my awful taste in music

“Any fun plans this week?” my co-worker asked.

It’s never clear to me whether people are making small talk because that’s just what people do or because they are genuinely interested in the answer. Did she really care if I had any fun plans? Was this just a ploy for me to then ask her if she had any fun plans because there was some adventure she was about to embark on that she wanted to gush about?

“I’m going to a Dave Matthews Band concert. I know — I have awful taste in music,” I said.

“Hey, I like Dave Matthews Band,” she said. We’re about the same age, so this was unsurprising.

“We have awful taste in music,” I assured her.

Dave Matthews Band, Everclear, Dispatch, Foo Fighters, Barenaked Ladies, Ben Folds Five, Third Eye Blind, Stone Temple Pilots — this is the music of my youth and the music I still listen to, almost exclusively. I guess there is some diversity beyond 90s alternative rock. Sometimes I listen to 90s third wave ska like The Mighty Mighty Bosstones, No Doubt, Reel Big Fish, Bowling for Soup and Suburban Legends.

None of this is good music. It’s enjoyable, entertaining, fun. But if we were to make a list of the best 100 songs of the past 30 years — assuming such a list could be objectively made — none of these groups would show up. If we made a list of the top 1,000 songs of all time, I doubt we’d see any of my music catalog represented.

Which is fine. I’ve made my peace with it. I’ve embraced it.

Which makes another interaction I had all the more confusing. I’m not sure whether to put it in the back-in-my-day column or the actually-know-my-shit column.

I was talking with a different coworker — at a different job, incidentally — about popular music, openly admitting how out of touch and old fashioned my tastes were, but being open to trying new things. She mentioned a half-dozen different musicians she liked — none of whom I had ever heard of.

There are some more modern groups I occasionally dabble with and like: Mumford and Sons, Adele, Alabama Shakes, Passenger, Shakey Graves. And there are many more I’ve at least heard of — your Grandes and your Malones and your Drakes. 

But name after name she went down her list and I was in a sea of ignorance. Until she said a name I’ve not heard in a long time. A long time.

“I’m really into Andrew McMahon, too,” she said.

“He’s still going?” I asked.

She was puzzled. “Still?”

“Something Corporate. Jack’s Mannequin.”

She stared at me blankly.

I had kind of remembered something about McMahon continuing with a solo career — but kind of remembered immediately turned into well actually.

“Well actually, before Andrew McMahon was doing his own thing he was the front man for a group called Something Corporate, and then when they broke up he started another group called Jack’s Mannequin.”

I don’t know if she was surprised, impressed or skeptical. In reality, she probably didn’t care in the slightest.

To me, for a moment I was the cool, older guy who actually knew some shit about what the kids were listening to these days. Or maybe I was the lame, older guy rolling his eyes at kids these days.

I’m still trying to decide. Doesn’t really matter, I guess. The music world is going to keep moving on without me. But I’ll be fine. I’ll always have my Goo Goo Dolls.

the blind leading the literate

Content marketing is the bastard stepchild of corporate structuring.

Don’t misunderstand. As a discipline, it’s alive and well – enjoying several recent years in the spotlight, rightfully getting more and more attention.

But when it comes to where content marketing fits into the internal reporting structure every company has to deal with, the world of content marketing is like when you’ve cleaned out the fridge and you’re putting everything back and you have that one last odd-shaped Tupperware that doesn’t match any of the other stuff, so you just kind of wedge it on top of the egg carton and hope nothing comes toppling out next time you have to get a snack.

An anecdotal example. Since graduating college, I have been part of the following teams, sometimes reporting directly to the head of the department, sometimes with a step or two in between:

  • branding/advertising
  • creative
  • innovation
  • marketing
  • SEO
  • social media
  • strategy/planning

There was even a time when my company had an actual VP of Content who I reported to. It was a new position. They left after two months. The role was not backfilled.

Who is on these teams is far more important than how the teams are labeled, of course. A good manager who leads the corporate basketweaving department (the Chief Basketweaving Officer) will better direct the content marketing work than a bad manager who happens to have “content marketing guru” in their LinkedIn description.

At the core of this where-does-content-marketing-fit problem is nomenclature.

