Virtual Music Festivals and the Re-Valuation of Connection in a COVID-19 Live Music Marketplace
Paxton Haven / University of Texas at Austin


Screenshot of the custom in-game structure built for Open Pit's Coalchella 2018.
Custom in-game structure built for Open Pit’s Coalchella 2018 virtual music festival

As music industry revenues radically shift due to COVID-19 related cancellations and the rescheduling of live touring aspects of the business, musicians have taken advantage of this time to test out various co-production techniques, increase their digital fan engagement practices, and host virtual hangouts and dance-parties. The latest of these experiments deals explicitly with this gap in the live music sector of the industry. Dubbed “the age of the virtual music festival” by Dazed’s Dean Mayo Davies, these events are positioned as the new frontier of the concert-going experience as the promise of virtual reality immersion becomes increasingly accessible.[ (( Davies, Dean Mayo. “100 Gecs Are Ready for the Age of the Virtual Music Festival.” Dazed. April 20, 2020. https://www.dazeddigital.com/music/article/48794/1/100-gecs-laura-les-dylan-brady-minecraft-charli-xcx. ))] These virtual music festivals, however, did not begin as a reaction to COVID-19 distancing measures, with some of the earliest examples coming from Berlin underground music collective Boiler Room’s collaboration with Google’s Daydream VR in 2016.[ (( Second Life, an online virtual word, hosted a three-day music festival in collaboration with Intel in 2007. For the purpose of this article, I focus on later experiments in the live music space to be more specific to the structure of feeling that results from large contemporary music festivals. For more information on the early Second Life virtual festivals, check out this short piece in The Guardian from 2007. ))]


This collaboration between underground music collective, Boiler Room, and Google Pixel illustrates early experiments in the intersections of immersive virtual reality and club cultures.

The interactive potential of these virtual events has continued to expand, with festivals hosted within online video games such as Minecraft and Fortnite. Open Pit, a volunteer collective of marketing specialists, graphic designers, coders, and producers, are leaders in this new virtual event planning space. Their first two events were Coalchella in September 2018 and Fire Fest in January 2019. Riffing on the ill-fated ultra-exclusive Fyre Festival as well as Coachella, a decades-old event increasingly becoming an Instagram playground for celebrities, these titles illustrate Open Pit’s cheeky, yet critical, engagement with the inflated contemporary music festival market. Accessibly, inclusivity, creativity, and diversity define the mission statement of Open Pit’s free and open events that, instead of aiming for wide profit-margins, donate any money made from merchandise or VIP passes to various charities. The latest of these virtual festivals, Square Garden and #AETH3R, raised funds for COVID-relief organization Feeding America and the National Bail Fund Network. In a COVID music market where virtual reproductions of connection are the only remaining response to live music experiences, Open Pit shifts the exchange value of this affect to present both a critique of and alternative to the profit-based structures and systems of promotions that were integral to the inflated pre-COVID music festival economy. Open Pit’s events, therefore, operationalize dance music’s histories of co-productions of space and sound to reflect and address contemporary global precarities.


This teaser trailer for Open Pit’s Coalchella 2018 provides a survey of various featured artists as well as illustrates Minecraft’s customizable worlds employed by the collective’s developers.

Using dance music to form participatory structures aimed at strengthening and supporting collective politics is not a new phenomenon, as Open Pit is very much a part of a legacy of DIY innovators who used the affective and communal aspects of dance to create parties with a social and economic consciousness. Tim Lawrence’s Love Saves the Day: A History of American Dance Music, 1970-79 explores the pre-disco downtown party culture of New York City during the early 1970s. Detailing rise and fall cycle of iconic clubs such as the Loft, Sanctuary, Limelight, and Tenth Floor, Lawrence discusses the DIY roots of these early DJ cultures that utilized a “social and egalitarian model of making music in which the DJ played in relation to the crowd, leading and following in roughly equal measure.”[ (( Lawrence, Tim. Love Saves the Day: A History of American Dance Music Culture; 1970-1979. Durham: Duke Univ. Press, 2003, 38. ))] Early innovators including David Mancuso, David Rodriguez, and Steve D’Aquisto understood the role of the DJ was to create a sonic and spatial conversation with the audience, “a synergistic alliance” built through a co-production of mutual and equal ownership of the dancefloor.[ (( ibid, 38. ))] This downtown party network quickly “formed a popular avant-garde that, in contrast to more insular cultural revolutionaries, wanted to spread their radical message rather than bask in their unpopularity.”[ (( ibid, 116. ))] These creative ideologies of organic and equitable co-production very much reflects the “punk-edged Warholian electro-pop” sonic aesthetic of these virtual festival lineups.[ (( Trapunski, Richard. “We Attended 100 Gecs Music Festival in Minecraft. Heres What It Was like.” NOW Magazine. April 28, 2020. https://nowtoronto.com/culture/gaming/minecraft-100-gecs-square-garden/. ))] With headlining acts like the “appreciate-everything-remix-anything” experimental pop duo 100 Gecs for their recent Square Garden festival, Open Pit’s lineups encompasses a new digital avant-garde that through their multi-valent job titles as DJ/artist/producer/promoter/event planner pays homage to the DIY ethos of dance music cultures of yesteryear.[ (( Horn, Leslie. “100 Gecs Explain the Weird World They Built for Their Minecraft Music Fest.” Vice. April 24, 2020. https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/n7ja58/100-gecs-minecraft-music-festival-square-garden-tree-of-clues. ))]


This fan video gives an in-game perspective of virtual festival attendance that features 100 Gecs’s full set from their Square Garden event.

Connection within the context of these virtual music festivals operates as the organic product of the networked collaborations and creative co-productions echoed and enacted by Open Pit’s team. As the histories of early dance music illustrates however, these valuations of connection are also the social result of specific economic and cultural conditions that necessitate these spaces of bodily communion. Similar to how the popularization of discotheques in the mid 1970s were a reaction to “the conversion of industrial-based economies into neo-liberal markets,” the trend of virtual music festivals presents a framework of intersecting profit-based and creative ideologies of popular music industry in a society and economy depleted by a global pandemic.[ (( Lawrence, Tim. Love Saves the Day: A History of American Dance Music Culture; 1970-1979. Durham: Duke Univ. Press, 2003, 183. ))] Just as “work hard play hard” became the mantra of mid-70s consumer capitalism that necessitated the overcrowded dance floor, the self-entrepreneurial spirit of neoliberal flexible labor largely contributes to the participatory structures of the jammed virtual server.[ (( ibid, 183. ))]

Recent political economy approaches to analyzing labor and commodity in the post-CD music industry provide generative frameworks to conceptualize the ideologies of capital implicit within Open Pit’s decidedly anti-capitalistic approach to music festival economies. Jeremy Wade Morris’s Selling Digital Music, Formatting Culture tells a history of technologies that construct the new digital music commodity. Rather than streaming devaluing or dematerializing music or previous business practices, Morris argues that digitization “transformed digital music files into conflicted, networked, information-rich, traceable, and manipulable cybernetic commodities.”[ (( Morris, Jeremy Wade. Selling Digital Music, Formatting Culture. Oakland, CA: Univ. of California Press, 2015, 6. ))] These “micro-materials” define a cultural understanding of these music economies as “free” when in reality, this “vision of computing as an act of personal expression and self-actualization” comes at an exchange of personal data and compliance with corporate surveillance.[ (( ibid, 194. ))] Therefore, as these virtual music festivals are “free” in terms of monetary exchange, the cost of connection comes at a steep price for both the user and the artist-producer.[ (( Tim J. Anderson in his book, Popular Music in a Digital Music Economy: Problems and Practices for an Emerging Service Industry, more favorably describes this exchange as a dialogue between service providers and users, as users are now both producers and consumers of these new digital music commodities. Anderson, however, is keen to point out that digital music economies are now largely based in music-related experiences that places much higher monetary value on artists as brands. ))]

Specifically addressing the precarities of the contemporary artist-producer, Leslie M. Meier’s Popular Music as Promotion: Music and Branding in the Digital Age explores the rise in “artist-brands” to examine the implicit economic logics of “360-degree monetization” of artists through sponsorship, licensing, and endorsement deals.[ (( Meier, Leslie M. Popular Music as Promotion: Music and Branding in the Digital Age. Cambridge: Polity, 2017, 75. ))] Meier argues as neoliberalist policies lead to greater privatization and deregulation, the flexible economies of post-Fordism only provide the record companies with greater mobility and profit, while enforcing precarious working conditions on artists. The promotional industries’ growing dominance over popular music illustrates that post-Fordism economic flexibility has constructed the artist-brand as a fiscal response to the digitization of music distribution under the guise of self-entrepreneurialism and customization, while Fordist industrial logics continue to reinforce rational utility of workers within this system of working artists’ commodification and exploitation.[ (( See: The fourth chapter of Meier’s book, “’Flexible’ Capitalism and Popular Music: Branding Culture, Designing ‘Difference’,” for a generative exploration of various economic ideologies that structure the contemporary music industry. ))]

The exchange value inherent in Open Pit’s organic, creative, and networked affect of connection, therefore, presents a contradictory battleground of meaning, consumption, and industry power. As the market continues to expand for virtual spaces of connection due to COVID-19, it will be interesting to watch as the bulky blocks and faulty servers of Minecraft’s customizable world-creation become increasingly professionalized in both the infrastructural complexity of coding and the promotional strategies like “Travis Scott and Fortnite Present: Astronomical”. Only 24 hours prior to Open Pit’s Square Garden, this official partnership with the Epic Games coincided with the in-game premiere of Scott’s most recent single, “THE SCOTTS,” as well as spawned a Fortnite-inspired line of merchandise, action figures, and Nerf Guns. As Scott’s digital avatar reigns over the sea of users (1:30) with in-game structures that replicates Astroworld’s album cover (0:46), the power of “artist-brand” in the contemporary digital music economy is most literally illustrated.


