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Wednesday, Apr 16, 2008
Jason Rohrer's at it again, with a fascinating little game that has a lot more to say than its primitive layout would imply.

What can we learn from Idealism?  For one, there’s more to Jason Rohrer than Passage, and there’s more to The Escapist than Zero Punctuation.


Of course, a lot of folks already know this; The Escapist has quickly become a hotspot for intelligent commentary on the gaming medium, and this is actually Rohrer’s second project for the magazine after the mindbuster that was Perfectionism.  Rohrer has taken up residence at The Escapist, it seems, and both Perfectionism and Idealism can be found there.


Idealism is a fascinating little game, especially when put next to Perfectionism.  For one, both were created in Game Maker, a framework and scripting language for game creation (to seriously oversimplify its capabilities), which may partially account for the similarities in presentation.  Both games are presented on a solid black background, using simple shapes and sprites evoking the graphics of the Atari 2600, and both games start out as incredibly simple exercises in button-pushing and turn into head-scratching mindbenders as they progress.  They are both decidedly brief experiences, but both can be returned to and approached in a variety of ways.


What Rohrer likes to do, however, is infuse his games with some sort of symbolic value, and this is where the contrast between Perfectionism and Idealism starts to take shape.  Where Perfectionism was largely motivated by introspection—namely, Rohrer’s need to go over and over and over his work until it’s exactly the way he wants it—Idealism seems motivated by an observation on the industry.  As Rohrer himself puts it in his own explanation of the game, “What happens when your ideals, be they socially-induced or true, stand in the way of one of your goals?”  It’s the classic design conundrum, and it happens in games, in music, in art, and in literature, popularly known as the sell out.  How far can an idealistic worldview take you in your outlet of choice, and what would it take for you to compromise those ideals?


The way that Rohrer goes about exploring these ideals is fascinating.  The primitive means used to force the player into making these decisions is perfect, as the presentation never distracts from the issues at hand.  Without wanting to give too much away, Rohrer has encapsulated his moral quandary in a shooter that can move as quickly or as slowly as the user wants.  The decision to “sell out” can be a quick, split-second decision, or it can be a calculated, strategic move. 


What I wonder, however, is what point Rohrer is trying to make when he ramps up the difficulty so far at one point as to make the game nearly unplayable.  Perhaps he’s making the point of how meaningless the choice ultimately is; perhaps he just likes the number 23.  If anyone out there in game land can get through the point I’m talking about here (and you will know it when you see it), I hope you leave a comment and tell me what happens.


So?  What are you waiting for?  It’s free!  And it’ll probably run on your old 486 (don’t quote me on that).  Go and give it a look.


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Wednesday, Apr 16, 2008
by PopMatters Staff
backpack-picnic

This week: Just blew your paycheck on a shiny new toy? What did dad always tell you? No, the other thing. Always read the instructions! Whether you’re building a desk or activating an interstellar planetary defense interface unit, spend a few moments reading the manual or else all is lost.


PopMatters offers exclusive early looks at new episodes of Backpack Picnic, an online sketch comedy show from ON Networks.


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Wednesday, Apr 16, 2008
Analog Surfing

Analog Surfing


Chuck Klosterman’s Esquire piece, ”Anyone Seen My $4.2 Billion?” is refreshingly free of intellectual artifice. Stealing music has been one of those causes that, because of its ubiquity, hasn’t really had to intelligently defend its practice. Klosterman’s bar fight prose handily cuts through the bullshit about stealing as a critique of capitalism or somehow an act of anti-corporate defiance. This is no small feat when the prevailing internet culture is to mob anyone who might suggest that using an artist’s intellectual property requires that you find some way to financially compensate them for its use. When Matthew Perpetua of Fluxblog fame ridiculed album-sharing OiNK users for their perceived “right” to steal, his comment board became the wailing wall for self-righteous fulminating about business models and technologies, theories built entirely as moral veils.


Even if Klosterman is brave for cutting to the chase of “you steal because you can”, he doesn’t seem to offer much in the way of theorizing why exactly people do on the internet what they would abhor in a more obviously physical context. (i.e. people download who would probably not shoplift) He claims that people steal because of credit card debt, but seems at a loss to explain why DVD and video game sales have skyrocketed while CD sales drop through the floor. The most obvious answer seems to be that the opportunity cost of stealing movies and video games is still much higher than pilfering music files. It’s more time consuming and requires more technological saavy to steal a film. But it’s easy to perceive a world where all entertainment forms are merely stolen because of an internet culture that promotes the idea that everything technologically possible and personally beneficial is, by default, moral.


