Sunday, February 07, 2016

My Cultural Background As An Artist From New York

By Der Kosmonaut 
  All artists are shaped by the cultural and social landscape that they were born and raised in. As a native New Yorker born in the early 1970s, I am the product of a distinct cultural and social upbringing which has influenced my worldview as an artist. While it's impossible to say whether or not I would've been an artist had I been reared outside of New York during the 1970s and 80s, but it's certain that the type of artist that I am was influenced by the social and cultural landscape of New York City three and four decades ago. In my poem I Remember New York, which was written in 2002 in Montreal, I recall many of the cultural institutions which have long been extinct. In the multi-media production of The Fall of New York, I attempted to explain how the city was until the advent of Rudy Giuliani, who Americanized New York City. In this multimedia essay, I will use television from that era to illustrate more concretely the social and cultural environment.

  Why television? Television in New York City was unlike that of any other city in North America or the rest of the world for that matter. Given the size of the New York television market of 20 million people, the programming was designed especially for the region. While New York City shared television programs with the rest of the United States, there was in fact a distinct and unique broadcasting which wasn't shown to the outside world. My poem Posters and Bulletins was about print advertising. While I dislike advertising in general, New York City television advertising was a cut above the rest. While there were ads which were intended for the national American audience, the ads specific to the New York market were special. There was an advanced degree of creativity and sophistication in New York. The programming and advertising was not designed to insult the intelligence or the viewers or to condescend them. At the same time, there was a wit and humor which reflected that of the general culture of New York.
  Before cable TV New York had 13 channels. 9 of which had 24 hour programming. For this presentation I will focus on just a handful of them them. It wasn't until the 1990s before all five boroughs of New York had cable tv. For nearly the first decade, cable television was only available in Manhattan and only 2/3 of the island at that. Given the vast array of channels, the demand for cable wasn't there. Therefore, the vast majority of New York City residents watched the free channels.
  Three of the channels belonged to the major corporate networks, the remaining nine were independent or public stations. The independent stations were viewed by the majority of New Yorkers than the corporate stations. As the independent stations competed with the corporate networks, they were compelled to broadcast the most creative and interesting programming. Station identifications were the personality of the channels and in turn of the city.
  By far the most popular television station was WNEW Channel 5 Metromedia. More New Yorkers had watched Channel 5 than any other of the 13 stations in the city. In many respects, WNEW TV most reflected the cultural and social persona of New York City. By all rights Metromedia 5 should've been called The Big Apple Channel. Every Sunday evening it would air "The Big Apple Movie" which present films that were either set in New York, made in New York or about New York. Several times over the course of the day it would air a special segment known as "Big Apple Minute". That segment would feature the most obscure neighborhoods of the city, highlight new exhibitions and events which were off the beaten path all in under one minute.
  Metromedia 5 was also the most liberal and progressive privately owned station in the United States. It was for this reason that Rupert Murdoch bought and took over WNEW and launched the Fox network. His motivation was ideological and political. WNEW was known for it's progressive social commitment to racial equality and empowering children to think critically. As soon as Murdoch took it over, it ceased broadcasting progressive messages. WNEW was the only privately owned New York station which didn't broadcast sports. Here is WNEW Metromedia promo from 1980. One will notice the emphasis on racial and gender equality and integration. In fact, New York was much less white than it is today. The creativity that was invested in this 30 second clip is remarkable. Apart from the video production, there was the music and lyrics. Moreover it sums up everything of New York.

