Uncategorized

Review: The magic spell of Hamilton on stage

I had the good fortune last night of sitting in the third row to see Hamilton, Lin Manuel Miranda’s crowning hip-hop opera detailing the life of founding father Alexander Hamilton.

I’d listened to the show a few times and enjoyed the virtuosity of the lyrics and the cleverness of casting complex issues of revolutionary history, like the foundation of the American banking system, into amusing, trash-talking, over-the-top rap battles.

But seeing the show captured what listening to it could not, the moving emotional arc of Hamilton’s story, from obscurity to an early grave, with all the prizes and penalties of life in between.

His life had that quality of drama and scope which seems so often to apply to figures from the long 19th Century. He knew poverty, wealth, fame, peace, war, love, sex, illness, health, ugliness, and beauty. He was an orphan, a soldier, a lawyer, banker, high government official, husband, father, rake, grandee, and, above all, a writer. At every moment in his life, he wrote his way forward, out, and up. His words, like the lyrics that Lin Manuel drew forth from the story of his life, were armor and incantation, a means of analysis and redemption. He made a career and a new nation from them.

The three hours of the show are like a Greek mass I once heard sung continuously from the light of dawn until well into the morning. At the end of the performance, the language and the power of language entranced me.

Love and thanks to Bevan Thomas and my parents for the tickets, and for finally getting me out of my office and into the room where it happens.

Why genre matters, some thoughts on some thoughts by Namwali Serpell

Give this piece on genre a read. It’s by the very talented Namwali Serpell, a writer who sat through the same sort’ve high literary education I did, and who says she has found liberation as a reader and writer in genre fiction.

The literary gripe against genre fiction is that it’s designed to fulfill a form or meet the expectations of a marketplace rather then be a true expression of the human spirit, unfettered by convention. A mystery novel, with its prescribed crime, perpetrator, detective, and solution can never aspire to the heights of a high modernist work like the novels of Virginia Woolf, for example, and is therefore not worth our serious attention as readers or our aspirations as writers.

The catch, as I discovered while secretly devouring Issac Asimov books between final exams in college and have never quite recovered from, is that genre can, because of its accessibility, take over your imagination in a way that free form works almost never can. The other catch is that much great art, from Homer to Dickens, is much closer to genre than we are taught. It uses familiar forms to give shape to thought and sensibility, and to pass them on to the reader, sometimes across centuries. What is enthralling is what is also so effective about genre pieces. They are why I tune in, turn the page, or pick up the next volume on my shelf — because I know I will feel welcome on the page. 

Once you’re in a genre as a reader (or even as a writer, I imagine) then you’re free to ironize and problematize and play with convention as much as you like. Artists have been doing that almost since the forms they work in were invented. Shakespeare makes fun of plays. Spenser and Milton, the great English epic poets, make fun of or get really self-conscious about epic pretty much from the get go. Irony is nothing new. But we can read old genre books, even the really ironic ones, because, like an old master who has taken the time to paint the world as it really looks, they express themselves in forms we instantly recognize. 

Genre, as Serpell suggests, can be petty. But I’d say rather in the sense that to be small (petit) is also to be humble and homely. It’s only by starting out where people are that you can lead them to wonders. 

On writing: Lyric copywriting v. long-form

To be a bore, one merely has to say everything.

-Voltaire

I’m not the kind of copywriter who tends to write short. I write business-to-business pieces, mostly, which are meant to draw you in, explain the world, and then explain why my clients make something or deliver a service that will make the world better, starting with you, the reader. I want you to read what I’ve written and sound smarter in the next meeting with your boss or client, and that takes time to do. 

When you’re about to spend $8 on a burger, shorter copy is better (“I’m lovin’ it”).

When you’re about to spend $2 million on a piece of industrial machinery, a three-word slogan just doesn’t cut it. The longer and more informative the copy, the better it tends to boost sales or reputation.

But even then, an economy of words is necessary. Every sentence has to balance on a knife’s edge of being informative or soporific. After all, the next sentence might be the one where you stop reading. 

It takes talent to write a short slogan, akin to singing a song or shooting a perfect basket from across the court. But it takes endurance and discipline to write long and not falter.

In the copywriting world, writers of short copy are the rockstars, poets, and abstract expressionist painters. But us long-form copywriters are the novelists, symphony writers, teachers, and genre painters. We are (and I say this affectionately) what Samuel Johnson called the lexicographer: “A harmless drudge.” Our superpower is endurance. Our spells take longer to cast, but are, in my opinion, more powerful for it. 

That said, I have this cartoon pinned where I can see it from my keyboard, to remind me never to overstay my welcome. 

The commodification of everything

Including commodification, it seems, in the form of Andy Warhol’s personal brand. From “Warhol’s Bleak Prophecy” in this issue of The Atlantic:

Maybe it’s never been easier to make the case for his powers of influence because his afterlife has paralleled the rise of neoliberalism—the attempt to turn over all human activity, no matter how sacred, to the marketplace. Neoliberalism is simply Warholism as a theory of governance.

Christmas is everybody’s favorite fable of commercialization, a once sacred holiday turned first into an excuse for excess consumption and then into a dull obligation to engage in it. Leave it up to artists to form the dreams that one day become the creed of nations, as Goethe put it, I think. Except that in Warhol’s case they were airless, ironic dreams. I prefer his sensibility as art, not a daily way of life.

What do you think?

Copy critique: Believe

Snapped this tonight on 34th Street.

For those of you not familiar with New York, the area around Macy’s, whose door is shown in the photo, is bleak. The streets can never handle the number of tourists, the hordes of travellers flowing in and out of the mouths of Pennsylvania Station, and the homeless and just plain lost. Walking on 34th Street at night in winter is to stroll down an avenue on the way to one of Bosch’s hells.

Perhaps it was this way in the 1930s when Miracle on 34th Street was first filmed, which makes the idea of a miracle there all the more improbably.

Yet seeing these letters, with their period script and obvious reference to the film, made me stop like a tourist and snap this photo. In that moment, I believed.

It was Macy’s consumer advertising which made me want to go into advertising, and it’s clear they’ve still got the magic.

For your long weekend read: The secrets of the great magician

While the secrets of his tricks are not revealed in this article, a profile of master magician Ricky Jay, the piece will still make you feel like you’ve just seen something impossible happen in front of your eyes.

Among the tricks described: Cards merely thought of but not named aloud by bystanders appear rolled up inside the necks of wine bottles, pristine blocks of ice seem to materialize inside cars on hot days, cards flicked into the air toward the audience return like boomerangs into the hands of the magician, who is calm through it all, mesmerizing the audience with the power of his words and his patter.

Published twenty-five years ago in The New Yorker and reposted on their website on the occasion of Jay’s death last month, the article itself is a magic trick. You think you’re learning about magic, but actually you’re learning about a lost world of mountebanks, eccentrics, mad men, old world charm, lost treasure, and books so rare they’ve been almost entirely forgotten, even by the profession that lives by their secrets. You think you’re reading about a magician, but actually you’re reading about a great artist, atop his profession but also secluded from it.

Ricky Jay, you will be missed.

Copy critique: When you ride ALONE you ride with Hitler!

Here’s another gem from the FDR presidential library and museum in Hyde Park. It’s an effective pair of headline and call-to-action, the kind we’d still discuss creating today. And the rhetoric itself is something you might recognize from ads to raise awareness of climate change, or advocate car pooling.

Eleven words of copy. One ghost Hitler. All you need to change hearts and minds.