The State of the Union (The 2012 Head Butler Annual Report)
Published: Jan 02, 2013
Category: Beyond Classification
Did the holiday zoom by for you too?
I remember the child standing on the hood of the car and guiding the tree through the sunroof, and then it was New Year’s Eve and the usual suspects and a handful of new kids were buzzing in the living room. Other than that, I mostly recall a slew of the season’s romantic comedies, which left me with two burning questions. 1) Why does Hollywood shoot sex scenes under lights bright enough for an operating room? 2) Is wearing a bra while you’re having sex the new norm for all young women, or only women in brightly lit movies?
Okay, a bit more happened than that.
I wrote, I read, I had some actual thoughts, and now I’m back — with an annual report and a few resolutions. Let me begin by telling you about a brilliant piece of reporting and analysis in the Financial Times by Vanessa Friedman, Rachel Sanderson and Scheherazade Daneshkhu. The subject is luxury. The numbers are surprising. In Q3, Tiffany earnings dropped 30% versus the same period in 2011 and Vuitton reported “the softest growth … in the past 12 years.” Most shocking of all: Burberry announced a profit warning. On the plus side, “Hermès raised its sales and profitability targets; and the Prada Group’s earnings were up 50 per cent in the nine months to September, compared with a year earlier.” The takeaway: “It was as though there were two different luxury realities.”
Why this split in the luxury category? Because many brands were just too available. They made products for discount stores in malls. They made lines that could be sold at low prices online. They got volume, but they cheapened their name. Hermes does not discount. (For a great, funny account about getting — and reselling — its prized handbag, read Bringing Home the Birkin: My Life in Hot Pursuit of the World’s Most Coveted Handbag.) Prada has only “flash’ sales. In a word, the smarties kept luxury special.
What does this mean for Head Butler readers? It speaks to the esthete — and, okay, the snob — in all of us: We want what very few people can get. The special. The rare. The too-good-for-the-masses item. Indeed, the item that’s too good, too rare and too special even for the rich.
This is, it turns out, exactly what Head Butler is all about. You want the books on the bestseller list, you can find them anywhere. Ditto the pop CDs and the DVDs of last season’s hit movies. But here, if I’m doing my job, you find better stuff — culture and products that might be big sellers but don’t have a simple hook or a big marketing push. Or big hits that you hear about early on these screens.
For instance: Last February, I raved about a YA novel — a book for teenagers — called The Fault in Our Stars. It sounds tough and off-putting: both of the main characters are afflicted with cancer. But it’s really a stunning love story. “Days after I finished reading this book, I was still shaking,” I wrote. “Family and friends will confirm that ‘The Fault in Our Stars’ was all I could talk about. I hated that I’d read it because there was nothing I wanted to do more than read it again for the first time.”
Some of you trusted me. A typical e-mail: “I started reading it, and I thought ‘what’s the big deal?’ and the next thing I knew, it was 4 AM and I was sobbing. Thank you.” Several of you read it and shared it: “I bought a dozen copies and gave it to everyone I love.”
Was this my private obsession? Well, three months after "The Fault in Our Stars" was published, NPR did a survey of the best YA novels… ever. "The Fault in Our Stars" came in at #4. And, at the end of 2012, TIME named it the best novel of the year. Not the best YA novel. The best novel. Period. So. If you trusted me last February, you got greatness early. (Small point: It’s never too late to read a great book.)
Head Butler is also about finding the old and overlooked. The Madonna of the Sleeping Cars sold a million copies in France in 1927. In 1928, The New York Times described the author, Maurice Dekobra, as “the biggest seller of any living French writer — or dead one either.” The book went out of print in 1948. Last year, it was — finally —republished. It’s a fun read, rich in intrigue, sex and financial intrigue. If it was reviewed anywhere else, I missed it.
Music? In the first review of 2012, I praised Blake Mills. On New Year’s Eve, we had a party. I’d made a playlist and had the music on — in the background. Among the guests was a rock legend. When a Blake Mills song came on – “Hey Lover” — he zoomed across the room, put his head to the speakers and grilled my wife about Blake. But what does he know?
A movie. Troubled Water is so heavy that my wife bailed twenty minutes before it ended. I can’t blame her. But it’s the best foreign movie I saw last year. And as I now say, “If Meryl Streep could act, she’d be Trine Dyrholm.”
Products? The biggest seller here last year was the Zojirushi Stainless Steel Vacuum Insulated Mug. Keeps hot beverages hot for at least six hours without changing their taste, delivers drinks with ice cubes as drinks with ice cubes hours later. If you saw it in stores or pushed on many online sites, you’ve got better eyes than I do.
So my first resolution is to continue to present culture and products that strike me as superior and aren’t flogged everywhere. To appeal to the esthete in you. And the snob. And to do it more often.
My second resolution is to lighten up. “You have a bigger capacity for sadness than I do,” a friend recently told me — and he’s about the most emotionally savvy man I know. I heard that. Indeed, I know it: I’m writing a book which, though serious, means to be entertaining. So in this space I hope to raise my spirits — and yours — a bit more often this year.
A word to those of you who dream of being Guest Butlers. Consider the case of Gretl Claggett, a frequent contributor last year. In December, her debut poetry collection, Monsoon Solo, placed 2nd in the "Short Story Collection" category of the Forward Literature Award. (There’s no category for poetry.) And thanks in part to your support, she raised enough money to make a short film that Julianne Moore will narrate. Would all this have happened for Gretl if she had not been a Guest Butler? We’ll never know. Let me put it another way: What great things might happen for you if you start writing for this site and give me days off?
Real world: I’m going to propose more Head Butler Field Trips. All in New York, but some of these events can be replicated in other cities, when the musicians are on tour. First up: Garland Jeffreys, at the Highline Ballroom on Friday, January 18. Do let me know if we’ll see you there.
May I ask a favor. I know some of you like to keep Head Butler a secret so your friends and family will think you are incredibly plugged in. If you’re in that group, I ask nothing of you. But I wouldn’t hate to have a few more readers. Or even a few thousand more. So if you’re enthusiastic about what we do here, are generous of spirit and wouldn’t mind sharing Head Butler with friends and family, would you consider forwarding this to five or ten or even twenty people you think might feel as you do? To make it effortless, there’s a "Forward to a Friend" arrow at the top of this page.
I think of a line from the futurist William Irwin Thompson: “At the edge of history, the wind is blowing in our faces.” I look forward to going to that edge with you. And I’m so grateful for those who want to stand — well in front of the crowd — in that wind.