THREE YEARS LATER, MEMPHIS GOES TO COMMITTEE. Almost three years ago, in the hope that we were on the verge of positioning ourselves, of taking our rightful place among places, I wrote this in another column:
“Whatever it is, there’s an it to Memphis that compels people to sing, to stay up late, to invent, to write, to dance, to create, to remember, to cook, to bitch spectacularly and entertain tirelessly, to long for things lost and not yet found – and to visit here in search of all of it. Cities with a certain ‘it’ are known for it. They take pride in it, using it to brand themselves to the world. Take a small quiz. See if you know what city the following refer to, and if you don’t, you just haven’t been paying attention. The big apple. The windy city. The city that never sleeps. The big easy. Motor city. Sin city. Just about every city with a genuine it has one of these. If it’s a big enough it, they may have a couple. In the ad biz, we call them taglines or slogans, or, for the tonier, positioning statements. What they have in common if they are to be remembered and associated with the city, is that each speaks specifically to the uniqueness of that place – to the it.”
Almost three years ago, the city took two hundred grand of private money and threw it to some out-of-town folks – out of continent, in fact – to tell us who we are and how we should present ourselves in public. They came here via California based on what they’d done for Phoenix out of somewhere in Europe armed with condescending pleasantness and speaking a barrage of esoteric buzzwords almost accent-free. I wrote this then:
“Evidently, no one here is good enough to tell other people why we’re good enough for them. Mayor Wharton said he liked what the firm had ‘done for Phoenix’ – a town with the kind of appreciation for diversity that’s made breathing while Hispanic a misdemeanor if not a felony. But it’s a dry racism. Get serious.”
Three years later, the firm has returned to the European Union, the person they reported to in the city has moved on, and our branding is going nowhere.
Three years later – with St. Louis stealing the history of the Blues and Nashville stealing the history of African-American music for museums in their towns while we fiddle in ours – the Memphis “it” remains unnamed, the Memphis promise unoffered.
Three years later, the powers that be are apparently going to get serious about this branding stuff, at least in their fashion. They are about to turn the whole thing over to the Chamber of Commerce, and the Chamber is going to – hold onto to your seats – turn it over to a committee.
Whatever a committee comes up with will be exactly what this city isn’t – politically correct, corporate, derivative and boring. White bread. Pat Boone covering Elvis.
I’m a Memphian, and we’re more original than this.
Dan Conaway is a lifelong Memphian, longtime adman and aspiring local character in a city known for them. Reach him at email@example.com.