We Do Talk About Bruno, Watching the Watches, and Dolly’s Virtues: Five Things That Made Us Smarter This Week
From earworms to the timeworn, we learned a lot over the last seven days
We’re living in a world awash with content—from must-read articles and binge-worthy shows to epic tweetstorms and viral TikToks and all sorts of clickbait in between. The Elective is here to help cut through the noise. Each week, members of the Elective team share the books, articles, documentaries, podcasts, and experiences that not only made them smarter but also changed how they see the world around them and, often, how they see themselves.
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Even Bruno is shocked that you *talked* about Bruno! Haven't you heard the song?!
Give Me the Truth and the Whole Truth, Bruno
A few years ago, I received free tickets to an Idina Menzel concert. I knew little about the singer beyond her roles in Wicked and Frozen, but I went all the same. I had only seen bits and pieces of Frozen, but ”Let it Go” was fully woven itself into our cultural fabric so I was familiar with the song. It was a blast to watch Menzel call kids in the audience, many dressed as characters from the movie, up onto the stage to join her as she performed. I thought about that performance when I first heard about ”We Don't Talk About Bruno” from Encanto, another movie I haven't seen (but want to). Just like "Let it Go," "We Don't Talk About Bruno" has transcended its film and become a worldwide hit. I joined 329,775,066 other people (at the time of writing) who have watched the music video on YouTube just so I can keep up with all the people talking about Bruno. [My daughter has contributed roughly 770,000 views to that count. -Ed.]
The song wasn't at all what I expected. It was dark, a bit troubling, and instead of featuring a triumphant heroine it contained a multitude of overlapping voices from a variety of characters. Not only did the style split from traditional Disney songs, it diverged from typical crossover musical movie-pop hits (like Lady Gaga's "Shallow" from A Star is Born). So obviously I needed to learn more about its appeal. I found two different theories. The Wall Street Journal suggests that part of the song's success is that it can be sung around the world. It has been recorded in more than 40 other languages, and translators took care to capture the essence of the song, not specific words. (Disney posted a video of “Bruno” in 21 languages, and it’s wild.) The New York Times, meanwhile, posits "Bruno" captures the anxiety of the past few years by being both self-contradictory and endlessly "discussing the discussion." They use our nation's desire to "talk ceaselessly about our talking," referring to conversations about how much to limit free speech, as an example. Both ideas ring true. Forcing us to reflect on our own obsessions, in as many languages as possible? Sounds like a recipe for success, to me. —Hannah Van Drie
Sure, you're vintage watch might be worth something *now*, but just wait until this fancy computer on my wrist is vintage. Then we'll see who brings in the big bucks!
All In on OG TickTocks
Humans love collecting things, and we especially love things that come with a story. So it’s no surprise that over the last two years, as the pandemic warped our sense of time and made us think about the trajectory of our lives, the trade in vintage watches took off. “An influx of younger consumers has joined veteran collectors in the hunt for watches with stories to tell,” reports Kate Murphy for the Wall Street Journal. “Watch nerds hotly debate how old a preowned watch must be to qualify as vintage. But whether a watch is 20 or 200 years old, the value—which can range from a few thousand to several million dollars—has always depended on three factors: condition, rarity and provenance.” The market used to focus more on specific models, prizing the same kind of rarity that drives the price of vintage baseball cards or classic cars. But the storytelling part of the watch—the narrative of who owned it, and how it was passed down through the generations—now counts for more. “Part of the appeal is psychological,” Murphy writes, “a desire to capture time when feeling lost in time, and perhaps longing for better times, but also a watch with known provenance is one of a kind, giving watch owners a unique story to tell—and bragging rights.”
