Postmodern Collegiate Architecture

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It is a time of great change on US collegiate campuses. The crushing effect of debt accrued by the average undergraduate hinders a college’s ability to maintain or attract enrollment. The lack of vocational training, attractive job market, and alternative choices beyond military service leave little options for most 18-22 year olds who find themselves almost by default, sitting in a college classroom. Increased competition, a decrease in state funding or endowment dollars, a nagging disconnect between the purpose of higher education and market logics, and the rise of informational, social media-based technologies leaves most institutions grasping for solutions. Unfortunately, for many, those solutions include a customer, rather than student, mentality that attempts to emulate products the “customer” is already familiar with, in order to narrowly prepare them for more of the same in the job market. This trend is problematic. It has been discussed within articles and most notably, recently, in the 2014 documentary Ivory Tower. One small, but nonetheless symbolic representation of this trend is contemporary collegiate architecture and building projects.

Postmodern as a term, can be a tricky concept, especially when applied to architecture. Architects understand postmodern architecture as a reaction to modernist or the International style of architecture that privileged formalism and function. Postmodern architecture incorporates ornamentation, wears its references on its sleeve, and has some fun too. While I will be applying this definition of postmodernism to the subject at hand, for the most part, I will instead be relying upon Jean Baudrillard’s understanding of postmodernism, and then applying it to building practices and architecture. For Baudrillard, early modernity occurred between the Renaissance and the Industrial Revolution (IR), followed by modernity at the start of the IR, and postmodernity that is ruled by mass mediated (motion pictures and still photography) images that work to build simulations.

Baudrillard uses three orders of simulacra to convey his point. The first order (pre-modernity) is when the image is understood to be a poor imitation of the real; it is not authentic. During the IR, we have the second-order simulacra this distinction begins to crumble due to the mass production and distribution of copies. Here though still remains a reality masked or hidden by convincing copies.  In the postmodern third-order of simulacra, there exists a precession of simulacra; the roles have reversed. Now the simulacra precedes and determines the real. For Baudrillard, reality and its previous representation have now meshed together leaving only the simulacrum.

Traditionally, and admittedly somewhat crudely, we can make a distinction between college campus layouts. We usually have a campus built on a large piece of undeveloped land that is relatively set apart from an established community or we have a campus that has developed immersed within an urban landscape. Dartmouth, Ithaca College, and UC Santa Barbara would be examples of the former while NYU, Temple, and USC each examples of the latter. Of course, these are ideal types, so examples that fit a middle ground or overlap, also exist. The set-apart campus footprints of the former faces challenges related to isolation, a persistent issue for sure, but one exacerbated by today’s social-media connected, experiential consumption based generation. The latter’s urban footprint brings challenges of “different” cultures and perceptions of safety and danger – some based in confirmed police statistics while others are based in unsubstantiated fear.

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When we combine the previously mentioned challenges facing today’s colleges with my introduction of Baudrillard’s understanding of postmodernism, we can begin to understand some choices made on the part of university administrators in regards to particular building strategies. For the administrator of the rural or isolated campus, her choice increasingly is to replicate the suburban commercial zone replete with recognizable branded coffee, donuts, fast food, and banking options for students. It is argued that “these retail centers enhance campus security, improve community relations and revive neighborhoods — and give schools another source of revenue” (Karlin, 2003, para. 1). The urban administrator, attempting to balance parental perceptions of safety with high city commercial rents, increasingly rely upon national franchises or franchises to deliver dependable rents and products.

These recognizable service brands are often made available within new campus construction projects that are tasked with mimicking a downtown – either a mixed use urban variety or suburbanish small town aesthetic – that is recognizable to many undergraduates, whose safety and prestige is aspirational for non-traditional first-generational students, and that acts as a disciplining structure for future urban mixed use consumers / workers in the increasingly neo-liberal tourist urban centers. Local Chambers of Commerce feel they have an understanding of what younger citizens / workers are looking for: “housing close to work, close to restaurants, close to shops, close to cultural venues” (McGrath, 2014, para. 13). However, what such projects do is to create smaller-scaled planned communities, not allowing for an organic process of community and development to occur. Many projects begun by colleges, both to ensure safety as well as provide added value and thus incentive for prospective students to attend, are thus not fully integrated into the surrounding community. At best, lower-income workers from the surrounding community may acquire jobs as fast food workers and various other service positions. Some benefit is provided to the small mom-and-pop franchise owner hoping to gain a somewhat captive customer base via his location on campus. However, larger franchisees who own multiple outlets could potentially build a business plan by building a network of franchises across various campus sites, adding to the malling of higher education. In addition, the pragmatic developments of building materials and design augments this adventure into construction and simulation.

So as to decrease costs in both materials and labor, as well as increase durability and efficiency, many commercial building material manufacturers are increasingly evolving their products into pre-configured or systematic components. Beyond the practical benefits of this shift is the feeling that these pieces increasingly resemble a macro-scale LEGO building system. Rather than discrete and disparate forms, through design ingenuity and physical force and training, coming together into a whole greater than the sum of its parts, today’s construction more and more resembles a large snap-together project of plastics stronger than steel. Additionally, older techniques such as using half-bricks for facades rather than a more expensive full brick, postmodern ornamentation at the top of otherwise boring boxish buildings to invoke previous forms, add to this feeling of simulation.

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What you might see then today at a college or university is some new building project involving possibly mixed use design, and definitely some version of new store fronts. These projects are extensions of the planned communities with their simulated downtowns seen in such areas as developments in Central New Jersey or Valencia, CA. The better ones attempt some sort of pedestrian space within a small grid so consumers can walk the mini-blocks and flow through the space. They typically supply a new, or compete with an older and perceived to be “dangerous,” college town for undergraduates and possibly visiting parents. We’ve seen this previously when Universal Studios created its own Hollywood Walk of Fame that more people visited than the real one only approximately one mile away due to concerns in part over safety. This connects to another strategy by certain larger state institutions to transform their physical footprint from a college campus to a recreational, branded, tourist space anchored by their professional television football or basketball team and its stadium.

We’ve begun to see some campuses install bike-sharing programs similar to New York City’s Citibike program. Of course, students certainly use these convenient bicycles. However, it also allows for both campus and tourist city to blur as one of the main points of interaction between visitor and site (bicycle) situates the visitor predominantly as a recreational tourist. Other campuses are contemplating re-designing older campus configurations and the placement of student centers so as to design a focus and flow around their professional television football stadium. Previous campus construction conceptions placed the library or president as the heart of the landscape as practically possible.

Additional outcomes from these design choices include the increased commercialization of the collegiate space. The liberal arts tradition of thinking, reading, writing, and discussing ideas that existed prior to you and that are new to you receives little institutional support when the physical infrastructure apes the familiar and the expected. Second, due to the increased competition and increase in tuition due to increased number of administrators and their salaries as well as investment in capital investment projects, we see colleges building non-academic enticements to draw in the consumer rather than the student. The list is long, various, and ever-changing, but contains staples such as professional class fitness centers, rock-walls, high-end dorms, state of the art movie theaters, and the as before mentioned hosting branded national products and services. This is not to mention the contracts signed with major soda manufacturers to blanket the campus in their particular version of caramel-colored sugar water. Obviously, the emphasis on these activities draws focus away from learning for learning’s sake.

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Third, institutional affiliation and long-term feelings of loyalty are key to both a college’s mission and today’s language of branding. One key component of collective memory – that your memory is always moored within the social groups you are a part of – is the role physical structures and monuments play in inhabiting and perpetuating that memory. Simply put, the undergraduate may remember their college via USC’s Tommy Trojan, their library, their chemistry building or Ithaca College graduates may remember the Textor Ball or the Dillingham Fountain. Any of these choices moor the memory within the unique and specific physical reference point of their distinct college. Today, we are greatly in danger of only remembering another Dunkin Donuts, another Starbucks, another Barnes & Noble, another branded piece of apparel from college.

