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.
What have you been doing during the coronavirus lockdown?
I have been reading emails from businesses. Lots of them.
Seems like every organization in the world wants to reach out and let me know how much they care about me as the coronavirus spreads. Their emails are clogging my in-box, muscling aside missives from my accountant, online bills, and updates from my daughter’s college about the relocation of undergraduate students off campus and transformation of classes to a virtual format for the rest of the semester.
Everyone — retailers, banks, associations, restaurants, movie theaters, car maintenance companies, car rental agencies, museums, and churches to name a few — wants to contact me now to have a friendly talk about COVID-19. If you want proof of a highly planned conspiracy of email sending, I’m looking at it right now.
And boy, there sure is an outbreak of caution out there. An abundance of it.
I’m reading. But I’m not listening anymore. That’s because every message not only says the same thing, they also read like they were composed by the one beleaguered copywriter with Legal, HR, and PR breathing down their neck.
Does this sound familiar to you?
Dear valued customer . . . at [Name of Company], your health and safety are always our top priority. Therefore out of an abundance of caution, we are taking several proactive steps to ramp up our procedures and ensure that our high standards are maintained to the utmost, as follows . . .we are monitoring this evolving situation closely . . . rest assured, we are in close contact with governmental health agencies . . . we realize you are being impacted . . we are committed to keeping you informed . . .
Maybe a human being isn’t even writing these rote messages. Maybe every business that wants to tell me about their concern for my well-being is relying on the same artificial intelligence algorithm to compose the notes. If these emails were blog posts, I’d wonder if all the writers were competing to stuff their posts with the same keywords.
Alas, concern has become a commodity.
But amid the sea of same-sounding emails, one stood out, from Barnes & Noble:
The note was so short that for a hot second, I wondered if I needed to scroll down for more. Where was the offer for a discount if I visited my local B&N? Where was the impassioned statement of commitment to put my needs first?
I almost felt a twinge of loss, like an amputee feeling a phantom pain.
But yup, that’s all B&N had to say about the matter.
This was a risky message to send. Anytime a business comments on a difficult current event, they’re wading into choppy waters fraught with hazards (of their own making). Most times I’d advise a business just to leave the subject alone unless something needed to be said. Ironically, the purpose of the “abundance of caution” emails is indeed to share useful information such as a temporary change in policy to accommodate the current environment. But you have to wade through a screen full of treacly language to find anything meaningful, and when everyone uses the same words, my eyes gloss over the emails completely. Sorry. That’s human nature.
Now, I quibbled with a few word choices here and there. B&N was laying it on a bit thick with the “friends and family” language. The “Your stories are our stories” sentence had me wondering if there was going to be a call to action for some sort of writing contest, but nonetheless it’s an interesting sentence that suggests the power of story and community during turbulent times without overexplaining. And it is reasonable to position B&N stores as neighbors in their communities, thriving from great stories by merchandizing them for B&N customers.
Maybe B&N got lucky with me because they zigged when everyone else was zagging. Maybe I’m overthinking a one-paragraph note. But here I am, writing about it. Why did the email work for me? Because Barnes & Noble stayed in its emotional lane. They didn’t overstep their boundaries and try to be something they are not. Barnes & Noble cares first and foremost about selling books to me. Do they really care about my health and safety? Only to the extent that my health and safety make it possible for me to buy books at Barnes & Noble. Barnes & Noble must keep its stores safe to keep me as a customer, period. In its email, the company does not pretend otherwise.
Good email, B&N. Less is more. Staying in your emotional lane makes you more credible.
Last year at this time, the Academy Awards were buzzing with anticipation about Netflix possibly cleaning up at the Oscars. There was a very real possibility that the Netflix-produced Roma would become the first Academy Award Best Picture winner from a streaming company (which didn’t happen – although Roma won three Oscars). But even though Netflix landed 24 Oscar nominees in 2020, the 92nd Academy Awards are shaping up to be a victory for Old Hollywood studios, not the New Hollywood streaming companies.
Old Hollywood is composed of well-established studios that earn their money largely by making crowd-pleasing movies distributed through traditional movie theaters. New Hollywood consists of streaming companies that finance storytellers who want to create daring, original work that sometimes challenges audiences. And they’ve joined forces with streaming companies for many reasons, such as Old Hollywood not financing their work, and New Hollywood making them lucrative offers.
New Hollywood has steadily attracted big-name talent consisting of Old Hollywood executives and storytellers. For example, New Hollywood has attracted the likes of:
Storytellers such as Alfonso Cuarón (who made Roma with Netflix), Martin Scorsese (whose The Irishman was financed by Netflix), Viola Davis, and Forest Whitaker (Davis and Whitaker signed production deals with Amazon Studios in recent years).
It’s not accurate to say New Hollywood has disrupted Old Hollywood; more like New Hollywood has morphed out of Old Hollywood. And neither Old Hollywood nor New Hollywood has an exclusive lock on talent. All that said, Martin Scorsese’s widely reported diatribe against Marvel movies only hints at the resentment that New Hollywood artists feel about the way they’ve been treated by Old Hollywood studios. Old Hollywood companies, in turn, resent the way streaming businesses have developed movies with a streaming-first mentality, largely bypassing movie theaters and then expecting to have their films treated with the same respect and consideration accorded to films produced the traditional way.
