Almost Perfect: Umbrella by Rihanna

The greatest love songs and poems are all hymns to Ishtar.  Popular love songs often use blunt psychological manipulation also (appeals to pleasant emotions, desire to be loved, etc.) but at their core they have one single universal theme.  The beauty is in expressing the theme indirectly, ambiguously, and hypnotically.

The song “Umbrella” by Rihanna is just about as perfect a hymn to Ishtar as I’ve ever seen.  Rihanna channels Ishtar from the ancient past to the glorious present, as if to prove that she never dies.  There is no way she wrote the lyrics; they are beautiful and universal.  And the imagery in the music video is very well-done — whoever put in the triangles knew what they were doing.

As a poem and song, the lyrics and musical pacing will stand the test of time.  The video, while excellent, has three slight flaws:

  • Jay-Z is a moron.  The imagery in the original song; of rain, deluge, and sparking downpour is powerful.  Trust Jay-Z to completely miss the symbolism and make up some assinine line about “stacking chips for a rainy day” to demonstrates just how clueless he is.  WTF is this, a poem about farming?  Someone shut him up.  Thank God the dance remix running on Energy 92.7 doesn’t have his stupid blathering on it.
  • Rihanna’s hair is wrong.  She has a great face (beauty that comes from being not too remarkarble or “unique”).  And her hair is pretty in a contemporary way.  But this is ancient imagery, and she should have long, straight hair if she wants to strike directly to the heart.
  • The very tail end, where she’s singing “come into me”, should show the camera moving through a blue arch.  That would be just right.

The sweetest lines (I put … in place of the lines that are nonessential for the symbolism):

And we’ll never be worlds apart

Baby cause in the dark

that’s when you need me there

You’re part of my entity, here for Infinity
When the war has took it’s part
When the world has dealt it’s cards
If the hand is hard, together …

When the sun shines, we’ll shine together
Told you I’ll be here forever

Now that it’s raining more than ever
Know that we’ll still have each other
You can stand under my umbrella

You can run into my arms
It’s okay don’t be alarmed
Come into me
There’s no distance in between our love
So go on and let the rain pour
I’ll be all you need and more

It’s raining
Ooh baby it’s raining
Baby come into me
Come into me
It’s raining
Oh baby it’s raining

Frothy Bubble Chambers (the Tao of hot)

What do the following three recent phenomena have in common?

All three of them are using old-school thinking to understand hotness.  They all seem to think that the world is one “superclub”, with “hot” being whatever the emcees (a-list) today are playing.

Another camp takes the opposite approach.  It says, “hot is whatever my little subculture finds cool.”  And if Oprah is recommending it on her book list, it must be mass-produced crap spoonfed to the sheeple.

But do we really have to take sides?  Everyone has some creative product that they love simply because everyone else does.  And everyone has creative product that the love because of it’s relevance to a much smaller social circle.  The people who insist on either extreme tend to be minority fringe on either side.

Both sides of the debate will claim that their side captures the lion’s share of audience adulation.  But if you pay attention, you’ll see that (for the vast majority of people), the split is about 50/50.  Look at the songs in rotation on the average person’s ipod.  About half will be “hits”, and half will be songs of much more localized significance to the listener.  Dolphins like to play in their local pod, and they love to party once or twice a year when the pods come together and form a superpod.  People tend to keep one foot in the supercommunity and one foot in their “local” community.

The significance for tech is simple.  For the tastemakers, technology makes it easier for hits to move from the “long tail” to the supercommunity (superpod).  And for artists, technologies makes it easier for local communities (pods) to form around shared interest communities (IOW, you can share mixtapes with people who have similar interests, and you can go beyond your high school walls to find them).

In general terms, I think this split between community and supercommunity (pod/superpod) comes close to being a universal.  The two are very different, yet they depend upon one another for existence.

First, all true hotness originates in a local community.  Hotness within the pod is a very specialized thing.  Within your small, localized community, influence is very fluid, social, and unstructured.  Imagine kids in a high school trading and evaluating mixtapes based on the “objective” criteria that the people in the NYT example above are using.  The idea is ludicrous — it would be like the average extended family using “Roberts Rules of Order” to govern their social interactions.  If we were autistic, this is probably how we would make art, but then we would make art that only autistic people could appreciate.  The way we detect “hot” in our pods is very local, very decentralized, and defies conscious/logical understanding.

As you get to larger and larger group sizes, emotional intuition beomes less useful, and conscious/logical structures take hold.  Somewhere (maybe around 1000-2000 people), you have no choice but to rely on conscious logical processes to introduce tastes that the whole supergroup can share.

Enter the tastemakers.  They know how to bring a hit to the supercommunity.  They provide filtering function, audience, logistics, packaging (in the general sense) and much more.  They don’t often create art/beauty (and when they do, it sucks); but they are experts at what they do.

