Thursday, July 12, 2012

M'er F'ing History: Speaking in Our Audience's Language

"Share It Maybe?"
Damn skippy, Cookie! I'll share it!
It's good enough for me.
I was talking to Jake the other night about Cookie Monster. Really, we were talking about the theory behind Cookie Monster's latest strategic move and how we could all learn a thing or two from him. Which move was that? The short, furry blue monster's brilliant foray into pop culture with "Share It Maybe," the music video parody of Carly Rae Jepsen's song "Call Me Maybe." In one day, Cookie has racked up 2.3 million hits on the less-than-four-minute video.

"Why," I mused, "can't we (i.e. the National Park Service) do something like this?"

OK, so I might have been a bit more vulgar in that sentence, with an expletive or two thrown in for good measure, but I'm retelling the story so I get to make myself sound a bit more refined and all-sophisticated-like.

I quickly preempted Jake by answering the question myself: "[Expletive Deleted] Agency Voice."

There's this rote answer that folks will give to a question like mine, a question of, "why can't we do this or that cool thing?" It morphs and changes, lengthens and shortens, but it boils down to those two words (minus the Nixonian aside). "Agency voice." As a public agency, as a Federal agency, we must maintain a dignified image. According to many loud voices within the Service, we can't do something that is sly, funny, witty or slightly crude, because we run the risk of belittling the Service's reputation.

Jake shot his own retort back to me: "This is the problem though - we have tons of people who think nature and history aren't pop culture, that they shouldn't be pop culture. Why can't we have a fun agency voice? Why can't we proudly say, 'we take our job seriously, but we have fun?'"

Dignity can be wildly overrated. At times, it can even be a barrier to communications. Speak in too dignified a tone, in too snooty a language, and you'll alienate the very people you'd like to reach most. We have thick style guides in all of our jobs, the approved and set-in-stone language we must always use when speaking with the voice of our agencies or institutions or museums. Sometimes, the bravest and most meaningful thing to do with those books are to burn them to cinders.

What should we be doing more? Compare the two videos below. On the left, a C-SPAN clip attempting to convey the importance and meaning of Alexander Hamilton. On the right, a clip from the White House trying to convey an importance and meaning of Alexander Hamilton.

Go ahead, compare and contrast. Trust me.

Which video do you remember better? Which video inspired more? Which video imparted a meaning to your soul more effectively?

But would this pass a museum's sniff-test for agency voice? I know the answer I'd get from a chunk of my co-workers in the NPS: "no, this is not dignified enough, we must speak with our authority."

But then look at what Lin-Manuel Miranda's rap video has wrought: there are remix slideshows. There are cover versions. There are people finding Alexander Hamilton who more-than-likely never would have encountered him before and internalizing his story. Not simply hearing it, but caring about it, making it their own and expressing it.

When was the last time you saw an average American teenager making a slideshow with eh voice-over of a dry video of a Park Ranger talking direct to camera? When was the last time you saw an average American teenager remixing lethargic video of Shelby Foote or Ed Bearss or any other talking head in front of a wall of books?

What would happen if we all tried to emulate Lin-Manuel Miranda? What if we went out of our way to speak the language of modern Americans? That language is a pop-culture verse, sometimes hip-hop beats, sometimes bubble-gum, sometimes crass and sometimes humorous.

But wouldn't we reach America? Couldn't we tell our stories to all of America, not just the small percentage who can stand boring talking heads seated in front of nondescript bookshelves?

And isn't reaching every single American and helping them find a personal meaning within the past our sacred responsibility as public historians?

A parody?
Hell yeah!
Jake pointed out a fantastic parody of Lin-Manuel Miranda's Alexander Hamilton Mixtape produced by a comedy troupe of historical founding fathers. Yeah... nerdsplosion right there. When was the last time some interpretive product you produced was parodied word-for-word by a man in a powdered wig?

I rest my case...

1 comment:

  1. This proved to be a generational problem when I worked at Stones River, as well. I worked with a group of high school students to develop short films about the battlefield. I challenged them to tell the history stories of the site that they learned or found interesting in a manner that would reach their peers. The resistance came from some of the park's staff and what they perceived as students' disrespect in the manner the students chose to "translate" the stories into tellings that related more to their generation. On particular film was a "soldier fashion show" developed by some of the more high-maintenance girls (students traditionally NOT interested in school, especially not Civil War history). After everything was said and done, those girls had done the most research, put in some the most editing work, and created the film that was voted "most popular" by the eleventh grade class; park staff chose a more traditional battle story film to represent the project believing the film too much for a battlefield.

    You provide many interesting points, John, and I am interested to see how agency voice will adapt to the 21st century.