Why We Buy Vinyl

My name is David. And I’m a vinyl addict. 

At a time when I should be de-cluttering my life, I’m accumulating vinyl records. I own four copies of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. It’s not enough for me to own a copy of Led Zeppelins Presence. I need to have a Japanese pressing and the deluxe edition with an extra disc of outtakes. I have circled November 30 on my calendar because it’s the 40th anniversary of the release of Pink Floyd’s The Wall. I count as one of the happiest days of my life when, as a child, I first listened to Al Green’s Greatest Hits on vinyl (and by the way, although I own the re-issue that contains “Love and Happiness,” I also have the original, which contains Green’s cover of “How Can You Mend a Broken Heart.” When you are an addict, you need both.) I also vividly remember the day I found the vinyl edition of Beatles in Mono on the counter of a record store in Schaumburg, Illinois, waiting for me like a treasure (I can still picture where I was standing when I caught a glimpse of the Holy Grail).

I blog about vinyl. I seek out places where famous album covers were shot just so that I can experience the mojo of rock history.

I love hanging out in vinyl stores in different cities – pawing through rows of musical discovery and not knowing exactly what I’ll find. Each store reflects the tastes and lives of the people who live nearby and have released their own vinyl to the world.

I love vinyl so much that when I buy a used copy of an album, I even ponder the lives of the people who owned the copy I hold in my hands. I still think fondly of whoever owned my beat-up, used copy of Led Zeppelin’s untitled fourth album and scrawled in girlish, teenage handwriting “oooo it makes me wonder” on the inside jacket.

Who was she? (She is always a girl in my mind.) What moment of emotional connection with “Stairway to Heaven” caused her to pick up her pen and capture the moment in her loopy handwriting, perhaps while she was alone in her bedroom, shutting out the distractions and worries of the world as Brian Wilson did when he wrote “In My Room,” the painful ode to teen angst that appears on Surfer Girl? I have never met her. But I know her.

Like a true junkie, I don’t have a good explanation for why I am the way I am. Why, on Black Friday 2019, I’ll brave the cold and stand in a long line outside a vinyl record store for the sole purpose of getting my hands on a vinyl pressing of The Doors: Live at the Isle of Wight Festival 1970. It’s one of many new releases for Black Friday 2019 Record Store Day. I already own a Blu-ray of the same concert. Why must I own a vinyl copy? 

Why Vinyl?

Usually I don’t think too much about why I love vinyl. When you’re a junkie, you don’t spend much time dwelling on the “why.” You just do what you do. But lately I’ve been wondering why I, or anyone, still buys vinyl in the digital age.  

This question has been on my mind since it was widely reported that sales of vinyl are going to surpass compact disc sales for the first time (an article that many of my friends have shared with me). The data behind the story has been disputed. And even if the data is accurate, vinyl still accounts for a small percentage of total music sales. That said, vinyl sales continue to rise even as streaming continues to assert its undeniable dominance. 

Many people buying vinyl were not even alive during the glory days of the format in the 1970s. So why does anyone buy vinyl?

I don’t know for sure, really. I’ve heard the theory that vinyl lovers prefer the warm and rich sound of analog record albums. But I’m guessing that maybe one half of one percent of the vinyl-buying public really goes out of their way to purchase a record because they appreciate its sonic qualities. It’s also quite possible that people buy vinyl for the same reason that print books continue to thrive: we still care about the tactile experience of holding art in our hands. Maybe. 

But really? I think the addiction has something to do with nostalgia and coolness.

Nostalgia Is a Funny Thing

Take a look at the top-selling vinyl albums of 2019 here. Billie Eilish is right there close to the top, but classic rock works reign, with Queen Greatest Hits topping the list. This news comes as no surprise. The top-selling artist in vinyl in 2018 was the Beatles, who also dominated vinyl sales in 2017. They didn’t quite own 2016 – because David Bowie did. The Baby Boomer-era acts clean up every year. They’re leading the vinyl revival.

But why would they? Well, aside from the fact that the best classic rock acts define a golden era for music, you cannot deny the power of nostalgia. As Don Draper said in Mad Men, “Nostalgia – it’s delicate, but potent.” And nostalgia is a funny thing. You can feel nostalgia for other times you didn’t even experience. In the 1970s, when I was a kid, I got caught up in Eisenhower and Kennedy-era nostalgia triggered by the success of American Graffiti and Happy Days.

But I was technically too young to have appreciated the time period depicted in the movie American Graffiti (1962) and the TV series Happy Days (set largely in the 1950s). Why? Because American Graffiti and Happy Days were comfort food. (And so was the soundtrack to American Graffiti.) They evoked what seemed like a more secure time. I longed for that security as a child because I was not getting it at home. 

Nostalgia is a longing for comfort, really. That longing explains why the 1980s have a hold on popular culture right now with Millennials and Gen Z who are too young to have really experienced that decade. When a popular show such as Stranger Things packages and sells the comfort of another time, we long for a past that holds us in a secure embrace.

And that’s exactly what you feel when you pull a copy of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band or The Dark Side of the Moon out of their jackets. Each moment you spend studying the artwork and getting immersed in the music takes you deeper into the sweet comfort of nostalgia. 

Coolsville

But nostalgia alone does not explain the enduring appeal of vinyl. There is also the coolness factor to consider. Now, I don’t know exactly how to define cool. But I know what cool looks like. And, my friends, vinyl looks cool. The Rolling Stones leering at you from the blurry cover of Between the Buttons looks cool.

The Doors watching you through the window of Morrison Hotel is an invitation to share in a secret kind of coolness that exists only in the mythology of Jim Morrison.

Robert Freeman’s stark black-and-white shot of the Beatles on With the Beatles is ultra-cool.

Chrissie Hynde on the cover of Pretenders looks like she spits cool in your face.

The Isley Brothers decked out in funky badassery on the cover of Showdown is another category of cool completely.

But all those images compressed to a tiny square the size of a coffee coaster on a compact disc? Not cool. As for streaming? I guess streaming is cool if you consider electricity to be cool. 

No one will ever think of CDs as cool. No one will ever think of streaming a song as an inherently cool experience. But a stack of vinyl will always create instant cool, and cool will always appeal.

Don’t ask me why vinyl is cool. You have to be a vinyl junkie to understand. And I’m hopelessly addicted.

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Apple TV+ Needs Cultural Relevance — and “Dickinson” Delivers It

Disney+ has The Mandalorian. Netflix has Stranger Things. What does Apple TV+ have to capture our imaginations and light the internet on fire?

Well, nothing approaching Stranger Things or The Mandalorian-level of widespread excitement. But the Apple TV+ show Dickinson is quickly building momentum and delivering what Apple TV+ needs: cultural relevance.   

Why Cultural Relevance Matters

Cultural relevance is essential for any entertainment company to succeed in the long run. Brands become culturally relevant when they connect with an audience through their attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors. Sometimes cultural relevance means shaping attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors, too. When brands achieve cultural relevance, they become so inextricably linked with our lives that we become lifelong members of their tribes.

