Tuesday, March 15, 2011

The Persistent Question of Talent

Following her buzzworthy appearance on SNL over the weekend, newly minted pop star Jessie J appeared on Jezebel in a video that I made a few weeks ago (below). Jezebel's Dodai Stewart used the video, which features an impromptu performance in the Times Square subway station, as evidence that Jessie J could in fact sing. Stewart wanted to emphasize that, as Jessie J continues her quick ascent to the top of the Top 40, she is somehow deserving of her newfound success--she has Talent. But why does it matter?

I don't ask this in a cynical, pop-music-is-manufactured-garbage sort of way. Honestly, why do we always end up judging a creative professional's popularity and success against a perceived level of Talent?



This week marks the start of March Madness, as college basketball teams from around the country are hoping to be this year's Cinderella Story--a team that is able to upset an opponent possessing a great deal more talent. In the NCAA college basketball tournament, as with every other team sport competition, the public celebrates teams that overcome an apparent lack of raw talent to succeed. It's what American sports culture is built on.

A significant part of what makes the NFL the country's most popular sports institution is that many of its successful players do not possess bona fide talent. Tom Brady, currently the highest paid player in the league and a certain Hall of Famer, was the 199th pick in the draft. Brady's favorite receiver last season was 5'9" Wes Welker (left), who went undrafted out of college. The success of Brady and Welker, and others like them, is prized exactly because it occurs in spite of an overt level of Talent. When Brady and Welker celebrate a touchdown, sports fans don't mumble, "Sure they're successful but Brady isn't nearly as talented as Courtney Brown" (the player selected #1 in Brady's draft class, who was cut from the league in 2007).

Now I know that comparing creative pursuits with sports is a little apples-and-oranges, but the very reason that it is apples-and-oranges is instructive: success in sports is achieved without the public's involvement while success in personal expression requires public involvement. A football player can quiet critics with a successful performance; an artist will never be able to silence doubters because they are active participants in the game--they buy albums, watch movies, and download books.

The question of Talent persists for artists because we are all purveyors and consumers of culture. An artist's legacy is not judged on execution--as an athlete's is--but rather on how we all feel about that execution. Personal expression demands appraisal. But what often gets lost in our constant evaluation (and valuation) of creative achievements is an appreciation for the accomplishment itself. The criticism of art scholars, record store shoppers, and culture bloggers often fails to take into consideration that the ability to do something, anything, on a grand scale requires its own kind of talent. We celebrate Tom Brady's ability to competently perform under intense pressure so why do we scrutinize Jessie J when she does the same? Why can't we celebrate artists for achieving success through that most prized element of American sports: hustle?

I would say that the attention should be less on those that can do and more on those that just do.

Or to put it a different way: as Jay-Z once asked, "Would you rather be underpaid or overrated?"

Saturday, October 16, 2010

In Pursuit of Hits, Newsmakers Become the Story

On Friday, the Chicago Tribune ran an editorial from veteran columnist Mary Schmich titled "Here's what makes a good boss." In honor of National Bosses Day, Schmich produced a list of what a good boss should do and be. Published amid accusations of boorish behavior and overall incompetence leveled against Schmich's employers, the column can either be read as blithely innocuous or incredibly sarcastic. Overrun by chest-puffing media marauders, Tribune Co. has lately served as a versatile symbol for everything that's wrong in today's media industry. Tribune's tales of dwindling newspaper circulation, foolhardy Big Ideas, and egocentric management, are now common among major media organizations. What does not seem to be common is something like Schmich's editorial. Finding herself standing at a podium with ample material--and no doubt some very personal feelings on the matter--Schmich decided to deliver a sly, even esoteric, message about her employers. It's almost hard to believe that such deference exists anymore. In a world where the story of the news is the news, Schmich improbably decided to step to the side.

Appearing on MSNBC's "Morning Joe" on Friday, John Ridley of ThatMinorityThing.com described the current state of news media as an "echosphere in which we're just feeding each other." His comments were in response to MSNBC host Dylan Ratigan's rant about Islamophobic fear-mongering, which stemmed from a discussion about Whoopi Goldberg and Joy Behar walking off the set of "The View" in response to comments made by the show's guest Bill O'Reilly, host of Fox News' "The O'Reilly Factor." Shortly after Ridley spoke these words, video of the segment appeared on The Huffington Post under the headline "Dylan Ratigan Blasts Bill O'Reilly," and thus the "echosphere" was fully realized. What Ratigan and O'Reilly and The Huffington Post have successfully done, both this week and over the past few years, is to foster a significant shift in the way that media organizations operate. In an effort to survive and even grow in the era of Tribune Co.'s bankruptcy, news agencies have decided to do what Schmich avoided doing in her editorial: they've become newsmakers.



