Let’s Write a Zeitgeist Hit

February 21, 2019
Posted by Jay Livingston

It’s easy to look back and see how a movie, TV show, or book was a massive hit because it fit perfectly with the spirit of its time. Maybe it expressed what we, all of us, were feeling, or maybe it gave us something we lacked. Think of those 1930s musicals, with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, elegantly dressed and dancing their way through sets that dripped with luxury.  Perhaps they were so popular because “their musicals offered the purest form of escape from the woes of the Depression, a fantasy of the 1920s seen through the darker prism of the 30s.” (John Rockwell in the New York Times, “Escaping Depression? Just Dance Blues Away.”).

The implication is that there is a zeitgeist tide in the affairs of culture which taken at the flood leads on to fortune, or at least a 15 Nielsen. They’re pretty much the same thing. All you have to do is suss out the zeitgeist.

I had thought that people in the business would be skeptical about this way of thinking. Old Hollywood hands who have a lot of experience in actually making movies and TV shows know how hard it is to create a hit, to know what the public will respond to. Try to imitate a hit by incorporating those elements in it that seem to have resonated with the audience, and you often fail miserably. As screenwriter William Goldman famously wrote in 1983, “Nobody knows anything.”

I had thought that sociologists would be skeptical about this way of thinking. They would be familiar with Wendy Griswold’s 1981 AJS article showing that the content of novels published in the US in the late 19th century may have had more to do with the economics of publishing rather than with a supposed cultural transformation. It was the change in copyright laws, not the feminization of American culture.

Ken Levine (rhymes with divine) is an old Hollywood pro, mostly as a writer — Cheers, M*A*S*H, Frasier, Simpsons, and so on. He also does a weekly podcast (“Hollywood and Levine”). I hadn’t listened to it in a while, but the episode title “How SEINFELD Got on the Air”  made me curious. It turned out to be a conversation with another old Hollywood hand, Preston Beckman, whose metier is scheduling. He knows not only how Seinfeld got on the air but why it was on the air Wednesdays at 9:30. He used to blog anonymously as “The Masked Scheduler.” He also has a Ph.D. in sociology from NYU.*

The entire conversation is interesting. Here’s the part that includes the word zeitgeist. They are discussing the success of “American Idol” and “24."

Here’s a transcript, somewhat edited.

KEN LEVINE: Back in 1963, when Kennedy was assassinated, the country needed something to get out of its funk. And the Beatles came along at just the right time a couple of months later.And in a sense I always felt that “American Idol” was similar in that it was after 9/11. It came along and we needed something positive to focus on. And that became the zeitgeist hit.

PRESTON BECKMAN: I totally agree with you. I totally agree. I don’t think anybody at Fox thought it was going to be what it was going to be.  And afterwards, thinking about it — and maybe my background as a sociologist before I went into this business. . . . I think the country needed something.

What was great about American Idol is that it put control of the process in the hands of the viewer. So after seeing the devastation and everything we had seen, it was like “OK, I have input into this. I have some control over this event.

The pilot episode of “24” was completed in time for the opening of the fall TV season in 2001 but was delayed because Fox was broadcasting the baseball playoffs. Then came 9/11. 

PRESTON BECKMAN:  We actually had to edit the pilot because there was a scene of a plane being blown up. That was another situation where we didn’t know whether this was going to be rejected because of what had happened or going to be embraced, and fortunately I think the casting of Kiefer Sutherland had a lot to do with the success of the show.

The Hollywood pro and the sociologist-turned-Hollyword-pro agree: It’s the zeitgeist — what the country needed. “American Idol” offered “something positive,” something that gave viewers control at a time when people’s sense of control over their lives and their country had been shaken. It was, says Levine, a “zeitgeist hit.” The zeitgeist was there; the Idolators just figured out a way to cash in on it. Apparently, William Goldman was wrong. Somebody knew something.

But Beckman, though he seems to be unaware of it, says something that’s much closer to Goldman’s view. Nobody at Fox expected “American Idol” to be such a huge hit. The same goes for “24.” Before the show aired, “we didn’t know” if it was going to be a hit. It’s only in retrospect that Levine and Beckman can construct the zeitgeist connection. Even then, Beckman seems to be giving greater weight to casting decisions than to the post-9/11 zeitgeist.  It’s only in retrospect that we can look at the attributes of these shows, match them up with elements of the zeitgeist, and then “predict” their success.

* The title of his 1981 dissertation is “Predicting Television Viewing: an Application of the Box-jenkins Methodology for Time Series Analysis to Levels of Television Usage in the United States (1966-1975).”

The Sorrows of Old Brooks

February 17, 2019
Posted by Jay Livingston

In his Valentine’s Day op-ed bemoaning the supposed disappearance of romantic love, Arthur Brooks begins with Goethe’s Sorrows of Young Werther. In that novel, the title character falls in love with a woman who is already engaged to someone else. She gets married. He commits suicide. Got it?

