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Industrial Musicals and the End of Irony
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When I had Covid a few weeks ago, I watched fourteen movies in eight days. One was a documentary called Bathtubs Over Broadway, about a comedy writer named Steve Young and his improbable obsession with industrial musicals: full-length original musicals written and directed exclusively for corporate audiences, like company retreats and sales seminars.
Popular in the post-World War II era but almost completely forgotten today, industrial musicals were produced by many of the country’s biggest companies, including General Electric, Coca-Cola, and all the major automakers. Actual Broadway composers and lyricists were often hired to create these shows, and the budgets were often enormous. The 1956 Chevrolet musical, for example, had a budget of $3mm (the equivalent of around $32mm today), six times the budget for that year’s Tony award-winner My Fair Lady—all for a show that would only be performed a single time, and would never see a public audience.
Most of these shows are absolutely deranged, and yet oddly compelling at the same time. Take, for example, “My Bathroom,” a song from the 1969 American Standard-produced show The Bathrooms Are Coming, featuring 12 original song-and-dance numbers, all of which—all of which!—are about bathrooms:
My bathroom is a private kind of place
A very special kind of place
The only place where I can stay
Making faces at my face
Or the incredibly catchy title song from General Motors’ 1966 show Diesel Dazzle, which I listened to at least 20 times while writing this piece:
Dazzlin’ sales, dazzlin’ growth
That’s where the future lies
Detroit diesel men, they’ve got both
They’ve got diesel dazzle in their eyes!
Industrial musicals were themselves diesel dazzlin’ in the 1960’s, but by the eighties they had begun to decline, almost completely disappearing by the turn of the century. The form became increasingly irrelevant as Broadway musicals receded from their central place in American popular culture, and advances in video-production technology made it hard to justify the hassle and expense of producing a live stage show, even for the most free-spending companies.
But, of course, there’s more to the decline of the industrial musical than cost-cutting and the masses’ dislike of showtunes: these shows are dated in large part by their overbearing earnestness. Even inside the most rah-rah companies, the kind of places where the people who work there are described as “drinking the Kool-Aid,” the idea of a modern-day industrial musical is almost unspeakably cringe. If you tried to put one of these on for your employees today, you would be laughed out of the room—and possibly even laughed out of your job.
You could look to economic history to explain why this kind of un-self-conscious corporate cheerleading wouldn’t fly today. The heyday of industrial musicals was a time of lifetime employment and pension plans, not to mention a time when the memory of the Great Depression was still relatively fresh. So of course people were willing to be more unabashedly celebratory of their employer. Fast-forward through the economic doldrums of the seventies and the rising inequality of the eighties, the dot-com crash and the 2008 financial crisis, to today’s widespread disillusionment with capitalism, and you reach a point where this kind of performance would be far more likely to alienate employees than to inspire them.
It can’t all be about economics, though, as the decline of earnestness—and the corresponding rise of irony—has touched every element of modern society. Some critics, like David Foster Wallace, attribute this change to the influence of television, which, as a “bisensous medium” (pictures and sound), is practically made for irony, relying as irony does on the comic tension between what’s seen and what’s said. There’s a famous DFW essay, E. Unibus Pluram, in which he points to the prevalence of TV shows and advertisements that acknowledge, or even make fun of, the fact that they’re TV shows and/or advertisements, a self-consciousness which industrial musicals prominently lack.
Other critics have pointed to Watergate and the Vietnam War as kickstarting a rapid decline in Americans’ trust in authority of all forms, a cultural shift whose consequences we’re still living with today. Conveniently for my attempts to tie the various themes of this essay together, one of the Vietnam War’s main architects, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, was one of the top men at Ford when they released their 1959 musical Ford-i-fy Your Future, featuring unforgettable songs like “The Answer is Ford” and “Tractor-Drivin’ Man”1:
I’m a tractor-drivin’ man
If I’m braggin’, don’t mind me
When you’re looking for me
In that tall seat you’ll find me
Plowin’ a field
With the sunset behind me
But there’s a trait far less obvious than earnestness or dated music that places industrial musicals squarely as an artifact of their time, and it’s the fact that every single one of them is about how great the company’s products are. At first this might not seem unusual at all. But corporations today make very different choices about what’s most important to emphasize to their employees. If, say, Facebook somehow made an industrial musical today, it wouldn’t be about how great social media is. It would be about how Facebook is a great place to work.