Disney Masters Cultural Relevance

Disney is the master of cultural relevance. Mickey Mouse is more than a popular animated character. Mickey Mouse is an international symbol of childhood. Frozen is a pop culture phenomenon. The Lion King introduced the words “Hakuna Matata” to millions of people. The Little Mermaid inspired cosplayers for generations to come. And now, Disney+ is having a culturally relevant moment with The Mandalorian.

Almost immediately, The Mandalorian sparked passionate conversations on social media about Baby Yoda, Boba Fett, and Star Wars lore. I’ve not seen social media explode with such ferocity over a pop culture phenomenon since Pokémon GO hit. The Mandalorian did something else: it became the most in-demand original streaming TV show in the United States, unseating Netflix’s Stranger Things. Is it any surprise that Disney+ achieved more than 10 million subscribers on launch day? And all this excitement hit in time to unleash related merchandise for the holiday shopping season. 

Netflix Defines Cultural Relevance

Netflix, meanwhile, released Season 3 of The Crown on November 4. Here is a wildly popular show that connects with American audiences by tapping into Americans’ longstanding fascination with the Royal Family. The Crown inspired a wide range of commentary, some connecting the show to contemporary American politics, others offering insight into the importance of Welsh languageAnd the Royal Family itself commented on the opening episode

This is what culturally relevant shows do. They inspire conversation that transcends the show itself. Among the streaming companies, Netflix has created the gold standard for cultural relevance (although Disney may catch up and then some). Stranger Things has become a pop culture sensation by tapping into 1980s nostalgia (and arguably engineering that nostalgia). Tidying up with Marie Kondo connects with an American materialism (and its consequences) so profoundly that the show actually created a spike in donations to thrift stores. This is the entertainment company that changed how we watched TV and is responsible for vernacular such as “Netflix and chill.”

Along Comes Apple TV+

Now, what about Apple TV+, which launched on November 4? Well, the results are mixed, and Apple TV+ has been outflanked by The Mandalorian. The much hyped The Morning Show has failed to catch fire. Apple has delayed the release of theatrical film The Banker amid allegations of misconduct against one of the movie’s producers. But on the other hand, a lesser known series, Dickinson, has been steadily building a fan base.

On the surface, Dickinson focuses on the life of poet Emily Dickinson. But what makes Dickinson culturally relevant is that it’s more than the story of a poet. It’s a perfectly timed statement about female and LGBTQ+ empowerment. In addition, the casting is smart. For instance, Hailee Steinfeld, who portrays Emily Dickinson, connects effectively with Gen Z and the LGBTQ+ community. Wiz Khalifa, who portrays a personification of death, is highly relevant to music, fashion, and weed culture. And the show’s soundtrack, featuring artists ranging from A$AP Rocky to Billie Eilish, is a Millennial’s dream. As such, Dickinson is rapidly creating a fan base who call themselves “Dickheads,” and the show has inspired the term “Sexy Dickinson.” Now this is what cultural relevance looks like:

Dickinson has already been renewed for another season. 

Keep an Eye on Apple TV+

Creating cultural relevance requires an insight into consumer behavior, the agility to rapidly create content that taps into this behavior, and a platform to share that content at scale. Apple has the platform for Apple TV+ through Apple TV (and a new Apple TV app). As a media brand, Apple is getting better at tapping into consumer behavior and creating the right content. We all remember how Apple stumbled badly with its ill-fated forced download of U2’s Songs of Innocence album in 2014 – a miscalculation of consumer behavior (streaming was overtaking downloading, and people resented being forced to download music they did not ask for) and taste (U2 was out of fashion). But since then, Apple has adapted by launching a streaming service that now dominates the industry along with Spotify

Apple played catch-up and then became a leader in music streaming by becoming more culturally relevant with content that connects to millennial tastes, such as the Up Next program for developing artists and first-look album drops by artists such as Chance the Rapper and Drake. Original content alone was not the answer to the rise of Apple Music – culturally relevant content that connects emotionally was.

Apple TV+ has a long way to go before it attains cultural relevance. But Dickinson is a clear win. In addition, Apple has plenty of cash – and a lot of patience. You can be sure Apple is figuring out how to create its next Dickinson

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We See Dead People: Why Dead Celebrities Are Coming Back to Life through Digital

We live in exciting and dangerous times in the entertainment industry.

First, the excitement: I recently saw Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman on the big screen, and I was impressed with the technology Scorsese used to de-age the lead actors, Robert De Niro, 76, Al Pacino, 79, and Joe Pesci, 76. The movie required them to play characters over a span of decades. Scorsese used digital to take years off their faces in order to play their characters at much younger stages in their lives.

I was skeptical when I heard about the approach, but the movie won me over. The technology made the movie better because The Irishman could tell a sprawling story over a period of time using the same actors to show the ravages of time and their violent lives on their faces. It wasn’t perfect: in a few scenes, De Niro’s face looked oddly sculpted and flat. But in the context of a three-and-half-hour movie, the flaws registered barely a flicker.

The de-aging technology in The Irishman is exciting because it challenged actors in ways they had likely never experienced. Even though their faces were altered, the actors still needed to learn how to adapt the way their bodies moved to match how their younger faces looked.

According to a widely reported story, the 79-year-old Pacino needed to do retakes of one scene in particular until he could authentically portray the movements of a character who was supposed to be 49 years old. And I think that kind of challenge is good. All the actors delivered masterful performances, and the technology pushed them to do so.

De-Aging Catches On

The Irishman not the only film using de-aging. Many films ranging from The Curious Case of Benjamin Button to Avengers: Endgame have used it. For example, in 2019, Captain Marvel took years off Samuel L. Jackson’s face (and impressively so) to depict a younger version of Nick Fury. Ang Lee’s Gemini Man re-created a younger version of Will Smith although the negative reaction to Gemini Man suggest the movie is a cautionary tale about the limits of the technology

But not since The Curious Case of Benjamin Button has a move so ambitiously made de-aging integral to the story.  The Irishman is a landmark moment that opens up possibilities for directors and writers to create stories with broader narrative arcs spanning the passage of time without needing to find multiple actors to portray the same character in one movie. 

That said, I think the technology needs to be managed in limited doses to be effective. Consider the epic film, The Godfather, Part II. Robert De Niro won an Academy Award for playing a young Don Corleone, only two years after Marlon Brando also won an Academy Award for playing an aged Don Corleone in The Godfather. To this day, they are the only two actors who have won Academy Awards for playing the same fictional character. But what if de-aging technology had existed in the 1970s? Would Francis Ford Coppola have been tempted to cast Marlon Brando in The Godfather, Part II instead of De Niro?  Audiences would have been denied two compelling performances by two different actors at the peak of their artistic powers, each interpreting a character in their own way.

Dead Stars Are Coming Back to Life

Now for the danger: a new company is forming in order to bring dead stars to life in digital form. As reported by Janko Roettgers in Variety, Worldwide XR will incorporate digital movie stars into experiences such as virtual reality, augmented reality, and movies. In fact, a digitally recreated James Dean already has a small role in a forthcoming movie, Finding Jack. Worldwide XR holds the rights to more than 400 celebrities, ranging from Jackie Robinson to Jimmy Stewart. 

Worldwide XR CEO Travis Cloyd told Variety, “Influencers will come and go, but legends will never die.”