I’m more interested in how the very narrowly targeted decimation of intellectual property for a single set of producers (musicians) has affected music culture. Has downloading’s allegedly anti-corporate justification actually contributed to a far broader and deeper commercialization of formerly “indie” music. Judging by the omnipresence of the indie single in selling everything from steak to blood diamonds, it’s hard not to see some kind of connection. But there are subtler, more aesthetic effects that involve people erasing the resistance offered by something as passé as the album format. I find it unsettling that Idolator can mock the act of listening to an album and still pretend to be taken seriously as critics. I’m no stranger to downloading, though unlike Klosterman’s test case I still spend plenty of disposable income on music (mostly vinyl), but I have noticed that my exclusively downloading friends seem to have nothing but the most ephemeral and passing connection to the music they listen to. They seem frequently unable to remember tracks put on a mix that’s less than a week old. I fully support some of the positive developments brought about by MP3 bloggers, but the fever-dreamed utopianism seems to have nothing at its core but mob-rule assertions.


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Wednesday, Apr 16, 2008

The ultimate solution?

PBS’s MediaShift site has an interesting critique of Gawker’s system of paying bloggers based on page views.  They don’t like the idea mainly because it emphasizes sensationalism (make a splashy, eye-grabbing post) over view loyalty that a site can build up and maintain: they quote the Gawker memo that set up this system where even they themselves realize that this model ” can overstate the value of cheap items with superficial appeal, but which damage a site’s reputation.”  Fair enough but as Tom Foremsk of Silicon Valley Watcher comments on the PBS site, “It’s nice to make up new types of fantasy business models but the reality is that online publishers get paid by advertisers based on page views. Find me a media buyer that is going to buy a loyalty index or any other fantasy measure..”  So what’s the right answer to the problem of getting web traffic and maintaining an audience without looking too hungry or eager for web eyeballs?  The PBS article has some good ideas about this but Foremsk’s point is well-taken.  In the end, the model for this isn’t out there yet, which isn’t surprising since newspapers haven’t figured out a viable long-term model to their problem of maintaining or even increasing readership.


But… Folio Magazine has a story about how Hearst Publications are going to distribute their content among Facebook, MySpace and other Web 2.0 biggies.  Will this help to increase readership and spread their brand?  It remains to be seem but odds are that this is a smart strategy to get the word out about their publications and their work.  Stay tuned…


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Wednesday, Apr 16, 2008

Megan McArdle recently had a post about the music business, attempting to debunk the idea that concert revenue can supplant that of CD sales as labels turn into promoter/marketers a la Live Nation. She points out that there’s a limit to the number of concerts a person can see, whereas there are few limits to how many CDs one can own (as my own experience among the record-collecting subculture has amply demonstrated for me). Also, concerts are generally out for most people with families, limiting the demographic for pop music by and large to those under 30. But it has been true since the “invention of the teenager” in the 1950s that pop music has been for the under-30 set; record companies targeted the discretionary spending of kids, who had nothing better really to spend it on and could invest a lot of energy into the identity politics pop music serves as a proxy for—they care about projecting an identity through the music they listen to.


But more baffling to me is McArdle’s concern that “file-sharing culture will kill the music business, making us all worse off.” People in the music business will surely be worse off, but I wonder how much the rest of us will be affected if their ceased to be new mass-marketed music. Inundated with music as it is, I can’t imagine worrying about not having enough of it. I feel like I already have too much to deal with now, more than I could ever need, and I haven’t even started trying to appreciate classical music yet. And it is not like the pop-music business has prompted the creation of innovative and interesting new music; for the most part it has capitalized on innovations made by artists who likely never expected much success.


Major labels have generally served up the same musical styles and simply changed the names and faces attached to them. It works best when dealing with known commodities, because it is essentially a marketing business, and it is easier to sell something you have sold effectively before. The music business’s heyday, after all, came when it got to re-release the music of the past few decades on CD. If anything, the absence of a national music business would spur local innovations and the cultivation of local styles suiting the needs of specific populations and fomenting a stronger sense of community among them—the revival perhaps of local scenes that record collecting types tend to sentimentalize, if not fetishize. (I’m heavily into the Amsterdam scene circa 1966.) There would be less opportunity for participating in a mass phenomenon in the musical realm, but then, that’s what American Idol is for.


Apologists for the national music industry think its investment in talent in necessary to make good music, but pop music is not like pharmaceuticals. It doesn’t take a whole lot of R&D and isn’t necessarily the high-fixed-cost industry McArdle argues that it is. Give four average teenagers a few weeks of studio time and somebody who has a rudimentary understanding of sound engineering, and they could make pop music. What the national industry is good for is promotion and marketing, for making national brands of bands, and unless you believe that that stuff is all pop music essentially is (and I have flirted with the idea myself), the music business is superfluous to music itself. The high costs come in in trying to promote and distribute music on a large scale, but locally, the product sells itself. Hence anonymous, marginally talented bar bands can make a steady living in towns like Tucson and Las Vegas. The idea that major labels “discover” and “nurture” talent is almost entirely A&R propaganda.


