Bob Schwartz

Month: May, 2012

Money, Power & Wall Street: The Don’t-Miss Can’t-Watch Documentary

It is hard to recommend the four-part PBS Frontline documentary Money, Power & Wall Street and hard not to. Difficult as it is to watch the financial crisis unfolding, the film is superior even by Frontline’s high standard of excellence. As a history and prospectus, it is an insightful, even-handed and essential work of reporting. As a source of optimism, it is a complete failure, because the conclusion is that nothing has substantially changed, and that maybe nothing will.

It is as good as any disaster movie in pulling us in and moving us inexorably along. We see the scenes in detail, meet the cast of characters—lead and supporting actors—and have a growing sense of foreboding: this can’t end well.

It is different than most disaster movies in two ways. Most have some heroes, and with a few exceptions, there are no heroes here. And most disaster movies end with some movement toward rebuilding and reform, and with a sense of lessons learned: we will keep better watch for asteroids, we will build a system of asteroid warning and protection, we will come out this with a fundamentally better society. There is none of that here.

Yet Money Power & Wall Street has to be seen by every American. Those with political agendas will no doubt point to particular decisions or non-decisions, or particular actions or inactions, to prove a partisan point. But when they do, they will have missed the bigger point. In a world where financial forces become too big to understand or control, it is still our job as citizens and public servants to understand and control them. Because when it finally hits, ideologies and political badges are not really going to matter.

Mime Is Money

In the too-much-is-never-enough world of television, singing competitions are spawning wild speculation about what might be next. If successful, ABC’s just-premiered Duets is sure to be followed by singing groups of increasing size, leading to shows like Trios, Quartets, Quintets, and most audience-grabbing of all, Sextets.

One way to deal with too many shows is to thin out the herd. But another way is to do a 180-degree turn. That’s the idea behind a new competition show with the working title Mime Is Money, where silence will be golden.

Mime has become the object of only partly-deserved ridicule. Bad singers and dancers don’t give song and dance a bad name; they just reflect badly on their own lack of artistry. But untalented mimes have, until now, subverted any chance of the classic art of pantomime being taken seriously. This show could change all that.

Still in the concept stage, Mime Is Money will feature much more than the clichéd mime acts. For example, producers are hoping to include at least one example of mime ventriloquism, a little-known but strangely entertaining form. Mime ventriloquism is an outgrowth of the 1930s development of radio ventriloquism, pioneered by Edgar Bergen in the 1930s. Even though listeners couldn’t see Bergen performing with his dummy Charlie McCarthy, the Edgar Bergen-Charlie McCarthy Hour was on NBC radio for twenty years. In the case of Mime Is Money, the viewer can see the ventriloquist and the dummy, but can’t hear them, and so are guaranteed to experience the most perfect ventriloquism act ever.

Also being considered is the possibility of the judges remaining silent too, rendering their opinions only with motions and gestures. In addition to thumbs-up and thumbs-down, the possibilities are limited only by the creativity of the judges and producers. One hope is that if the show proves popular, some of the gestures will become like catch-phrases that will brand the show and will sweep across America.

Smooth Newt and Newtsex Models

Sometimes posts don’t make it to the blog on time. The Republican Presidential primaries moved so fast that yesterday’s hot item becomes tomorrow’s “Who?” or “Who cares?” in a flash. Newt Gingrich is back in the news today, with the apparent collapse of his business mini-empire. This is in no way kicking a man when he’s done, since it is simply fascinating, not critical.

