29 August 2010

New Finessed Site

I have now migrated Finessed to a new site.

20 August 2010

Coming Soon: New Blog Site

I am in the process of migrating this blog to a more functional WordPress site. Look out for my new blog site updated entries by next week....

In the meantime, check out my first guest blog for Shop Local Alexandria on The Perfect Shopping Saturday. Also, don't miss my column, "The Multifacted Writer," for Writer's News Weekly. Here's this week's column: "Writing Visually."

15 July 2010

Narrative Marketing: Brand Strategy as Storytelling

From 2006 to 2007, the British lingerie company Agent Provocateur launched a lavish e-mail marketing campaign with four short films entitled "The Dreams of Miss X," featuring Kate Moss. The campaign promised to be a new concept for e-mail marketing, drawing in viewers (and thus potential buyers) with a more cinematic feel to the online retail experience.

Despite being wooed by the very concept of this type of higher-end video marketing, particularly with a scantily clad Kate Moss, many viewers were turned away by the apparent poor video quality and the sheer lack of characterization in what should have otherwise seemed a strong narrative concept.

Agent Provocateur has made a name for itself in redefining the world of intimate brands with its branding approach in providing edgy, yet luxurious design with a boutique feel. The brand's prominent use of storytelling techniques in its marketing campaigns has helped to establish and augment this feeling of desiring the undesireable, i.e. sumptuousness with an edge of danger. Their successful campaigns featuring Kylie Minogue and their UK cinema commercials, including the iconic "Love Me Tender" Valentine's Day campaign that was a YouTube sensation, prove the success of this type of narrative marketing.

Obviously, video marketing has exploded in the four years since the Agent Provocateur campaign. Video is now ubiquitous, particularly in online advertising and on retail websites. Yet, the use of narrative, i.e. storytelling techniques, in marketing and brand strategy strangely is not as pervasive as one would think, particularly not in luxury brand advertising.

There has been a lot of buzz about narrative marketing in the past decade or so as a way for companies to distinguish their brands in an age of social media. By narrative marketing, I would include the following characteristics:
  • strong, consistent unifying concept or main idea;
  • a "plot" or storyline--i.e. a course of action or series of events--that can be developed across different media outlets;
  • intriguing "characters" or actors (whether a person, product, or idea) to carry out the action; and
  • a simple, pervasive means of implementation or strategy to express or tell different parts of the narrative in various forms across the product line and through media/advertising/communications.

Yet, in the retail sector, the brands that use this type of strategy to define, communicate, and sell their products tend to be more niche, purposefully appealing to a small, designated market segment.

For example, British cycling brand Rapha, which sells high-end cycling clothing, as well as a full-color magazine, art work, and other accessories, is centered around the pain and beauty of cycling. Rapha's brand concept is unified around recounting the history and glorious suffering of the cyclist's experience as an epic narrative.

Each Rapha clothing label contains a meticulously-written narrative of a legendary cyclist or event in cycling history, which gives the product an exclusive feel, as if the purchaser is himself or herself an active participant in the ongoing cycling story.

Rapha have now extended their narrative into the world in an applied sense with the opening of cycling cafes in London, New York, and elsewhere (see a recent Financial Times article on these cafes), providing cyclists with a brand experience and lessons in the history of the sport as they grab a coffee after a long ride.

Many international retailers make use of video storytelling in a trailer fashion to market upcoming or new products. Many also do indeed try to make use of narrative techniques in their marketing and branding.

However, few larger brands, especially in the luxury sector, have been able to do this consistently. This is perhaps because of the problem of diffuseness and the need to distinguish between product lines. But, it could also be simply that the principle behind narrative marketing does not make sense for all companies. Traditional marketing techniques, putting advertising and communications behind the brand label and letting the brand sell itself, work wonders for big names like Tiffany's, Burberry, and Louis Vuitton.

This is not to say that a picture, the central focus of all print advertising, cannot itself tell a story. But, the ability to tell and link this type of story to a product as a part of a cohesive marketing strategy can be a difficult thing to do, particularly to relate this story across all aspects of your business model.

The proliferation of online media offers almost endless possibilities for marketing and communications. Yet, focus, clear presentation, and a simple message are critical. Consumers are inundated and thus can grow easily bored. Many good ideas are lost, albeit unintentionally, in an ever-escalating mire of images, words, and concepts. There also is a lot of sloppiness at all levels of marketing and advertising, and a lack of core attention to good writing and consistency of concept. (Word nerds: how many typos a day do you find on commercials and throughout the web?)

