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Jeff Pollack: The man behind the rock ’n roll list

Among the 10: The Beatles. These guys shook things pretty good. (Courtesy Forbes)

Among the 10: The Beatles. These guys shook things pretty good. (Courtesy Forbes)

 

Among the 10: The Beatles. These guys shook things pretty good. (Courtesy Forbes)

If you’ve seen 30 Rock then you probably cannot help but associate media men with bluster, suavity, manipulation—in other words, with Jack Donaghy. It fits the cultural logic that only megalomaniacs and control freaks would want to, or even could, ascend to that glittering throne somewhere in the economic firmament (complete with a golden parachute in case things go really wrong). And my first Internet search seemed to prove me correct. Turns out there is another Jeff Pollack, thoroughly written about on Wikipedia, who Street & Smith’s included on their list of “40 under 40.” After the initial satisfaction of having my suspicions confirmed came dread. This Jeff Pollack wasn’t our Jeff Pollack at all. So although I won’t apologize, I am compelled to admit error when error has been made. The Jeff Pollack who came to Yale for a Master’s Tea—CEO of Pollack Media Company—was disarming, unassuming, humble. To use the infamous idiom of the Bush fan club, he was “the kind of guy you’d want to get a beer with.”

I still maintain that wanting to drink a beer with someone is no good indication of their character, but Pollack cashed that check with his whimsical, passion-driven tour through rock ’n roll, a list titled “The Top 10 Rock Bands that Shook the World.” I must admit I was skeptical. In the illustrious tradition of meta-inquiry that gets so many Yale students and faculty hot and bothered, I had recently read a “top 10 reasons people don’t like top 10 lists.” It proved a startlingly original work that shook my faith in user-generated content. It all became clear to me—they were arbitrary in criteria, they often didn’t add anything new to our understanding of the topic at hand, and perhaps worst of all, people never agree with them.

So I went in a doubter and came out something of a believer. Pollack’s 10 bands, viewable on the Huffington Post, are a reflection of personal taste. What Pollack did was use each band to illustrate a conceptual innovation that the band either pioneered or popularized. Although jam bands get me about as excited as walking to class during Snowpocalypse, The Grateful Dead not only pioneered an innovative mix of folk, rock, reggae, and whatever else they want to cite among their influences, they were also early adopters of fan based distribution—essentially file sharing. The Dead would actually encourage fans to record their shows and share the material. They even set up recording sections for those fans who wished to do so. Pollack offered, “I think they would be totally comfortable with the state of the industry these days—even though many big players are still struggling to figure out

the landscape.”

After the Pollack Master’s Tea ended, and I had exhausted my repertoire of obvious but plausible awkward time wasters in my attempt to make contact with the popular Pollack, Samuel Hafer, TC ’11, swooped in for the rescue. Hafer, the student who had invited Pollack to Yale, graciously introduced me to Pollack in the small computer room upstairs in Trumbull. I opened our chat with this hard-hitting question: “So, would you consider yourself a pretty hip dad?” He responded in stride, saying “I don’t know how hip other dads are, but I could keep up with my kids’ tastes in music, and even introduce them to a few bands.”

Pollack would make off-the cuff mentions of Fleet Foxes and Arcade Fire, and then follow with a little anecdote about his relationship with U2. He’s a cool mom. Pollack showed genuine respect and enthusiasm for current music. And this attitude carries over into Pollack’s troubles with current distribution methods and music piracy. “It’s really difficult to make a career in music, especially when you’re a scrappy young band just trying to break out—you depend on every dollar. Music has become a commodity, it’s been devalued,” he said.

After voicing my initial reservations regarding his canon of rock, he settled my nerves with an easy answer: “It’s not like it’s only my opinion that matters — it’s there to invite debate. Why do people listen to top 10 music countdowns on the radio? Chances are they won’t like the number one song, but they want to know what it is. They want to argue about it.” Pollack was ready to join the debate. iPad in hand, Blackberry on hip, he remarked that he had already received 259 comments in the few hours since the post had gone live (the comment thread is now up to 2,316). I was surprised to find out that he personally replies to many of these comments in his spare time. Social media has, in some sense, re-established the spaces we use for debate on the Internet—whether the argument be about music quality or current events. For us, music and its consumption are more open to debate than ever.