A company tries to create the best product or service possible, and (ideally) syncs with marketing efforts along the way in order to ensure the product/service is presented strategically and effectively. The software developer or food scientist or mechanical engineer does not usually have the burden of also putting together the marketing campaign, and the media buy plan, and the SEO and social media strategies.

When it comes to “content marketing,” the content is the product – yet the people creating the product/content (editors, writers, designers) are often the same people responsible for getting current and potential customers’ eyeballs in front of it. That may seem like a good thing on paper and sometimes it is – but only if its potential pain points are addressed.

Who sets and approves the editorial calendar? Who picks and approves the topics? Who reviews and approves final drafts? Who decides which content pieces go in which emails or get paid media dollars behind them? Who dictates what optimizations need to be made as the content is periodically revisited and updated?

Being aware of these potential problems is the first step, and each organization would be able to customize a solution accordingly. But the more degrees of separation between the person leading the day-to-day editorial content efforts and the person leading the day-to-day marketing efforts*, the harder it will be to create an effective, efficient content marketing program.

*Maybe make them the same person!

whose broad stripes and bright stars

There are a handful of professional sports teams that enjoy a special connection with the national anthem. It’s coincidental, I’m sure. I doubt the Boston Braves picked that mascot hoping the audience would adapt the song’s final word. Same goes for Baltimore Orioles fans starting the anthem by yelling O! or Houston basketball fans shouting rockets! at the appropriate time.

In the summer of 1992, my family moved to Dallas. In the summer of 1993, the Minnesota Stars did the same. Of course, I was living in the suburbs with the white picket fences and the two-car garages and the 2.3 kids (actually, 6 kids in my family) and the NHL team was living in a downtown arena where the professional athletes, presumably, slept right there on the ice — but clearly they and I were having more or less the same life journey.

But with a new team came fervor, and with my dad’s corporate gig — the reason we had to relocate from the armpit of America to God’s country to begin with — came the occasional leftover season tickets. Like any large company, my dad’s employer would occasionally wine and dine current or potential clients with a sporting event — hoping the novelty of a hockey game would overshadow the fact they were too cheap to spring for tickets to see America’s Team. Since my dad didn’t drink, he often wasn’t handpicked to be the one to wine and dine anyway, so I don’t exactly remember if it was the first or second season when I saw my first NHL game.

But what I do remember — the same, I’ve discovered, as what most people remember from their first professional hockey game — was the sounds and the smells and the pace. The crispness of the ice being cut through with each stride and each stop (on a dime! how do they do that?), the whoosh of cool air through your nostrils (despite it being 102° outside), and the pace! (oh the pace! you do not realize how fast ice hockey really is until you see it in person.)

I remember all of that, I do. But I also remember the national anthem — not who sung it or how well it was sung, but what happened when they got to the line:

Whose broad stripes and bright …

And two men in the nosebleeds shouted, at the top of their lungs, STARS!

There were some muffled laughs. Some darting eyes back and forth. But the singer continued. A real professional.

But then, a few lines later, came:

O say does that …

And the same two men again turned the solo into a trio by shouting STARS!, with the singer finishing out the phrase with “pangled banner”.

And that was that. The song ended. We all clapped and sat down. And we enjoyed the greatest game, shaking our heads and the two buffoons in the bleachers.

I was able to go to a couple of Dallas Stars games each season growing up, but I must have always arrived after the national anthem because it wasn’t until several years later that I discovered what had happened.

“Whose broad stripes and bright” led into thousands of fans all yelling STARS! And it happened again when “O say does that” came around. It was tremendous.

It had caught on. It was now standard practice. Tradition. And has been ever since.

I don’t know if those two (drunk?) men were the first. I don’t know if they thought of it themselves and came to every game they could until it caught on. I don’t know if they knew about the anthem traditions of the Braves or the Rockets or the Orioles.

But I do know that now, living 800 miles away from their home arena, I try to turn the game on early enough to maybe catch the national anthem — and enjoy the nostalgia.

You Will Never Be Innovative

An 11-year-old Helen Keller wrote a short story The Frost King. She was later accused of plagiarizing the book from the story Frost Fairies by Margaret Canby. Given the details, it’s likely that Keller’s story was, at worst, fan fiction — certainly not deliberate plagiarism. It’s more likely that Keller had the story read to her as a young child and it subconsciously influenced her story.