Despite all of this advice, the key thing about marketing and communications, of course, is audience. I am a literary person, so adore the idea of narrative marketing for its use of storytelling techniques. Yet, this approach obviously is not appropriate for all audiences.

So, now I ask readers---What draws you to a brand or an advertising concept? An attractive visual or a material incentive (such as a sale)? Are there any brand marketing campaigns that you find particularly memorable? What drew you to them?

07 July 2010

The Death of a Poet (and Why You Should Care)

8 July 2010 is the 188th anniversary of the death of Percy Bysshe Shelley.

While most people hopefully may encounter at least one of his poems (perhaps
"Ozymandias") over the course of their lives, it remains a question for many adults as to why they should continue to pay attention to the work of a writer like Shelley and literature in general once they get out of school.

To this end, why should anyone in 2010 care about the death of a poet who died almost 200 years ago?

Many stories surround
Shelley's death, largely due to the dramatic and exaggerated account of the poet's body being found with his brains oozing out his ears with a copy of Keats' works in his pocket in Recollections of the Last Days of Shelley and Byron by Edward James Trelawney (a figure who is nearly as interesting as the poets themselves).

To add dimension to Shelley's story, as any undergraduate level course or book on Romanticism may tell you, he authored at least two poems ["Alastor; or the Spirit of Solitude" (1815) and "The Triumph of Life" (1822)] centered around a poet who ultimately meets his death in a boat.

While reading biography into literature is the downfall--and indeed great fear--of many critics, Shelley's works and his life nevertheless have an odd (and often deliberate) parallelism. Some of this biographicalness, if you will, is self-styled authorial fame-seeking (of the famous
Byron portrait in Turkish garb I'm-an-exotic-artist-adventurer-way). But, some of this biography-in-literature, of course, reflects the strange irony by which life frequently imitates art.

For my own interest as a researcher, Shelley's works represent a relatively rare example of self-taught interdisciplinarity in writing. That is, he is a writer who finds unique ways to adapt ideas from other disciplines, in this case, music, into literature with no practical training but sustained exposure as a listener and reader.

To address the question I posed at the beginning, people should care and occasionally try to read a work or two by a dead writer (yes, even a dead British poet like Shelley) due to the odd, enlightening, and frankly fascinating things you can learn, even about writers (like Shakespeare) about whom you've read a million times. So, in short, read out of simple curiosity.

For instance, in March 2010, The Guardian reported that a researcher had unearthened a lost memoir by Claire Clairmont (Shelley's half sister and mother of Byron's illegitimate daughter, Allegra) that directly contradicted everything else that she had ever written about Shelley and Byron. This newly discovered memoir, written when Claire was an older lady, called Shelley a "monster," partially for his treatment of women. This "revelation" sent many scholars into a tizzy, defending Shelley and all of Claire's previous support of the poet.

For my part, I was fascinated by the continued interest in the Shelley circle and by the fact that it remains possible to read something new about them. That said, I was far from shocked by Claire's accusations, both because she was old when she wrote the document and because it is hardly surprising to learn of an act of misogyny in the 19th century.

In an age where knowledge and language have descended with purpose into ephemerality, multiplicity, and truncation, there suddenly seems room, almost inexhaustibly, for people to rediscover literature, history, philosophy, and good writing. Even while it seems as if the very fabric of language and books themselves is being unravelled. After all, aren't writers the main source of #quotes on Twitter?

The advent of electronic media obviously has created a revolution of substance in terms of archiving and preserving history and literature as well as educating people through the plethora of information now at one's fingertips.

Yet, as I'm sure others have observed, I think that we see a quieter revolution slipping in with the concept of knowledge as direct marketing. In a sense, when we Tweet, post a link, or write in a blog, we're directing people to ideas or something in a targeted fashion because we find it relevant, important, or interesting. This adds purpose to the acts of navigation and reading, among a chaos of information now available in an instant.

In this way, I find blogs, Twitter, and other information resources comforting as I observe old ideas becoming new ideas to someone as he or she reads them again or for the first time. Thus, Shelley's death has the potential to become a significant event for anyone who may not have ever had the chance to read "To a Skylark" or "Ode to the West Wind."

What do you think? Even if you've been exposed to the poetry of this era, how do you think literature remains relevant in an age of social media? Can social media actually improve learning and student learning outcomes in this way?

