In the overlap of the medical / science / technology community they speak of the “singularity” – when exponentially accelerating technological progress will lead to the creation of superintelligence; and that a post-singularity world would be unpredictable to humans due to an inability of human beings to imagine the intentions or capabilities of superintelligent entities. That’s a lot to wrap your head around, but the idea of the singularity, when everything comes together and the world is no longer predictable, has parallels for the marketing industry. I believe a cultural singularity has occurred and that is what is causing the tumult within brands and the agencies they work with. This cultural singularity has taken shape over the last 25 years across all aspects of culture with the result being that, despite an abundance of available information, marketers are finding it more difficult than ever to see cultural shifts before they occur. In fact, this problem is a result of the abundance of information available.
How did this happen? How did it become difficult to see that changing the logo on the orange juice carton was a bad idea? Why did it become so challenging to create a primetime network schedule?
—> The occurrence of a Cultural Singularity – a world of accelerating recombinance that is unpredictable – is the result (primarily) of the confluence of Music, Urban Culture and Technology.
Here’s my rationale for that statement:
Music / Urban Culture / Technology
Television has always been bound by its conventions. The legal drama (from Perry Mason to L.A. Law to Law and Order); The police procedural (from Dragnet to Hill Street Blues to The Wire); The inside joke sitcom (from It’s Garry Shandling’s Show to Seinfeld to 30 Rock); The medical drama (from Emergency to Quincy to ER). Movies are even worse. How afraid of trying something new do you have to be to greenlight the production of a film version of Car 54, Where Are You? Or to make sequels like Weekend at Bernie’s II? The new, the innovative, is not what Hollywood is about.
Popular music, more so than other forms of entertainment, provides the clearest picture of the issues we’re dealing with. For 30+ years (mid-50s to early-90s) it was pretty easy (certainly from an historical perspective) to see what was going on. A very crude and simplified analysis might look like this: The rock & roll of Chuck Berry and Elvis was an answer to Sinatra and Perry Como. When that led to the bombast of Led Zeppelin and Queen the reply was the stripped down, amateurish sound of Punk Rock. The pendulum then swung to the high production values of disco and R&B. When the British New Wave crested, American Hair Metal entered the scene. As production values again soared in the form of manufactured boy bands like New Kids on the Block, grunge was the natural response. The raw sound of Seattle was then supplanted by a more electronic-based sound that emerged, along with the Internet.
Now things get complicated. (And yes, I realize I haven’t touched on hip hop / rap, more on that in a moment). By the mid-90s it became harder to see the major swings. Alternative distribution channels – from the Internet to underground mix tapes – gave every sound a platform. It became easier for a wider variety of sounds to heard – even as radio stations were becoming more narrow in their playlists thanks to deregulation and the Clear Channel near monopoly of Top 40 stations across the country. But by the mid-90s, the digital movement, led by artists like The Avalanches and Beck, mixed genres in ways and to levels that had rarely been seen before.
Yes, it’s popular music that over the last 25+ years has defined the shifts in language, fashion and popular entertainment in America. And no popular music has had more of an impact, directly and indirectly, than hip hop / rap. Dive a little deeper and we can identify a small period in time where it all kicked off.
—> Music, urban culture and technology collided in the 90s to create a paradigm shift in the way pop culture was created and consumed.
If the Cultural Singularity could be identified with a relatively narrow point in time it would be 1986. Yes, hip hop existed, and was attaining broader acceptance, but 1986 was the breakthrough. It was the Project Genesis moment. What happened that year? DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince release the single, “Girls Ain’t Nothin But Trouble.” This ‘clean rap’ hit launches the career of Will Smith who over the next two plus decades would go on to become one of the biggest movie stars in Hollywood. Run-D.M.C. release the cross-over hit “Walk this Way” with Aerosmith, making rap acceptable, and accessible, to white kids everywhere. In the words of Public Enemy, “Run-D.M.C. first said a DJ could be a band”. But wait, there’s more! 1986 also sees the formation of N.W.A., who would go on to fuse rap with American gangster culture and American sports culture. They’re the reason why every NBA game today looks like a tattoo convention. More on the members of N.W.A. and their longterm role in the cultural singularity later.
