How did you spend your Thanksgiving? Did you check in with your aunt on Zoom or perhaps take a walk around the neighborhood with your immediate family? Although some defied the CDC advisory about family gatherings and traveled to be with loved ones, it looks like many of us stayed home and . . . shopped online. According to Adobe Analytics, Thanksgiving Day spending online rose by nearly 22 percent year over year to $5.1 billion, hitting a new record. Black Friday was also a big day for online shopping, but what is Black Friday now, anyway, as retailers hold Black Friday sales online going back to October?
Welcome to the coronavirus holiday shopping season.
I reacted with mixed feelings. Did we really need to turn a time for family gatherings into a national day of shopping? But I also knew from my own first-hand research that Black Friday can be a social experience for families, and perhaps families would extend that particular form of bonding to Thanksgiving while they were already together.
Thanksgiving Grows Online
Well, shopping on Thanksgiving turned out to be a popular pastime, but the real story was its online growth year over year. It turned out browsing websites for deals complemented our TV viewing and turkey eating perfectly while we relaxed at home. And 2020 was no different — and yet it was very different. The big retailers were closed on Thanksgiving. And most of us were practicing social distancing. So, alone in our homes, we did what came natural: we shopped as we did in years past.
And why not? We’re living in unbelievably stressful times. The pandemic is exacting a heavy toll on our mental health. In April, nearly half of U.S. adults surveyed by the Kaiser Family Foundation reported that their mental health had been hurt due to worry and stress over the virus, and the mounting stress continues to ratchet up anxiety levels. As The Lancet reported, “COVID-19 has resulted in an increase in known risk factors for mental health problems. Together with unpredictability and uncertainty, lockdown and physical distancing might lead to social isolation, loss of income, loneliness, inactivity, limited access to basic services, increased access to food, alcohol, and online gambling, and decreased family and social support, especially in older and vulnerable people.”
[A]ccording to a study done by University of Michigan researchers, shopping to relieve stress (otherwise known as retail therapy) was up to 40 times more effective at giving people “a sense of control” and that shoppers were three times less sad compared to those that only browsed for items.
And way back in 2013, Kit Yarrow, a consumer research psychologist, noted the distinct benefits of online shopping. She wrote, “In my most recent consumer interviews, online shopping is increasingly mentioned as a type of mini-mental vacation. It makes sense.”
No wonder online commerce has boomed in 2020 — so much so that the pandemic accelerated the shift to eCommerce by five years, according to IBM. Of course it did. Scared and stressed, we’re seeking retail therapy. But with many stores closed during lockdown, we’ve often had nowhere else to turn but online — and even when stores have been open, we’ve often felt anxious about visiting them.
Our economy needs us to shop. And we need to shop, too — for noble reasons such as supporting businesses and uplifting others with gifts — and also for therapeutic ones. Bring it on. We need the therapy.
Wonder Woman is changing with the times. When she squares off against Maxwell Lord and the Cheetah in Wonder Woman 1984 (aka WW84) on December 25, she’ll do so in movie theaters and on streaming service HBO Max. That’s right: streaming services have been promoted to first-run status. Or maybe it’s the other way around: movie studios are crawling to the streaming services.
Welcome to the rise of New Hollywood during the pandemic.
Old Hollywood Is in Trouble
Old Hollywood studios are in a terrible bind. Going into 2020, they’d scheduled their usual slate of big-budget blockbusters for global release in theaters around the world. Those titles included tentpole films such as Warner Brothers’s WW84 and MGM’s No Time to Die, the latest James Bond thriller and the last to star the ever-popular Daniel Craig as Bond. Hopes were high for both: WW84 followed 2017’s lucrative Wonder Woman, and James Bond movies are perennial cash cows. These were also costly undertakings, with $500 million budgets between them.
That strategy depended on saturating movie theaters, the dependable cash-cow distribution system for Old Hollywood. True, going into 2020, movie theaters comprised a distribution system that was showing cracks in the seams, but it was still effective and dominant. Then the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted everything.
During the pandemic, movie theaters have experienced closures and dramatic declines in attendance. They’re struggling to stay alive, thus denying Old Hollywood its essential revenue source. To put things in perspective:
Rival chain AMC Theatres reported that attendance had dropped from 87.1 million in the third quarter of 2019 to 6.5 million in the third quarter of 2020. Revenue fell from $1.3 billion to $119.5 million.
Meanwhile, the New Hollywood entertainment companies, whose businesses depend on streaming, are flourishing.
New Hollywood Rising
New Hollywood business such as Amazon Video, Hulu, and Netflix were already gaining considerable power by creating their own original content, winning Academy Awards, attracting visionary talent, and gaining subscribers. Some Old Hollywood brands such as Disney and WarnerMedia noticed and acted. Disney took an ownership stake in Hulu and launched its own vaunted streaming service, Disney+, in 2019, two moves that might have saved the company. WarnerMedia, through its ownership of HBO, launched HBO Max in 2020, thus creating a streaming outlet for the movie catalog from Warner Brothers (owned by WarnerMedia).
Disney acted just in time. In 2020, as people got used to staying home more during the pandemic, subscriber totals for streaming services skyrocketed, including an astounding 73 million for Disney+ in less than a year. The jury is still out for HBO Max. The service hit the market late, and it’s hampered by a confusing brand extension problem (to wit: how exactly does HBO Max differ from other HBO offerings available?).
Hard Choices for Old Hollywood
So what’s an Old Hollywood movie studio going to do with its movie inventory?
One option is to take your chances and distribute your films through movie theaters, which means taking the plunge now or postponing your release until audiences feel safe to return to theaters. Warner Brothers adopted the former approach by releasing Christopher Nolan’s latest film, Tenet, in theaters on September 3, and the movie is on pace to lose $50 million to $100 million.
But waiting until audiences feel safe to return to theaters presents a huge question mark: when will that date arrive? No one knows.
But for studios without their own streaming service, selling distribution rights isn’t an easy choice — not if you have already sunk millions into film costs and were relying on movie theaters to make a profit. MGM had originally slated No Time to Die for a May 2020 release. But as the pandemic worsened, MGM delayed the release of the movie to November 2020 — and then to April 2021. Meanwhile, as reported in Variety, MGM shopped No Time to Die to streaming platforms such as Apple TV+ and Netflix. But the film has a staggering $301 million budget, and to recoup that cost, MGM offered a price between $600 million and $850 million, which was unacceptably high to Apple and Netflix.
Now MGM is like a homeowner who sinks a fortune into improving the house only to find no buyers on the market. And James Bond is left cooling his heels unless MGM lowers its sale price or some sort of miracle happens in 2021 to convince people to go to theaters again. It should be noted that the stock for AMC and Cinemark rose after Pfizer announced a vaccine breakthrough — a glimmer of hope.
The WW84 Saga
Warner Brothers faced a similar dilemma with WW84. Warner Brothers originally planned to release WW84 as a summer tentpole movie in 2020. There was talk of a potential $1 billion gross in ticket sales. As the pandemic worsened, Warner Brothers moved the release date to Christmas Day. Deadline reported that Warner Brothers would postpone the movie release again until 2021. But Warner Brothers had already moved the release date five times going back to 2019, raising the question of whether further delays might cause audiences to lose interest completely. As Variety reported:
[T]he studio couldn’t delay the release of “Wonder Woman 1984” indefinitely. The movie was filmed and completed in 2018, which seems like an eternity ago given everything that’s happened in the last few months. There was a sense that sequel would get stale if they waited until summer or next fall — four years after “Wonder Woman” premiered. Even with several promising vaccines, there’s no guarantee that the world will return to some kind of normal in a matter of months.
