The media and the popular arts thrive on synergy: Broadcasters and publishers play footsy with movie companies, record labels and talent agencies to keep the public drooling over whatever product or personality they’re all selling at this particular moment. Synergy takes work, but sometimes it just happens and people make a bundle anyway.
Take Billy Joel, who through no effort on his part just caught a windfall thanks to that mysterious man who was found wet and confused on an English beach. After the guy’s musical abilities impressed the staff of the hospital he was brought to, the media unimaginatively dubbed him the Piano Man.
It just so happens that last January Sony Music Direct, the division of Sony Records that takes care of the firm’s back catalog, put out yet another Billy Joel greatest hits collection in Japan called “Piano Man,” which was the title of Joel’s first hit single back in 1974. When the Piano Man story started getting attention, all the news stations in Japan played the Joel song in the background during the reports.
People who weren’t previously familiar with Joel’s music may have known the song because Tokyo Electric used it in one of their commercials around the time the greatest hits album came out. That’s normal synergy, and it helped sell a few CDs, but the album didn’t really start to move until the Piano Man story heated up. According to Hochi news service, for the past two weeks people all over Japan have been calling up their local record stores asking about the song. Sales of the album have skyrocketed.
A nice chunk of change for Sony and, we’ll assume, Joel, who has yet to thank the mystery man. Considering that Joel just spent a stint in an institution (rehab, second time), he probably has other things on his mind.
In this case, the confluence of synergistic factors is almost too good to be true. The similarities between the Piano Man’s situation and the plot particulars of an English movie, “Ladies in Lavender,” which was just released, is uncanny. For a while, some people really thought the Piano Man was a publicity stunt for the film.
If such a supposition sounds like jaded cynicism, one has to take into account the one item that has made the mystery musician the superstar he is — that photograph. In the only picture we have of the Piano Man, he is the epitome of the frightened innocent: wary eyes, a forlorn tilt of the head, posture awkward and vulnerable. You’d have to be an ogre not to want to give him a hug.
What’s more, he’s good-looking. Would the story have made half the impression it’s made on the world if he were bald, fat and dressed in Bermuda shorts? The piano playing is gravy. The meat-and-potatoes is his blond delectability.
Exactly the opposite dynamic is what made Futa an instant celebrity. Futa is the lesser panda that was photographed at a zoo in Chiba standing bolt upright on his hind legs. Lesser pandas are cute by definition, so it was this “talent” (gei) that got him noticed.
Only it wasn’t a talent. Apparently, lesser pandas stand up in the wild all the time — something about looking off into the distance for approaching food (Herd of walking bamboo? Ice cream truck?). The average person isn’t going to know this, mainly because lesser pandas have little reason to stand up in captivity. At least two naturalists interviewed on TV suggested that Futa was probably just “bored.”
Reportedly, the Chiba City Zoo, imagining all sorts of synergistic possibilities, is planning to register “Futa” as a trademark in partnership with the Nihon Daira Zoo in Shizuoka, which owns Futa. (Chiba was just borrowing him for reproduction purposes.) The zoos say that they are doing this to protect Futa from exploitation, as if living his whole life in an enclosed environment and being gawked at by screaming kids constituted an edifying existence.
That means anyone who uses the name “Futa” for commercial purposes will have to pay, and if they use Futa’s picture they also have to pay, since the trademark comes with “portrait rights.” I seriously doubt most people can tell one lesser panda from another, but in any case the entire species is suddenly ripe for synergistic exploitation.
Local media are calling up zoos asking if their lesser pandas stand up and zoos are calling local media saying that they have lesser pandas that do exactly that. The thinking here is that news shows get more viewers and zoos get more visitors, but the bottom line is that keepers are going to try and make their lesser pandas stand whether they want to or not, a development that has infuriated the Asahiyama Zoo in Asahikawa, Hokkaido.
“Don’t turn lesser pandas into freak shows!” rails the title at the top of the zoo’s Web site, which goes on to explain that it is abnormal for lesser pandas not to stand on their own, and that if they aren’t upright in other zoos it’s because the keepers haven’t created the proper environment. Thus, encouraging them to stand up is morally reprehensible. Asahiyama implies that their own lesser pandas are bipedal 24/7, presumably because they are treated with proper care. If this sounds like a backward attempt at attracting visitors, it isn’t. Asahiyama has invested a great deal of money in its facilities and is considered the best-managed zoo in Japan.
In the end, the real story is the public reaction, which is much more interesting than Futa’s so-called abilities. As with the Piano Man, Futa’s celebrity is mostly a trick of the light. In the initial photograph that made him a star, Futa is not just standing up. He appears to be hulking, a behavior one doesn’t associate with the adorable wing of the animal kingdom. The world loves a misfit, with or without fur.