Monday, February 14, 2005

50 Books (ha!)

No way in hell, unfortunately, will I read 50 books this year. But I'll do what I can. Inspired by a lively online discussion I eavesdropped on a few weeks ago, I picked up Thomas Frank's The Conquest of Cool: Business Culture, Counterculture, and the Rise of Hip Consumerism.

While I enjoyed the book, the discussion I was party to hinged on the question of "co-optation" of rock music and other cultural product by cynical corporations. And unless I'm missing a point somewhere, I don't think the book actually addresses that question. It looks at things from the point of view of advertisers and marketers, not at all from the view of musicians and artists. And there's never a gotcha moment when, say, a Nike executive, twirling his mustache, hatched his plot to sell sneakers over John Lennon's dead body. Corporations in the 60s weren't being cunning, they were merely being open to possiblities, and stumbled on the realization that hippie and protest culture, as commonly apprehended at least, were quite amenable to selling stuff. The hucksters just set their sales (oops, Freudian slip) for the way the wind was blowing.

There are two main things I took away from the book. One is, as Frank admonishes in an early chapter, that historians ought to pay more attention to business practices and culture. Lefty academics may view business studies as dull and unilluminating--trailing indicators of people's private or political behavior, where the REAL action is. The Conquest of Cool suggests to me that in some ways, marketers understand pop culture better than it understands itself; in any case, Frank mines some terrific material from sources such as old trade journals in advertising, men's apparel, and other industries.

The other is a new way of looking at the cultural flowering of the 1960s. There is a view of American history that maintains that the 50s were the age of contented conformism, and the 60s saw a revolt against cultural norms that was entirely hostile and antithetical to the prevailing consensus. This line of thinking emphasizes the famous Generation Gap as stark and absolute. The truth isn't quite that simple. Many Americans of all ages were grateful for a loosening of cultural straits and responded in practical ways. For instance, appeals to youthfulness and quasi-rebellion were themes that could be employed even in a campaign to sell denture adhesive to gray-hairs. I was very taken by Frank's examination of the advertising business, which showed creative people chafing under the rule-bound scientism that ad agencies enforced in the Gray Flannel Suit period: finding the unique selling proposition and flogging it several times within one ad. So quite a few people in the business world were starving for the cultural earthquake of the 60s, rejoiced at its arrival, and embraced rock music and bell bottoms and recreational drug use with great enthusiasm.

On to Frank's latest effort, What's The Matter with Kansas. (Once again, I get around to a book many months after the cool people have already conquered it.)

Oh, I better take credit for another title that was a pretty easy read but by God was an honest-to-goodness book betwen hard covers: The Punch by John Feinstein. It examines the background and echoes of an incident in pro basketball in 1977, when Kermit Washington punched and severely injured Rudy Tomjanovich during an NBA game. (The punch could be characterized as either an assault or an accident.) I enjoy a well-executed jock bio, and particularly the inevitable career twilight when the athlete transitions from stardom back to "regular life." Feinstein's book is essentially a dual bio of two players, both of whose careers were derailed by the punch incident, both of whom struggled to escape the stigma of the event. I wouldn't say the book transcends sports, but if you like basketball to begin with, I recommend it.

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