Why Celebrities Matter Now

Celebrities sure have been stepping in it lately. A lot. In their attempts to connect with people around the world during the COVID-19 pandemic, many actors, musicians, and other public figures have come across as painfully tone-deaf. Finding examples is like shooting fish in a barrel. There was the cringeworthy “Imagine” singalong by a parade of out-of-touch (and out of tune) personalities. And David Geffen trying to relate to the masses by posting an Instagram image of his self-isolation on his $590 million superyacht. Or how about actress Evangeline Lilly blithely discussing on Instagram her disregard for social distancing (unwittingly predicting the social distancing backlash that would erupt among right-wing fringe groups in April)?

Oh Madge

And then there’s Madonna, in a category all her own. As if posting an Instagram video of herself immersed in rose-petal-covered bathwater were not enough, she also created bizarre, rambling Instagram “quarantine diaries” in which she pondered a burning spear making its way into her inner core before discussing the loss of people in her life due to COVID-19 while a jaunty oboe played in the background.

And that’s just scratching the surface of celebrity weirdness. It’s gotten so bad that we’re seeing a new genre of fairly in-depth news media analysis that might be best described as Celebrity Screwups in the Time of Coronavirus, including a major New York Times article, “Celebrity Culture Is Burning,” and a BBC piece, “Do Celebrities Still Matter in a Crisis?”

You Can’t Always Get What You Want

Yup, celebrities can be horrible. But for every miscue, many are using their power and visibility to help in some genuinely touching ways, especially when they stick to their knitting and uplift us with their talents. We saw an example of celebrities at their best during the multi-hour One World: Together at Home concert livestreamed on April 18 to benefit healthcare workers and others on the front lines of the pandemic. Several musicians ranging from Lizzo to Paul McCartney performed single-song sets from remote locations (you can view many of them here). And the performances were consistently moving. Lizzo’s powerful rendition of “A Change Is Gonna Come” offered hope.

The Rolling Stones’s “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” was an emotional moment that will endure for ages.

The musicians relied on their stagecraft to connect with people they could not even see. Consider the Rolling Stones, for example, appearing from four separate rooms. There was Mick Jagger, blowing us a kiss, his voice soaring above global sorrow. Ronnie, punching his fist in the air and exhorting us to sing — he could not see us, but he could feel us. There was Keith Richards, transcending the ravages of his life, smiling, lost in the moment of music, like some ancient blues man casting a spell. And Charlie Watts, grinning sheepishly as we all realized one of the world’s greatest drummers was playing air drums just like everyone else at home. The Stones have been on a journey with us during some painful times: wars, acts of terror, natural disasters, recessions, and now a global pandemic.

As of this writing, the concert has raised $127 million for various COVID-19 relief efforts, a testament to the power of celebrities to do good.

Words of Hope

But long before the event occurred, celebrities had already been connecting in personal and affecting ways. As the pandemic took hold, Matthew McConaughey offered encouragement with a convincing video. There was Ryan Reynolds, sarcastically poking fun at celebrity culture in a video exhorting people to stay at home. Or Dolly Parton, launching a series of children’s book read-alouds on YouTube.

And how about Dame Judi Dench, posting a delightfully goofy video of herself on Twitter urging us to “just keep laughing — that’s all we can do,” and John Krasinski, delvering good news from around the world through his own show on YouTube?

And I must give props to Ronnie Wood, who has taken to Instagram to speak to recovering alcoholics who, like himself, are facing struggles of their own as they are cut off from their sponsors.

In the Footsteps of Celebrities

In recent weeks, I’ve spent some time following their words and checking out their Instagram Live Q&As. Although I witnessed some boring misfires (John Mayer, I am looking at you), I’ve also seen some sparkling, warm moments. The other night the musician Weyes Blood hosted a Q&A via Instagram livestream, and I learned, among other things, that she’s a Scooby Doo fan.

“Scooby Doo, where the F — — are you?” she asked, accurately reading the room as she expressed what we have all been asking.