Full event video for “Travis Scott and Fortnite Present: Astronomical”

As Vice’s Lewis Gordon discusses in his article, “The Best New Music Festival Is in ‘Minecraft,’” Open Pit festivals like Square Garden are also beholden to the platform regulations and user agreements of Minecraft’s owner Microsoft. Gordon aptly points out, “Minecraft—a platform in its own right—enables such events to take place but their existence is contingent on Microsoft’s continuing goodwill and, more importantly, the synchronisation of mutual interests, the benefits of which will always be weighted in favor of the platform provider.”[ (( Gordon, Lewis. “The Best New Music Festival Is in Minecraft.” Vice. January 17, 2019. https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/nexje8/the-best-new-music-festival-is-in-minecraft-fire-festival. ))] While the promotional logics of Scott and Fortnite’s collaboration are much more transparent, this type of industry partnership presents a successful profit-based alternative to Open Pit’s egalitarian and communal festival economies. In the current music marketplace, where record labels and event companies alike are figuring out ways to recuperate massive loses in live music revenue, the feeling of connection in these digital spaces is a commodity quickly rising in stock value.  

The latter-half of Lawrence’s history of early 70s dance
music cultures illustrates that as the industry recognizes the value of
connection within DJ-based co-productions of sound and space, the genre
category of disco enforces commodified logics in production, reproduction, and
circulation of these musical products. In connecting the trajectories of these
early DIY dance music cultures, the creative ideologies of virtual
co-production inherent in Square Garden and other virtual music festivals, and
contemporary political economic approaches to digital music economies, I illustrate
both the political power of DIY dance cultures throughout history while also
presenting a cautionary tale for future industry intervention into this virtual
music festival space.

As virtual music festivals are cost-efficient, immediately
global in reach, and an environmentally friendly alternative, Open Pit’s events
provide an inclusive and class-conscious reaction to the outpricing of fans
while also presenting an ethical response to the large carbon footprint of
these IRL festivals. In a way, this moment of collective understanding exposes
the various inflations of the current music festival marketplace and reorients
conversations around exchange values within the music industry. How talent
buyers, concert promoters, booking agents, and labels choose to react to this
cultural and economic moment of increasing concern for the collective will
forever change the trajectory of the live music sector; a fiscally critical
aspect of the contemporary music industry.



Image Credits:

  1. Custom in-game structure built for Open Pit’s Coalchella 2018 virtual music festival
  2. This collaboration between underground music collective, Boiler Room, and Google Pixel illustrates early experiments in the intersections of immersive virtual reality and club cultures
  3. This teaser trailer for Open Pit’s Coalchella 2018 provides a survey of various featured artists as well as illustrates Minecraft’s customizable worlds employed by the collective’s developers
  4. This fan video gives an in-game perspective of virtual festival attendance that features 100 Gecs’s full set from their Square Garden event
  5. Full event video for “Travis Scott and Fortnite Present: Astronomical”


References:




Ben & Jerry’s, Black Lives Matter, and the Politics of Public Statements
Lily Kunda / University of Texas at Austin


image that says 'WE MUST DISMANTLE WHITE SUPREMACY
Image used by Ben & Jerry’s accompanying their public statement denouncing police brutality

By now we have all been inundated with “Black Lives Matter” statements from every company, institution, and organization that we have ever patronized. Organizations ranging in size from the majors like the NFL and Walmart to smaller ones like local restaurants and elementary schools have made sure to share via social media, business websites, and email their sentiments supporting black lives, denouncing racism, and committing to diversity. This all comes in response to the ongoing protests of the murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and others who have recently lost their lives to police violence. However, in a sea of public statements, Ben & Jerry’s managed to stand out in comparison to other corporations. Their statement directly addressed systemic racism, offered suggestions for national reform, and promoted additional articles from their website for further education on topics related to the Black Lives Matter movement. In the midst of an abundance of public conversation discussing racial reform, I question what role—if any—do corporate public statements play in the fight against white supremacy? Is verbally saying you support black lives enough when capitalism in itself has been so intertwined with the systems that perpetuate racism in the first place?

Ben & Jerry’s statement, titled “Silence Is NOT An Option,” was shared on all their social media platforms on June 2, 2020—one week after protests began in Minneapolis, MO. It states,

“The murder of George Floyd was the result of inhumane police brutality that is perpetuated by a culture of white supremacy. What happened to George Floyd was not the result of a bad apple; it was the predictable consequence of a racist and prejudiced system and culture that has treated Black bodies as the enemy from the beginning. What happened to George Floyd in Minneapolis is the fruit borne of toxic seeds planted on the shores of our country in Jamestown in 1619, when the first enslaved men and women arrived on this continent.”[ (( https://www.benjerry.com/about-us/media-center/dismantle-white-supremacy.
))]

It goes on to call out the racism perpetuated by Donald Trump and urges Congress to pass a bill to study racism in order to assess the appropriate remedies. What makes their statement standout in comparison to other public statements is the fact that they called out police brutality, named the source—white supremacy—and actually suggests actionable items that need to take place to address racial injustice.


Promo video for Ben & Jerry’s Pecan Resist flavor which promotes resistance and supports four non-profit organizations

Ben & Jerry’s perfectly tailored statement is right on brand for the corporation who has maintained a reputation as “progressive” due to their corporate social responsibility efforts dedicated to racial equality, climate change, mass incarceration, and a variety of other social causes. The founders, Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, often participate in protests for the causes they believe in, use the company’s social media presence to draw attention to the causes, and even integrate social justice into their products with fun names like “Pecan Resist,” “Justice ReMix’d,” “EMPOWERmint,” and “Save our Swirled,” with all the different flavors highlighting a specific cause and proceeds going to the cause. In a moment where consumers are looking to see which corporations are for the cause or against it, Ben & Jerry’s is ahead because their social justice efforts have been ongoing as opposed to reactive. Their longstanding commitment to social justice prevents them from appearing to be performative or just jumping on the social justice bandwagon. In his book, Ben & Jerry’s: The Inside Scoop: How Two Real Guys Built a Business with a Social Conscience and a Sense of Humor, Fred Lager states that “the motivation for giving back had always been genuine. At the same time, it was proving to be an effective marketing strategy. There was no doubt that our customers were more inclined to buy our ice cream and support our business because of how we, in turn, supported the community.”[ (( Lager, F. (2011). Ben & Jerry’s: The Inside Scoop: How Two Real Guys Built a Business with a Social Conscience and a Sense of Humor. Crown Business. p. 278. ))]


Founders of Ben & Jerry's Ice Cream on CNN inteview
CNN interview following Ben & Jerry’s arrest at 2016 Building for the Democracy Awakening protest

Corporations using social causes as a branding strategy is not a new phenomenon, but rather a strategy that continually transforms over time. Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) emerged as a tactic in the 1970s as a means for corporations to “align themselves with social causes to bolster their reputations as good citizens.”[ (( Mukherjee, R., & Banet-Weiser, S. (2012). Commodity Activism: Cultural Resistance in Neoliberal Times. NYU Press. p. 11. ))] This has historically been done through donating business proceeds to a particular cause, fair business practices, community engagement, environmental consciousness, sponsored public service announcements, etc. The goal of this ultimately isn’t to be good, but to look good and in turn, earn consumers’ loyalty. However, in the age of online movements like #blacklivesmatter and #metoo, the latest iteration of CSR is corporations “using their platform” to make public statements about causes. This is done through social media posts, email blasts, press conferences, and native advertising. Corporations are using all their available tools to brand themselves as socially conscious and social justice-centered.

What is interesting is that this moment heavily focusing on the murder of George Floyd is starkly different from the last major protests that occurred in August of 2014 in Ferguson, MO that started as a result of the murder of 18-year-old, Mike Brown, when very few corporations released public statements supporting the Black Lives Matter movement. What we are seeing is that corporations now realize that consumers want to buy from organizations that care about social justice and racial equity. According to a 2020 study by the Pew Research Center, 67% of Americans state they support the Black Lives Matter movement[ (( https://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2020/06/12/amid-protests-majorities-across-racial-and-ethnic-groups-express-support-for-the-black-lives-matter-movement/. ))]; that number has grown from 43% in 2016.[ (( https://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2016/06/27/4-achieving-racial-equality/. ))] Moreover, according to a 2018 study by the Shelton Group, 86% of consumers believe companies should take a stand for social issues, and 64% of those consumers are very likely to purchase from a company that makes a pledge.[ (( Brands & Stands: Social Purpose is the New Black. (2018). The Shelton Group. Retrieved June 18, 2020, from https://sheltongrp.com/insights/brands-stands-social-purpose-is-the-new-black. ))] As consumers’ concerns shift, corporations’ CSR efforts shift with them.


