A love letter to my wife on our 15th anniversary, masquerading as a blog post about culture.

Us, on a beach

The other night we were having socially-distanced drinks with friends-and-fellow-NYC-transplants Rachel and Josh, engaged in a lively debate about the merits and pitfalls of genre labeling. Josh shared that he had extensively studied the history of musical improvisation from 1300 to today. This fact alone is worthy of a follow-up post, but suffice it to say that this took us down a fascinating line of conversation. And it prompted my wife Meagan to tell a story that was both new to me and a reminder of why I fell in love with her in the first place.

She said, “I grew up in small town Texas – a living Friday Night Lights (here, in fact.) And I can tell you that I did not like jazz. We listened to Country and we listened to Rock. Verse Verse Chorus Verse. Highly predictable. And anything with improvisation was weird and boring and unpredictable. But then I began to travel around the world. And then I moved away. First to Memphis, Oxford, finally to New York, with very few acquaintances to start. And everything there was just so new, and I learned quickly that the world had a lot more possibility. It was spending the wee hours at clubs like Smalls where I started to get it. As I was learning how to live and embrace a varied life, I learned how to appreciate what improvisation was doing, and I loved it. Still do.”

I always knew that Meagan came from a small town, and that there was enormous pressure to conform – to religious beliefs, social norms, gender roles, political affiliation – and she broke from all of it to carve her own path. But I had never fully appreciated how art, film and music, in the form of late nights at Smalls (or her film degree, or etc.), were a way to both accelerate the expanding of her horizons, and to keep her from falling back, both geographically and psychologically.

I can’t think of a more beautiful expression of our goals here with Influenced It. Culture, in all its forms, expands our horizons, deepens our appreciation for other points of view, and pushes us forward. Our goal in mapping influences is to shine a light on the ineffable connections between artists and art, provide new pathways of discovery, and make the experience of culture just a little bit richer.

Meagan has never accepted the status quo of what life could have offered her. She had to work to become who she is. She could have been very happy and successful staying in Texas. I am grateful she did not. Over our 18 years together, now 15 married as of today, her wanderlust has broken me out of my own comfort zones and prejudices in countless ways. I’ve traveled to places around the world that I would never have visited. I’ve devoured things I would never have eaten. I’ve listened to and watched things I would never have chosen on my own. Her indelible influence has made me a way better version of myself.

It’s this aspiration to broaden horizons, this openness to other perspectives and forms of expression, that Meagan has so intuitively lived, and that she generously has given to me. So, even though this project has been brewing in both of our hearts for years, today I am dedicating it to her. Happy anniversary, babe.

Love, T

A wildly-irresponsible experiment

We probably shouldn’t be doing this.

All the feedback about The Beatles chart, what’s good and what’s missing, makes us think there must be a better way to capture the wisdom of the crowd than in fb comment threads. We could do this with a wiki, but the data would not be structured enough. We could do this with a database, but we’re too early to commit to a data design yet. SO, that leaves us with…a publicly-editable google doc:

The Beatles influence data

I can probably think of a dozen really good reasons to not publish a google doc for public editing on a social media platform, but I’m also not sure of how else to completely remove contribution friction without a little bit of risk. And, hey, what nefarious thing has ever happened on a social media platform, AMIRITE?

The doc currently has all influences from The Beatles influence chart, with wherever I could find a direct quote or other reputable source. Every connection should have context. But don’t sweat it. Contribute whatever you’ve got now and we can add to it later:

Add your ideas, ideally with a reference, to this spreadsheet, and let’s see what happens, shall we?