Nowhere is this shift more evident than in the ascent of Gawker Media (which ran Ratigan's "Morning Joe" segment with the headline "The Single Truest Political Rant Ever to Appear on Morning Television"). This week Nick Denton, Gawker's founder, received a profile in The New Yorker in which his name was placed alongside such media luminaries as Tina Brown and Rupert Murdoch. "Gawker has become," The New Yorker's Ben McGrath writes, "a portal to the world of information that I consume, and a filter for interpreting it." What has made Gawker so successful is Denton's focus on creating news instead of reporting it.

In the low-margin game of web-based media where news stories quickly become ubiquitous and revenue is generated by huge spikes in traffic, Denton realized that in order to really grow, Gawker had to orchestrate its own news and be the main character in its own stories. He took a logical step from the first-person repackaging that is the foundation of news blogs and essentially flipped the way Gawker interacted with the media. Instead of offering a fresh take on an event that was originally reported by a major news entity, Denton would make Gawker the news item. With this formula, Gawker's ad revenue was up 35% in the summer of 2009 while major newspapers were shuttering their doors and online advertising as a whole was down 5%. Over the past year, Denton has continued to refine this formula, placing his top editors (and top lawyers, no doubt) at the center of stories clamoring for national attention. With Jezebel's take on "The Daily Show"s sexist work environment, Deadspin's preoccupation with Brett Favre's penis, and, most famously, Gizmodo's possession of a stolen iPhone4, Denton has made Gawker a fulcrum in the national news cycle.


Now, one can argue perhaps that Gawker's "creation" of news stories is actually old practice. Katie Couric's aggressive questioning of then-Vice Presidential nominee Sarah Palin comes to mind as a recent example in which a powerful media figure became a catalyst for news. David Carr of The New York Times, stitching together insider quotes and accounts of disparate events, in effect created news with his recent A-1 portrait of Tribune Co. as "a frat house." The main difference, though, between what Carr did with Tribune and what Gawker did with, say, the stolen iPhone is that Carr and The New York Times never became the protagonists of the story. They didn't have to. The Times, unlike Gawker or Bill O'Reilly, has the cultural gravitas that comes with decades of steady reporting.

When billionaire Sam Zell bought Tribune Co., he positioned himself as a maverick who would confidently bring Tribune's media entities into the future. "I don't really believe in conventional wisdom," he said in 2007 as he took over the debt-strapped company. "Sam Zell was sort of a rock star," Ann Marie Lipinski, the former editor of The Chicago Tribune, told The Times. Zell assembled a managerial team that was full of brash individuals with deep experience in modern radio's cult of personality. Lee Abrams, the company's chief innovation officer (who was recently suspended for sending inappropriate emails to staff), sent out a memo upon his hiring, declaring that "NEWS & INFORMATION IS THE NEW ROCK N ROLL." Zell and his team were not interested in the steady growth of the company--they were looking to produce hits.

In Schmich's editorial, she offers an aphorism that is especially relevant for her employers at Tribune Co., and one that the Nick Dentons and Bill O'Reillys of the world need to be reminded of. A good boss, Schmich writes, "understands that all power is fleeting and borrowed."

Friday, September 24, 2010

Altruism in the Age of Facebook

ABC News ran the headline "Facebook's Zuckerberg Shows Softer Side to Oprah" just as many questioned whether the 26-year-old billionaire's donation to the Newark school system was in truth an effort to craft exactly this type of positive media attention. On Friday, Zuckerberg appeared on "Oprah" to formally announce his gift and New Jersey governor Chris Christie and Newark mayor Cory Booker were on-hand to accept the $100 million. It was an efficient display of Oprah's core tenets--conciliatory celebrities and lavish gifts. And for her part, Oprah was happy to conciliate to Zuckerberg's image building. "The Social Network" has its premiere at The New York Film Festival Friday evening, just days after Zuckerberg's ranking on the Forbes list spiked, but Oprah, emphasizing that he had been planning the donation "for months and months and months," said to Zuckerberg, "You wanted to remain anonymous and we talked you into coming on here."