Colin Kaepernick with words 'believe in something even if it means sacrificing everything' over his face
Nike’s 2018 Dream Crazy ad

We saw an example of this in 2018 when Nike backed Colin Kaepernick in their “Dream Crazy” ad where they seemingly supported the former quarterback who was allegedly blackballed from the NFL for protesting police brutality by kneeling. By hitching their wagon to Colin Kaepernick, Nike was able to brand themselves as also being against the police brutality he was protesting. While the ad received a ton of initial controversy, ultimately Nike reached the audience they were interested in appealing to—young social justice minded consumers, and sales went up.[ (( https://time.com/5390884/nike-sales-go-up-kaepernick-ad/. ))] In an article on Vox, scholar Sarah Banet-Weiser situates consumer’s desire for socially aware corporations as commodity activism—the practice of merging social and political activism with marketing commodities.[ (( https://www.vox.com/first-person/2018/9/7/17831334/nike-colin-kaepernick-ad. ))] Banet-Weiser states that, “whether challenging police brutality or questioning unattainable beauty norms, branding in our era has extended beyond a business model: It is now both reliant on and reflective of our most basic social and cultural relations…Individual consumers act politically by purchasing particular brands over others in a competitive marketplace, where specific brands are attached to political aims and goals.” By purchasing from social justice oriented organizations, consumers feel as though they are contributing to the greater good through their purchase decisions.

In a moment where cancel culture is prevalent, lack of racial sensitivity is a marketing faux pas (see Starbucks, H&M, or Gucci). By releasing public statements in support of racial equality, organizations attempt to signal to their stakeholders that they are invested in racial reform so consumers will continue to patronize their businesses. For Ben & Jerry’s, this strategy has been effective because consumers see their previous social justice efforts, along with their business practices, in conjunction with the overall ongoing vocalness of the founders. On June 5, 2020, one consumer posted on Facebook, “Today I learned that Ben N Jerry founders were arrested at protests. Not only that, the reason their ice cream is so overpriced is because they hire ex-cons and pay them $16+ which is OVER the minimum wage. LETS BUY THAT OVERPRICED ICE CREAM FROM NOW ON! UPDATE: I forgot to add, the extra money they make each year is DONATED TO HELP OTHERS. THIS A COMPANY.”[ (( https://www.facebook.com/marche.lawton/posts/2687043534732853. ))] This post got 38 thousand likes and 126 thousand shares, which works as great word of mouth marketing for Ben & Jerry’s. Similarly, after their public statement was released, many on Twitter tweeted in support of Ben & Jerry’s and vowed to support their business because they support the Black Live Matter movement. This is how commodity activism works: consumers feel empowered in their business decisions.


tweet supporting Ben & Jerry's
Consumers are purchasing Ben & Jerry’s ice cream because they openly support Black Lives Matter

Not every company has received the same support as Ben & Jerry’s for their public statements, though. Some companies’ statements have been viewed as hollow, performative, or dancing around the real issues. The NFL, for example, has released three public statements denouncing racism since protests began because many feel their words don’t match their actions. Each statement they release stating that they support black lives is met with criticism for the way they allegedly blackballed Kaepernick for protesting the very same police brutality they now claim to be concerned about. Additionally, employers and higher education institutions around the nation are flooded with comments under their “diversity and inclusion” social media posts from people who have suffered racism within these organizations. I believe the disconnect lies in a lack of accountability from corporations on their contributions to existing systemic racism and stating actionable items of how exactly they intend to dismantle it.

Systemic racism is the foundation of America’s capitalistic economic structure. Going back to slavery, black bodies were used as literal capital and the afterlife of slavery is visible in the present day in the way black consumers are disproportionately undervalued, underrepresented, underpaid, culturally appropriated, underfunded, and police violence and mass incarceration fuel prison labor that is used by many major corporations. Corporations must take into account how capitalism has quite literally oppressed black people in America to boost their bottom lines. Corporations must be accountable for the ways in which white supremacy is the foundation of American commerce beyond just acknowledging that systemic racism exists and stating that they have always been “committed” to equality.


tweet that reads 'abolish the public statement industrial complex'
Discourse has erupted online regarding the myriad of public statements released in the wake of George Floyd

A statement by American Studies Association President, Scott Kurashige, asserts that, “Every institutional statement rightly expressing remorse or outrage at the death of George Floyd and other victims of racist violence must include substantive steps that institutions will take to confront antiblackness and white supremacy in admissions, hiring, retention, research, curriculum, fundraising, alumni and community relations, and athletics.”[ (( https://www.theasa.net/about/news-events/announcements/asa-presidents-statement-black-lives-matter-rebellion-2020?fbclid=IwAR2NKacU0PBtD5YTr2raV8ocmYfFZWdEgq3sGsEAM-4xzv5_tnk-ntubQ44. ))] Though this statement is primarily directed at institutions of higher education, the takeaway message rings true for corporations too: public statements must go beyond lip-service but address systemic racism at every level of their organization. Moreover, instead of simply denouncing racism as “bad”, they must list clear, measurable steps to eradicate it both within their organizations and within the communities they serve. This needs to be an ongoing process and not just a reaction AFTER situations of extreme racism, like police brutality, occur. This does the work towards dismantling white supremacy in addition to functioning as positive branding for organizations wanting to keep up with consumer’s desire for social awareness.

The public statements by Ben & Jerry’s and others reflect the ways politics and social justice are integrating with public image in the digital age. Ben & Jerry’s epitomizes Banet-Weiser’s concept of commodity activism. Their use of “social good” as a marketing technique is just that, a technique to make them more money. They have mastered this technique as their brand image and it is bringing them in hundreds of millions of dollars annually, making them one of the top-earning ice cream brands. However, while capitalism goes hand in hand with racism, through our purchase decisions we as consumers have the power to push corporations to at least make efforts towards racial equity via their business practices. It appears that Ben & Jerry’s is attempting to do the work by using fair trade ingredients, donating to several causes, partaking in civic engagement, responsibly using their platform to draw attention to issues, utilizing fair employment and hiring practices—their recent public statement is just the cherry on top of the sundae. Black Lives Matter is more than just a public statement, but a call to action.



Image Credits:

  1. Image used by Ben & Jerry’s accompanying their public statement denouncing police brutality
  2. Promo video for Ben & Jerry’s Pecan Resist flavor which promotes resistance and supports four non-profit organizations.
  3. CNN interview following Ben & Jerry’s arrest at 2016 Building for the Democracy Awakening protest
  4. Nike’s 2018 Dream Crazy ad
  5. Consumers are purchasing Ben & Jerry’s ice cream because they openly support Black Lives Matter (author’s screen grab)
  6. Discourse has erupted online regarding the myriad of public statements released in the wake of George Floyd (author’s screen grab)


References:




“It Could Be About Anything”: Middleditch & Schwartz and the Viability of Televised Improv Comedy
Alex Brannan / University of Texas at Austin


Comedians Thomas Middleditch and Ben Schwartz perform improv comedy in their Netflix special
Netflix’s Middleditch & Schwartz marks one of the few times that long-form improv comedy has been filmed for television.

On April 21, 2020, a series of three comedy specials under the name Middleditch & Schwartz was released on Netflix. The comedy show, created and performed by the eponymous comedy pairing of Thomas Middleditch and Ben Schwartz, consists of tapings of theatrically performed long-form improv comedy. This is to say, Middleditch and Schwartz, following a brief discussion with an audience member as a starting point, completely make up an hour-long comedic narrative on the spot. While this may sound unlike any televised comedy special you have ever heard of, improv has enjoyed a lengthy history on- and off-screen. The form stretches back to the 1930s with the acting teaching of Viola Spolin at the Hull House in Chicago (where improv was not necessarily a comedy form, but an exercise in extemporaneous expression for the sake of less inhibited acting).[ (( Wasson, Sam. Improv Nation: How We Made a Great American Art. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017, 3-8. ))] Improv would go on to serve as the backbone for multiple comedy institutions—The Second City, the ImprovOlympic (iO), and the Upright Citizens Brigade (UCB), among others. And while various members of these comedy communities have achieved successful careers in the entertainment business, rarely has long-form improv comedy been translated to film and television.

A show like Whose Line is it Anyway? (Channel 4, 1988-99; ABC, 1998-2004; ABC Family, 2005-07; The CW, 2013-present) televised improv for a mainstream audience, and a few other shows followed suit, albeit often to less success. However, these shows use short-form improv—games with distinct rulesets that exist independent from one another and do not manifest into full narrative scenes. True long-form improv comedy has almost never been televised, the most notable exceptions being two television specials from the UCB, based on one of their most popular live shows, A.S.S.S.S.C.A.T.: Improv (Bravo, 2005) and Upright Citizens Brigade: ASSSSCAT (Comedy Central, 2008), and a comedy special made in conjunction with Showtime’s House of Lies (2012-16) called House of Lies Live (Showtime, 2013), which featured Schwartz and was loosely based on his live show Snowpants.