Ten years later, Mark Twain heard of the debacle and had this to say:

Oh, dear me, how unspeakably funny and owlishly idiotic and grotesque was that “plagiarism” farce! As if there was much of anything in any human utterance, oral or written, except plagiarism! The kernal, the soul — let us go further and say the substance, the bulk, the actual and valuable material of all human utterances — is plagiarism. For substantially all ideas are second-hand, consciously and unconsciously drawn from a million outside sources, and daily used by the garnerer with a pride and satisfaction born of the superstition that he originated them;

He goes on — which you can read here — but you get the idea.

You will never have an original idea. You will never have a creative thought that in some way isn’t plagiarized from something else.

What we should instead understand is that innovation is relative.

When I’ve told people what I do, it will sometimes come across as this mind-blowing, cutting edge thing. In reality, not only have I been doing it for years — diminishing its innovative-ness — but the principles have existed for centuries.

I’m not saying don’t try to be innovative. I’m saying that if you’ve been tasked with being innovative, you can usually just go with what you know, with what works, and it’ll blow their tiny minds.

Well, not their tiny minds, that’s not fair.

The Day I Remember

When my high school classmates and I heard about the two planes hitting the twin towers on September 11th 2001, we started talking about how this would be a JFK moment for us. You hear stories growing up, from older people, who remembered exactly where they were when they heard President John F. Kennedy had been assassinated.

For us, that Tuesday morning, we were in the hallway bouncing tennis balls.

It was a music theory class, and we were using this tennis ball exercise to illustrate the difference between duple meter and triple meter.

Of course, at that point, it was still too early to know the full impact of what was going on, especially because the only official word we had received from the principal over the intercom was that two planes had crashed into the World Trade Center, and that we were to go about our day as usual. So we kept bouncing our tennis balls.

Some students were more shaken by the news than others. Those whose parents worked in New York City were the most distraught. About half the students had cell phones, so there was lots of borrowing and anxious phone calls.

As I went from class to class that day, it was interesting how differently teachers decided to handle the situation. My Anatomy teacher, Mr. Shevalier, started the class by saying how he was planning to give his lesson as usual, in the hopes that it could temporarily take our minds off what was going on. My English teacher, Mr. Dodge, said we wouldn’t be doing anything during the class period, and said it would be free time as long as we didn’t get out of hand.

Dodge had been in the Air Force. I’m sure that impacted how he was processing the news of the day.

It’s odd what your mind decides to remember from a day like that.

You’ve got to keep your dignity intact

I used to see a therapist — each week for a few months. Over the course of our sessions, we agreed I most likely suffer from something called Cyclothymia. The purpose of the meetings wasn’t a diagnosis, but it was a good way to summarize what I was dealing with.

If depression is a freight train from out of nowhere, that visits occasionally to level you for days or weeks at a time, cyclothymia is The Little Engine That Says You Can’t. Not powerful, but persistent.

When I read that Robin Williams had committed suicide, I got it. Instantly. I’m not saying he had cyclothymia — his history shows it was much more severe than that — but dealing with mental illness personally was why I wasn’t surprised that someone who was so funny, who made so many others laugh, could be so depressed.

Just because someone is funny, doesn’t mean they’re happy. The opposite of depressed isn’t happy. The opposite of depressed is not depressed. Even words like fulfilled or complete are more accurate antonyms than happy. Funny depressed people don’t try to make others laugh in order to cheer themselves up; they want others to laugh so they can escape being depressed — sometimes just for that moment. For the depressed person, that may be the only time they get to smile.

I know it’s been referenced enough in the past few days, but this “joke” told in (but not invented for) the 2009 film Watchmen is sharply accurate:

Man goes to doctor. Says he’s depressed. Says life is harsh and cruel. Says he feels all alone in a threatening world. Doctor says, “Treatment is simple. The great clown Pagliacci is in town tonight. Go see him. That should pick you up.” Man bursts into tears. Says, “But doctor, I am Pagliacci.” Good joke. Everybody laugh. Roll on snare drum. Curtains.

I don’t bring all this up for sympathy. As Rainbow Randolph said, you’ve got to keep your dignity intact. But I do bring it all up for awareness. Depression — from melancholy to crippling — is among us, even in the last places we’d think. There are lots of resources out there for those who suffer and for friends of those who suffer, so I won’t repeat them here; but be aware of the people around you.

