Archive for the ‘pop culture’ Category

David Cassidy: A (Brand) Identity Lost and Found

Monday, February 27th, 2017

2545764400000578-2936558-image-m-6_1422890689144 I don’t know what I’m up against. I don’t know what it’s all about. I got so much to think about…This week, former pop idol David Cassidy announced to the world that he has dementia and, after nearly 50 years of performing, he is retiring.  His life has been an extreme rollercoaster ride that has touched many and, as much as any, tells a cautionary tale of a brand identity run amok, lost and later found.

A working actor and musician in his teens, Cassidy always sought stardom, appearing on a slew of early 70s high-profile television series, including: “Medical Center,” “Bonanza,” “Ironside,” “Marcus Welby, M.D.” and “Adam-12.” But nothing could have prepared him for his role in the Cowsills-inspired “Partridge Family” that would, virtually overnight, elevate his status to one of the most famous and sought after pop stars ever while leaving him wondering who he really was.

For Cassidy, the fame would become both a blessing and a curse as he has described the phenomenon of “him” in interviews over the years.  Media of the day worked both for and against him.  At a time before cable, the Internet, MP3s and video games, there were only three national TV networks; as such, millions watched while millions more bought Partridge Family records (myself among them).  As such, to much of the world David Cassidy was Keith Partridge – whether on television, Tiger Beat and 16 Magazine covers, lunch boxes or in concert (where he sang series songs).

Exacerbating the problem for Cassidy was that in a time before the Internet and cable, there were few media platforms to appear as “yourself” – no personal websites to tell the tale of who you really were as an artist rather than fictional character; no E! Entertainment cable network to run stories on a day in your life.  And, further, there were only a handful of network TV talk shows where one might appear “out of costume” as it were; the granddaddy being “The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson” although this aired late nightly and long after most teenyboppers went to bed.  As a result, David Cassidy lost himself with a personal brand and identity virtually hijacked by a TV network (ABC) that owned his likeness and a recording company (Bell) that owned his voice. It was a disastrous recipe for typecasting and, for many years, resulted in something akin to career suicide. Just ask one-time “Batman” star Adam West.

Cassidy eventually would resurrect his career and take his talents to Broadway and then Vegas and, in time, return to touring and playing (and enjoying) the songs that initially made him famous enough to sell out Madison Square Garden and Wembley Stadium, among others, back in the day.  However, it would take walking away at the top of his fame and drastic measures (appearing mostly nude on the cover of Rolling Stone).  Radio and music buyers would largely eschew his new offerings for years.

They say time can heal all wounds and hindsight is forever 20/20 and, to be sure, in recent interviews he has talked about the positives of extreme celebrity and how it has allowed him the opportunity to positively impact the lives of many. As he enters the twilight of his life and a difficult road ahead, perhaps David Cassidy has also finally come to terms with and accepted the pivotal role Keith Partridge played in his life.  One would think that, at the very least, he’s met him halfway. And you know what they say about that.

Ray Kroc’s Grand Brand Plan

Sunday, February 12th, 2017

raykrocnw2On Friday, at the kind invitation of PR pro and educator extraordinaire Dr. Linda Hagan, I guest lectured a class of young artists at the Center for Creative Studies in Detroit. In fitting with the curriculum of business and marketing trends and practices, I advised the group on how best to go about creating their own brand.  A significant slice of what I covered is evident in the excellent new movie, “The Founder,” starring Michael Keaton.  Because when it comes to brands – iconic brands – McDonald’s best-known owner Ray Kroc was a true visionary.

I began the CCS class by asking students, ‘What constitutes a brand?’ In response I heard, ‘A logo’ and ‘A slogan’ before another chimed in with, ‘What you stand for.’  All correct, I told them, when taken together.  Because, I further opined, a brand is the sum of all attributes of a particular company, product or service – it is how you answer your phones, how you treat your customers, referral sources and employees. It is how you differentiate yourself from your competition – not just in words but also by delivering upon a value proposition and brand promise.

Ray Kroc understood this as well as anyone ever.  While peddling milkshake mixers to drive-ins across the country in the 1950s, he stumbled upon a little single shingle establishment in San Bernardino, California where an amazing thing was happening: families were waiting in line (and not long) for delicious hamburgers and soft drinks that took minutes from order to delivery.  This was in stark contrast to the traditional drive-ins Kroc had experienced that were littered with trash, loud music and smoking teenagers in their hot rods. Food often took 30 minutes or more and orders were routinely wrong.  The alternative restaurant? The brainchild of the McDonalds brothers.