Instead, Warner Brothers pulled the trigger with a hybrid approach for Christmas Day. The film will debut theatrically in international markets that do not have HBO Max on December 16, 2020. Instead of banking on WW84raking in $1 billion, Warner Brothers is counting on the movie to drive sign-ups for HBO Max, whose 8.6 million current subscribers pales in comparison to rivals such as Netflix (196 million subscribers), Amazon Prime (150 million), and Disney+ (73 million as noted). HBO Max also counts a potential 28.7 million HBO pay TV customers who are eligible to subscribe to HBO Max but have not activated their membership. Perhaps the movie will inspire them in addition to attracting more.
As for movie theater distribution, Warner Brothers will need to bank on international sales with half of all U.S. movie theaters closed — and who knows how many more will by December 25 as the pandemic worsens? As a sign of how desperate theaters are, AMC Theatres CEO and President Adam Aron said he supports WW84’s hybrid strategy, which normally would have been a slap in the face to theaters depending on the revenue from a first-run:
For many months, AMC has been in active and deep dialogue with Warner Brothers to figure out how best this cinematic blockbuster could be seen at AMC Theatres in these unprecedented times . . . Given that atypical circumstances call for atypical economic relationships between studios and theatres, and atypical windows and releasing strategies, AMC is fully onboard for Warner Brothers’ announcement today.
Now movie theaters are not only onboard with the studios — they’re also forging new relationships with them. Universal has struck deals with both AMC Theatres and Cinemark to shorten the theatrical windows of Universal releases to 17 days, with Universal sharing video-on-demand sales with the theaters. These agreements are highly unusual. But desperate times call for new thinking.
Movie theaters were already in decline before the pandemic hit. In 2019, ticket sales in North America totaled $11.4 billion, down 4 percent from 2018. As Brooks Barnes and Nicole Sperling of The New York Times reported in March,
Looking at the last 20 years of attendance figures, the number of tickets sold in North America peaked in 2002, when cinemas sold about 1.6 billion. In 2019, attendance totaled roughly 1.2 billion, a 25 percent drop — even as the population of the United States increased roughly 15 percent. Cinemas have kept ticket revenue high by raising prices, but studio executives say there is limited room for continued escalation. Offerings in theaters may also grow more constrained. Even before the pandemic, major studios were starting to route smaller dramas and comedies toward streaming services instead of theaters.
Now theaters might be dead. The questions for Warner Brothers and WW84now are: is there enough life left in movie theaters, and will WW84 deliver a breakthrough for the fledgling HBO Max? The answers will shape the future of the film industry.
Social media continues to erupt with comments about Eddie Van Halen, who passed away October 6, a victim of cancer. Most of the posts (including a few of my own) consist of very loud audio clips of Van Halen shredding the guitar with his famous finger tapping technique.
More than a few discuss his lifestyle of debauchery and excess (after all, he was a god who walked the earth, and being a rock god confers carnal privileges that mere mortals can only dream of). But my enduring Eddie Van Halen memory comes from hot, sweaty day in 1983 when a bearded dude named Bobby schooled me on Van Halen’s impact on popular tastes.
I was helping a family member move apartments – back-breaking work on any day much less a summer afternoon. I can’t remember exactly how Bobby fit into the picture. But he was a helping hand. And because I’m the last person you want to rely on to transport a fold-out a sofa without the thing opening up and pinning your volunteer moving crew against the wall, I greatly appreciated Bobby.
For most of the day, I stayed out of everyone’s way, which was the best move I could make for the safety and patience of all concerned. But I did strike up a few conversations with Bobby while he grunted and lifted and I looked busy doing nothing. Bobby, who wore cowboy boots and could have won a Kris Kristofferson lookalike contest, regaled me with his music passions, which were simple: country, rock and roll, and nothing else. Basically, if a song didn’t feature a hard driving guitar, a pedal steel guitar, and a testosterone-fueled lead singer, he had little use for it.
“But you know,” he said, in a laid back voice that predated the Dude by 15 years, “I gotta tell you something that really, really surprises me. I never thought I’d ever say this, but that new Michael Jackson stuff rocks hard! He’s got it down right.” And then he proceeded to play air guitar to Eddie Van Halen’s “Beat It” solo.
Michael Jackson didn’t need Eddie Van Halen to become a global superstar. By the time “Beat It” was released as a video and radio single in early 1983, the Thriller album was already taking off big thanks largely to “Billie Jean,” which exploded in January 1983. But it was “Beat It” that changed everything by fusing rock and R&B. “Beat It” not only made Thriller rocket to Number One, it also helped Michael Jackson become a crossover star, reaching a far wider audience, including cats like Bobby who would never have given Michael Jackson the time of day. At a time when music was becoming more programmed and segmented, “Beat It” defied expectations.
Michael left to go across the hall to do some children’s speaking record. I think it was “E.T.” or something. So I asked Quincy, “What do you want me to do?” And he goes,
“Whatever you want to do.” And I go, “Be careful when you say that. If you know anything about me, be careful when you say, “Do anything you want!”
I listened to the song, and I immediately go, “Can I change some parts?” I turned to the engineer and I go, “OK, from the breakdown, chop in this part, go to this piece, pre-chorus, to the chorus, out.” Took him maybe 10 minutes to put it together. And I proceeded to improvise two solos over it.
I was just finishing the second solo when Michael walked in. And you know artists are kind of crazy people. We’re all a little bit strange. I didn’t know how he would react to what I was doing. So I warned him before he listened. I said, “Look, I changed the middle section of your song.”
Now in my mind, he’s either going to have his bodyguards kick me out for butchering his song, or he’s going to like it. And so he gave it a listen, and he turned to me and went, “Wow, thank you so much for having the passion to not just come in and blaze a solo, but to actually care about the song, and make it better.”
The solo didn’t happen because Eddie Van Halen spontaneously walked into a recording studio. The solo happened because Jackson and Jones possessed the artistic vision and commercial instincts. And Eddie Van Halen brought the genius for improvisation. That’s why guys like Bobby discovered Thriller back in 1983. And why they do so today.
Target and Walmart are selling safety. And they’re succeeding.
Both retailers surprised analysts by reporting strong quarterly earnings in August, sending their stock prices to all-time highs. It turns out that as the COVID-19 pandemic rages on, people are choosing to visit Target and Walmart even at a time when going to the store means putting our lives on the line.
Because the brand promise of retailers has changed from “Save money and enjoy our store” to “Shop with us, and we’ll protect you from yourselves.” And both Target and Walmart have delivered on this promise big time.