Some present-day stars – as in real, breathing humans – were not thrilled. Here’s what Chris Evans tweeted:

Elijah Wood wasn’t too thrilled, either:

Bette Midler was not having any of it:

As Variety reported, Cloyd reacted with a shrug:

“It’s disruptive,” acknowledged Cloyd. “Some people dislike it.” However, he argued that the emergence of digital humans was inevitable, and promised that his company would vet any potential partners to make sure that they would do the celebrity in question justice. “We will do our due diligence,” he said.

In addition, Cloyd noted that digitally recreated stars go beyond the movies: we can also experience them in virtual and augmented reality, which opens up all kinds of possibilities, such as John Belushi crashing a bachelor party (for presumably a steep fee) or Audrey Hepburn guest speaking at your next corporate event.

“There is a lot more to come for James Dean,” Cloyd said. “Think of it as James Dean 2.0.”

Disruption Has Consequences

Cloyd has a point. Disruption upsets people – especially people who see their jobs at risk. Because that’s what we’re talking about when we bring dead stars to the screen: when a dead James Dean takes up screen time, a living actor loses a role. 

On the other hand, the possibility of James Dean in a theme park via virtual reality or augmented reality seems less threatening. I don’t hear anyone complaining about those applications (yet). It’s the incorporation of a digital James Dean into a movie that has the actors up in arms. And I don’t like the idea, either. I dislike the notion of a digitally recreated person taking a role that a living actor could play. I want to see how an artist takes a role and shapes it in context of the times we both live in. A dead person cannot do that.

The Technology Will Be Huge

But the technology is not going away. In fact, I predict it’s going to be huge. Already we’re seeing audiences respond favorably to touring holograms of musicians such as Roy Orbison and Frank Zappa. According to Rolling Stone, a hologram tour of Frank Zappa sold out, with people paying up to $125 a ticket.

Reports Kory Grow of Rolling Stone:

. . . a Roy Orbison hologram tour last year was a financial success, selling 1,800 seats on average per show. There’s enough demand that those tours have more dates lined up — Orbison’s will be touring with one of Buddy Holly this fall — and holographic versions of Ronnie James Dio, Whitney Houston, and Amy Winehouse will be hitting the road later this year. It’s a trend that marks a new wave of holographic tours that is much more sustainable than one-offs, like the Tupac hologram at Coachella in 2012.

But why is there a market to see dead stars when there are plenty of compelling living actors and musicians working today? I think a few factors are at play:

  • Nostalgia is powerful. As Don Draper said in Mad Men, “Nostalgia – it’s delicate, but potent.” Nostalgia explains why the 1980s have a hold on popular culture right now: when a popular show such as Stranger Things packages and sells the comfort of another time, we long for a past that holds us in a comfortable embrace. If you lived in the 1980s, you might remember the anxiety of the times, such as the ever-present Cold War throughout most of the decade. But we tend to view the past with rose-tinted glasses, and pop culture encourages us to do so.

Like it or not, we’re going to need to make way for dead stars in our lives. And maybe the detractors will warm up to the idea. In the era of the Marvel franchise, actors routinely perform with CGI-generated characters; perhaps it’s not a stretch to go toe-to-toe in a fight scene with a youthful Burt Reynolds from his macho Deliverance days or respond to the seductive power of a Gentlemen Prefer Blondes-era Marilyn Monroe? (Or maybe Brad Pitt could have squared off with the real Bruce Lee in Once upon a Time in Hollywood?) And for movie purists like me? Well, I was wary of de-aging technology, too,

Exciting and dangerous times, indeed. 

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Three Lessons for Brands from Ellie Goulding’s Thanksgiving Day Stand Against the Salvation Army

Thanksgiving Day means more than eating Turkey and watching football. For British musician Ellie Goulding, Thanksgiving has become a time for social activism, at the expense of the NFL and Salvation Army.  

Ellie Goulding Knocks over a Red Kettle

Goulding is scheduled to perform in the Red Kettle Kickoff halftime show during a nationally televised Thanksgiving Day Dallas Cowboys/Buffalo Bills game. The show marks the official start of the Salvation Army’s annual Red Kettle Campaign. For the past 22 years, musicians ranging from Eric Church to Destiny’s Child have appeared on the Red Kettle Kickoff halftime show, befitting the particularly close relationship between the Dallas Cowboys (who play each year on Thanksgiving) and the Salvation Army.

At first Goulding seemed like the perfect choice for the NFL and the Salvation Army. Her millennial-friendly electronic pop is interesting without being risky, and she is a noted philanthropist. Indeed, on November 7, the Salvation Army issued a press release gushing about her upcoming performance, which quoted Goulding as follows:

I am honored to perform at the Dallas Cowboys halftime show and kick off The Salvation Army’s Red Kettle Campaign. With so many people in need, I believe it’s our duty to help, and I encourage everyone to donate to The Salvation Army. The money they raise during the Red Kettle Campaign will change lives for the better all year long.

So far, so good, right? But after Goulding shared on Instagram a photo of herself at a Salvation Army location, some of her fans pointed out that the Salvation Army has a reported history of anti-LGBTQ+ actions and beliefs.

Thus chastened, Goulding issued the following statement threatening to cancel her performance in the Red Kettle Kickoff halftime show:

Upon researching this, I have reached out to The Salvation Army and said that I would have no choice but to pull out unless they very quickly make a solid, committed pledge or donation to the LGBTQ community. I am a committed philanthropist as you probably know, and my heart has always been in helping the homeless, but supporting an anti-LGBTQ charity is clearly not something I would ever intentionally do. Thank you for drawing my attention to this 

With Thanksgiving just around the corner, Goulding’s threat to pull out of the halftime show put the NFL into an especially difficult position, and not just from a logistics standpoint. The NFL is already caught in a cultural maelstrom stemming from the fall-out from Colin Kaepernick’s National Anthem protest. The league could really do without another headache like this one.

The Salvation Army Leaps into Action

Fortunately for the NFL, Goulding apparently decided to perform after all, according to The Dallas Morning News. And the NFL has the Salvation Army to thank. Her threat prompted a dialogue with the Salvation Army, which convinced her that the show must go on. Obviously, the Salvation Army is ready for this kind of negative news. Instead of circling the wagons, the organization quickly responded to Goulding and talked with the news media about its stance toward LGBTQ+ rights. For instance, Salvation Army representatives talked with The Dallas Morning News and put a positive spin on the situation. Maj. Jon Rich, a Salvation Army commander in Texas, said,

It brings attention to how inclusive we are as an organization and serving everyone no matter who they are, what their sexual orientation is, what their station in life is. We serve without discrimination. It’s our international mission statement that we serve human needs without discrimination.

He said that the organization is evolving its practices to be more inclusive of LGBTQ+ persons and characterized anti-LGBTQ+ statements from Salvation Army members as uncharacteristic of the Salvation Army’s values. The interview was a textbook case of being responsive in a moment of crisis. 

