Billy Joel, American Kayfabe Master

Snippets 2, Episode 3

I think this is one of my favourite all-time tweets:

While I wouldn’t change a single word of the tweet itself, because it’s perfect, I’d still extend it a whole lot further: I honestly think that this is one of the best snarky metaphors for America I’ve ever seen. 

Let’s first start with two true statements, which at first seem to be in conflict with each other but actually aren’t at all:

  1. Billy Joel, the iconic American artist who wrote a lot of good music, is most definitely not rock and roll. Rock and roll is the distilled essence of rebellion; of the individual; of discord; of clash against the system; etc etc etc. Billy Joel is musical theatre: tightly scripted coordination; operatic chorus swells; finger-snapping, easy-singing pop melodies. Not rock and roll.

  2. Nevertheless, it makes a lot of sense that we relentlessly talk about Billy Joel as being rock and roll. Our repeated insistence that Billy Joel is a rocker actually makes his music feel more complete. It's an essential part of the Billy Joel experience. 

When we talk about Billy Joel as a rock and roll artist, what we actually mean is that his music makes us feel rock and roll feelings. The fact that his music is actually packaged-up clichéd show tunes hardly registers; what matters is how we feel, not what the music actually is. Saying “Billy Joel is rock music” with a straight face is precisely the same as saying “Wrestling is real.” At a literal level, it’s not a true statement. But at a more meta-level, it’s profound. Is Billy Joel’s iconic song “It’s still rock and roll to me” any different from the moved-to-tears wrestling fan who cries out, “It’s still real to me, damn it”? 

Where I’m going with this, of course, is that both of these things are exampled of kayfabe. Longtime Snippets readers will know that kayfabe is one of my favourite concepts. While it comes from the world of pro wrestling, it’s really applicable to just about any situation in the world where people have to both think and feel things. Kayfabe comes in many forms, but its essence is an unspoken agreement between performers and an audience: “We’ll present you with something clearly fake under the insistence that it’s real, and you will experience genuine emotion. Neither party acknowledges the bargain, or else the magic is ruined. Kayfabe isn’t about factual verifiability; it’s about emotional fidelity.” That line comes from one of the best concise kayfabe explainers out there, Nick Rogers’ piece from a few years ago in the New York Times. 

Just like a well-scripted wrestling show can prompt genuine emotion out of an audience (in some cases, even more powerfully than comparable real-life events could), Billy Joel is acting as a kayfabe artist as he sings to his audience of aging Long Island dads: “If I insist to you that this is rock and roll music, and if you all go along, my show tunes can make you feel more powerful rock and roll feelings than actual rock music ever could.” 

Now what does any of this have to do with America? 

So much of the idea of America as this place for rebellious, independent, break-the-mold strivers - the land of the free - is built on the lore of the Jeffersonian Ideal. The individual farmer who builds a life; the small mill town who punches above its weight; the independent publisher who argues their point; this idea of America is built on a theoretical collection of small, independent, rambunctious parts that add up to a mighty whole. The Jeffersonian ideal is of America as land of the unscripted individual; America as land of rock and roll.

The American superpower that came to dominate the 20th and 21st centuries, by contrast, is America: the Land of Show Tunes. The rock and roll myth is strong, but the reality is much more Alexander Hamilton’s vision than Jefferson’s: one of enormous scale and planned, protected coordination, where our day to day lives get manufactured in a kind of abstracted away Heartland, then packaged and shipped to us in bite-sized, pleasing formats that painstakingly recreate the illusion of craft and independence. Whether we’re talking coal, corn and cows or media, culture and politics, most of what we consume as 20 and 21st century Americans comes in this Hamiltonian format. 

Alexis De Tocqueville noticed this a hundred and seventy years ago, when he remarked that the American success story had far more to do with the health of American institutions, large and small, than it did with any particular lore or empowerment of the individual. Yet Americans across the board assign the latter far more credit than the former. (As you might expect, the tech industry has learned this lesson particularly well. Silicon Valley is 1000% the land of show tunes dressed up as rock and roll.) It’s as if we have a deep psychological need to keep the kayfabe going, and keep feeling America Feelings, or else the bargain gets ruined. 

More recently, Venkatesh Rao wrote a great piece about this phenomenon in his essay The American Cloud, which astutely remarked that Americans have a compulsive need to recreate and cultivate these Jeffersonian illusions. "The makeover has been so psychologically disruptive that during the past century, the bulk of America’s cultural resources have been devoted to obscuring the realities of the cloud with simpler, more emotionally satisfying illusions.” Think of the display stands at Whole Foods, painstakingly portraying farm stand dioramas that artfully suggest a single-sourced, farm-to-booth origin story of what actually was a mass manufactured Tangelo that emerged out of the Florida Citrus Cloud. 