I wouldn’t pitch this plot to Netflix today if I were you, but in 1774 in Europe, it was a huge hit.  “Young men began to dress like Werther. Most alarming, the novel was said to have stimulated copycat suicides among brokenhearted lovers.” It was “Werther Fever.” And, says Brooks, it’s what we need more of in America today. I am not making this up.

What is the opposite of Werther Fever? Whatever it is, we’re suffering from it in the United States today. Particularly among young people, there is an increasing absence of romantic love.

I looked through the General Social Survey for data that would confirm Brooks’s idea about the withering of romantic love. The evidence was hardly convincing (see the previous post). But let’s suppose Brooks is right, that younger Americans are turning away from romantic love. If young Werther is our shining exemplar, maybe we should ask whether romantic love is such a good thing.

To begin with, romantic love has little connection to reality. Can one person satisfy all the emotional and erotic needs of another person? We know that this notion is unrealistic. That’s why romantic love is often likened to a dream state, with a “dream lover,” the “man of my dreams,” and so on. Even more unrealistic is the idea that only one person in the world can work this dream-like effect. For young Werther, it’s Charlotte, and if he can’t have this one person, there’s no point in living. Up close, it seems idealistic. But take a step back, and it looks pretty silly. As Philip Slater says, what would we think of a man who died of starvation because he couldn’t get any Brussels sprouts?

These stories also tell us, inadvertently, that romantic love is unsustainable. The lovers in these stories spend almost no time together. Instead, the plot focuses on the lovers’ struggles against the obstacles that separate them. Once these obstacles are overcome – or not – game over. Can these two people sustain romantic love over the long (or even not-so-long) course of a marriage?  Tales of romantic love dodge that question. They end either with the death of one or both lovers (Romeo and Juliet, Young Werther) or with their union. “They lived happily ever after. The end. Don’t ask what actually happened in that ever-after.”

The “ever after” is hard to imagine because romantic love is based on fantasy. You may fall in love with and pursue the “dream lover.” You may even wind up together. But in a sustained relationship (what is still often called a marriage), you have to live every day with a real person, not a dream.

Brooks is particularly concerned about the “precipitous decline in romantic interest among young people. . . . . While 85 percent of Generation X and baby boomers went on dates as high school seniors, the percentage of high school seniors who went on dates in 2015 had fallen to 56 percent.”

To which I am tempted to respond, “You say that like it’s a bad thing.” Maybe Brooks’s memories of dating in high school are sunnier than mine, but it seems to me that kids dated because there was no alternative. They felt they were required to pair off in some simulation of a romantic couple. Often, neither boy nor girl was comfortable with that arrangement — about what you’d expect with two people more or less forced together having to come up with the rules and roles in this new relationship. My impression is that for most kids, that relationship rarely achieved the romantic love that Brooks imagines.

Much more pleasant were the times I spent hanging around with groups of friends. And apparently that’s where teen-age culture is heading. Less dating, more hanging out and hooking up. It’s not perfect. The “hookup culture” among college students that Lisa Wade describes in American Hookup seems joyless and unsatisfying. But college students do go on dates, and most wind up in pair relationships. It’s just that these often develop out of and follow more casual relations and hookups.

Brooks thinks that this is a change for the worse. Me, I’m not so sure. When those baby boomers went to the high school prom, it was a date; they went as couples, two to a car, and if you didn’t have a date, if you were not paired off, you didn’t go. Today, they clamber into limousines as a group — as many as the limo will hold — some in couples, others not.  I don’t know why Brooks wants to re-impose the rigidities of dating. Maybe he misses those Werther-like sorrows.

Bye-Bye Love

February 15, 2019
Posted by Jay Livingston

Arthur Brooks, in a Valentine’s Day op-ed in the Washington Post, brings us the sad news that the flame of romantic love is sputtering. “Particularly among young people, there is an increasing absence of romantic love.”

Really? To convince us, Brooks offers three bits of evidence.

1. While 69% of pet owners planned to give their pets a gift, only 61% of pet owners planned to give a gift to a spouse.

I’d put this in the “I am not making this up” category. Brooks really does offer it as evidence. The numbers are from VetIQ, a pet health company not widely known as a source of national survey data. Maybe he threw it in just to lighten the mood. Whatever. Brooks offers no information on planned Valentine gift-giving among the petless.

2. Surveys of kids show that the custom of dating is on the wane. Or as Brooks’s son, a college junior, says, “Nobody dates.”

3.  The General Social Survey. Now we’re getting serious.

from 1989 to 2016, the percentage of married people in their 20s fell from 32 percent to 19 percent. And lest you think they are forgoing marriage but not sex, note that the percentage of 20-somethings who had no sex in the past year rose by half over the same period, from 12 percent to 18 percent.