New Hollywood Gains Ground
New Hollywood is gaining ground when it comes to gaining artistic legitimacy. But this will not be a shining year for New Hollywood productions that have been nominated for major Oscars, most notably Netflix, which leads all studios with 24 Oscar nominations.
Netflix’s most prominent noms include The Irishman (with 10), Marriage Story (six), and The Two Popes (three). The Irishman and Marriage Story are nominated for Best Picture. But being nominated and winning are not the same. In 2020, Netflix secured several Golden Globes nominations but was largely shut out. And the same thing will likely happen at the Oscars. The film pundits are predicting a poor showing for Netflix, and they’re probably right. Here’s why:
1 Netflix Faces Stiff Competition
Netflix-produced nomineesare up against an extraordinary field of films, such as 1917, Once upon a Time . . . in Hollywood, and Parasite. Old Hollywood studios showered the world with strong, critically acclaimed movies that also happen to be the types of movies that Oscar loves. Sony Pictures’s Once upon a Time . . . in Hollywood is not only a career highwater mark for Quentin Tarantino, it’s also a movie about Hollywood – and Hollywood loves movies about itself. Universal/Amblin Partners’s 1917 is not only a career achievement for director Sam Mendes and cinematographer Roger Deakins, it’s also the kind of sweeping, emotional drama that wins Oscars.
By most accounts, 1917 is the front runner, which has gained momentum following major wins at the BAFTA Awards and Golden Globes. If the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is going to reward a more daring, independent movie, look for Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite to get the nod.
Parasite wowed audiences on its release, but its popularity might have peaked too soon. In 2019, Roma showed that a foreign film could get serious consideration for Best Picture. Roma may have paved the way for Parasite.
2 Netflix Did Not Make Movies That Oscar Loves
On the other hand, Netflix’s offerings, while impressive, are not easy for the Academy to fall in love with. For example, The Irishman is long (well over three hours) and bleak (gangsters face the ravages of aging). One wonders how many members of the Academy saw The Irishman all the way through. Marriage Story is also downbeat, telling the tale of a crumbling marriage (as one Academy voter said anonymously, “ . . . it’s getting harder and harder for me to care about entitled people’s marital relationships”). The very attributes that made the films personal works for their directors have likely turned off Academy voters. Although you could argue that 1917 is bleak, the movie’s grand scale and compelling portrayal of an underdog soldier fighting the odds play well with the Academy.
3 Old Hollywood Wants to Put New Hollywood in Its Place
The identifies of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences voters is a secret, but they’re widely perceived to represent the Old Hollywood establishment. The Academy has made changes over the past few years in an attempt to be more progressive and diverse, with mixed results. But it’s fair to assume that the Academy still represents an Old Hollywood perspective, which is decidedly anti-Netflix. As Brooks Barnes and Nicole Sperling of The New York Timeswrote, “The academy’s old guard has resisted a dogged push by Netflix to join the best picture club, arguing that, since the streaming service does not release its films in a traditional theatrical manner, its offerings should be better considered by Emmy voters. (Helen Mirren, onstage at the most recent National Association of Theater Owners convention, used an expletive to refer to the company.)”
Change Is Coming
Of course, tastes are subjective. (If I could wave a magic wand, Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood would win all the awards for which it is nominated.) But it’s only a matter of time before New Hollywood productions win Best Picture awards regularly. That’s because the Academy voters, whose composition is already changing, will eventually be composed of people who have grown up in New Hollywood. Meanwhile, the power holders of Old Hollywood will eventually pass away. As they do, they’ll take to the grave their animosity toward New Hollywood. As a result, streaming companies will establish a new normal for filmmaking. The question won’t be, “Can Netflix upstage the establishment?” but “Who is going to beat Netflix this year?”
Four years ago on January 8, David Bowie gave us a majestic gift on his own birthday: Blackstar, his 25th and final studio album. I believe Blackstar is the most significant work of popular music in the 21st Century. For with Blackstar, David Bowie taught us how to die.
Death is an excruciatingly difficult topic for most of us to come to terms with — and yet death will happen to all of us. We often associate aging and death with images of our bodies and minds crumbling away in nursing homes and hospital beds. Perhaps author Ezekiel J. Emanuel summed up our widespread apprehensions best in his utterly depressing 2014 Atlantic article, “Why I Hope to Die at 75.” In the essay, he wallows in all our worst fears about growing older and descending ever closer to death — the weakening of our spirits, erosion of creativity, and withering away of our bodies.