My final point comes from Kendzior’s insight that in today’s social-media based digital economy risk is shifted away from those with capital and power, and the economy has less spaces for older notions of prestige. We see this with our poor undergraduate forced to work for free at an unpaid internship for an old prestige name that will ultimately not provide her much advantage in a fast-paced, digitally networked economy. This is Kendzior’s point, but I want to work backward to the intern’s time in college and these postmodern construction projects. Everything I have mentioned up until this point leads the cynical component inside of me to ask: “why are college’s investing in such large-scale capital-investment projects that trade in reproduction and simulation in order to attract meal-plan buying freshman, when the prestige and social-networks they once solely could bestow upon the graduate, can no longer keep up with the advantages provided by the smartphone in that undergraduate’s palm?”

It may be that the recent cries that the Internet and high college debt will do to higher education what the iPod and mp3 did to the recording industry. However, a more interesting question to me is what does all this physical infrastructure add up to? Will it all become the last bunker for an prestige-seeking middle class? Will much of it become an academic version of housing projects? Or will it become already-paid for office space available to the monthly start-up or corporate renter who signs a lease / contract with the University for a cut of any potential profits from research conducted on the prestigious landlord’s premises? I hope it continues to be a space for alternative perspectives and critical insight rather than an incubation chamber for the next neo-liberal entrepreneurs who equate progress only with technology.

References

Bakkila, Sam. (June 14, 2013). Why you should never have taken that prestigious internship. Policy.Mic. Retrieved from https://mic.com/articles/48829/why-you-should-never-have-taken-that-prestigious-internship#.yzlDNc6kR

Baudrillard, Jean. (1994). Simulacra and simulation. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Braun, J. (Producer), & Rossi, A. (Director). (2014). Ivory tower [motion picture]. United States: Participant Media.

Karlin, Beth. (June 1, 2003). Registering at mall u. National Real Estate Investor. Retrieved from http://m.nreionline.com/mag/registering-mall-u

McGrath, Brendan. (August 11, 2014). College of New Jersey looks for more retail tenants to fill ‘Campus Town’. Times of Trenton. Retrieved from http://www.nj.com/mercer/index.ssf/2014/08/college_of_new_jersey_looks_for_more_tenants_to_fill_campus_town.html

Viacom’s Original MTV Archive – Initial Thoughts

Warner-Amex Satellite Entertainment was the original owner of MTV, launched in 1981, and eventually sold the network to Viacom (first announced in 1985). There are numerous financial, merger, and spun-off details regarding these two companies, that while interesting, are not addressed here. What is relevant is that Viacom has owned the original MTV concept and its content archive for thirty  years.  It is an interesting case study to think through how and why this content is given valuation.

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Let’s begin this discussion with a hypothetical magazine publisher. Let’s say they paid a photograph for a roll of film he shot in 1945, and from that roll three images were really good. The magazine then sells ads, pays authors and editors and the printing plant to produce their next issue that contains these three great photographs. Hopefully the issue sells well and at least covers their costs if not provide them a profit. They now own three photographs, and article content that have already been paid for. Wouldn’t it be great if they could re-sell this content? It would be just profit, because there are no new costs (except new print runs). This is how we arrive at commemorative journalism or special issues re-purposing existing magazine content. Viacom, beginning in the 1990s, began to have a similar challenge with their old MTV content.

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People over a certain age tend to think about MTV in its original iteration. However, much like how video games are no longer new or just Frogger, MTV has lived several lifetimes and has appeared in many guises. The original, mainly white music format, the beginnings of entertainment promotional vehicle via the MTV Video Awards, the late-80s beginning of “news” and Rolling Stone-esque reporting, the embracing of rap and hip-hop in late 80s / early 90s, the Rock the Vote political engagement, the beginning of Reality TV programming, the neo-American Bandstand show TRL, and the current slate of teen and college-aged based reality programming and their now venerable Movie Awards promotional show. It is a lot of content and the initial strategy was to expand the number of channel offerings (e.g. MTV2, VH1 Classic, etc.) to offload the old programming and collect new ad dollars from it.

But when you really think about it, the original MTV content, dated from 1981 through roughly 1987, was comprised of mainly promotional videos shot and paid for by record companies to gain exposure for their music artists if it was played a lot on MTV. There were shorter original content, mostly of VJs introducing videos or music stars as guests stopping by to introduce videos. The largest original content expenditure was probably the MTV Video Music Awards program. So, unlike the traditional big three networks CBS, NBC, and ABC who buy programs from independent production companies and make a profit from ad sales, the original MTV content was never really paid for and was just sitting around – if only someone valued it? But how?

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The easiest solution to Viacom’s problem was a combination of time, targeting demographics, and a healthy dose of nostalgia. The more clever and well-funded version of these attempts was the show Pop-Up Video (1996-2002) which ran on VH1 utilizing old music videos with infographic overlays providing new behind-the-scenes trivia. VH1 itself was begun in 1985 as a place to target an older music buyer demographic with softer pop and rock but quickly devolved into a storage unit for older MTV content.  A good case study for this situation is Viacom’s VH1 Classic cable channel.

As with most time periods and styles, there is a tendency to get tired of them or change your opinion about them as you are presented with or seek out something new. There are numerous examples in popular music: prog rock to punk rock, disco to new wave, ’80s glam metal to grunge. This tendency becomes a business strategy for a company like MTV who must always have the preteen and teen in their sights or suffer the consequences of coming off old or behind the times. So, for the original 1981-1987 (this latter date is flexible but used here just as a conceptual ideal type) content, it was to be turned away from, to be forgotten, except for perhaps derision. We saw the first successful attempts at this on MTV in the form of Beavis and Butthead (1993-1997) whose title characters would watch the channel’s offerings and make fun of many  of its videos.

By the late 1990s with a neo-pop sheen in the music charts, a revitalization of boy bands, and shows like TRL for the youth demographic, it was time to start cautiously re-selling the same pop-sheen from the previous decade. Viacom’s VH1 began using their program Behind the Music (1997-present) to attempt to rehabilitate the images of pop stars whose music lost favor and hopefully to begin selling their records or live performances again. A mutually beneficial relationship between network and former star. The network might find new content starring this person or band or sponsor a nostalgia tour, while the former star gets a small boost in an otherwise faded career.

VH1 and VH1 Classic went all-in on the nostalgia strategy with shows like Rock of Love with Bret Michaels (2007-2009) featuring the frontman of ’80s glam-metal band Poison, That Metal Show (2008-present) featuring metal artists from the 1970s and 1980s, and a steady diet of programming featuring teen movies from the 1980s (Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982), Weird Science (1985), etc.) interspersed with old episodes of Saturday Night Live, featuring content which is the last time the intended demographic most likely watched the show. While all of this certainly costs the network money to produce, it is also a relatively cheap frame to re-air those same music videos from 1981-1987 that are already paid for.

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In essence, the original MTV concept created a bulk of already-paid for commercials, that unlike those produced for toilet-paper and automobiles, do not necessarily lose their cultural appeal, thanks to the pop-music they were selling. Sure, younger viewers most certainly may laugh at the video’s narrative, fashion, or choice of location, but the music ranging from rudimentary ear-worm creation to solid pop-songwriting craft, can and will be embraced at a level. The intended target demographic — those who grew up with the original MTV — don’t need to be prodded to relive their teenage years, a time for some that may seem much happier than the present. The content is only valuable if someone remembers it and embraces it. Without that, it is just content MTV got for free, made money from during its initial run, but will ultimately become ephemera.