While critics chew on Zuckerberg's dubious timing and the self-satisfied spectacle of the "Oprah" show, some pundits are urging the public to brush those considerations aside and focus on the magnitude of the donation instead. "So the $100 million donation to Newark's crumbling public schools is not in and of itself the story? The story is figuring out the motivation behind it? Is this what we have come to?" Arianna Huffington asked incredulously in an editorial praised by WaPo's Howard Kurtz and others. "I really don't care why Mark Zuckerberg is donating $100 million," Huffington writes. "I care very much that it's being done -- that one of America's worst school systems will be getting a massive infusion of funds." Huffington has a point here in that people should be focusing more on the actual donation but she fails to address the fundamental truth behind such a donation: an infusion of funds does not directly improve the quality of public schools.


The education figures from Newark are astonishing: according to The Star-Ledger, nearly 46% of the district's students fail to graduate high school and only 40% read and write at grade level by third grade. The most astonishing figure associated with the school system, though, is that Newark spends 47% more on each student than the state average. Celebrating a donation to a school system that spends significantly more than any other district in its state yet yields results among the worst in the country, is at best blindly optimistic and at worst disingenuous.

$100 million is an impressive amount of money to be sure but it could have little or no impact unless major organizational changes occur in New Jersey. Just a month ago, the state lost out on $400 million in federal education funding because of a clerical error. Clifford Janey, the former Newark school superintendent, was one of the state's highest paid public officials during his tenure yet oversaw, what Christie recently called, "an absolutely disgraceful public education system." More than money, Newark needs leadership and accountability. Some of this leadership will come from Booker, the charismatic, action figure of a mayor, whose promotion to special assistant to the governor on education was a requirement of Zuckerberg's donation. While Booker has been successful in lowering Newark's crime rate and has repeatedly pledged his long-term commitment to the city, one can't help but wonder if the donation will ultimately have a greater impact on his public image than it will have on Zuckerberg's. If he is able to stir up short-term good news about Newark schools, he'll certainly strengthen his standing in the national discourse, making a move to Washington perhaps more imminent.

Along with the donation, Zuckerberg announced the launch of "Startup: Education," a new charity designed to improve education across the country. While the new organization had a name and a logo at the time of the Newark donation, it seemingly did not have a president or a staff. And the organization's website (as well as its Facebook page, naturally) is remarkably straightforward in its intentions, urging visitors to join Zuckerberg in donating money to the Newark school system. The site has no background information about the charity or the school system, no personal contacts or statements of purpose. Instead there is a big donation widget powered by the mobile payment startup Square, in addition to buttons for Tweeting and Facebook Liking. At its launch, Startup: Education, with its lack of leadership and goals, reflects the public school system it is trying to save.

According to many critics, the most damning element of "The Social Network" is the movie's portrait of Zuckerberg as uncaring and socially tone-deaf. Whatever the motivations behind his donation to Newark were, the gift and its accompanying hubris only solidify these impressions of him. The movie makes Zuckerberg the face of, as NYT critic Manohla Dargis put it, "the boot-up, log-on, plug-in generation." In the end, though, "The Social Network" is less an evaluation of Zuckerberg and more of an appraisal of the Facebook-based culture he helped create, one in which friends keep in touch through status updates, and altruism takes its form in instant online donations and Likes. What the Facebook founder seemingly fails to understand is that the problems plaguing our nation's public schools do not arise from a lack of funding but from something much more valuable and increasingly rare: personal involvement.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

In Defense/Honor of Meatloaf

America's food culture over the past couple of decades has been shaped by the homecooking of other countries. A slew of chefs have risen to prominence by extolling the virtues of simple homemade fare from specific countries. Mario Batali has become a Crocs-wearing brand name through his commitment to the rustic pleasures of Italian cooking and Rick Bayless's tireless interest in Mexican country cooking has brought him his own frozen dinners. As Americans have come to enjoy restaurant renditions of the homey flavors of bolognese, bouillabaisse, and baklava, they have gradually downgraded the pleasures to be had in the American home kitchen. While we marvel as Batali makes a simple pasta dish with bread crumbs and anchovies, we roll our eyes at the mention of tuna noodle casserole.