The poet Scarlett Sabet has hosted some Q&As on Instagram, too, from London somewhere, presumably her home. I realize that Scarlett Sabet is an award-winning poet. But many of us on that Q&A were hanging out with her virtually because she’s dating FREAKING JIMMY PAGE.

She was pretty nice and thoughtful during the Q&A, patiently handling questions from people whose Instagram handles are all variations of Led Zeppelin song names. I’m sure she realizes many of us were joining her Q&A hoping for a fleeting glimpse of Jimmy Page poking his head into the tiny phone frame or maybe playing a lick of “Black Dog” to keep things lively. At one point, I humbly posted a comment about the importance of creating art during hard times. Like everyone else’s little spurts of information, mine appeared on the Instagram screen for everyone to see. Lo and behold, she gave me a shout-out by name, even mentioning my handle.

Eventually she shut down her Q&A after a voice in the distance called her to dinner. The low murmur came so fast that I could not make out who it was. I pictured Page himself, sitting impatiently at the dinner table while pondering the possibility of re-issuing Coda as a 5.1 remix.

The Best of Times

Many famous musicians, bless their hearts, continue to perform concerts from their homes or, in the case of Neil Young, apparently from some distant planet. Dennis DeYoung, sitting at a piano, reintroduced us to the song “The Best of Times,” nearly 40 years after recording the tune with Styx. His voice, a little weathered by 73 years of living, still carried more emotional resonance than I would have dared to expect.

On March 22, Courtney Barnett hosted a three-hour benefit for Oxfam using the magic of Instagram Live — getting a jump on One World: Together at Home by a month. She brought in different musicians such as Sheryl Crow and Lukas Nelson from their homes. There was a homemade charm to the performances, and a lot of amusingly awkward “How do I use this phone?” moments as musicians navigated a performance without the help of their roadies.

And dang if those musicians weren’t kind of charming, too. At one point Barnett asked what all of us in Instagram-land were eating for dinner. I quickly posted “pizza” with an emoji. Her face lit up. “Pizza!” she smiled. For a hot second I could pretend that COURTNEY BARNETT KNOWS WHAT I AM EATING FOR DINNER AND APPROVES, knowing full well that probably 10,000 other people watching the livestream were posting the exact same answer with the same emoji.

There is nothing like a global pandemic to make us want to connect with each other. Most of us are doing that with our loved ones. But in our desire to connect, we’re finding some unexpected sources of connection with people we’ll never meet. In their own way, celebrities are connecting — sometimes in outrageously tone-deaf ways that belie their privilege, to be sure. But even their missteps add value by giving us a diversion from the onslaught of COVID-19 gloom and doom. We are in this for the long haul, my friends. Celebrities are not like you and me, but they are part of our lives. And I’d like to keep it that way.

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. 

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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.

The Problem with Mick Jagger

America doesn’t know what to do with Mick Jagger.

Jagger famously captured the essence of rebellion and raw sexuality decades ago. At the height of his creative powers and cultural relevance in the 1960s, he was a threat to the established order and a voice for a younger generation. He was also aware of the limitations of that role. He once said, “I’d rather be dead than sing ‘Satisfaction’ when I’m 45.”

Now he’s singing “Satisfaction” well into his 70s. Why? Because performing is what he loves. Being a musician is his passion. And so he continues to tour and record music, as the Rolling Stones have been doing since 1962. But we don’t know how to handle a 75-year-old Mick Jagger prancing onstage, shaking his butt, and singing “Let’s Spend the Night Together,” “Start Me Up,” and, indeed “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,” all of them staples of the Stones’s No Filter tour in 2018. 

Seventy-five-year-olds are not supposed to sing about sex and drugs. They’re supposed to move over and let a younger generation have the stage. It’s OK for older generations to occasionally entertain us so long as they do cute things such as escape nursing homes to attend heavy metal concerts. But Mick Jagger refuses to step aside and age quietly.