McDonald’s was the model of efficiency, consistency and wholesome family dining. They offered a unique brand value proposition and delivered upon it each and every time.  Kroc saw the vast opportunity to take this badly needed model across the country via franchising. He likened the golden arches to the church steeples and city hall flags he saw in every town he visited on his sales travels. These arches would add another icon to the skylines of each and every town in America, he predicted.  And once these restaurant chain stores opened in their respective markets, Kroc worked tirelessly to maintain brand standards in operations, food offerings and, most importantly, customer service.

A brand, I told the class, works best when it is honest, genuine and true to who you are.   As current students and future employees or entrepreneurs in the world of art and film, I offered, they needed to be true to who they were but also mindful that their brand must also keep in mind the audiences they want to reach.  After all, a brand cannot be successful, ultimately, if it doesn’t resonate and compel. It must also stay open to evolution.  In fact, McDonald’s has gone through decades of changes to meet evolving consumer tastes and priorities, as evidenced by their expanded menu options, dollar value meals and healthier fare.  Ray Kroc didn’t found McDonald’s but he certainly honed and developed its brand, building the restaurant into arguably the greatest fast-food chain ever.  And to millions starting in the Cold War era, Americana never tasted so good.

 

Kansas Carries On Its Wayward Band

Saturday, January 14th, 2017

Screen Shot 2017-01-13 at 3.39.46 PMOnce I rose above the noise and confusion, set a course beyond this illusion…In 1976, the band Kansas produced its swan song album, “Leftoverture” and signature single “Carry On Wayward Son”.  Though it was not their very first album (that had come two years prior), no one had heard anything quite like this art rock from the heartland.  Some 40 years later and despite the exit of most of its original members, Kansas has found itself re-energized with a new LP: “Prelude Implicit” and a piece of work on par with their best ever.  It’s a study in counterintuitives.

In a recent article on Rollingstone.com, writer Steve Smith provides more background on various aspects of this dynamic, including the fact that only band mates Phil Ehart (drums) and Rich William (guitar) remain from the early days. Of particular note is that the heart of soul of Kansas, singer Steve Walsh and guitarist Kerry Livgren are gone after both forever served as primary songwriters. How does any group survive such turnover? Such an undertaking is particularly tough without your lead singer. ELO II, as it was once named, tried unsuccessfully to make it without Jeff Lynne; the Guess Who without two main vocalists: Burton Cummings and Randy Bachman.

Many groups in recent years have toured successfully with “doppelganger” lead singers culled from tribute bands, Journey and Yes among them.  Yet, it’s one thing to emulate on stage while surrounded by several original members, another to release and successfully market brand new music.  With their first album of new material in nearly 16 years, “Prelude Implicit”, Kansas once again hits the right note despite what might otherwise be creative handicaps – just as it did in the mid 1980s when singer John Elefante temporarily replaced Steve Walsh for huge hits “Play The Game Tonight” and “Fight Fire With Fire”.

And, it appears, lightening can strike twice (three times?).  This time, it’s singer Ronnie Platt who supplies the electricity as Kansas returns to two guitars and heavy organ – harkening back of course to its original sound.  And, the signature violin never sounded better. The timing is also just right for this reincarnation as classic rock enjoys a resurgence and new appreciation by millennials who grew up with their parents playing these artists.  Just look around you at your next Steve Miller or Styx concert to the audience’s demographic makeup.

What matters most, though, is the music – and these new tunes sound really, really good.  As a huge Kansas and Steve Walsh fan I was very, very, pleasantly surprised.  Reading reviews, I’m not alone. This is not a tribute band.  As writer Craig Ellis Bacon recounts in the prog report this Kansas brings a fresh, new energy that is also “comfortably confident and mature”, “totally even and incredibly enjoyable”. Give it a listen. I think you’ll agree that 2017 sounds a bit like 1976 again.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Celebrity Death Trend Goes Far Beyond 2016

Tuesday, December 27th, 2016

690_oak_3d_2017_half_2016As has been written here before, nothing gets traditional and social media going like celebrity deaths. In an era of media done on the cheap, it’s an easy story to tell. In an era of lowest common denominator connections, it’s an easy story to share. This is all natural.