Of course part of the reason that American homecooking is brushed aside is that it's oftentimes not very good (growing up in Minnesota, I've certainly had my share of bad casseroles--or "hot dish," as we say up there). That doesn't mean, though, that the foundation--slow cooking, choice pantry items, lots of meat--isn't strong. Case in point: meatloaf. When meatloaf is prepared thoughtfully, with a hand more liberal with herbs and spices than Betty Crocker's, it is a transcendently good meal. With an oily crust and a rich, juicy interior, meatloaf evokes the unfussy luxury of home as well as the sublime simplicity of fine dining. Sort of like a good bolognese.

In this recipe, I've supplemented the usual ground chuck with ground lamb and ground pork to provide a fuller meat flavor. For a moment, I thought about substituting pureed sun dried tomatoes for ketchup. Eventually, though, I concluded that, while many classic recipes deserve updating, there are some things you just don't mess with. Plus, I wanted my mom to continue talking to me.


1 lb ground lamb
1/2 lb lean ground beef
1/2 lb ground pork
2 medium yellow onions, finely chopped
6 cloves of garlic, minced
2 pinches chili flakes
3 pinches cumin seeds, crumbled (or ground cumin)
2 pinches all spice
2 pinches of coriander, crumbled
1/2 cup bread crumbs
healthy pour of olive oil
12 liberal dashes of worcestershire sauce
2 big spoonfuls of dijon mustard
1/4 cup of ketchup
1/2 cup of finely chopped parsley
2 eggs + 1 egg yolk, quickly beaten

1) Preheat oven to 375.

2) Heat skillet over medium heat and a good amount of olive oil--enough to coat the bottom of the pan. Add chopped onions and sauté for 5 minutes or until the onions soften and turn translucent. (If the onions begin to brown, lower the heat).

3) Add minced garlic to the onions and saute for a minute then add chili flakes, cumin, all spice, and coriander and saute for a minute more. Stir in the bread crumbs and then turn off the heat. Transfer the onion-spice goodness to a mixing bowl.

4) Add the meat, eggs, parsley, worcestershire, ketchup, and mustard to the mixing bowl, plus two 3-finger pinches of salt and about 20 grinds of black pepper. Roll your sleeves up and plunge your hands into the meat melee. Mix well.

5) In a large baking dish, form the meat into a loaf shape that's roughly 3 inches high. Squirt the top of the loaf with ketchup and rub it along the top and the sides until the meat's covered in a red sheen. Bake at 375 for 45 minutes to 1 hour, or until meat thermometer reads 155-160.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Pastiche Culture: Jessi's Blood on the Dance Floor

One of the biggest stories bouncing around the internet right now involves an 11-year-old girl named Jessi Slaughter, whose online identity has spawned a viral video, a couple of novelty t-shirts, a few memes, and a battle between Gawker Media and the users of 4chan's notorious /b/ board. The trouble started when Jessi posted a video responding to internet "haters" who had been critiquing her supposed relationship with Dahvie Vanity, the lead singer of Blood On The Dance Floor. In the dizzying, four and a half minute webcam video, Jessi profanely confronts her critics.

While it is unsettling to watch a foul-mouthed 11-year-old launch into a personal screed on the internet, what is most jarring about the video is the strange collection of cultural sources that Jessi draws from. She evokes everything from gangsta rap ("pop a glock in your mouth") to fetishistic sex ("fist yourself to your beastiality magazines") in attacking her online haters. In the video, she sounds less like an emotional adolescent coming unhinged and more like a web browser that's gone haywire. Jessi, like the bands she listens to and the haters she combats, speaks the language of internet-fueled pastiche.