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The final initial thought about this topic is whether the original MTV, was by design, the first private televisual archive? Yes, the U.S. government’s efforts during World War I and World War II and the Paley Center for Media were conscious efforts to create an archive for the sake of an archive. However, the design itself, the strategy of the original Music Television, was to create a collection of music-based clips to be played and re-played. Again, so long as the music is embraced, it has a longer shelf life then a similar commercial from 1981 for paper towels. In essence, while they started out attempting to sell music and earn ad dollars, they were also creating archive that has more staying power as a sequential collection than the typical network programming lineup from, say, 1983. Nobody, with the exception of viewers for cable channel MeTV, have any interest in rewatching CBS’s Thursday night lineup from 1977. However, the typical block of MTV videos from 1981-1987 could be replayed with not much of a barrier to engagement on the part of the viewer. Though, a healthy dollop of nostalgia makes it all go down smoother.

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When Popular Culture Historicizes Itself

If you’ve read my earlier post titled Pop Bands Mythologizing Themselves, this entry may feel familiar. The previous post was limited to only “pop” bands (umbrella term for all popular genres) who actively built their own history in order to secure their working futures. Today’s post expands the concept to other areas of popular culture; namely the National Football League (NFL) during the 1970s, and Marvel Comics during the 1980s, and I will write a little more about my previous case study — the rock band KISS — during the 1990s.

Self-reflexively, these pop culture creations, that eventually became institutions, are chosen due to my familiarity with them during my childhood. These pop cultural institutions chosen definitely skew male. My belief is that my interpretation here could apply to other institutions whose audience is predominantly female that choose to historicize themselves, but which I am currently unfamiliar.

A necessary questions is to ask “why did these three groups choose to create their own history?” and “why did it occur when it did?” The foundational answer is that there is a perceived value added to the cultural creation when it is not viewed to be either new or existing within a vacuum without context. There are some creations, such as certain technologies, where a perception of history or oldness, acts as a detriment to its acceptance or adoption. This is not the case with the NFL, Marvel Comics, or KISS. Additionally, each cultural institution has specific and unique reasons for why these chose this particular strategy. The following sections provide these answers as it covers each case study.

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The NFL

One element to this strategy of creating your own history can be viewed as propaganda. Earlier governmental examples include George Creel’s Committee for Public Information (CPI) that helped president Wilson during World War I, the Office of War Information’s various efforts including war bonds to help president Roosevelt during World War II, and of course for more nefarious purposes, the work of Joseph Goebbels on behalf of the Third Reich and their hopes for a 1,000 year reign in Nazi Germany. Each of these examples shows an institution (government) getting their message across via a communications department (propaganda). At a macro scale level, we see the same relationship between the NFL (private business) and its arm NFL Films (propaganda).

Thankfully the intentions behind the creation of NFL Films were pretty high minded. Steve Sabol (1942-2012), son of founder Ed Sabol (1916-2015) repeatedly said publicly that his intention was to combine his love of football with his love of cinema. At its best, NFL Films created this combination, taking an inherently repetitive, and at times, boring sports and presented it using the cinematic techniques formerly reserved for student and experimental films. Initially, I believe, both Sabol’s looked at this as a fun and potentially money-making business opportunity only. Former NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle may have been consciously looking for the medium (the Sabols) through which to expand and supplement its thriving weekly television message. However, I don’t believe initially, the NFL and the Sabols marched in lockstep to purposely manipulate the image. That would come later through a combination of implicit directions, habits, and the desire to repeat what was successful.

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Steve Sabol (l) and Ed Sabol (r)

Pete Rozelle’s innovator as NFL commissioner was his insight to marry his sport to the then new medium of television, to have all teams share revenue from the lucrative television contracts, and to merge, buyout, or adopt rival concepts — like TV revenue sharing — from any and all competitors. An early example of self-mythologizing, that was based in part on truth, was the 1958 NFL Championship game played on December 28, 1958 at New York City’s Yankee Stadium between the New York Giants and the Baltimore Colts. The factual reasons for why this game was significant and thus should be recorded in the history books is that it was the first televised playoff game to go into sudden death overtime. This game sold the television audience on the viability and excitement of televised football rather than America’s previous preoccupation and pastime – baseball (and to a certain extent, collegiate football). This success is what, in part, drove the competing American Football League (1960-1969) to be established and became so successful, so quickly, that it forced the NFL to merge with them. See the wonderful website http://www.remembertheafl.com/AFL.htm for more information. Also, the great 2009 documentary Full Color Football about the history of the AFL. We’ve discussed Full Color Football on the Inside the Box: The TV History Podcast as well: link.

The mythology began when it began to be referred to as “The Greatest Game Ever Played” and the transformation of Colts quarterback Johnny Unitas and running back Alan Ameche into godlike figures. What is significant is that it permanently married U.S. football and the medium of television. Referring back to this game perpetually, and consistently creating an archive of past games, seasons, and personalities brings a significance to the sport that otherwise at worst would be ephemeral and at best be locked away within individual memory.

Film and television provided three key utilities for U.S. football – a large and steady revenue stream, a weekly archive for fans to create a context to  enmesh themselves in creating greater buy-in, and a visual and narrative history for their league to be learned, repeated, and give additional significance to the act of throwing, catching, running, and tackling a person holding, a football. NFL Films, through their NFL Films Presents, annual team-specific season re-caps, annual Super Bowl highlight recap, and various other assorted clips packages created a historical narrative that has been replayed hundreds if not thousands of times for the past forty-five or so years.

Broad brush strokes of the NFL’s history can be seen as the following: “Johnny Unitas was the quarterback archetype, the 1960s Green Bay Packers the greatest team ever, Jim Brown the greatest player ever, Joe Namath united the leagues, the Steelers were the team  of the 1970s, the Cowboys – America’s Team, the Raiders were the villains, the 49ers dominated the 1980s, Dan Marino a quarterback you see once in a generation, the 1990s was the rejuvenation of the Cowboys, John Elway, and Green Bay, the 2000s were Tom Brady’s time as he battled Peyton Manning.” In a league now defined by constantly moving free agent players, it behooves teams, and the league, to re-entrench the history of the team, the history of the uniform. Though, literally, those uniforms continue to change with apparel dollars floating in owner’s eyes, and for that matter, some cities change too.

One of the most important decisions regarding an effort to build a history in the NFL was NFL Films decision to film rather than to video tape. The change in medium, complete with excessive use of slow motion, added musical score, and film grain lends an immediate archival credibility to the content. In fact, most re-broadcasts of even originally videotaped game footage is derezed (decreasing resolution) so as to alert audience that the footage is old. Think about that. There is a deliberate effort to differentiate for the audience between old and new game footage. My theory is that the only reason there needs to be new televised football is mostly for the very large and lucrative gambling business. Otherwise, HD quality footage, combined with an increasingly casual fan base ignorant towards most player movement between teams equals most people probably wouldn’t know what they were watching is actually from two  weeks ago or two years ago without checking. A creation of an archive and a conscious desire to demarcate when that content is “new” versus when it is allowed to enter the archive even though technologically today all HD content can look brand-new no matter how old it is.

Marvel Comics

Marvel Comics is not unique as a publisher in having the problem of what to do with older content that has already been paid for but might have future utility and value if framed in a new way. Time, Newsweek, Life, and almost any magazine that has been around long enough has decided to reuse already-paid-for content in numerous “remembering” special issues on various dead celebrities (James Dean or George Harrison) or commemorative journalism events (World War II and the Gulf War). We’ve also seen this in terms of film footage already paid for and then re-purposed as in the case of the HBO series Dream On (1990-1996) and VH1’s Pop Up Video (1996-2002). So, it would be unfair to Marvel to single them out as some sort of lone re-print fiend. However, that being said, what is unique about Marvel’s desire to historicize itself is also connected to one of the two original innovations introduced by Stan Lee.