This is the third in a column appearing regularly about literature and my forthcoming book, Shelley and the Musico-Poetics of Romanticism.

27 June 2010

The Problems with Soggy Manuscripts

Many debates in literary scholarship concern issues surrounding the interpretation and history of manuscripts, particularly as they inform understanding of what authors write and why they write.

This a particular problem in establishing version control and thus textual authority for literary works, particularly when different copies of the same works exist in one or multiple hands.

Happily, academics have come to consensus about some of these issues, which are frequently published in the form of established "critical editions" of literary works.

Unfortunately, as a scholar who studies the relations between Romantic-era poetry and music, manuscripts and their interpretation continues to cause problems. Indeed, rumors abound in relation to a poem by Shelley called variously "An Indian Girl's Song" or "An Indian Serenade."

Percy Bysshe Shelley died on 8 July 1822 when his boat capsized off the coast of Livorno in Italy. When his body and boat were found, several of his notebooks were also recovered, including one containing a version of the poem that begins "I arise from dreams of thee." On the back of damaged leaf containing a draft of this poem, Shelley appears to have jotted some words from the Italian aria "Ah perdona" from Mozart's opera La Clemenza di Tito. From this evidence, many biographers and scholars have concluded that Shelley intended his poem to be set to the music of this aria.

Knowing the poet's interest in music and passion for Mozart since early 1817, I find it entirely probable that Shelley did, in fact, intend for this poem to be set to this duetto from Mozart's Tito. The poem fits the music relatively well. I also argue elsewhere that he had similar intentions (though did not yet have the musical setting) for his lyrical drama "Prometheus Unbound."

Nevertheless, as a reader, critic, and music lover, I am highly interested in the assumption that leads one to the conclusion that this poem must go with Mozart's aria because the poet wrote the Italian lyrics on a page close to this draft of this poem in the manuscript. How do we know this?

The poem "I arise from dreams of thee" has a complicated manuscript history. Shelley, who famously left his first wife Harriet to run away with the daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft, had many semi-erotic relationships with women over the course of his life. It appears that Shelley "spontaneously" wrote several versions of this poem (with different titles) for several different women, including one written in 1819 for a young Englishwoman named Sophia Stacey, which did not include any reference to an aria by Mozart, and one written two years later for Jane Williams, who was perhaps the intended recipient of the soggy version that washed up on the shore with Shelley after his death. Since there are variances between these different versions over the course of more than a year, it has proved troublesome for scholars trying to pinpoint the "original" version of this poem and then, in turn, determine whether or not it was to be set to music.

As renowned scholars Donald Reiman, Michael O'Neill, and others have noted, it seems certain that Shelley originally wrote the poem in 1819 for Sophia Stacey after hearing her sing at a gathering of friends. In addition to the popularity of Tito on the European and British stage from 1810-1825, "Ah perdona" was a popular piece of drawing room music at time, which meant that Shelley likely knew the song well. In this way, it seems possible that he originally wrote the poem for Sophia Stacey with the intention of her singing it to this popular aria by Mozart.

Yet, again, coming to the conclusion that "I arise from dreams of thee" is meant to be set to this particular song is partially conjecture. Educated conjecture based on interpretation of primary sources, both from Shelley's own hand as well as others who knew him. But, conjecture nonetheless.

However, what interests me most about the soggy manuscript is what it may reveal about a writer's impulse to have one of his poems set to music. What did music mean to Shelley in 1819 and then in 1821? Shelley was no musician, though fell in love with music due to various experiences from late 1816 to 1817. Yet, it does not appear that he ever wrote a poem for his wife, Mary, with the intention of having it set to music, even though he wrote several for other, arguably more musically-inclined, women.

These are some of the questions I investigate in the book I'm finishing. I am a literary critic interested in maintaining a historical perspective while closely reading the works themselves. This approach, of course, necessitates interpretation, conjecture, and informed decision making based on a variety of sources, including soggy manuscripts.

And so the job of a researcher goes on....

This is the second post in a regular column appearing about art and my forthcoming book, Shelley and the Musico-Poetics of Romanticism.

For more on Shelley and opera, see--Jessica Quillin, "'An assiduous frequenter of the Italian opera': Shelley's Prometheus Unbound and the opera buffa," Romantic Circles: Praxis Series.