Our discomfort with Mick Jagger became clear when news broke that the Rolling Stones were going to postpone their 2019 tour because Jagger was suffering from an undisclosed medical condition. In due course, we would learn that he required a heart valve replacement, which was performed successfully April 4. Although the news triggered plenty of supportive comments, jokes about his age surfaced on social media, and The New York Times ran an ageist article that noted, “Jagger is not the first 1960s-era music icon to show signs of slowing down in old age” and chalked up his (then undisclosed) health problem as a result of the demands of touring.

I thought it was interesting and disappointing that The New York Times assumed Mick Jagger was suffering an age-related problem before anyone knew what was wrong with him. And citing the ravages of touring seemed odd given that Jagger has prided himself on how well he takes care of his body through a strict diet and rigorous exercise. If anything, touring energizes him. 

To be sure, the odds of requiring a heart valve replacement increase as you get older. But why is it necessary for publications such as CNN to point out repeatedly that Jagger is a 75-year-old grandfather and great grandfather when reporting the results of the surgery?  

We don’t know what to do about Mick Jagger because we don’t know what to do about the reality of growing old. We want to keep the elderly in the background because seeing them reminds us of our older selves. Perhaps this very personal fear of growing old helps explain rampant ageism in the workplace, as discussed in a recent Fast Company article, “Ageism is thriving, so what are companies going to do about it?” Ageism is not about rejection of The Other. Ageism is about negating our older selves. 

In fact, Mick Jagger is a reminder that our stereotypical notions about aging can be proven wrong. He’s a vibrant rock star dancing and singing about whatever he wants, even if the notion of a 75-year-old man singing about sex makes some people uncomfortable. Well, deal with it. And hope that your future is as bright as Mick Jagger’s.

The Best and Worst Musicians in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame

Music purists love to trash the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for being a creaky institution run by out-of-touch guardians of all that is old and irrelevant.

And yet, music writers can’t stop talking about the Hall, which, ironically, makes the organization relevant to the ongoing conversation about music. Take, for instance, a May 2 article from Vulture’s Bill Wyman that ranks every single Rock Hall of Fame member from best to worst. The article went viral shortly after Wyman unleashed this sprawling analysis that attacks and praises Hall of Fame members with equal passion, depending on his personal preferences.

The tone of his article, alternating between bitchy and smug, invites the kind of anger-laden debate that characterizes a well-written ranking. Wyman mercilessly attack Bon Jovi (ranked 214 — dead last) for producing “only one passable chorus in a 30-year-plus history” while fawning over the Ramones, a band he ranks in greatness above Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones. Along the way, Wyman makes some mighty controversial choices. Here are some that stand out:

  • Prince, Ranked Number 6. Prince created his own style of rock and funk crossover — but are we prepared to accept a world in which Prince is ranked ahead of the Jimi Hendrix Experience, the Rolling Stones, Al Green, Little Richard, and Otis Redding? Seriously? Prince was great, but how many Prince albums and songs do you regularly listen to from his catalog post-Sign ‘O’ the Times?
  • The Doors, Ranked 172. The Doors represent everything that is great about rock: pushing boundaries, rebelling, and embracing inner chaos. Jim Morrison was not only one of rock’s greatest front men, he also created the template for musicians as visual artists. Anyone who aspires to captivate an audience through the power of live theater — Arcade Fire comes to mind — owes a debt to the Doors. The Doors also created an incredibly diverse and influential body of music in just five years, fusing psychedelia, jazz, and blues. But Bill Wyman dismisses them as nothing more than a “dreary band.” I get, it, though: when you challenge the status quo and redefine a genre, you anger people who want to keep rock in a well-defined box.
  • The Ramones, Ranked 7. The Ramones are the kind of band that critics love to hold up as the shining example of “real rock,” as in some stripped down kind of music devoid of pretension. And don’t get me wrong — I love the Ramones, or, more specifically, two or three highly listenable Ramones albums from the band’s peak. But they’re more famous for representing a movement, which elevates their music too high on Wyman’s list. The Ramones did one thing really well, but they were limited to their loud-and-fast formula. The Rolling Stones, ranked 15, were punk before the Ramones defined Punk.
  • The Rolling Stones, Ranked 15. Wyman’s ranking is a head scratcher. First off, let’s names some of the groups he ranks ahead of the Stones: the Sex Pistols, Nirvana, and, as noted, the Ramones and Prince. Really? Nirvana is more important than the Stones? But rather than defend his rationale, Wyman dives into a puzzling harangue about why the Stones’s original keyboardist, Ian Stewart, was allowed to be inducted along with the group — sort of like a historian ranking Millard Fillmore as a greater president than Abraham Lincoln and then launching into a discussion about the vagaries of the Electoral College. I’m left mystified as I listen to Beggars Banquet for the 500th time.
  • Michael Jackson, Ranked 58. In Wyman’s view, Michael Jackson is guilty of not being Elvis or the Beatles (“virtually everyone who bought a Presley or Beatles record was doing something they’d never done before. That’s different from what Jackson did.”) Fair enough. Jackson was neither Elvis nor the Beatles, both of whom are ranked reasonably in Wyman’s Top 5. But Jackson didn’t need to be Elvis or the Beatles. He reinvented pop music with his own sound. He also transformed pop for the visual age, turning the medium of video into a cultural phenomenon. Songs such as “Beat It” crossed racial boundaries in powerful ways. I think Wyman’s beef is not so much with Jackson as his fans. And Wyman takes out his resentment on the king of pop.

