American market. The Hollywood Reporter cites Jepsen’s Ellen performance as part of her “breakthrough into the music scene” without making any national distinctions, and the interview with Degeneres begins with Degeneres marveling that she got on the radio without a record contract (which Jepsen is forced to correct). It’s not as though her past is a secret: her Canadian Idol audition has seen a dramatic increase in views on YouTube, videos from past hits like “Bucket” and “Tug of War” have seen similar bumps, and her Wikipedia page (which predated her sudden American stardom) remains organized in chronological order. In addition, local radio interviews have more time to delve into her past, albeit always with a note of novelty: the B96 Morning Show in Chicago’s interview with Jepsen talks about Canadian Idol, but mistakenly calls it “Vancouver Idol,” and while they discuss the fact that she has had past albums it’s Jepsen who has to provide a title.

In other words, while her Canadian past remains part of her star text, the degree of that success threatens the narrative of discovery driving her appearance in the American market. Bieber actually suggests ownership over Jepsen when presenting her to Degeneres’ audience, introducing her as “my artist,” and that level of ownership seems to come with a degree of narrative control. Bieber and Braun are tapping into Bieber’s own career trajectory, but while Bieber truly was an undiscovered talent busking on the streets, Jepsen was a nationally-recognized artist. Their efforts to elide this (if not erase it) are similar to how reality singing competitions like American Idol or The Voice tend to shy away from the fact that many of their artists have already had record deals: narratives of discovery are less impressive when someone else has discovered them before, whether it’s a small record label or another country entirely.

When we start dealing with transnational stardom, particularly in the American context, it raises questions about cultural imperialism, but I do want to acknowledge that the Canadian market and the American market are two different beasts: Braun’s strategy to utilize YouTube (with the lipdub garnering almost thirty million views to date) and leverage Bieber’s stardom is demonstrative of convergence-era marketing potentials which impressively transitioned the single and Jepsen from a national success story to an international one.

However, as her story becomes reframed for national television audiences, and as that story becomes rebroadcast to other countries (with “Call Me Maybe” sitting at #1 in Australia, and likely to hit #1 in the UK on Sunday, in addition to success in Ireland and New Zealand), the nuance of her Canadian star text might be reduced to this borderline parodic backstage game posted to Ellen’s YouTube channel: maple syrup, hockey, and a legacy of other Canadian stars who went from “nothing” to something by making it big south of the border.


]]> 4
Capitalizing on Multiculturalism: “Premium” Indian American Audiences and “American” advertisers Mon, 20 Dec 2010 16:00:49 +0000

These days, New York Life, Metlife, Nationwide and State Farm, leading American insurance and financial investment companies, are all over Star Plus, an Indian satellite channel that is available on Dish and DirecTV in the US. The advertisements featuring these companies fall into the “culturally sensitive” category of marketing strategy. While the discourse of “ethnic” niches has been getting stronger in the fields of business and marketing since the 1990s, much of that attention was devoted to targeting black and Hispanic markets. Since the 2000s, however, the “premium” Asian American consumer has figured prominently in advertising discourse. The 2000 Census Report coupled with marketing surveys have helped generate the idea that Asian Americans not only represent a rapidly growing market in terms of numbers and buying power; they are also increasingly diverse in terms of their consumer choices. Not surprising, then, that in the first part of this decade, the turn towards multicultural advertising involved actively going after consumer groups such as Indian Americans.

Starting with Indian American print and online spaces, New York Life, Metlife, State Farm and Nationwide, which have been placing their ads on Indian American print and online media, now seem to be invested in Indian satellite television channels. While so far I have seen their English and Hindi language ads, I wouldn’t be surprised if there are more in other Indian languages. Coming to the content of the ads themselves, tropes of home, family life, traditional festivals, pastoral village life, and hybrid Indian American lifestyles are liberally used to generate the message that Indian Americans with all their “difference” are understood and welcome here in America. While some advertisements leave little room for subtlety (like producing an “untouched India” motif with elephants, village life, and pastoral lifestyles to say something profound about tradition), there are others that are open to multiple readings and some which resist stereotypical representation. Another interesting feature is that sometimes the ads function as an invitation to enter the labor force of these firms by joining as agents; a common strategy seems to be using “real” agents, who are Indian American, and weaving a narrative of success, trust, and security through them.

