Amy Winehouse and Nassim Taleb

Will Amy Winehouse — who won five Grammys last night — help or hurt the music industry? A few years ago, I went to a tasting event called The Joy of Sake. There were about 100 of the best sakes from Japan. A pre-event talk for retailers discussed the decline of sake in Japan. (Soju is cool; sake is old-fashioned.) That was the reason for the show. I loved tasting 30-odd high-quality sakes but the overall effect on me was the opposite of what the promoters wanted. I quickly became a connoisseur. I no longer liked the cheap stuff — ugh! But the stuff I did like was too expensive. I stopped buying sake.

Before last night I had heard of Amy Winehouse and I had heard Rehab, but hadn’t put the two together. Her Grammy performance blew me away. I watched a bunch of YouTubes of her. Back at the Grammys, I listened to an orchestra play Rhapsody in Blue. I used to like it; now it sounded awful. I listened to a few more group performances; they too sounded bad. Just as The Joy of Sake had made me no longer enjoy cheap sake, listening to a lot of Amy Winehouse had made me no longer enjoy “average” music — music where several individual performances are combined.

I thought of The Black Swan by Nassim Taleb. Taleb defined Mediocristan as situations where no one datum can have a big effect on the result. The average height of 100 people, for example. In Extremistan, by contrast, a single datum can make a big difference. The average wealth of 100 people, for example — one person can have much more money than the other 99 put together. Orchestras are Mediocristan, I realized; individual singers are Extremistan. In art, emotional impact is everything. Extremistan allows really big impact; Mediocristan does not. Maybe this is why classical music is dying.

I felt like throwing away half my CDs. I could use the space. Thanks, Amy!

15 Replies to “Amy Winehouse and Nassim Taleb”

  1. Seth,

    Same exact thing happened to me with fish. After I started free-diving in Southern California, shooting fish (White Sea Bass, Halibut Yellowtail, and the occasional Calico Bass) as well as gathering Scallops and Lobster and then eating them literally within hours — eating fish at a restaurant, even a 5-star restaurant on a corporate expense account…seemed to be nothing but a brutal exercise in futility. I quickly realized even the best restaurants in the world cannot get fish of the same quality as my friends and I could on a good day in the water. (BTW my friends don’t like to believe me, but it is true. None of my spearfishing buddies ever order fish at a restaurant unless it really doesn’t matter e.g. Baja fish taco) And my sushi intake also slackened dramatically. Great fish ruined me forever for anything less than the absolute freshest and best.

    To this day, I never eat fish in a restaurant b/c I know it will be un-fresh and most often overdone. I usually opt for the steak cuz I haven’t figured out how to slaughter a cow at home. 🙂 And a steak can benefit from aging.

  2. Excellent story, Varangy. Curious that it involves sushi. Maybe Japanese cuisine, with its relative absence of strong flavors and sauces and spice-heavy recipes, is Extremistan, and other cuisines are not.

  3. Yes, I think Japanese cuisine really needs to be good. American cuisine, not so much. A mediocre cheeseburger with mediocre fries is a filling lunch and we won’t even notice there’s anything wrong.

    But sushi, for example, is different. Very few people have ever had good sushi. Living in a city with a large Japanese community, I’ve had the opportunity to do so. Result: I rarely eat sushi now. And even though there are at least a dozen sushi places in my immediate neighborhood, I will get on the highway and drive for half an hour to the place I know is good.

  4. Yep, I agree.

    An average burger is totally edible and okay. Sure, it is not a Father’s Office burger. (If you haven’t had one, demolish one ASAP) But ‘average’ sushi is just horrible. (My friends think I am an intentional-snob-elitist-bastard, but I swear I am not.)

    Like you say Seth, sushi could be Extremistan where the mean and median are entirely meaningless, and the distribution is characterized by the extremes at either tail.

  5. this post makes me think of the auteur theory of film. it seems like auteur films are better than the average film. one guy has a strong vision that is followed, versus a film made by a lot of collaboration by many–writers, director, actors. maybe this is the difference between extremistan and mediocristan. of course, there are good non-auteur films!

  6. You’re absolutely right. It’s always bothered me that that egotistical composer only had the same impact as the 5th chair, first seat second violin. And when it’s a piece for solo piano? Each of the 88 notes can’t stand above any of the others. Those damn classical musicians may as well be communists, but that’s why they’re all dying, so it’ll be all good soon enough anyway.

  7. “Orchestras are Mediocristan, I realized; individual singers are Extremistan. In art, emotional impact is everything. Extremistan allows really big impact; Mediocristan does not. Maybe this is why classical music is dying.”

    This is the opposite for me. After developing my ear to better understand classical music, most of the pop I grew up on seemed like a distance echo of really emotional music. Second, to equate “classical” music with orchestral music seems puzzling.

    There is probably more classical music being produced now than at any time before, and classical music has spread to large parts of Asia. I’d be interested in data which suggest that classical music is dying, though.

  8. Agreed. I’ve basically stopped listening to commercial “over the air” radio, since 99% of what they play just isn’t good music. It’s crap. While it pens me as a music snob, it also means I don’t have to subject myself to inferior music.

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