But however confounding Bill Wyman’s list is (and this isn’t the only one he has written), the music world would be a lesser place without it. Lists trigger arguments. Discussions. Agreements. The creation of more lists. Lists act as gut checks on our own tastes. So, check out his list and let me know what you agree with — and disagree with. Long live rock.

Memorable Album Covers: “Exile on Main St.”

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Whenever I see the cover of Exile on Main St., I think of my courtship with Janice Deal in the late 1980s. We learned about each other through our vinyl collections during that time. Jan’s Kate Bush and Peter Gabriel albums gave me a glimpse into her poetic artistry that would manifest itself in the short stories and book she would publish years later, The Decline of Pigeons. My albums, ranging from Al Green to Led Zeppelin, often revealed my fascination with the interplay between music and the visual power of album cover art, which I would eventually document on my blog and on visual storytelling platforms such as Instagram. Exile on Main St. captures that time in our lives perfectly.

Considered by many to be the Rolling Stones’ masterpiece, Exile on Main St. captures the sound and look of a band wallowing in its own decadence. The front cover of the album is a jumbled mess of off-kilter, black-and-white images of circus entertainers and assorted characters of unusual talent, including a dude with an amazing capacity for holding three oranges in his mouth. The back consists of a druggy pastiche of more black-and-white images, this time of the Rolling Stones, leering, yawning, and frowning. The band looks like they’ve been documented amid a chaotic, gypsy existence, which, in fact, they were living, having fled England to avoid paying an onerous tax burden. The images of one of rock’s most memorable covers reflect the nearly out-of-control sprawl of the album inside the cover.

The album itself confused critics and fans alike with its muddy sound. When you listen to songs like “Rocks Off,” you feel like you’re in the uncomfortably hot, squalid French villa where parts of the album were recorded. Mick Jagger slurs, drawls, and shouts the lyrics over scabrous guitar parts and a loose rhythm that feels two notes away from a chaotic breakdown. All the elements add up to an authentically dirty vibe that few bands have managed to capture.

I got to know Exile a little too late in life, long after I had been told countless times that Exile was The Masterpiece. It was impossible to really enjoy the album on its own merits, so thick was the legend (and myth) surrounding the songs and its recording in that French villa while Keith Richards was dropping heroin. Hearing the songs was like listening to Bob Dylan or classical music. You couldn’t relax and let the music pour over you; rather, you were conscious of the expectation that you were supposed to enjoy it, even songs with the juvenile names like “Turd on the Run.”

Only after leaving the album alone for a while and revisiting the songs when Jan and I were dating in the late 1980s could I start to enjoy Exile and the chaotic sounds that unified all four sides. At this point in their career, the Rolling Stones were mired in a fallow period, churning out formulaic-sounding albums like Dirty Work. The band sounded too polished and mechanical. Jan and I were spending a lot of time exploring Chicago neighborhoods, eating barbeque from a place called Leon’s (where a slice of white bread was served with your ribs), and just bombing around in the streets.