The decline in marriage and the increasing age for getting married may have just a wee bit to do with factors other than romantic feelings — things like the economy, the labor market, and the cost of having children. As for not having sex, if more 20-somethings are unmarried, more of them will be without sex partners. In any age category, the marrieds have more sex than do the unmarrieds.

So if we accept Brooks’s idea that no-sex is a good indicator of the lack of romantic love, we should look at just the unmarried. Here is the GSS data on 20-somethings.

(Click on an image for a larger view.)

If you look only at the first and last years (the GSS did not ask this question before 1989), you see what Brooks pointed out.  No-sex  goes from 17% to 23%. But there’s no clear overall upward trend (the dotted trend-line in fact goes downward). Yes, the 2016 numbers were high. But that may be a statistical anomaly like the unusually low rates in 2012. It would help if we had 2018 data, but we don’t, not yet.

But let’s pretend that romantic love, as measured by no-sex, really is decreasing. The question is why?

“Kids, I don’t know what’s wrong with these kids today.”

The father in “Bye-Bye Birdie” (1960) may not have known what’s wrong with these kids, but Brooks does. “The greatest culprit for the United States’ increasingly romanceless culture is fear.” Ya got trouble, my friends, right here in River City, with a capital F, and that stands for fear.

And how do kids come by this fear? From protective parents (known not long ago as “helicopter” parents.)

Children are discouraged from venturing alone out of the house by their parents, who also adjudicate their disputes with other children. The protection culture often deepens in college, with the proliferation of “safe spaces” and “trigger warnings” to allow avoidance of hurtful ideas. As a result, many young adults enter their 20s with little experience in conflict and rejection — with the social equivalent of a peanut allergy. It is no surprise that love and dating would seem scary and foreign to so many.

If Brooks is right, we would expect to find that Americans brought up in less protective times and places are more daringly romantic. In addition, the upward trend towards less sex should be stronger among the children of protective, college-educated parents (Annette Lareau’s “concerned cultivators”) than among those whose less protective parents never got a college degree.

For the period 1996 - 2008, we see the difference Brooks would predict. The children of (presumably) protective parents are more likely to have been without a sexual encounter in the previous year. If Brooks is right about coddled kids, and assuming that protective parenting was still on the rise among educated parents in the 1990s, that difference should have grown even wider in the current decade. But it didn’t. Instead, it disappeared.

Protective parenting is relatively new, says Brooks, so we should also see a generational difference — a stronger trend towards no-sex among younger people.

(For both age groups, I excluded those who were married. For the older group 
I included the divorced and separated along with the never married.)

The older group, the ones raised before helicopter parenting, are more likely to have gone without sex. That’s the opposite of what Brooks would expect. Of course, it may have more to do with life circumstances and the ease of finding partners than with how protective their parents were. In any case, the trends in the two lines are not vastly different. 

Maybe Arthur Brooks is right, and America’s youth are the vanguard leading in the wrong (in his view) direction, away from romantic love. At least for the moment, I don’t find the evidence convincing. As listeners to the Annex Sociology Podcast might know, I tend to be skeptical about claims of social decline, especially those centered on young people. The two myths that I spoke about with host Joe Cohen on that podcast (here and here) are the decline of authoritarianism and the loss community. To this, we now add the fading rose of romantic love.

Billionaire? Moi?

February 4, 2019
Posted by Jay Livingston

Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof had no problems with the word rich. He did not sing, “If I were a person of wealth, Ya da deedle deedle. . .” He laid it on the line.

Howard Schultz is more squeamish, especially about people saying how much money he actually has — i.e., at least a billion dollars.

The moniker “billionaire” now has become the catchphrase. I would rephrase that and say that “people of means” have been able to leverage their wealth and their interest in ways that are unfair, and I think that speaks to the inequality but it also speaks to the special interests that are paid for people of wealth and corporations who are looking for influence. [from an interview yesterday with Andrew Ross Sorkin of the New York Times, emphasis added]

“People of means” sounds dated to my ear, especially for a guy running for president in 2020. Ditto “person of wealth.” So I went to Google nGrams to see how the frequencies of these terms had changed over the years, at least in published books. I threw in another term that could also be used to indicate someone with large amounts of money.

Schultz’s preferred terms are indeed a throwback. They were at their peak back when Sophie Tucker said, “I’ve been rich, and I’ve been poor, and believe me, rich is better.” Or as Mr. Schultz might say, “I’ve been rich and I’ve been a person of wealth, and believe me, being a person of wealth is better. Rich makes me sound so greedy.”

These were also the years when you could still get a cup of coffee for a dime. Since then the popularity of “person of means” and “person of wealth” has been on the skids. As for the cost of that cup of coffee, maybe you should ask Mr. Schultz.