But perhaps, incredibly, none of these things were the most important developments in hip hop, in 1986! That’s right, the launching of Will Smith’s career, the mainstreaming of rap thanks to Run-D.M.C. and the emergence of Gangsta rap all take a back seat, when discussing the cultural singularity, to another group that emerged that year. In November the Beastie Boys release License to Ill, possibly the most culturally important album of the last 25 years. The Beasties shattered everything we knew about cultural roles. White kids rapping? Raps featuring Black Sabbath samples? Raps featuring lines about Abe Vigoda? The possiblity, in 1986, that that could occur was unthinkable*, and would have been consigned to the dustbin of history except for one thing: They were also really, really good. They took bits of culture so diverse, and mixed them so skillfully that the notion of separate cultural niches was blown up. Now, anything was possible. Not only musically, but from a listener perspective as well. Now anyone could listen to rap, and rappers could rap about, and sample, anything. It’s thanks to the Beastie Boys that songs like Frontier Psychiatrist by the aforementioned The Avalanches could exist. The Beasties pulled everything together and nothing was off limits. Two decades later that degree of diversity of samples has become a staple through artists like Girl Talk and DJ Earworm.
This is a microcosm of why you don’t see those big pop culture shifts anymore. What’s the last truly new pop music genre? Not a sub-sub-genre like Scremo or Post-dubstep or one of the 40+ derived styles of Hip Hop, but an actual new style? Instead we get Lady Gaga, a 21st century Madonna. Even a “truly unique” artist like Janelle Monae creates her sound by artfully mixing the sounds of several styles and artists. But neither of these represent a new “scene” like we saw emerge from places like Austin, Athens or Seattle. Those days are gone. And I’m just using music as the metaphor here, this is true however we want to define culture – fashion, food, sports…
—> Over the course of a few months in 1986, several new voices would emerge from hip hop, the last truly new musical genre, and go on to dominate popular culture for the next 30 years, forever breaking the traditional cultural hegemony of the white male.
Exotic Blitz Schemes
Grant McCracken often refers to brands getting hit on the blind side when they are unable to see a cultural shift coming. This football metaphor refers to the situation where a right-handed quarterback is hit by a defensive player, usually an outside linebacker or defensive end, from his left, or blind side. This is often a particularly devastating play that results in a loss of yardage at best, a fumble or injury to the quarterback at worst. Grant argues that these blind side hits are coming more often and that it’s critical for brands to have ‘better field vision’ to extend the football metaphor.
I’d argue that it’s not just the blind side hits anymore. If it was, you’d just go out and get the best left tackle available to protect the quarterback’s blind side. And companies are doing just that, hiring
really smart people who have a solid grasp of what’s happening. But our cultural universe is even more complex. It’s not just the fearsome outside linebacker we have to worry about. Now culture is throwing exotic blitz schemes at us just like the ones created by the Pittsburgh Steelers brilliant defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau. Let’s use Nike as an example:
Back in the early/mid-80s Nike got blind-sided by Reebok, who saw the aerobics phenomenon coming and rode that wave. Rode it hard. That wave nearly crushed Nike. But that was clearly a blind side hit. Where the heck did aerobics come from (or Reebok for that matter)? But Nike regrouped, and flying the “Just Do It” banner Nike became the brand for serious athletes who wanted the type of equipment and apparel that would make them warriors. Nike absolutely owned that territory. From there they went about protecting their blind sides. They got into soccer, women’s activities, skateboarding, etc. Their ‘pass protection’ was strong, they had kept their running backs in the backfield to pick up the blind side blitz. But what happened? Under Armour didn’t come from the outside, they came right up the middle! They blitzed Nike with a bull rush, smashing through their interior line to claim the very ground that Nike had become synonymous with. In an alternate universe this would be a Nike ad:
Then, Skechers (Skechers!) introduced Shape Ups, a shoe technology. That wasn’t a defensive end blind side hit, that was a strong safety blitz. And here comes Vibram, taking Nike’s old Rift shoe to the next level. That’s a cornerback blitz! Reebok and adidas haven’t been able to sack Nike, but these upstarts, with their exotic blitz schemes, have.
—> It’s these exotic blitz schemes, not just blind side hits, that brands now must deal with every day in the form of the cultural singularity.
Legitimate Career Paths: Anti-Christs and Pornstars
Before radical Islamic terrorists, the greatest threat to American society was… a guy who would go on to present at the 2007 Nickelodeon Kid’s Choice Awards. Yes, the actor Ice Cube was originally in N.W.A. These guys were the scourge of civility, the horsemen of the Apocalypse. Now they sell Dr. Pepper. Or maybe it was Eminem, surely he was going to bring America to its collective knees, or deliver us to Hell in a handbasket. Or something. Now he sells Chryslers and Lipton ice tea. This isn’t about selling out, it’s about the co-opting of the outliers to the mainstream. And yes, to some degree we saw this with Elvis too.