Sometimes we would order ribs from the Leon’s carry-out on north Clark Street and simply sit on the sidewalk and chow down on ribs, not caring how messy we looked. As we took long walks through areas such as Lincoln Park, I sang loosely remembered songs to Jan, throwing in a line from “Ventilator Blues” one moment before jumping into “Happy” when I couldn’t get the lines right. I was deep into the Stones’ early catalog then, perhaps as a reaction to how boring the band sounded in 1987. I scooped up copies of worn vinyl Stones albums at used record stores, including the earliest albums with those stark close-ups of their menacing faces. Jan, with her collection of Madonna, the Beatles, and Laurie Anderson, offered the counterbalance to the darkness that fascinated me, and I loved her for providing that lightness.

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During that period, I studied the album cover for Exile with fresh eyes and dwelled on each little square photograph, looking for clues that might shed light on the songs inside. I reappraised the dense and opaque collage of images as a reflection of the music. The unpolished and faded images of Jagger and Richards huddled around the microphone, and of the entire band smirking and gazing off screen with stoned expressions, coupled with the dude with the oranges and the freaks on the front cover, created a band portrait dipped in the kind of grime and grit I felt on my skin after walking through Chicago on a hot summer Saturday. I was finally able to enjoy the album on my terms. And Jan did, too. The Stones were walking the streets with us.

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If you own the album, you know why you have to listen to the songs all the way through to understand the cover. These are the Stones: unvarnished, real, and powerful.

The Case for Remixing Your Logo

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For most brands, corporate logos are protected and revered. A business such as Disney invests substantial energy and budget into making its logotype a consistent expression of its brand essence, and for good reason: especially in the age of Instagram and Snapchat, a logotype is like a totem that instantly tells a story about your brand through repetition across the online and offline worlds. But Google is not like most brands. On a major occasion such as St. Patrick’s Day, you can always count on Google to remix its logo. And Google delivers through its Google Doodles, which re-imagine the Google logo on the brand’s website. On St. Patrick’s Day 2016, the multi-colored Google logo transformed into a dancing shamrock and turned green.

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By remixing its logo, Google makes its brand culturally relevant.

Businesses can make themselves culturally relevant in many ways. One of Google’s most well known approaches is to remix its logo to celebrate cultural diversity around the world. As the Google Doodle archive demonstrates, Google creates different Doodles in different country markets befitting the interests and customs of those countries. On February 29, Google published a Doodle in India that honored classical dancer and choreographer Rukmini Devi on what would have been her 112th birthday. Google refashioned its logo as a flowing ribbon in a nod to Bharata Natyam, a traditional Indian dance form popularized by Devi.

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By contrast, the Rolling Stones remix their famous “rolling tongue” logo to immerse themselves in different cultures in a playful, even provocative way. To promote the band’s recent tour of South America and Mexico, the Stones have cleverly recast their logo in context of striking designs that pay homage to the countries where they are playing, as this example shows:

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Sometimes brands make themselves culturally relevant by making a statement about topical issues. For instance, the Honey Nut Cheerios cereal brand has temporarily dropped its bee mascot from boxes in Canada to draw attention to the declining numbers of bees and other pollinators worldwide.

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And of course many businesses practice cultural relevancy through their actions. But especially for large brands with high profiles, a logo remix is a powerful way to achieve instant cultural relevance.

If you are going to make your brand culturally relevant, it’s important to do your homework. There is a fine line between celebrating multi-culturalism and exploiting different cultures. And it’s not too difficult to find examples of businesses whose attempts to acknowledge different cultures have backfired miserably. Google gets it right through its logo mixes, which invariably strike the correct tone, being playful or reverent depending on the occasion. By making the Google Doodle a recurring practice, Google also makes its logo remixes feel less gimmicky. Google is and secure in its position as the world’s most valuable company. By remixing its logo, Google sends a message: we are part of the world, not the center of it.

