Separation (Due To) Anxiety?
At some point in the mid-Aughts, maybe ’06 or so, there circulated among the blogs I read a graphic representation of the interconnectedness of the various topical galaxies in the blogging universe (it looked like this, though I cannot find the exact chart). With nodes representing individual blogs, their size and brightness reflecting their popularity (as measured by the number of incoming links), and colorful lines representing links, it was easy to see just how deeply intertwined the political, sports, pets, music, cooking, sewing, etc. segments of the blogosphere were.
There was, however, one large collection of nodes and lines that was almost completely separated from all of the others: the adult blogosphere. It was clear that, while adult blogs were really, really popular, cat and macramé bloggers who had no qualms about linking to political rants or baseball game recaps weren’t at all interested in linking to adult-themed sites. While food and sex, or sports and sex, or just about everything and sex, may be closely connected in our lives, we like to keep them completely separate in our blogs. Even as our worlds were becoming more and more connected, we were keeping that one world wholly separate.
I thought of this graphic, and its implications, yesterday when I stumbled upon Shea Serrano’s Grantland piece, “The Most Important Hip-Hop Song of 2004.” Serrano considers four songs, the first three of which I’ll drop in here:
“Roses” – Outkast (NSFW: “Shit” features heavily, and it ends with some not very nice words about the song’s subject.)
“Drop it Like it’s Hot” – Snoop Dogg feat. Pharrel (NSFW: N-word, drugs, and stuff, along with some rather suggestive dancing.)
“Jesus Walks” – Kanye West (Do I need to say it? OK, NSFW. N-word and some other words your parents/boss/random people at the coffee shop may not want to hear.)
Two of these are great (“Roses” and “Jesus Walks”) and the third is really good (“Drop It Like It’s Hot,” which will now be stuck in my head for days), but he chooses the fourth, Mike Jones’ “Still Tippin’”, featuring Slim Thug and Paul Wall. I haven’t embedded “Still Tippin’” for two reasons: (1) it’s awful and (2) it’s over-the-top sexist even for hip hop. Why does he choose it, then? Because it launched Houston to hip hop prominence, which I suppose does make it a pretty important song, even if it doesn’t represent Houston very well (this is the town that produces Scarface, damn it!).
Why would any of that remind me of a decade-old social networking graph? It wouldn’t! But after I made it through his reasoning for choosing “Still Tippin’,” I got to Serrano’s telling of Mike Jones’ origin story and long-quiet neural connections fired up:
This is what Mike Jones did to jump-start his career, and it’s really very smart and a fun thing to think about: At the beginning of his career — this was back around 2000 — nobody in rap would pay attention to Jones. And nor should they have. Mike Jones is a talented marketer, and he is an opportunistic businessman, but he is not that great of a rapper. And being not that great of a rapper is not a very good thing if you want to be a famous rapper.4 So he went to who people in rap would pay attention to: strippers.
He started visiting the most popular strip clubs in Houston. He introduced himself to the dancers, talked to them about music, and then he started making personalized rap songs for them to dance to onstage. He’d put a girl’s name in the song, describe her a little bit, talk her up. First it was one girl. He did it for free just to start. Then two girls. Then five girls. He started charging them for the songs. Demand grew and grew. Ten girls. Twenty girls. Eventually, all the girls in a particular club were dancing to his music. Then two clubs. Then five. He inundated the airspace with his adenoidal, unmistakable voice. What’s more, on those songs (and in the songs that came afterward) he’d repeat his name over and over again, put his phone number in them, on T-shirts, on posters, on everything.5 He seemed to exist only to promote his brand, and that’s one way a not very good rapper becomes the most visible rapper in his city, then state, then country. He made himself unavoidable. So people stopped avoiding him.
My first thoughts upon reading this were, “Damn, that’s genius,” and “Why the hell didn’t anyone think of that before?!” I mean, even if it doesn’t make you famous, selling customized songs — rap, rock, EDM, whatever — to dancers seems like a great way to make money as a musician, and as Jones shows, it’s a pretty good way to get exposure as well (pun definitely intended). That’s when I remembered that chart. Sure, music and sex may be deeply intertwined — in fact, much of our music is about sex — but where the latex meets the road, we like to keep our sex and our music separate. We may even play music during sex, but we’re not too keen on merging their respective markets. We’re so reticent, in fact, that as far as I can tell at least, artists rarely mix the two to the extent that Jones did, even though he did so to great success.
It seems like that this is precisely the sort of innovation that markets should produce over and over again, doesn’t it? But they don’t. Why? Perhaps there’s already an economic term for this phenomenon. Maybe prudish inefficiencies? Puritanical externalities? Market genophobia? Surely there are dissertations on why we prefer our sex completely separate from everything else, except when we’re actually having it? I know that there are barriers, most notably that the inclusion of sex in many things is legally proscribed. However, Jones showed that you can take the non-sex market and put it in the sex market and reap rewards in both realms. That seems like a no-brainer then, doesn’t it?
Also, picking a Mike Jones song for the most important hip hop song of 2004 is just wrong. I’m sorry, I get why he chose it, but I can’t help it! That song is just awful; he’s awful. “Roses,” man. “Jesus Walks”! Those are classics, two of the top 10 or 15 hip hop songs of that decade. Come on!
Image: “14-23000-Sparky-MassiveGalaxyFormation-20140827” by NASA, Z. Levay, G. Bacon (STScI). Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.