But with Blackstar, David Bowie gave us a new perspective on death and dying. He recorded Blackstar as he was suffering from liver cancer although few people knew of his condition at the time. When Blackstar was released on his 69th birthday, in 2016, the album made an immediate impact. The album announced its bold intent with a sprawling 10-minute title track that meandered its way into our earbuds and demanded our attention in an age when most listeners are conditioned by Spotify to treat songs like little snippets of white noise. The lead-off song was rife with references to mortality and death, as when he sang:
Something happened on the day he died Spirit rose a metre then stepped aside Somebody else took his place, and bravely cried (I’m a blackstar, I’m a blackstar)
“Blackstar” recast our journey toward death as a strange, wondrous exploration of another world, a vibe that is even more striking in the song’s surreal video. The video is far from comforting, but it exudes movement and adventure, not the decay we associate with growing older:
On the album’s centerpiece, the reflective and moody “Lazarus,” Bowie embraced the specter of death more directly and powerfully, especially in the song’s video, where he cast himself as a dying man about to release his spirit.
“Look up here, I’m in heaven,” he sang. “I’ve got scars that can’t be seen.” Here, he assumed the voice of a narrator whose impending death gives him a more powerful and cogent self-awareness that perhaps he lacked when he was younger and careless:
Look up here, man, I’m in danger I’ve got nothing left to lose I’m so high, it makes my brain whirl Dropped my cell phone down below Ain’t that just like me? By the time I got to New York I was living like a king There I used up all my money I was looking for your ass
Although those two songs made the strongest impression on me when I first heard them on the day the album was released, I found Blackstar as a whole to be a uniformly grand, intensely personal statement. The songs were infused with improvisational jazz overtones owing to Bowie choosing to collaborate with musicians such as saxophonist Donny McCaslin. Throughout the entire album, Bowie’s keen understanding of mortality — and his desire to create art from that understanding — was an underlying thread, down to the final song, “I Can’t Give Everything Away,” in which he sang:
I know something is very wrong The pulse returns for prodigal songs With blackout hearts, with flowered news With skull designs upon my shoes
On David Bowie’s 69th birthday, I, like many others, celebrated Blackstar as the triumph of a man who was creating vibrant art as he was knocking on the door of 70 — and a challenge to give music our full attention instead of treating songs like digital background noise while we exercise and clean the house. As Jon Pareles of The New York Timeswrote in a pre-release review January 6, 2016:
Instability and ambiguity are the only constants on David Bowie’s “Blackstar,” the strange, daring, ultimately rewarding album he releases this week on his 69th birthday. It’s at once emotive and cryptic, structured and spontaneous and, above all, willful, refusing to cater to the expectations of radio stations or fans.
Then, on January 10, everyone who had heard Blackstar saw the new album in a new light, when it was announced that David Bowie had died of liver cancer. Our joy at Bowie’s triumph turned to shock — and then wonder as we considered the album’s exploration of mortality in a new context.
As news of Bowie’s death reverberated, we now saw Blackstar for what it really was: his farewell gift. We listened to every song again and re-watched the videos, which took on a new poignance when the stories about Blackstar emerged — such as Bowie, deciding to end his cancer treatment and accept death even as he was filming the “Lazarus” video. His producer, Tony Visconti, talked openly about Bowie’s commitment to creating art even as Bowie was battling cancer. On Facebook, Visconti wrote of Bowie’s death:
He always did what he wanted to do. And he wanted to do it his way and he wanted to do it the best way. His death was not different from his life — a work of Art. He made Blackstar for us, his parting gift.
The richness of that gift manifested itself again and again when I listened to the album with the knowledge of his passing. “Lazarus” sounded like a more personal reckoning with death from a man who knew what was coming, down to the images of Bowie in a hospital bed, and the enigmatic line, “Just like that bluebird, Oh I’ll be free.” Even the album artwork was a parting gift as fascinating and strange Bowie himself, thanks to designer Jonathan Barnbrook. It took time for fans to realize this, but if you removed the album from the sleeve, the black paper behind the cut-out revealed a hidden picture of a starfield when the foldout sleeve was held up to a light source.
Blackstar becomes more meaningful as its listeners experience the album year after year amid the passage of time. It doesn’t matter if you’re 24, 44, or 74: aging and dying are inevitabilities. But David Bowie taught us that it’s possible to face aging and dying with vibrancy, dignity, and grace.
As NPR’s music critic Ann Powers said later in 2016, “There’s no doubt that Bowie was aware of how very, very sick he was. But he also kept the dire nature of his illness from his collaborators and insisted that he would be able to continue on. So, does it feel like a dying man’s gasp? No, it doesn’t — it feels so eloquent, yet it offers this view into that experience that is useful to all of us, even as it’s so sad to listen to.”
Blackstar was more than a gift. David Bowie challenged us to consider the gifts we’ll leave for the world.
In the digital age, album cover art remains an essential artistic and commercial element of any musician’s work. And 2019 was no exception. As Lizzo’s Cuz I Love You demonstrates, album covers are arguably even more important than they were in the golden era of vinyl. That’s because on apps like Instagram, Snapchat, and Twitter, album cover art such as Cuz I Love You can be a more viral and potent form of self-expression than it could sitting on the shelf of a record store.
