CULTS JULY 11, 2013
Financial analyst Dan Greenhaus’s hits on CNBC, couched in jargon, typically attract little more than the bored stares of traders looking up from their monitors. But two seemingly routine appearances of his have been uploaded to YouTube, receiving thousands of views and earning a New York Times blog post. In one, discussing the Federal Reserve, Greenhaus tells three other panelists, “I look back on secular bull markets—you know, the days when my life was a haze, and you could just buy and call it a day.” In the other, arguing heatedly on Lawrence Kudlow’s show, he says, “Inflation as what the Fed cares about has been going backwards down the number line for the better part of two years now,” and, “We quote unquote tightened in the summer and the fall of 2008—I feel the feeling I forgot from that time.”
Why the attention to such banal quotes? Because they, and a couple others from those appearances, contain lyrical allusions from five different songs by Phish (“when my life was a haze,” for example, comes from the song “NICU”). The nearly 30-year-old Vermont jam band will play Long Island’s Jones Beach Theater Friday night and two shows this weekend at Merriweather Post Pavilion outside Washington, D.C. On sports broadcasts, on “Community,” and on innumerable Twitter feeds, Phish fans have sent out little bits of code that let other likeminded aficionados know they are one of them. (Ideally, the lyrics are double entendres that reveal nothing to outsiders, like a thin veil of clouds that keeps stars out of sight.) “When you watch a morning show, ‘Today,’ or on MSNBC, and they use ‘Tweezer Reprise’ as an outro, there’s always a chuckle,” observes National Review’s Robert Costa, who has been going to Phish shows for a decade and can easily recognize these subtle sounds.
Phish’s community is disparate, stretching across geographic and professional boundaries; it rewards obsessiveness, whether it is knowing concert callbacks or recognizing lyrics in tweets; and it is small, though not as small as you think, and deeply committed—as the Pricenomics blog has noted, this is an act with zero hit songs but a quarter billion dollars in ticket sales. Social media has only emboldened the soft cult of Phish: Even as the band’s quirks—both in their music and their appearance—have precluded mainstream success1, Twitter and Facebook have allowed fans to find and communicate with each other more easily than ever. A Phish fan will see a reference in a tweet, and shrug, “We are everywhere” (or type “#weareeverywhere”)—a standard saying that, like many of Phish’s cultural cues, originates with the Grateful Dead.
About two years ago, Jake Beckman, an assignment editor for Bloomberg Television2, noticed his peers tweeting, openly and covertly, about Phish, and decided to bring them all together on one of the media world’s most exclusive and least juicy private email discussion groups. Its name, “Journophish,” is a pun on JournoList, the defunct liberal listserv turned conservative bête noire, though it is doubtful any of Journophish’s members would be pressured to resign from a job should any of their emails leak, as occurred with JournoList. (Full disclosure: I am not a member of Journophish, but wish I were. Which is to say: I will be attending my 27th Phish show Friday night. And yes, I can hear you when you sigh.)
“The idea of Journophish was, how do we—in a digital way—bring these people together?” Beckman says. Like any Phish forum, they discuss upcoming shows, trade tickets, and compare “Reba” jams from 1994.3 But it's also escapism for a group of people whose lives are usually open books, whose day-to-day existence is controlled by the phone, TV, and Internet, and whose jobs in the political media-industrial complex are liable to make them a target for ridicule and disdain. Of course, being Phishheads makes them a target for ridicule and disdain, too.
So Journophish is a sanctuary, of sorts, for its doubly mocked members. Sounding almost like he is describing an after-school program for unusual students, Beckman gushes, “You can be yourself, and no one will know.”
“There is a bizarrely healthy contingent of Phish fans in the political sphere and the journalism sphere,” says Politico Congress reporter Jake Sherman. He is a Journophish member. So is Costa—he and Sherman commiserated together this past New Year’s Eve when the fiscal-cliff crisis kept them from Phish’s annual three-set extravaganza at Madison Square Garden. Stephanie Gallman, of CNN’s national content center, is also on the list (“Jake Sherman found me first. I had a Twitter friendship with him"). Brian Colligan, editorial page editor at the Daily Reflector of Greenville, North Carolina, made a Twitter list with several more semi-confirmed members, including two Gothamist editors and social-media folks at MSNBC and The Daily Beast. All told, there are about two dozen Journophishers.
And they are all journalists. Not allowed entry are Phishhead operatives such as Tucker Martin, Gov. Bob McDonnell’s press secretary (who recently used the governor’s official feed to tweet, “To paraphrase #Phish, Virginia can feel good about Hood: 75 new jobs in Frederick County”), Republican ad-man Andy Sere, or the several fans in Patrick Leahy’s office (the senator from Vermont himself is actually a Deadhead). “Tucker’s a fellow-traveler of Journophish,” Costa says. “There are no flacks.”4
Part of what tickles these journalists, clearly, is that they defy most people’s stereotypical perception of Phishheads—a perception most easily summarized by these Weekly Standard covers featuring hippies. “No one in this community is quitting their job to sell grilled cheese for the summer,” says Sherman. In fact, he tells me that Phishhead journalists and politicos in D.C. are disproportionately conservative—though he admits his sample could be skewed by the fact that he primarily covers Republicans. Other folks see no lean in either direction, although given Phish’s cultural connotations, the band’s own politics (bassist Mike Gordon and drummer Jon Fishman once played a benefit for Bernie Sanders, Vermont’s self-described Democratic Socialist senator), and the high ratio of hippies at every show, it's surprising that any conservatives are Phishheads. Costa insists he takes no guff from his coworkers at William F. Buckley, Jr.’s old magazine, though. “Lowry’s a Pearl Jam fan,” he shrugs, referring to editor Rich Lowry and the Seattle band whose lead singer, Eddie Vedder, once impaled a George W. Bush mask on a microphone stand.
Either way, all agreed the listserv itself is resolutely apolitical. “Left-wing, right-wing, non-partisan. It doesn't matter what your views are, we're not talking politics,” Beckman says. Adds Costa, “Nobody ever really talks about work.” And Costa recalls that when he and Sherman were eating crabs (or at least enjoying a show) at Merriweather Post, “We were talking about Trey’s pedals, not politics.”
If they’re not talking politics, or even journalism, though, then what’s the point of Journophish? Why not just hang out at Phantasy Tour’s message boards? At the risk of over-interpreting a Phish listserv—itself likely to be a hotbed of over-interpretation—I think it speaks to the similarities between the Phishhead and journalist communities. The former is an insular group dedicated to a musical act that rewards those who obsess over arcane details. The latter is an insular group dedicated to a job that rewards those who obsess over arcane details. In that light, it’s surprising there aren't more Phishheads among the political press corps (unless, of course, there are).
But there is a critical difference. Washington’s political scene is incestuous and phony—enemies who will build you up just so they can knock you down, friends you can see right through—while Phishland is incestuous and fun. Is it surprising that a few bedraggled members of “This Town” would actively seek solace with fellow journalists who share the same open, dirty secret—that they would actively seek to share in the groove, if you will? Politicos and Phishheads both make for easy punchlines. But some jokes are better than others, and we all must laugh.