But here’s what we haven’t seen in the past: Paris Hilton, Jenna Jameson, Sasha Grey and Joanna Angel. All, to varying degrees, pornstars. Shunned from civil society, these humiliated women… what? Oh, actually these women have all built massively successful careers off the backs of, well actually off of lying on their backs. This isn’t just the Jenny McCarthy, Playboy playmate turned TV star move either. Yes, Pam Anderson helped pave the way with her (cough) “leaked video” [NSFW] (cough), but these women owned their decisions on another level and rather than being punished or shunned, they turned it into a career. Not a novelty, but a legitimate career. The diversity of their paths, even within the porn world, are astounding: Hilton through a ‘sex tape'; Jameson through hardcore; Grey by using porn as a launch pad to mainstream; and perhaps most interestingly, there is Joanna Angel. By now, just being a traditional porn star is so commonplace that sub-genres have sprouted and Angel leads the Alt Porn movement. Because regular porn wasn’t ‘edgy’ enough, niche styles have emerged. But even that isn’t a cultural outlier anymore. That’s right, sub-genres of porn are now mainstream enough to produce stars like Angel who are featured on CNBC and Spin. Lucy and Ricky had to have separate beds, but Paris Hilton gets her own TV show. How the hell are network programmers supposed to understand what viewers want to see?
But surely weird, deviant sexual kinks are still taboo. There are things you still can’t share, things that aren’t culturally acceptable. For instance, if you were titillated by the sight of fully dressed people soaked in water, well that would be too strange to share, right? Apparently not, as there are more than 4,000 Wetlook videos on YouTube, many with thousands upon thousands of views.
My point here is not that American society has become too permissive, but that when everything is acceptable, it’s very difficult to see where that blind side hit is coming from because there is no blind side anymore.
—> When pornstars and profane rappers are not just accepted but embraced by the mainstream, in fact become the mainstream, brands can no longer identify safe ground to establish their base.
This brings us to the truly bewildering paradox of the cultural singularity. Forty years ago culture streamed through a handful of gatekeepers. If you were on the outside you started a movement or new sound because you were not represented in the mainstream. In fact you weren’t represented anywhere. You were alone, no one “spoke to you,” so you did it on your own. I’m sure it was hard to see punk rock coming at the time, but in retrospect you can see it coming. Pendulum swings from the 70s are pretty easy to recognize now. But then the knowable cultural universe was finite. There were three broadcast networks, maybe five movies you needed to see, two or three magazines and one newspaper and you thought you pretty much had a handle on everything.
This limited cultural worldview would allow you to at least know what you didn’t know (all the kinky, weird or creepy stuff) and you could sleep soundly in the knowledge that that stuff was never going to rear its ugly head in polite company or challenge your brand. It took a long time for things to break through, you had time to see it coming (if you wanted to). An enterprising young man or women could exploit this by finding these new sounds or movements and take a year to cultivate them without fear that someone else would ‘break it’ into the mainstream. Now we have infinite choices and anyone can see every nascent movement at its earliest stages. As a result, you need 360 degree vision, not just the ability to see the blind side. Everything is mashed together. Where will the next rebellion come from? There’s no way of knowing because it’s nearly impossible to rebel against The Man anymore. When you can have your own blog, YouTube channel and Twitter stream, how exactly are you “Fighting the Power”? You have the power. Everyone has the power.
Yes, the Internet has made all this possible, but the Internet is merely a tool. It has given us greater vision, but that vision is far outpaced by the volume of content and speed of change it has brought with it. The ability to track new movements sounds great, until you realize there are thousands of movements out there and you can’t possibly track them all. As brand marketers, it seems the more we know, the less we understand.
How do we combat this paradox? How do engage with all the potentialities and see where the blitz is coming from now? Maybe we need to change the metaphor? Maybe football and “the blind side” made sense in the 20th century but now we need to think about it in a different way. Perhaps World of Warcraft or some other MMORPG is a better way of looking at it. A game where things change all the time, where co-operative play is required and the ability to adapt, change and move quickly is essential.
For more, check out two great books by Grant McCracken: Chief Culture Officer and Flock and Flow, and definitely give a read to Faris Yakob for more on recombinance. Bud Caddell has a great presentation on Complex Systems as well.
*Now think about this post. In 1986 it’s quite unlikely that a single magazine article would have included references to Star Trek, Abe Vigoda, Ice Cube, Sasha Grey, Perry Mason, Dr. Pepper, Fetish Videos, Nike, Car 54 Where Are You?, Tropicana orange juice and FCC deregulation. That’s what happens when you have the Cultural Singularity.