The memorable album covers of 2019 consist of fierce, uncompromising self-portraits. On Cuz I Love You, Lizzo presents her nude self as a fully realized woman exuding power and grace. Cuz I Love You is an important statement of body positivity, and one that Lizzo made often throughout 2019.
On the other hand, the striking close-up of Jenny Lewis’s torso on the cover of On the Line invites curiosity by what it reveals and does not reveal – her bare arms and cleavage complementing a glitzy dress that evokes vintage Las Vegas (in fact, the dress is an homage to one that her mother wore when she performed in 1970s Las Vegas).
Both Lizzo and Jenny Lewis capture images of artists in control of their own bodies, sharing what they want on her own terms. For more memorable album covers from 2019, check out the link at the top of this post (or go here).
What are your favorite album covers in recent years?
Kanye West has made a career of throwing people off balance, just as he is doing now with his embrace of Christianity. And when Kanye embraces something, he goes all the way. In October, he released a set of Christian praise songs, Jesus Is King. The next month, he appeared at the mega-church of celebrity pastor Joel Osteen. Oh, and on Christmas Day, he released Jesus Is Born, an album version of his Sunday Service worship events.
Is he for real? How could a hip-hop artist who has seemingly rapped about every sexual act imaginable now release Christian music? Is the Sunday Service a sincere attempt to spread God’s word, or is Kanye just hustling us to sell more music and $240 crewnecks? What’s up with West appearing at Joel Osteen’s church, discussing his love for Jesus, and then announcing that he’s the greatest artist God has ever created?
As journalist Tobi Oredein wrote of Kanye’s Sunday Service, “He’s employing a choir of people who are not only singing his songs, but are all dressed in his apparel. Is Christ really at the centre of this gathering? I’m not sure he is.”
He’s not the first artist to explore the spiritual and earthly realms in his music. Let’s go back to 1974 to take a closer look at another man who confounded his audience by injecting faith into his music.
Al Green: Sex and the Lord’s Prayer
Al Green. One of the greatest soul singers ever. He sang “Love and Happiness,” “So Tired of Being Alone,” “Let’s Stay Together,” and a host of other hits about love, sex, and romance, on his way to becoming named one of RollingStone’s “100 Greatest Artists of All Time.”
But at the peak of his popularity, there was more to Al Green than “Here I Am (Come and Take Me).” He was also capable of unsettling contradictions. For example, watch the following video from a 1974 appearance on Soul Train, in which he seduces an enraptured audience while gyrating in canary-yellow pants. He sings, “Oh, I wanna dance with my sweet love sixteen” in between grunts and shouts — and then, in one fluid motion, he brings the song “Sweet Sixteen,” a song about obsession with young love, to a close — and recites the Lord’s Prayer. Yes, the Lord’s Prayer.
“And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil,” he prays with the same conviction as when he sang “You try to move your body, you might lose control” only seconds earlier. Then, as his band lays down a quiet groove, he eases into “Jesus Is Waiting,” the song that closes his 1973 masterpiece, Call Me.
“Jesus, save my soul, I’ll live for You,” he sings, his bejeweled fingers gesturing to the audience, his arms outstretched. With a charismatic flourish, he presents the Bible with one hand and Lolita in the other.
The disturbing part is that the moment works. Perfectly. Why? Because in the Soul Train performance, Al Green creates a convincingly smooth persona who is part-Lothario, part-preacher. This persona makes no distinctions between the carnal “Sweet Sixteen” and the spiritual “Jesus Is Waiting.” He is the same slender, twisting, sexual dervish, as he performs both.
In doing so, he shows us there is no difference between seducing and preaching. Both actions draw from the same reservoir of energy. When he recites the Lord’s Prayer, he is both praying and engaging in foreplay.
And is this association off the mark? Not at all. We all know of real-life ministers throughout history whose legacies have been tarnished by sexual misconduct — some of them well known (Jimmy Swaggart), some of them historical (Martin Luther King Jr.). But the stories of prominent pastors stumbling badly keep coming. Consider “the Billy Graham Rule,” or Rev. Billy Graham’s practice of avoiding meeting women in private to avoid falling prey to temptation. Billy Graham knows whereof Al Green sings.
As The Daily Beast commented in the aftermath of a number of high-profile cases of ministerial sexual misconduct, “Exposing religious sexual hypocrisy is, as the cliché goes, like shooting fish in a barrel. If you follow the right Twitter accounts, literally every day there’s a new story of religious conservative leaders philandering, downloading illegal pornography, cruising for gay sex on the down low, or, by far worst of all, sexually abusing minors or other vulnerable people.”
With this 11-minute musical flourish, Al Green seems to say, “It ain’t hypocrisy if you own it.” In doing so, he teaches us something about great art: art confronts and confounds. Great art makes connections you don’t see, but were right in front of you: in this case, the carnal and the spiritual.