Beatles map follow-ups

So many good things generated on social media from our last post, entirely focused on The Beatles map, which makes me think that folks didn’t actually read the full post? But I digress. Among the conversational highlights:

  • I accidentally had two arrows pointing to Led Zeppelin. Thank you for spotting this Ian!
  • Some additions to “Influenced by The Beatles”: Harry Nillson, Twisted Sister, Jefferson Airplane.
  • A reader rightly pointed out that pretty much everything was influenced by The Beatles in some form or another. I agree, and should have explicitly acknowledged in the last post that mapping The Beatles is an impossible exercise. It‚Äôs probably also the least interesting! The goal of the site is to map the unseen, the underrepresented, and to provide pathways of discovery to new art and artists based on what you know you love. The Beatles was a starting point because it was a low friction effort, as they are so big and so well-documented.
  • Listen to this brief, delightful and relevant Paul McCartney interview clip!
  • This fantastic video that visualizes the best selling artists over the last several decades.
  • Until we have an algorithm, we need people. And if we have people, we need an easier way for people to contribute. Coming soon!

How does one map an influence?

As we begin to map influences, a whole bunch of questions arise about how the map should work. How best to represent the context of the relationship? Was the influence in the form of a direct reference, a sound, a mood, or something more ineffable? The genre whiteboard was a good warm-up exercise, but the more useful and challenging mapping is of both artists and individual works of art. Movies are a little easier than music, because they are relatively finite. Let’s look at my favorite film of all time, Raiders of the Lost Ark along with the rest of the Indiana Jones series. I’m stopping after Last Crusade, out of a deep-seated denial that anything happened (or is happening) after that.

The map needs to do a few things: 1.) acknowledge predecessors and successors, ideally by year or decade; 2.) recognize artists (like the Japanese actor Toshiro Mifune) whose whole body of work serves as an influence; similar vibe for “Bond Series” – it’s a character as influence more than a specific film 3.) demonstrate the positive and not-so-positive influence on the medium, post-release. This map only has a fraction of the long-forgotten list of knock-offs (Looking at you, Allan Quartermain).

The big flaw here is the absence of context for each of these references. There’s an incredibly rich and detailed history of the influences of this particular film, from the transcripts of the weekend screenwriting blitz between Spielberg, Lucas and Kasdan, to fan-made comparisons of every visual reference in the first few minutes of the film.

Music is a little trickier, because musicians stay alive for a while (generally), and so their influences invariably evolve over time. They interact with their influences, and often influence them right back. And so predecessors, successors AND contemporaries need to be recognized:

Beatles influence map, marked up

This gets at the flow, but what if we want to represent the actual lifetime, and active work period for a given artist. Here is a map that shows Bruce Springsteen’s influences, but with each recorded album for each artist plotted on a consistent timeline. Gray line is lifetime, white box is active career, each box represents an album. Bruce in the middle – influenced by below, influence to on top:

A lot to unpack in this! I was shocked when I made this at how short and dense The Beatles active and publishing periods were. Still a lot more to think about, but these visualizations set the stage for how we will be approaching the mapping of influence going forward. Let us know what you think!

(Perennial request to 1.) share this post and site with anybody you think would be interested, and 2.) follow us on fb, tw, ig, and 3.) vote.)

The Great Depression Gap

Something struck us when we assembled the digital version of the music whiteboard. There was a decade-long gap in the 1930s where no major new genres of music emerged in the United States, in stark contrast to the decades before or since. That’s not to say that there was no new music. But the economic and social strain of the time seems to have driven a change in consumption and creation patterns.

In an impressively comprehensive post on the history of recorded music in the late 1800s-1950, Vinylmint writes that “the onset of the Great Depression combined with the ever-growing popularity of radios caused the near-total collapse of the record industry in the early 30s…Total annual record sales dropped from about a hundred million in 1927 to just six million in 1932.” The Jazz age was drawing to a close, Swing and Big Band were on the rise, and Country continued to evolve and splinter into different regional forms. People were drawn to known entities on the radio, either by nostalgia, a need to commiserate, or for the brief respite of a Benny Goodman tune.

It’s interesting to think about where we are now, with the music industry in peril due to COVID-19. What impact does the absence of live music festivals, smaller concert venues and touring artists have on the flow of culture across people and geographies? What do we lose without the physical intermingling of voices, ideas and sounds? Can online cultural experiences close the gap at all, or do they draw us further into silos? It will be years before we have any sense.