My sense is that there is a lot going on with these neo-multicultural strategies of advertising that cannot be read only in terms of commodification and stereotyping, although they certainly persist. Robert Stam and Ella Shohat’s critique of corporate managed forms of Benetton-pluralism is certainly relevant to the branding of the premium Asian American consumer. At the same time, if we think of these efforts by “American” entities to access “Indian American” spaces of culture, capital labor, and belonging as symptomatic of emergent modalities of the transnational, might we be able to see subtle shifts in the discourse of multiculturalism in the contemporary moment? In other words, it is certainly problematic when companies are framing their approach along the lines of “ethnic segmentation.” But then again, when their cultural production of the “ethnicity” of their target audience involves mediating discourses of travel, mobility, transnational lifestyles, and popular cultures, does that resignify the meaning of “cultural difference” in a way that resists fixing? I am not entirely sure, but I think it is an idea worth pursuing. I hope to make my next entry more about the ads themselves so that some of these ideas can be revisited.


]]> 1
The ACTA Retreat: Their Ignorance, And Ours Thu, 21 Oct 2010 17:14:30 +0000 Last week the U.S. apparently “caved” on the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA), intended to protect corporate intellectual “property.”  Though only a partial retreat, it’s exciting that the content industries were denied their full wish list of mandatory three-strikes provisions, etc., and will have to settle for a few stocking stuffers like watered-down restrictions on DRM circumvention.

But the intriguing part of this weaker ACTA is:  we’re not exactly sure whom to thank. Canadian professor Michael Geist, tenacious as a wasp in keeping public pressure on negotiators?  The less gung-ho countries who, tired of being Yank-ed around (or perhaps just not seeing what was in it for them), insisted on scaling back the agreement’s ambitions? Maybe the U.S. Trade Representative blundered by pursuing the most undemocratic path available; as James Love suggested, the USTR’s circumvention of Congress may have cost ACTA important legislative buy-in. Or perhaps we should thank “You”—the Time magazine Person-of-the-Year You—for all Your watchfulness and activism.

But no matter to which address we should gratefully ship the Chivas, the ACTA retreat is indicative of a larger crisis in how the policy sphere works today. Specifically: we have no idea how the policy sphere works today.

Once upon a time, it was possible to imagine that we understood policymaking.  There was an official policy sphere comprised of the state (in the U.S., Congress, the FCC, etc.), business, and the public (either public interest groups or individual citizens making their wishes and displeasures known).  Policy emerged from these players working out differences using the (unequal) power at their disposal. To effect policy change was to work through established channels of regulatory authority.

It was never as tidy as that, of course, but the fact remains that today, the legible official policy sphere has been blown all to hell through a combination of new players, differently empowered old players, new technologies for policy, and new technologies of policy.

We also have, importantly, new ignorances. With previous technologies, policymakers may not have understood the technical details but they could usually grasp the basics of the questions they were grappling with, and even some of the implications of those questions.

Today, not so much.  Ted Stevens’ “series of tubes” became a sensation because it was the perfect metaphor for the profound ignorance driving policy today.  The recent Ninth Circuit opinion in Vernor v. Autodesk reaffirms that our policymakers—in this case, judges—are dangerously ignorant of fundamental technological and even legal distinctions. In the other direction, ACTA demonstrates the ignorance of negotiators who, incredibly, believed they could hammer out their agreement in absolute secrecy in this day and age.

But we need to acknowledge our own ignorance of policymaking power as well.  Instead of imagining that we still understand the policy sphere, we need new models, new metaphors for contemporary policymaking. Our old conception of a legible policy sphere won’t cut it anymore.

Some contenders:

The Fraserized Policy Sphere:  Remember how Habermas theorized a unified public sphere for democratic deliberation, and then Nancy Fraser pointed out the existence of subaltern counterpublics?  Maybe that’s what happened to policy: we need to contend with a proliferation of new (or newly visible) subaltern policymaking bodies, from local school boards getting into media regulation, to programmers building policy into their products (“code is law” and all that), to spammers driving policy from the bottom up.