Seemingly, then, Middleditch & Schwartz marks a step forward in the mainstreaming of long-form improv. But how effective is the show, and its distributor Netflix, at reaching and cultivating a wide audience? Furthermore, what does the show say about the viability and replicability of long-form improv as a television format? I argue that, for as much as the show is effective in its comedy and presented in a cinematic manner, Middleditch & Schwartz is demonstrative of the hurdles that prevent long-form improv from expanding from the live stage to the home. Specifically, the spontaneity of the form itself and the corporate goals of Netflix present potential barriers to entry for long-form improv comedy.


Comedians perform short-form improv on the popular program Whose Line is it Anyway?
Whose Line is it Anyway?, arguably the most popular improv comedy program, differs from Middleditch & Schwartz in that it employs short-form games rather than full narrative scenes.

The most obvious defining element of improv is spontaneity. Improv scenes are constructed based on the fundamental principle of thinking on the fly. This is not to say that improv lacks structure—that is far from the truth. Long-form improv, according to the Upright Citizens Brigade Comedy Improvisation Manual, necessitates that performers find “the game” of a scene, which involves searching for an unusual aspect early on in a scene and then heightening by posing the question, “if this unusual thing is true, what is else true?”[ (( Allen, Emma. “How the Upright Citizens Brigade Improvised a Comedy Empire.” The New Yorker, 29 August 2016, https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2016/09/05/upright-citizens-brigades-comedy-empire. ))] Students at the UCB learn a variety of different structural formats for long-form improv, such as “The Harold,” in which improvisers construct three seemingly disparate narratives that coalesce at the end of the show.[ (( Besser, Matt, et al. The UCB Comedy Improvisation Manual. Comedy Council of Nicea LLC, 2013, 275-317. ))] Different improv theaters have their own philosophies on the construction of long-form improv. Nevertheless, all improvisers are taught how to structure scenes logically as they are making them up on the spot. Spontaneity is not attained at the expense of narrative structure.

In this light, it seems feasible to translate long-form improv into an episodic format. However, the act of getting a program like that green-lighted and financed has proven to be a difficult process. Schwartz, describing the pitching process for Middleditch & Schwartz, saw push-back when his answer to what the show would be about was, “We have no idea. It could be about anything.”[ (( Fox, Jesse David. “What if Improv Were Good?” Vulture, 24 April 2020, https://www.vulture.com/2020/04/middleditch-schwartz-netflix-comedy-specials.html. ))] There is an understandable reticence to financing a show with no script and apparently no guarantee of structural integrity. This could explain why even shows created by institutions known for improv comedy, like SCTV (Global, 1967-79; CBC, 1980-83; Superchannel/Cinemax, 1983-84) and The Upright Citizens Brigade (Comedy Central, 1998-2000), opted for a sketch comedy format. Even The UCB Show (Seeso, 2015-17), which initially ran on an OTT network branded on its appeal to the “comedy nerd” crowd and, thus, would appear as the most conducive arena to market test an episodic long-form improv format, instead structured episodes with a mix of sketch, character-based, and stand-up comedy.


Mary Holland, Jessica McKenna, and Nicole Byer performing a sketch on The UCB Show
The UCB Show, which originally aired on Seeso, showcases sketches, character-based comedy, and stand-up comedy from the theater’s top talent.

Middleditch & Schwartz has, apparently, broken through that barrier of reticence with the help of Netflix, but the replicability of the show’s format remains up for debate. It is a piece of content that seems to work perfectly within Netflix’s infrastructure. One of Netflix’s primary focuses is engagement—the company highlights the metric of “hours per subscriber per month” as a strong indicator of subscriber retention.[ (( Ball, Matthew. “Netflix is a Product & Technology Company (Netflix Misunderstandings, Pt. 2).” Redef, 12 May 2018, https://redef.com/original/netflix-misunderstandings-pt-2-netflix-is-a-product-technology-company. ))] Their success, then, is dependent on having a large, diverse library of content, but this library must not necessarily consist of entirely “high quality” content. As Matthew Ball suggests, “Netflix’s scale and technology enables it to launch a mediocre show to a larger audience than most of its competitors can when they produce an outstanding one. That doesn’t mean the company doesn’t want great shows, but it does mean that the risk of producing a disappointing one is much lower.”[ (( Ibid. ))] This is not to speak to the quality of Middleditch & Schwartz, but Ball’s point speaks to the freedom over qualitative risk that Netflix has over its competitors, meaning that Netflix can take a risk on a form largely untested in the visual media marketplace where other companies cannot.

Historically, the mainstream understanding of improv comedy was that it resembled Whose Line is it Anyway?. Co-founder of the UCB, Matt Besser, speaking in 2013, lamented that Whose Line is it Anyway? cemented for a mainstream audience a perception of improv that neglects long-form. “I wish that A.S.S.S.S.C.A.T. or Improv4Humans [Besser’s long-form improv podcast] was on television the way Whose Line is on television,” Besser says. “The truth is that television [executives have] determined that long-form is too slow … it’s not in bite-sized pieces that you can put on television.”[ (( “Bonus Episode: Ask the UCB 3.” Improv4Humans from Earwolf, 24 September 2013, https://www.earwolf.com/episode/bonus-ask-the-ucb-3/. ))]


Matt Besser’s Improv4Humans, a podcast on the Earwolf network, has produced a small number of video episodes. Besser has spoken out in the past about the desire to see long-form improv on television.

While Middleditch & Schwartz has proven critically successful, Netflix is likely not the venue that is going to prove or enhance the mainstream viability of long-form improv. In an interview with Forbes, Middleditch and Schwartz admit to the increasing visibility yet still niche status of long-form improv. “Improv is a little bit more out there now,” Schwartz says. “The fact that we’re on TV makes it easier [to find an audience] … [b]ut at the beginning of every single show, we explain what [long-form] improv is because we assume the entire audience has not seen it.” To which Middleditch adds, “Only the ‘Yes and…’ nerds.”[ (( Ross, Danny. “The ‘Meteoric Rise’ of Middleditch and Schwartz.” Forbes, 26 February 2019, https://www.forbes.com/sites/dannyross1/2019/02/26/the-meteoric-rise-of-middleditch-schwartz/#3b7557e788c1. ))] This acknowledgment of the niche fanbase for long-form improv factors into Netflix’s algorithmic handling of its content. At the special’s launch, Middleditch & Schwartz may have received marquee status on Netflix’s user interface—at the very least, it is sure to have received high visibility on the user interface of users who, according to Netflix’s algorithms, enjoy this brand of irreverent comedy. Since then, as with all Netflix content, the show has disappeared under the weight of the revolving door that is new Netflix releases. Now, the show’s viewership is going to come predominantly from those users who seek it out (i.e. the “yes and… nerd” niche). This is to say that, while Netflix may be the company who took the big swing of financing long-form improv comedy on a large scale, it may also be the exact wrong location for such a project if that project’s goal is to broaden the viewership of improv comedy.

On the flip side, Netflix’s ability to finance Middleditch & Schwartz at high production values and their desire to invest in niche content speaks to the potential for improv as a televised format. Although, the production value poses its own concerns. Middleditch & Schwartz presents long-form improv in a unique way that alters the viewing experience. For one, the ethos of the comedy duo’s show is to bring a form of comedy that is generally only seen in intimate comedy theaters to larger venues. Their touring show has played venues as large as Carnegie Hall, and the Netflix specials were filmed at NYU’s 800-seat Skirball Center for the Performing Arts. As such, Middleditch & Schwartz is not necessarily reflective of the traditional experience of spectating improv. Add to this the cinematic apparatus, and the improv starts to look much different than it has traditionally. Filmed improv brings with it the complication of needing to make creative decisions in post-production (e.g. edits that truncate or remove scenes) which alter and disrupt the spontaneity of the comedy. Conversely, something that is less cinematic, such as a single-camera format filmed from an audience perspective without any edits, may preserve the integrity of the comedic event, but it would likely not be as marketable as something like Middleditch & Schwartz, which comes off visually similar to a well-produced stand-up special.

Middleditch & Schwartz is, in my opinion, a well-made and effectively humorous series of specials, and the two comedians are re-imagining the possibilities for long-form improv comedy in intriguing ways. It is Netflix’s platform, which exploits the niche appeal in content like Middleditch & Schwartz, which allows for this experimentation to exist where it could not before. That said, the replicability of Middleditch and Schwartz’s format is up for debate, and Netflix’s infrastructure does not seem conducive to increasing mainstream visibility for long-form improv. This is the sort of double-edged sword that helps define the current media landscape: When everything under the sun is made available to the consumer, how can anything truly become popular?