Millennials and Old People Rule the Music World

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Music fans have always reserved the right to identify with the popular artists of their time while harshly judging the tastes of the generations that follow them.

Those who came of age during World War II had Frank Sinatra, and they recoiled in horror when children of the 1950s embraced Elvis Presley. Today’s highest-earning musicians reflect the tastes of two of the largest generations alive in America, baby boomers and millennials, but their tastes are fairly complementary. The influence of baby boomers and millennials on music is the subject of today’s post, which is part of a series that examines the broader themes evident in the Forbes ranking of 2015’s highest paid musicians.

The annual Forbes list, created by Zack O’Malley Greenburg, is a snapshot of the music industry. In 2015, O’Malley Greenburg ranked 30 musicians, who reflect genres ranging from country to hip-hop. Collectively, they earned nearly $1.5 billion. All of them made huge bucks. The lowest ranking musicians, Dr. Dre and Maroon 5, made $33 million each. The entire list looks like this:

Rank Name Amount Earned
1 Katy Perry $135 million
2 One Direction $130 million
3 Garth Brooks $90 million
4 Taylor Swift $80 million
5 The Eagles $73.5 million
6 Calvin Harris $66 million
7 Justin Timberlake $63.5 million
8 Diddy $60 million
9 Fleetwood Mac $59.5 million
10 Lady Gaga $59 million
11 The Rolling Stones $57.5 million
12 Ed Sheeran $57 million
13 Jay Z $56 million
14 Beyonce $54.5 million
15 Elton John $53.5 million
16 Toby Keith $53 million
17 Paul McCartney $51.5 million
18 Michael Buble $45.4 million
19 Jason Aldean $43.5 million
20 Luke Bryan $42.5 million
21 Kenny Chesney $42 million
22 Bruno Mars $40 million
23 Drake $39.5 million
24 Foo Fighters $38 million
Tim McGraw $38 million
26 David Guetta $37 million
27 Florida Georgia Line $36.5 million
28 Jimmy Buffett $36 million
Tiesto $36 million
30 Maroon 5 $33 million
Dr. Dre $33 million

Many of the names on this list, ranging from the Rolling Stones to Justin Timberlake, reflect the collective tastes of baby boomers and millennials, who comprise 158.5 million Americans, or about half the total U.S. population. (Millennials overtook baby boomers as the largest age block in 2015.). Both groups continue to influence American culture even as more baby boomers age their way out of the work force each year.

Baby Boomer Acts: Adapting to New Rules

The top earners of the baby boomer era — Jimmy Buffett, the Eagles, Fleetwood Mac, Garth Brooks, Elton John, Toby Keith, Paul McCartney, and the Rolling Stones — represent the last gasp of an age when musicians could build careers by releasing million-selling albums and then touring to boost the album sales. They are all white, reflecting the whiteness of the baby boomer generation.

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Keith Richards: The Old Man Keeps Growing

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Keith Richards is a crotchety old man. He hates new music. He gives the stink eye to some famous old music, too (he told Esquire that Sgt. Peppers was “rubbish”). He told Billboard recently that he seldom gets out anymore at age 71, and he ignores modern technology. But he’s not your typical 71-year-old man grandfather. He is still touring and still making music, including Crosseyed Heart, his new album. He is also the subject of a new documentary, Keith Richards: Under the Influence, directed by Morgan Neville. The Keith Richards in Under the Influence shows us that growing old does not mean you stop growing, even if you get a little crotchety.

If you’re hoping for a story about a 71-year-old hell raiser, Under the Influence will disappoint you. Instead, the documentary unfolds casually. We follow Keith around as he visits sources of the music that has influenced him for 50 years: places such as Chess Records in Chicago and the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville. Along the way, he recalls the great artists who shaped his career, including Howlin’ Wolf and, famously, Muddy Waters. (An interviewer in the documentary notes that having worshipped old blues mainstays all his life, Keith has become an old mainstay.)

