Walter Yetnikoff’s Life Was Perfect Until It Wasn’t. How’s Yours?

Back in 1977 the late Steve Goodman wrote a song called “Video Tape,” which despite its allusion to an ancient format still speaks to the social media age.

“You could replay all the good parts and cut out what you don’t like,” Goodman sang. “Wouldn’t you be in great shape, if your life was on video tape.”

Laying aside the fact it should say “were,” not “was,” Goodman envisioned exactly what has, in the social media age, become an art form: curating your life.

Read most Instagram or Facebook posts and you see incredible lives. Everybody has armies of joyful friends, they go to parties at fabulous places, they eat amazing food. If they’re older, to quote Garrison Keillor, their children are all above average.

To quote Louis Armstrong, “What a wonderful world.”

Except, to quote Shel Silverstein, “If I told the truth, that’s not quite true.”

The age of perfect lives is an illusion with a serious side effect: Millions of friends and followers get depressed wondering why everyone else’s life is perfect and theirs is not.

This downside is particularly epidemic among teenagers, who 1) are notoriously insecure, and 2) live on their phones. This makes it not a bad thing to note periodically that what shows up on social media, like on Steve Goodman’s imagined video tape, usually only incorporates part of the story.

Walter Yetnikoff in the good old days.

Last week a former record company executive named Walter Yetnikoff died at a hospital in Bridgeport, Conn. He was 87. He had been sick for a while and out of the spotlight for almost three decades, so he’s not a social media creature.

Back in the 1980s, however, Walter Yetnikoff was a Marvel-level star in the music game. As president of CBS Records, he commanded the ship that launched Michael Jackson’s Thriller, Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the U.S.A. and Pink Floyd’s The Wall, as well as multimillion sellers by Billy Joel, Meat Loaf and Barbra Streisand, among others.

Yetnikoff didn’t discover these artists. He wasn’t a music guy, and didn’t pretend to be. He was the smart boss who massaged his stars while letting music people make the music.

It was an era of revered music moguls with egos to match, from Clive Davis to David Geffen. Walter Yetnikoff was one of them.

It wasn’t a lie that CBS thrived in the 1980s on his watch. The part that’s
“not quite true” was omitting the rest of his story.

Married at 24 with two children, Yetnikoff took his success as a license to become, among other less than admirable things, a serial philanderer. Like a lot of men in that club, he did not treat women well.

With the resources to acquire and consume whatever he wanted, he became addicted to alcohol and drugs.

He was Walter Yetnikoff, a man so powerful he never had to hear the word “no.” One can only imagine what his social media would have looked like.

The 1980s caught up with him in 1990, when his increasingly arrogant behavior alienated enough people that CBS’s new owners, Sony, fired him. While he never fell to busing tables at the restaurants he once patronized on his expense account, neither did he ever make it back to the top.

None of this is talking out of school. Yetnikoff recounted it all, and more, in his 2004 autobiography, Howling At the Moon.

Like many of his fellow fallen howlers, Yetnikoff laced his confessions with the subtle suggestion that while much of his behavior was reprehensible, it sure was fun while it lasted. If he was depressed and insecure and sometimes hung over, he had glittering nights in exotic places with glamorous stars the rest of the world could only dream about knowing.

Yup, imagine his Instagram feed in 1983 and 1984.

Now it’s also true that lives have been curated ever since “media” meant drawings of hunting and warrior conquests on the walls of caves. In more modern times, the lives of famous people were often curated for them by the old-time mainstream media.

In newspapers and magazines for a dozen years, President Franklin D. Roosevelt was never in a wheelchair. President John F. Kennedy was a loving family man who spent his leisure time with his beautiful wife and children.

Never mind the lives of athletes and movie stars.

Today, you don’t have to be on the cover of Time magazine to have the details of your life cherry-picked. Everyone who has a phone, which is pretty much everyone, becomes his or her own editor.

That doesn’t mean everybody can turn themselves into Walter Yetnikoff by selective posting of selfies. It does mean that in the world of their peers, they can make their lives look untroubled and unflawed.

Steve Goodman, not for the only time in his too-short career, nailed it.

David Hinckley wrote for the New York Daily News for 35 years. Now he drives his wife crazy by randomly quoting Bob Dylan and “Casablanca.”