Image Credits:

  1. Netflix’s Middleditch & Schwartz marks one of the few times that long-form improv comedy has been filmed for television. (author’s screen grab)
  2. Whose Line is it Anyway?, arguably the most popular improv comedy program, differs from Middleditch & Schwartz in that it employs short-form games rather than full narrative scenes.
  3. The UCB Show, which originally aired on Seeso, showcases sketches, character-based comedy, and stand-up comedy from the theater’s top talent.
  4. Matt Besser’s Improv4Humans, a podcast on the Earwolf network, has produced a small number of video episodes. Besser has spoken out in the past about the desire to see long-form improv on television.


References:




NFL 2020: Football in the Time of Trump, COVID-19, and Mass Protests
Brett Siegel / University of Texas at Austin


Kaepernick sign
A protestor marches with a Colin Kaepernick sign

While the NFL continues to occupy a dominant role in American popular culture, the contested social and political climate of the Trump era has threatened to destabilize a seemingly impervious brand. The league’s attempts to contain the fallout from player protests in particular provide a crucial space to examine the ideologies of White supremacy that undergird the Trump presidency and the MAGA movement more broadly. For a sport run by an overwhelming majority of White executives, owners, and coaches but played by 70% Black athletes, the NFL’s performative forays into social justice have thus far rung false, eliding the league’s crackdown on player activism and blackballing of Colin Kaepernick, who famously took a knee during the National Anthem to protest police brutality and unpunished murders of Black people.[ (( Adam Rugg, “Incorporating the Protests: The NFL, Social Justice, and the Constrained Activism of the ‘Inspire Change’ Campaign,” Communication & Sport (2019), https://doi.org/10.1177/2167479519896325. ))]

If the early years of the NFL/Trump relationship are best represented by the president’s outrage over the Take a Knee protests, then the latter years demand a discussion of COVID-19 and the widespread protests that followed the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery. While these events are still unfolding, it is worthwhile to pause and analyze this moment as an extension, and in many ways a culmination, of the past four years. As many have pointed out, we are grappling with two pandemics that disproportionately affect Black individuals and communities: the novel Coronavirus and the ongoing effects of systemic, institutionalized racism. Both are global in scope, yet the Trump administration’s response to each has created unique dangers and conditions for public outrage and uprising. Because the portrayal of the NFL as an exemplar of nationalism has been so profoundly challenged and complicated by Trump era politics, its response to this historical moment must be unpacked.[ (( Thomas P. Oates, Football and Manliness: An Unauthorized Feminist Account of the NFL (University of Illinois Press, 2017). ))]


Trump speech
Trump has encouraged NFL owners to fire players who kneel during the National Anthem

A symbolic arena that is constructed and imagined as a testament
to American ideals and values, the NFL is often celebrated as proof of a
post-racial meritocracy. Of course, these myths have been ruptured before, but
the dissonance between what the NFL says it stands for and what it actually
represents has rarely been so stark and significant. The strategies by which
America’s most powerful sports league contains resistance and neutralizes dissent
are so woven into the fabric of everyday life that 2020’s unprecedented
disruption of routine poses a threat and an opportunity.

With the arrival of the Coronavirus and shelter-in-place orders that kept much of the country confined to their homes, the 2020 NFL Draft offered an especially valuable chance to reach a rare and elusive mass audience. With the cancellation of seasons currently underway, media outlets no longer had a reliable stream of topical sports content, and despite the airing of the WNBA Draft only days earlier, the NFL Draft was presented and discussed as the first and only live sporting event worth mentioning since the virus took hold. Airing on ABC, ESPN, and the NFL Network, the Draft broke records for ratings and advertising costs and allowed the NFL to capitalize on the sudden dearth of sports programming. Signifying the importance of this particular draft, the event began with a montage designed to speak to the historical moment and frame football’s central place within it.




The opening to the 2020 NFL Draft

Narrated by Peyton Manning, the intro transitions from black-and-white images of empty city streets and formerly bustling establishments to assorted clips of health care workers and patients bravely responding to the threat of the virus with courage and compassion. The NFL’s tribute to “Hope” positions sports, and especially football, as the ultimate goal, the light at the end of the tunnel, the reward for our “solidarity… sacrifice, and service to the greater good.” If the NFL Draft typically carries the hope of improved teams and future success, this NFL Draft offered hope that we could soon restore some semblance of normalcy to our interrupted lives. Enduring the virus as “one football family” thus conflates the containment of a public health crisis with the triumphant return of sports. Reclaiming the comfort and pleasures of our daily lives, as signified by the NFL season starting on time, is thus imagined as a victory for the American people. Indeed, Manning invokes a “future of full arenas, full voices, free reign to gather, to feel the power of football together, because that will mean life is back to normal for us all.”

Leading the charge in getting “back to normal,” Trump has been banking on the appearance of conquering the virus and saving the economy, however fallacious, as part of his reelection bid. The disconnect between the fear of a raging pandemic and the impulse to reopen America and “liberate” its citizens from the supposed tyranny of the quarantine is an underlying tension that national media events like the NFL Draft have sought to gloss over and resolve. Depending on the audience, the promise of football may serve as a justification for responsibly staying home and stopping the spread, or for resuming life as normal and accepting that many will die. In the weeks following the Draft, the discourse coming from many conservative commentators shifted firmly to the latter position, arguing that everyday dangers like the common flu never kept us locked up inside before, and insisting that the inevitable consequences of re-opening are worth the risk to exercise our rights as Americans. Because the economy—whether that translates to getting football back or even just getting a haircut—has been deemed more important than protecting human life, it is no wonder that Trump’s committee on re-opening the economy includes NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and owners Robert Kraft and Jerry Jones. Pretending the virus is in the past and football is the future can be viewed as the latest strategy in making America “great again.”[ (( David J. Leonard, Playing While White: Privilege and Power On and Off the Field, (University of Washington Press, 2017). ))]

If the NFL Draft offered an opportunity for the league to maintain the status quo and consolidate its unifying role in American popular culture, the eruption of nationwide protests in May and June illuminated once again the fragility of this project. In its first public statement, the league that made a concerted effort to steer its labor force “past kneeling” and resume business as usual predictably failed to grapple with its own complicity in perpetuating the injustices protestors have organized to expose and demolish. Apparently fearing the wrath of Trump-supporting owners and fans, the NFL’s initial response not only omitted any reference to race, racism, or police brutality (much less the murder of Black people by police); it also scrapped the phrase “Black Lives Matter” altogether. Vague calls to action evaded any specific language that could be mistaken for actually taking a stand, and perhaps the most glaring takeaway was the NFL’s unwillingness to engage with its own recent history of stifling peaceful protests against these very issues, along with its silencing—and in Kaepernick’s case, ousting—of the players involved.


NFL statement
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell’s statement drew significant criticism

The NFL was not alone in releasing a non-committal, tepid, and tone-deaf statement about the protests and the horrific murders that ignited them. However, because the league represents one of the most visible examples of stratified Black labor and White management in the United States, its decision to elide any acknowledgment of, or relationship to, systemic violence against Black people stands out. A handful of Black NFL players released a video in response to the league’s non-statement, proclaiming that any one of them could be the next George Floyd and imploring the NFL to “condemn racism and the systematic oppression of Black people.” Only after some of the league’s most popular players effectively forced the commissioner’s hand did Roger Goodell declare that “Black Lives Matter” and admit wrong in preventing players from peacefully protesting. While it is tempting to applaud Goodell and fellow “respect the flag” enthusiast Drew Brees for their changes of heart, it is also fair to deem such performances of solidarity-in-hindsight “too little too late,” especially when Colin Kaepernick’s name remains conspicuously absent from these public epiphanies.

We should be critical of the timing and motives of self-proclaimed allies coming out of the woodwork after quietly reaping the benefits of White supremacy for so long. However, the fact that NFL controversies have been deployed as political talking points for the duration of Trump’s presidency makes the recent rhetorical shift, however superficial and disingenuous it may seem, a significant moment. After Trump tweeted about Goodell’s video and Brees’ apology, Brees addressed the president in an Instagram post, stating: “We must stop talking about the flag and shift our attention to the real issues of systemic racial injustice, economic oppression, police brutality, and judicial & prison reform.” That two of the more prominent supporters of Trump’s anti-kneeling agenda have appeared to jump ship indicates that the optics of not acknowledging White supremacy, anti-Black racism, and state-sanctioned police violence are starting to look riskier than engaging with these issues outright. The NFL has proven time and again that it would be more comfortable moving past kneeling, protesting, quarantining, or anything else that might put people over profits, and only time will tell if its actions will change alongside its words.



Image Credits:

  1. A protestor marches with a Colin Kaepernick sign
  2. Trump has encouraged NFL owners to fire players who kneel during the National Anthem
  3. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell’s statement drew significant criticism


References:




Locating the Local in Late Night Television
Eric Forthun / University of Texas at Austin


Colbert hosting from home.
Stephen Colbert’s re-named A Late Show, filmed from the comfort of his home.

