Brain Pickings

The Last and the Curious

by

Democracy, rashes, the big ambush, Eastern Europeans for free, why the ‘burbs are cool again, how 40 tons can make you really, really uncomfortable, what gingerbread has to do with sustainability, and just dance, dammit.

THE INDEPENDENT MASSES

Let’s face it, neither big labels nor online music sales are exactly a conducive trampoline for indie artists looking to make the big jump, however talented they may be. The few who rose from the indie ranks and made it big may have the traction to give the labels the finger (hello, Radiohead and LiveNation folk), but what about the little guys, the next Beatles and Kinks and Blondies humbly making great music in their basements?

ourstage.jpgLuckily for them, there’s OurStage: one big, brilliant community talent contests. It allows emerging talent to gain exposure by uploading work, then — here’s the smart part — it lets the community decide in a completely democratic vote. Every month, the overall winner gets $5,000 (and the top 5 rankers in each genre channel get some pocket change — $100, to be exact — to fuel those practice sessions with beer and pizza so they can do better next month.)

We sampled some of the top-ranked talent — and talent it is, we were pleasantly surprised to find. Current rank topper Julie Odell oozes promises of Joni-Mitchellish vocals and Rufus-Wainwrightean piano work. And runner-up Wandering Bards blends Lynard Skynardesque Southern rock with early Dave Matthews Band rasp, plus a kick all their own. And, is Sydney Wayser for real? Please come to and give the woman a record deal already.

All in all, OurStage seems to reflect a bigger trend of late — the concept of individualism by the numbers. It helps indie artists remain, well, indie, while building a community fueled by individual opinions but moving forward by means of critical mass. Who knew democracy wasn’t the repugnant villain big labels and the Billboard charts make it out to be?

UNTRIVIA

brainiac.gifAlright, alright, maybe the Billboard charts aren’t all crap — if you know how to read them, that is. The big B published the annual recap on what was hot in the year past, spanning every imaginable genre, category and music publishing method. But we were most intrigued by a little something that goes by Tastemakers Chart.

It’s intended to balance out the big music retailers’ influence on the rest of the charts, which are largely shaped by sales figures from the major chain stores. But the Tastemakers Chart reflects music sales in thousands of small, independent stores where, coincidentally, cultural “tastemakers” often first discover new music. It’s the long tail, if you will. And while its entrants are strikingly similar to those popping up in the mainstream charts, it still tells a different story — and we like different stories.

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And while we’re on the subject, might as well resist the urge to snub TIME Magazine‘s 50 Top 10 Lists of 2007, including the music one: we’re sensing the onset of a distinct overexposure rash with all that Amy Winehouse dominance. (Oh come on now, the “OD-ing on Amy” joke would’ve been too cheap a shot.)

BIG THINGS START SMALL

Sure, it was a matter of time. But we kind of expected fanfare, grandeur, or at least another campfire event in Mountain View to announce it. Nope, Google has decided to take down the social networking giants quietly and stealthily.

reader.pngThis week, Google Reader (you know, the nifty RSS aggregator that lets you keep track of content updates on sites you’ve elected to actually care about *cough cough*) tapped into users’ address books for a social function that lets you see what your friends are reading.

And that’s just two months after Google Maps quietly added the same function, leveraging the existing custom-mapping and local user reviews. Thanks to the (not yet but soon) almighty address book, people can share routes and trails with friends, click through reviews and see what else that person reviewed, and add links and photos.

Not to mention personal Google profile pages have been around for a while, letting people show the world a no-bells-and-whistles snapshot of who they are, where they’re at, and what they’re into.

Sure, the Goog folks still need to streamline things and intersect Reader profiles with Map profiles with Docs sharing and whatever other personal/social components they’re brewing up for the Google army of apps. But the point here is, the address book is a tremendously powerful tool.

Really, if we’re talking about real social networking, your social foundation — your circle of close friends and all the acquaintances you actually care to keep in touch with — is bound to be in your address book. Heck, even the expression “keeping in touch” wouldn’t live outside the context of some sort of address book. So we can’t wait to see how the Google touch transforms a field that has traditionally been done backwards, adding social contacts (who may or may not be actual friends) once the network is formed. Slap OpenSocial to this whole shebang, and something big, something long overdue is starting to emerge.

And while we’re on the subject of putting the individual up front and center, perhaps the most noteworthy of Google’s latest is a new tool they’re beta-testing that goes by knol (which stands for “unit of knowledge”) — based on the screenshots, it sounds like Wikipedia on steroids: it organizes all the world’s information by having thousands of experts in specific, niche areas write “knols” on what they know inside and out.

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Google folks make a good point about how all other public media (books, articles, music, etc.) have a known author, but the Internet, for the most part, somehow evolved without that key component. So they say the idea is to claim authorship back and build a momentous pool of knowledge by highlighting the author in a way that fosters top-notch info and credibility.