The NFL Is Caught in the Middle

Goulding’s reluctance to perform created a negative news cycle for both the Salvation Army and the league at a particularly trying time for the NFL. The NFL, caught in the middle, was wise to say nothing, even though at least one writer in Business Insider called on the league “to take a page from Goulding’s book and back her up” (the writer stopped short of recommending specific actions). It’s not that the Ellie Goulding/Salvation Army controversy is insignificant; rather, the news quickly began to blow over. Why draw attention to the story – especially as the NFL was dealing with Colin Kaepernick once again creating news for the league?  

Social and Political Activism Creates Complications 

The Ellie Goulding/Salvation Army controversy is the latest high-profile example of a brand/artist collaboration taking a left turn into the realm of political/social consciousness. I recently blogged about the 1,000+ musicians who have boycotted the Intersect music festival because it is sponsored by Amazon Web Services (AWS). The musicians object to AWS’s work with Palantir, a data company holding $150 million in contracts with Immigration and Customs Enforcement. 

Musicians can lend incredible cultural relevance to brands. Lyft bought its way into coolness by forming a partnership with Kendrick Lamar for his Championship Tour. Belvedere Vodka looked woke by working with Janelle Monáe on brand-sponsored short films. But in an era of political and social activism in music, brand-artist collaborations can create tension.

The Lesson for Brands

If you’re going to partner with a musician, it’s important to:

  • Understand that all musicians now operate in context of a wide-ranging social and political awakening (“pop’s great woke awakening,” as Pitchfork puts it). Do your homework and understand the social and political forces pressuring musicians to take a stand.
  • Find a musician who aligns with your brand. If your business has embraced brand activism, then an outspoken artist might be the perfect match. If you avoid brand activism, then find a safer musician. Whatever you do, find someone who aligns with your brand values. As part of your due diligence, examine what they say and do on social media.
  • Be ready to act when things go the way you didn’t expect. As I noted, on the surface, Ellie Goulding aligned well with the NFL and the Salvation Army. But all it took was one Instagram post for the relationship to nearly become derailed. Be prepared to act when the unexpected hits, as the Salvation Army was when its name got dragged through the mud. Anyone who works with performers in a live setting should know that planning for the unexpected is part of the process, politics and social activism aside.

With an election year coming up, brands can expect musicians to become even more outspoken than they are now. Buckle up. We’re all in for a bumpy ride.

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How the Intersect Music Festival Demonstrates the Risks of the Band/Brand Relationship

Many brands try to create enduring emotional ties with people by being culturally relevant. Cultural relevance is about connecting with an audience through their beliefs, interests, and behaviors. Forming marketing relatinships with musicians is a way for businesses to achieve cultural relevance. The deal works like this: the brand uses its muscle to give the musician exposure; and the musician lend a cool factor to the brand with a desired audience, such as Millennials and Gen Z. Hence, YouTube affiliates itself with the Coachella Music Festival, and Red Bull embraces music through content such as the Red Bull Music Festival, to name a few examples (of which there are legion). But cultural relevance is a two-edged sword, as the Amazon Web Service (AWS) Intersect music festival illustrates.

What Is Intersect?

Intersect — officially Intersect by AWS — will be held December 6–7 in Las Vegas. Yes, that’s right. AWSone of the world’s largest the largest cloud hosting providers, is putting on a music event. Here’s how the Intersect website describes it:

At the place where music, technology, and art converge, you’ll find Intersect, a new kind of festival coming to the Las Vegas Strip this December 6–7. Presented by AWS, the most broadly adopted cloud platform, and produced by Production Club, the team behind some of music’s most state-of-the-art live experiences, Intersect was born out of the massive after party for AWS’s annual re:Invent conference, held in Vegas since 2012, with over 25,000 guests last year alone. Now open to the public for the first time ever, the festival offers an inspiring two-day journey to culture and tech’s leading edge.

And the line-up sure looks compelling, with right kind of mix of headliners (Beck, Foo Fighters, and Kacey Musgraves) emerging, critically acclaimed voices such as Weyes Blood.

But there’s just one problem: many musicians are speaking out against the festival.

How No Music for ICE Crashed the Intersect Party

The launch of Intersect has galvanized more than 1,000 artists and industry types (as of this writing) to sign a petition pledging not to participate in Amazon-sponsored events. The boycott is known as No Music for ICE. What’s their beef with Amazon and AWS? Well, it turns out that the mighty AWS cloud hosts the software for Palantir, a data company holding $150 million in contracts with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). AWS also works with the Department of Homeland Security. Here’s what the petition says:

We pledge to not participate in Amazon-sponsored events, or engage in exclusive partnerships with Amazon in the future, until Amazon publicly commits to:

* Terminate existing contracts with military, law enforcement, and government agencies (ICE, CBP, ORR) that commit human rights abuses

* Stop providing Cloud services & tools to organizations (such as Palantir) that power the US government’s deportation machine

* End projects that encourage racial profiling and discrimination, such as Amazon’s facial recognition product

* Reject future engagements w/ aforementioned bad actors.

We will not allow Amazon to exploit our creativity to promote its brand while it enables attacks on immigrants, communities of color, workers, and local economies. We call on all artists who believe in basic rights and human dignity to join us.

In addition, two musicians originally scheduled to appear at Intersect, The Black Madonna and Japanese Breakfast, claimed they were not told of AWS’s affiliation with event. The Black Madonna raised such as stink on Twitter that she was released from her contract to perform. Her name no longer appears on the event’s website.

How No Music for ICE Reflects Changing Times

No Music for ICE illustrates the impact of changing times. In context of the fractured political climate and culture wars that grip the United States today, many musicians have embraced a social and political voice (a topic I blogged about here.) Their values reflect the surging Millennial and Gen Z populations, who are more likely to hold businesses accountable for their impact on society. In that context, AWS finds itself thrust into a conversation that the company most certainly does not want to be part of.

The Intersect boycott is especially significant because we’re talking about indie artists who could use the exposure, as opposed to a politically active musician such as Roger Waters, who can afford to pick and choose his venues. Fortunately for AWS, the headliners such as Kacey Musgrave have stayed out of the controversy. There is plenty of time for the issue to blow over (although there is also plenty of time for the protest to gain steam). AWS’s best bet is to keep the PR around the event focused on the big names and the up-and-coming acts on the bill who are committed to the event. Tell a narrative that focuses on their music.

The Lesson for Brands

The lesson for brands: tread very carefully when you make a play for cultural relevance through a relationship with an artist. You might get what you asked for, but not in the way you envisioned. Find artists who align with your brand (and, to be fair to AWS, it looks like the company has succeeded with the exception of Black Madonna and possibly Japanese Breakfast). And accept the baggage that comes with today’s climate of political and social consciousness in music.

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The Myth of Fat Elvis

History has been cruel to Elvis Presley. Last impressions are usually the enduring ones, and our last impression of Elvis is the “Fat Elvis” of the 1970s: a sweaty, blubbery shell of his former self, spaced out on drugs in his gaudy Elvis suit as he butchers his song catalog on a Las Vegas stage. This impression is accurate for the latter years of his life, but it is not a complete one.