Dual Impulses in Song
Those dual impulses were always evident in Al Green’s recorded music. “Jesus Is Waiting” (“Jesus is waiting/If you’re broken down/Jesus is waiting/Don’t let yourself down”) appeared on the same album in which he sang of a smoldering, unapologetically sexual attraction in “Here I Am (Come and Take Me)” (“All this love’s inside of me/I believe there’s going to be an explosion”). When he wrote the hit song “You Ought to Be with Me” in 1972, he had God in mind, not a woman. As author Jimmy McDonough recounts in Soul Survivor, a recently published Al Green biography:
When writing the song [“You Ought to Be with Me”], Al explained that he was “playing with God . . . I was so arrogant at the time, not being born again . . . I was saying: ‘You’ — Green pointed upward — ‘ought to be with me.’”
In the song “Take Me to the River,” from Al Green Explores Your Mind, carnal desire and gospel overtones somehow made their way into the same song.
The sacred and the profane themes were an expression of Al Green’s own life. Spiritual forces and sexual desire roiled away inside him always. According to Soul Survivor, he was a notorious womanizer, happily (and callously) partaking of groupies and paramours, even after having a religious awakening in Anaheim in the early 1970s. As Al Green wrote in his autobiography, Take Me to the River:
As I spent more and more time out on the road, I had begun to accumulate a certain type of girlfriend from one town to the next. It wasn’t a romantic or even a physical thing, just a way to satisfy the fascination I’ve always had for beautiful women. I’d come into town and give them a call, and they were always available to drop by and spend a little time.
In 1974, one of Al Green’s girlfriends, a woman named Mary Woodson, assaulted him with boiling grits in his home, before committing suicide, despondent that Green would not marry her. This ugly incident contributed to the mythology of Al Green: a man so desirable that a woman would kill herself if she could not have him.
And yet, spiritual impulses coexisted with his fascination with women. The spiritual longing manifested itself in 1975, when he founded the Full Gospel Tabernacle Church in Memphis. Al Green had become a minister for real.
Alienating His Audience
After he became a minister, Green attempted to amplify the spiritual side of his identity in his concerts, praying onstage and making overt references to Jesus in his stage patter. His immersion in both worlds of love and spirituality could be upsetting. One of his longtime musical collaborators, Mabon Lewis “Teenie” Hodges, became frightened. As quoted in Soul Survivor:
I got scared. He started mixing the songs up, R&B and gospel . . . I can understand if he do a show and then maybe a few gospel songs at the end. But going from “Sweet Sixteen” to “Jesus Is Waiting?” No, I couldn’t handle that.
Al Green’s audiences eventually couldn’t handle it either. Here’s how Soul Survivor describes one night when his references to scripture onstage went too far:
It happened again one night when Al was playing “this weird little casino gig. I stood onstage and said, ‘When you open the Bible to Deuteronomy’ . . . I had never seen 3,000 people leaving out of a place so fast! All the pimps and their ladies . . . were gone.” Lee Hildebrand attended a Circle Star Theatre show where Green started preaching between hits. “I remember a lady sitting behind me saying quite loudly, ‘I didn’t pay to hear no gospel shit!’ She was upset.” When the woman rushed the stage to touch the hem of Al’s garment, he recoiled: ‘No, no, no — I want you to accept Jesus Christ as your personal savior.’”
Al Green went from packing theaters to clearing them. His willingness to push an audience beyond their comfort zones was costing him commercially. He continued to mix love and spirituality on his records, as in the 1977 album, Belle, when he sang, “It’s you I want, but Him I need.” But after an incident in which he fell off a stage, he took it as a sign from God that it was time to stop singing secular music.
The Flawed Preacher
Al Green began to record gospel exclusively and focused on preaching. He met another gospel singer, Shirley Kyles, who became his wife. But this new direction didn’t stop women from throwing themselves at him, even in church — perhaps especially in church. For Al Green as a minister was as charismatic as he was a singer. Now he possessed spiritual agency. And women knew where to find him every Sunday. According to Soul Survivor:
One woman in particular was a thorn in Green’s side. He and the band returned from the road to find an unexpected visitor in Al’s home. “She’d jumped over the fence, went to the pool and was lyin’ out there naked.” This same dame showed up at the service wanting to say a few words about what the Almighty had done for her. “The Lord turned out to be Al Green, and she was dreaming of having sex with him right there in the middle of the service,” said Johnny Brown, who claims Al “knocked her cold.”
A man facing these kinds of temptations regularly needed more than the Billy Graham rule. He needed a 24/7 watch. And, as it turns out, he fell, and fell often. Shirley Kyles filed for divorce twice, alleging adultery and spousal abuse. He admitted to spousal abuse under oath.
Although his church sermons evolved into free-form concerts, his recorded music became one-dimensional. Gone were songs about burning for women. He sang about God full-time. He won Grammy awards for his gospel, but McDonough contends that Green lost his artistic spark. Indeed his gospel albums are generally less critically acclaimed than his secular music, and I seldom listen to them. His gospel lacks the tension between the secular and spiritual; the tension that made his music so interesting was gone.
In addition to losing his secular audience, he also struggled to gain acceptance by other gospel singers. He was viewed with suspicion, as Kanye West is now. Was Al Green for real? Was he going gospel only because he had run out of secular songs to write? But those misgivings did not stop him. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, he recorded even more gospel. At the same time, he was immersed in cocaine. His performances became erratic.