Target and Walmart Make It Easy to Shop without Stepping into the Store
They offer services such as curbside pickup that limit a shopper’s exposure to the risks of being inside a store. Walmart began rolling out curbside in 2016 (the service was called Pickup and Fuel then). Target responded a few years later. Both companies are benefitting from the surging interest in curbside. Target said that sales through Target’s curbside pickup service grew by more than 700% in the second quarter from a year earlier. Walmart said U.S. eCommerce sales grew 97 percent, as more customers shipped packages to their homes and used same-day delivery and curbside pickup.
Target and Walmart Have Changed the Rules of Shopping
Early on, both Target and Walmart aggressively enacted health and safety protocols such as using floor stickers to help shoppers keep their social distance, installing plastic guards to protect employees and shoppers from each other in the check-out lane, and mandating that shoppers wear masks to enter their stores. These protocols have not worked perfectly.
Unfortunately, some selfish shoppers have chosen to recklessly endanger everyone else by not wearing a mask. And yet, Target and Walmart are convincing people to visit their stores. Target reported that in-store comparable sales climbed by 10.9 percent during its second quarter. Walmart’s U.S. same-store sales were up 9.3 percent.
The Golden Arches of Retail
Retailers such as Target Walmart have, in effect, become the new Golden Arches. Decades ago, McDonald’s famously made the Golden Arches a symbol of consistency and predictability for restaurants. Especially as Americans began to travel more in their cars in the 20th Century, seeing those Golden Arches by roads provided some measure of assurance that you knew exactly what you were getting when you stopped for a meal. Today seeing that Target logo by a highway provides some degree of predictability and comfort in the hostile land of the maskless.
This truth resonates as shaken families across the United States have tried to reclaim some semblance of normalcy by embracing the time-honored tradition of the American road trip. According to Airbnb co-founder and CEO Brian Chesky, Americans are getting in their cars again and taking 200-mile road trips to smaller communities and outdoor parks. That’s because congested cities are more dangerous than state parks and hotels in the country. Air travel is more dangerous than a leisurely drive in your car. But even so, when you hop in your car and hit the road, you take on new risks, and if you travel with a family, you put them at risk, too. Depending on your destination and where you live, your drive may take you through multiple cities and states, each with their own customs for managing coronavirus health and safety. You’re literally leaving your comfort zone when you go on a road trip. Even familiar places now seem like unexplored territory.
Short road trips will continue to define the American vacation experience especially with national holidays that make it possible for people to travel for long weekends all year-round. If you took a road trip this summer, you know the drill by now: you probably planned for your trip carefully in ways you did not need to only months ago. Perhaps you investigated a motel or an Airbnb’s COVID-19 hygiene practices and protocols ahead of time. You might have packed a cleaning kit to wipe down your room when you arrived. Maybe you packed snacks to minimize having to stop at restaurants, especially if your drive took you to places where you were not sure how well people followed mask-wearing or social distancing protocols. But at some point you, needed to stop somewhere. You were low on gasoline. Your kids needed to go to the bathroom. You forgot to pack enough socks and need to buy an extra pair.
But as we know by now, a routine stop elevates your stress level. You stop at a gas station or a store by a highway exit, and you go into self-preservation mode, assessing the danger levels by using your own internal survival rules, just like Jesse Eisenberg did when he was trying to avoid encounters with zombies in Zombieland. How small or big does the location look? (Tiny aisles in roadside gas station convenient marts seem deadly.) How crowded is the place? Do they post a sign with ground rules for maintaining social distance? And are customers wearing masks?
Fortunately, at gas stations, you refill the tank outside and can manage your social distancing. But when it comes to getting a cup of Starbucks, a bottle of water, or those extra socks, it’s time to pull out your mobile phone and search for the nearest Target or Walmart. That’s because you know they have a national policy of requiring people to wear masks when they enter the store, and they offer services such as curbside. You’ve probably been to a Target or Walmart near your home and seen firsthand the policy in place. You’ve noticed the employees wearing masks and red shirts wiping down the self-checkout lanes at Target or processing your purchase from behind the relative safety of a plastic shield. Those details mean everything.
Maybe you’d like to support local businesses, and the closest big-box retailer is a bit farther than you’d like to drive. But people are getting sick and dying, and idiots who refuse to wear masks are making things worse. At least Target and Walmart, no matter where you go, require masks. It’s not a fool-proof approach — belligerent people who refuse to wear masks still slip through. But it’s something. And those wide aisles sure make it easier to avoid getting too close to some careless shopper who isn’t paying attention to where they are pushing their shopping cart. That predictability of service and safety could save your life.
My Own Road Trip Experience with Retail
I have learned these new rules of the road firsthand. My wife Jan and I have taken three road trips since the pandemic hit, two out of necessity and one for leisure. The first road trip, several hundred miles to Massachusetts in early June to see my seriously ill father, was stressful at first. When we stopped at a rest area for a bathroom break, I was anxious. But seeing chairs in public spaces put away and signs announcing social distancing procedures made me feel just a bit more comfortable. At least someone in the rest stop was taking some measures. Just about everyone wore masks, too, but not all travelers did. So we kept our stops to a minimum. As we drove east and entered New York state, the drive became more relaxing. That’s because New York state residents were uniformly compliant with their mask wearing and social distancing, whether we were visiting a rest stop or staying in a motel. The entire state felt like an advertisement for how to respect each other during the pandemic.
The drive to Massachusetts was important. Not only did we see my dad, under hospice care at home, but we also overcame our fear of traveling during the pandemic. We eventually worked up the courage to take a 280-mile drive to La Crosse, Wisconsin, for a long weekend of hiking and biking. Like everyone I know, we had hit a point where we just needed to get away — to drive somewhere and escape. We knew this trip might be like visiting the wild west. The state of Wisconsin has been more aggressive than many other states about opening its economy, and we’d heard of local Wisconsin businesses being lenient with their protocols. Halfway into our drive, we stopped to rest in Madison, Wisconsin. It was an uneventful stop. We found a shopping mall we knew about. Masks were mandatory to enter, and compliance was nearly uniform. Like the survivors in The Walking Dead, we kept our eyes peeled for mask-less mall wanderers and easily avoided being near them. When we arrived at La Crosse, we immediately visited a somewhat remote trail for a glorious late afternoon hike up a steep trail with challenging switchbacks — just the kind of experience we’d been hoping for and, frankly, one I needed to work off my COVID-19 flab. Fortunately we encountered few people on the trail, and when we did, we held our breath and kept our masks on.
After the hike, we both wanted cold water and Gatorade. So we stopped at a local gas station with a shopping mart inside. Right away, we went into self-preservation mode. And the place failed, miserably. Lots of people without masks came and went through the narrow doorway. And apparently no attempt was made to monitor the number of people in the cramped store. After sizing up the place, we aborted the mission. Unfortunately, the gas station was not the only place in La Crosse where apparently no one cared about masks. But, undeterred, we decided it was time to adopt the Target Strategy. We found a large, welcoming Target nearby, which looked like a beacon of safety in the distance. Sure enough, just like the Target near our house, the one in La Crosse mandated that all customers wear masks — which they did. And just as we’d experienced at our own Target near our home, the mask-wearing employees had the spray bottles out to keep the place clean. At the check-out lane, a good-natured employee asked us how our day was going as she wiped down the counter and rang up our purchases. We mentioned how much we appreciated the visible safety protocols. Seeing employees so diligent about keeping the place clean was comforting. She admitted that other employees sometimes grumbled about how tiresome the constant cleaning was, but she was a new employee and therefore did not have any other frame of reference. Always wearing a mask and keeping a spray bottle and paper towel at her side seemed a natural part of the experience.