The Elvis of the 1970s — especially the early 1970s — was an innovator onstage. Invigorated by his stunning 1968 TV special, Elvis had returned to live performing after a lengthy layoff while he churned out horrible movies for most of the 1960s. He was hungry. He wanted to feel the heat and thrill of connecting with an audience in person. In Las Vegas, he found what he was looking for. But Elvis didn’t just play Las Vegas. He changed Las Vegas.

By the time Elvis came along, Las Vegas was struggling for relevance with younger audiences. The city too square for contemporary rock stars. And being too square for rock and roll was a big problem in the post-Beatles era. Sure, Las Vegas would always attract hard-core gamblers. But the old-guard stars such as Frank Sinatra, who provided essential entertainment for the gamblers, were fading.

And then Elvis hit town. Talk about right place and right time. Elvis rescued Las Vegas as a vacation destination and an epicenter for entertainment. He didn’t just parachute out of the sky and play songs like a country rube that many people thought he was, either. He hand-picked his band down to his back-up singers (including Cissy Houston, Whitney’s mother). Elvis being Elvis, he also imported an orchestra to fill out the large stage he was about to call his home for two performances for weeks at a stretch at the International Hotel (which would become the Las Vegas Hilton). He told them what sound he wanted, arranged the show the way he wanted it, and rehearsed the band until they sounded as electric as he felt. As he rehearsed, he wore weights around his ankles and wrists to build his stamina.

Elvis also did his homework. So studied Tom Jones — by now a dynamic star of the Strip — and learned some tricks for winning over Las Vegas, such as using his body like a weapon. In the 1950s, Elvis had taught the world the power of swiveling your hips onstage, but it was a long way from the Louisiana Hayride to Las Vegas, a stage where he’d actually flopped when he played the New Frontier Hotel in 1956. He’d never performed night after night on a stage as large as the one he was going to play at the International.

He didn’t want to take his audience down memory lane, either. Now in his 30s, he was getting on in years by rock standards of the time. His musical instincts told him he’d need to play contemporary songs to be relevant — but they needed to sound like Elvis songs. He wasn’t going to make a fool of himself as Frank Sinatra had done in the late 1960s, trying to adapt his voice to rock songs that made him sound even more out of touch and a bit desperate. He wisely chose fresh songs that sounded timeless, such as the swamp funk of “Polk Salad Annie” and “Proud Mary,” as well as songs he’d just recorded in Memphis, such as “Suspicious Minds” and “In the Ghetto” (which would, of course, become hits).

In August 1969, he went onstage and completely changed everything — maybe not on the scale he once did in the 1950s, but in a big enough way to shape the future of a city. No one had brought a rock-and-roll show to Las Vegas like he did. And the critics loved what they saw and heard.

Richard Goldstein, writing in The New York Times, said that seeing Elvis “felt like getting hit in the face with a bucket of melted ice. He looked so timeless up there, so constant.” Ellen Willis wrote in the New Yorker, “Presley came on and immediately shook up all my expectations and preconceived categories. Their reactions were typical. Elvis was a smash.

Elvis stuck around for many years, and into the early 1970s, he refined his act, incorporating more stage moves (such as karate chops) and songs. But he didn’t just play Las Vegas. He transcended it. Frank Sinatra had been a legend in Las Vegas, but he was for the gamblers. Elvis was so big he attracted people who came to see him first and foremost. The entertainment industry noticed: instead of touring, a star could stay put in one location and perform for fans who came to the star. And so the modern-day residency was born. Over the years, artists such as Elton John and Lady Gaga would make fortunes off residencies. Elvis paved the way for them. He also arguably opened the door for hugely popular shows such as the Cirque du Soleil “Love” tribute to the Beatles, which would become attractions in and of themselves instead of a second-tier alternative to gambling.

As Richard Zoglin, author of Elvis in Vegaswrote in The New York Times, “Elvis brought something new to Las Vegas: not an intimate, Rat Pack-style nightclub show, but a big rock-concert extravaganza. He showed that rock ’n’ roll (and country and R&B too) could work on the big Vegas stage. And he brought in a new kind of audience: not the Vegas regulars and high rollers, but a broader, more middle-American crowd: female fans who had screamed for Elvis as teenagers, families who made Elvis the centerpiece of their summer vacation.”

You can get a taste of Elvis at his early 1970s peak by watching a video clip of “Polk Salad Annie.” Before he even sings a note, he’s in total command of the stage. First off, he looks like he owns the room: lean, tan, and confident, his trim frame almost a little too slender for the tasseled white suit he wears. He smiles and introduces the southern-fried tune with a short introduction that transports you to the country fields of the Deep South. And then he launches into the song, not only with his smoldering voice but with his lithesome body. He gyrates, shakes his legs, punches the air, and moves his shoulders like a singing gyroscope. Watch him closely, especially his right arm. He’s doing more than dancing and crouching: he’s using his body to control the tempo of his backing band. He’s running that show with his voice and his body.

Throughout the 1970s, he also recorded compelling music — the great Back in Memphis in 1970, the excellent Elvis Country in 1971, and the very good Promised Land and Good Times a few years later. Even a decent-but-not great effort like Moody Blue, released the year he died, contained moments of brilliance. Fortunately, some of his live performances from this time period were recorded, too, including Elvis in Person at the International HotelOn Stage, and That’s the Way It Is.

Unfortunately, the magic wouldn’t last. The pressure of performing twice-nightly shows for weeks got to him. He took pills to stay awake and get to sleep. He ate. His shows became sloppy. And you know the rest of the story. But he never lost his voice. Regardless of how out of shape he became, his voice retained that power. And the power of that voice endures for me.

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How the University of Kansas Made Snoop Dogg Dangerous

God bless Snoop Dogg for proving that music still has the power to provoke.

On October 4, the famous hip-hop artist lit up the University of Kansas Allen Fieldhouse basketball court by performing some of his profanity-laden hits, while dancers gyrated on makeshift stripper poles. He also peppered a lively audience with fake $100 dollar bills (featuring his likeness, natch) shot from a money gun.

Snoop’s appearance was part of the KU athletic department’s “Late Night in the Phog,” an annual preseason celebration that happens along with scrimmages by the men’s and women’s basketball teams. And no one does late night like Snoop Dogg. Not surprisingly, the moment went viral:

But not everyone appreciated what went down. After Snoop’s performance, KU’s Athletic Director Jeff Long — apparently the only person in the United States who failed to grasp what Snoop Dogg is all about — issued a statement of apology:

We made it clear to the entertainers’ managers that we expected a clean version of the show and took additional steps to communicate to our fans, including moving the artist to the final act of the evening, to ensure that no basketball activities would be missed if anyone did not want to stay for his show. I take full responsibility for not thoroughly vetting all the details of the performance and offer my personal apology to those who were offended. We strive to create a family atmosphere at Kansas and fell short of that this evening.

KU Men’s Basketball Coach Bill Self fielded questions about Snoop, in addition to the usual questions about basketball, although he took the questions in stride:

Few reporters really wanted to talk about the basketball team. They wanted to talk about Snoop. And who could blame them?

Apparently the students loved it. “I thought it was super cool that we even had him here,” KU Student Geneis Garcia told WDAF-TV in Kansas City. “You know who Snoop Dogg is. You know he’s a rapper and comes from a background. Don’t bring your kids to his events.”