Such are the risks that people take when they strive for a life of the spirit: they fall short. And he fell short in his personal life, while becoming a less-interesting artist.
A Return to the Secular
Eventually, Al Green returned to secular music, recording three albums full of familiar themes of romance and love throughout the 2000s. These albums received generally positive reviews. They did not open any new artistic vistas, but they reminded the world that he was capable of singing about those time-honored themes that made him famous in the 1970s.
These days, Al Green continues to preach at Full Gospel Tabernacle Church. It is said that his sermons are still like dynamic showtime. Here’s a taste of Al Green in the present day, exuding emotion as he preaches and sings in a free-form style — you can judge for yourself:
He recently toured as a secular artist, too. At one concert in Chicago, he played the role of gospel-tinged romancer, handing out roses to the women (as he famously did at the height of his fame) and once again moving between songs about earthly love. But he was older and out of shape. His performance lacked the power of Al Green in his prime, although that sweet voice could still hit those high notes.
This duality was evident when Kanye appeared at the mega-church of Joel Osteen on November 17. He talked of God sending him visions and the struggle to be taken seriously as a gospel performer. He referred to himself as a superstar and then said, “The only superstar is Jesus,” in one sentence.
Here, apparently, is Kanye West as he wants to be known today: follower of Jesus and denier of the devil. “I’m here in service to God,” he said at Osteen’s church, and denounced his past “service to fame.” Even so, standing onstage at a church, his notorious egotistical behavior emerged as he gave his confession: “Now, the greatest artist that God has ever created is now working for him.”
Hence, the questions about Kanye. Is he in love with God, money, himself, or all three? In fact, the Kanye who talks of money is completely in sync with the teachings of “prosperity theology,” a type of Christianity that teaches God rewards the faithful with material blessings on earth. Prosperity theology also teaches that God wants us to experience happiness and joy. Prosperity theology has been criticized for encouraging people to become focused on material wealth. Its critics also contend that and that taken to an extreme, prosperity theology’s ethos of self-care can lead to narcissism.
Prosperity theology has been around awhile, adopted by a number of televangelists, such as the aptly named Creflo Dollar. Guess who the face of prosperity theology is today? Why, none other than Joel Osteen. But he’s far from the only proponent. After analyzing the growth of prosperity theology and visiting with Osteen personally, Edward Luce of the Financial Timeswrote in 2019:
Hardline evangelicals dismiss the prosperity gospel as unchristian. Some of Lakewood’s more firebrand critics even label it “heresy.” They point to the belief, which Osteen seems to personify, that God is a supernatural ally whom you can enlist to help enrich your life. There is scant mention of humanity’s fallen condition in his motivational talks.
Yet the market share of US churches run by celebrity prosperity preachers, such as Osteen, Creflo Dollar (sic), Kenneth Copeland, and Paula White keeps growing. Three out of four of the largest megachurches in America subscribe to the prosperity gospel. Formal religion in the US has been waning for years. Almost a quarter of Americans now profess to having none. Among the Christian brands, only “non-denominational charismatics” — a scholarly term for the prosperity preachers — are expanding.
Though precise numbers are hard to find, one in five Americans is estimated to follow a prosperity gospel church. This offshoot of Christianity is quintessentially American — a blend of the Pentecostal tradition and faith-healing. It is also expanding worldwide. Among its largest growth markets are South Korea, the Philippines, and Brazil.
Luce also observes that Osteen himself has a fortune estimated at $60 million and lives in a $10 million mansion. So just how incongruous is Kanye’s Jesus-Is-King-of-My-Wallet ethos with this brand of Christianity? It seems perfectly fitting that there is talk of Kanye and Joel Osteen touring together.
Will the Struggle Stay Real?
As with Al Green, Kanye West now faces perhaps one of the biggest challenges of his career: growing as an artist. Jesus Is King debuted at Number One on the Billboard charts, and all 11 of its singles debuted on the Billboard Hot 100. But the jury’s still out as to whether the album represents an artistic triumph. The album received a 55 Metacritic score, meaning mixed or average reviews.
I find Jesus Is King to be fairly standard praise music — overreaching for emotional highs in a singular pursuit of sermonizing. And frankly, the video for “Closed on Sunday” looks like a cringeworthy, if slickly produced, segment of Kanye and the Kardashians.
As for Kanye the flawed preacher, I’ll let Al Green have the last word from his biography:
Black people in America have always been torn between walking with Jesus and wandering in the world, clear back to the times of slavery when we either cried out in captivity by singing the blues or held out for a better hope by singing spirituals. We’ve been walking the line for hundreds of years. It’s only natural that some of us lose our balance once in a while. That struggle is part of what makes us great as a people, and part of what makes our music so powerful.
Struggle makes Kanye West create great art. Will Kanye the Christian keep the inner struggle alive?
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 Zeppelin’s 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?
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.
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.
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.