I don’t know about bragging rights, but I understand the pull of a good story. My mom gave me my first watch for my 23rd birthday, when I was a few months into my first adult job at the Texas State Capitol. Over lunch in downtown Austin, she handed me a little fabric bag that contained a Bulova with a leather strap: elegant, understated, and much more grown up than I felt at the time. At a moment in my life when I was doing everything I could to project buckets of confidence and maturity that I didn’t actually feel, that watch worked wonders. I got to return the favor many years later when I managed to track down a 1970 Omega two-tone just like the one my mother wore when I was a kid and that I would borrow for special occasions. It took lots of hunting on a weird new website called eBay and a memorable trip to a watch repair shop in Washington, but it was worth it to hand my mother this piece of the past—this callback to our shared history. Mom’s old watch isn’t likely to be on the Sotheby’s auction block, but it’s priceless to me and her. “Watches worn by a particular person at a particular time are by definition the rarest of the rare,” says Roger Michel, who runs the Institute for Digital Archaeology. Not sure Gen Z’s battered iPhones are going to carry quite the same emotional heft, but I guess we’ll see. —Stefanie Sanford
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If Spotify streaming trends were a Getty stock image...
Out With the New, In With the Old
An old song that absolutely fascinates me is “The House of the Rising Sun.” The most famous version is the chart-topping 1964 rendition by The Animals, but the mournful lyrics and melody have morphed over decades of many covers—including by Woody Guthrie, Lead Belly, Pete Seeger, Andy Griffith, Joan Baez, and Nina Simone—and possibly centuries-old roots. Everyone who recorded this old tune hoped it would get their fans to buy the record, as much for the classic song as the new tracks on the disc. The familiar was a door into a room of musical discovery. Today, though, things have changed for new music. Ted Gioia recently sounded the alarm in The Atlantic with the provocatively headlined “Is Old Music Killing New Music?” Gioia, who produces the Substack music newsletter The Honest Broker, utilizing data from music analytics firm MRC Data, wrote that “old songs now represent 70% of the U.S. music market,” while sales of new songs are shrinking. To be clear, Gioia’s criteria is anything older than 18 months, and he readily admits “people could conceivably be listening to a lot of two-year-old songs, rather than 60 year-old ones.” But he doubts it. Specifically he points to shifting streaming numbers, writing “the 200 most popular new tracks now regularly account for less than 5% of total streams,” a 50% drop from three years ago. “The current list of most-downloaded tracks on iTunes is filled with the names of bands from the previous century, such as Creedence Clearwater Revival and The Police.” (Those numbers bring new context to the power of older acts like Neil Young, Joni Michell, and Crosby, Stills & Nash boycotting Spotify over its association with Joe Rogan.)
The most visceral example Gioia points to is declining interest in the Grammy Awards. Regardless of how many music artists may criticize them and straight-up boycott them, the Grammys have long been the industry’s high-profile American showcase of new music. But, again, Gioia points out some alarming numbers:
“In 2021, viewership for the ceremony collapsed 53% from the previous year—from 18.7 million to 8.8 million. It was the least-watched Grammy broadcast of all time. Even the core audience for new music couldn’t be bothered—about 98 percent of people ages 18 to 49 had something better to do than watch the biggest music celebration of the year.
“A decade ago, 40 million people watched the Grammy Awards. That’s a meaningful audience, but now the devoted fans of this event are starting to resemble a tiny subculture. More people pay attention to streams of video games on Twitch (which now gets 30 million daily visitors) or the latest reality-TV show. In fact, musicians would probably do better getting placement in Fortnite than signing a record deal in 2022. At least they would have access to a growing demographic.”
Ouch. Well, The Animals never won a Grammy during their 1960s heyday, but at least “House of the Rising Sun” is getting play on TikTok. – Christian Niedan
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Singer/Songwriter Dolly Parton performs during the "Better Day" world tour opener at the Thompson-Boling Arena on July 17, 2011, in Knoxville, Tennessee. (Praise be!)