The second most watched station was Channel 11 WPIX. It was the major competitor with Metromedia 5. At the time WPIX broadcasted all the New York Yankees baseball games. It most certainly won more ratings than WNEW during baseball season and game time. WPIX was a poorer station than Metromedia 5 and didn't have the means to create a promo. However, it put just as much creative effort into its image. The following is the station identification of WPIX from 1981. I can't think of more original creative input for a 10 second product. It took a team of advanced graphic artists, composers and musicians just to make a 10 second clip. Just by listening I can identify an electric guitar, bass guitar, a kick drum and high hat, plus a string quartet, horns and finally at least two singers to make the disco funk tune.
WABC Channel 7, which is the flagship station of the ABC television network, had a program known as the 4:30 Movie. It aired between 1968-1981. The 4:30 Movie was a ritual for all children in New York during that time. Most of us would make sure that we were home from school in time to catch the broadcast. It aired some of the best cinema the world had to offer at the time. It would mostly show American Hollywood productions but it would show a fair number of foreign films dubbed into English. While there was probably some trash which slipped in, but as far as I can remember, it's selections were always top notch. The 4:30 Movie had one of the best introductions for any television program in the history of the world. The films broadcast were just as good, if not better than the introduction. Again, for the short time of the clip, the level of artistic creativity is breathtaking. 

WNBC Channel 4, which is the flagship station of the NBC network had one of the best news broadcast theme song ever.  News 4 New York theme in the 1980s was a classic new wave techno pop tune. It sounds as if it was composed by Kraftwerk. The tune is clearly inspired by their songs  "Airwaves" and "Tour de France" The Germans simply cannot fathom how influential Kraftwerk was culturally in New York City. Between 1977-1986 Kraftwerk was the most popular music group in New York. Not did they have a major influence on the city's Hip-Hop scene but they even inspired the local television news broadcast. While Kraftwerk was unknown and obscure in their home country and the rest of North America, they were mainstream in New York City.
1010 WINS is an all news AM radio station. It's never been the best or the most informative source of news or substantial information.. The newscasts are simple headlines and stories which are looped and repeated every 22 minutes. However, it could be handy to find out about the weather and the time. It's theme music is perhaps one of the most intense of any news radio station in the world. It has a frenetic hectic tempo which which builds into a frenzy. Perhaps, this is only my opinion, it was to reflect that fast pace of life in New York City. Things can and do happen in a New York Minute. The suggestion is that the station keeps up with the pace of the city. The commercial certainly supports this thesis. The text of the commercial is worth noting for they are quite clever and witty:
"Was the world as peaceful as your sleep? We'll tell you! We've been up all night! 2 feet of snow could be coming down from Canada. Where do you get the drift of it? 1010 WINS! You give us 22 minutes, We'll give you the world!"
 This clip is from 1985. The station was mentioned in the Beastie Boys song "An Open Letter To NYC".

When MTV went live on the air in 1981, it wasn't available in New York. For most of the 1980s, MTV wasn't aired outside of Manhattan and only those with cable television. Most New Yorkers didn't care. There was in fact a free 24 hour music station known as U-68 on the channel of the same number. Eventually Viacom which owns MTV bought U-68 and changed it to the Home Shopping Channel. Throughout most of the 1980s MTV came under criticism for its refusal to play music videos by Black artists. It wasn't until 1989 that MTV was dragged screaming and kicking to play Hip-Hop. With the exception of Michael and Janet Jackson and Whitney Houston, MTV didn't air any Soul/RNB videos. However, as New York was the largest Black city in North America and the birthplace of Rap and Hip-Hop, there was a program devoted exclusively to the genre. Seven days a week the New York City owned public television station WNYC Channel 31 aired a program called Video Music Box. Produced and hosted by Ralph McDaniels, it set the standard for Hip Hop. Every aspiring rapper and Hip Hop DJ hoped to be played on Video Music Box. It was broadcast twice daily at 5PM and at Midnight. No other city in the world had this programming. The opening intro is a montage of various music videos including Run-DMC, The Fat Boys, LL Cool J, Prince, Talking Heads, Aha, Cyndi Lauper, Bruce Springsteen, James Brown, Jimmy Hendrix and Bob Marley mixed to "Five Minutes of Funk" by the great Hip-Hop duo Whodini. No self-styled "experts" of Hip Hop not from New York or alive during the 80s are aware of Video Music Box.