Disney+ has The Mandalorian. Netflix has Stranger Things. What does Apple TV+ have to capture our imaginations and light the internet on fire?
Well, nothing approaching Stranger Things or The Mandalorian-level ofwidespread excitement. But the Apple TV+ show Dickinson is quickly building momentum and delivering what Apple TV+ needs: cultural relevance.
Why Cultural Relevance Matters
Cultural relevance is essential for any entertainment company to succeed in the long run. Brands become culturally relevant when they connect with an audience through their attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors. Sometimes cultural relevance means shaping attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors, too. When brands achieve cultural relevance, they become so inextricably linked with our lives that we become lifelong members of their tribes.
Disney Masters Cultural Relevance
Disney is the master of cultural relevance. Mickey Mouse is more than a popular animated character. Mickey Mouse is an international symbol of childhood. Frozen is a pop culture phenomenon. The Lion King introduced the words “Hakuna Matata” to millions of people. The Little Mermaid inspired cosplayers for generations to come. And now, Disney+ is having a culturally relevant moment with The Mandalorian.
This is what culturally relevant shows do. They inspire conversation that transcends the show itself. Among the streaming companies, Netflix has created the gold standard for cultural relevance (although Disney may catch up and then some). Stranger Things has become a pop culture sensation by tapping into 1980s nostalgia (and arguably engineering that nostalgia). Tidying up with Marie Kondo connects with an American materialism (and its consequences) so profoundly that the show actually created a spike in donations to thrift stores. This is the entertainment company that changed how we watched TV and is responsible for vernacular such as “Netflix and chill.”
Along Comes Apple TV+
Now, what about Apple TV+, which launched on November 4? Well, the results are mixed, and Apple TV+ has been outflanked by The Mandalorian. The much hyped The Morning Show has failed to catch fire. Apple has delayed the release of theatrical film The Banker amid allegations of misconduct against one of the movie’s producers. But on the other hand, a lesser known series, Dickinson, has been steadily building a fan base.
On the surface, Dickinson focuses on the life of poet Emily Dickinson. But what makes Dickinson culturally relevant is that it’s more than the story of a poet. It’s a perfectly timed statement about female and LGBTQ+ empowerment. In addition, the casting is smart. For instance, Hailee Steinfeld, who portrays Emily Dickinson, connects effectively with Gen Z and the LGBTQ+ community. Wiz Khalifa, who portrays a personification of death, is highly relevant to music, fashion, and weed culture. And the show’s soundtrack, featuring artists ranging from A$AP Rocky to Billie Eilish, is a Millennial’s dream. As such, Dickinson is rapidly creating a fan base who call themselves “Dickheads,” and the show has inspired the term “Sexy Dickinson.” Now this is what cultural relevance looks like:
Dickinson has already been renewed for another season.
Keep an Eye on Apple TV+
Creating cultural relevance requires an insight into consumer behavior, the agility to rapidly create content that taps into this behavior, and a platform to share that content at scale. Apple has the platform for Apple TV+ through Apple TV (and a new Apple TV app). As a media brand, Apple is getting better at tapping into consumer behavior and creating the right content. We all remember how Apple stumbled badly with its ill-fated forced download of U2’s Songs of Innocence album in 2014 – a miscalculation of consumer behavior (streaming was overtaking downloading, and people resented being forced to download music they did not ask for) and taste (U2 was out of fashion). But since then, Apple has adapted by launching a streaming service that now dominates the industry along with Spotify.
Apple played catch-up and then became a leader in music streaming by becoming more culturally relevant with content that connects to millennial tastes, such as the Up Next program for developing artists and first-look album drops by artists such as Chance the Rapper and Drake. Original content alone was not the answer to the rise of Apple Music – culturally relevant content that connects emotionally was.
Apple TV+ has a long way to go before it attains cultural relevance. But Dickinson is a clear win. In addition, Apple has plenty of cash – and a lot of patience. You can be sure Apple is figuring out how to create its next Dickinson.
We live in exciting and dangerous times in the entertainment industry.
First, the excitement: I recently saw Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman on the big screen, and I was impressed with the technology Scorsese used to de-age the lead actors, Robert De Niro, 76, Al Pacino, 79, and Joe Pesci, 76. The movie required them to play characters over a span of decades. Scorsese used digital to take years off their faces in order to play their characters at much younger stages in their lives.
I was skeptical when I heard about the approach, but the movie won me over. The technology made the movie better because The Irishman could tell a sprawling story over a period of time using the same actors to show the ravages of time and their violent lives on their faces. It wasn’t perfect: in a few scenes, De Niro’s face looked oddly sculpted and flat. But in the context of a three-and-half-hour movie, the flaws registered barely a flicker.
The de-aging technology in The Irishman is exciting because it challenged actors in ways they had likely never experienced. Even though their faces were altered, the actors still needed to learn how to adapt the way their bodies moved to match how their younger faces looked.
According to a widely reported story, the 79-year-old Pacino needed to do retakes of one scene in particular until he could authentically portray the movements of a character who was supposed to be 49 years old. And I think that kind of challenge is good. All the actors delivered masterful performances, and the technology pushed them to do so.