Also questionable is the idea that musicians need the promise of big-time success to prompt them to create at the highest artistic level. McArdle puts it this way:


Music is basically a tournament business: a few people get rich, encouraging many others to toil in poverty. This almost certainly generates more new music than paying everyone $18,000 a year for the rest of their lives. If the tournament runs out of prizes, what will happen to those of us who like having a lot of new albums to listen to every month?


Maybe the musicians who toil in poverty are sustained by the fantasy of mega-fame and big bucks. But I suspect that some just do it because playing music for people is intrinsically rewarding when done on a human scale. Whereas when it’s done on the mega-stadium scale, it tends to turn artists into egomaniacs, disoriented drug casualties or misanthropes. (Just watch The Wall.) It seems that musicians start putting money first only when it’s already on the table, when they have already had a taste. (And money incentives may not even motivate the creation of better products: This PsyBlog post details studies that show cash incentives decreased performance.) It’s fashionable to pretend that musicians don’t “sell out,” but let’s face it, they do, unless they have been making product from the get-go. But again, viewing music as a culture industry, and looking at its production from an economy-of-scale, profit-maximization perspective, the conclusion is that the industry needs to manufacture new superstars capable of filling stadiums, the point made in the American article by Jillian Cohan that prompted McArdle’s post.


The assumption is that success can only be measured in terms of moving millions of units, and anything short of that is failure. From a business perspective, this is the case; from the perspective of individual musicians and fans, not necessarily, especially as the environment for selling music changes and the possibility of disintermediating the media conglomerates becomes more realistic. The music business is generally terrible for musicians (exploitative—read Steve Albini’s classic Baffler article if you don’t think so), and not particularly good for music fans, even the ones who want new albums to listen to every month (a strange goal, by the way—as if the point were to consume novelty itself).


It could be that music isn’t meant to be stadium sized. It may have been an oddity prompted by the advent of mass culture, a flowering of the novelty of that social configuration that has now revealed its limitations and exhausted its novelties. The dearth of stadium-size acts, the death of the megaconcert will likely be a good thing, returning music to human scale—why would anyone (other than those drawn to the mass nature of the spectacle, the Nuremburg rally aspects) lament its loss? As Cohan notes, “Historically, the era of the megatour is an anomaly. Baby boomers have come to expect that their rock heroes will put on massive concert events, yet ten or 20 years from now, few heritage acts may have the stamina to stay on the road.”


Middle-aged people may prefer stadium-size events because these are essentially safe spectacles; they require no imagination or aesthetic effort to participate in, and the size of the audience supplies a soothing conformity, reinforcing that the whole thing was worth the trouble—after all, all these other people bothered. But the preferences of the current middle-age cohort may (we hope) be anomalous. When I’m old(er), I hope I won’t give up altogether on the intimate, risky experience of seeing bands in clubs and start going to see “heritage acts” for the mere opportunity to say I saw the legends in person. I feel like I have done too much of this already.


Baby boomers need to believe in the relevance of their megastars, and so does Rolling Stone, which is in the curious position of carrying water for the music industry; they have a vested interest in there being mass culture so that they can promote and comment on it in their mass-culture publication. So they are in the business of propping up the acts that allow for stadium shows,as this post demonstrates with the example of R.E.M.—every album is the redemptive comeback, in Rolling Stone reviewers’ view.


But as this LA Times article points out, no one cares much anymore about what Rolling Stone says. The internet has brought on the democratization of criticism, assuring that “no one is respected simply because of the authority of the institution they write for.” That’s a bit dramatic, but there is truth to it; aggregate opinions matter more than any lone voice, unless maybe it’s a friend’s voice. Many recognize that “criticism” is often marketing copy, especially in consumer magazines. And perhaps they see how arbitrary it all is in the case of pop music. The pleasures of pop can be very personal, very dependent on context. The zeitgeist carries many objectively sucky songs to reputations of greatness, like “Hey Ya” for instance. Often it seems the best critics can do is say give these 20 albums out of the thousands released a careful listen, and their criteria may be nothing more profound than “your friends or people who you imagine you want to be your friends are likely to be talking about them.”


At times when I used to write about music, it seemed to me that caring enough about pop music to write criticism of it was tantamount to caring about the music industry as a whole and wanting to prop it up. I was speaking with the same disembodied authority that is manifest in the A&R decisions that shaped radio playlists.


The democratization of criticism seems related to the destruction of the music business—no longer are either controlled in top-down fashion by culture-industry conglomerates—instead both serve niches and may be sustained in the future by meeting localized needs.


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