Friday, June 28, 2013

Mad Men vs. The Newsroom: 'tis truer to advertise than journalize

Are you there, Peggy? It's me, Don. From

WARNING: This article contains spoilers from the sixth season of Mad Men. 

I'd rather hang with Don Draper than Will McAvoy. Does that make me a bad person?

It's a question I've asked before and I'm considering again as we find ourselves in the one-week no man's land between the end of another awesome season of Mad Men and the beginning of what will probably be another shitty season of The Newsroom.

In theory, journalism is all about exposing the truth and advertising is all about hiding it - just ask any new TV reporter! - so we should probably identify more with a journalist doing God's work than an advertiser doing clients' work, right?

In practice, though, Mad Men's conflicted and imperfect Don Draper is so much more interesting and authentic than The Newsroom's self-righteous and -important windbag Will McAvoy, whose job is ostensibly to uncover the truth.

At its heart, the problem with The Newsroom is that it believes its own "self-righteous myth-making" (thank you Conrad Black). Like its characters, the show has its head so far up its own arse, it has no idea how dumb it actually is.

The series kicks off with anchorman McAvoy making a public declaration that America is not the greatest country on Earth (gasp!). After a three-week "vacation," he goes back to work and is shocked to discover that his new boss is his ex-girlfriend. Boing.

If it's lame that our hero's big moment of truth is just a setup for an equally big TV cliche, the series also asks us to believe that, among other things, a tell-it-like-it-is anchorman is OK dismissing seeing his girlfriend as a hallucination, a hardened war reporter doesn't know how email works, and young journalists not only read The Rock's tweets out loud to each other at parties, but the tweets actually foreshadow the news.

The Newsroom also isn't above chiding tabloid and online journalists at the same time it treats us to an episode about the Gabrielle Giffords shooting that actually ends with a Coldplay "Fix You" montage, as though the shocking news needs a big, fat cliche in order to make it more authentic.

What makes McAvoy (and the show) so unappealing is that he's the anchor dedicated to "the truth" while he believes his own lies; he not only fails to see that empty PR cliches wouldn't work if he didn't report them, but even embraces them himself. He's a quick-thinking, tough-talking smart guy who's dumb enough to get burned by a tabloid journalist.

Will: he ever learn?

Don Draper is the advertiser who proves my favorite line: "advertisers are more honest about their dishonesty." Mad Men season six was all about Draper losing his stomach for the lies he sells to others and himself in order to create the illusion of happiness.

Mad Men season six ends where The Newsroom season one begins: with our main character finally telling the truth. It's no accident that Draper spills his guts in a boardroom pitch with Hershey's: an iconic American product (or is it a religion?) coming face to face with the awful reality of day-to-day American life.

The truth doesn't set Draper free: America prefers the seeming authenticity he creates in boardrooms to the actual reality of his life. To his colleagues, Draper's "shit the bed" and they force him to take an undefined leave of absence that puts his career and marriage in question.

On The Newsroom, the truth is as manufactured as a Hershey's Bar. On Mad Men, the truth has consequences. You want the truth, Will McAvoy? You can't handle the truth.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

How to find a job in the digital age: a website

I'm nearly done my master's degree, which means I'll be looking for work soon. Haw, haw.

As part of my book larnin', I've set up a WordPress website - How to Find a Job in the Digital Age - that functions as a job-finding/technology resource for second-year advertising and PR students looking to enter the industry and get a job after they graduate.

My primary goal is to have this online module build on my in-person classes so that students can make a better connection between coursework and finding a job, understand which digital tools they should be using in order to do so, and how they should integrate the online and physical worlds for the most-powerful presentation as possible when it’s time for an interview.

Have a look, and let me know what you think, but only if you think it's good, OK? OK!

Friday, June 7, 2013

When life gets you down, shout "Ray Charles!"

Ray Charles! No, for real. 

I can't remember the performer, and I can't find it online. Might've been Tom Jones.

But, in the early 80s, a musician performing on Late Night with David Letterman, shouted "Ray Charles" in the middle of a song, apropros of nothing (Note: years later, Taylor Hicks would shout "Soul Patrol" on American Idol to diminished returns).

Of course, Dave and Paul made light of it the next night and wondered aloud why more performers don't yell "Ray Charles" in the middle of songs.

A light went on in my teenage brain. "Why don't more people just yell Ray Charles in general?" I asked myself.

So, for the better part of a decade, I'd yell "Ray Charles" at concerts. In addition to just making you feel better when you do it, I discovered that different people react differently to the shout-out:

  • The first time I tried it was at Broadways, the former (and awesome) alternative bar in the Fort Garry Hotel. Canadian singer Dianne Heatherington was playing, and she said, "I love Ray Charles. And, you know, we should be playing some Ray Charles in our set." Success!
  • I shouted it again at Love and Rockets, and the normally sullen David J. perked up and played a couple of bass notes, which - I guess - was probably some bassline from a Ray Charles song that only he could recognize.  
  • Most artists would say something along the line of "Ray Charles is a musical genius" - sometimes with a little "you'd better not be making fun of him" edge for good measure. 
  • Jann Arden took the minimalist approach and said nothing. 

I wondered, "When I shout "Ray Charles," is it a tribute? Request? Ice breaker? Conversation starter? Joke? Comparison? Question? Dare? Bet? Challenge? Contest? Exhibition? Competition? Celebration?"

Of course, it was all of these things.

So, now when I'm in the classroom, at a bank, waiting for a light to change, or sitting in a darkened theatre during a quiet moment in the film, I yell, "Ray Charles!" and make the world a better place one shout-out at a time.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Five great and awful things about Coachella 2013

After years of complaining and threatening to leave Lollapalooza behind, this year I finally put my money where my mouth is and went to Coachella instead.