For those who think that “Smooth Newt” and “Newtsex Models” refer to something about a Presidential candidate, you are in for a shock. They are in fact references to four Newtsex models (known as Mark I, II, III and IV) that are part of a very sophisticated biological study of the courtship of the smooth newt (triturus vulgaris). The article How Long Will Newts Wait? explains:

The Newtsex model simulates the behavioural transition between two parts of newt courtship, Retreat Display and Creep, and models the interaction between four causal factors: the behaviour of the female, the male’s spermatophore supply, his need for oxygen, and feedback from the male’s own behaviour. The model predicts that, if feedback from the female is withheld at a critical point (Tail-touch), the male will revert from Creep to Retreat Display after an interval, the duration of which is proportional to his spermatophore supply. The results of an experiment in which the female’s behaviour was controlled support this prediction, but a high level of variance in the results suggests that respiratory constraints on male courtship behaviour require further investigation. (Behaviour, March 1991)

Newtsex. Tail-touch. Creep. Retreat Display. This is science. You cannot make this stuff up.

It’s In The Grooves

Grooves are gone, mostly, from recorded music. Vinyl is still around, maybe even growing a little as a cool, specialty format.

Whether or not those circular scratches in plastic remain how we listen to music, the fundamental truth that was uttered back in the day still holds:

It’s in the grooves.

Meaning: You—artists, arrangers, producers, managers, record labels, media, fans—can blah, blah, blah about business, production, charts, back story, gossip, about what is, what could have been, what should have been.

But in the end, it is about the music, as it plays, as it sounds. Nothing anybody says, no matter how central, no matter how insightful, enlightening or fascinating, changes that.

The real life and real world concerns surrounding a record are far from unimportant, especially to those directly involved. But if that is the beast, then the heart of the beast, or its soul and essence, is the music.

So if you find yourself deeply engaged in all the music chatter, when you can, once in a while, shut out the extraneous and, politely, shut up and listen. Because even if the grooves are gone, they are still the only place recorded music actually lives.

Donna Summer

For those who never stopped listening to Donna Summer, the news of her death was more than nostalgia or a pop culture milestone.

Fans might have wished that the iconic tracks could somehow be stripped of the signature Giorgio Moroder disco production, so that all you could hear was simple pop gems sung by an angel. Maybe that will happen. But in their time, the voice and the thumping beats were what helped elevate disco and make these monster dance floor hits.

True talent overcomes. Her first record I Feel Love was an attempt to exploit her sex appeal as much as her voice, sort of disco porn. That lasted one record. Even though there was plenty of sexiness to come, she was never again presented that way. She was a star, not a sultry gimmick.

She didn’t get enough opportunity to showcase on record all that she was and could do. There are some live recordings that include non-dance arrangements, but these are too rare.

She took the over-the-top Jimmy Webb song MacArthur Park, which had been talk-sung into a 1968 hit by actor Richard Harris, and ten years later made it nearly-beautiful and nearly-plausible through the force of her voice. The disco production is still heavy-handed, but she reached notes that Richard Harris only dreamed of during his alcohol days. It was a massive hit.

One thing to know: On the duet No More Tears (Enough Is Enough), Donna Summer outsings Barbra Streisand. The blending of voices is excellent, but before they come together, listen to them trading lyrics. Even Streisand fans should get that this one belongs to Donna Summer. Streisand never did choose to perform this duet live.

We feel love.

Barack and Mitt: The Most Unpopular Candidates in American History

This is an unprecedented Presidential campaign. Just ask the Social Security Administration.

The SSA keeps track of baby names, a database that goes back to 1879. It just released its list of the 1000 most popular male and female names for 2011—Jacob to Armani to Ethen (sic), Sophia to Francesca to Damaris. None of that necessarily matters for the Presidential race.

What does matter is this: Never in American history have both major party candidates for the Presidency had names that were not among the 1000 most popular—ever.

In 2008 it was easy to surmise that one name (not John) had never made it to the Top 1000, and Barack still hasn’t. But this year’s race includes two overwhelmingly unpopular names.

Romney’s real first name Willard has made appearances on the chart: the last time in 1989 when it was #966, and it reached its highest position in 1915 (#58). But that isn’t the name he has ever used. The name Mitt is nowhere to be found.