The Networked Policy Sphere:  Borrowing from Yochai Benkler’s own reworking of Habermas, perhaps the better model analyzes networks and nodes of policymaking authority.  Like the Fraserized Policy Sphere but more complex and webby.

The Pains of Policy Stretch:  As discussed by Danny Kimball at the recent Flow Conference, we’re using legacy policy formulated for one set of technologies to govern a new set of technologies, and the resulting legal and regulatory contortions are dislocating a lot of joints.  Maybe we need new regulatory calisthenics to maintain policy fitness, to overextend a metaphor.

The “Spinning Pool Table” Model:  The added complexities of distributed power and technological multiplicity has led to an explosion of unintended consequences, and no one understands where the billiard balls are going, or even where the pockets are.  This is the case in the wrong-wrong-stupid-wrong decision in Vernor, which in the most dramatic interpretation just separated legal transfer from ownership.  That’s what we call a scratch.  How might we begin to establish a new physics of policy so that we can at least regain our ability to estimate the consequences of our policy shots?

I could go on, but the point is that, even if we figure out what really happened to ACTA, we’re left in a state of profound confusion about the range of forces at work in policymaking today.  May those working for the public interest be the first ones to figure it out.

[The photo above is modified from an original by Paul Goyette, released under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-ShareAlike license.]


]]> 3
What Do You Think? The Chilean Mine Rescue Fri, 15 Oct 2010 19:15:40 +0000 This week, 33 workers who were trapped underground for over two months in a collapsed mine in Chile were rescued.  The Chilean mine rescue has been quite a prominent media event, which is already being compared to the coverage of the first moon walk in 1969 and the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. People around the world have watched live video feeds, produced by the Chilean government, aired nonstop on cable news channels and streamed over the internet. Journalists from around the world were (and are) on the scene (prompting media training for the miners) and the story continues to swirl all over Twitter, Facebook, and other social media sites.

So, what do you think about all this? Is this a momentous and unprecedented media occasion, bringing the globe together through technological advances and the triumph of the human spirit? Or is it just the classic overblown media spectacle filled with feel-good fluff? Do you find it captivating, emotional, exploitative, or do you even care? Does it deserve our close attention or is it just a distraction from the myriad pressing political, social, and economic issues facing us right now? What are the global dynamics involved here with the international media, the global audience, the people of Chile, the miners themselves, and the Chilean government orchestrating it all?  What does this tell us about media today– even reality TV?


]]> 1
Simpsonic Business as Usual? Mon, 11 Oct 2010 17:14:02 +0000 The Simpsons took us into the sweatshop behind the franchise. As executive producer Al Jean noted, “This is what you get when you outsource.” ]]> Last night, the opening credit sequence “couch gag” for The Simpsons was a little different. The show turned the gag over to British graffiti artist Banksy, and under his direction, the upbeat Danny Elfman theme song cut, the music and colors became dour, and we were transported to an Asian animation sweatshop working on The Simpsons. The camera panned lower and lower through layers of Saruman orc-factory-like gloom and industrial production, now of Simpsons merchandise – tshirts, toys, and DVDs. The Asian workers toiled alongside skulls, presumably of their lost colleagues, and with an enslaved Panda and unicorn. Proving a way with words and wit, executive producer Al Jean commented on the show’s first guest couch gag, “This is what you get when you outsource.” See the clip below for the whole sequence:

This is an impressive use of a paratext (commenting on other paratexts, no less!).

