Apple might be unfairly painted as an aging company run by middle-aged white dudes with “dad dancing” moves, but it’s certainly not shying away from controversial characters.
Cupertino’s roster today includes employees like Dr. Dre — a man who was the epitome of gangsta rap before becoming “hip-hop’s first billionaire” — and Trent Reznor, aka the singer who once made public his desire to, erm, sleep with you in an animalistic fashion.
It’s a safe bet that Apple wants to be down with the kids, but this controversy-seeking behavior comes with a fair share of risk. And it’s only going to be a matter of time before Apple is hit by it.
Plagiarism on Beats 1
You may well have heard of one of Apple’s newest signings. The Fat Jew, also known as 30-year-old Josh Ostrovsky, is the new host of a show on Beats 1, Apple’s streaming radio station.
On paper, Ostrovsky is everything you’d want from a DJ. He’s (relatively) young, massively tapped into the social media scene, and capable of generating tons of publicity.
Not so much. Ostrovsky is at the heart of a growing backlash, with critics arguing that he is a plagiarist. Comedians and writers have noted hundreds of occasions on which Ostrovsky has stolen jokes without credit, posting them to Twitter and Instagram with the help of an army of unnamed volunteers — and rarely acknowledging where they came from. When he is called out, he claims to have been told the joke by a friend.
“His Beats 1 show is entertaining, but that doesn’t matter,” wrote Mic Wright in a recent article for TheNextWeb. “He got the job by standing on the shoulders of others. No, scratch that, not their shoulders but their heads. He has clambered to prominence by stealing other people’s work.”
Wright ends his article by pleading, “Please Tim Cook, boot [Ostrovsky] from Beats 1 now.”
By misdemeanor standards, Ostrovsky’s sins are fairly minor. But they got me thinking about a larger question concerning Apple.
The changing face of Apple
Since virtually the start of the company, Steve Jobs was the sole face Apple. Jobs alone appeared onstage when Apple introduced many of its most iconic products, and the contributions of people like Jony Ive and countless others were often underplayed to fit a streamlined narrative. You can argue that Jobs behaved as he did out of egotism, but a far more convincing reason is that he did it so he could more totally control everything about Apple’s identity.
Since Jobs passed away in 2011 — and particularly since Apple acquired Beats Electronics for $3 billion in 2014 — his former company’s ranks have swolled with a growing number of attention-grabbing figures.
Dr. Dre, for instance, recently debuted his first album in 16 years as an exclusive on Apple Music, and also hosts the regular Beats 1 show The Pharmacy.
Dre is hip-hop royalty, but his past (currently told in whitewashed fashion in the movie Straight Outta Compton) contains plenty of controversy. The most notable incident was when he beat up Dee Barnes, who Dre admitted to assaulting in the early 1990s.
“I just threw her through a door,” Dre told Rolling Stone magazine later.
Instances of spousal abuse against a former girlfriend, Michel’le, have also been alleged, and Dre issued an apology to Friday to all the women he’s “hurt” over the years. Apple followed up with a statement saying Dre has clearly changed.
The recent influx of controversial characters to promote Apple’s services isn’t totally new. Back in 1995 — when Jobs was busy running NeXT and Apple was working its way into bankruptcy — the company made the decision to run a series of ads entitled “Power Is” that featured the likes of Malcolm X and Hunter S. Thompson. According to legend, gonzo journalist Thompson later blew his complimentary Macintosh to kingdom come with a shotgun and sent it back to Cupertino.
Apple the media company
Needless to say, Apple is in a very different boat today than it was in 1995. Not only has it gone from a company desperate to scare up attention to one that has its pick of media outlets, but we are also in the age of social media and all that entails.
Perhaps the key difference is that Apple increasingly plays the role of content creator. “We don’t own media,” Jobs said in a disastrous 2003 interview with Esquire, which he ended early after not liking the way it was going. “We don’t own music. We don’t own films or television. We’re not a media company. We’re just Apple.”
Jobs’ contention that Apple isn’t a media company doesn’t hold up today. In addition to the hours of content produced for Beats 1 (and perhaps more stations coming soon), Apple produces its own ads and its own music videos. These days, Apple-affiliated artists perform at Apple-branded concerts, such as the upcoming Apple Music Festival.
In a recent interview, Apple Music honcho Jimmy Iovine hinted that Apple might take some of the curation and content-creation lessons it’s learned from Apple Music and apply them to its rebranded TV offering — perhaps hinting at Amazon- or Netflix-style original shows.
With this shift, the challenge for Apple is that the content it puts out does, by virtue of having Apple’s name attached, bears its tacit approval.
This argument made Apple behave conservatively in the early days of the App Store — booting out apps that it felt harmed its family-friendly image. “Since Apple … is selling its stuff in its stores, and taking a cut, it must take responsibility for the products, and their effect on its brand,” wrote tech pioneer Jaron Lanier in his book You Are Not a Gadget.
Other tech companies entering the entertainment field are also making efforts to stand out by championing controversial projects. For instance, Amazon’s new TV and film division, Amazon Studios, recently picked up Spike Lee’s controversial Chi-Raq as its first original movie. The film, which is about rising levels of inner-city violence in Chicago, has already faced a backlash — much of it based on its name alone.
Paying the cost for being the boss
The difference with Apple is that its unique position puts it in a tough spot.
Apple isn’t just the world’s most valuable tech company: It has explicitly marketed itself as one that wants to be a “force for good” around the world. Under Tim Cook, Apple has allied itself with LGBT rights, environmental issues and any number of social and economic causes.
Just looking at the headlines generated when Siri appeared to take an anti-abortion stance gives some illustration of how people will jump on any Apple-related product if they believe it portrays the company’s official stance on a topic.
So far, everyone involved with Beats 1 has been on their best behavior. The service is still new and, understandably, has the company’s full attention. Influential bloggers have spoken out against Apple Music, and the last thing the company needs is someone saying something controversial on air that could drive away listeners from the fledgling service.
Inevitably, Apple’s new position as a content maker — particularly one in which some of the creative decisions are being made by people with past histories of stirring up controversy — means it is only so long before someone takes offense at something.
And when that happens, it’s going to be fascinating to see how Apple reacts.