With respect for those who have felt emotionally stung by the death of a celebrity or multiple celebrities, I apologize if this message may be received as insensitive, but, as always, the goal here is to explain.

The popular narrative that seems to suggest that with the turn of the calendar, some sort of anomaly of celebrity deaths will come to an end appears to be driven by factors ranging from wishful thinking to online snark to flat-out ignorance. Celebrities will continue to die in what seems like large numbers because, quite simply, the evolution of media over the past five decades has simply created an enormous number of celebrities.

Once, there were just movie stars, radio stars and politicians, with maybe a few “stars of stage and screen” thrown in. Then, there were TV stars layered on top of that. Then, music expanded, creating rock stars, pop stars, soul stars, rap stars, country stars, jazz stars and opera stars (just look at the sheer volume of #1 hitmakers – it’s staggering). Then, TV expanded creating shows on dozens of channels of genres. Sports expanded, creating star legacies in new markets and in new sports, along with champion players and coaches every year. And so on and so on, to the point today where there are reality show stars, YouTube stars and household names that nobody in your household has ever heard of.

When the celebrity era really stared booming, with the proliferation of TV and the segmentation of music, those who became stars in their 20s and 30s are now in their 70s and 80s. The average life expectancy in the U.S. now is 78.74 years. So what is the chance of someone famous dying tomorrow? Pretty good.

Yes, some music icons died much younger. The reality is, sooner or later, living the way many of them chose to live is going to take a toll. It’s just not because of the year on the calendar.

Another factor is that the celebrities of the World War Two generation have mostly already died. So those who are remembered by Boomers and GenXers are now starting to die. That, in part, makes it seem like more celebrities are dying because we all tend to pay more attention to news that feels relevant to us.

The fact is that celebrity deaths won’t stop in just a few days. Losing an “all time great” or “all time favorite” will be commonplace, but still news, in 2017 and for the foreseeable future.

One More Try

Monday, December 26th, 2016

GeorgeMxlThat’s what George Michael appeared to be preparing for in 2017.  A new documentary film, a new album – all to come nearly two decades after exiting the record charts and moving largely into reclusiveness.  It is a return (redemption?) that will, sadly, have to be realized without him.

I love writing about music but hate writing about an artist leaving us and, in 2016, this happened all too often.  For many of us, George Michael is still in his 20′s or 30′s, singing his heart out and moving about, arguably among the top, true talents to come out of the MTV era.  And while he was a singer, the words he sang spoke to millions of fans across the world.  He knew his audience and they loved him for it.

George Michael could have easily been dismissed after first appearing as a member of Wham! with the bubble-gum pop, “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” in 1984 and yet we watched (often in awe) as he not only moved feet but hearts with the haunting “Careless Whisper” and “A Different Corner”.  As a solo artist, his growth as an artist – singer/songwriter – increased exponentially as he also matured with this audience.  From controversial sex object (“I Want Your Sex”) to existentialist (“Father Figure”) to romantic (“One More Try”) Michael connected with his fans – giving them what they wanted but also keeping them guessing with beats and melodies the likes of which many had never heard.

In a Facebook post yesterday someone noted the cruel irony of Christmas Day being George Michael’s last Christmas, ala his holiday song of the same name.  I prefer instead to refer back to a few of his other tunes (“Heaven Help Me”), (“Praying For Time”), (“Jesus To A Child”),  and, considering his often tumultuous life, perhaps even “Freedom”.  He has turned “a different corner” than expected yet we can still be thankful for the good fortune to have met him. (We) gotta have faith.

Social Silence Says It All

Sunday, November 6th, 2016

Screen Shot 2016-11-06 at 6.30.56 PMMannequins – growing up these were a staple of department stores, standing forever motionless while sporting the latest fashions. In 1987, Andrew McCarthy fell for mannequin-come-to-life Kim Cattrall in the movie, “Mannequin”. Years later, Will Smith would stave off emotional distress by talking to mannequins in the post apocalyptic film, “I Am Legend”.  Traditionally odd if not downright scary, mannequins, in recent days, have instread become all the rage on social media – at least humans posing as these plastic people wanna-bes.