The New Retail Customer Experience
A great customer experience now comes down to how quickly and safely you can get out of the store, and how well a store can assure you with visual cues that they really do take your personal health and safety as seriously as they say on their website and in their official emails. During the pandemic, Target and Walmart have sensed and responded, and there’s no turning back.
Coca-Cola recently announced a technology, contactless pouring, that makes it possible for people to choose and pour a drink from a Coke Freestyle fountain machine without needing to touch the display screen. With contactless pouring, consumers choose flavors and pour drinks by using their mobile devices to scan a QR code on the dispenser display. The news generated a few eye-roll responses on social media, including one doubting Thomas who wondered what all the fuss was about:
But I don’t think it matters how innovative or critical the technology is. A contact-free Coke machine is all about making us just a bit more comfortable with life during the COVID-19 pandemic. As I told Adweek, “We’re living in unbelievably stressful times, and if Coca-Cola launches a mobile interactive technology that reduces our stress even a little bit, then more power to Coca-Cola.”
The Freestyle dispensers are usually found in restaurants or workplaces. After their widespread rollout in 2019, they made it more fun for people to select fountain drinks by using a touchscreen to choose from 100+ different Coke products. Part of the joy was exploring all the different flavors in a machine and creating your own custom-flavored beverage (I have always loved combining Fanta Zero Fruit Punch and Peach with Sprite Zero Cherry). But exploring all those flavors also means standing in front of a Freestyle machine and touching a screen, usually multiple times – which has no appeal while the pandemic continues indefinitely. So with people slowly returning to restaurants in fits and starts, Coke created a workaround: just point your phone at the machine and make your favorite mixes without needing to touch a germy screen (and presumably you can have more control over where you stand):
A contact-free Freestyle machine is not going to save the world; touching a surface is not even the primary way the virus is spread, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But the customer experience may give us some peace of mind and a sense of normalcy sorely lacking at a time when people’s routines have been altered radically. Life might be upended, but you can still have some of the little routines that are part of your day, such as pouring a drink from a dispenser. As such, contactless pouring addresses one of the troubling impacts of our times: the strain on our mental health caused by COVID-19.
Consider all the threats to our mental well-being that the pandemic has triggered: the stress of waking up each day knowing that a deadly virus with no vaccine continues to rage; weeks at a stretch lived in lockdown this past spring with the possibility of lockdown returning; parents of children forced to become home schoolers while they hold down their jobs; and millions of people losing their jobs during a recessionary economy. Any of those factors alone would create widespread tension, fear, and anxiety. And we’re enduring all of them and more.
The stress is taking its toll. In April, nearly half of U.S. adults surveyed by the Kaiser Family Foundation reported that their mental health had been hurt due to worry and stress over the virus. At the time 72 percent of U.S. adults surveyed by Newsweek said that they would hit a mental “breaking point” by early June if coronavirus stay-at-home orders extended through the start of summer – and we were only weeks into lockdown then. The Lancet summed up where we are now in the dry but still potent language of academia:
COVID-19 has resulted in an increase in known risk factors for mental health problems. Together with unpredictability and uncertainty, lockdown and physical distancing might lead to social isolation, loss of income, loneliness, inactivity, limited access to basic services, increased access to food, alcohol, and online gambling, and decreased family and social support, especially in older and vulnerable people.
Businesses have responded quickly, sometimes in profound ways, as with Apple and Google collaborating on contact-tracing technology. In the retail and restaurant industries, businesses have focused on making the shopping and dining experiences safer and more comfortable, installing plexiglass shields at check-out lanes, adopting curbside pick-up services, and requiring that shoppers wear masks inside stores. These actions are meaningful on two levels:
They could help save lives, especially those regulations requiring that people wear masks.
They make us feel more comfortable by giving us a sense of control – thus easing the burden of the life we’re living now,
Kanye West is possibly the most polarizing celebrity alive. He is also a billionaire capitalist, with a clothing line and music to promote. Creating the moment, a tactic Kanye has perfected, serves his business aspirations well. That’s exactly what he was doing July 4 when he tweeted that he is running for president:
Elon Musk tweeted his support.
Journalists everywhere, no doubt cranky about interrupting their Independence Day, dutifully covered the announcement. Within a few hours, everyone from The Los Angeles Time to USA Today covered the news.
Social media exploded, including speculation that West, who cozied up to Donald Trump in 2019, is trying to siphon the Black vote away from Joe Biden. It was as if Kanye provided a welcome distraction from a somber Independence Day amid a pandemic and social unrest.
In other words, Yeezy did what Yeezy does best: create the moment. It’s a skill he’s mastered for years.
This is not the first time Kanye has talked about running for president. In 2015, he announced his #Kanye2020 bid at the 2015 MTV Music Awards, and the reaction was just the same as it is now: social media lit up, and everyone with access to a keyboard (including me) fired off an analysis. At the time, I wondered how Kanye was any different than Trump, as both were (and are) known for their erratic comments and actions. This is what I wrote in 2015:
. . . the media coverage of #Kanye2020, which has put Kanye West on a platform alongside Donald Trump, forces you to ask: why is the white guy with the big mouth a real presidential contender gaining in polls, whereas the black guy with the big mouth is, at best, a farce? When Kanye disrespects Taylor Swift or Beck on TV, he is scorned. When Donald Trump makes disparaging remarks about women, insults Mexican immigrants, and kicks people out of press conferences, his popularity seems to rise. If Kanye were white, might he be treated seriously as a real candidate as Trump is? If Trump were black, where would he be in the polls?
Not much has changed since then, has it? And yet everything has changed. This, after all, is 2020, and anything goes. Trump has demonstrated that the Kanye approach — create one outrageous distraction after another, each one more outrageous than the last — builds loyalty among his core base. So what is Kanye’s rationale to announce a presidential bid, even though he’s missed the filing date to run as an independent in many key states?
First off, it’s useful to view the announcement in context: it’s the latest of many “look at me!” moments dating back many years. Within the past two years alone, Kanye has been all over the map, appearing with Minister Joel Osteen to announce that he’s both the greatest artist who ever lived and a servant of God, wearing a MAGA hat, referring to President Trump as his brother, and, most controversially, referring to slavery as “a choice.” Meanwhile, his business empire has expanded because of the popularity of his Yeezy line of sneakers. His new gospel musical has received mixed-to-lackluster reviews.
What does Kanye want? Is he serious about running for president? This much I know: for Kanye, being outrageous usually means he’s got something else to promote. Unlike Trump, Kanye uses outrage to build visibility even at the risk of alienating his core fans. So what’s Kanye selling these days? Let’s look at the two things he’s most serious about: being respected as an artist and as a business person. As to the latter aspiration, he said in 2015, “One of my dreams was to be the head creative director of the Gap. I’d like to be the Steve Jobs of the Gap.” Well, guess what: he’s just about getting his wish. He just signed a deal to bring his Yeezy line of clothing to the Gap in 2021, and as part of the relationship, he’ll have creative input into the merchandising. His financial stake in the deal is worth about $100 million.
