What’s in a Team Name?

August 9, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

Flip Flop Fly Ball has wonderful graphics about sports, mostly baseball. For some reason, I especially liked this Venn diagram of team names.

(Click on the image for a larger view.)

In football, only a couple of the oldest organizations have regional-industrial names – Packers, Steelers. In baseball, industry-based names are more typical of recent franchises. It’s also interesting to see what a team with a regional name does when it moves to a new location. The borough of Brooklyn was a tangle of trolley lines that street people (bums, the homeless, whatever) had to dodge. Not so the Los Angeles of the 1950s. Nor does LA have Minnesota’s 10,000 lakes. The most egregious example of name retention is the New Orleans basketball franchise, named, appropriately, the Jazz. When they moved to Utah, they might have changed their name to The Choir (Tabernacle), but they didn’t, and so they play on as sportsdom’s greatest oxymoron.

Note: “Self-referential” names are those taken from a reference to the team. For example, when the Pittsburgh Alleghenys signed a player away from the Philadelphia Athletics, a baseball official referred to the deal as “piratical.” Similarly, a St. Louis sportswriter heard a woman refer to the color of the trim on the team’s uniform as “a lovely shade of cardinal.” He used the name in his column, and it stuck.

Sing-along v. Karaoke

August 6, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

Technology gives, and it takes away. It changes the way we relate to one another, and it changes our motivations. Here’s a simple example, a sort of footnote to yesterday’s post:

Mitch Miller is sometimes called “the grandfather of karaoke.” According to Wikipedia, the Sing Along With Mitch records and TV show were the foundation for “what would become karaoke.”

But the difference between sing-along and karaoke is not just one of degree. It’s a difference in kind. Sing-along is not karaoke, and the technological difference between them makes for social, structural, and even psychological differences. In a sing-along, our goal, our motivation, is to do something together– in this case, sing the same song – and our pleasure comes from doing it together. Sing-along is less about performance, more about group activity, and we wind up sounding like, well, us.

Karaoke changes the roles. We are no longer all group members. One of us is the performer, the rest are an audience. Singing is not a group activity, it is a performance. The singer’s goal is to sing well, ideally to sound like the person on the original recording – Britney or Whitney or Pitney or whoever. The singer’s rewards are those of narcissism, but the narcissism resides more in the technology than in the individual psyche.

By conventional artistic standards, karaoke is “better”– nobody would want to buy a record of me and my friends singing, accompanied only by our own guitars or whatever was at hand or maybe nothing. In karaoke, by contrast, everything except perhaps the singer’s voice, sounds just like the hit recording. But in sing-along, what’s important is not the product but the process.
In this same way, a technologically advanced video game like Madden Football is “better” than a pick-up game of touch football. Madden looks like real pro football. It allows you to use complex plays and defenses. The non-technological pick-up game is more like sing-along. You use only your own resources, and the object is not so much to win as to go outside and have a good time doing something together.

MItch Miller – Producing Hits

August 05, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

Mitch Miller died on Saturday at age 99. His career might well serve as a shorthand version of the larger transformation of the music business in the 1950s. That decade brought changes in how we listened to music and changes in how music was made. Mitch Miller didn’t create those changes, but he took advantage of them and pushed them along. He started out as an accomplished musician, an oboist.* But he put down his oboe, and either by design or drift – I don’t know which– became a producer, one of the most important in the business. He went from playing music to producing records. It’s as though Ray Kroc had been a talented pastry chef but had taken off his toque to move into what we might call “other areas” of the food world.

As I said in the post about “Million Dollar Quartet,” the balance in the music we listened to shifted after the 1940s – less live performance, more records. But even within the recording industry, the social structure was changing. In the pre-Mitch era, records were a musician’s medium. The musicians came into the studio and performed the songs in their repertoire while someone in the control room ran the tape. “Million Dollar Quartet” depicts a simple version of this scenario – the Yellow Sun studio in Memphis. Bigger labels like Capitol and Columbia, recording big bands, did the same thing albeit with bigger studios and maybe more sophisticated technology.

In the 1950s, records became producer’s medium. The producer remained invisible to the audience, who still spoke of “a Tony Bennet record” or a “Rosemary Clooney hit.” But then, audiences also thought of the movies as belonging to the actors – a “John Wayne western”– when in fact, the film was largely a creation of the off-camera people who rarely achieved the name recognition of its stars – writers, directors, and others, especially producers who assembled the team. In the record business, it was the producers who called the shots. Some of the obits for Miller mention how he forced even big stars like Sinatra to perform songs they would have preferred to skip.
The low point came when Miller had Sinatra join a comedienne in recording "Mama Will Bark," which featured a howling dog in the background.
That barking in the studio (it wasn’t a real dog) is significant, at least from the viewpoint of Elijah Wald, who almost a year before Miller’s death had an article in the Financial Times about the change in music. Wald doesn’t mention the dog, but he does say:
Record producers were also beginning to discover something filmmakers had understood for years: that studio productions need not have the same limitations as live performance.
The most influential of these record auteurs was Mitch Miller
Miller was an auteur in the sense that he had an overall idea for a record and went about assembling people to get the job done – not just the star singer, but the composer, arranger, back-up musicians, engineers, the occasional canine, and the rest.