The Presidential names (including candidates) you think might not make the list do. Woodrow, last seen in 1983 (#954), went from #234 in 1911 to #44 in 1913, Wilson’s first year in office. Ike bounced around the middle to bottom of the pack from the 19th century on, but at least it is on the list, finally falling off the Top 1000 in 1957 (while Ike was still in office). Rutherford always struggled, giving up in 1905 at #910. Even Newt had its day (though not much of one), appearing near the bottom between 1880 and 1907.

But no Barack. And no Mitt.

Does this have any consequence? As for any correlation between electoral success and relative name popularity—at the time of election or at some significant life stage for voters—there is no consistent pattern, no seeming name advantage.

All we know is this: There has never been an election between two candidates with such unusual and unpopular names. Just one more element in an election unlike any other.


Sometimes you stumble upon an item that perfectly embodies America, the 21st century, and America in the 21st century. All in a good way. This is from a company called Crave:

Our first product – DUET – was submitted for pre-release funding on international design funding platform in August 2011 where it raised $104,000 from over 950 backers – 694% of the original target. Word of DUET consequently spread across the web, which has effectively raised the profile of the product even before its official release, while also providing a springboard for further CRAVE products and developments.

Crowdfunding. Check. Design. Check.

But what exactly is Duet?

In a world where high technology and luxury design seem to touch every corner of our lives, the most intimate experiences should be no exception. The dominating culture in adult products often feels cheap and sleazy. We were craving something better: something beautiful, something discreet, something environmentally friendly, and something sophisticated. After all, if anything deserves good design, it’s the things we bring to bed with us.

Design, again. Check. Sex. Check.

But what exactly is Duet?

With dual motors and a V-shaped angle, DUET delivers powerful and precise vibration for external clitoral stimulation. The tip, inside edges, and outside edges provide slightly different intensities, while the flat surface is ideal for massaging the area around and on the clitoris. The dual motors’ unique ‘split at the tip’ combines with the four vibration patterns to enable a variety of sensations for you to explore…

Duet will let you how much charge remains when you turn it on. It will pulse one to four times – one pulse meaning 25% full, and four pulses indicating your DUET is 100% charged. When plugged into a USB port, a light indicator will blink to let you know your DUET is charging. The intensity of blinking will change depending on how close to being fully charged. With four vibration modes and four power levels, DUET gives you flexibility to find the perfect intensity and pattern. The settings have been designed to be easily altered at whim, but won’t accidentally change on you in the heat of the moment. Vibration modes include steady, dual pulsing, circular pulse, and wave.

Sex, again. Check. USB port??

Yes, this is Duet. A vibrator and a USB flash drive.

This is, without irony, the sort of creativity that makes America great. Purse-sized vibrators have long been around, as have flash drives. But this story that combines cutting-edge financing through crowdfunding, high-level design, digital capability, and, of course, sex goes well beyond bringing together chocolate and peanut butter. This is American genius.

The First [Description Here] President

You’re every President
It’s all in you.
(apologies to Ashford & Simpson and Chaka Khan)

It all began when Maya Angelou dubbed Bill Clinton “the first black President.” This proved awkward when the real first black President, Barack Obama, took office. But when politics meets media, too much is never enough, and so the meme took hold.

This week Barack Obama was cover-featured in Newsweek as “The First Gay President.” That was followed today by Dana Milbank in the Washington Post suggesting that Obama may be, in a way, the first female President. Previous coverage had tagged Obama “The First Jewish President.”

To keep things actual, President Obama is not Jewish, or gay, or female. He has indeed been known to wear a kipa. He has not been known to wear a halo, rainbow or any other color.

Keeping it further factual, he is also the first biracial President, the first Hawaiian President, the first Grammy-winning President, and so on. If you’re positively inclined, you might also add that he may be the first 21st century President, if you relegate George W. Bush to a prior century’s worldview. If negatively inclined, there are plenty of choices: the first non-American President, the first Muslim President, the first Socialist/Communist President, etc.