But the Gap is in financial trouble as COVID-19 rages on. Kanye has every reason to promote the deal. And part of promoting the deal is drawing attention to himself. How does he do that? Through the art of outrage, a tactic that has worked well for him in the past. The numbers speak for themselves; Forbes recently announced that he’s officially a billionare, with his Yeezy sneaker line generating $1.3 billion annually in revenue. Kanye needs that Gap deal to work if he’s going to bring Yeezy clothing to the masses through the Gap.
As to Kanye the artist? Check this out: Kanye has new music out, a collaboration with Travis Scott known as “Wash Us in the Blood,” and he has announced a new album coming, “God’s Country.” He also said he will join his longtime Kid Cudi to voice characters in an animated show inspired by their 2018 album Kids See Ghosts. He’s also badly wanted respect for his forays into gospel (read more about that in my post, “Kanye West and Al Green: The Sacred and the Profane”). With music, it’s all about relentless promotion, especially when you’re taking your sound in a different direction, as Kanye has been doing with gospel (traditionally a niche form of music at best and hardly a money maker). When Kanye cozied up to prosperity minister Joel Osteen to raise awareness for Kanye’s gospel in 2019, the two talked seriously about going on tour together in 2020. COVID-19 put an end to that talk. Kanye running for president is Kanye’s solution. He gets the stage all to himself, and he can rely on digital aggressively as the two current candidates are doing.
Now it all makes sense, doesn’t it? Kanye has irons in the fire. And the fire needs stoking. Kanye has created his moment once again.
Why do artists lose their creative spark? And how do they regain their mojo?
To find an answer, I examined two famous artistic comebacks: Elvis Presley’s resurgence in 1969 and Johnny Cash’s return to glory in 1994. Both men have a lot in common. They started their careers in Memphis recording at Sun Studios with Sam Phillips in the 1950s. They suffered creative tailspins before experiencing triumphant comebacks (in Johnny Cash’s case, two comebacks).
Elvis and Johnny Cash also regained their creative powers by collaborating with the right partner.
Let’s take a closer look at Elvis’s story. I’ll follow up later with a post about Johnny Cash.
The Return of the King
In January 1969, Elvis made one of the most important decisions of his life when he chose to record music with producer Chips Moman in Memphis, the city Elvis called home. This was a crucial time for the King. He had pissed away most of the 1960s by making bad movies and recording horrible soundtracks. But in December 1968, he showed signs of greatness when the “Elvis” Christmas special showcased the raw talent and charisma that had catapulted him to fame in the 1950s. On the heels of that artistic and commercial triumph, he wanted to go back in the studio and record new music.
But he couldn’t pull it off by himself.
A Decade in Decline
Elvis was acutely aware of the creative decline that had taken hold after he’d returned to the States in 1960, at the conclusion of a two-year stint in the Army. The problem stemmed from Elvis’s Hollywood train wreck. He had started making movies in 1956 with Love Me Tender, and at first putting Elvis in the movies made sense. Movies broadened his reach globally, and they provided lucrative earnings from sales of tickets and soundtracks. Elvis had even made a few good films such as King Creole before he was drafted into military service in 1958.
But his manager, Colonel Tom Parker, flogged the formula. Between 1960 and 1969 alone, Elvis appeared in 24 films. And they were shlocky films with pointless plots. The titles alone said a lot: Girls! Girls! Girls!,Fun in Acapulco, and Harum Scarum to name a few. The soundtracks were wretched, requiring Elvis to sing numbers such as “He’s Your Uncle, Not Your Dad,” “Queenie Wahine’s Papaya,” “There’s No Room to Rhumba in a Sports Car,” and “Yoga Is as Yoga Does.”
He knew those movies and songs sucked. He coasted through soundtrack recording sessions as quickly as he could, arriving late for recording sessions, taking as few takes as possible, and leaving early. Every once in a while, he’d jump off the miserable creative treadmill and record gospel music, but gospel had limited commercial appeal. And there was always a new film and soundtrack to make. The ugly truth was that the allure of money was too great for both Elvis and the Colonel. Elvis needed the money. He spent it as fast as he made it. And he spent a lot — on himself, on his large entourage known as the Memphis Mafia, and on his family and friends. The Colonel lived extravagantly, too, and he was a notorious gambler. He needed his cash cow.
But did the movies and soundtracks have to be so bad, though? Well, when your goal is to crank out as many films as you can even though you are not a natural actor, standards are going to go by the wayside. In addition, Elvis’s own business interests got in the way. Elvis did not write his own songs. But through his publishing ventures, he collected a share of the royalties of the songs that other people wrote, an arrangement that the Colonel engineered to line the King’s pockets with more cash (and, by extension, the Colonel’s). The problem from a creative standpoint was that not every songwriter was willing to cut a deal to share the profits of their music with Elvis. So he was limited to the songwriters who would play ball with the Colonel. By limiting his choices, he hurt his creative range.
It must also be noted that when Elvis was in the Army, he began abusing Dexedrine pills (the start of a lifelong dependency), but it’s unclear how much his drug use might have impaired his creativity in the 1960s (although the impact of drugs would become painfully clear in the 1970s). He did not write his own songs. And drugs did not cloud his ability to recognize both bad and good material. He constantly expressed disappointment with the quality of the songs he recorded for his movie soundtracks. When he recorded gospel, where he had more creative control, his instincts were spot-on. It’s likely he would have deferred to the Colonel’s game plan with or without the influence of the pills he abused.
At first, it didn’t matter how bad the movies were; his early soundtracks sold tremendously well. But then the sales dried up. So eventually he had two problems: he was making bad music that no one was buying.
Elvis could have landed some good movie roles during this period were it not for the publishing entanglements and the Colonel’s lack of imagination. At one point, Elvis was considered for the lead role of Tony in West Side Story. But the Colonel shot down the idea, partly because he didn’t want Elvis in a movie about gangs — but also because Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim, who composed the film’s songs, were not about to give Elvis’s publishing ventures a cut of their earnings.
Imagine spending nearly 10 years creating something you hate. Over and over. All you get is the money, and then less of it. Now imagine doing that knowing you’d once recorded some of the most important songs in popular music. You invented rock and roll. Now you were a joke.
The Beginning of the Comeback
But the jokes stopped — temporarily, at least — in December 1968, when the Elvis Christmas special reminded the world he was still relevant as an artist.
The Colonel had wanted Elvis to sing a bunch of Christmas carols for the show. But fortunately for Elvis, the show’s producer, Bob Finkel, and director, Steve Binder, had other ideas. Elvis had not performed in front of an audience for many years. They decided it was time to reintroduce him to the American public by having him sing the hits of his glory years in front of a hand-picked audience. To pull it off, Elvis would need to get physically trim and rehearse. Matched with someone who challenged him creatively, Elvis rose to the occasion. Dressed in a stunning black leather suit, he practically seduced his audience in the studio and on TV. The show was seen by 42 percent of the viewing audience, making it the Number One show of 1968.
But a one-off TV special relying on his past hits was one thing. Could he actually record great music again? He and the Colonel knew they needed to strike while the iron was hot. He might not get another chance at credibility if he blew it. The easy and predictable choice was to go into the studios in Nashville, where Elvis was comfortable recording, and work with producers and musicians who would never challenge him. He was, after all, still the king of rock and roll, and the king operated by his own rules.