Stan Lee (left) sitting next to his co-creator Jack Kirby along with the Marvel Bullpen
Stan Lee (left) sitting next to his co-creator Jack Kirby along with the Marvel Bullpen

Before Stan Lee became a living legend and corporate figure head complete with his signature mustache, glasses, and hairpiece, he was a writer, who along with Jack Kirby helped launch the modern latter twentieth-century success of the U.S. comic book superhero. Stan’s two major contributions was to write his heroes as humans full of doubts, tension within their teams, and an ability to make mistakes. His and Steve Ditko’s Spider-Man is arguably his greatest success in such character development. His second contribution, and one upon which the current billion dollar Marvel film franchise is continuing to be built upon is to have all of his characters published by Marvel co-exist in the same narrative universe. Spider-Man could run into the Fantastic Four in NYC, the Avengers were distrustful of the X-Men, and everybody showed up to say congratulations at Reed Richards and Sue Storm’s wedding. Such narrative interweaving and complexity creates at least two outcomes: a desire for continuity and a need to learn all this interweaving so as to understand the current story’s context. Organizing a history would help to accomplish both.

By 1982, Marvel Comics had been riding the wave Stan and Jack started for twenty-one years. At the same time, the publisher had been bought once in 1968 and was about to again a year later. Constant internal personnel changes, an increasingly large backlog of stories, a desire to continue in-story continuity, and a need to help writers and artists come up to speed quickly on the books’ histories required an organization of history. This resulted first in the fifteen issue The Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe (1982-1984) that provided details, history, and representative image for each major Marvel character.

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The Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe: Deluxe Edition #1
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sample entry from the Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe featuring popular X-Men character Rogue

Later, in 1985, Marvel began to tell or re-tell its own history in a narrative form with its twenty-five issue series The Marvel Saga: the Official History of the Marvel Universe (1985-1987). For younger readers in the 1980s, this series provided a quick-study guide to the first twenty-five years of Marvel’s history. For the company, it served dual purposes because, a) it was cheap since most of its content was reprint, simply reordered or supplemented by a small amount of new bridging artwork, and b) it gave renewed significance to its flagship characters since a specific history book was devoted to them.

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This strategy was utilized again the following year for Marvel’s best selling characters, the X-Men, with a series called Classic X-Men (1986-1995). More money was spent on this series for new supplemental art, covers, and short stories at the end featuring X-Men characters in solo adventures during their pasts. Smaller in scope than Marvel Saga, but — at least initially — with higher quality storytelling and art, Classic X-Men achieved a trifecta for publishers creating their own history. The series: a) taught new readers a history, b) provided another avenue to sell popular characters or topics, and c) was relatively inexpensive since most of the content had already been paid for.

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Perhaps the ultimate expression of historicizing occurred in 1991 during the speculative collector phase that the industry briefly enjoyed and suffered from after its bubble burst with Lee Daniel’s official book Marvel: Five Fabulous Decades of the World’s Greatest Comics. This coffee-table hardcover full color book went through company, creator, and character origins while also publicizing the company’s efforts to market it characters in other media and products.

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KISS

This entry will be relatively brief to those about NFL Films and Marvel above, due to my writing about the rock band Kiss in my previous blog post on pop bands who mythologize themselves. Nonetheless, the band’s strategy to create and sell their own history arrived via a confluence of forces. Initial steps were taken in 1987 when the band released a VHS tape that straddled the line between their contemporary image as MTV-style glam rockers and their unique vintage stage presence of full makeup, chaser lights, blood-spitting, and levitating drum risers. As written about in my previous post, this choice ultimately sealed off their history as a unique and somewhat unreachable curious artifact whose unattainable nature made it ultimately more valuable.

If we read the text chosen to organize this 1987 offering, we see purposeful and historical language chosen. We read “KISS Photo Album,” “KISS Through the Years,” “KISSTORY,” and “The KISS Kollection.”

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table of contents for the 1987 VHS release

This language would not be out of fashion if used within either a museum exhibit or a family scrapbook. A photo album has value as a visual archive. KISS through the years constructs value by constructing a transformative narrative arc one often associated with characters in a book or film that the audience can watch unfold. KISSTORY is self-explanatory while the KISS Kollection is an obvious call for the listener to buy as many albums as possible, it also inherently suggests each release fits together somehow to create a larger, more meaningful whole or collection. Other bands, of course, want you to buy all their albums or feel a particular duo or trio of albums creates a thematic arc but only KISS thinks of itself as an experience, a story, that can only be understood fully, by knowing and buying its history.

Later, in early 1990s, out of necessity due to shifting musical tastes and lower record sales, KISS would create its own fan conventions as a way to generate income, interest, and literally create a traveling museum to themselves as a way to help shape and share their own legacy. The uniqueness of this effort was to marry the experiential aspect of fan culture usually associated with attending concerts with the band’s attempts at creating their own history in the form of their small-scale museum or KISS Konvention. Yes, the fans still saw the band perform live — albeit acoustically — but they now could share their knowledge and wares with one another in an officially sanctioned commemorative marketplace for KISS. There had been and continues to be fan-run conventions, but founding members Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley wanted their cut from their own legacy and created the official version.

Somewhat obviously, when the costumes and props are presented on mannequins and in display cases, the audience unconsciously understands these cues as those of a museum, and perhaps then treat the subject matter with an added layer of significance befitting an object worthy enough to be presented via institutionalized memory. Of course, the hardcore fan would already be bringing in a level of passion for the band that would not require such cues or this hypothetical fan would already know enough and possess enough agency to decide which artifacts are worthy of their veneration and which ones are not.

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example of costumes on display during the 1994-1995 traveling Kiss Konvention
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the band plays an acoustic set during the traveling Kiss Konvention

This konvention was preceded by a musical family tree included in the CD booklet for the band’s Alive III live album, a tribute album by contemporary stars, and assorted nostalgia-based efforts paying homage to the 1970s incarnation of KISS [see my earlier post on some of these items]. Suffice it to say, the band would eventually becoming the living embodiment of their own history by wearing makeup again, literally write their own history book, and eventually — in order to receive new recording royalties — re-record some of their classic songs for inclusion in television commercials. For the hardcore fan, the band by itself or just one album isn’t the truest expression. The band equals a story, a history, a mythology that when absent — perhaps for the casual fan — never seems satisfying. KISS actively cultivated and now live next to their own history in every decision they make.

NFL Films, Marvel Comics, and the rock band KISS each added value to their own creations by actively embracing and constructing a history. Each strategy created a significance to the work that otherwise may not have been inherent within the creation. Each became an institution whose history construction provided an additional context for their product and avenue for the new fan to head down and learn about the group. Deconstructed to their essential parts — throwing and catching a football, man wearing cape with powers, and misogynistic three-chord rock while wearing face-paint — doesn’t possess much variety or complexity. However, once narratives and histories both surround and buoy the experience, it delivers a richness that can be enjoyed by both the solitary fan or shared between two. Value is added, product is sold, and history legitimizes it all.

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from left to right: Sabol surrounded by his film vault, 1996’s Marvels limited series re-telling the 1960s history of the comics, and Simmons presented in the style of Warhol

Pop Bands Mythologizing Themselves

Definition sticklers will call me out on my use of the term “pop” when really I mean rock, pop, R&B, etc., but pop or popular is a nice umbrella term for the mainstream acts I’m referring to. Bands who have actively worked at historicizing themselves or to build their own mythology is fascinating. Rock n roll used to be thought of as a young person’s game  or was associated with some type of rebellion. Today it is expected there will be an initial band 15 minutes of fame, then a solo album, break-up, big money making reunion, and tasteful, nearly annual reunions to pad the retirement nest egg or children’s college funds. Simply put, before it was institutionalized and generally humans’ lifespans became longer, pop, rock, or whatever could have just been something that occurred for two or three years during your early twenties. “Say something once, why say it again?” – David Byrne.