Or, for that matter, think of your favourite Billy Joel tune: is it Piano Man? Uptown Girl? We Didn’t Start the Fire? Only the Good Die Young? All of these songs are like a masterfully scripted wrestling show: they’re not rock songs; they’re precisely engineered to make us feel authentic rock and roll feelings in a predictable, faithful way. They are the lovingly crafted display stand at Starbucks; the formulaic but still exciting Prestige TV we adore; they are America. And we love it.

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Reading links for this week:

Shade: an urban design mandate | Sam Bloch, Places Journal

My number one recommended read this week is Sam Bloch’s long and fascinating history of shade in Los Angeles. It’s full of fascinating anecdotes around the politics, economics, inequality, and new thinking around shade in a very sunny town. Living in Toronto, I’m used to a very different kind of dialog around shade: shade is something we often try to prevent through legislation and city rules, as the city sprouts 40, 50, 60 and 80 story towers seemingly everywhere like weeds, casting long shadows over streets and parks. (San Francisco, which seemingly can’t build any new housing if its life depended on it, has a similar attitude around shade: if a new affordable housing development threatens to cast even one square inch of shade on an empty playground one day a year, you can pretty safely bet that project will get delayed or cancelled.) So it’s interesting seeing the opposite view, which is to be honest a much bigger concern for a far bigger percentage of the earth’s population: oppressive heat is the real problem, not dark shade. This great piece on the geography, inequality and future of shade gets at all these issues and I learned a huge amount reading it. 

“Democratic Taylorism”: the Toyota production system at NUMMI | Paul Simon Adler

This delightful article from 1995 was being shared around Twitter the other day and it’s worth passing along. You may or may not already have heard about NUMMI: New United Motors Manufacturing, Inc, a joint venture formed in 1983 between Toyota and General Motors. At the time, GM was struggling to redevelop its institutional knowledge of how to build cars in a more lean, modern and forward-thinking way, as Toyota had mastered; meanwhile, Toyota was looking to build some of its cars in the United States, and needed to learn how to work with US suppliers and labor. So the two companies agreed to do a joint venture operating the former GM Freemont plant, which today, ironically, is Tesla’s factory. (I say ironically because Tesla did an absolutely fantastic job of failing to learn any of these lessons in their first attempt to make cars at scale.) 

The joint venture became one of these legendary case studies that gets taught every year in management and business classes: how American industry got introduced to just-in-time manufacturing, Japanese concepts like kanban, kaizen, and the famous andon cord that anyone on the floor could pull to stop the production line if something went wrong. This paper focuses on one interesting aspect of this transition: how did the American auto worker unions, with their established practices and obligations, react to this new change?  In many ways, adoption of this new system went against everything we’d been taught that workers want - it gave them less autonomy, had to work more seconds out of every minute, and all other kinds of “scientific management practices” that often get lumped under the negative label Taylorism. But the outcome was the opposite - workers liked it more, all while also being more productive. Adler calls this “Democratic Taylorism”, and the paper is a great read. 

B8368-001: Security Analysis | Michael Mauboussin, Columbia Business School

Michael Mauboussin just announced his most recent Columbia Business School course he’s teaching, and he always does a great job of sharing his teaching material, content, reading and learning the general public. He’s a truly excellent writer and storyteller, if you haven’t read any of his books yet- The Success Equation is cringingly named but very good, and it features one of my favourite ever thought experiments: How do you tell whether an activity is luck or skill? Well: Can you lose on purpose? A game like chess you can absolutely lose on purpose; a 100-yard dash you can absolutely lose on purpose. But what about the stock market? If I told you right now to go invest $1000 in the worst possible way; one that would guarantee that you’d do as terribly as possible (and let’s assume all you can do is buy or short stocks; no fancy derivatives or other games of any kind)… could you do it? And no, don’t just say “put it all in Tesla stock”, ha ha ha, very funny. You’d obviously put it into the convertible bonds inst- (CNBC cuts me off air and deletes the segment)

Anyway, his course syllabus is here, and I look forward to seeing his recurring tweets as the semester goes on. Pick up a copy of his books too, as they are excellent. 

An ancient relationship: FinTech and financial advice | Jamie Catherwood, OShaughnessy Asset Management

If anyone is interested in the history of finance and isn’t already following Jamie Catherwood on Twitter, please do so. History always repeats itself in funny and illuminating ways, and the history of finance shows this more than just about anything else I can think of. Finance is human behaviour, and human behaviour doesn’t really change. So it’s a real joy reading Jamie’s dredged up and wonderfully entertaining stories about what happened hundreds of years ago in the finance world and how similar it all is to today. (His piece on ETFs from a while back is a great example.) He recently joined O’Shaughnessy Asset Management, where he’ll work with FinTwit meme master Jim O’Shaughnessy as well as his son Patrick, who’s now CEO (and with whom I did a very fun podcast interview a couple months ago; check it out if you haven’t already.) 

And finally, here are a bunch of awesome Bitcoin propaganda posters, courtesy of @phneep on Twitter. Enjoy.

Have a great week, 

Alex