Jessi's favorite band, Blood On The Dance Floor, isn't so much a musical group as it is a whirling mash-up of genres and styles. Vanity and his bandmate Jayy von Monroe, crib from an array of fringe musical genres like screamo, crunk, and horrocore while incorporating style elements of bondage, glam punk, and cosplay. Their song "I Heart Hello Kitty," for instance, pairs the cutesy Japanese brand with boasts about rough sex. Over a mindless disco beat, Vanity rap-sings phrases like "H-E-L-L-O Show me how you're such a hoe/ K-I-T-T-Y Bitch I'll make you fucking cry." BOTDF, as they're inevitably known online, is part of a growing collection of mash-up groups, with 3oh!3 on the mainstream end and brokeNCYDE on the fringe end. These groups mix and mash musical styles with such recklessness that their songs are often baffling. Like Jessi Slaughter, they are post-post-everything. August Brown of the Los Angeles Times wrote that brokeNCYDE "exists so far beyond the tropes of irony and sincerity that to ask 'are they kidding?' is like trying to peel an onion to get to a perceived central core that, in the end, does not exist and renders all attempts to reassemble the pieces futile."



The danger of this hyperactive cultural clustering is that the results are increasingly divorced from history and meaning. As a piece of media knocks around the internet--often repackaged and repositioned by Twitter's ReTweeting, Tumblr's ReBlogging, and YouTube's Remixing--it gradually transforms into a foundation-less commodity. Recycling media is not a new concept, of course, but what the case of Jessi Slaughter evidences is that the rate of recycling has become so rapid that the concepts of suitability, and even quality, are now often rendered moot. Like a YouTube video that has been repeatedly downloaded and re-uploaded, the humanity originally associated with videos, articles, and songs is gradually degraded.

After posting her haters video, Jessi was hit with a barrage of harassment and she eventually posted an emotional follow-up in which her father makes an angry cameo. The follow-up video went viral and inspired a slew of remixes and mash-ups. Jessi's father has become simply the "You dun goof'd Guy"--his fear and concern have been autotuned. A recent post on Stickydrama, a social media site for internet-savvy adolescents that was ground zero for the Jessi Slaughter drama, promotes one such remix, calling it "catchy and funny as hell." Highlighting the rage and vulnerability of the viral video over a propulsive disco beat with elements of hip-hop, the remix is well on its way to becoming a Blood On The Dance Floor song.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

The Endurance of Port-au-Prince

"This camp is really focused on toilets," our Red Cross liaison, Becky, said as we drove through Port-au-Prince on our way to a Red Cross camp for earthquake refugees. It was late June and I had just arrived in the city to shoot a short documentary piece for British TV. "Interesting," I said, not really sure what to make of the toilet information. As Becky finished describing the camp, I looked out the window at the passing landscape. An hour earlier, I had been surprised to find that the PAP airport showed no signs of earthquake devastation and I now found myself checking the images passing by through the car window against the images I had watched on CNN in the days following January's earthquake. We turned down a side street and I asked our driver, Werner, who had grown up in Port-au-Prince, whether the temporary-looking houses that lined the street--small, one-room shacks pieced together with wooden posts and corrugated metal--had been built since the earthquake. Werner glanced out my passenger window and said softly, "No, those have always been there."

As Werner drove through the entrance gates of the Red Cross camp, Becky quickly reminded me of what other Red Cross representatives had told me in the days leading up to my arrival in Port-au-Prince--that I was not to cry in public. "If you feel yourself feeling like it," Becky said, "just excuse yourself." She repeated the same thing to Angie, a young woman from Manchester who was the center of the TV piece I was there to shoot. After the earthquake, Angie, a mother of three and the manager of a Tesco store, was so moved by the news reports she saw that she devoted all of her spare time to raising money for the Red Cross. She became somewhat of a local icon in Manchester and she was in Port-au-Prince to see first-hand what all of her fundraising efforts had afforded. Angie had arrived the previous evening and now, as she stood attentively at the entrance of the camp, wearing a white Red Cross polo about 4 sizes too large for her, she looked very young.

Angie, and, by extension, I were shown through the camp by a pair of the camp's leaders. We toured a medical facility, where there were roughly 15 women waiting to be treated, and walked through an outdoor sports complex in which a large TV screen had been erected to show World Cup games. We were told that the basketball courts on which the TV stood were remnants of an athletic center; now, kids darted around a pick-up soccer game and many ran over to us as we walked by. One boy nudged his way to the front of the group, showing off the clear plastic garbage bag he wore over his head. Reflexively, Angie moved to lift the bag. We would soon find out what Becky had meant in the car about toilets.