Exactly. Just what was KU thinking if they wanted a family atmosphere?

Now, by contemporary standards, the Doggfather’s performance was actually tame. The songs he performed, such as 1993’s “Gin and Juice,” cover familiar ground of drinking, smoking reefer, and sex — pretty standard themes for hip-hop. You can find mainstream movie stars such as Jennifer Lopez gyrating on stripper poles in one of America’s most popular movies right now, Hustlers. Snoop Dogg himself is so mainstream that he co-brands with Martha Stewart.

But cultural context makes an artist dangerous. Snoop Dogg performing “Gin and Juice” at the Las Vegas House of Blues is not news. But University of Kansas is another matter. KU wants to maintain an image as a sparkling institute of higher learning and noble athletic endeavors. But it’s been hard for KU to do that lately. On September 23, the NCAA charged KU with a lack of institutional control in its sports program, including responsibility violations by Coach Self. The charges do not specify what KU did wrong. But it’s public knowledge that KU men’s basketball has been associated with an FBI probe of illegal payments made by an Adidas consultant. And guess what? Adidas brought Snoop Dogg to Late Night in the Phog — in fact, Bill Self had promoted the concert ahead of time, wearing gold chains and an Adidas T shirt.

Snoop Dogg gave KU what they asked for. But somehow KU didn’t quite see the connection between Bill Self wearing gold chains and then Snoop Dogg making it rain with fake $100 bills. KU pushed boundaries, realized it had gone too far, and backpedaled.

Snoop Dogg was doing what he’s always done. He was true to his brand. He’s always been about weed, sex, and partying. He only became dangerous when KU responded with an uptight and clueless apology. This is how art become a threat: when institutions of authority make the artist dangerous. Perhaps KU would have been better to let the matter drop. Instead, they’ve tried to demonize Snoop Dogg and in doing so, have made him a hero, while exposing the university’s own hypocrisy.

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Hold on to Your Butts: Why Samuel L. Jackson and Alexa Broke the Internet

Why are we so excited about Samuel L. Jackson’s voice coming to Alexa? 

On September 26, Amazon announced that Jackson will be the first celebrity to lend his voice to the Alexa voice assistant. Later in 2020, if you use Alexa, you’ll be able to add a Samuel L. Jackson skill, meaning that you can ask Alexa to perform a number of tasks in the voice of the beloved actor. He’ll do everything from tell jokes to sing happy birthday. And yes, the skill comes with both a G-rated and a profane version, in case you’d like Alexa to unleash full-bore Big Kahuna-munching Jules Winnfield on your living room through your Amazon Echo speaker.  

You can’t make Alexa talk like Jackson all the time – the skill is limited to whatever it’s been programmed to do. The skill employs neural text-to-speech technology (TTS), which translates written text to spoken word with a tone and voice to reflect a personality. Businesses are exploring TTS to inject personality into voice-based interfaces such as bots and content that requires voice-over narration. 

The Internet Rejoices

Even though the Jackson skill sounds basic, just the notion of having Samuel L. Jackson dropping F bombs as he delivers the weather report sent the internet into a tizzy of joyful celebration. Social media celebrated a life in which Alexa would sound like the man who told us to hold on to our butts in Jurassic Park and pondered the path of the righteous man in Pulp Fiction:

And journalists did, too:


But why did the news trigger such an outpouring of excitement about an Alexa skill that performs rudimentary tasks? 

Voice Assistants Catch On

Well, for one thing, voice assistants are rapidly catching on. An estimated 40 million Americans, or 12 percent of the population, own an Echo, versus 30 percent who own iPhones – not bad penetration for a product that was released (in limited distribution) only five years ago. All told, about a third of Americans say they use voice assistants regularly in some form. 

Moreover, the Amazon Echo — and the Alexa voice assistant that powers it — most certainly enjoys strong name awareness due to Amazon’s marketing muscle. Amazon announcing a new Alexa skill featuring the voice of Samuel L. Jackson is going to generate buzz, more so than if, say, Microsoft did the same for Cortana. Super Bowl commercials are now featuring Alexa, as a sign of how how familiar we are with Alexa.

A Need for the Familiar

But I believe the enthusiastic response points to something deeper: a need for the familiar. Voice-based technology is coming on strong, as the big tech companies–Amazon, Apple, Google, and Microsoft–race each other to lead a voice-first future. The makers of voice-based apps are betting that the general population is ready to transition from text-based search to using our voices to get what we need, whether we’re searching for a nearby restaurant or finding out the Dow Jones Industrial Average. So they’re barraging us with a slew of products for the home and on the go.  

But the hype around voice can be disquieting. We’re still getting used to the idea of a machine listening to us and talking to us in the most intimate places in our lives, including our bedrooms. There is a fear that these AI-fueled devices will insinuate themselves into our lives in the creepiest way possible. As The Atlantic’s Judith Shulevitz discussed in the November 2018 article “Is Alexa Dangerous?”:

For the moment, these machines remain at the dawn of their potential, as likely to botch your request as they are to fulfill it. But as smart-speaker sales soar, computing power is also expanding exponentially. Within our lifetimes, these devices will likely become much more adroit conversationalists. By the time they do, they will have fully insinuated themselves into our lives. With their perfect cloud-based memories, they will be omniscient; with their occupation of our most intimate spaces, they’ll be omnipresent. And with their eerie ability to elicit confessions, they could acquire a remarkable power over our emotional lives. What will that be like?

Recent news reports about voice devices recording what we’re doing – and employees of Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google, and Microsoft listening in on our private conversation – have ratcheted up the discomfort to a general alarm. Now we have to worry about machines and people eavesdopping on us?

In response to the backlash, tech companies explained that they monitored select voice samples to do quality control and to teach the machines to get smarter; they also rapidly discontinued the practice. In addition, Amazon recently announced new features to give people more control over their privacy when they use Alexa

Nick Fury to the Rescue

In this context of unease, along comes Samuel L. Jackson lending his voice to Alexa. He has starred in more than 130 movies, including blockbusters such as The Avengers and cultural touchstones such as Pulp Fiction.

And we’ve heard his voice in animated entertainment such as The Incredibles and Grand Theft Auto. It’s a stretch to say that he’s warm and cuddly. But he is familiar and, well, just about everyone’s personification of cool. As with Morgan Freeman, part of his allure is his voice – in Jackson’s case, confident, reassuring, in control, but righteously emotional when the situation calls for a display of passion.

When the chips are down, you want the Nick Fury who Samuel L. Jackson portrayed in The Avengers on your side. And we want him on our side when we venture into a voice-first future.

What Happens Next

Amazon was careful to point out that Jackson is the first, not the only, celebrity, to lend his voice to Alexa. In fact, technically he’s not even the first. In a popular 2018 Super Bowl ad, Alexa assumed the voices of celebrities such as Cardi B and Anthony Hopkins.  You know where this is headed, right? It’s only a matter of time before Alexa will assume the form of A listers with familiar voices such as Benedict Cumberbatch (for when we need British cool) and Scarlett Johansson (who famously played the voice of an AI voice assistant that forms a relationship with a human in the movie Her).  

