The outpouring of praise, grief, and tributes related to Prince and his sudden death caught me by surprise. Oh, I knew who he was. Who could not? But I wasn’t a fan. Never knew the size of his following. Never bought one of his records or CDs or saw him live. Some will say, that’s your loss. Which, from what I've read, is probably true. I heard some of his songs in the background at bars or on the shared radio at the office, but never heard anything that said, oh, I’ve got to buy that. It’s no reflection on his talent or gifts or appeal. I tend to tune out ambient noise. That and other reasons, as you’ll see, kept me from ever digging in.
These reflections got me to thinking about our tastes, personal and collective, and how they’re shaped. I’m an aging boomer whose musical tastes were formed in the era we call the 60s, but which started sooner and ended later. Back then there were 3 television channels and a few AM and FM stations. Aside from these outlets, I listened to — or couldn’t escape — my father’s record collection. His likes included Big Band greats like Tommy Dorsey and Glenn Miller, crooners like Nat “King” Cole, Frank Sinatra, and Tony Bennett, and acts like the Andrews Sisters. He had a thing for Connie Francis, which baffled me at the time.
He also had some classical records that he picked up as part of a series available at the local A&P, a new disc every week from Funk & Wagnalls with purchase of $19.95 or more, a pretty easy tally to reach for a family of nine. There was a similar deal on a Funk & Wagnalls Encyclopedia set. Dad also had a fair number of Sing Along with Mitch Miller LPs, which I came to loathe but which filled my memory with the lyrics to dozens of songs no one sings anymore. Except maybe my sisters.
After my old man, my three older sisters came to dominate my listening, so I got Elvis, Paul Anka, Bobby Rydell, Chubby Checker, the early Beatles, and the rest of the British Invasion. Oh, and the Kingsmen, whose “Louie Louie” caused a stink, and on a good day, Chuck Berry, the best of the lot. Plus that damn Sound of Music soundtrack, which my sisters sang like a million times during car rides or while doing dishes: doe, a deer — is it hunting season yet?
The following years would bring, to my mind, a singularly rich explosion of talent, styles, and virtuosity. Of course, every generation throws a hero up the pop charts. Mine was no different. I filled my ears with the Beatles, the Stones, Dylan, Hendrix, Cream, Jefferson Airplane, Janis Joplin, David Bowie, CSNY, Santana, Joni Mitchell, Simon & Garfunkel, Led Zeppelin, Taj Mahal, Sly Stone, Stevie Wonder, Creedence, The Band, Bob Marley, Lou Reed, War, The Grateful Dead, Bruce Springsteen, Randy Newman, and an incredible array of talent too numerous to mention — every one of them eminently googleable.
What I loved and what still shapes my tastes is dominated by the music that came to me at that singular and powerful moment of life — that time where one surrenders childhood and claims one’s self, one’s clothes, one’s loves, one’s music. For me, that was between 1965 and 1975. During that time, I was lucky to work at a record store and heard everything. Luckier still, I fell in love with classical music, too. Yet, even that love had its roots in the tracks to countless Looney Tunes cartoons and the opening and closing sequence to The Huntley Brinkley Report, which opened and closed with Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, 2nd Movement — for me the most beautiful piece of music ever written.
But I didn’t stop acquiring new loves in 1975. I found the Talking Heads, Dianna Krall, Patty Griffin, Beyoncé, Elisha Keys, Norah Jones, Natalie Merchant, Elvis Costello, Lady Gaga, Bon Iver, Beck, Amy Winehouse, Alabama Shakes, Adele, to name a googleable few. And as you can see from this more recent range, I fall for strong vocals, story telling, rich acoustic patterns, some jazz.
As to Prince and his tributes, I discovered Purple Rain in my iTunes library, put there I’m guessing by one of my two sons, both born in the 80s. Which probably explains why I never took to him in. When Prince hit the scene, I was busy with two tykes, a new career, the distractions of earning a living. Distractions that robs one of free time, that blessed time of youth in America, a lovingly long stretch of adolescence that let me fall in love with so many artists. So I will give Prince a long listen. Let him make his way into my head. Maybe I will one day know what so many now do.
When we lose an artist who shaped our soul, we lose a part of ourselves. And the artists who shape us all eventually disappear save for that dwindling few who will last fifty or a hundred or five hundred years. Our current grief gives way to the beauty that persists beyond our cherished top ten picks. A Purple Reign. Purple, the color of emperors, kings, nobles, priests, and in our time, one Prince from Minneapolis.
©John Hofmeister. Find me at jhofmeister.com. @jwhirred. And LinkedIn.
Seizing Hashtag Internet Traffic
Hell, with a title like that, this post stands a fair chance of getting read by all sorts of marketing people freaking out about being behind the latest curve — that Saturn-sized bowling ball coming down the lane toward all the pins out there hoping to be spared a strike.
The technology gush has ad agencies everywhere killing themselves to make sure their clients know that they’re on the cutting edge or bleeding edge or leading edge or whatever the hell they’re calling it these days. It’s a fear that’s replacing what agencies should actually be doing: coming up with ideas. Telling great stories.