But Elvis had a good friend named Marty Lacker, who had recorded with a hot shot producer named Chips Moman over at Moman’s own American Sound Studios, also located in Memphis. Lacker told Elvis that Moman was someone who understood how to make hits — and great ones. Moman had produced the first-ever hit single for Stax Records, “Gee Whiz (Look at His Eyes),” for Carla Thomas. He cowrote “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man,” which had become a phenomenal success for Aretha Franklin, and Elvis needed someone who could write good songs. As a producer, Moman worked with stars such as Joe Tex and Dusty Springfield (Moman produced her iconic version of “Son of a Preacher Man” that would enjoy a revival when it appeared in Pulp Fiction years later). He was working with Neil Diamond on a single, “Sweet Caroline,” that would become a hit later in 1969. He also employed a crack studio band, the Memphis Boys, who could go toe to toe with the great studio bands of Motown and Stax.
The Memphis Boys consisted of guitarist Reggie Young, bassists Tommy Coghill and Mike Leach, keyboardist Bobby Emmons, drummer Gene Chrisman, and pianist Bobby Wood. They could play anything from rock to soul (still emerging as a musical form in the 1960s). Tommy Coghill had played a celebrated bassline on “Son of a Preacher Man” and had performed with King Curtis. Reggie Young had opened for the Beatles in 1964 when he played with the Bill Black Combo. Bobby Emmons would go on to work with superstars like Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings. In 1977, Emmons would co-write, with Moman, one of the biggest hits of Jennings’s career, “Luckenbach, Texas (Back to the Basics of Love).” The Memphis Boys never sought the spotlight. They chose to elevate other more famous musicians with their considerable talents.
Elvis knew he couldn’t afford to play it safe this time. And besides, when he’d collaborated with Bob Finkel and Steve Binder on his Christmas Special, he’d achieved both artistic and commercial success. Finkel and Binder had brought skill, passion, and vision to the Christmas special. If Moman could do what they did, maybe he’d score another success.
So he headed to American Sound Studios. He brought plenty of company including his longstanding producer, Felton Jarvis (technically there to assist but mostly there to keep an eye on Moman); a suit named Harry Jenkins from his record label, RCA; Tom Diskin, the Colonel’s right-hand man and spy; and, of course, Memphis Mafia. In addition, other members of Team Colonel Tom Parker would occasionally surface at the studios to Moman’s annoyance.
Welcome to American Sound Studios
Now, there was something else about Chips Moman that Lacker probably kept to himself. Moman was a king, too, and he was not to be trifled with. American Sound Studios was his empire, and the Memphis Boys ruled along with him. The Memphis Boys had their own opinions about how a song should sound, and they were not afraid to share them. Moman and the Memphis Boys didn’t need Elvis. He was a guest in their house.
Elvis walked into American Sound Studios for the first time at 7:00 p.m. on January 13, 1969. Right away he knew this experience was going to be different. For one thing the studio felt different. The place was located in a dangerous, run-down neighborhood. You could hear rats scurrying in the rafters.
“What a funky place,” he said. “I like it. It reminds me of Sun.” Which was a very good sign. Sun Studios was where he had invented rock and roll with Sam Phillips.
At first no one knew what to make of Elvis. From the moment he walked in with his Memphis Mafia, he exuded star power. He was slender and beautiful, like some sort of Greek god, and he took command of the room before he’d even sung a note. As pianist Bobby Wood said, “He was in his prime. He looked better than most women I’ve seen.”
But Elvis also dressed and acted like he was performing for his entourage, cracking jokes and horsing around. Most star performers wore jeans and T shirts in the studio. Elvis wore silk scarves, fancy jackets, and even capes, like he was onstage. And the butt-kissing Memphis Mafia was annoying. When Elvis produced a cigarillo to smoke, several toadies simultaneously whipped out lighters to assist him.
The Memphis Boys were horrified. Who were these people? Was Elvis serious about making music, or was he just going to stand around acting like Elvis? They were about to find out.
The first step in recording was for Elvis to review a batch of songs that the Colonel had sent with him from his publishing company, Hill & Range. Little did Elvis realize, but he also had a few hits in his possession already — the song “In the Ghetto,” which songwriter Mac Davis had sent him just before the sessions started, and “Kentucky Rain,” a song written by Eddie Rabbitt that Elvis friend Lamar Fike had recommend. Moman and the Memphis Boys all offered opinions of the song line-up. Some of the Hill & Range songs, such as “Long Black Limousine,” made the cut. But the Memphis Boys told Elvis many of the other Hill & Range selections were worthless. Elvis’s own people were aghast. No one ever spoke to Elvis like that. He’d recorded with yes-men who’d done what they were told, which meant recording all the songs that Elvis had a financial stake in recording.
He brought his publisher and they began to play songs they wanted to record. Like those songs he did in his movies. Elvis would ask me if I liked the song we just heard, and I said “No.” He asked Bobby, and he said, “No” also. We didn’t realize that you didn’t say “No” to Elvis.
But Elvis could take a “No.”
He may have been a star who surrounded himself with toadies, but he never lost his ear for good music. It’s just that with the movie soundtracks, no one was presenting him with good music. He was intrigued by the opinions he heard. He’d wanted to try something new, and that’s exactly what he was getting. He listened without argument.
The first song they recorded, “Long Black Limousine,” is a cautionary story about a woman in search of fame who leaves a man behind in a small town, only to return, dead, in a hearse. The song is told from the perspective of the man she left behind. The moment Elvis started singing, Moman and the Memphis Boys knew he was serious about recording great music. From the very first takes, his voice resonated with a sadness and hurt that brought an emotional depth to the words. Elvis’s voice also had a husky edge because he was suffering from a cold. The cold served him well. The Memphis Boys played along with him, tight and powerful.
Elvis sang three songs during his first session. He didn’t stop until 5:00 a.m. the next day. And Moman worked him hard. He patiently insisted on multiple takes. Elvis never flinched. His voice came alive, take after take. It was as if he were unleashing all the pure emotion and passion that had been bottled up during the fallow years. He kept at it until he started to lose his voice.
A Creative Breakthrough
That first night had been a breakthrough. Elvis realized he was going to have to work harder than perhaps he’d ever done in his life. Moman and the Memphis Boys realized that when presented with good songs and challenged by good creative partners, a talented band, Elvis would rise to the occasion, as he had with the Christmas special.
Now that he’d gotten the measure of Elvis, Moman began to make his mark even more. As Elvis returned for more sessions in January and then later in February, Moman started to offer him more songs that he thought might work well, including one that would become a career landmark “Suspicious Minds.”
“Suspicious Minds” would also cause friction between Moman and Team Colonel Tom Parker. When the Colonel’s men pressured Moman to share the writing credits for the song with Elvis’s publishing interests, Moman pushed back — hard. He threatened to can the entire session right then and there. Team Parker appealed to Elvis, but he refused to play referee. Fortunately that RCA suit Harry Jenkins, who seemingly had nothing to do but watch his star record songs, ended up playing a pivotal role: he resolved the problem by sticking up for Moman.