In the 1950’s, large corporations didn’t really attempt to differentiate from each other by trying to be seen as “great places to work.” In fact, the concept of “company culture” didn’t even really exist. It was first introduced in a 1951 book, but it took several decades to really take hold, and even then, it mostly referred to deeper underlying factors that aren’t the kind of things you’d make the centerpiece of your promotional efforts: concepts like the unspoken incentives that workers operated under, or an organization’s level of cohesion among its various departments. Widespread unionization also had a flattening effect by (somewhat) unifying working conditions among competitors—working at any of the big three automakers in the Treaty of Detroit era was probably a pretty similar experience, since all three had negotiated identical union contracts. Besides, even if some companies were better to work for than others (which I’m sure they were, at least to some extent), most people would never get the chance to notice, since the average employee only worked at a few places throughout their entire career.
Companies today haven’t completely stopped bragging about the impact of their products, of course—there’s a reason the meme of startups “making the world a better place” has been so heavily parodied—but compared to companies of yesteryear, they’re far more likely to recruit and motivate employees by focusing on what the experience of working for them is (supposedly) like.
While writing this, I did a quick scan of the careers pages of America’s ten biggest employers, and only one of them—FedEx—goes into detail about what the company actually does. The others all emphasize “culture” instead: sometimes tangible things like salary and perks, but more often nebulous ideas like “career growth” and “doing your best work.” A few of these pages, like Target’s and UnitedHealth Group’s, are so generic that, if you stripped away the branding, it would be impossible to tell what kind of company you were looking at from their careers page alone.
Of course, the types of companies that employ enough people to make it onto these kinds of lists tend to fall within a few not-so-exciting categories: logistics, food & grocery, healthcare, that sort of thing. And the more boring a company’s product or service is, the more likely they are to shift their emphasis onto their internal culture. Organizations that can’t motivate people by their mission alone need to make up the difference elsewhere. That’s why non-profit work is often low-paying and soul-crushing, and why the most notoriously “fun” companies are usually places like Zappos and Quicken Loans whose products are pretty insignificant. And it’s why Elon Musk has been able to make a maniacally hard-charging culture work at Tesla and SpaceX, which both have genuinely inspiring missions, but won’t (I predict) be able to make the same thing work at the much more trivial Twitter.
As far as I can tell, this distinction—between companies that do “important” work and those that don’t—wasn’t nearly as much of a thing 60 years ago. The Bathrooms Are Coming is all about how the bathroom is an important place in the home, and how the employees of American Standard should be proud of their contributions to the creation of a room where the American family can wash their faces, apply makeup, and poop.
And here’s the thing: they’re not wrong. Grocery stores and logistics providers—not to mention the companies that make toilets—may not be very exciting, but they are important, and if they all disappeared, I’d notice their absence a lot faster than I’d notice if SpaceX went under. Sure, SpaceX has the more inspiring mission: to make humanity multiplanetary. But I’d rather be stuck on Earth with a bathroom than shitting in a bucket on Mars.
Back, for a moment, to irony.
Read today, the DFW essay blaming TV for the rise of irony doesn’t really hold up that well: most of his critiques don’t really apply in the era of streaming services and YouTube, which makes me skeptical of any explanation for irony’s rise that relies primarily on the medium’s technological characteristics. There’s something about the essay that just feels extremely nineties—which makes sense, since it is from 1993. But there is one part that does, I think, hold up: the conclusion in which he predicts that the next real rebels will be unironic anti-rebels.
And I do think American culture has been shifting, every so slightly, back in the direction of earnestness: contrast, for example, the wry “we make fun of everyone” arched eyebrows of the Jon Stewart-era Daily Show with John Oliver’s more heartfelt pleas for action on the liberal cause du jour2. And the Gen Z embrace of retro tech like landlines and digital cameras (to say nothing of the Dimes Square set’s supposed affinity for Catholicism) exists in a place beyond irony, neither obviously ironic nor obviously not.
So does this mean the industrial musical is ripe for a comeback? In the next decade, probably not. But in my lifetime? I’d give that a solid maybe. Eventually, everything old is new again—even a two-hour, dozen-song show about the beauty of the American bathroom.
Ford-i-fy Your Future had serious talent behind it: it was written by Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick, who would go on to write the much better-remembered Fiddler on the Roof only a few years later.
There’s a whole other essay I could write about how irony and sarcasm have shifted over the past decade from being predominantly left-coded to predominantly right-coded, as the left, responding to the nihilist right’s attack on institutions like NATO and the FBI, has found itself the unexpected defender of the status quo. The Daily Show’s perma-irony was a natural response to the Bush administration’s Christian conservatism and a mainstream media that cheerled the Iraq War, but today it’s Trump who has the tongue-in-cheek, “do I really believe what I’m saying?” attitude, and Biden who’s the figure of cringe sincerity. The QAnon Shaman’s storming of the capital was kind of like a Stewart-era Daily Show field segment gone horribly wrong.