But this changed and we began to see bands actively building their own histories. For this short pilot of an essay, I choose the following as my case studies: the Beach Boys (1961-present), Michael Jackson (1958-2009), KISS (1973-present), and via parody, The Rutles (1975-intermittently through-2002). Each of these examples shows a performer mythologizing or historicizing a particular element of their performance persona.

If we focus solely on the performer’s music, there are many examples today of singers and bands consciously aping their earlier or original style in order to regain popularity, increase sales, or attempt to reignite the particular authenticity that originally brought them notice. Cruder or mediocre attempts in this vein can generally be filed in shallower container of nostalgia or retro. This is not quite the same as mythologizing or historicizing, though it can play a smaller part in these larger concepts.

In the case of The Beach Boys, there are certainly numerous examples, especially later in their career, of usually Mike Love-led attempts to practically imitate themselves and lock themselves back into the early 60s bubble of upbeat surf-based songs. As early as 1968, after their first career decline, they released Do It Again. Though the audio didn’t match the visuals with their late 60s long hair, beards, and white suits .

As driving force in the band Brian Wilson continued to suffer with addictions and The Beach Boys delivered surprisingly fresh, though commercially disappointing, albums (see Sunflower (1970), Surf’s Up (1971), Carl and the Passions – “So Tough” (1972), and Holland (1973) ), increasingly Mike Love, Al Jardine, and Bruce Johnston went back to the well of nostalgia. However, sonic nostalgia – as I mentioned above – doesn’t equal creating your own history or mythology. The Beach Boys truly achieved that by constructing a direct parallel between their band and the season of summer. This really locked in between 1980-1982 when the group began performing Independence Day concerts on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. as part of a neo-conservative wave ushered in by Ronald Reagan’s presidency and a hangover-like fatigue from 1970s Vietnam War, oil shortages, and hostage situation. Respectable institutions have long histories defined by a consistent output  of quality and that is what The Beach Boys aspired to become. This was no longer the Brian Wilson-led band who released songs such as Caroline, No (1966) and Heroes and Villains (1967). The Beach Boys mythologized a season and a time (post-war early 1960s) whereas Michael Jackson was relatively focused on the present musically throughout his career and left the mythologizing for live performance and curated imagery.

Michael Jackson was only eleven years old when the group he led, the Jackson 5, released their single I Want You Back on October 7, 1969. He grew up in the last vestiges of Old Hollywood, learning and internalizing its rules. His upbringing was not that of the New Hollywood portrayed in Peter Biskind’s Easy Riders, Raging Bulls (1998). His world – one he both literally knew and revered – was filled with Diana Ross, Elizabeth Taylor, and Gene Kelly. His Hollywood was one with a distance between front stage and back stage, between audience and performer, public behavior and private behavior. To demarcate the line between performer and regular Joe was to be bigger, flashier, more outrageous – on stage – then a normal person, to use and display your power. So, while we can never make the case for self-mythology or base nostalgia within his music – except 2001’s “You Rock My World” from his last album Invincible – his stage presence and image are rife with it.

One of the earliest examples is from the 1980 The Jacksons album Triumph. Four years earlier, the group left Motown for Epic/CBS records. With the move Jermaine Jackson left the group and stayed with Motown to be replaced by younger brother Randy. One year prior to Triumph (1980), Michael scored his first big solo hit as an adult with his 1979 album Off The Wall. So, the goal was to look big, important, to continue the winning ways. The Jacksons, for their single from Triumph, “Can You Feel It” LITERALLY did this by portraying themselves a ethereal giants across the cosmos.

As Michael Jackson hit it even bigger in 1982 with his album Thriller money and performance aspirations quickly increased. Across both his solos tours and last tours with his brothers, the choreography increasingly included more “power” stances usually while standing atop a fan-vent blowing dramatic smoke up and around the performer. While such stage stances are certainly no stranger to the rock dynamic between a lead singer and lead guitar player (ideal type would be Roth/Van Halen), The Jacksons are not merely conveying the emotion of the song, but rather constructing an image of power and resiliency reserved for statuary composition rather than a pop-star.

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During the late 1980s and into the early 1990s, increasingly Michael Jackson wore royalty and military inspired jackets and pants. He would often have himself photographed with local military and police from the countries he was performing in. It was a convenient arrangement for stage craft – he could say – and at certain times in his career he was being honest – that he needed such local security and of course the photo out of context spoke volumes – “Michael Jackson Leads Army.”

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By the mid-1990s, Michael Jackson was under investigation for child sexual abuse and needed damage control. All guns, so to speak, were fired: a marriage to the daughter of Elvis Presley, a greatest-hits package combined with a new album, and that album’s title was “HIStory: Past, Present, and Future, Book 1” (1995) with the image of a giant statue of Michael Jackson on its cover. Fighting for his career created his penultimate attempt at self-mythologizing via image.

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To state the obvious, this image tells us Michael Jackson is important enough, and has been important long enough to have a history with a capital “H”. Also, history, that big important subject that everybody takes seriously, well, it is actually “HIS” story because again, he is really important. Not only has he been important in the past, but the subtitle informs us that he is also VERY important today, and will continue to be important in the future. His story is so revered that this is no mere PR release or trashy audio tell-all, but a “book”, almost religious if you will, and long because this is only the first. Behind the text is a pseudo-royal crest spelling out his initials, “MJ”. How revered is pop star Michael Jackson? Well, they built a statue so tall it needs dramatic flood lights to illuminate it against a very powerful and dramatic sky. Such image work would eventually no longer work in a post-internet, social media world Michael inhabited for the last ten or so years of his life, but unfortunately Michael still played by the rules of Old Hollywood that he was trained in. It didn’t quite get it; the moat between fan and performer had quickly eroded. Michael Jackson’s efforts alone probably support my point regarding band’s conscious intentions at self-mythologizing and historicizing themselves, but nonetheless would be incomplete without the band who literally wrote a history book about themselves, KISS.

Conceptualizing rivaling Michael Jackson in their inherent understanding that projecting an image of being “larger than life” equals success, KISS traded on their mystique and mythology almost from day one. First, of course, is their makeup that acts like a mask. Masks can act as symbols. We often assign greater meaning to such symbols. So, right out of the gate in 1973, these were not simply a slightly-better than bar band foursome – there MUST be something more to them because the mask acts as a symbol to be decoded and begs us to ask “who are they really?”

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The mythology built when their first three studios albums failed to sell in 1974 and 1975 but word of mouth said “they were amazing live”. This led their manager Bill Aucoin to gamble and release a double-live album (like other “live” albums, it was perfected in the studio in order to live up to the building mythology) and it paid off: Alive! (1975) was certified gold and truly launched their careers. Buying wholeheartedly into their manager focus on visuals and perception, the band at the height of their career released a greatest hits package titled Double Platinum (1978). Other bands might have worried that essentially titling an album “two million sold” might set them up for embarrassment if sales were poor (and this album actually did only sell one million), KISS understood the value of self-mythologizing. This strategy would eventually provide diminishing returns, especially for bassist Gene Simmons, but in the beginning, it built the band.