Now, people like to think that a tastemaker is just a failed artist, or an artist is a resentful wanna-be tastemaker.  But these are two completely different roles; and absolutely interdependent.

The way they (should) work together is simple.  Artists appeal to a local community, and create beauty/value that is appreciated instinctively/emotionally.  At some point, the tastemakers discover/identify the beauty/value and bring it to the supergroup.  This transition point is sometimes called “selling out”, but only by artists who get confused about their function in life.  Before you “sell out”, you need to have a product that people instinctively see as beautiful/valuable.  The people who are trying desperately to “get noticed” by Scoble/Malik/Arrington are often the people who think that you can “sell out first, make beauty/value later.”   They dream of being the next “Twisted Sister”.  And “sell out” implies that it’s all about money.  It’s true that “hits” make a lot of money today.  But I argue that “hits”, or the superpod phenomenon is absolutely essential to human nature; therefore, even if there were no money in tastemaking, we would have tastemakers operating for different motives.  And the “hits” are going to be chosen from the pods anyway (the alternative would be to have Scoble/Malik/Arrington writing software :-)) whether the artist wants to be a star or not — the superpod needs creative product, and if you have creative product that works, you’re going to get taken (and please don’t play the reluctant star; Bob Dylan is boring).

So in summary, I postulate that the skills of tastemaking are very different than the skills of creating stuff that people love. Tastemakers job is to find beautiful work that the whole supercommunity can appreciate, and use it to remind us that we’re all one supercommunity.  And artists job is to create beauty using the only standard that really matters; instinctive relevance to a local social community.  And both sides need to appreciate/support the other.  When tastemakers start thinking that they can create beauty without a pod, or artists start thinking that they can sell beauty directly to superpod, we swim in a superheated sea of excrement.


P.S. I get more traffic to this blog from StumbleUpon than I do from Digg or Google now.  This should be cause for thought to people who think success is about whispering pillowtalk in the tastemaker’s ear.  Such strategies (i.e. secret keyword sauce and SEO) can lead to success, or it can just lead to a lot of backstage promiscuity and a squandered life.


The words “pimp” and “pimping” have become somewhat common, and I often hear people using them incorrectly.  Wikipedia is basically useless on this subject, so I am submitting my authoritative dissertation as a service to the world.

For starters, “pimp” has largely fallen out of use as a term to describe a man who finds clients for a prostitute.  The industry doesn’t operate that way anymore, for a variety of reasons which could be covered in a future dissertation.

Today, a “pimp” is any man who does little work and has multiple women give him money and expensive gifts.  This is accomplished by borrowing money and not paying it back, alternately telling her sweet things and abusing her, getting her involved in questionable investment schemes, getting her to buy expensive gifts, and so on.  One should not consider the woman in this relationship to be a victim; it’s a complex but common codependency pattern which deserves a dissertation of its own.

A “pimp” depends on his ability to impress women (in most cases).  He needs to appear to be physically and financially strong, in order to get women to fight over him.  He most definitely should not have lots of money to spare, otherwise the women would ask for their money back, and he would have a harder time borrowing.  In short, the women need to believe that “this guy would be rich and a great protector, but the system is unfair, so what can you do?”  He needs to look rich, so other women can be jealous when he is out with a particular woman, and so on.

Because of these constraints, and because the type of women attracted to pimps are not necessarily good at knowing what real quality is, the symbols of virility adopted by pimps are usually flashy, tawdry, gaudy and cheap.  In addition, since women of this caliber tend to be influenced mainly by broad sweeping demonstrations and spectacle (as opposed to reason or money), the pimp knows that you can never have too much jewelry, too many bright colors, or too funky a wardrobe.

Therefore, “pimping” is to adorn oneself or one’s posessions with flashy symbols for the purpose of impressing others.  It is most accurate when used to describe enhancements that most normal people would not spend any time or money on, and which are of questionable value outside the context of the pimp’s social circle.


Therefore, a geek could “pimp” his XBox Console or PC with some flashing lights, heavy-duty cooling equipment and so on.  But adding a productivity-enhancement like GTD toolbar for Outlook, is not “pimping”.

Radio Hotness

I’m spending a week in Hot97 home territory, after spending a week in Power106 territory.  I make the comparison a couple of times per year, and still have to say that Hot97 is on top.

For the people obsessed with the “long tail” of music production, and the power of outlets like iTunes to disintermediate the record labels, it’s instructive to see how much influence and control the taste-makers like Funkmaster Flex continue to have.  I don’t have the exact stats, but I blogged here last year my opinion that iTunes Music Store (itms) owes a lot to Funk Flex and Angie Martinez.  A couple of years ago, it was almost impossible to find songs on the current Hot97 playlist on itms — last year it was getting a lot easier, and now we have Hot97 offering the first branded itms.  Hot97 is helping listeners try out and decide what songs they want to to put in their iPod playlists.