A week earlier I had received an email from my friend Alex, a photographer for AFP who had spent time in Haiti following the earthquake, asking if I'd--probably not, but possibly--be interested in going to Port-au-Prince for a one-day shoot. I replied immediately with an enthusiastic "Yes!!" and began imagining what this assignment would be like. I joked with Alex that I'd have to go out and buy a few charcoal t-shirts a la Anderson Cooper. In the weeks following the earthquake, I had watched the TV news coverage, read the frontpage newspaper articles, and clicked through online photo galleries. I felt that I was relatively well informed about the situation in Port-au-Prince and I approached my trip in much the same way as one approaches a vacation in a famous city: it was an opportunity to see first-hand the things I already knew.

"Shall we go see the toilets?" Becky asked. I nodded, even though David, a tall, square-jawed Red Cross organizer, had already started making his way over to a row of gray, elevated boxes. The wooden boxes bore the Red Cross insignia and rested on stilts above large, black containers that captured the human waste. A group of local men hammered together the frame of a new box and then eventually tilted it to rest next to the other latrines. David introduced us to a couple of the workers and then went on to describe his excitement about the "major developments" the camp has made with its outdoor toilets. Following the earthquake, David explained, Red Cross workers put up porta-potty-style toilets throughout the camp. Unfortunately, they discovered that a significant percentage of the camp's residents were eschewing the conventional sit-down toilets of the porta-pottys in favor of squatting and shitting on the floor next to them. "This was a major problem," David added. The new toilets were outfitted with two options for defecating--a toilet for sitting and a hole in the floor with foot grips on either side for squatting. David pointed to an example of the second option as a man wearing dark blue overalls, rubber rain boots, and a cloth surgical mask walked by with a dirty shovel. It was at this point that I began to understand the full extent of the devastation in Port-au-Prince.

After touring the Red Cross camp, Angie and I were shown a neighborhood that was ravaged by the quake. The streets and alleyways were filled with rubble and most of the houses that were still standing bore a red mark designating them for demolition. A local man named Antoine gave us a tour of his house. He pointed to piles of brick and twisted metal and labelled them as his kitchen, his living room, and the bedroom where his 4-year-old daughter died, her skull crushed by falling debris. Antoine introduced us to his wife and showed us their bedroom--one of the few rooms in the house that did not crumble in the earthquake. The couple still lives there, amid the rubble and standing water and garbage that is grazed on by hogs. Antoine said that his wife refuses to look at photos of their daughter. For now, the debris that surrounds them is reminder enough.

As we were leaving Antoine's neighborhood, we walked by a young man standing beside a dump truck. He had a pickaxe in his hands and he was methodically breaking apart a few large pieces of cement. The clanking sound of his pickaxe reverberated through the neighborhood, bouncing off hills upon hills of rubble. In our car ride back to Red Cross HQ, Angie was silent. Her cheeks were flush with sunburn and she watched Port-au-Prince pass by through her window--more rubble, more shanties, more Red Cross tents. For months she had worked to raise money for the earthquake victims, to help the displaced families she had seen on TV and in the newspaper. She, like me, like everyone around the western world, had gained an understanding of what Haiti was like after the earthquake but now Angie was beginning to understand the scope of it.

I came to Port-au-Prince expecting to see the familiar features of the news stories: the makeshift medical clinics, the collapsed buildings, the displaced families. I saw all of these things, but I also saw the toilets. I began to understand that the problems in Haiti are so basic, so fundamental, that they expand far beyond what we associate with the recent earthquake. January's quake didn't only wreck the county, it exacerbated problems that have been wrecking the country for decades. A recent article in The New York Times examined the slow pace of recovery in Haiti, attributing much of the problems to a local government that was "weak before the disaster and further weakened by it." As the rebuilding efforts continue six months after the earthquake, it is important that we see Haiti not as a news event but as a complicated, evolving country.

At the end of Angie's tour of the Red Cross camp, she sat in on an assembly put on by the aid workers. Excited children surrounded a temporary stage and watched a presentation on hygiene that included quiz games and sing-alongs. The main event, though, was a performance from a boy who's become something of a celebrity in the camp. He raps over music plucked by an instrument he's fashioned from a creased soda bottle and a rubber band. As the crowd cheered him through an impressively composed song, the assembly's focus shifted from the fundamental problems facing the camp to the fundamental spirit of resilience that is evident throughout Port-au-Prince.