The first cracks in this strategy are well detailed in C.K. Lendt’s wonderful book Kiss and Sell: The Making of a Supergroup (1997) beginning with the group’s 1979 tour in support of their album Dynasty in which the group began hemorrhaging money due to the manager and the band working under the delusion that everything had to be “SuperKISS”. Career-wise, the band first bottomed out in 1982 as they were viewed as an over-promoted, over-commercialized “dinosaur” act who couldn’t rival the then beginning new-wave of 80s heavy and glam metal. This didn’t stop them from attempting the old strategy by promoting a small contingent of citizens who protested one of their poorly-attended concert stops by saying the band’s name stood for Knights in Satan’s Service. In that moment they were not a tired old act attempting to slough through an abysmally attended tour but rather a “dangerous” rock n roll band who got protested and hopefully would now be more appealing to the youth demo in small town USA.

However, it was truly the makeup again that helped build the mythology and mystique – or rather the taking off of the makeup in 1983 for their surprisingly successful Lick It Up album. By taking off the makeup, the band essentially hermetically sealed a portion of their career and bifurcated their past between “makeup” and “non-makeup”. By only existing in the past, during the by-gone days of a 1970s defined by arena rock and disco, the footage of the makeup days seemed like a portal into another planet. The makeup element of their performance began to perform double-duty for Paul Stanley and Gene Simmons. Its absence allowed them to appear contemporary and be an active, working rock band during the 1980s. It also acted as a special historical treasure trove that Paul and Gene could reach into occasionally in a pre-internet world in discreet dollops either to an appreciative long-time fan or curious young newcomer.

This began in 1987 with the long-form video VHS release KISS:Exposed intercut the band’s contemporary MTV videos with 1970s makeup footage. Similar to Michael Jackson’s child sexual abuse charges propelling him to self-mythologize, KISS hit their second career nadir from roughly 1993 to 1995. A combination of their natural aging, death of a band member (Eric Carr), and changing musical tastes left the band without a forward direction, so they went back. The first inkling of this course appeared in their 1993 live album Alive III (itself a part of a self-aware trilogy). The accompanying compact disc (CD) booklet contained both contemporary and archival band imagery along with a musical family tree of band members and which bands they played in.

kiss alive 3 family treeKiss-Alive_III_CD_booklet1-

This purposeful historicizing of the band continued in March 1995 with the release of the 440-page hardbound “bible” Kisstory for $149.99 and a 27-show “KISS Convention” tour. The tour was essentially the band’s own mini-touring museum featuring props, costumes, and other artifacts mostly from the 1970s combined with a live acoustic set from the band. This was followed in 1996 with an acoustic set on MTV’s Unplugged television program with former members Ace Frehley and Peter Criss which led to a full in-makeup stadium worldwide tour in 1996-1997. The band continued to archive itself in 2000 with its 435-page updated sequel to their Kisstory book, Kisstory II. These were later followed by a trilogy of DVD box-sets featuring restored concert footage from all the band’s various eras and lineups in 2006 and 2007 titled Kissology volumes 1-3.

books_kisstory KISSology_Vol._1_cover

It is important to differentiate here the forces occurring around the rock band KISS during the 1990s. On one side, you have the band actively constructing and promoting a history of themselves that builds upon the mythology they had always been working on since the start of their career. On the other side – perhaps the audience, perhaps the industry – embracing or seeking out a nostalgia that for some included KISS during their initial popularity in the 1970s. It is this side that produced the 1994 album Kiss My Ass: Classic Kiss Regrooved where various popular contemporary artists covered classic KISS songs. I’m sure Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley were only too happy to help a new generation venerate them and support their work in making their own history significant. It is also this nostalgia side that placed KISS songs on the soundtracks of Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey (1991), Dazed & Confused (1993), and Speed (1994). The important point, I think think, is to remember that all of this can not be understood solely by nostalgia or a retro-craze on their own. Rather, it is a conscious effort on the part of performers to historicize and mythologize themselves. This can cause an uptick in nostalgia, it could be caused by an uptick in nostalgia, or they may never actually intersect with one another. There is no one way that it necessarily unfolds, and in fact, one case study – The Rutles (1978) shows parody of the band, rather than the band itself, can perform the same function.

It seems silly to introduce them, but as this YouTube video shows, some of today’s youth really don’t know or care who The Beatles were.

So, simply, The Beatles were an English rock band from 1960-1970 who literally changed the pop music world and who accomplished the rare feat of both being commercially successful and critically loved. In 1978, former comedy troop Monty Python member, Eric Idle wrote, directed, produced, and starred in a mockumentary called All You Need is Cash about a fictional rock band called The Rutles.  The Rutles are almost an exact copy of The Beatles. The film builds a distinct history of The Rutles (The Beatles) and pokes fun at their choices, their words, and various events that happened to them. Since Beatles guitarist George Harrison actually helped create the film, was a fan of Idle, an even played a TV reporter in the film, it can be argued somewhat that the actual band does play a hand here in constructing its own history, albeit via parody.  I would argue it is actually Idle’s passion for the band, both its pros and cons, that fuel the film. If anything, Harrison’s willingness to puncture holes in the seriousness and significance of The Beatles would work against the institutionalization of the band’s history. However, ultimately, Idle’s parody reifies the significance of the band since they are not merely being criticized for common missteps but are powerful enough, important enough that satire is what is needed to reveal the errors and silliness of it all. This film in 1978 along with John Lennon’s untimely murder in 1980 both ended The Beatles and immortalized them. The history of the band perfectly preserved via the audio and visual between 1960-1970 to be dissected, discussed, and parodied as needed. A similar but somewhat different effort occurs with John Lennon’s career as his widow Yoko Ono has carefully curated his history and what it means since his death.

the-rutles rutles-front-cover1

What does this all mean? Who cares if a pop band wants to actively promote its own history – there are certainly fans who both enjoy it and would gladly exchange money for the various artifacts offered. The first answer is the old, shallow one – pop is meant for the young and to be ephemeral and perhaps rebellious. To actively, and “always already” be working to create your own archive is the antithesis of this. Unless of course, your message of rebellion needs to be preserved, but we assume if it was effective, your converts would carry on the legacy. A more controversial answer is that perhaps it draws focus away from music as the medium and instead to the visual archive and the biography as a form. The third answer I offer in this pilot essay is admittedly related to the first – how vibrant and progressive can a musical creation or expression be, if it is always couched in “getting ready to remember”?

 

New Book Chapter in “Playing With The Past” – Release Date: October 24, 2013

I have a co-authored book chapter with Andrew J. Salvati being released on October 24, 2013 in a collection entitled Playing with the Past (http://playingwiththepast.com/) edited by Matthew Wilhelm Kapell and Andrew B.R. Elliott. The chapter is entitled “Selective Authenticity and the Playable Past” and explores contemporary first-person shooters and their representations of World War Two.

playing with the past

The ‘Malling’ of Higher Education

            In Marc Parry’s article on Mitch Duneier in the Chronicle of Higher Education from September 3, 2013 (http://chronicle.com/article/A-MOOC-Star-Defects-at-Least/141331/), the author discusses Duneier’s decision to defect from offering his massive open online course on sociology through Coursera. Professor Duneier’s recent change of heart occurred after Coursera asked to license the course so it could be offered to other colleges. Mr. Duneier felt this move would act as an excuse for state legislators to cut funding to state universities. Essentially, politicians fighting against a tight budget would begin to shop around for the right balance between affordability and brand-name recognition in higher educational mediated course products.

            This article got me thinking about the future of higher education if not worldwide, then at least in the near future within the United States. One definite ephemeral trend if not sea change will be what I refer to as “the malling” of higher education. The worry behind Professor Duneier’s reason behind no longer offering his online course I feel fall within this new trend. Specifically that very soon an increasing number of both online and physical spaces previously marked by one educational vision, motto, or even just brand, will soon resemble more a common shopping mall or galleria with a multitude of educational brands from which potential students can not only sample but purchase. While this style of a la carte selection has never gained traction in cable television, it will in higher education.