But the distraction over the songwriting credits annoyed Moman, and he let Elvis know it. There were just too many people hanging around the studio between the Memphis Mafia and the Colonel’s people. Again, Elvis listened. He showed his entourage and the Colonel’s people the door. The Memphis Boys breathed a collective sigh of relief. (When Diskin informed the Colonel that Elvis had cleaned house, the Colonel replied, “Let him fall on his ass.”)
These decisions were crucial. Free of distractions, it almost felt like Elvis was one of the Memphis Boys. He became less self-conscious and more relaxed. He joked around with the band and laughed at his mistakes. And Moman had Elvis’s ear. The Colonel was absent from the recordings, and there was no one around to filter the song choices. There was just Chips and Elvis talking face to face about songs.
Elvis’s musical instincts were true. He wanted to hear more of what Moman had to offer. He told his own publishing team, “From now on, I want to hear every song I can get my hands on. If I’ve got a piece of the publishing, that’s fine. But if I don’t and I want to do the song, I’m going to do it.”
But he was still a star, and stars have egos. Moman knew how to handle Elvis’s. To gain Elvis’s trust and to avoid embarrassing him, he approached Elvis quietly and one on one when he needed to correct his delivery instead of broadcasting instructions through a talkback microphone from the producer’s booth. Moman also appealed to Elvis’s competitive side. Moman knew that “In the Ghetto” had greatness written all over it. But Elvis was reluctant. He agreed with Moman about the song’s potential, but it was unusual for Elvis to address social themes, and he wondered if he could credibly pull it off, being a wealthy white man who knew nothing about the ghetto. Moman listened and then shrugged his shoulders. If Elvis didn’t want the song, he’d give it to someone else to sing.
Elvis backed down and insisted on singing the song.
Of course, “In the Ghetto” would go on to become a hit and one of Elvis’s best vocals ever. Although Elvis knew nothing about ghetto life, he knew something about growing up poor, based on his hardscrabble childhood. The artist in him drew from an inner well of compassion to deliver the words with sensitivity and grace. A lesser artist would have overdelivered the song. Elvis went in the opposite direction. His quiet delivery gave the lyrics space to be heard, which made the song better. (Listen to how he slows down the tempo on the verse, “Steals a car/tries to run/But he don’t get far.” His phrasing underscores the tragedy of the narrative.)
During these sessions in January and February, Elvis sang songs that redefined him as a contemporary adult star who bridged the worlds of country, soul, and pop. On “Kentucky Rain,” his voice captured a heartache and hope of searching for something lost.
On “Suspicious Minds,” he created an emotional terrain that spanned paranoia, angst, guilt, and jealousy. He was bluesy on “After Loving You” and flat-out hurt on “Wearin’ That Loved on Look.”
He gave us a new Elvis: someone who had lived and lost. He wasn’t a brash, youthful tease anymore. He wasn’t singing “Love Me Tender” to an adoring woman. He was grappling with rejection and betrayal. Another song from the Moman sessions, “Don’t Cry Daddy” (also written by Mac Davis) explored the topic of divorce, which was also new ground for Elvis. What made all these songs feel fresh was an emotional authenticity in Elvis’s voice.
The Memphis Boys in Their Glory
The Memphis Boys filled out his sound in a way that no one else ever had. Bobby Wood’s piano gave “Wearin’ That Loved on Look” a gospel refrain. Guest pianist Ronnie Milsap (who would become a country) added a forceful piano touch to “Kentucky Rain” (Elvis told him he wanted to “hear the thunder roll”). Reggie Young’s urgent guitar on “Suspicious Minds” added to the song’s sense of fear and angst, and his sitar on “You’ll Think of Me” was soulful and funky. The bell overdubbed at the beginning of “Long Black Limousine” set an ominous tone for the story that followed.
Here, the wisdom of working with a creative force like Chips Moman paid off. These musical flourishes, often overdubbed after Elvis was done recording, elevated the songs to another level of greatness.
Hits and Acclaim
The sessions resulted in two albums, From Elvis in Memphis (released in May 1969) and Back in Memphis (November 1970).
Both of them were excellent. From Elvis in Memphis is regarded as the better of the two. It received uniformly strong reviews and is ranked among the Top 500 albums of all time by Rolling Stone magazine. As AllMusic’s Bruce Eder put it, From Elvis in Memphis “was one of the greatest white soul albums (and one of the greatest soul albums) ever cut, with brief but considerable forays into country, pop, and blues as well.”
RCA also released four singles from the Chips Moman sessions, all of which were Top 20 hits: “In the Ghetto” (Number 3), “Don’t Cry Daddy” (Number 6), “Suspicious Minds” (Number 1), and “Kentucky Rain” (Number 16). In addition to hitting Number 1, “Suspicious Minds” became one of the biggest sellers of his entire career. With a new decade dawning, Elvis, in the prime of his life, was once again an artist to take seriously.
Elvis would go on to enjoy an all-too-brief creative renaissance. He never returned to American Sound Studios, likely because Chips Moman was just too headstrong for Colonel Tom Parker. But for the next few years, he achieved greatness on stage by redefining the Las Vegas entertainment industry, a period of his life that I discuss in my October 2019 post for Festival Peak, “The Myth of Fat Elvis.”
Elvis managed to squeeze in one more great album, Elvis Country (1971), and a few good ones, too. Unfortunately, a punishing workload and personal woes accelerated Elvis’s drug abuse. His health declined visibly as the 1970s wore on until his death in 1977. But before the fall, he rose mightily and astonished the world.
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)?
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.
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.
When you find yourself awake in the middle of the night, alone with your worries, music can help you make it through. But not just any music. Only a 2:00 a.m. record album will do.
A 2:00 a.m. album keeps you company in the darkness while you wrestle with fear and watch the dull glow of the stereo lights. A 2:00 a.m. album does not necessarily uplift you: a brass band marching through your living room feels wrong in the wee hours, which is why Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band cannot be a 2:00 a.m. album. But 2:00 a.m. music does not drag you over the emotional abyss, either; Joy Division’s relentlessly depressing Closer needs to stay on the shelf after midnight. What you need is a friend who keeps you company without overstepping their boundaries. Albums like these:
1. Only the Lonely
Frank Sinatra once said, “I like recording late at night. The later the better. My voice was not made for daytime use.” Ol’ Blue Eyes recorded Only the Lonely in 1958. Today it feels like a time capsule that he left for future generations to discover during the lonely hours. Hearing the interplay between his crooning voice and Nelson Riddle’s orchestral arrangement is like sipping a warm cup of tea. The songs, such as the gentle “What’s New” and “Willow Weep For Me,” comfort your soul. Sinatra called these songs “saloon songs” because they feel perfect when you’re alone in a bar with a blinking beer sign. They work just as well in your home. When he sings “Excuse me, while I disappear” on the song “Angel Eyes,” you want to go where he’s going. And stay there.
2. The Dark Side of the Moon
David Gilmour makes Dark Side a 2:00 a.m. album. There’s the keening wail of his pedal steel guitar. And his low voice, soothing and reassuring, even as he sings Roger Waters’s lyrics that dwell on the pressures of everyday life. I realize that Dark Side might fall into the too-bleak-for-late-night category for many; it works for me because the album absorbs and reflects fear and melancholia like that friend I mentioned who simply keeps you company in the night. And that’s all because of Gilmour. If you want to feel loathing and anger, try Pink Floyd’s Animals. For paranoia, give The Wall a spin. But for 2:00 a.m. anxiety, I’ll see you on The Dark Side of the Moon.