Purportedly started by high schoolers from Colony High School in Ontario, CA, the craze has come to be known as the “Mannequin Challenge” with its own hashtag: #mannequinchallenge.  What is it, exactly? Put simply, groups of individuals filming themselves in a range of “frozen” poses who then post their mini-videos online. High schoolers, college students and, more and more, collegiate and professional sports teams have all been partaking in the fun. Not to be outdone, numerous sports announcers and sideline reporters have also been following suit. Even the crew of Fox’s “NFL Sunday” got into the act this morning complete with Terry Bradshaw in a faux-choke hold courtesy of a stationary Howie Long.

Unlike the “Ice Bucket Challenge” which raised awareness of and funds for ALS research, the mannequin movement at large has not (yet?) been affiliated with a  charity nor a particular cause. Rather, this latest activity appears to have more in common with the former fad of planking, albeit without the dangers settings and environments. So, what, then is the point?

The point here may be that there is no point. To date, in fact, it has all been nothing but good old fashioned fun. Stop the press - a social media endeavor without pressure or shaming or competition? Actions that promote cooperation, team-building, creativity and good old fashioned fun? The mannequin craze has resonated with millions because it is non-promotional, authentic, real. It works because it is genuine and the exact reason why marketers cannot merely create such an initiative on a drawing board and expect it to take flight.

They also say timing is everything. Leave it to our next generation to delivery to our society exactly what it could use right now: a sense of community and humor. And maybe even a message to stop for a moment and smell the roses. It all is very ironic, isn’t it? Promoting humanity by imitating display things who purportedly have none. Who are the real dummies here?

A Movie To Die For?

Thursday, August 4th, 2016

Suicide-Squad-Joker-character-posterAll my friends are heathens, take it slow / Wait for them to ask you who you know / Please don’t make any sudden moves / You don’t know the half of the abuse.  Thus opens the new song by Twenty One Pilots, “Heathens” from one of the year’s most anticipated movies, “Suicide Squad”, in theaters this weekend.  It’s debut will take comic book filmmaking in a totally new direction while showcasing movie marketing at its finest.

Hollywood has a knack for repeating what works and, indeed, this flick will join a long line of still-popular celluloid representations of characters and story lines currently running in the funny papers. Yet, this is superhero-dom with a twist – as these stars are actually anti-heroes – for perhaps the first time ever.  Some might argue that the forgettable “Punisher” movies of yesteryear previously walked this ground, yet, this time, the individuals taking center stage in “Suicide Squad” are villains; some among the most dangerous from the Batman mythos.

Pre-promotion of “Squad” has been heavy and somewhat predictable with early screenings of previews at the country’s top Comicons.  The movie’s stars, including A-Listers Jared Leto (Joker) and Margot Robbie (Harley Quinn) have, similarly, been making appearances here there and everywhere, including on the late night “Jimmys”.  As important in the hype, though: the 2016 blockbuster Batman v Superman movie, which set the table for a new Gotham while TV’s “Arrow” and “Gotham” have both shined a light on members of the Squad and the mythical New York City, respectively.

Which brings us back to the music. If you liked the score from “Fury” or “Gravity” – both moody and atmospheric – you’ll similarly be drawn to this one, also composed by Steve Price.  Still, it’s the popular Twenty One Pilots and “Heathens” that really steals the show.  The tune has been rocketing up the charts via radio stations across the country and could someday be considered alongside Prince’s 1989 “Batdance” as one of the greatest super hero movie-related tunes ever.  This is the stuff of James Bond soundtracks and should further ensure that ticket buyers for the new “Suicide Squad” leave the theater both shaken and stirred.

 

Take A Look At This Netflix Show. I “Dare-devil” You

Monday, June 6th, 2016

Screen Shot 2016-06-06 at 7.55.27 PMThe world of television continues to get more interesting by the minute in terms of who is watching what, when and how.  Many TV executives have conceded that the traditional Neilson ratings have become obsolete, as, by some estimates, more than 50% of viewers are no longer consuming shows in real time thanks to DVRs, Hulu and On Demand.  And did you hear the one about the Netflix Show that may not be renewed – despite a solid following and rave reviews?

Rumors are flying that Season 3 of the Netflix original series, “Daredevil” could be delayed or even scrapped entirely; and not because of a lack of viewers nor disinterest by the show’s stars.  Rather, two of the show’s key production personnel have exited to work on another Netflix superhero offering, “The Defenders.” Which begs this question: With the network already running “Jessica Jones”, and preparing to launch “Luke Cage,” “The Punisher” and ‘Defenders’, has Netflix overextended itself in a potentially disastrous way?