Everyone seems to have forgotten that all those apps and platforms and feeds are just delivery boys. Sure, some have unique features, just as TV did compared to radio and streaming video does compared to TV and Snapchat does compared to postcards (those things you pitch in the trash after about 4 seconds).
But what you broadcast or stream or whatever you’d throw your mother under a bus for to go viral still has to be something worth looking at. You know, it needs to be interesting. And it needs to be more interesting than ever for that very reason. The media buffet audiences stroll by everyday is roughly the size of the Milky Way.
So get an idea. Have a story. If it’s worth its salt, it’ll fit in a Vine or a 30-second spot or Snapchat. Maybe even a postcard that the USPS guys are stuffing in mailboxes every day.
Howard Gossage said it best: Nobody reads ads. People read what interests them. And sometimes it’s an ad.
No matter how you look at it, advertisers are in the bait-and-switch business.
Oh, and the title to this post? It's acronymic.
©John Hofmeister. Find me at jhofmeister.com. @jwhirred
I could have easily said three things. Or four and half things. Or even twelve. But twelve would be stretching what most of us can tolerate, what with our shrinking attention spans and Facebook obligations. So I settled on seven because it’s a lucky number, not too big, and that half business was just for intrigue. Imagine if there were ten and a half commandments. Everyone, I mean everyone, would know that half one. Especially if it had anything to do with sex, which it probably would — heaven knows God knows what gets our attention. He made us after all. Or so Sister Annunciata once told me.
Of course, there are a lot more than seven and half things you don’t give a damn about. Hell, more like a billion at least. But who’s counting? Yet how can you not give a damn about something you need to know about? Especially when there’s only seven and half of them? More intrigue. It’s an old direct mail trick and widely used advertising gimmick. If you see "must" in a headline, you can pretty much ignore it unless it’s on an envelope from the IRS, traffic court, or the Social Security administration.
What I’m talking about here are all those damned listicles. You know, the lists of things parading as articles you need to read before choosing an IRA or picking the right internet dating service or dumping your spouse. They weren’t always called listicles. That’s just a clever bit of wordplay adopted early in this century. Hard to know who coined it precisely and when, but I think it caught on because it seemed a bit risqué and vaguely salacious, rhyming so nicely as it does with testicles. Really, what did you think when you first heard about listicles? It’s like that half commandment about sex.
But while the name is new, the convention is not. Organizing your writing around lists goes way back. I think Genesis works that way with its on the 1st day, 2nd day, etc. More recently, sharp cookies like Helen Gurley Brown were using them back in the 60s. A COSMO cover from 1967 could be switched with one from 2016 with no discernible change in content tease. Oh, the celebrity names and cover gals change but the listicles have always been there: 10 Foods to Make Your Man More Loving (1968), 13 Ways to Feminine Satisfaction (1969), 7 Terrific Young Men Tell What They Most Want in a Woman (1987), 10 Things Guys Crave in Bed (2010), The 7 Best Orgasm Tricks in the World (2010), 30 Real Life Sex Tips (2014). Lists of shit sells. Lists of sexy shit sells even better. Still, I must admit to wondering about the TEN things guys crave in bed. If asked I would have guessed maybe there were two, three at the outside. Maybe I’m just old fashioned.
Anyway, listicles are used all the time because they work. If they didn’t, you wouldn’t see them. People, Forbes, and US News and World Report, and any number of Murdock rags use them all the time. Lists of things sell. Sexiest, strongest, richest, most influential, best dressed, worst dressed, hardly dressed. But this listing business has gotten a bit out of hand and is infecting even the most staid publications. Every morning the New York Times has a list of stories I need to know to start my day. The New Yorker cheats on the list thing by calling its list of articles dispatches. Sort of like critical stories from the front lines. You better read them. Something’s bound to blow up.
I’m pretty sure I started several days without the New York Times but I can’t be sure if my life would have been better if I had read those things I needed to know. Which is part of the appeal. I mean, do you really want to start your day without knowing the things you need to know? Sounds like driving without a seatbelt or riding a bike without a helmet. Two things I’m pretty religious about.
But the Times and the New Yorker are just succumbing to the new media tropes that a gajillion media outlets use in the great race for all those eyeballs, Likes, and retweets that advertisers are so crazy about. So they’re to be forgiven for a bit of huckstering. Capitalism kicked communism’s ass a while back. Everyone’s moved on. Even the Chinese. So why not the Times?
So here at the end, you’ve discovered this wasn’t a listicle after all. More of a bait and switch. I’m hoping the bait worked and you enjoyed the switch. If I’m lucky, seven, maybe seven and half people found it so. That half person is the guy who’s texting and driving. Probably without a seatbelt.
© John Hofmeister
When I'm not writing for clients, I write about things that interest me. Quite of bit of satire, a genre that has become increasingly difficult to work in since reality has become such a farce.