Those combinations could be bizarrely imaginative. For example, in 1951 Miller took a song based on a passage from Christopher Marlowe’s Dido, Queen of Carthage and an Armenian wedding melody, backed it with a harpsichord playing boogie-woogie, and handed it to a jazz singer named Rosemary Clooney. “Come On-a My House” stayed at the top of the pop charts for eight weeks.
Of course, his most famous creation as a producer was the one that put his name up front: the sing-along – first the records, then the TV show, where his all-male chorus would lip-sync to the heavily-reverbed studio recordings of old (and often public domain) songs while the words were flashed on the screen.**

Wald doesn’t like the shift from live performance to studio recording, as you might guess from the title of his book, How the Beatles Destroyed Rock ’n’ Roll. That title, by the way, is not to be taken literally. Wald doesn’t really blame it on the Beatles.
when the Beatles quit touring in 1966, it was less a revolutionary act than an acknowledgment that the world had changed.
No one person or group, not even Mitch Miller or the Beatles, is responsible for that world-change. Again, I strongly recommend Richard Peterson’s work, especially “Why 1955?” for a fuller account of all the forces and changes – legal, economic, technological, social, etc.– that determined the shape of popular music.
* I first heard him on theCharlie Parker with Strings album, though at the time I had no idea that the oboe soloist behind Bird was the same guy responsible for those sing-along records I so detested. The hit from that recording session was “Just Friends,” and you can hear Mitch solo for four bars at about the 1:18 mark.
**I heard an interview with Miller just a few weeks ago. It was on a college radio station out on Long Island, though I don’t know where and when or with whom the actual interview took place. Maybe the legendary Mitch did agree to answer questions from some kid at an obscure radio station. What struck me was that, as I recall it now, Miller had little to say about the artistic or musical qualities of the records he had produced. He spoke instead about the technical and contractual problems, as though he saw the records not as a medium for music but as a commodity to be produced and sold.

Update, August 6. Shortly after I posted this, WBUR had a one-hour show devoted to Mitch Miller as a producer. Elijah Wald is one of the guests along with Will Friedwald (WSJ) and singers Leslie Uggams and Patti Page. (Listen here.) They point out that after Mitch, there were people who became known as producers
– Quincy Jones, Berry Gordy, et al. (A propos the Charlie Parker recording, they also say that Bird specfically requested that Mitch be the oboist on that session.)

Sandbox Sociology – Sharing and Human Nature

August 3, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

Are humans “naturally” selfish?

David Brooks had a column last month about the origins of morality in individuals. Referring to the work of Yale psychologist Paul Bloom, Brooks said
If you give a 3-year-old two pieces of candy and ask him if he wants to share one of them, he will almost certainly say no. It’s not until age 7 or 8 that even half the children are willing to share.
Ah, sharing. The word was not exactly a Proustian madeleine, but it did bring back the days when I used to take my son to the playground in Riverside Park. The problem of sharing was a prominent feature of the social landscape.

One morning, I was talking with a mom there, and at the other side of the sandbox, a child of two or three was strenuously holding on to a ball or truck or some toy that another child wanted to play with. I don’t recall if there was a scuffle or shouting or crying, but there might have been. I do remember the mother’s comment – she wasn’t Paul Bloom or David Brooks, but she might have been: “They’re just so possessive about their toys at this age. I guess it’s human nature.”

I nodded, but my inner sociologist winced. It did seem natural – many of the kids were indeed proprietary about their stuff, though there were certainly differences among kids. But at the same time, it occurred to me that I often heard parents say things like,
That’s Cody’s truck. If you want to play with it, you have to ask him.
That’s not your doll, that’s Emma’s doll.
Yes it’s your backhoe, but it would be nice to let Alex play with it too.
Sharing was a treasured virtue. Parents on the Upper West Side (and perhaps elsewhere) were constantly trying to get their toddlers to share. I dimly remember music videotapes (Kidsongs? Raffi?) with songs urging us all to share. But in the phrases I heard at the playground (and there were many variations on this theme) the parents were saying that the first order of business was to know who a toy belonged to.

Sharing, at least in our world, came only after the concept of private property had been firmly established. Much of the parental discourse at the playground was about ownership – informing kids which toy was the property of which child. Some parents had written their child’s name in permanent marker on each of the kid’s toys just to avoid any confusion or conflict. An unidentified toy left lying around for any length of time could prompt a discussion among the adults as to whose it was.

We were good Upper Left Side parents. Hell, a third of us would have voted for a socialist if we’d had the chance. We would no more try to inculcate in our kids the primacy of private property than we would buy stock in Halliburton. But still, all those messages about who each toy belonged to rested on the concept of ownership. Even sharing, though a noble ideal, was trumped by norms of private property. Parents seemed to follow the rule that while they could strongly encourage sharing, they could not absolutely require it. I often heard parents tell their kids that it was good to share, that it was nice to share, that you would want little Julia to share her toys with you, wouldn’t you? And parents effusively praised children who then shared.

But I never saw a parent force sharing on a kid who didn’t want to. After all, the toy did belong to the kid. It was her property – hers and not the parent’s – and property rights prevailed. It was her possession to do with as she pleased.*

The possessiveness of the kids in the sandbox may have been part of their nature, as Brooks, Bloom, and Zoe’s mom said. But parents, perhaps unwittingly, were putting considerable effort into cultivating that part of human nature.

What about children in societies that place less emphasis on individual, private ownership? I wonder what conclusions about human nature Paul Bloom would have reached if he studied 3-year old hunter gatherers.**


*The parents’ strategy here exemplifies a more general American solution to problems that arise when a culture places such a strong value on independence and autonomy. If those values mean that you cant force the kid to do the right thing, how do you get her to make the right decision? This post from two months ago discusses the problem as it occurs both in the real world and in sitcoms.

**  Prof. Bloom’s views on virginity also seem to ignore the way we humans have conducted ourselves for most of our time on this planet. (See this more recent post.)