Thursday, June 27, 2019

Sebastian Maniscalco | Lefsetz Letter


If I hadn’t heard him on Howard Stern I’d have no idea who this comic was. Furthermore, I watched some of his Netflix special and had to turn it off, I didn’t find the guy funny.

That’s how far we’ve come. Then worldwide stars begged to be on the VMAs for exposure, to the younger set the show was more important than the Academy Awards, and in 2019 not only are they completely irrelevant, they’re hosted by a guy most of the world has never heard of.

The Video Music Awards started to tank when they had them at the Metropolitan Opera House. That was 1999. Just before the music business crashed, just before Napster got traction. The host was the superstar Chris Rock, known by everyone, but that’s the iteration wherein Macy Gray turned around and her dress featured an ad for her new album. Which she promoted vocally too.

In other words, it was strictly promotion.

Sure, that was the understated reality of the VMAs, the awards were nearly worthless, even though they meant much more than a Grammy, but no one came out and said it.

Macy Gray set the template for the internet era, the twenty first century, where it’s all ME ME ME and self-hype is part of the game, to the point where the hype often exceeds the quality of the music and the audience is so overwhelmed it has no idea what is going on. Some completely tune out, listen to oldies, and the younger generation has its favorites, but music is a second class citizen, something you dance to, play videogames to, see at the festival while you’re taking selfies and making connections.

Meanwhile, the music business is like a Talking Heads song…it’s the same as it ever was. Major labels promoting radio acts and the mainstream press echoing their efforts. Sure, the press also reviews records by minor acts, but if you don’t have the time or inclination to listen to the hits, why would you wade through all the dreck to find stuff that isn’t even as good as the nineties, which was not a notable era in music to begin with!

But no one will admit this.

These are the same clowns who missed the internet, tried to beat down Napster and only approved the iTunes Store because at first it was Mac-only. And no one’s money is at risk, everybody’s got a corporate job and is just trying to make their bonus.

We’re truly living in a Tower of Babel society, where only one person is a star. A guy who used entertainment precepts to make it. Trump was on TV and continues to tweet even though everybody in the music business infrastructure does not. Oh, we’ve got acts on social media, but it’s that Macy Gray paradigm. You know who I am, you’ve got to give me more money. And oftentimes that money isn’t even related to the music!

The VMAs were a party. Not only at the show, but at home. They were the hottest ticket in town. And they played on MTV for months thereafter, years! Hell, RuPaul dissing Milton Berle was more memorable than anything that happened on the Oscars in the last ten years. Come on, tell me otherwise… Ellen DeGeneres taking a selfie? Jimmy Kimmel inviting people off the street? Do you even remember those now!

The VMAs represented the zeitgeist of the culture. And we were all living in the world MTV built and were paying attention. We were living in a monoculture.

In the sixties and seventies we were living in a stereoculture. AM and FM.

Now, there are so many channels, so many records, so many TV shows, so many movies, that it’s literally impossible to know the entire scene. On a regular basis albums go to number one that insiders are unaware of. Turns out this Christian act has a following, that Texas act. Huh?

So when someone tells you they’re a big star, laugh. When labels and PR people hype you how big someone is, ignore them. No one is that big anymore!

There used to be hipsters. Who reigned above the hoi polloi. Now there are no hipsters, if someone puts you down for being out of the know, you can turn the tables and mention ten things they’ve never heard of. We’re all foraging, we’re all trying to keep up. If you miss something, you never go back to it, there are too many new things. Everybody knew Run-DMC, believe me everybody hasn’t heard Kendrick Lamar, never mind Jay Z, they may be rich but their mindshare has severe limits.

Meanwhile, the boards are plied with old acts, touring ad infinitum. And a Broadway musical, i.e. “Hamilton,” is bigger than any act out there. Then again, the music for “Hamilton” was great. You got historical icons dissing each other. Now we’ve got almost nobodies throwing their weight around online, it’s like a scuffle in a nursery school.

But even if you are that great, you may not make it. “Hamilton” played for nearly a year before it got serious traction, despite all the hosannas. What luck is there for your project?

So now we’ve got a relic of the past hosted by a second-rate comic. The VMAs are just entertainment, completely missable. You’re more interested in the Democratic debates than the VMAs. At least they have meaning.

So this is what the internet has wrought. And everybody in the ecosystem likes it, they don’t want clarity, otherwise they might be left out.

So we’ve got majors and minors, talented and untalented, seemingly everybody is going for greatness on the internet. Not only wannabes uploading to Spotify…seemingly the entire country is putting their best image forward to gain followers on Instagram. Classic rock was built on being down to earth, what you wore was secondary, now the paradigm has completely flipped. No wonder Trump is President, he promised order in an inherently chaotic world!

But the truth is there is no order. And Trump can’t generate it.

We’ve got an entertainment business of winners and losers. The winners dwarf everybody else, even though their footprint is nowhere near as big as those of the pre-internet stars, the losers just clutter the landscape and if you’re one of the few in the middle class, you’re lucky to eke out a living on the road, good luck getting significantly bigger.

Choice is not going away. But I think there will be a line of demarcation between the worthwhile and the worthless.

Meanwhile, be happy you have an audience at all!


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