Most of our television series either look different or have disappeared off the air altogether in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic across the world. Late night television is no exception, with programs no longer recording in front of audiences or filmed on location with large crews. Now, hosts perform monologues in bedrooms or in front of white curtains to an audience of maybe one, resembling a YouTube vlog more so than a television production. The silence from an absent studio audience is both surreal but also essential, speaking to the unprecedented nature of this pandemic.

Late night hosts such as Stephen Colbert, Seth Meyers, and Trevor Noah have shifted the tenor and scope of their programs almost entirely toward President Trump’s criminally negligent response to COVID-19, his militaristic targeting of peaceful protests outside of the White House, and his cruel and racist dismissal of the murders of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and hundreds of other black Americans at the hands of police officers. On June 18th, even Jimmy Fallon popped into a Juneteenth BBQ hosted by the sketch comedy group Astronomy Club, where the group explained historical acts of racist violence as Fallon asked what he can do to help. The personal has always been political, but late night is now, more than ever, emphasizing that political action rather than humor is needed to address these issues.

Late night has often been understood as a broadly appealing genre that “reinforced the notion that political participation is pointless, parties and candidates are interchangeable, and democracy is futile.”[ (( Russell Peterson, Strange Bedfellows: How Late-Night Comedy Turns Democracy into a Joke (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2008): 18. ))] Now, however, late night appears to be tapping into a cultural zeitgeist that directly asks for social and cultural change, even if it primarily comes from white male voices at the helms of these shows. Late night programming no longer acts as the escape from reality that Johnny Carson once made it out to be, who once remarked with Barbara Walters that comedians can’t take themselves too seriously because The Tonight Show is made to “amuse people, to make them laugh.”

Maybe we need to re-imagine what late night’s cultural function is. The genre has effectively been siloed in only two locations—Los Angeles and New York City—since Tonight’s launch on New York affiliate WNBT in 1954. After Tonight’s move to NBC’s network feed, almost every major late night show has recorded in LA and NYC, with The Tonight Show famously moving between the two after Johnny Carson moved the series to LA in 1972 (because he preferred to be closer to movie stars) and Jimmy Fallon moved it back to NYC in 2014. One of the largest absences in how we understand late night is how local and regional late night production can tell us more about the late night talk show’s cultural and industrial significance, particularly as a means of de-centering the whiteness and maleness so thoroughly embedded in the genre. Access remains the foundational issue as late night’s devaluation over the years resulted in few available recordings of pre-Carson programming.


Lilly Singh's late night show.
Lilly Singh, the first bisexual and first woman of color to host a broadcast late night series, on NBC at 1:35am.

Late night has so thoroughly been a misogynistic space, one where whiteness, hegemonic masculinity, and heterosexuality arguably act as the genre’s defining characteristics since Steve Allen launched the Tonight show. There have been notable recent exceptions, such as Trevor Noah and most recently Lilly Singh, but there were lackluster attempts in the wake of David Letterman and Jon Stewart’s retirements to reform late night’s representational politics with little systemic change (a topic I covered in a 2018 Flow piece). W. Kamau Bell noted in a 2014 TV Guide interview that, across traditional television platforms, when a host “isn’t great right away—and this is what usually separates white guys from the rest of us—he’ll get a chance to work out the kinks and get it right.”

When we turn to local programming, we can critically assess the intermingling of identity and industry, particularly with local affiliates and their consistent influence on national media production. One of the first instances was in 1991, when The Tonight Show moved back from 11:30pm to 11:35pm to appease NBC affiliates across the country, as there were threats from 20 to 30 affiliates to drop coverage since they wanted to air syndicated re-runs of popular programs like Cheers because the affiliates made full advertising revenue from those (unlike Carson’s show). Most famously, affiliates in early 2010 pressured NBC to move Jay Leno back to the 11:35pm slot after The Jay Leno Show began to flounder in ratings at 10pm and continuously hurt local affiliates’ news ratings—the biggest source of revenue for most local affiliates.

Just recently, local NBC affiliates expressed concern over late night staples such as The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon and Late Night with Seth Meyers premiering early on NBCUniversal’s upcoming streaming service Peacock, as ratings will likely decline along with subsequent advertising revenue. A deal beneficial for both parties is needed, as Variety notes, since the network-affiliate relationship is so important that “Meyers in every broadcast features a coffee cup on his desk that nods to a specific NBC station.”

Understanding affiliates will prove helpful in re-situating late night’s industrial significance, but locating the late night talk show hosts outside of traditional media production will also enable us to re-evaluate the genre’s cultural meaning. Since much of late night television has focused on the individual agency of hosts, these histories have overwhelmingly perpetuated mythic “great white male” narratives that devalue and erase the contributions of marginalized groups. These histories have also valued national appeal and broadness as essential for success on late night programming, but there have been success stories elsewhere on local and regional late night productions.


Robin Byrd Show.
A grainy still from The Robin Byrd Show, one of the longest running late night series in U.S. history.

The most significant success story was former pornographic actress Robin Byrd’s eponymous show in New York. Through a leased access deal with Manhattan Cable Television, The Robin Byrd Show ran for over thirty years while looking and sounding completely different from The Tonight Show and other late night attempts by broadcast networks. The show often featured other adult film entertainers, nudity, and discussions of taboo topics such as sex toys and dental dams, all in front of either a red backdrop or in more intimate settings like a bedroom. Byrd starts off each show by asking the audience to “lie back,” “get comfortable,” and “snuggle up next to your loved ones. And if you don’t have a loved one, you always have me.” In an appearance on Joan Rivers’ daytime talk show in 1989 (just two years after Rivers’ own late night show was cancelled by Fox), Byrd remarked that her late night show was “adult entertainment” about “turning you on and tucking you in,” dramatically different words than Carson’s insistence for his show’s tameness because people fall asleep to his (oft-objectifying and insensitive) comedic bits on The Tonight Show. As a feminist, Byrd understood the political power of her platform and how it allowed her to speak to issues of deep concern for the sex workers and queer figures that frequently appeared on her show. Her identity and industrial positioning on a public access channel remain unique and worthy of deeper study.

Localizing late night also allows us to explore series such as The Mystery Hour, hosted by Jeff Houghton, to better understand regional specificity and the resilience of late night’s historical hegemony. The show is carried in seventeen different markets across the Midwest and South, including Arkansas, Mississippi, Kentucky, and even Oregon. Filmed in Springfield, Missouri in front of five hundred people, its Midwestern sensibility is undoubtedly influenced by Carson’s similar self-presentation, as that folksiness has long been considered quintessentially American for white Americans. The show, unsurprisingly, is overwhelmingly white and includes field segments at Ozark Technical Community College and jokes about Silver Dollar City, a local amusement park. This regional specificity alludes to how late night could be interrogated with more attention to local and regional production, even as the show’s nichification of whiteness and perpetuation of Midwestern (read: white) sensibilities as innately tied to late night programming only reinforce the systemic exclusion of marginalized individuals at every level of late night’s production.

Ultimately, the hope is that further research on local and regional late night production will discover and amplify those voices who have intentionally been dismissed or ignored throughout late night’s history (or perhaps, allow us to directly address the historical links between whiteness and de-politicizing late night’s material) . If systemic changes continue to slowly but gradually occur, like in the instance of Jimmy Kimmel’s leave of absence potentially allowing for black women and other women of color to have opportunities guest hosting, then we might slowly be able to push back on late night’s hegemony in order to re-calibrate how we interpret and address late night’s cultural function.



Image Credits:

  1. Stephen Colbert’s re-named A Late Show, filmed from the comfort of his home. (author’s screen grab)
  2. Lilly Singh, the first bisexual and first woman of color to host a broadcast late night series, on NBC at 1:35am. (author’s screen grab)
  3. A grainy still from The Robin Byrd Show, one of the longest running late night series in U.S. history. (author’s screen grab)


References:




“Never Too Late to Live Your Authentic Life”: Later-in-Life FTM Trans YouTube Narratives
Ash Kinney d’Harcourt / University of Texas at Austin


Mainstream media trans characters over the last few decades:
Mainstream media trans characters over the last few decades: “Buffalo Bill” in The Silence of the Lambs (1991), Brandon Teena in Boys Don’t Cry (1999), and Sophia Burset in Orange is the New Black (Netflix, 2013-2019).

The growing visibility of transgender and other gender expansive identities has resulted in an increased surveillance and regulation of trans bodies,[ ((Fischer, Mia. 2019. Terrorizing Gender: Transgender Visibility and the Surveillance Practices of the U.S. Security State. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.))] and media representations have followed in this example. Mainstream depictions often stereotype and objectify trans individuals[ ((Serano, Julia. 2007. Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity. Berkeley: Seal Press.))] or treat them as outcasts and spectacles. In addition, these media tend to depict trans people through binary and transnormative constructs of gender.[ ((Glover, Julian Kevon. 2016. “Redefining Realness?: On Janet Mock, Laverne Cox, TS Madison, and the Representation of Transgender Women of Color in Media.” Souls, 18(2-4): 338-357.))] With a few contemporary exceptions, the complexity of trans lives is often flattened in what are predominantly white, cisgender-produced media. In contrast, YouTube has provided the ability to construct trans identities online with more trans-specific values. José Esteban Muñoz (2009) considers queer cultural production “both an acknowledgement of the lack that is endemic to any heteronormative rendering of the world and a building, a ‘world making,’ in the face of that lack.”[ ((Muñoz, José Esteban. 2009. Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity. New York: New York University Press, 118.))] Trans YouTube vlogs are cultural archives and sites of lived experience that embody new ways of trans being and doing that reflect this notion of world making. In my viewing of female-to-male (FTM) transition videos in particular, vloggers self-narrate their life stories and experiences, collectively comprising a more varied and complex representation of trans life that “contrary to mainstream representations of trans people, are directed toward likeminded others, offering a user-created trans male visual culture.”[ ((Raun, Tobias. 2016. Out Online: Trans Self-Representation and Community Building on YouTube. New York: Routledge, 69.))]