Meanwhile, Amazon may gain something important from a relationship with Samuel L. Jackson: cultural relevance. Through a relationship with Jackson, Amazon hopes to make its brand more relevant to the beliefs, attitudes, and interests that bind us as a culture. Through his popular persona, Samuel L. Jackson is part of our cultural fabric. Amazon is a popular utility on which we buy things; it helps us live our lives. But we don’t feel an emotional bond with a utility. Amazon wants to give its brand a face – and a voice – to start forging one. 

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“Absolutely Live”: A Portrait of Jim Morrison’s Creative Rebirth

Absolutely Live is the only official live album the Doors released in Jim Morrison’s lifetime. It’s also a misunderstood album. Rock historians remember Absolutely Live, released in 1970, as a document of an artist in decline. In fact, Absolutely Live captures a time when Jim Morrison was finding a new muse through avant garde theater.

“I’ll Be Good for Nothing but Nostalgia”

Understanding Absolutely Live means going back to early 1969, an unhappy time for the Doors. The band had released three albums in 18 months, had toured heavily, and was working on its fourth album, The Soft Parade – a punishing workload. The Soft Parade had turned into a beast to create, partly because Morrison was drinking heavily and becoming an unreliable, disruptive force in the studio. 

The pressure of being a rock star was getting to Jim Morrison. He was also struggling creatively. According to The Doors: The Illustrated History, in 1969 he told composer Fred Myrow, “If I don’t find a new way to develop creatively within a year I’ll be good for nothing but nostalgia.” He was writing fewer songs, and his band mates (especially guitarist Robby Krieger) needed to pick up the slack by contributing more to The Soft Parade.

In late February, something happened that had an impact on the band’s fortunes, although no one knew it at first:  Morrison discovered the Living Theatre, and in doing so, found a creative muse.

The Living Theatre

The Living Theatre was a theatrical troupe that broke down the fourth wall and confronted the audience. For instance, in the production Paradise Now, the actors provoked arguments and goaded the audience into participating in the show. The performers protested the inhibition of personal freedoms, including not being allowed to smoke pot or take off one’s clothing. The production culminated in everyone taking to the streets for a parade and demonstration. Open nudity was part of the show.

Morrison had always been fascinated with the visual theater of music – the ability to draw energy from the audience and throw it back in a whirlwind of song and dance. He watched multiple performances of the Living Theatre when the troupe performed in Los Angeles, according to Doors co-founder Ray Manzarek.  As discussed in The Doors: The Illustrated History, Morrison attended a showing of Paradise Now on February 28: “Jim was mesmerized, and he eagerly joined in when the audience was asked to participate; with his beard, most people didn’t realize it was Jim Morrison.”

The Doors were scheduled to perform a concert at the Dinner Key auditorium March 1, in Coconut Grove, Florida, an event that would go down in the annals of rock history as “the Doors Miami incident.” According to Manzarek, Morrison decided to do his own version of the Living Theatre there. 

The Miami Concert

On March 1, 1969, he took the ideas of provocation to an extreme at the now-infamous concert. He berated and taunted the audience. The song “Touch Me” (which he didn’t write) was by then a hit (the band’s last Number One single). Morrison was fully aware that to his fans he was still a sex symbol despite his declining physique. He mockingly exposed his body onstage – including his genitalia, or so the Dade County Sheriff’s Office would contend when charging him with lewd and lascivious behavior, indecent exposure, profanity, and drunkenness afterward. Here’s how Manzarek would describe that night to NPR in 1998:

We’re in Miami. It’s hot and sweaty as a Tennessee Williams night. It’s a swamp and it’s a yuck — a horrible kind of place, a seaplane hangar — and 14,000 people are packed in there, and they’re sweaty. And Jim has seen the Living Theater, and he’s going to do his version of the Living TheaterHe’s going to show these Florida people what psychedelic West Coast shamanism and confrontation is all about.

He takes his shirt off in the middle of the set. He says, ‘You people haven’t come to hear a rock and roll band play some pretty good songs. You came to see something, didn’t you? What do you want? . . . OK, how about if I show you my c—k . . . Isn’t that what you wanted to see?”

Eventually, Morrison challenged the audience to storm the stage. “No limits! No laws! Come on!” he shouted. “This is your show. Anything you want goes!” He urged everyone to take off their clothing. Fights broke out. The stage teetered on the edge of collapse. The house lights came on. Morrison joined the general chaos in the audience even though the rest of the band fled for their safety. He headed a human chain through the venue before leaving for his dressing room. 

“How Long Are You Going to Let Them Push You Around?”

Manzarek insisted that even though Morrison simulated the act of removing his clothing and exposing parts of his body, he never actually flashed his genitalia. The Dade County Sheriff’s Office disagreed. Within days, Morrison was charged with multiple crimes. An actual trial would not commence until August 1970. He would later be sentenced to six months in prison and fined $500. He would never serve the time. 

You can actually hear some audio of him that night. It makes for an ugly listen. At one point, he says,

You’re all a bunch of f—–g idiots! Letting people tell you what you’re going to do! Letting people push you around! How long do you think it’s going to last? How long are you going to let it go on? How long are you going to let them push you around? How long? Maybe you like it! Maybe you like being pushed around. Maybe you love it. Maybe you love getting your face stuck in the s—t. . . you love it don’t you? You’re all a bunch of slaves, letting everyone push you around. What are you going to do about it?

The ramblings of a drunk? Yes and no. Yes, he’s drunk. And yes, he rambles. But if you listen carefully to the audio, you hear the Doors trying to play the song “Five to One,” a 1968 Morrison composition that taunted flower children with lyrics such as:

You walk across the floor with a flower in your hand

Trying to tell me no one understands

Trade in your hours for a handful of dimes

Gonna make it baby, in our prime

Morrison was taking the ethos of the song to an extreme: question. Confront. Provoke. Now, think of the Miami incident in context of this clip from the Living Theatre:

It’s impossible not to notice the similarities, such as when one of the actors in the above clip yells, “America owns the world! We’re all enslaved!” Notice, too, nudity in the context of the performance. 

But the Living Theatre was avant garde. The Doors’ audience was not interested in avant guard. They wanted to hear “Touch Me.” Many venues canceled Doors concerts. But even still, the Doors played more than 40 dates between 1969 and the first half of 1970. Absolutely Live is stitched together from performances from that stretch of 1969 and 1970.

Absolutely Live

Although Morrison sparked no riots or arrests during those subsequent concerts, he had forever shed any semblance of being a rock star. He was now a theater performer who happened to sing as part of that performance. And when he was on, the entire band was smoking hot. In fact, at a May 1970 performance at Cobo Hall, the Doors played so hard that they didn’t end until well after curfew, which led them to being banned from Cobo Hall – ironically not for obscene behavior but for doing what they did best: play music. Absolutely Live is a snapshot of Morrison as he was morphing into the theatrical shaman who eclipsed Morrison the rock star.

When I listen to the album today, I am struck by how hoarse and nasal his voice sounds at times. But his delivery is hypnotic as he embraces different personae. He is a demonic pied piper on the opening song, “Who Do You Love,” his words bouncing along with John Densmore’s Bo Diddley beat. When he sings the Bo Diddley lyrics “Tombstone hand and a graveyard mine/Just 22 and I don’t mind dying,” he chillingly prophesizes his own death, which would happen only months after Absolutely Live was released.

