Björk and Tina Brown have many differences but one common problem: They are watching the boat beneath them sink. Their print and music industries are being disintermediated by the digital revolution. They are struggling to respond to the blue-ocean and white-space and black-swan disruption that besets us all.
Brown is a British-born journalist, columnist, talk-show host, and author. She edited Tatler and The New Yorker. She is now the editor of Newsweek and The Daily Beast.
Björk is the Icelandic singer-songwriter who, by 2003, had sold 15 millions albums. Her work includes Post, Homogenic, Vespertine, and Medulla. Her current album is Biophilia.
Brown and Björk had enough altitude to glide to career’s end. Yet, they’ve decided to engage in radical experiment. These experiments may not save them (or us). But they’ve given us cultural innovations of some interest. And daring.
Björk’s Biophilia isn’t just an album. It’s an app. We open it to discover a jewel-like universe, a 3D model of galaxies in space. As we spin these, we discover hot spots. And when we investigate them, music begins to play. The music of the spheres has come unto the iPad.
At a stroke, Björk has created a disruption of her own. The album is over. It has been dying operatically since the 1990s, but it lives on, stubbornly, in our heads, a fixed idea of what music should be.
We’re captives of the old order. The accidents of industry, technology, and the marketplace gave us the 3-minute song bundled in multiples of 6 or 8 or 10 songs. And even after the album began to die, it remained an irresistible idea of what music was. Even as the world changed around us, we went plodding on.
But a few minutes with Biophilia and all bets are off. We see at once that music no longer comes to us when we “drop the needle” or “press play.” We can open it, interact with it, re-imagine it any number of ways. And it turns out the accidents of music are not Aristotelian. When we strip them away, music is different.
When we see what Biophilia means to music, we glimpse what it means for other things. My first thought: If I’m wedded to the song, then I’m probably a prisoner of the book too. So maybe my next book should be an app! One look at Biophilia and we understand that a book could just as easily take the form of images, drawings, diagrams, and, yes — if need be — text, in the form of an app that resides in the pint-sized computers that everyone takes everywhere.
And let’s not ignore the pragmatic genius of Biophilia. People pay for apps with a willingness they no longer feel for music. That’s the new convention. Björk’s magnificent innovation just happens to exploit this convention as a way of getting paid.
To be honest, I’m not crazy about the music of Biophilia. I preferred the Björk who belted out a show-tune while cart-wheeling past astonished pedestrians in the San Fernando Valley. (I identify with those pedestrians. I hadn’t seen anything like her either.) But the app has done its work, even if I never listen to it again.
Tina Brown’s innovation is the present double issue of Newsweek. The cover shows cast members from the TV show Mad Men. The yellow banner reads, WELCOME BACK TO 1965.
No idle reference, this. The back cover shows an ad for Allstate that looks — and probably is — 47 years old. Domtar, Hushpuppies, Geico, Tide, Johnnie Walker and Dunkin’ Donuts get in on the act with ads that are actually from the period, or at least artfully influenced by it. The author photo for Niall Ferguson is done with period perfection. We can’t quite believe he’s not holding a pipe.
The issue doesn’t just look like it comes from 1965, it also reads that way. One of the “news” stories: “Actor Ronald Reagan Nabs the GOP Nomination for California Governor.” Seeing our past as a work in progress makes us into gods. We summon the knowledge of things to come. We know Reagan eventually becomes the fortieth President of the United States. Clever us.
Eerie knowledge doesn’t attend our reading of an ordinary Newsweek. No, this feels more like forced witness. We are obliged to observe a world of such complexity in which reports seem thin, conclusions doubtful. The news magazine that once told us what the future holds now seems incapable of telling us what the present does. Locating the magazine in 1965, on the other hand, gives us powers of sight. How nice.
There are moments of confusion in this Newsweek. Are we looking at a story from 1965 or the present day? It takes a moment to tell. And I liked the wit-sharpening indeterminacy. Sometimes, past and present are artfully combined, as when David Frum looks at the two Romneys, George and Mitt. A useful comparison in any case.
Is the Mad Men issue merely a journalistic stunt, a way to draft Mad Men’s momentum? Well, yes and no. Certainly, a Mad Men reference lets Newsweek stick its finger in the socket of contemporary culture. Anything else looks dour and clueless. Once aristocratic in its detachment, the news magazine is now obliged to be both in and of contemporary culture. Plus, there are expressive, imaginative resources here to reckon with.
Björk and Brown are forcing their way out of old models into promising new ground. That these culturematics should come from the leaders in the field is a little strange. Perhaps that’s a mark of the turbulence of our culture and commerce, that leaders must risk their leads to sustain them. But it’s also true that innovation comes naturally to smart people. They are naturally restless and seeking.