Longtime readers of this column know we’re fans of Dolly Parton—not just the musician, but Dolly the cultural icon, literacy advocate, vaccine research funder, and college scholarship provider. It seems perfectly reasonable that such a prolific human would earn a meditation on Aristotelian virtue in the latest issue of Plough Quarterly, which delves into the concept of kalos and what Dolly can teach us about the joyful pursuit of something beautiful and soul-filling. “Per Aristotle, magnificent acts must be aimed at the common good, not the individual’s own luxury or aura of power,” writes Mary Townsend, an assistant professor of philosophy at St. John’s University. “This is the hallmark of all of Dolly’s projects, from vaccines to bald eagles; and unlike the Carnegies with their libraries, or the Rockefellers with their ice-skating rink, there is no large-scale rapaciousness to make up for, either.” Dolly has grown rich and influential by offering the world something lovely, and she has used those riches and influence to make the world a lovelier place in all sorts of other ways. “There are simply some people, Aristotle insists, who exceed our ability to praise them, to articulate what their extraordinary virtue would mean to ourselves. This is the truth of Dolly Parton’s magnificence,” Townsend argues.
I read this about a week after attending a conference on character education, with lectures and discussions that centered mostly on Aristotelian concepts of virtue, friendship, and practical wisdom. It left me thinking about how rarely we articulate the higher aspirations we have for our lives and relationships, but how much we relish virtue when we see it in others. Humility, generosity, open-heartedness—our culture prizes these things, even as we get shy whenever talking about them. Townsend’s underlying point is that someone like Dolly gives us a way to talk and think about those higher concepts without having to feel like we’re in a philosophy seminar: “There’s a charity present in all her works that vivifies the notion that such love is the mother and the root of all virtues, the very sort of love that magnanimity reaches out towards and attempts to perfect, as much as humanly possible.” Something to contemplate, happily, the next time you hear Whitney Houston belting out the Dolly-written classic “I Will Always Love You.” — Eric Johnson
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A woman holds a Ukrainian flag as part of a "living corridor" of people that lined by the road to pay tribute to Denys Hrynchuk as a bus carrying his coffin passes by, in the village of Staryi Vovchynets, on March 5, 2022 in Chernivtsi region, Ukraine.
The Broken Hearts of Ukraine
Like a lot of people, I’m sure, I’ve spent a lot of time since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine trying to get a better handle on the war, its causes, and geopolitical impacts. That has led me to a fair number of excellent podcasts—from a Fresh Air interview with Pulitzer Prize-winner Anne Applebaum to a wonky/terrifying conversation between the New York Times’ Ezra Klein and Fiona Hill to an exceptionally accessible and expansive talk between New Yorker editor David Remnick and historian Stephen Kotkin. These have all made me smarter (even if sometimes rattled) about what’s happening in Europe, but the ones that really resonate address the conditions on the ground for everyday Ukrainians. And the best, by far, has been “For Ukraine,” the March 3 episode of The Urbanist. The show, published by Monocle, is typically an insightful dive into cities, what makes them work, how they can improve, and lessons one urban area can take from another. Its “For Ukraine” episode fits into that mission, but rather than hear from architects, engineers, or planners we’re given guided tours of six Ukrainian cities—Kyiv, Odessa, Simferopol, Volnovakha, Ternopil, and Chernivtsi—through love letters written and read by people who live there. It's the most human of the conversations I've heard about the war because it connects with listeners in a way that's relatable to everyone: love of place, be it a city, suburban community, or rural enclave. Our communities mean something to us; the buildings, streets, restaurants, shops, and cultural centers are part of what makes us who we are. And what happens when those are threatened with complete and total annihilation? What happens to us when the physical manifestations of our individual and collective experience are wiped out? Those questions permeate the podcast, an incredibly raw and visceral experience that cuts through the punditry and analyses and gets to what’s at stake in this war: people’s culture, their homes, and their lives. There is a Ukraine, full of Ukrainians. And hearing these six people intimately share their memories and experiences with these places and their fears of what will happen to them in this war can be emotional—especially listening to it after weeks of fighting that have taken a heavy toll on the cities they talk about. Kyiv is under constant bombardment; Volnovakha “no longer exists.” All of the other things I’ve listened to have helped me make academic sense of the war in Ukraine; Monocle’s podcast, though, is the one that will stay with me for a very long time. I hope the show stays in touch with its six letter writers to let us know how they are once the shelling stops. —Dante A. Ciampaglia