On the introduction to “Break on Through,” he assumes the spirit of a fallen, wasted preacher. To the piercing sound of a gong, he works up the audience by shouting these words: 

When I was back there in seminary school

There was a person there

Who put forth the proposition

That you can petition the Lord with prayer

Petition the lord with prayer

Petition the lord with prayer

You cannot petition the lord with prayer!

He pauses dramatically before shouting the final line, as the band launches into “Break on Through.” Of course, Doors fans know that the “When I was back there in seminary school” spoken verse actually comes from the song “The Soft Parade,” from The Soft Parade. But he applies it to great effect as a build-up to the explosive “Break on Through.” His delivery on Absolutely Live is electric. 

The difference between Morrison the singer in the studio and Morrison the shaman on stage becomes vivid when you listen to both versions of the spoken introduction side by side. Here’s the studio introduction. And here’s the live preamble. In the studio, he is reciting words to no one. He sounds resigned to sadness. Live, he feeds off the audience’s rapturous cheers to create a crackling energy.

On “When the Music’s Over,” he interrupts the song and berates the chatty audience. “Shut up!” he screams, in full Living Theatre mode. Then he gently shushes everyone before asking, “Is that any way to behave at a rock and roll concert?” Then he scolds the audience and pleads, “Give the singer some” . . . before launching into the climactic “We want the world and we want it now!” line. It’s as if he was making a statement recorded for his and future generations: if we want the world, then you need to stop your idle chatter and join me. (Imagine him saying that in 2019 to an audience of mobile phone waving millennials and Gen Zers.)

On the centerpiece of the album, “Celebration of the Lizard,” he transforms into a tormented poet, speaking of lions roaming the street, and a beast caged in the heart of the city. “Is everybody in?” he asks. And then, 

Wake up!

You can’t remember where it was

Had this dream stopped?

Is everybody in? Yes, we are, even from the comfort of our suburban homes decades later, as we listen to a shaman on vinyl.

Mr. Mojo Risin

Jim Morrison was in conflict with who he was and what he had become. But in the spirit of the Living Theatre, he did not hide his inner torment from anyone. He embraced theater as catharsis. In doing so, he rekindled his creativity. In the 24 months following the Miami incident, the Doors released two albums, Morrison Hotel, and L.A. Woman, which are widely regarded as classics.

Both contained songs featuring some of Morrison’s strongest writing – “Riders on the Storm,” “L.A. Woman,” “The Spy,” and “Peace Frog,” among them. (After the Miami concert, the Doors also released The Soft Parade, considered their weakest album, but as noted, most of it had been written and recorded before the concert took place.) Unfortunately, the winning streak of brilliant albums would come to an untimely end on July 3, 1971, when Jim Morrison died at age 27, a victim of his own hard living. He could channel his torment creatively, but he could not conquer his inner demons completely. In the act of trying, though, he left behind a compelling creative legacy. Absolutely Live is a powerful portrait of an artist rediscovering his muse through theater. 

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How to Fail Early and Often

Photo credit: John Karpinsky

If you want to learn something about dealing with failure, try to do some improvisational acting. Because when you act, you fail a lot. On stage. In front of everyone.

During summer weekends, I am part of the cast of the Bristol Renaissance Faire, an outdoor theater near Kenosha, Wisconsin. The Faire is a recreation of Bristol, England, in 1574. Faire guests pay $25.95 to immerse themselves in a world that recreates the sights, sounds, and smells of a Renaissance-era village. There are stage shows, shops, restaurants, and actors dressed up in period garb walking around to play with visitors.

I portray a character named Nicolas Wright, and my friend Kendall Monaghan plays Dandy Goodwell. We are two of the characters guests meet in the streets. In essence, the Bristol streets are our stage. Our job is to engage with people quickly and figure out how to uplift them through improvised talking and joking that usually lasts a few minutes per encounter.

Photo credit: Denise Beidler Bennorth

We do this kind of street improv all day, from 10 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. And we are good at it. We know how to read people and find a way to engage them with our improvised comedic bits. People are asking us all the time how we do it. Well, we’re good because we fail a lot and learn from failure.

Photo credit: John Karpinksy

When you meet and greet people all day in an outdoor theater, you’re going to mess up. You’re going to make a joke that falls flat. You might approach a Mom just when she’s distracted with a fussy child. Or maybe you’ll forget the name of someone you met 5 minutes ago. This is the nature of street improv.

One recent weekend, Kendall and I really screwed up. We wanted to stage a water balloon toss with some patrons on a particularly hot day. We thought the idea was brilliant. Who wouldn’t want to play catch with a water balloon and see it splash all over dusty streets?

We chose a heavily trafficked spot in the park and placed several water balloons on the ground. Then we called out to different patrons. Would they like to have a water balloon toss?

Guess what: no one cared. In clusters of two, three, and four, the patrons just kept walking past us like we didn’t exist. Every once in a while, we might convince someone to stop and play, but it was obvious they were bored out of their skulls. It didn’t help that the balloons never broke, and everyone’s aim sucked, leading to several moments where one of us needed to stop, scurry off, and retrieve a rolling water balloon.

We called an end to the toss after about 5 minutes, which seemed like five years. Here’s what we did next:

  • We went backstage and had a good laugh. Could you believe how bad we bombed? we asked each other. And how about the 20-something dude who looked like he was ready to doze off in the middle of the balloon toss? Could we have failed any more spectacularly?
  • We figured out what we needed to fix. We realized we’d made two crucial mistakes: first, we’d chosen a location near the entrance of the park. Well, when people are just walking through the front gates, they don’t want to stop and play with two actors in 16th Century garb. They’ve usually decided to go see one of the stage acts or the joust, and they are focused on walking to their destination. We were a distraction to their day, not a source of fun. And, second, we tried too hard to get people to play with us. We were like the desperate kid brother and sister who beg everyone to play. We were too needy.

Based on our analysis of what we did wrong, we adapted our approach. We chose a spot where people tend to tarry a bit and take in the day. We carried out our water balloons in big reproductions of 16h Century military shields for a little visual theater. And then we started tossing the balloons at each other without asking anyone to participate.

As it turns out, when people see two people playing and having fun, something happens: they stop eating their turkey legs and watch. They become curious. What’s going on? What’s up with the flying water balloons? And some of them want to join in.

Within a few minutes, patrons just started naturally picking up the balloons we’d set on the ground. We formed a circle and started tossing water balloons until one of us dropped them, leading to laughter when the balloons splattered on the grass. Sounds kind of silly, right? Well, when you’re dressed up in a funny costume, something as mundane as a water balloon toss seems amusing to other people.

Photo credit: John Karpinsky

The bit worked so well that we repeated it over a few weekends. Then we experimented with a watermelon toss, which really went over well. A water balloon splattering on the grass is funny. A watermelon exploding all over the place is spectacular.

Success!

The key to dealing with failure: we laughed. We owned the failure. But we learned and got better.

How do you bounce back from public failures?

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