The Simpsons’ opening sequence always offers fun variants in the blackboard and couch gags. Some of Bart’s blackboard lines have been provocative (such as “I did not see teacher applying for welfare”), but we mostly know what tone to expect. As with all opening sequences, it’s a familiar totem. Messing with opening sequences is thus always interesting, and here it’s especially effective. The tone changes, the color changes, and it’s prolonged – way beyond the length of most couch gags. It’s also made clear that this is from a different author (hence the Banksy tags all over the first part of the sequence), which makes it all the harder to work out who is talking here. Is FOX in on the criticism? Is Matt Groening? The whole Simpsons crew? While we might be familiar with guest directors on television shows, this is the first time I’ve heard of a guest director of an opening sequence. Once it’s over, no less, the show returned to business as usual. While the clip above doesn’t fully convey the effect of this, its cut from a dying unicorn back to the peppy Elfman theme song gives us a hint of it, since it’s transported us so far away from The Simpsons and The Simpsons opening sequence that we know that going back is awkward and feels wrong. What I like about this is that it makes the audience complicit – now that we’ve seen this criticism of the show’s production, we’re just going to go back to watching an episode about a little league baseball team? What does that say about us – not just about Rupert Murdoch, FOX, and The Simpsons – and about our role in facilitating all this?

The sequence therefore poses a dilemma and a problematic that must be solved or reconciled. It requires discussion. After all, the other part of this is that it leaves us wondering who signed off on this. Immediately afterwards, given the sequence’s attack on FOX, I started seeing many, many variants on Twitter and blogs of the following sentiment, “Wow, I’m amazed FOX let that on.” First, let’s dispel a myth – FOX can’t decide what goes on The Simpsons. James L. Brooks negotiated a “no notes” policy into the show’s contract, so FOX can either play something or cancel the show; they don’t get to nit-pick. But in pointing that out, I’m nit-picking. Since what’s important here is not whether FOX did know about and approve the sequence, it’s how this makes people think of FOX differently, especially when so many people likely believe FOX either approved it or didn’t know it was happening. So, once more, it requires some unpacking.

And finally, it leaves us with uncomfortable questions about Groening and co. How are they complicit, and are they simply making this a joke so that they and we can say, “Oh yes, that is bad, isn’t it? But we know about it, so it’s all okay. Let’s just get back to business as usual, shall we? Pass the Cheetos”? I was left with many conflicting responses here myself, on one hand thinking it was a brilliant statement, on the other hand feeling deeply uncomfortable that this is the show’s response to its labor practices – making an opening credit sequence rather than actually fucking doing something about them. Yet, the contestation of authorship in which the sequence engages leaves us wondering whether the American animators (who are largely responsible for the couch gags, by the way – these rarely involve the writers) can do anything about The Simpsons Factory. Those American animators, after all, aren’t a wonderfully privileged lot – they’re paid more than their Korean counterparts, for sure, but they’re still jobbing animators, who FOX makes pay huge sums for their own artwork if they want to give a cell to a kid or friend for a present, for instance, and who are hardly tearing around Burbank in their new $80,000 sports cars. As such, the sequence not only draws our attention to the deeply problematic labor practices that surround the show, but also to the contested and conflicted nature of production and authorship, reminding us that there are many different people involved, and inviting us to ask who precisely does what, and how much control anyone has.

Inevitably, the sequence’s critics dislike it because of their own answers to the above questions. But for me, the sequence works precisely because it doesn’t offer its own answers, instead posing a whole slew of questions. That may piss a lot of critics off, as satire often does when people want cute, simple answers, but this is Bart’s blackboard, not Beck’s.

… Yet I also feel obliged to tack on a concern with the racialization at play. It has yet to be confirmed that the Korean animation studio is a “sweatshop,” as depicted here – yes, its workers make less than Americans would for the same task, but the leap from this to “sweatshop” has always struck me as racialized (we don’t call production studios in Vancouver or Prague “sweat shops,” for instance), especially when some critics slip and think the show is animated in China or (as a reviewer of my Simpsons book insisted) in “South East Asia.” The sequence’s creation of an undifferentiated, silent and obedient, animal-torturing Asian here only exacerbates that racialization. The Simpsons is animated in South Korea (not the North, as the uniformed head of the studio here might suggest), dolphin-killing would seem to be Japanese, and pandas – along with much construction of toys – are Chinese. Yet they’re all in a big Asian factory (albeit also housing a unicorn, and hence clearly fantastical). Sadly, this aspect of the sequence doesn’t offer itself up for discussion, and much of what I’m seeing online skips over it entirely.


]]> 20