Returning to the theme of social awareness, along with the commitment to racial equality and the empowerment of children, no ad encapsulated this than the Children's Aid Society of New York. The most musically talented children of New York were assembled to put this together. Two of the children went on to have successful music careers. The girl in the orange dress is a professional musician today. The lad on the drums in Corey Glover, went on to become the lead singer for the Black Alternative rock band Living Colour. In spite of the obvious technical flaws of the production, the message was one of positive children's empowerment. Notice that the first child to sing in Puerto Rican and the multicultural complexion of the cast. The lad playing piano is blind. For my generation growing up in New York City, this is our national anthem. A note to Canadian readers: The Children's Aid Society of New York isn't the same as in Canada, which has rightfully gained a reputation for child abuse.
New York has long been the banking and finance capital of North America. However, there used to be a difference between the large commercial and investment banks such as Citibank and Chase Manhattan Bank from the local savings banks. Until the late 1990s, most New Yorkers had savings accounts in the regional banks. Like with practically everything else on New York television, the ads for the banks were endowed with an outstanding level of artistic creativity. This is an ad for The Dime which was short for The Dime Savings Bank of New York which was a Brooklyn based bank which was forced out of business by the Wall Street banks to eliminate any alternative to totalitarian capitalism. This clip is an animated fairy tale. In retrospect, I suspect that The Dime was targeting children more than adults. In the year 2016 the ad is quite funny, though at the time no one considered it to be particularly humorous. Please note that I was unable to find the ad by itself on YouTube. Do not waste time watching the ads following The Dime.
New York City region has its own supermarkets. American chains such as K-Mart didn't arrive until 1997-8. Wal-Mart was not even known to New Yorkers unless they traveled outside of the Northeast region of the country. There was active competition as they were no less than ten supermarket chains throughout the city. The first clip is from Shop Rite. Periodically they would have sales on canned goods. Most likely they had surpluses of canned goods which were reaching the end of their shelf life. To get rid of the surplus stock, they would have Can-Can sales. For my generation this was our introduction to the Can-Can dance and show tune. 
The supermarket which I thought had the best quality of goods was D'Agostino. Its stores are mostly located in the upper middle class areas of Manhattan, hence the good quality of its wares. I used to live close to two D'Agostino supermarkets in Manhattan. It was and remains family owned rather than a corporation. D'Agostino also had a highly creative brand. Its shopping bags were known as D'AG BAG. This is another animated clip with an original music score and singing. 
The largest Black owned business in New York at the time was originally named The Wiz. It took it's name from Broadway's first all Black musical production from the 1970s. It was originally a Hi-Fi outlet selling audio-visual products such as radios, record and cassette players and television sets. It later expanded to sell video game consoles and cartridges. By the mid 1980s, it sold records, tapes and CDs. It changed its name to Nobody Beats The Wiz after it's commercial jingle. Unknown to Hip-Hop fans around the world outside of New York, the jingle was the basis of the song "Nobody Beats The Biz" by Biz Markie