Malling of Higher Edu

            If you look at the photograph on this page from a current U.S. community college, you see that the already established practice of satellite campuses act as a pilot form of this future malling effect. In fact, some could argue that much like our favorite local malls, we know their name but obviously only go for the brands which anchor the physical space. So, in this photograph, the name of the community college is certainly displayed, but it is the more well-know four brands that draw the eye with most likely the Rutgers branding acting as the anchor for this particular piece of educational real estate. We see a similar trend in online education as large state universities – among other institutions – continue to contract out online class support hosting to prominent educational product companies even if the university itself has already built proprietary online class support interfaces.

            These moves undoubtedly save money by using third-party vendors and this same market logic applies for the malling effect for both educational producer and consumer. Beyond social experiential reasons, why go to local state university if “the best of Harvard Business School” learning modules are available, somewhat affordable, and easy to access? Especially if one could bundle that module with say “University of Chicago” best of psychology or social research? As for those benefits of networking that come with a collegiate experience, there are now supposed online alternatives such as Inigral, a private, branded community meant to replace such networking (Delbanco, 2013, p.xii). While it is true the what we used to call the knowledge business “has become selling an experience, an affiliation, a commodity that can be manufactured, packaged, bought, and sold” (Twitchell, 2004, p.116), this commodity may simply become a luxury good for the flush or discerning college buyer, leaving the majority of the available product for the local mall masses. In the short-term these moves at malling may help shore up attendance numbers by offering satellite versions of attractive educational brands but ultimately lead towards monopolization by brands within higher education.

            This is not to say increased educational access and work within communities is always a negative occurrence. While most of us lament the death of mom and pop bookstores within local communities, the now nearly ubiquitous practice added to the suburban middle-class habitus of patronizing a Barnes & Noble to read, work, or drink increasingly European-styled coffees may be viewed upon as a slight embrace towards increased interest in literacy (even if what are advertised as “best-sellers” is barely literature, but I digress). If this taste for a corporate version of the reading life within the local community is true, I do wonder if or when the physical book business declines, if we’ll fill these now-vacant Barnes & Noble, etc. spaces with more malled versions of higher education. Why not stop by for a coffee as you’ve always done, spend time reading, and then take a class either physically or online from a trusted educational brand supplier such as Harvard, Yale, UC Berkeley, or even Rutgers? It would be the logical conclusion to this trend: the malling effect returned to its origin of practice. We would just need some fake ivy to go along with the already fake dark rich mahogany wood paneling adorning the coffee shop…

Works Cited:

Delbanco, A. (2013). College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be (New in Paperback). Princeton University Press.

Parry, M. (2013, September 3). A Star MOOC Professor Defects—at Least for Now. The Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved from http://chronicle.com/article/A-MOOC-Star-Defects-at-Least/141331/

Twitchell, J. B. (2004). Branded Nation: The Marketing of Megachurch, College Inc., and Museumworld. Simon and Schuster.

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Comic Books Act as Free Focus Groups for Major Cinematic Releases


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Sites such as www.comicbookmovie.com often post questions from which valuable fan feedback can be collected.

   

U.S. cinema and comic books are two distinct mass media that have occasionally intersected between the years 1906 and 1977. This relationship became more desirable, marketable, and technically possible due to the rising age in comic book readership, the merging of traditional B-movie cinema with epic blockbuster releases, and computer-based movie production innovations. This combination of factors resulted in two film production bubbles that spurted out between the years 1978-1982 and 1989-1992 with Richard Donner’s Superman and Tim Burton’s Batman representing the era’s critical/commercial apex respectively. The third wave that birthed the current continued popularity of comic book-based entertainment properties began with Bryan Singer’s X-Men (2000) and is unique due to the interactive context via Internet between studios and fan communities. This context – and the thesis of this research – allows corporate owners Time-Warner and The Walt Disney Co. to utilize the existing comic book market and associated online fan communities as a profitable form of market research in order to strengthen the positions of their major release comic book-based tent pole films.

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Even if such editorializing originates from earnest fan passion, it nonetheless serves as free data for corporate studios attempting to gauge fan interest in other properties they control.

      An important distinction needs to be made upfront. From an audience studies perspective ‘comic book fan’ includes “comic reader” yet not every reader considers themselves a fan (Burke, 2012). This point complicates our theory; it cannot simply be that Time-Warner or Disney preps and prods audiences via their established comic book releases for their cinematic releases collecting important audience data via Internet posts and online dialogue. There is not a one to one ratio between comic book reader and movie ticket purchaser. However, corporations prepping major releases upon which to estimate quarterly earnings do harvest the fans’ immaterial labor via these pseudo yet still voluntary online forms of focus groups. These fans do feel their online activity can influence a particular production (Burke, 2012). At the same time, even if the reader audience is different from the mass cinema audience, these books nonetheless appear as “successful, market-tested characters with a myriad of plot/story ideas to choose from” (Gregov, 2005). These active online fans can influence the dialogue that mainstream movie-goers can read and potentially be influenced by. Yet, companies must also know – as Burke (2012) points out – that when mainstream audiences have a positive reaction to a comic-book adaptation, most will seek out the character/brand in other audio-visual media rather than in “comic books.”

      So, large media corporations who own multiple long-running character licenses understand a few points regarding their comic book-based portion of their brand portfolios. First, the demographic for their readership is aging along with their characters (though more recent reboots and shift to digital formats may change the trend). Second, relative to most industries, the comic book business can still ring up large numbers for sales. Estimated Diamond Comic Distributor 2012 sales range from $475 million for direct sales all the way up to $700 million if newsstands and bookstores are included (Miller, 2013). If we look at the slate of films released by Marvel Studios during the past three years, we easily see the greater returns offered by film releases however. In 2011, both Thor and Captain America were released; together they accounted for more than $817 million in worldwide box office receipts. The Avengers (2012) alone generated more than $1.5 billion in worldwide ticket sales, and so far in 2013 Iron Man 3 has already almost reached $1 billion with Thor 2 on the way soon (http://www.boxofficemojo.com/). So while the initial investments are obviously much larger, so are the profit margins – even before including all the tie-in products and their hefty licensing fee. The third reason is Burke’s (2012) finding regarding mainstream comic book-based movie audience lower probability of seeking out the comic book after watching the film. To film executives this is most likely perceived as a one way street. Though, if it has to be one-way, this is their preferred directional relationship; keep them for the film but lose them for the book. The emotional connection with the characters established via the ritual of reading the book as children for the previous generation has been replaced with the act of watching (and re-watching) the film.

      Large-scale multimedia corporations who own a vast catalog of media properties prefer both efficiencies of scale and the re-purposing of already paid-for content or intellectual ideas across a vast array of media (and thus eyeballs) as possible. We’ve seen this begin in the 1980s with large cross-over comic book events that require readers to purchase all issues in order to finish the storyline, multiple reprint issues, and licensing of characters across various cartoons, films, and products. More recently, we’ve seen examples where long-standing comic book norms have changed in order to synergize with feature film strategies. These include Marvel’s choice to combine characters from the teams The Avengers and X-Men in order to preemptively combat Warner’s eventual release of a JLA feature film; releasing a title called Wolverine and the X-Men, rather than just X-Men; and the cancellation by Disney of the Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes cartoon – one of the most faithful to the comic books – so that it can be replaced by Avengers Assemble, a cartoon that more closely mirrors the successful film.

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It is wise for Disney to create new Avengers-based books that mirror the successful film franchise.