This is really smart; if you think about the previous scenario, which was happening hundreds of thousands of times per week:  someone hears something on Angie Martinez’s show, and thinks “I want this on my iPod”.  The listener picks out a few lyrics, and does a Google search to figure out the exact title and artist.  After bouncing around to a few pages, viewing lots of adsense ads and getting assaulted with attempted spyware installs, the listener realizes the music is too fresh — she ends up trawling around some discussion boards (or waiting until the playlist on the Hot97 site is updated).  Once she gets the name of the song, she goes to itms and tries to find the song.  Based on various permutations of name, she may or may not get lucky.

And note that the above scenario requires a pretty sophisticated listener.  The *real* “long tail” of this industry is people who txt all day, but would get lost on step 2 of the scenario above.  As long as someone has an iPod, you can assume that they know how to use itms (not exactly a safe assumption, in my experience, but good enough).  So baking Hot97 into itms just lowered the bar enough to sell a LOT more music.  Now just imagine when we make this experience seamless and easy using nothing but your cellphone.

But, wouldn’t it be better if we just autogenerate radio stations, tailored to each individual user, and based on that user’s social network of friends and their interests?  I am sure there is a place for such a system (and we’ve done similar) to drive music sales.  But I think it’s crazy to think that taste-makers like Hot97 will lose their dominant role.  People listen to radio because it’s local; because they can feel like they are part of a community; that there is a soul behind the playlist.  They want to feel like they are participating in events as they unfold; not being force-fed some homogenized, sterilized, and soulless computer-generated playlist.  Genre is the crudest community, and outlets like XM with 1000 channels based on genre are missing the point.

And of course, I think this applies far beyond radio.  The point is, it would be ridiculous for Funk Flex to claim that “I am just manifesting the desires of my audience; my playlist is a fair representation of what the listeners have asked for”.  There is a bit if “wisdom in crowds” thing, but that’s not Flex’s role.  His role is as an emcee, it’s his party and if you want to come along you’re going to have fun.  Good companies realize that it’s as much about being emcee as about reflecting the “invisible hand of the market”.  Steve Jobs gets it; Tim O’Reilly gets it; Scoble’s comments about “story to tell” get it.

What this means is that we either try to become the new taste-maker in whatever market we’re in, or we work closely with the taste-makers.  I think it’s cool that 50 cent is trying to sell branded Apple Computers.  It’s cool that Windows Media partnered with MTV.  It’s cool that Hot97 partners with iTunes.


Friendster. What Went Wrong?

TechCrunch talking about Friendster, asking “what went wrong”? In my opinion, the question should be, “why did anyone expect it to increase in value?”

The story of friendster illustrates several themes about Internet culture that I’ve talked about before:

  • Social Behavior is Fickle – people hang out at a physical place, because it’s the place they expect to find the people they want to hang with. Same with social spaces. And when a particular hangout gets old, that’s all there is to it. You can try your best to make your space “sticky”, to reward loyalty, but the other space is working just as hard to make it easy for people to transfer. If you track hot restaurants or party spots in any city, you already know this. It’s a terrible idea to think that a hot place will always be hot, that it’s hot because of some specific strategy that you can own, or that you can sink even more money into it to make it hotter.
  • People Ignore the Past – Everyone knows about IRC and Usenet. Why on earth did ICQ become big when it did? Do people remember Virtual Worlds, or some of the other 3D environments that were hot at one time? MUDs? People thought blogger was hot, until Xanga came from nowhere, and then Spaces blew past it in a few months. Today it’s all about MySpace and YouTube. But this has been happening for several years. 6 years ago, Geocities was sitting in the top 5. Between then and now, we saw several other “community” sites land in the top of the stats, including some Japanese one I can’t remember. The only thing that’s constant is that these virtual social spaces come, get huge, and go.
  • People Overestimate the Influence of the “Influentials” – Just because Esther Dyson is on the board, does not mean a space will be hot. Just because the space uses all of the latest buzzwords and priest-approved open-source methodologies and licenses, does not mean it will be hot. In fact, the vast bulk of HUGE, INTERESTING activity has caught the experts completely by surprise. Who thought that a bunch of Asian kids in the southwest US could bootstrap a phenomenon and cause Xanga to get big? Who thought MSN Spaces could do better than MSN Communities? The MySpace guys were not involved in any of the “insider” forums, didn’t team up with any rockstar technologists, but they’re at the top of the heap right now. And don’t even start with the thousands of kids practically living in online game spaces, farming for gold and relating to their friends. These virtual social spaces just dwarf anything that Friendster ever hoped to be.

In my opinion, managing a social space is way more about being a club promoter than about being a technologist. And sometimes being a good club promoter is knowing when a club needs to be retired.