Perhaps the funniest of the New York ads were for Polly-O string cheese. Note the signs behind the actors. Behind the children a sign reads "NO SCREAMING". Another sign behind the pizzeria owner reads: "BE PATIENT, MEATBALL". The New York accent is quite pronounced. Until I recently re-discovered this ad, I had always assumed the kids were speaking Italian towards the end. Why they're speaking French is beyond my comprehension as Mozzarella Cheese is Italian in origin. Then again, with the exception of Spanish, New Yorkers aren't proficient in foreign languages.
When it comes to art and culture New York is the theater capital of the English speaking world. The Milford Plaza hotel was located in the heart of the theater district. It's commercial was produced as a Broadway musical number. The New York City media market includes the city as well as the suburbs of Long Island, Westchester Country, half the state of New Jersey and a quarter of the state of Connecticut. The ad targeted suburbanites. It's quite difficult for suburbanites to get into Manhattan. Parking space is scarce and what's available is expensive. If one wanted to catch an evening performance, they faced the prospects of taking a long commuter rail journey back to the suburbs and most likely wouldn't arrive home until late at night. The Milford Plaza hotel catered to this market. They could go into the city, enjoy dinner, cocktails, see a play and have breakfast the following morning. The Milford Plaza was the ideal hotel for an overnight stay or weekend visit to New York City. I wonder how many guests that stayed at the Milford Plaza Hotel actually expected the hotel staff to give them a show and dance and how many were disappointed and complained?
Before the gutting of American industrial production which followed the takeover of finance capital over the economy, it was possible to have a decent paying career as machinists, mechanics and other technicians. New York City was home to quite a few technical schools. The most known was Apex Tech. It was probably the most saturated commercial on New York television. Like most ads for local establishments, Apex Tech always featured the same actor. In this clip, the actor acknowledges that he's on the television screen often. He has to assure prospective students that no salesman will visit their house. Of course not. The ads had more access into the private domains than any salesperson ever could. He would often conclude with the patented line: "Look I can't call you. You have to take the first step and call us." To push any viewer that might have been wavering, he adds, "Our switchboard is open right now." It's a prime example of New York pushiness. Hurry up already!
Perhaps the best line of any commercial in the history of advertising was invented by Sy Syms, the founder and chairman of Sym's discount clothing store. This is perhaps the best example of the respect that advertisers had for the public. I was unable to find clips where Sy says: "At Syms, an educated consumer is our best customer." Today no one would dare utter such a statement. In this clip Sy and his wife give their season's greetings with his wife delivering the line.
The best is saved for last. Nothing else more epitomized New York popular culture of the 1980s than the ads for Crazy Eddie. Crazy Eddie was an appliance outlet which always managed to underbid all the competitors. The commercials would compel viewers to shop around and if they found items at another shop cheaper, then Crazy Eddie would beat it. By 1989 Crazy Eddie went out of business and the owner went to prison while his cousin became a fugitive from justice by fleeing to Israel. Like most New Yorkers in the 1970s and 1980s, the owners of Crazy Eddie were scammers. (Who wasn't scamming in New York back then apart from my grandmother and others of her generation? The rest of my family was doing some type of scam. In the building that my uncle lived in The Bronx, most of the residents have spliced the HBO cable from the roof and were watching without paying.) The entire operation was a scam. They were eventually busted by the Feds for fraud and money laundering. The commercial told no lie when the actor said that the store was "insane!"
 These are just a small sample of what was on the air in New York City. In retrospect what is interesting was how we took this for granted. We were bombarded with this on a daily basis. Very few of us ever considered the cultural and artistic merits. We were given the best of capitalism and expected nothing less. At best we were cognizant of the differences between the national ads which were broadcast on network prime time television from the local regional commercials. New York City was its own planet disconnected from the rest of the world. Though we were the largest city within the borders of the United States of America, we had practically nothing in common with the rest of the country culturally, socially and politically. 
  This was the environment which I was brought up. Whether I liked it or not, it became part of both my conscious and subconscious or the use the words of Wilhelm Reich, part of my "psychic structure". It's not by coincidence that I became an electronic music producer, DJ, performance artist. My sense of humor and wit was influenced by what I saw and heard on television. Needless to say, my leftist politics were shaped by New York and the era.
  Unfortunately the policies of Neoliberal totalitarian capitalism undermined New York's cultural and social autonomy. The policies of Reagan and Bush, along with the cultural degradation which accompanied it, eventually infiltrated and degraded New York City. As mentioned above, Rupert Murdoch led the debasement of the culture and propped up the fascist reign of Rudy Giuliani. Throughout the 1990s New York's distinct culture was eradicated. It was part of the process of "Globalization", which is nothing less than turning the entire planet into a consumer concentration camp.
  Without doubt we were all poisoned by capitalist degeneration even 35 years ago. Still, New York capitalism embraced tolerance, diversity, racial and gender equality. It far from a utopia but it certainly wasn't the dystopia which is what New York City has become today.

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