——-

Well that ended on a bit of a grim note! Still, share this with all your friends and loved ones, and let us know if you have any interest in posting your own voice and expertise on our site.

-Tony, 10/14/20

A Bigger Whiteboard

As mentioned in the Reboot post, it quickly became clear that our efforts to map the history of culture, starting with music, could not be sufficiently represented in two-dimensional physical space, nor would a whiteboard allow us to leverage the wisdom of the community to make additions, fill blind spots, and treat this as a living document. Friends-of-the-site Michael and Amanda suggested we look into LucidChart, and, as collaborative charting software goes, it’s pretty dope.1 Above is a first draft of the music influence chart (Genre lens), which is a confluence of School of Rock, John Lee Hooker, Wikipedia, our friends, and ourselves. It addresses some of the issues identified in the previous post, tries to plot influence over a consistent structured timeline, and adds underrepresented genres like Calypso, Swing, and Hair Bands. Still, it is not nearly done.

One annoying thing is that I cannot embed the interactive version of the chart in WordPress (for totally legitimate security reasons), and so you’ll have to click the chart above to zoom in, or link here to really interact (new tab). Removing the two-dimensional constraint allows us to represent artists on a separate layer. So, if you click on the Country bubble (on desktop), you get this:

It’s a bit messy, but it suggests that once genres are established, they keep going, they evolve with the artists attributed to them, and can either strengthen or fade over time.

It’s fun to poke around this chart but it’s even more fun to add to it. If you want to fidget, please email us: influenced.it *at* gmail.com.

This brings me to an important, probably-obvious point about the project. Meagan and I cannot do this by ourselves. We need a vast community of friends, family and perfect strangers to contribute influence connections, context, references and ideas. We need help building algorithms and web scrapers and all manor of sketch, argument and widget. We need perspectives from different cultures, geographies, upbringings, and experiences. And we absolutely cannot pay anyone a dime for this help ūüôā

In the 48 hours since our first big post, there has been an inspiring outpouring of support. We thank you for the positive vibes, and promise to feed positive vibes back to you in the form of progress on this project. Stay tuned.

(Perennial request to 1.) share this post and site with anybody you think would be interested, and 2.) follow us on fb, tw, ig, and 3.) vote.)

1I am not getting paid for this. But I’m open to it, LucidChart.

Reboot Reboot

Home Whiteboard, September 11th, 2020

It had been stirring in my mind at a low simmer since my previous startup, Renew, announced that it was closing its doors in January 2020. We had six severance-fueled weeks to figure out what we were going to do with our lives, and with that bit of breathing room I thought to myself: “I already know what I want to do with my life, but I still don’t know how to make a living doing it.” I dusted off the old Keynote deck that I wrote in 2013, when I considered pursuing venture capital for the project. I gave my most spirited pitch to whomever of my dear brilliant newly-unemployed colleagues would listen. Every time I repeated the idea, the flame in my belly grew a little more. I still believe in this thing. I still want this thing to exist somehow.

Fast forward nine months, through various consulting engagements, through the complete dismantling of society, through the start of an exciting new job in the field of healthcare AI, and the flame had not waned. Still, I hadn’t done anything. Then one Friday in mid-September the family was out and I was alone, staring at a blank whiteboard, feeling inspired by my new job and the exposure to brilliant people doing impactful things, and the fire perked up just enough for me to get to work.

The grand vision of influenced.it has always been to map the currents of culture across mediums – music, art, literature, movies, tv, etc. – and we’ve had a bunch of false starts over the years because it seems so hard to get it right, or to even figure out where to start. I’ve mellowed with age since Meagan and I started working on this concept over eight years ago, and I’ve come to terms with not knowing the perfect way to express these connections at the outset. So, to reboot, I went with what I know, what inspired me first, what I talk about in the project manifesto, which is that I want to make this chart, but living and structured, and for everything.

Chalkboard, School of Rock (2003)

The School of Rock chalkboard, only on screen for about five seconds in the movie, took months of research for the filmmakers to construct, and so it only makes sense to acknowledge the profound influence that those five seconds had on me, and then build on it. So, I would start there, but with one crucial addition:

John Lee Hooker, Music Inn (Stockbridge, MA), ca. 1950. Artist: Clemens Kalischer

This photo of John Lee Hooker, by the late great Clemens Kalischer, was a clear influence on the School of Rock chalkboard, and conveniently dives even further back into music history, with the Blues as its endpoint. (More on this photo and how it came into our lives in a future post.) Suffice it to say, I had two source charts to merge:

Home Whiteboard, 8pm

A few issues quickly surfaced:

  1. There is a mismatch in levels of granularity between the two sources. Does “Hillbilly” warrant a bubble in the same way that “Rap” warrants a bubble? What justifies a bubble?
  2. There are no dates, but there is a presumptive time flow from left to right. Jamming in all the blues history in the bottom left breaks the visual metaphor. Here is where you imagine me making the argument to my wife: “Our massive whiteboard isn’t big enough to fit the Blues.”
  3. The expected rock-centric nature of a School of Rock chalkboard entails an omission of other genres – Pop, Swing, Classical, Alternative, Reggae, etc.
  4. The source charts stop at the 1970s.

Next, sprinkle in artists:

Home Whiteboard, 9pm

Neat, BUT, a few more issues emerge:

  • Placing an artist in a bucket feels intrinsically limiting and inevitably triggering
  • This is particularly glaring when the names sit next to each other. Do Neil Diamond and KISS belong under the same classification? I mean, I’d definitely buy a ticket to that double-header, but still.
  • How best to express genre-bridgers and who warrants that? Jimi Hendrix skirting the arrow between psychedelic rock and hard rock works, I think, but there are so many others.

Next, add dates:

Home Whiteboard, 9:30pm

Some more issues:

  • Decade are sourced from wikipedia. They are meant to indicate when this genre came into prominence, but start dates, even vague ones, are limiting (and probably triggering)
  • How best to represent artists that arose well after stated decade. What of the Soul artists of the modern era? Erykah Badu? Amy Winehouse? Jill Scott?

Speaking of women and representation, soon after I finished a first draft of the board – genre, linkages, artists, decades – the family came home and Meagan got to work, in red. Looks like I may have a blind spot!

So, by the end of this whiteboard session, I think we landed in a pretty good place. And this is how we rebooted Influenced.It. We have ideas about what we need to do next, we have much more work to do, we have friends helping us out, and we’re psyyyyyyyched. ūü§ė

Home Whiteboard, 11:30pm. Time for sleep.

-Tony, Oct 8, 2020

Get A Life

get-a-life

In this comprehensive post on Rotten Tomatoes, Nathan Rabin explores the long and impressive legacy of the criminally-underrated Chris Elliot vehicle, Get A Life. ¬†This show was far and away one of my favorites growing up, and I could barely explain it to anybody I knew. ¬†It was just a weird thing with this weird guy on this weird new-ish network. ¬†In retrospect, it was my first exposure to the kind of surreal comedy I’d come¬†to love years later with¬†things like¬†Mr. Show and the films of Charlie Kaufman. ¬†Then it shouldn’t be surprising to me that Kaufman and Bob Odenkirk, among many others, got their start on Get a Life. ¬†A partial list of folks that contributed to the show:

  • David Mirkin, who would go on to produce seasons 5 and 6 of The Simpsons
  • Adam Resnick, who would go on to write for The Larry Sanders Show and Letterman
  • Seinfeld writer Marjorie Gross
  • Roseanne producer Steve Pepoon
  • Dexter writer/producer¬†Jace Richdale
  • Wings writer¬†Ian Gurvitz
  • Mr. Show creator and current Better Call Saul star Bob Odenkirk
  • Screenwriter Charlie Kaufman

And among work that the article cites as being influenced by the show (we need to verify these):