The “Keith on the Road” moments have a staged look about them, such as when he’s shooting pool with Buddy Guy, but the road has always been a stage for Keith Richards. By contrast, he seems relaxed and at ease during the scenes that take place in his home, where he plays blues on his turntable and spins oft-told yarns familiar to Rolling Stones fans. He speaks in half sentences that dissolve into a series of grunts and chuckles that recall Burgess Meredith’s portrayal of the Penguin in Batman. He comes across like a quirky uncle you see once a year at Thanksgiving.

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He often reflects on the passage of time. As the camera follows Richards walking barefoot in the grass, his voice is heard saying, “You’re not grown up until the day they put you six feet under. You’re never grown up.” Later, he muses, “Life’s a funny thing. Nobody wants to get old, but they don’t want to die young, either.”

Keith Richards deals with getting old by creating. In the movie’s most powerful moments, he hangs out in the record studio as he and his bandmates make Crosseyed Heart. He sounds unpolished. His singing makes Bob Dylan sound like Luciano Pavarotti in his prime, belying the smoother and more polished sound of Crosseyed Heart, which is a soulful and inspired like a quirky uncle you see once a year at Thanksgiving. work I have already listened to several times.

The studio scenes are bold and brave because you hear a draft of a work in progress — a glimpse at Keith while he’s still figuring out the songs. But those scenes are the heart of the movie. He looks happy as he lives in the moment, jamming with ease.

“I love recording in any studio,” he says. “I feel totally at home.”

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Richards speaks of the music he creates with the bewilderment of a boy who is just learning how to play the guitar. “Music is the center of everything,” he says. “It’s undefinable, and nobody’s ever going to have the answer to it, but it’s great fun exploring.” When he speaks of music, he sounds youthful.

I believe the truth of Under the Influence reveals itself during those scenes when Keith Richards is in the studio, creating music. This crotchety old man may sound like he has many miles on his voice, but he is not working. He is playing. And I think a sense of play is the secret to his creating and growing at age 71. How about you? Do you inject a sense of play into your life no matter what you do to earn a living?

“Sticky Fingers”: How an Album Cover Defined the Stones

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Some album covers are memorable because they perfectly express an artist’s image (or brand, if you will) as well as music. Such is the case with Sticky Fingers, the 11th American studio album of the Rolling Stones. Sticky Fingers, newly re-issued to celebrate its 44th anniversary, created controversy in 1971 for its Andy Warhol designed close-up of a man’s crotch, featuring with a functional zipper that dared the listener, “Go ahead, unzip me.” More than four decades later, the cover for Sticky Fingers expresses the Stones at its best: salacious, impossible to ignore, and rough around the edges.

The album’s history and legacy are well documented. Sticky Fingers was partly recorded in the fabled Muscle Shoals Sound Studio in the United States during the band’s 1969 U.S. tour (you can catch a glimpse of the recording in Gimme Shelter, the historic movie about the tour), as well as the Stones mobile studio unit in Stargroves (where Led Zeppelin would later record Houses of the Holy).

Sticky Fingers featured familiar Stones terrain: sex (“Brown Sugar”), drugs (“Sister Morphine,” “Dead Flowers”), the blues (“I Got the Blues”), and dirty rock and roll all over. The album also displayed the improvisational talents of guitarist Mick Taylor, especially on “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking,” and some surprisingly tender, if weary moments, most notably “Moonlight Mile” and “Wild Horses.” The violence and menace of 1969’s Let It Bleed gave way to a more decadent, yet more introspective feel, resulting in an artistic breakthrough.

No other Stones album cover would express the band’s decadence so well. According to 100 Best Album Covers: The Stories Behind the Sleeves, by Storm Thorgerson and Aubrey Powell (themselves legends of album cover design), Warhol suggested the idea of using a real trouser zipper to Mick Jagger at a party in 1969. Jagger, intrigued, asked Warhol to do the design.

According to Warhol’s former manager Paul Morrissey (quoted in 100 Best Album Covers), “Andy was sensible enough to know not to be pretentious when doing album covers. This was a realistic attempt at selling sex and naughtiness. It was done simply and cheaply, without the pretensions of that seem to go with other covers.”