But not since The Curious Case of Benjamin Button has a move so ambitiously made de-aging integral to the story. The Irishman is a landmark moment that opens up possibilities for directors and writers to create stories with broader narrative arcs spanning the passage of time without needing to find multiple actors to portray the same character in one movie.
That said, I think the technology needs to be managed in limited doses to be effective. Consider the epic film, The Godfather, Part II. Robert De Niro won an Academy Award for playing a young Don Corleone, only two years after Marlon Brando also won an Academy Award for playing an aged Don Corleone in The Godfather. To this day, they are the only two actors who have won Academy Awards for playing the same fictional character. But what if de-aging technology had existed in the 1970s? Would Francis Ford Coppola have been tempted to cast Marlon Brando in The Godfather, Part II instead of De Niro? Audiences would have been denied two compelling performances by two different actors at the peak of their artistic powers, each interpreting a character in their own way.
Dead Stars Are Coming Back to Life
Now for the danger: a new company is forming in order to bring dead stars to life in digital form. As reported by Janko Roettgers in Variety, Worldwide XR will incorporate digital movie stars into experiences such as virtual reality, augmented reality, and movies. In fact, a digitally recreated James Dean already has a small role in a forthcoming movie, Finding Jack. Worldwide XR holds the rights to more than 400 celebrities, ranging from Jackie Robinson to Jimmy Stewart.
Worldwide XR CEO Travis Cloyd told Variety, “Influencers will come and go, but legends will never die.”
Some present-day stars – as in real, breathing humans – were not thrilled. Here’s what Chris Evans tweeted:
Elijah Wood wasn’t too thrilled, either:
Bette Midler was not having any of it:
As Variety reported, Cloyd reacted with a shrug:
“It’s disruptive,” acknowledged Cloyd. “Some people dislike it.” However, he argued that the emergence of digital humans was inevitable, and promised that his company would vet any potential partners to make sure that they would do the celebrity in question justice. “We will do our due diligence,” he said.
In addition, Cloyd noted that digitally recreated stars go beyond the movies: we can also experience them in virtual and augmented reality, which opens up all kinds of possibilities, such as John Belushi crashing a bachelor party (for presumably a steep fee) or Audrey Hepburn guest speaking at your next corporate event.
“There is a lot more to come for James Dean,” Cloyd said. “Think of it as James Dean 2.0.”
Disruption Has Consequences
Cloyd has a point. Disruption upsets people – especially people who see their jobs at risk. Because that’s what we’re talking about when we bring dead stars to the screen: when a dead James Dean takes up screen time, a living actor loses a role.
On the other hand, the possibility of James Dean in a theme park via virtual reality or augmented reality seems less threatening. I don’t hear anyone complaining about those applications (yet). It’s the incorporation of a digital James Dean into a movie that has the actors up in arms. And I don’t like the idea, either. I dislike the notion of a digitally recreated person taking a role that a living actor could play. I want to see how an artist takes a role and shapes it in context of the times we both live in. A dead person cannot do that.
The Technology Will Be Huge
But the technology is not going away. In fact, I predict it’s going to be huge. Already we’re seeing audiences respond favorably to touring holograms of musicians such as Roy Orbison and Frank Zappa. According to Rolling Stone, a hologram tour of Frank Zappa sold out, with people paying up to $125 a ticket.
. . . a Roy Orbison hologram tour last year was a financial success, selling 1,800 seats on average per show. There’s enough demand that those tours have more dates lined up — Orbison’s will be touring with one of Buddy Holly this fall — and holographic versions of Ronnie James Dio, Whitney Houston, and Amy Winehouse will be hitting the road later this year. It’s a trend that marks a new wave of holographic tours that is much more sustainable than one-offs, like the Tupac hologram at Coachella in 2012.
But why is there a market to see dead stars when there are plenty of compelling living actors and musicians working today? I think a few factors are at play:
Nostalgia is powerful. As Don Draper said in Mad Men, “Nostalgia – it’s delicate, but potent.” Nostalgia explains why the 1980s have a hold on popular culture right now: when a popular show such as Stranger Things packages and sells the comfort of another time, we long for a past that holds us in a comfortable embrace. If you lived in the 1980s, you might remember the anxiety of the times, such as the ever-present Cold War throughout most of the decade. But we tend to view the past with rose-tinted glasses, and pop culture encourages us to do so.
Like it or not, we’re going to need to make way for dead stars in our lives. And maybe the detractors will warm up to the idea. In the era of the Marvel franchise, actors routinely perform with CGI-generated characters; perhaps it’s not a stretch to go toe-to-toe in a fight scene with a youthful Burt Reynolds from his macho Deliverance days or respond to the seductive power of a Gentlemen Prefer Blondes-era Marilyn Monroe? (Or maybe Brad Pitt could have squared off with the real Bruce Lee in Once upon a Time in Hollywood?) And for movie purists like me? Well, I was wary of de-aging technology, too,