My beefs with Lolla are well documented in the above link, but it essentially comes down to too many people in an enclosed space and arseholes pushing and shoving their way to get as close to Mumford as they possibly can.

However, Lolla is in Chicago - I love Chicago and a bit of my heart broke thinking that I wouldn't see it this year. Coachella is in Palm Springs. I'd never been to Palm Springs, but anyplace that's good enough for Bob Hope and Dinah Shore can't be all bad, right?

So off I went with great music and great music conditions as my quest. My Coachella report: 

The Great

1. The music

Lest we forget, these festivals are all about the music. Basically, I just want to see some bands I love and/or have never seen before, and discover some I should love or have seen before. Easy!

You can't beef the Coachella line-up: a solid mix of bands from the present and days gone by.  

Sparks channeling Buster Brown. 

Lou Reed cancelled because of something about needing a new liver, but I'd seen him before at Lollapalooza and so many other bands made up for it.

Among my new discoveries are Japandroids, a great Canadian rock band that I didn't know was Canadian until they thanked all the Canadians, and Palma Violets - a kick-ass punky-pop band from England that I would gladly travel and pay to see again.

It was also awesome to see Lee Scratch Perry with a mirror on his crotch (so he could stop scratching?), the reunited Specials, and Paul McCartney's son, James, who is so humble, he makes his dad look like a fame-hungry bastard: dude just strummed his last song, walked away, turned around and managed a half-wave goodbye.

I also enjoyed Hot Chip (the best synth band in the world?), Yeah Yeah Yeahs (with the choir!), Franz Ferdinand (they've still got it!) and the Stone Roses, particularly Ian Brown's tambourine playing, which follows an interesting model: 1. Pick up two tambourines. 2. Hold both of your arms up in the air. 2. Keep them there forever.

The disappointments? Blur phoned it in, Rodriguez looked to be on death's door (he needed two people to walk him out, and didn't appear to be singing at times), and New Order - one of my all-time favorite bands who were actually upstaged by OMD and Sparks from the same era (more on that in a bit).

2. The weather

You leave Winnipeg and it's cold. You arrive in Palm Springs, and the airport has tents for a roof. Sweet. 

3. The accommodations and shuttle buses

I bought my Coachella tickets as part of one of its travel packages, which included accommodations at the Westin Mission Hills Golf Resort and Spa and shuttle bus passes to the concert. The hotel was awesome, the pool was more awesome, and the shuttle buses showed up on time and got us there in less than an hour (and one of the drivers was reluctant to say he was from Canada, and ruled out Toronto, Montreal, or Vancouver. We a know a Winnipegger when we see one!).

All told, the whole vacation is about $1,200 a person - not bad at all, though you need at least two people to get the deal. 

4. The public art

This deserves a special shout-out from number 5, because the public art at Coachella really is super-cool, except for that one, giant snail on wheels that kept showing up in front of stages and pushing people out of the way.

For instance, here's the Coachella Power Station: if you look closely, you can see hippos working feverishly to make it all happen.

There's more where that comes from, and it's all pretty darn lovely and impressive. 

5. The festival grounds

Not as cramped or oversold as Lolla. However, you are in the middle of the desert and have to contend with...oh, I'll just get to the awful. 

The Awful

1. The whooping cough o'sand/no shade

In the middle of the desert, you inhale a vast amount of sand even when you don't know you're doing it. So, about halfway through the first day you start coughing, and by the end of the third day, you have black lung.

Shade is hard to come by at Lollapalooza, but it's non-existent at Coachella. Irony of ironies: every Canadian in the place prayed for snow.

2. The sound spillage

Probably the biggest problem at Coachella is that the stages are too close together, and you can hear sound from one when you're watching a band at another.

I once complained about the sound from Soundgarden spilling over Arcade Fire at Lollapalooza, but that was nothing compared to the sound spillage at Coachella. You can't escape it. I was frankly surprised that more artists didn't beef about it from the stage, so it was left to Bernard Sumner from New Order to carry the torch for pissed-off artists and fans everywhere.

Implying that the music coming from the other stage was 1. Too loud and 2. Bad, he and the band did their best to play through their set, but you could tell it was a struggle. At the end, Sumner said, "I hope Coachella will have us back" - so maybe that's the deal: don't complain, and we'll have you back.

The festival is on a massive site, so why the tents are so close together and artists like, say, Rodriguez, have to compete with 1,000 bpm coming from the dance tent, is beyond me. 

3. The tiny music tents

If there's 100,000 people at Coachella, and New Order is a top-billed band playing at the end of the night, then why is it playing a tent that holds about 1,000 people? Recipe for disaster...

4. The pushing and shoving

Like Lollapalooza, no one plants themselves in front of a stage and waits to see their favorite band anymore. No, they wait till the last minute and shove their way to the front. The worst offenders: two girls who crawled their way to the front for Rodriguez, and the Patton Oswalt-looking dude who shoved and farted his way to the front of New Order, and then expected everyone around him to be happy to see him. Totally lame.

You try to stop someone from cutting in, and guess who gets called "arsehole?" Nice. 

5. The food

It's not as good as Lollapalooza (hint: Lolla is in Chicago). As well, you're in the middle of the desert, can't bring anything into the festival with you, and there's no nearby competition, which means it costs $30 for a milkshake (yeah, I'm exaggerating, but it's totally expensive).


So, the two festivals are similar for reasons good and bad. However, I did come face-to-face with Paris Hilton at Coachella, so I have to give it a slight edge over Lolla for that alone.

See you next year, Coachella. We'll always have Paris!