Saturday, May 8, 2010

Pulling Yourself Up By Your Bootstraps

I guess I've always considered myself a "by the bootstraps" type of person. As it turns out, though, I may as well consider myself a cannonball-riding type of person or an Alexander the Great-defeating type of person.

"By the bootstraps" is such a ubiquitous phrase in modern American culture that one never pauses to consider what it actually means. "Pull yourself up by your bootstraps"? Really? It seems physically impossible. Which is exactly why the origin of the phrase is linked to the German folk hero Baron Münchhausen--he who used cannonballs as a method of transportation and bested Alexander the Great, in addition to visting the moon (once on purpose and once by accident). Before "by the bootstraps" was synonymous with good old fashioned American gumption, it was a phrase used to define something as absurdly impossible.

Much like Münchhausen's greatest exploits, the history of "by the bootstraps" is disputed. It has been commmonly held that the phrase originated in a scene from The Surprising Adventures of Baron Munchausen in which the industrious baron pulls himself out of a swamp by using his bootstraps. The only problem is that the earliest German versions of the book have the baron using his ponytail, not his bootstraps, to escape the swamp. Many scholars now believe that the phrase is, fittingly, an American creation and some link its origin to a folk hero who's sort of the American Münchhausen--Davy Crocket. Instead of a swamp, it's held that Crocket pulled himself over a fence by his bootstraps and it's likely that "by the bootstraps" became part of the Münchhausen story through repeated English translations. Whatever the case, this myth-building flourish came to be used throughout the 19th century as an example of a ridiculously impossible task, such as it appeared in an 1862 Chicago Tribune article: "The hopeful individual who expects to raise a weight vastly beyond his strength, belongs to the same class of fools with great expectations, as he who promises to lift himself by his boot straps." As Ben Zimmer noted in a recent discussion of the American Dialect Society, "The shift in the metaphor's sense to suggest a *possible* task doesn't seem to have occurred until the early 20th century."


In 1922, the Oxford English Dictionary defined the figurative sense of "bootstrap" as "to raise or better oneself by one's own unaided efforts" and quoted a passage from James Joyce's Ulysses. Joyce writes about those "who had forced their way to the top from the lowest rung by the aid of their bootstraps." Here, Joyce presents "bootstraps" in the new, 20th century sense of the phrase but he's also playing with its multiple layers of meaning (I mean, it is Ulysses). In this passage, Joyce uses two common metaphors for social advancement--the ladder and the bootstrap--and in tandem they work to show one's advancement both by and because of the use of bootstraps. Oftentimes one advances socially not by simply overcoming an obstacle through individual will but by exploiting this original achievement to accelerate his/her continued advancement. In this way, "bootstrap" retains a connection to its mythic roots.

"American mythology fits all its greats with bootstraps," Alexander Ewing wrote in a recent essay for Intelligent Life. "Abraham Lincoln came from a backwoods farm, and some like to imagine Jefferson and Washington tilling the Virginia soil. Bootstrappers built steel mills in Pennsylvania, cars in Detroit and computers in Silicon Valley." Nowhere is the bootstrap mythology more prominent than in American politics, where candidates regularly trade on their humble origin stories to climb the ranks of government.



Covering the 2004 Democratic National Convention, "The Daily Show" poked fun at the bootstrap story one-upmanship of the speakers. Then-junior Illinois Senator Barack Obama was the clear winner as he described how his father "grew up herding goats." For some insight on the political posturing, Jon Stewart turned to Stephen Colbert, then the Chief Political Analyst for "The Daily Show." Colbert declared, "I believe in the promise of America, that I, the son of a turd miner, the grandson of a goat ball-licker, could one day leave those worthless hicks behind while still using their story to enhance my own credibility."

Looking for a job after college, I added a few lines to the end of my resume to illustrate my bootstrap mentality. It included this boast: "I have been constantly employed at a long list of diverse jobs since I was 15. I have laid asphalt, sold orthopedic shoes, held almost every restaurant position, worked as mover, a receptionist, a janitor, a tutor, and even an assistant to a Zamboni operator." In an interview at a production company, the producer chuckled about the Zamboni job. He looked down at my resume and said, "Yeah, that's a good line. You should keep that." Here's the truth: during high school, I once had a job at a local rec center. On four, maybe five occasions, I helped the Zamboni driver shovel snow off the edge of the hockey rink. I got the job at the production company, though.