* Image above is from Fair Copy Manuscripts of Shelley's Poems in European and American Libraries, ed. Donald Reiman and Michael O'Neill, London: Taylor & Francis, 1997.

20 June 2010

Art, Unanticipated

Many people say that art is most powerful when it makes you think. I would take that further. Art is at its most powerful when you don't know you're being affected or, rather, when you don't expect to be affected.

I am writing a book about a British poet,
Percy Bysshe Shelley, whose work I argue was greatly affected by his experiences with music. (For example, see "The keen stars were twinkling.") In Shelley's time, poetry was arguably more popular than music because writers and critics, many of whom were the paparazzi of their day, published the latest gossip, news, and political ideas in verse.

Poetry still does this in many ways (there is a lot of amazing work being written). Yet, it does not capture the public imagination the same way that music does. I am not here to declare the death of poetry, but rather its continual rebirth through its relation with other art forms. Poetry, in a very real sense, is everywhere--in song lyrics, advertisements, and magazines.

By corollary, art, in a very real sense, is everywhere. We are surrounded by it, from the statue you drive by everyday to the song you can't get out of your head all morning.

So, why does the very subject of art, particularly poetry and opera, cause people to groan or turn away in disinterest? Without pretention, I would argue that it's simply because people are no longer conscious of when they're experiencing art because it is so much a fundamental part of our daily landscape.

Art can be clever. Sneaky art: an unexpected experience with the creative expression of the human imagination that sticks with you. Obviously relative to an individual, but it's still art.

Here's an example. My guilty pleasure is the show "So You Think You Can Dance." But, the routines are sometimes forgettable, even if impressive in skill. However, one routine from the 2008-2009 season, choreographed to Pit Bull's "Calle Ocho (I Know You Want Me)," was literally the most riveting expression of human physicality I've ever seen--on television or the stage. (The
YouTube video of this routine doesn't do it much justice.) The combination of music, choreography, and dance presented a scene with an almost primitive energy that was mesmerizing. The screen went dark and the dancers took off. Incredible.

Having seen Pavarotti as Cavaradossi in Tosca and Domingo in Pagliacci, I cite this random television experience as another moment of artistic awe. It was sneaky art, totally unexpected from American television on a random Wednesday, but art nonetheless.

Look around you. You might find art.

This is the first in a column that will appear regularly on Mondays about art and my experiences finalizing my book, Shelley and the Musico-Poetics of Romanticism.

16 June 2010

Remembering Stravinsky

On the occasion of Stravinsky's 128th birthday, it seems fitting to reflect briefly on his contributions to music and his famous affair with legendary fashion designer Coco Chanel.

This month American audiences have a chance to get a glimpse into a chapter in Igor Stravinsky's life with Sony Classics' release of Jan Kounen's film "Coco Chanel and Igor Stravinsky," much lauded at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival. Although the film has come under some criticism for lacking depth and sufficient background development to situate the events behind the affair between these two celebrated historical figures, director Kounen, in collaboration with author Greenhalgh, on whose book Coco and Igor the movie is based, nonetheless seem to have created a film that provides a fitting visual and dramatic landscape to accompany the composer's music, which understandably dominates the soundtrack.

Stravinsky, who was born in Russia on 17 June 1882 and established his career in Switzerland, Paris, and then the United States, firmly believed in the autonomy and self-sufficiency of music in the modernist tradition. In his book Expositions and Developments, he famously commented that when a composer writes music, he only apprehends "the contour of the form, for the form is everything. He can say nothing whatever about meanings."

Ironically, Stravinsky is celebrated for the rhythmic energy and musical intensity of his works. This is especially true in ballets like The Rite of Spring (whose premiere was the scene of the most famous riot in musical history), which he composed under the tutelage of Sergei Diaghilev, the founder and impresario of the Ballets Russes.

While he is known for his ballet music, Stravinsky also wrote 5 operas, including The Rake's Progress, for which W.H. Auden partially wrote the libretto, and The Flood, a 7-part work written for television that aired on CBS on 14 June 1962.

Although like Chanel, Stravinsky was famous as a revolutionary in his day, the significance of his contributions to music and musical aesthetics becomes more remarkable as we realize the lingering impact of his style, theories, and attention to rhythmic structure.

Happy Birthday, Stravinsky!

"Coco Chanel and Igor Stravinsky" (2009) recently opened in New York and will be opening soon at Landmark Theatres around the US.