Things aren’t always as they seem.

For instance, that old woman may actually be your ex-husband pretending to be a nanny so he can stay close to his kids.

Journalism Isn’t Dying

Journalism isn’t dying. It died. Twenty years ago. And Don Hewitt and Ted Tuner — not the Internet — are who killed it.

Newspapers have been around forever. And as long as they’ve been around they’ve existed to make money. Think Joseph Pulitzer vs. William Randolph Hearst; big, bold, eye-catching headlines (regardless of how newsworthy the story actually was); and Yellow Journalism.

Broadcast journalism — radio and then television — is relatively newer, with TV news gaining popularity starting in the 1950s. There was never really any threat of television news replacing newspapers, due in a large part to its money-making model.

Specifically, that TV news didn’t make any.

As mentioned, newspapers had always been expected to bring in profits — after all, the paper was their only source of revenue. However, television news had a whole network behind them. It wasn’t necessary for the nightly news broadcast to have amazing ratings; it was a public service. A widely-watched, trusted nightly news program was just part of having a quality network.

Then came Don Hewitt and 60 Minutes in 1968. By the mid-70s, its hidden cameras, “gotcha” journalism, and investigative reports had made 60 Minutes one of the most watched shows on television (success they’ve continued to have). Better overall ratings meant CBS could charge more for ads and make more money. With ratings through the roof, other networks began to rethink their nightly news broadcasts. The 1976 film classic “Network” — which featured the first (fictional) TV anchor to be killed because of poor ratings — predicted this oncoming avalanche. By the 1980s, most networks abandoned the public service mission of their newscasts and worked harder to bring in the dough. Professional, newsworthy stories at times largely went out the door and were replaced with salacious and sensational coverage.

While Don Hewitt and 60 Minutes may have been bad for traditional journalism, Ted Turner and CNN were arguably much worse. 1980 marked the arrival of 24-hour news, and the departure of what was left of traditional journalism.

CNN was the first 24-hour, all-news television network in the United States. They covered all the news they could, and if they needed to, they would repeat some news stories throughout the day (every half hour in the case of Headline News). This was great because most people watch the news in 20- or 30-minute segments, not all day long. And for several years, CNN was one of a kind. But the late 1980s brought CNBC, and a few years later Fox News and MSNBC were on the scene.

By 1997, all of these (and more) 24-hour news networks were in competition with each other. Because of this, there was a perceived need to have content that was new and different from the other networks — difficult when you’re already trying to fill 24 hours a day with a finite number of newsworthy facts (add to that the assumption that most viewers don’t care about most international content). Unique content had to come from somewhere else if they wanted to keep ratings high.

Pundits, analysts, and special guests were brought on to help bring another dimension to the news — commentary. But over the past decade, that dimension has taken over almost completely. The majority of shows on any given news network today focus on editorial news and interpretation of facts. Opinion has begun to crowd out content. Networks have devolved to a point where they, at times, fill their content almost entirely with speculation, commentary, and opinion. And when most of what is called “news” is really just angry people yelling at each other and trying to prove their point, it’s not journalism, it’s high school.

So where does that leave newspapers? Up until the last five or ten years, newspapers didn’t have to necessarily worry about 24-hour coverage. They would publish their paper the night before, deliver it in the mornings, and then go to work on that day’s stories. They may have placed the articles from that day on their website. But what CNN did to broadcast journalism, the internet and blogs did to print.

With the unprecedented growth of the internet, newspapers couldn’t satisfy their readership by only having the news of the day (or, in most cases, the previous day). They had to have breaking news, updates, and online-only stories. But the demand for unique content was greater than what could be supplied. So newspapers everywhere did the same thing as broadcast news — they put anything they could on their site, including speculation, editorial, and gossip. More and more reporters were expected to also be bloggers — not just focusing on the facts, but ranting about them as well.

As a news organization produces more and more opinion and editorial, it will naturally drift toward a certain ideology. This creates liberal or conservative networks or papers — instead of objective news. They may provide time or space for dissenting opinions, but only to disprove the opposite viewpoint. All of this has polarized journalism.

Sure, the internet changed the face, the appearance, and the distribution of news, but it wasn’t what destroyed it. When hyperbole gets more clicks and coverage than news, if we’re looking for the guilty we need only look into a mirror.