WILL REWARD FOR INFO

One word: huh?

This oddball, reminiscent of the infamous Counterfeit MINI campaign, has been gathering viral momentum and generating massive web-wide head-scratching for months. Across the several duplicates posted to YouTube, it’s got some half million cumulative views. And all it points to is this Romanian website, where there seems to be some Romanian auto-parts retailer tie-in.

It’s also a featured example on Unruly Media, a service that seeds brand-backed viral videos to publishers who cash in on views. Their clients include big-wig names like Pepsi, Glaxo Smith Klein, Budweiser, Motorola, BBC and more, plus a ton of conglomerate- owned agencies — and a Romanian auto-parts shop?

The site is registered to one Bogdan Popescu and his questionable kin, Morek Popescu, seems to have designed it. We have no idea how common of Romanian names these are, but Bogdan (if that’s even “his” real name) seems to be either a computer science researcher in Amsterdam or involved in an electronic software solutions company. Or, you know, Borat’s cousin. Oh, and they’ve bought keywords — Bogdan’s name, alongside “viral video,” pulls the mysterious website as the top search result. Yah, we know, “HUH?!”

We love the brilliant absurdity of the viral vid, but something ain’t right here — anyone who’s got info on what the deal is, do speak up. We’re willing to offer authentic Eastern Europeans as a reward.

SUBURBAN OUTFITTERS

Behold Urban Outfitters, that glorious haven for pseudo-rebels and budding stick-it-to-the- man folk. But all questionable stereotypes and blatant counterfeiting charges aside, the chain — which includes college-aimed Urban Outfitters, grown-up chic Anthropologie and the lesser- known but possibly most original Free People — does have distinct style and vibe, plus some plain cool stuff.

But here’s a question: what happens when the Urban Outfitters loyalists grow up, settle down and swap their hip urban lofts for picked-fenced suburban houses but still wanna keep their hip? President and Chairman Richard Hayne saw a market opportunity there, mixed in a smart jump on the recent gardening trend, got “inspired by the greenhouse” (who isn’t these days, with all the greenwashing going around?), decided to cash in on the growing male market, and — voila! — in May, he announced Urban Outfitters’ latest venture: a home and garden store by the name of Terrain targeting 30-to-45-year-old green-thumbed men and women alike.

The plan is to launch in 2008 and open 50 of them in the next 15 years — yeah, a time-frame too eye-rollingly distant for Urban’s core consumer, but let’s see where these kids flock for pots and pans in a decade.

THIS STORY IS NOT A FAIRY TALE

Very rarely are we so torn between the creative merit of a project and its bare-bones humane impact. But artist Johnathan Harris took us to that state of uncomfortable ambivalence in a matter of seconds with his latest project: The Whale Hunt.

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In May, he spent 9 days living with an Inupiat Eskimo family and documenting the thousand-year-old tradition that is the big whale hunt. Starting at the very beginning with the Newark Airport cab ride, he took 3,214 photographs by the end of the hunt, which resulted in two dead whales weighing around 40 tons.

Harris calls the project “an experiment in human storytelling” and even the image narrative sequence is presented on a heartbeat-like timeline. The entire concept is unquestionably original, offering a gritty glimpse into a whole different world. But we can’t help being a bit shaken by this epic death chase of these epic animals.

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Okay, so this insures the community’s annual food supply. And it’s strictly regulated by international law with a limit of 22 whales per year. But there’s something about the snow that makes it feel all the more chilling when blood-stained. Something about calling it a “harvest” — isn’t this something the Earth gives, rather than something violently ripped from her? — that’s hard to swallow.

Food for thought. But, then again, the Inuits living at -22 °F need more than thought to live off of. So we won’t sit here with our tuna salad waiting in the fridge and judge.

STREET PICKINGS

Count on Whole Foods to make off-the-grid living sound like tons of fun and remind us what the holidays, this month-long tribute to conspicuous consumption, are really about — because besides the food and the fun, there’s also that giving back thing. Literally: who more important to give to than Earth, and what more important to give back than what was originally hers?

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So get those LED lights already, take it easy on the pointless waste mechanism that is gift wrapping and, um, go have some food and fun, eh?

DO THE DANCE

What better way to send the year off than with one of its gemmist viral gems? Especially if it’s one that gets you in just the right body/mindset for those night-long parties coming up.

The humbly killer video for D.A.N.C.E. by French electro-rock band Justice took the web by storm and earned a GRAMMY nomination along the way, among a slew of other awards. And it snagged the one that counts the most: a massive worldwide fan-base reflected in the 5 million YouTube views, 29,000 times the vid has been favorited, and close to 5,000 raving comments pinned on it.

We’re not ones to sheepishly follow the masses — but, c’mon, the masses are right on the money with this one. Go ahead, chug the Kool-aid.

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