The stark black-and-white close-up of a man’s crotch captured the cheap, simple approach. “It was a cheap camera and cheap film,” said Morrissey. “I have no idea what brand.”

The red rubber stamp design of the album title and band’s name added to the gritty look.

Artist Craig Braun was responsible for translating Warhol’s design into a functional album cover. As told in a recent New York Times article, Mick Jagger insisted that the zipper needed to work, and it had to reveal something when you pulled it down.

“[The Rolling Stones] knew if they put jeans and a working zipper that people were going to want to see what was back there,” Braun said.

Braun obtained a photo of the Andy Warhol model in his white underwear to slip behind the zipper. (Contrary to popular belief, it’s not a close-up of Mick Jagger’s crotch you see when you pull down the zipper.)

Realizing Warhol’s vision was a chore. The zipper damaged some of the initial pressings when the albums were stacked and shipped to record stores. The zipper literally dented the vinyl inside the sleeves pressed against it. Removing the zipper would ruin its effect. The solution was for each zipper to be manually pulled down just far enough that the tip of the zipper would no longer rub against the vinyl of any other albums in shipment. As Braun told Joe Coscarelli of The New York Times:

“I got this idea that maybe, if the glue was dry enough, we could have the little old ladies at the end of the assembly line pull the zipper down far enough so that the round part would hit the center disc label,” he said. “It worked, and it was even better to see the zipper pulled halfway down.”

As famous as the cover is, the artwork inside is also notable for the debut of the Rolling Stones’s iconic tongue logo, designed by John Pasche. The tongue logo would become as famous and recognizable as the Nike Swoosh logo, which also appeared for the first time in 1971.

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If the album cover reminded us of the Stones’s dirtiness, then the rolling tongue recast the band in a new light: a rock and roll brand, and eventually a lucrative one, gaining revenue streams from touring and merchandising, and corporate deals that few, if anyone, envisioned in 1971. And that tongue retains its power. Lucky Brand recently signed a merchandising deal with the Stones in which the tongue eclipses the clothing.

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The album became a Number One seller, reaching triple platinum status, and achieved several critical accolades. Rolling Stone would rank Sticky Fingers Number 64 on its list of the 500 greatest albums of all time. In 2003, VH1 would rank Sticky Fingers as the greatest album cover of all time. Ultimate Classic Rock would rank Sticky Fingers as one of the most shocking covers ever, although the album really looks more raunchy than shocking.

According to rock critic Richard Harrington, “This album heralded an age of really imaginative and provocative packaging. It also introduced the greatest band logo of all time.”

Here are other albums I’ve profiled in my series on memorable album covers:

Ray Charles: Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music

Peter Gabriel: Peter Gabriel

Al Green: Greatest Hits

Led Zeppelin: Houses of the Holy

Led Zeppelin: Untitled

Willie Nelson: Red Headed Stranger

Pink Floyd: The Dark Side of the Moon

Bruce Springsteen: Born to Run

 

Visual Storytelling in Today’s “All Access” Era

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Access. It’s the most valuable currency of celebrity journalism. Photojournalists Bob Gruen and Ken Regan built celebrated careers by getting access to coveted rock stars such as Madonna, whom Ken Regan photographed as she was about to become a star. Regan, who passed away in 2012, was welcomed into the homes of rock stars not only because he had undeniable talent, but he handled access with discretion. But in today’s era of stars granting “all access” to everyone through social media, what’s the role of the great professionals like Gruen, Regan and Annie Leibovitz? At a time when anyone with an iPhone can become a photojournalist, what sets apart great visual storytelling from pedestrian photography?

I asked that question and a few others as I re-acquainted myself with retrospectives on the careers of Gruen and Regan: Rock Seen, which covers some of the landmark moments of Gruen’s work, and All Access: The Rock & Roll Photography of Ken Regan.

Both of the books are vivid reminders that rock and roll is as much a visual medium as it is a musical one. Sometimes the rock stars just explode off the page, as in this photo of Jimi Hendrix taken by Ken Regan:

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