3. Automatic for the People
The quiet reflection of “Night Swimming.” The emotional transcendence of “Everybody Hurts.” The bittersweet longing in Michael Stipe’s voice. The haunting respite that a quivering electric piano and guitar provide in “New Orleans Instrumental № 1.” I pick up something different each time I listen to this brooding masterpiece. And each time, when Michael Stipe sings, “If you feel like you’re alone/No, no, no, you are not alone,” I feel like he’s right there in the room singing to me.
Listening to Willie Nelson is like eating a heaping plate of comfort food. The album, true to its name, takes you on a spiritual journey. Many of the songs consist of nothing more than Willie and a guitar sounding like he’s hanging out on a country porch with his family gathered around. When he sings “Too Sick to Pray,” he sounds like a Psalm writer having a conversation with God. The moment when he asks, “Remember the family Lord, I know they will remember you,” is as intimate and endearing as anything you’ll ever hear on a record.
5. Strange Days
The Doors have recorded a lot of perfect 2:00 a.m. songs. There’s “Riders on the Storm,” exuding dark dread. The ethereal “Crystal Ship.” But Strange Days is the one Doors work that endures as a 2:00 a.m. album from start to finish. The moment you hear Ray Manzarek’s creepy Moog synth playing on the opening track, you are transported out of your world and into the universal mind of the Doors. Jim Morrison’s voice, like David Gilmour’s on Dark Side, makes the album. He’s powerful without overpowering you on “When the Music’s Over,” and soft as a whisper on “You’re Lost Little Girl.” It’s a dark album. But its surreal undercurrent keeps Strange Days from passing into the realm of the overly foreboding.
6. Hounds of Love
Kate Bush’s idiosyncratic vocal delivery meshes with the lush arrangements to make you feel like you’re floating weightless somewhere in the clouds. In the dead of night, I can dig a sensation like that. On the opening song, ‘Running up That Hill,” a delicate bed of synthesizers and drums pulls you into Kateland before her voice soars and dances across the music. This album rewards the listener with unexpected, breathtaking moments, like the glorious choral section from the Georgian folk song “Zinzkaro” that makes “Hello Earth” a balm. Maybe it’s the way that her voice soars on every song, but Hounds of Love makes me feel hopeful.
This ambient exploration of mood from Biosphere is unlike anything on this list. Substrata uses samples of running water, creaking wood, blowing wind, human voices, reverb, echo, guitar, and synthesizers to create a strange sonic landscape that is, quiet, provocative, and even menacing. I listened to this album often after I became a father and spent many late nights watching over my newborn.
8. The Trinity Session
The Cowboy Junkies recorded The Trinity Session in one night using a single microphone in Toronto’s Holy Trinity church. The church itself is like another instrument whose acoustics enhance Margo Timmins’ gentle voice. Her a capella reading of “Mining for Gold” creates a kind of loneliness that feels right — not desperate, but melancholy enough to make you feel like she understands your 2:00 a.m. solitude.
9. Kid A
Those descending chords from an electric piano that open Radiohead’s Kid A offer a clue about what comes next: synth, heavy bass, and voice distortion. I’ve never been able to enjoy Kid A in broad daylight. Thom Yorke’s dissonant but affecting vocals, processed by Pro Tools, sounds like your head does when off-kilter thoughts collide in the night.
10. All Things Must Pass
George Harrison understood what being awake at 2:00 a.m. means. On “Beware of Darkness,” the 10th song on All Things Must Pass, he sings, “Watch out now, take care/beware of the thoughts that linger/Winding up inside your head/The hopelessness around you/In the dead of night.” Like Willie Nelson’s Spirit, All Things Must Pass is a meditation on matters of faith. It’s heavy, dark, and reflective. But it’s also hopeful. On the title song, George sings, “Now the darkness only stays the night-time/In the morning it will fade away/Daylight is good at arriving at the right time/It’s not always going to be this grey.” Those words lift the soul at 2:00 a.m., and they can carry you into the day that lies ahead if you let them.
Parts of many other albums work well, too, such as Led Zeppelin III (for the bucolic vibe of Side Two) and Sticky Fingers (“I Got the Blues” is mandatory for a 2:00 a.m. playlist); In addition, Wish You Were Here belongs on a 2:00 a.m. album list, but I wanted to represent artists besides Pink Floyd on my Top 10. What do you listen to at 2:00 a.m., and why?
I am not ashamed to admit it: I just found some solace — even hope — in a YouTube video from a movie star I’ve never met and probably never will.
Let’s face it: we’re getting hammered with bleak news on our social feeds. I don’t know about you, but I’m quickly learning how to manage my time online as the reality sets in that enduring this crisis is like running a marathon, not a sprint.
It’s not easy to curtail online time right now, though. Staying informed can protect the health of you and your loved ones. During a time of crisis, we need to know about changes that dramatically affect how we live. But on the other hand, the bleak COVID-19 news flooding our social feeds can be overwhelming. Can I get a witness?
Amid the bad news that’s taken over my digital screens, though, I have sometimes found little islands of encouragement. Let me tell you about one of them.
Yesterday, on my LinkedIn feed, a video of Matthew McConaughey popped up seemingly from out of nowhere. Because someone I especially trust and admire, Brian Solis, shared the video, I decided to click on the image of McConaughey’s tanned, angular face and find out what Mr. “Alright, Alright, Alright!” had to say about COVID-19.
In words that seemed genuine and caring, the man who stars in movies and Lincoln ads urged people to band together and prevail over the global pandemic.
“Just want to say that in these crazy times that we’re in with the coronavirus, let’s take care of ourselves and each other,” he said. “Let’s not go to the lowest common denominator and get paranoid. Let’s do our due diligence, take the precautions we need to take care of ourselves and those around us.”
Instead of needlessly dwelling on the threat, he focused on you and me. He urged viewers to embrace values: “values of fairness, kindness, accountability, resilience, respect, courage.” As he put it, “If we practice those things right now, when we get out of this, this virus, this time might be the one time that brings us all together and unifies us like we have not been in a long time.”
You could argue that this video is just another role for an actor to play, but it worked for me. For one thing, the message of treating each other with kindness is compelling. And McConaughey is both likable and credible. The star of Dallas Buyers Club, True Detective, and many other productions is also known as a humanitarian and overall nice guy (I still remember the time he helped rescue pets stranded by Hurricane Katrina in 2005). In 2014, Time magazine named him one of the most influential people in the world.
And he nails it with the tone of the message: encouraging, but not sappy. Strong, but not cocky or brash.
There is a lesson here for leaders: show humanity. If you are a CEO, reach out to your employees in a personal way. Host a webcast to talk about what’s going on and to encourage people. Post a video message of your own. Let people see your face and hear your voice. Everyone is stressed. You can relieve that stress even in a small way by using digital to uplift others. By now you’ve certainly delivered plenty of bad news to your people, and that’s part of the job of being a leader. But being a leader also means encouraging and reassuring others.