      So, harnessing the already established medium of comic books with its passionate readership as a free focus group is efficient for corporations. Some readers are also active online and through the discourse they create can act as opinion-makers for both readers and non-readers alike. While the medium of comic books themselves are not nearly as profitable as feature films, this works to their advantage as a relatively low-cost (yet still profitable) testing stage for possible new plots and character combinations. The fertility of the medium as a testing site is strengthened due to relatively recent editorial policy shifts to essentially reboot most product lines on an almost annual basis. While switching of creative teams on books is nothing new – most story arcs and teams tended to last only 3-4 issues during certain periods – it was nonetheless assumed by both audience and publisher that continuity of character was to be upheld. These rules no longer apply as reinvention of both character and medium itself – paper-based to digital download – is underway.

      So where does all this lead us? It potentially leads us towards a near future of content featuring recognizable branded characters appearing across various media platforms in order to prep the audience for the most profitable platform (Jenkins, 2003). If distinctions and purposes between various media are made by the audience, then the form of comic books should remain relatively stable as it continues to be drawn upon for feature films. This is similar to how the novel has not disappeared even though films are constantly based upon them. However, if future audiences think mostly in terms of “content” that is delivered within rectangular screens, then comic books as a U.S. commercial art form may be simply seen as literally cruder storyboards for this year’s summer blockbuster cinematic spectacle.

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Artists such as Steve Epting use an already very cinematic style within popular books. Such styles easily lend themselves to selling concepts to film executives.

Box Office Mojo. (2013). Accessed May 15, 2013. http://www.boxofficemojo.com/

Burke, L. (2012). “Superman in green”: An audience study of comic book film adaptations thor and green lantern. Participations: Journal of Audience & Reception Studies, 9(2), 97–119.

Gregov, J. (2005). The impact of well-established source material on the financial success of comic book movies. Seton Hall University.

Jenkins, H. (2003, January 15). Transmedia Storytelling. MIT Technology Review. Retrieved November 12, 2012, from http://www.technologyreview.com/news/401760/transmedia-storytelling/

Miller, J. J. (2013, May 6). April 2013 comics sales big, even without blockbusters. The ComicChron. Retrieved from http://blog.comichron.com/2013/05/april-2013-comics-sales-big-even.html

Baudrillard’s Postmodern NFL

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For better or for worst, the National Football League (NFL) currently occupies a very large space in the U.S.’s public consciousness and popular culture. The sheer time and energy spent by both sports media and fandom alike on this sport, alone, justifies its focus as a site of U.S. cultural study. The license to televise the sport generates more than $2 billion a year for the league while its broadcasts are repeatedly high in traditional television ratings, and its official apparel offerings are gobbled up to the point that the league has stepped up efforts to market to women. In simple summation – the NFL is a seemingly infallible sport whose fandom never seems to decrease their collective appetite for more athletic competition. However, there is more going on here beyond the NFL’s self-serving narrative; a more interesting tale that can only be told when we insert Baudrillard’s unique perspective (pictured at the beginning of this post).

Baudrillard believes that as we moved from a modern to a postmodern world the existing boundary between image or simulation and reality is imploded. This new era is one of simulation where computerization and information processing replaces production as the organizing principle of our society.[1] So, just how do Baudrillard’s thoughts pertain to the U.S.’s voracious appetite for the game of professional football? Well, the traditional narrative told by the NFL to fandom goes something like this: “the game of U.S. professional football is very exciting to watch – fans in the stands knew this for years (see image 1). Then, when television came of age, Pete Rozelle saw its potential to translate this inherently dynamic athletic competition to a wider audience. He was correct and for the past 55 years (since the 1958 NFL Championship Game) the audience has continued to both recognize and be awed by the broadcast of this inherently exciting game of football.”

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However, the truth is actually a much more interesting and complex tale than just this Rozelle/Sabol story. Watching a game of football from the stands can be exciting as you are swept up in the wave of crowd emotions punctuated by a few unexpected or exciting plays. Ever since the Nielsen ratings validated Rozelle’s decision to push his league on to the television screen (and securely for the league regular financial windfalls from television networks), the game is really not played for those who are physically present. Of course, the league enjoys the proceeds from parking, ticket sales (especially VIP boxes), merchandise, and concessions – which for some larger market teams such as the Dallas Cowboys – stadium income can get into the hundreds of millions of dollars. This is no small chunk of change to be sure – but it pales in comparison to the $2 billion per year for television licensing rights. Here’s another way to think about it – for whom does “the action” stop during a game? It stops when the man wearing the bright orange oven mitts waves his hands – he’s telling everybody they need to take a break for television – no matter whether the fan who is physically present and watching the game wants them to or not.

The 1990s saw two very important events occur that helped transform the NFL from a modern sport into a postmodern product: the May 6, 1993 labor agreement and the July 12, 1994 hiring of Sara Levinson as the new president of NFL properties.[2] We’ll deal with the labor agreement a little later, but Ms. Levinson’s (former co-president of MTV) hiring was a deliberate strategy to both consider and revive the NFL as a product that needed to appeal outside its then current primary demographic: aging men who either grew up alongside the maturing NFL or those whose fathers, older brothers or uncles had passed down the ritual of watching the NFL to them. If the NFL wanted to survive long-term it needed to re-invent itself in order to compete against video games, movies, amusement parks, and other sports for the always desired 18-34 year olds’ disposable income. It is these moves during the early 1990s that paved the way for what Baudrillard would call the hyperreal NFL of today – namely EA’s Madden NFL video game franchise.

A little earlier in this essay, I outlined the common narrative given by the NFL regarding its popularity and relationship to television. If we were to continue this narrative, it would say something like “and because television broadcasts of the NFL were so popular, video games now attempt to simulate those broadcasts, and these games have proven to be both very popular and lucrative.” This narrative may have been correct during the 1980s and 1990s, but today it is the exact opposite that is occurring: the simulation itself is what is “real” and in fact television is attempting to mirror or mimic a video game. So, from Baudrillard’s perspective, it is not a physical football game that is real but the Madden video game that is real (see figure 1 below).

Figure 1

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           If you watch an NFL broadcast on ESPN, NBC, or FOX you are instantly inundated with a plethora of graphic-based information, database-driven statistics, computer-augmented colors, and iris-ed up camera brightness, and increases in ability to score points that add up to being “realer than real.” The perspective you take as viewer follows this logic as the new Skycams mimic the Madden form of the NFL providing camera angles beyond the natural observer’s perspective (see image 2 below). While the Madden franchise’s total overall revenue of $3 billion since its inception[3] doesn’t compare to decades worth of television licensing revenue, it’s still a significant amount of revenue and influence on the coveted youth demographic the NFL can’t ignore. When you add to these observations the television network’s habit of fragmenting and summarizing geography through its selective city amalgamations during their broadcasts (e.g. Philadelphia is ONLY the Art Museum and Geno’s cheese steaks and they seem to be right next to each other) you reach a simulation that has blurred with the real to become hyperreal. Within the actual broadcast itself, major television network game announcers actually ignore details of the game itself so they are not distracted from pre-agreed upon story-points established in production meetings prior to the contest.

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The result is a television broadcast attempting to replicate EA’s interactive form of football that focuses more on personalities involved in soap-opera type drama that rarely connects to the action occurring on the field. On interpretation is that the actual contest of competitive football is as traditional understood so boring or trite at this point that the hyperreal version is preferred by gamer, television audience, and television producer alike. Football as a concept is today a hyperreal simulation and a television program first whose weekly subject matter is only marginally related to a sport’s “x’s and o’s”. This is not your father’s modern football; welcome to the postmodern NFL.


[1] This era of simulation is also marked by media, cybernetic control systems, and the organization of society by codes and models. See Best and Kellner 1991

[2] See Oriard 2007

[3] See Hruby http://sports.espn.go.com/espn/eticket/story?page=100805/madden