Archive for May, 2011

The Song Remains the Same (again)

Thursday, May 26th, 2011

Yes, I realize I’m repeating a song-title-as-blog-post-title, but the alternative coming to mind was “I Write the Songs,” and after last time’s fiasco with a Spice Girls song, I couldn’t incur a second strike with Barry Manilow….

I saw a musical performance tonight that involved a kids’ chorus singing an-all vocal arrangement. Because I’m a huge philanthropy nerd, it got me thinking about the nature of replication.

I’ve been learning to play “Let’s Get Lost” by Chet Baker a few different ways: on guitar; then on ukulele; then the past couple of weeks while on the road without either of those two instruments, slowly and laboriously on a piano app on my iPad. I don’t play a lot of jazz, so the chord changes are tricky for me, but I enjoy the intellectual and musical process of figuring out how to make the chord voicings work on different instruments.

A voicing is which specific combination of notes you play to form a chord. A Cmaj7 chord, which starts off “Let’s Get Lost,” is C-E-G-B. But depending where on the guitar neck you play it, the voicing can be C-E-G-B-E (the most common) or C-G-B-E-G on the third fret (probably the next most common). They’re both Cmaj7, but they sound very different. The first voicing has three open strings, so it’s very chimey and ringing. The second voicing has no open strings, so it sounds tighter and more muted – jazzier, in a way. It also has a higher highest note, so it’s genuinely different sounding – the G is emphasized at a one-octave interval, whereas the E is emphasized more in the first version.

I don’t have the vaguest understanding of how this all works when you’re doing vocal arrangements, as the musical group I saw tonight did. There, you’re interpreting a song by emphasizing certain elements over others, building the harmonies in certain ways that may be similar or different from the “original” version.

Which is where replication comes in. When you hear a cover version of a familiar song, it can be disconcerting. Sometimes it’s even an improvement. But often it just seems strange and unfamiliar. The same lyrics, the same melody, the same chord progressions, can be interpreted in so many different ways, based on the artist’s, band’s, or producer’s predilections and tastes. Often covers deconstruct an elaborately produced original, like on those old “MTV Unplugged” shows. Sometimes they do the opposite, gussying up something that was originally very simple, like (shudder) 3-Tenors versions of popular songs.

Which gets me thinking about the uses of replication. In music, it’s often not intended to get the same result as the original: Nirvana singing “The Man Who Sold the World” wanted a different reaction than David Bowie singing his original. The Nirvana version made interesting use of the limitations of the “MTV Unplugged” format, using a cello instead of a sustained electric guitar tone in a way that was quite lovely.

So when we look at the replication of social programs, and what it means to achieve scale, I think about musicians and cover versions. What is this replication, this cover version, trying to accomplish? Will a new arrangement get a new audience, like when Glee brings a Journey song to the top of the iTunes charts? Replication has to be relevant or it won’t work, and relevance is so dependent on context and non-rational cues (back to the Imp of the Perverse).

Whether it’s the idea of “stickiness” or how certain videos go viral, social programs have a lot to learn from how popular culture handles replication.

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Two Become One

Wednesday, May 18th, 2011

Did I just use a Spice Girls song title for the title of this blog post?! Saints preserve us…

I was talking with a colleague who mentioned the complicated nature of a particular government form, where documentation had to be obtained in triplicate. In wondering about why people hate the government so much, it occurs to me that we need a more integrated perspective on government action. One part is something I’ve mentioned previously, the need for non-anti-governmentalists (in other words, people who see government as something other than an automatic force for bad, maybe even potentially a force for good) to recognize and work on the very real experience in people’s lives of government incompetence and waste. You can’t look credible defending government action in principle without addressing government inefficiencies in practice.

Another part of a more integrated perspective on government action has to do with the economic function of government action. The root of one form of anti-governmentalism lies in economics, a discipline conditioned to see government action as inherently less efficient than private action. The concept of “rent-seeking” is a way of talking about corruption – a “rent” is some economic gain, whether a sweetheart deal for a relative or a straight-up bribe. Government contracts offer rents, and politicians, in the economic model, are seen primarily as rent-seekers. (Political science differs in also seeing politicians as motivated by maintaining office, not just to preserve access to rents, but as an end in itself – because people love power.)

On the other hand, sociologically there’s something interesting about government as a potential guarantor of equal opportunity. Transparency in public proceedings is meant to make decision-making more fair. Many public funding agencies have to have some of their meetings open to the public. (Good luck proposing that at your typical private foundation!)

So, two visions of government action: rent-seeking and fairness through transparency. What if it’s both? What if the application form is in triplicate both to give someone a job or an economic rent and to be more fair/accountable? This is what I mean by a more integrated perspective on government action. I don’t think we have it, and it would be helpful in talking about the role of government in society.

Get Out the Map

Thursday, May 5th, 2011

Brief post today to flag a couple of comments I made on the always-essential Tactical Philanthropy blog about the concept of a “Philanthropy Compass” that helps donors┬ámap out their values:

The Value of Mapping Philanthropic Beliefs

The Philanthropy Compass Version One

One topic I’d like to tease out on this blog is from the second comment, about how a Philanthropy Compass might relate to the varieties-of-capitalism/varieties-of-philanthropy concept I’ve written about at various points here.