Why stop there? Neither politics nor media is always that tethered to reality, so let your imagination run wild (i.e., make stuff up). Simply choose a descriptor and plug it in. Warning: No matter how whimsical and fantastic the results may seem, some of those who oppose Barack Obama will likely pick up on them and treat them as real. Please whimsicize responsibly.

The Spotify Cover Game

Note: Two online music services launched in 2006, one in Palo Alto, California, one in Stockholm, Sweden. Both shared a vision of offering on-demand, track-by-track access to streaming music. Lala, the American service, was a simple and usable platform. It was offered free, and was based on an evolving business model that had something to do with future subscriptions and music sales. It was a wonder. In 2009, Apple bought the company, possibly to integrate the platform into a future streaming service of its own. That vapor service never materialized and, instead, Apple killed Lala.

At the same time, Spotify was developing its own more sophisticated service in Europe. Music licensing held up its introduction in America until 2011. Lala lovers, still smarting from its demise, have to admit that Spotify is indeed everything Lala was and more. Spotify is flourishing, though it still has to prove the viability of its business model, but we enjoy it while it lasts. Maybe Apple will buy it and kill it too. Sorry—still a little bitter.

Spotify has changed the way we listen to music. What music lovers hoped would happen in the future happened: Click on a track, there it is on your computer. The future is here.

Spotify enables a lot of listener creativity and sharing. There are thousands of playlists created and available. Of course, commercial media, artists, and labels are drawn to popular platforms like moths to flame, and there are now plenty of those generated playlists too.

Spotify also allows unlimited exploration and discovery. Among the unique paths is what might be called the Spotify Cover Game. You can choose any song and listen to nearly every version of it ever recorded, minus the small number still unlicensed and unavailable.

The Spotify Cover Game is fun and educational. To try it, take any popular song from any era. Search for the track, and the results will list all—sometimes dozens—of the recorded versions from different artists.

To demonstrate, Mad Men fans might pick The Beatles’ Tomorrow Never Knows from Revolver. (For non-Mad Men fans, this is the track that in a recent episode young and sexy Megan Draper plays for her older and sexy husband Don Draper to introduce him to the Beatles in 1966.)

Here is a very partial list of artists you can hear performing Tomorrow Never Knows on Spotify:

Phil Collins
Junior Parker
Jimi Hendrix
Michael Hedges
Danielle Dax
The Pink Fairies
Cowboy Mouth
Wayne Krantz
Living Colour
Tangerine Dream
The Mission UK
Dwight Twilley
Herbie Hancock & Dave Matthews
Dweezil Zappa
Grateful Dead
Phil Manzanera

The proof of the song is in the covers, and Tomorrow Never Knows doesn’t fail. Whether vocals or instrumental only, it pushes artists to rise to the occasion as they aspire to recreate a cultural milestone.

Best: Herbie Hancock and Dave Matthews. A surprise, given the competition from Jimi Hendrix, Living Colour, and others, and given that neither Hancock nor Matthews are noted for this kind of psychedelia.

Worst: Grateful Dead, hands down. They are noted for their psychedelia, but in this particular live version from a 1992 concert in Oakland, the vocals are literally unlistenable and the music isn’t all that great either. Probably better the next night or if you were really high.

Most Interesting: Legendary bluesman Junior Parker, who recorded it as part of a Beatles album. His smooth and full-bodied voice is in stark contrast to the usual ethereal takes. Accompanied by a spare arrangement of hypnotic bass with a touch of guitar and keyboard, this is a perfect realization and transformation of the original. One of the most interesting Beatles covers ever.