In an industry forever guilty of “borrowing” from what has proven successful, fresh ideas, concepts and characters are often in short supply. Not to mention the creative talent necessary to bring forth those programs successfully. “Daredevil” could well be an unfortunate casualty of too much of a good thing without the resources necessary to keep that good thing going.

If you have not watched the first two seasons of “Daredevil”, prepare yourself for grim and grit.  Once again founded upon the storytelling of a bygone year from master scribe Frank Miller, there has never before been a superhero TV program which exhibits the violence and realism put forth in this version of Hells Kitchen.  In Marvel comics he is billed as: The Man Without Fear. Today, many Netflix fans are quite fearful that a return of the blind red devil to his world of ninjas, mafia bosses and mayhem may not happen. We’ll be watching. Stay tuned.

 

 

The Monkees offer “Good Times” for a New Generation

Wednesday, May 25th, 2016

Monkees-Good-TimesHey, hey they they’re the Monkees…and they’re not monkeying around.  In fact, the pop/rock band has just embarked on a 6-month nationwide tour as it prepares its first album of new material since 1997 (“Good Times!”) – all just in time for the 50th anniversary of the Monkees’ television debut.  Reporter Andy Greene recounts exactly what’s what in the latest issue of Rolling Stone.

While far from being among the young generation (Micky Dolenz is 70), the band still has something to say, thanks in large part to a range of contemporary and historical songwriters who are contributing material to the LP, due June 10th.  That includes River Cuomo and Noel Gallagher as well as older tunes from the 60s, written for the group but never recorded, from heavyweight authors Harry Nilsson, Carol King and Neil Diamond.

Perhaps most touching will be the release of the Diamond penned song “Love to Love” which will feature vocals from the late Davey Jones.  To help ease the loss, Michael Nesmith (he of the perpetual stocking cap) has returned to record with Peter Tork and Dolenz for the first time since the band’s breakup in 1971, although Nesmith won’t tour.

From the iconic guitar-shapred logo to the breezy, catchy tunes, the Monkees brand has endured as have their fans who are sure to pack venues just as sure as they consumed the group’s music back in the day. Wikipedia notes, in fact, that the Monkees have sold over 75 million records worldwide, outselling at their peak in 1967 the Beatles and the Rolling Stones combined.

Nostalgia is a powerful and incredible thing.  Far from one-hit wonders, the Monkees run on TV and radio lasted a mere three years.  Yet, long before social media, the band’s promotional tentacles stretched to multiple platforms that included everything from teenybopper magazines to toys (I possessed a very odd-looking, multi-headed pull and play). Timing was also kind, as the group offered fun and escape and an alternative to the tension, drugs and revolution of the Vietnam era.  Best of all, their music made your toes tap and their antics made you laugh. Welcome back.

 

 

When Doves Cry

Friday, April 22nd, 2016

Prince_logo.svgAnother artist gone too soon.  There have been many in recent weeks with Prince, sadly, among the most notable and pioneering.  He was James Brown meets Jimi Hendrix – a rocker who merged funk, R&B, electronica and soul as well as anyone ever did.  A trendsetter and visionary.  An amazing songwriter and incredible singer with range that one moment expressed emotion, another sexuality.

As a radio disk jockey as his career began and progressed, I experienced first hand how traditional radio at first shunned and then openly embraced him.  When I first hit the airwaves in 1981, music from his first offerings, “Dirty Mind” and “Controversy” were too controversial for anything but Urban formatted stations to play, typically late at night and edited.  At the same time, traditional “Hit” radio was the exact opposite of color and gender blind. They rarely played African American or female artists. Then came Michael Jackson and MTV.

The timing was perfect for Prince and he took full advantage – releasing his swan song, “Purple Rain” and the beautiful “When Doves Cry” to radio and MTV.  The movie, “Purple Rain”, would become the silver screen’s first long-form music video since the Beatle’s “Yellow Submarine”.  And the rest, as they say, is history.

What would follow, in fact, was a legendary career that would offer the eclectic (“Rasberry Beret”), the socially relevant (“Sign of the Times”) and the out-and-out fun (“Kiss”).  A master marketer, he was among the first to release music free and or without promotion online – approaches later emulated to great success by Radiohead, Beyonce and Drake.

Always pushing boundaries.  Always setting trends.  A chameleon who was first a name and then a symbol and then a name again.  At times we might have wanted to look away, but we could never take our eyes or ears off him.