Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Bubble Land

The medium is the message.

— Marshall McLuhan

Dear and Cultured Readers, I am thrilled to have this opportunity to share with you some happy news.

I am pleased to announce that today is a red letter day for Umberto Eco, semioticians, and cultural anthropologists everywhere. I have no doubt that entire university departments around the globe will look back on this week as the seminal period in academic scholarship's institutional understanding and exploitation of the Great Private Equity Wave of the mid-2000s. Many scholars I have spoken with this evening have shared with me their gossamer hopes that today has been revealed the Rosetta Stone which will allow them once and for all to decipher and contextualize the overarching socioeconomic context of the Second Gilded Age we now find ourselves within.

Of what ominous portent of Doom and Glory do I write, you timidly inquire? Why, of nothing less than the public release of The Blackstone Group's first annual report.

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Now, I realize that there may be those among my Faithful Audience who turn—or have already turned—immediately to decode, denote, and comprehend the content of this portentous document for particular purposes of your own. Perhaps you wish to decipher the dense and incomprehensible financial statements in order to understand the relative success, failure, or deeply hidden business secrets of The Blackstone Group. Perhaps—unhappy thought—there are those among you who ignored this writer's previous advice and actually purchased units of the BX chimera with some vague and muddled sense of investment opportunity, and now seek to discover whether you have made a sensible decision or not. (Uh, that'd be not.) Or perhaps there are even those, friend and foe alike, who wish to decode the delphic utterances of the Grand Satrap himself, Mr. Steve Schwarzman, in his letter to unitholders in order to wrest their hidden meaning from the layers of homogenized corporate happy-speak in which he entombs them.

These are all noble and useful objectives, I grant you. Perhaps after I have taken care of the 548th item on my permanent to-do list (repaint the riding lawnmower at the Hamptons beach house teal) I will actually get around to doing a similar thing. But this is not whereof I speak.

No, I speak of the veritable cornucopia of signs and symbols virtually teeming off the pages of this gladsome artifact, signs and symbols which—to this correspondent's naive eye—literally swarm with meaning and portent in this, the Year of Our Lord 2008.


Now I freely admit that I am no professional semiotician, nor even a second-rate Baudrillardist from the University of Toulouse. I can assure you I have no idea what unfiltered Gauloises taste like. But you do not need to have a ratty beret, elbow pads worn shiny on your tweed jacket, or a blurry photo of Brigitte Bardot in your motheaten wallet to observe and note some interesting things about the BX report.

For example, what the fuck city are the photos of BX employees taken in? The document captions claim that most are posed on the plaza of BX headquarters, which is located on Park Avenue in the middle of midtown New York. But I, for one, can tell you that I have never seen the city as empty of all other humanity—especially in Midtown, during daylight hours—as the photos of Blackstone's employees and executives portray. It's almost as if Steve Schwarzman looked out the window on September 11th, after the terrorists vaporized the World Trade Center, and said, "Hey, guys! The streets are empy! Everybody outside quick, so we can take photos for the annual report!"

Of course, that is probably not what really happened. (At least I don't think so.) Instead, some psycho art designer with a lip tattoo and a tongue piercing probably had a digital photographer take separate photos of people and streetscapes, edit the surplus humanity out of the picture, and splice together the images into the eerily post-apocalyptic scenes scattered so gleefully through the document. I mean, honestly, it looks a like some weird mix of The Vampire Chronicles and 28 Days Later. If I were one of those employees, I'd file a workman's comp claim for mental trauma.

And notwithstanding the palpably creepy vibe this pseudo-naturalistic photographic treatment gives the whole document, it is completely at odds with the normal practice and objective of public corporations when they communicate with their shareholders through an annual report. In this day and age, public companies fight a constant battle in the arena of public opinion to be viewed as honest, trustworthy, and not entirely composed of rapacious, dastardly scumbags who would sell Osama Bin Laden a dirty bomb just to make next quarter's numbers. Accordingly, most companies make a sustained and concerted effort in their public communications—anchored by their glossy annual report—to persuade their shareholders and the interested public that they are authentic, and not shifty, lying bastards.

But when your annual report is riddled with "naturally posed" photographs of happy executives and worker bees which even a Kalahari Bushman would recognize as digitally altered composites, you tend to undermine whatever message of authenticity and respect for the truth you might have tried to communicate elsewhere.

It also tends to undermine the message Blackstone may have been trying to convey about its own humanity when the most lifelike figure in the entire report is the wax figure of Nicole Kidman at BX portfolio company Madame Tussauds.

A Brief Digression

[By the way, is it just me, or has anyone else noticed that Madame Tussauds' so-called likenesses of famous people are almost always no such thing? I mean, as someone who has marveled at the plastic arts of portrait sculpture and the ability of a good sculptor to capture the very essence of a sitter or personality—in addition to his or her actual likeness in three-dimensional space—I must say that I have always found the wax effigies in MT's emporia almost always exactly wrong in several important ways. The figure of Nicole Kidman pictured in the BX report, for example, is a quite nice (and slinky) portrayal of any number of generic undernourished, overambitious Hollywood starlet social climbers, but it bears almost no resemblance to the actual item. (I actually had to check the photo caption to see who this saucy sculpture was supposed to represent.)

What has consistently amazed me is that Madame Tussauds seems to have accomplished this not-very-close-but-definitely-no-cigar type of misrepresentation on almost all of the many hundreds of current and historical personages in its showrooms. Such consistency in missing the mark really must require a considerable amount of skill. I don't know—perhaps celebrities pay MT's to botch their portraits just so so the original cannot be confused with the otherwise indistinguishable wax reproduction in movie casting rooms, or maybe it is a clever ruse to put potential stalkers, paparazzi, and bill collectors off the scent. Unfortunately, this hypothesis does not explain why MT's portraits of Abraham Lincoln and Albert Einstein both have a similar uncanny resemblance to Billy Crystal.

Anyway, certain mysteries were not meant to be solved, but I thought I would share my confusion with you anyway.]

* * *

Second, what kind of self-image do these images of Blackstone's personnel convey? That they are so fucking powerful they use the streets of Manhattan for a conference room? That New York City itself is merely a vaguely fake-looking background to the important issues BX deals with every day? That BX functions in a surreal bubble devoid of all other human presence? That the Executive Committee likes to reenact scenes from Reservoir Dogs?

Third, what's with the black cover? A sort of reverse Beatles White Album? An evocation of the all-powerful monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey? A sympathetic black armband for pathetic unitholders who have lost somewhere between 35 and 50% of their investment value in BX shares since the IPO? Or just a "We're so powerful and important we don't need to put anything on our annual report cover" fuck-you?

And last but not least—although I admit the connection to semiotics or symbolism is tenuous at best—what the hell is with Steve Schwarzman's suit? I mean, the guy is a fucking billionaire, and he looks like he's wearing something The Men's Wearhouse custom-made for MC Hammer. I haven't seen pants that baggy below 116th Street since 1988.

Get a fucking tailor, man.

(Oh, and next time, hire someone who actually knows what they're doing to design your annual report.)

© 2008 The Epicurean Dealmaker. All rights reserved.