In addition to hearing the multiple ways that the strongest songs are treated, the SCG—and Spotify itself—is about serendipity, the exploration and discovery of unheard artists and tracks. The Hancock/Matthews track, for example, is from a 2010 collection of collaborative covers called The Imagine Project (containing Imagine, but it’s not a Beatles-only collection). There you will find a cover of the Peter Gabriel-Kath Bush anthem of hope in hard times, Don’t Give Up, with John Legend and P!nk performing. Nearly (only nearly) as good as the original, it is mesmerizing, heartbreaking, and uplifting at the same time:

No fight left or so it seems
I am a man whose dreams have all deserted
I’ve changed my face, I’ve changed my name
But no one wants you when you lose…

Moved on to another town
Tried hard to settle down
For every job, so many men
So many men no one needs

Don’t give up
’cause you have friends
Don’t give up
You’re not the only one
Don’t give up
No reason to be ashamed
Don’t give up
You still have us
Don’t give up now
We’re proud of who you are
Don’t give up
You know it’s never been easy
Don’t give up
’cause I believe there’s a place
There’s a place where we belong

That’s the Spotify Cover Game. Try it. Enjoy. Explore. Discover. And don’t give up.

Hitmakers Reborn: Etta James and Gil Scott-Heron

Twice, artists who died in the past year have been reborn as hitmakers through the miracle of musical merger.

Both Etta James and Gil Scott-Heron play posthumous parts in two irresistible and near-perfect records—even if only a small number of listeners know exactly what they are listening to and who made these records the success they are.

Hip-hop sampling has been a great creative development. What began as inclusion of bits and pieces has become a full-scale integration unknown in any art. This isn’t quoting or paraphrasing or homage or covering. This is merger.

One case is Flo Rida’s Good Feeling, a three-layer cake with the incomparable Etta James at the foundation (and as the icing). You’ll recognize her powerful gospel-soul riff from 1962’s Something’s Got a Hold on Me:

“Oh, oh, sometimes I get a good feeling, I get a feeling that I never, ever, ever had before.”

In 2011, Swedish producer and DJ Avicii made this hook the centerpiece of his dance hit Levels, laying it in the middle of the beats and the record. Flo Rida in turn sampled Avicii’s recording, including Etta James, to create Good Feeling. The song is even named for the lyrics of the original. Flo Rida had the commercial good sense to put Etta James’ voice right out front, just six seconds into the record. For the next four minutes we can’t wait for her voice to rise up again. And to demonstrate just how powerful the riff is, you can now hear the record in major commercial campaigns, including one for Buick.

Then there is Drake’s Take Care, featuring Rihanna. This is even more layered. It begins with the song I’ll Take Care of You, written by Brook Benton and recorded by Bobby “Blue” Bland in 1959. Groundbreaking musician and poet Gil Scott-Heron (The Revolution Will Not Be Televised) recorded the song on his final album I’m New Here (2010). The track was remixed the next year by Jamie xx, amping a plaintive and soulful performance into a beat-based I’ll Take Care of U. This is the mix at the heart of Take Care.

One piece of good news is that the records that emerged from this process are simply great. They are great, especially in the case of Good Feeling, because of the artistry they are based on. There is also good news in that the current artists have given some credit to these predicate performers and performances, though it could have been and still could be much more.

The final good news is that this creates an opportunity for music fans to learn that music didn’t start in 2012, or 2000, or 1990, or wherever the old/new or really-old/old/new line lies for listeners. Listen to Gil-Scott Heron, listen to Bobby “Blue” Bland, and most of all…

Listen to Etta James. You might know Etta James from her biggest hit At Last, which Beyonce sang at an Obama Inaugural Ball. You might know Etta James from the interesting movie Cadillac Records, a dramatized history of Chess Records, featuring Beyonce as Etta James.

But you may not know, and should learn, that Etta James was one of the most talented and versatile artists of her generation, singing standards, pop, R&B, even a little country, and straight blues. Her popularity in other genres kept her from being recognized as one of the blues greats: listen to The Sky Is Crying, Dust My Broom, or Lil’ Red Rooster. A place to start is The Chess Box. And no, there’s no Beyonce anywhere in sight.