There is an abundant and insightful body of work on the psychological and educational benefits, community building and archival aspects of FTM trans YouTube. In particular, Avery Dame (2013) has explored these videos and their producers’ status as “experts” that give advice to and educate viewers.[ ((Dame, Avery. 2013. “‘I’m Your Hero? Like Me?’: The Role of ‘Expert’ in the Trans Male Vlog.” Journal of Language and Sexuality, 2(1): 40–69.))] Tobias Raun (2016) has written prolifically about the use of these vlogs for journaling, therapeutic self-disclosure, and as communal archives.[ ((Raun, Tobias. 2016. Out Online: Trans Self-Representation and Community Building on YouTube. New York: Routledge.))] Jordan Miller (2019) expanded on this archive with an analysis on the counter narratives of trans and non-binary vloggers of color.[ ((Miller, Jordan F. 2019. “YouTube as a Site of Counternarratives to Transnormativity.” Journal of Homosexuality, 66(6): 815-837.))] The majority of these videos are created and shared by YouTubers that transition during adolescence and early adulthood which is reflected in this research that is focused primarily on the experiences of trans youth. Yet, YouTube has also been a site for documenting transition stories, sharing support and building community for those transitioning during middle age and beyond.

Jack Halberstam (2005) observes that individuals whose lives do not conform to the conventional understanding of time as linear and stable are often pathologized; however, conventional notions of maturity can be disrupted by the queer temporalities and counterpublics of subcultural practices.[ ((Halberstam, Jack. 2005. In a Queer Time and Place: Transgender Bodies, Subcultural Lives. New York: New York University Press, 2-5.))] The subcultural practice of producing FTM trans videos, particularly by “late bloomers,” challenges conceptions of normative temporalities. I watched the vlogs of trans men who transitioned in their 40s, 50s, and 60s to better understand the personal and social impact of the trans cultural production in this demographic. An ethnographic approach with qualitative interviews would help bridge the non-consensual nature of the textual analysis of these videos with the individuals who share them online; until that time, I refer to these vloggers by initials rather than full names or handles.


Screen grab of the YouTube video of a vlogger sharing fashion ideas.
YouTube video of a vlogger sharing fashion ideas.

Similar to trans youth vlogs, individuals who transition later in life also share tips on how to dress and pass, communicate the happiness and sense of relief they feel, and speak about the importance (or lack of) familial support in their vlogs. The vlogs of late bloomers also differ from the majority of those shared on YouTube; most noticeably, their transition narratives fall outside the conventional timeline of growth and maturity, especially as puberty arrives after decades of adulthood. These vloggers identify the age they discovered their trans identity and began transitioning in the title of their videos, for example, “Life begins at 40 | 10 Months On Testosterone (FTM)” and “FtM@50+ – an Introduction.” E.N. shares his experience with a “mid-life transition” and the process of discovering his “authentic self” in his early forties. F.T.I. also describes his life as “just beginning” at 40 years of age, contemplating his developmental timeline as a man from adolescence and straight into middle age. Like E.N., T.L., who began transitioning at 50 years of age, contextualizes the theme of inner truth in his own timeline: it’s “never too late to live your authentic life [emphasis added].” This online culture operates along a temporality that literally “disrupts conventional accounts of youth culture, adulthood, and maturity.”[ ((Ibid., 2.))]

It is common for FTM trans videos on social media to depict the joyful discovery of wearing a binder for the first time or—for those that have the resources and choose to have top surgery—their post-surgery chest reveal. While the majority of later-in-life trans narratives on YouTube follow “hormone time,”[ ((Horak, Laura. 2014. “Trans on YouTube: Intimacy, Visibility, Temporality.” TSQ: Transgender Studies Quarterly, 1(7): 572-585.))] they often focus on the development of the individual’s internal self-image over the physical changes associated with their medical transition. In one video, E.N. shares a written narrative of his discovery of being transgender followed by the process of delving “deep within my soul by peeling off many layers of my life so that I could rebuild my sense of inner self.” After briefly addressing facial hair growth and muscle mass at the beginning of a video, S.M., who began transitioning in his 50s, “wax[es] philosophical” about his career and cautions viewers about some of the language used in the community. Specifically, he rejects the wrong body narrative: “I don’t feel like I was born in the wrong body. I understand it, like I understand in some ways it’s the simplest way to share that information with other people, but… it seems a shame for me to classify my body as wrong, because it’s not.”


Screen grab of the written text from a trans YouTube video: This discovery forced me to go deep within my soul by peeling off many layers of my life so that I could rebuild my sense of inner self.
Written text from a YouTube video, “My Transgender Story.”

F.T.I. also describes coming to terms with his new “internal self image,” highlighting a sometimes less visible part of the process of transitioning—that of loss and grief—for a life lost and a life never lived. Though now in a place of acceptance, he acknowledges the pain and regret of not having experienced his 20s as a young man, explaining that he had only allowed himself to believe he was male prior to transitioning in his 40s. Many of these vloggers have also built decades-long careers, formed relationships and had children which are impacted in different ways by their transition. In Q&A videos, E.N. eschews questions about his medical transition to instead address questions about how the process affected his relationships with his wife and other family members, and T.L.’s videos include his child’s first-person perspectives on their parent’s transition. Overall, the non-linear temporalities, focus on development of internal gender identity and acknowledgment of loss and grief in these vlogs convey many of the complexities of trans life.

The narratives of late bloomers, and trans elders more broadly, are significant beyond their contributions to a growing online trans archive. Last month we commemorated Stonewall and other early protests led by queer, trans and gender non-conforming people, mostly Black and brown, against LGBTQ+ discrimination, harassment and police brutality. Yet three days before a win for LGBTQ+ rights that protect queer and trans workers, the current administration overturned Obamacare regulation prohibiting discrimination against trans patients the midst of a pandemic. At a time when trans futures are uncertain, the potentiality in the world making of these online cultural productions is essential in helping us to envision a trans future beyond survival.



Image Credits:

  1. Mainstream media trans characters over the last few decades: “Buffalo Bill” in The Silence of the Lambs (1991), Brandon Teena in Boys Don’t Cry (1999), and Sophia Burset in Orange is the New Black (2013-2019). (author’s screen grabs)
  2. YouTube video of a vlogger sharing fashion ideas. (author’s screen grab; the editors have honored the author’s request not to cite the image source in advance of obtaining the creator’s permission)
  3. Written text from a YouTube video, “My Transgender Story.” (author’s screen grab; the editors have honored the author’s request not to cite the image source in advance of obtaining the creator’s permission)


References:




“You Can Still Do It”: Apple Watch Activity Notifications During COVID-19
Andy Fischer Wright / University of Texas At Austin


An ominous graphic from the Apple Watch Activity website that reads 'Close Your Rings'.
The rather ominous opening words on Apple’s webpage detailing the Apple Watch’s Activity app and features. It is immediately replaced by a graphic of the Activity app above the following text: “Three rings: Move, Exercise, Stand. One goal: Close them every day. It’s such a simple and fun way to live a healthier day that you’ll want to do it all the time. That’s the idea behind the Activity app on Apple Watch.”

The wristwatch is at its base level an intimate machine situated at the end of the arm and designed with the explicit purpose of keeping the user aware of a regimented system of ‘time.’ Like many people operating in capitalism I have used watches and clocks to regulate my labor and personal life, whether this was to coordinate beer deliveries for my former employer or simply to make sure I didn’t burn muffins at home. From a critical angle, timepieces are interesting because of how infrequently I interrogate their ubiquitous presence in my daily life; per Vincent Mosco, the “social impact” of technology is greatest when devices and systems become “banal” and “withdraw into the woodwork.”[ (( Mosco, Vincent. The Digital Sublime: Myth, Power, and Cyberspace. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2004: 19.))] As I found myself beginning to work on a thesis project that critiqued push notifications in my daily life last year, I decided to invest in an Apple Watch Series 3 linked to my iPhone in order to see if a ‘smart watch’ that reached out to me would change the way I used this familiar machine to structure parts of my life. After an unsurprising period of collision as the rhythms of my daily life met the disruptive methodology of the Apple Watch, I soon found that the chimes on my wrist folded themselves into the fabric of life just as the vibrations in my pocket had after acquiring my first cell phone.

