Archive | Music and Other Popular Culture

Weekend Frivolity: The Tenth Level

“The Tenth Level” was a made-for-TV movie based on the Milgram experiments. It starred William Shatner (yes) as Stanley Milgram. It was also the film debut of John Travolta, or so Wikipedia tells me. The clip above is courtesy of a former student, Ben Balter.

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Politics Everywhere: Snooki


Politics everywhere: Snooki decries tanning tax in health care bill, says Obama targeted tanning b/c of “Jersey Shore.”

A good catch from Brendan Nyhan. He links to this Perez Hilton post. I suppose the remarks about the tanning tax occur somewhere amidst the 13-minute embedded video, but I could only watch for 2 minutes. Such is my tolerance for hair gel and fake tans.

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The Michelle Markup

Does our fashion-forward first lady affect the value of firms whose clothes she wears or ignores? Yes, says NYU professor David Yermack in his latest working paper “?The Michelle Markup: The First Lady’s Impact on Stock Prices of Fashion Companies.” It appears, however, that the effect is entirely redistributive: fashion companies that do not appeal to the first lady lose what the others gain. I am awaiting the working paper that evaluates whether campaign contributions of fashion companies affect wardrobe choices. The abstract is below:

I analyze changes in apparel company stock prices when Michelle Obama wears designer outfits at major events. The First Lady’s selections can create value exceeding $100 million for companies that design and market her clothing. The effect is approximately $2.3 billion during a 2009 European trip that the media labeled a “fashion faceoff” with her French counterpart Carla Bruni. However, firms whose clothing she chooses not to wear see their stock prices drop, and her net impact upon the industry amounts to a redistribution of value among firms. The First Lady’s influence on fashion firms represents a private benefit of public office, similar to private benefits of control obtained by corporate managers.

h/t National Affairs

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The Importance of Jello Biafra

A reporter from Alternative Press asked me these questions:

Do you think voters are more/less likely to vote for a candidate who has gained notoriety in an entertainment field, whether it’s music, film, etc?
If a musician or actor runs for office, does that affect voter turn out?
Do you think music is generally an effective means of political change? Are there any example of this?
Do you have an opinion on someone like Jello Biafra who attempted to transform a music career into a political one? Can running for office after writing highly politicized songs be construed as “putting your money where your mouth is”?

And I responded:

The quick answer to the first two questions is “we don’t know.” There’s just no good data on entertainment personalities per se. There is work on political “amateurs” more generally—particularly David Canon’s book Actors, Athletes, and Astronauts— and it suggests the hurdles that they face. First of all, experienced politicians are choosy about which races they enter. They are likely to run for offices when and where they have a decent chance of winning. Amateurs are then more likely to be “pushed out,” meaning that they don’t run, or, if they do run, likely to lose to the experienced candidate. So, other things equal, it is probably going to be harder for amateurs—including musicians—to be successful. The only thing going for entertainment personalities is that, if they are famous enough, voters will have heard of them, which helps them overcome one barrier that candidates face: becoming familiar to voters. This could make it more likely that voters would vote for them, but, again, we simply don’t know whether this is true.
On the question of music as an effective means of change: I think of it as a small factor, at best. Music is sometimes used by political actors—citizens, candidates, social movements, etc.—to symbolize their cause. But the most important factors are really the organizing and hard work of these actors themselves, combined with the circumstances that facilitate or impede political change. That is to say, political change happens when the time is right and when people work for it. Music can be a part of that but it’s hard to say that music itself causes much change.

Alas, I had no thoughts on Biafra himself.

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Monsieur Milgram

Egged on by a glamorous presenter, cries of “punishment” from a studio audience and dramatic music, the overwhelming majority of the participants obeyed orders to continue delivering the shocks – despite the man’s screams of agony and pleas for them to stop.

A French game show mimicked the Milgram experiment. About 80% of contestants obeyed until the highest shock level. The story is here. The game show actually found a higher level of obedience than the baseline experiment in Milgram. This could perhaps be attributed to the urgings of the audience, the music, etc.

[Hat tip to Alyx Mark.]

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What to Give a Political Scientist for Christmas?

Over at the Freaknomics blog, there is a debate about what to give an economist for Christmas, given the deadweight loss of presents. I don’t think that political scientists are quite as insistent on putting a damper on a merry time but perhaps you guys have some good gift ideas for political scientists? In the mean time, the following gift-giving advice that fits economists’ prescriptions:

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Saint Nicholas and Black Pete


In my native the Netherlands, Saint Nicholas arrives by steamboat from Spain and distributes presents on December 5th while riding on a white horse over the rooftops. I have little trouble explaining the logic of all this to my American friends, especially when I point out that their “saint” arrives with quite less dignified means of transportation from the North Pole on Christmas (dec. 5 is st. Nicholas’ birthday) . Not to mention the elves.

Jaws drop, however, when I mention that Saint Nicholas (sinterklaas) is helped by a number of black assistants all conveniently named Black Pete (zwarte piet). These assistants carry around big sacks in which they transport candy for the good kids but they also have tools for punishing the naughty who, legend has, may end up in Black Pete’s sack to be transported to Spain.

Most of my American friends need no further proof of the backwardness of Dutch culture. How can a seemingly civilized nation indoctrinate small children with such stereotypes reminiscent of colonialism and the slave trade? Steven Colbert poked fun at it by citing it as a perfect example of “Christmas originalism” (about 1:40 in). Yet in the Netherlands, it hasn’t been all that controversial. Sure, Black Pete has become a lot less silly and a lot smarter in sinterklaas stories. One racist line from a sinterklaas song was removed. The Dutch version of PBS once replaced Black Pete with a rainbow colored version but quickly returned to the old fashioned model. It just isn’t a big deal. On Facebook I can find a “Zwarte Piet must Stay!” group but no group that argues the opposite (the Facebook group mentions unspecified “others” who oppose Black Pete).

I’ll let you guys decide whether this is definitive proof of backwardness or just evidence of a healthy laid back attitude . After all people are perfectly capable of developing racial prejudices without Black Pete. In the mean time, I am going to think about how to explain all this to my daughter, a little Dutch girl growing up in the U.S.

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The Washington Nationals finally give their fans something to cheer about…

It’s been a long season for the Nats. True, they somehow managed an eight-game winning streak along the way, but even with that they’ve compiled the worst record in major league baseball by far. And some of their losses have been epic. Take, for example, the one in which, with the score tied in the bottom of the ninth and runners on second and third with one out, the Nats’ pitcher was issuing an intentional walk in order to fill the bases and set up a double play possibility. A good move, strategically. But while the pitcher was beginning his delivery on one of the balls he was intentionally lobbing wide of the plate, he got his feet tangled up and stopped his pitching motion. “Balk!,” screamed the umpire, waving the runner in from third base to score a game-winning intentional-walk walk-off balk. It’s been that kind of year.

Anyway, on August 8, the Nats gladdened the hearts of the home crowd, not with the quality of their play on the field, but with the great rendition of the National Anthem that Glenn Donnellan, a violinist for the National Symphony Orchestra, played on his Louisville Slugger. And here it is.

[Hat tip to Chris Deering]

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My Summer Reading

Henry’s “Holiday Reading” entry, just below, emboldens me to mention the last two books I’ve read. Both are political novels and I highly recommend them both, but that’s where their similarity ends.

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Windy City, by Scott Simon (yes, the NPR guy), is an engaging novel of Chicago politics. If you’re not a politics junkie, you’ll probably be bored, but I think it’s safe to assume that the great majority of the people who are reading this blog entry are politics junkies, so I’m not too worried about the boredom possibility. Mimicking Chicago politics itself, the novel abounds in ethnic stereotypes, albeit in a celebratory way, and it does go too long, describing every ficitional member of Chicago’s oversized city council, lengthy and providing verbatim accounts of long-winded speeches and second-by-second descriptions of numerous public and private events. But I found it an engaging read, and along the way I learned a lot about Chicago politics, urban politics, and just plain politics.

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The Stalin Epigram, by Robert Littell, is something else again. Littell, in case you’re not familiar with him, is the author of a shelfful of Cold War espionage novels, but if you’re thinking “Tom Clancy” here, think again, because he is way better than that. I especially appreciate his magnum opus, The Company, though, again, it’s probably too long and convoluted for those with only a casual interest in the tradecraft of intelligence (although, come to think of it, I myself have only a passing interest in the tradecraft of intelligence). Anyway, I approached The Stalin Epigram expecting more of the same—that is, expecting it to be a typical Littell offering. That means I expected it to be a literate inside view of what are normally assumed to have been the competing intelligence establishments of the combatants in the Cold War. Littell’s recurring theme in those novels (which eventually become so formulaic that if you’ve read a couple of them, you pretty well know where the next one is going) is that the methods and, more importantly, the interests of the two sides often converged, so that, in a sense, the two melded into one another and you—and even the participants themselves—couldn’t tell the good guys from the bad guys.

And now, totally unexpectedly to me, comes The Stalin Epigram. I don’t want to say much about it, because you should “discover” it for yourself. I will say that it’s set in the Soviet Union primarily in the 1930s and that it chronicles events triggered by the dissident poet Josip Mandelstam’s recitation, to a few friends, of a poem disparaging Stalin. Littell uses many voices, including those of Stalin’s bodyguard, Mandelstam’s wife, his and her lover, and even an illiterate weightlifter, to tell Mandelstam’s story. It’s an extraordinary performance —wonderfully written and, to me at least, absolutely riveting. I have no hesitancy about placing it right up there with Solzhenitsyn at his best.. It may seem over the top to equate this novel, by an author whose ouevre consists of a succession of espionage-focused thrillers, with the work of a winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, but see for yourself and you might just agree.

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