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Wednesday, April 07, 2010

The Cultural Contradictions of Michael Hirschorn

Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)
Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass

Get ready for Hirschorn's third -- or is it his fourth -- media iteration. His career spans old and new media, from magazines to the rough-and-tumble of New York's Silicon Alley at the turn of the millennium to, at present, the incandescently hot cable television. The Nabokov aficionado and former Internet starter upper, VH1 exec, Spin editor and production company founder is revisiting pop-culture (and his old hunting ground New York magazine) with "The Approval Matrix." From Felix Gillette of The Observer:

The Transom has learned that a team of veteran New York TV producers are currently working to turn New York magazine’s Spy-inflected back-page feature, the Approval Matrix, which is assembled by associate editors Mr. Mathis-Lilley and Emma Rosenblum, into a pop-culture TV series.

We’re told the idea originated with development executives at NBC Universal’s Bravo, who then signed on Michael Hirschorn, the Ish Entertainment founder and reality TV guru known for bringing a version of the British show I Love the 80s to VH1, to help translate the feature to the small screen, with the help of New York magazine editor Adam Moss. (Mr. Hirschorn is a former New York executive editor himself and writes TV and cultural criticism for The Atlantic.)

Each week, the Approval Matrix, described as a 'deliberately oversimplified guide to who falls where on our taste hierarchies,' takes 32 cultural happenings suggested by staffers and places them on a grid, ranging from 'despicable' on the left to 'brilliant' on the right, and 'lowbrow' at the bottom of the page to 'highbrow' at the top. This past week, for instance, the Approval Matrix sized up R. Kelly’s low-budget, yodeling video 'Echo' as somewhat lowbrow and slightly brilliant. Ralph Fiennes’ performance in Clash of the Titans was deemed mildly lowbrow and highly despicable.

Much of Hirschorn's success has been based on harnessing the wit of a generation (X, and sometimes Y) in observing its own cultural influences. He is sort of a connoisseur of generational ironic relection. Felix Gillette has been on "The Hirschorn Beat" at the salmon-colored weekly for some time. Of the contradictions that are Michael Hirschorn he wrote in 2007:

So how did Mr. Hirschorn—who earned a master’s degree in comparative literature from Columbia University, producing a thesis that analyzed a linguistic riddle in Nabokov’s Pale Fire—get from studying the language of Vladimir Nabokov to subtitling the language of Flavor Flav?

“I haven’t resolved that conflict—if I’d like to be a populist, or highbrow,” said Mr. Hirschorn over lunch, by way of explanation. “That’s why I do both.”

To better understand the source of those competing impulses, it helps to go back a ways. Mr. Hirschorn grew up on East 51st Street in Manhattan. His mother was a journalist who wrote for The Economist and edited the op-ed page for the Journal of Commerce. His father owned a business specializing in noise control engineering.

“We were a European immigrant, super-highbrow family, collecting autographs from Vladimir Horowitz,” he went on. “I went to piano recitals at Carnegie Hall. We bought a TV to watch the moon launch. I was only allowed to watch Masterpiece Theatre and Jacques Cousteau.”

Pop culture was the forbidden fruit.

We wish Michael, whom we have met and worked with at New York and consider a nice guy, good luck in his new venture.

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