The most distinct new flavor that the Watch added beyond even my phone was notifications about my body. Stevens and Wernimont wrote in 2018 that wearable technologies in the 21st century first gained momentum from the ‘Quantified Self’ movement, whose adherents use smart devices like heart rate monitors “with the objective of noticing trends over time and optimizing based on their personal observations.”[ (( Stevens, Nikki, and Jacqueline Wernimont. “Seeing 21st Century Data Bleed through the 15th Century Wound Man.” IEEE Technology and Society Magazine 37, no. 4 (December 2018): 47. https://doi.org/10.1109/MTS.2018.2876214.))] While the motivation for this movement was based on a utopic cyborg dream of perfectly optimized biology, the researchers note that “[wearable] digital technologies situate the body not as a self-contained, sovereign subject but as a leaking, commodified data-producing body.” [ (( Stevens, Nikki, and Jacqueline Wernimont. “Seeing 21st Century Data Bleed through the 15th Century Wound Man.” IEEE Technology and Society Magazine 37, no. 4 (December 2018): 47. https://doi.org/10.1109/MTS.2018.2876214.))] Moreover, the notion of a device that appears to record bodily activity for my benefit is complicated by our ‘appified’ society where mobile apps are “embedded into the everyday routines and rituals of users” [ (( Morris, Jeremy Wade, and Sarah Murray, eds. Appified: Culture in the Age of Apps. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 2018: 7. ))] and large technology companies continually strive for what Couldry & Mejias call “the capitalization of life without limit.”[ (( Couldry, Nick, and Ulises A. Mejias. The Costs Of Connection: How Data Is Colonizing Human Life and Appropriating It for Capitalism. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2019: 1-35. ))] So while Apple Watches seem to provide a consumer service of measuring and analyzing my body and fitness growth, a second look makes it clear that the data about how I live and move is a clear asset for information technology companies wishing to go from delivery of service to urban infrastructure control. A device that quantifies bodily function sutures (sometimes quite literally) external interest to my body, reducing my physiology to a numeric performance with each method of measurement determined by its potentiality to produce data.[ (( When these biometric data are sold to or shared with police organizations, the Watch presents some frightening possibilities. For a personal example, my ‘outdoor walk’ activity on 6/7/20 that corresponds with the timing of a protest march in Austin potentially marks me as ‘suspicious’ even before GPS data ‘puts me at the scene.’))]


The notification settings for my Activity app.
The screen on my iPhone’s Watch companion app showing settings for my Watch’s Activity notifications.

It is at this point an open secret that my Apple Watch is a surveillance tool with neat features, but what if we consider the media produced by the Watch alongside the data harvested by it? The Activity app on my Watch is particularly insistent on reminding me of three daily goals: stand once an hour[ (( It should be noted that Apple Watches have the functionality to replace these with ‘Time to roll’ notifications for wheelchair users.))] for twelve separate hours (‘Stand’), elevate my heartrate for thirty separate minutes (‘Exercise’), and burn a user-determined number of calories (‘Move’). In the companion app on my iPhone (above) I am able to set which notifications are sent from the Activity app to my Watch face: Stand Reminders, Daily Coaching, Goal Completions, Special Challenges, and Activity Sharing Notifications. Though Special Challenges and Activity Sharing are rarer, I receive notifications from each other category on at least a daily basis. Each of these notifications lights up the screen, vibrates the Watch body, and emits an audible chime if I have the volume turned on; the fact that the Facebook Messenger, Gmail, and Activity apps all produce a similar sequence[ (( Though there is a difference in vibration by default, it is subtle.))] erases the sensory difference between a message from my partner, an email from my employer, and a reminder to stand up again.

The Activity app appears to ‘just work’ following the model of opaque computing, but anyone who owns an Apple Watch will tell you that in reality their Watch’s notificatory flow is not fused perfectly with the motions of their body. In my time with this device, I have had Stand Reminders regularly occur while standing, had my Move Ring nearly double my average on a day I spent fourteen hours driving across the country, and been commended for my exercise and elevated heartrate during an anxiety attack.[ (( The Move Ring is particularly nebulous to the point of my Watch recording anywhere between roughly 200 and 400 calories during my (previously) daily walking commute from my apartment to campus (a distance of 1.7 miles.) I have noticed that this number seems to be particularly affected by whether I have registered this as an “Outdoor Walk” in the Exercise app.))] It is also worth noting that a Goal Completion notification is symbolically simple and positive. In the middle of screen, a diagram of all the progress I have made on my various goals (represented by completed ‘rings’) that day is visible directly over bold text reading “Goal Achieved,” with smaller capitalized text underneath identifying that this message arrived courtesy of the “ACTIVITY” app. Taking this form both codifies and incentivizes the particular type of activity quantification that the Apple Watch is capable of, deigning all activity that what is essentially a wrist-mounted accelerometer and heartrate monitor cannot measure as both non-conforming and unrewardable. Given the tendency for surveillance technology more generally to mark as Other “virtually anything that aberrates from the norm,” this should be perhaps not be surprising.

A machine whose notifications rewarded ‘proper’ measurement of my body’s movement became especially problematic during the “Stay Home- Work Safe Order” that my county first implemented in mid-March of this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, especially when further restrictions “requiring individuals to stay at home or their place of residence” except in the case of essential work or activities were deemed necessary in mid-April. Unsurprisingly, it is difficult to do things that will register as Activity for my Apple Watch while I am under a legal order and moral imperative to stay inside of my small shared apartment whenever possible without access to gym equipment. Though it would be out of character for Apple to release hard data on their Activity users, a March 23rd blog post from rival smartwatch company and recent Alphabet acquisition Fitbit documented a global reduction in measured weekly step count from 2019-20, including peaks of -38% and -25% from heavily effected Spain and Italy respectively while the US averaged -12% with higher reductions in most metropoles. Though I have not been able to find any more recent studies or relevant external data, I can personally attest to the chilling effect of a pandemic on exercise; even after I lowered the threshold for my ‘Move’ goal, I completed all of the daily goals my Watch put before me twenty-six times in February, eighteen times in March, and nine combined times between April and May.

And yet, the frequency of notifications from the Activity app into my life as mediated by my Watch remain unchanged. Messages like “Keep it going” (documented 5/24, 5/26, 5/31, 6/3, 6/9, 6/10, 6/11, 6/14, 6/16) in the morning, “You can still do it” (documented 5/24, 5/26, 5/31, 6/10, 6/11) in the evening, and “[Check/Close] your rings” (documented 6/10,6/11, 6/12) on slow days continually drop into my daily life, encouraging behavior that is either logistically impractical or potentially hazardous to public health. My Watch asks me to return to the type of activity it can measure, and when I refuse to comply, it withholds praise and chides me. In encouraging data collection under the guise of exercise the Watch notifications discourage ‘safe'[ (( It is also impossible to ignore the fact that the COVID-19 pandemic is one of the rare times it is ‘unsafe’ for a young able-bodied white man like myself to be outside of my home, especially in a city like Austin, TX. Gentrification, redlining, white supremacy, and their intersections with the police state can potentially make outdoors exercise a dangerous activity for people of color, especially in the recent case of Ahmaud Arbery’s murder while jogging this February.))] behavior and assigns notifiable value to breaking quarantine during a global pandemic. More simply, these notifications operate in daily life without taking into account its context.


Compiled tweets about Activity notifications during a pandemic.
Two screenshots showing the results of a search on Twitter for the latest tweets containing the words “apple watch notifications activity” conducted 6/12/20 (chronologically read bottom to top.) Results on the left range from 3/19/20-3/20/20 relatively near the beginning of major American cities reacting to the pandemic, and the results on the right range from 4/17/20-4/22/20, before most reopening plans began to take place.

I have been continually asked in the course of my academic work with notifications, “why don’t you just turn them off?” While this is a valid question, just telling people to turn off a default feature is not an adequate fix especially when they are designed as “a simple and fun way to live a healthier day.” Though notifications are usually easy to opt out of, to set the expectation that individual users are the only party responsible for moderating the messages that arrive on their screens without taking into account the entities that generate notifications and the software that delivers them sets a dangerous precedent when these media are designed to give input in daily life. It is the duty of users, developers, and designers to hold the notification accountable for its potential societal repercussions, especially in these times.



Image Credits:

  1. The rather ominous opening words on Apple’s webpage detailing the Apple Watch’s Activity app and features. It is immediately replaced by a graphic of the Activity app above the following text: “Three rings: Move, Exercise, Stand. One goal: Close them every day. It’s such a simple and fun way to live a healthier day that you’ll want to do it all the time. That’s the idea behind the Activity app on Apple Watch.” (author’s screen grab)
  2. The screen on my iPhone’s Watch companion app showing settings for my Watch’s Activity notifications (author’s screen grab)
  3. Two screenshots showing the results of a search on Twitter for the latest tweets containing the words “apple watch notifications activity” conducted 6/12/20 (chronologically read bottom to top.) Results on the left range from 3/19/20-3/20/20 relatively near the beginning of major American cities reacting to the pandemic, and the results on the right range from 4/17/20-4/22/20, before most reopening plans began to take place. (author’s screen grabs)


References: