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by Rob Horning

15 Jan 2009

The AdFreak blog noted a report in the Journal of Consumer Research that the TV viewing experience is enhanced with interruptions. Here’s the abstract (since the paper itself is gated. Grr.):

Consumers prefer to watch television programs without commercials. Yet, in spite of most consumers’ extensive experience with watching television, we propose that commercial interruptions can actually improve the television-viewing experience. Although consumers do not foresee it, their enjoyment diminishes over time. Commercial interruptions can disrupt this adaptation process and restore the intensity of consumers’ enjoyment. Six studies demonstrate that, although people preferred to avoid commercial interruptions, these interruptions actually made programs more enjoyable (study 1), regardless of the quality of the commercial (study 2), even when controlling for the mere presence of the ads (study 3), and regardless of the nature of the interruption (study 4).

The idea is that the commercials give viewers a pause to refresh their eagerness for the program when it resumes. In other words, the commercials break a program into smaller episodes, and these 11-minute chunks are what we consume. We can’t handle too long a stretch of the pleasure a show gives; we need to be brought back down off that How I Met Your Mother high with a few commercials, so we can enjoy the build-up of pleasure again. Otherwise, the shows reach a plateau at which they can no longer top themselves, and we grow bored, waiting for a bigger bang. Supposedly we are inherently dissatisfied, because we adapt over time to the pleasure being provided, and always demand one more unit of it. (This is part of the hedonic treadmill hypothesis.) Here’s how Ars Technica sums up the adaptation problem:

Extended exposure to anything, even very enjoyable experiences, leads people to adjust to them—basically, good becomes the new normal. For complicated situations, like winning a lottery, this process can take some time, but it’s possible for it to happen in the short-term, as well, which might make it applicable to TV shows. By disrupting that adaptation process, commercial breaks can keep an appreciation of the novelty of a program alive for longer.

I wonder if causality isn’t reversible here—the commercial breaks train us to expect more novelty at shorter intervals rather than allowing us to become absorbed and develop a level of concentration required for aesthetic engagement.

The study’s findings fit well with assumptions that the human attention span is shrinking, since it presumes that we constantly need pauses to refresh it, to reconstitute it in such a way that we can derive pleasure from our passivity and from shallow surface-level appreciation. This attention-span shrinkage is a fortuitous accomplishment for marketers. Back in the day, only one intermission was deemed socially necessary for three hours of entertainment.  But by the lights of this study, presumably we’d enjoy some more commercial breaks in films—why not break up that tedious and tiring Seven Samurai with a few Miller Lite commercials, a few spots for Rice-a-Roni? Maybe soon all “shows” will be the length of a YouTube clip, leaving more opportunity for commercial refreshment.

(My scare-quote deployment reminds me to recommend this awesome essay about scare quotes in the TNR.)

Before I read the study’s abstract, I expected the logic behind it to have something to do with the way TV shows are written to be consumed in small doses; that the commercial breaks are structured into the shows, which are designed to be disrupted. This is obvious when watching old shows on DVD. It’s clear certain moments are supposed to linger through the laundry detergent ads. And if I watch several episodes in a row, ignoring the buffer of several days’ time that each episode would have had when it originally aired, my sense of time gets curiously distended. I start to feel like one of those space-folders floating in spice gas in Dune. This seems to me a highly suggistible state, a sort of hypnogogic fugue.

While no one admits to enjoying commercials, they do help create an atmosphere appropriate to culture consumption—they flatter us into a state of self-importance by conveying a sense that our every decision is important, or they nanny us into a profound sense of insecurity. Both of these states make us receptive to more messages; whether they act as irritants or tranquilizers, ads help prepare the ground for our emotional responses to bloom in response to the actual programs. Ads also deploy a free-associative logic that has more to do with imagination than depicting reality; it suggests we should not be hung up on reason and plausibility, and take our laughs where we find them. Generally speaking, it doesn’t matter if we like ads; they still condition how we consume the medium that they support, and in that sense they will feel necessary even if we succeed in excluding them. Since they are so instrumental in the programs’ being made in the first place, they continue to haunt programming even when we use DVRs to banish them. And that haunting is instrumental in the war on our attention span; we crave the ad breaks, even if we don’t want the ads themselves.

by Matt White

15 Jan 2009

“They put me down for fuckin’ around with things I didn’t understand… for getting involved with something I shouldn’t have been involved with… well, FUCK THEM.”
—Neil Young, in the biography Shakey

In 1982 Neil Young released the album Trans, a synthesizer heavy, electronic rock album with Young’s vocals rendered virtually unrecognizable by use of a vocoder on all but three of the nine songs. At the time it was a commercial and critical flop but in recent years has begun to be reassessed and appreciated, if for nothing else the boldness of such a release from a mainstream artist, another example of Young’s total commitment to doing exactly what he wants, when he wants.

It’s easy to dismiss Trans (and much electronic music) as “cold” or lacking in emotion due to its synthesized drum machine beats and robot sounding vocals. This would be a mistake. Trans is one of Young’s most personal, heartfelt, and affecting albums of his career. In 1982 Young was going through an incredibly trying time in his personal life. His son Ben had been born with severe cerebral palsy, rendering him quadriplegic and non-verbal. Neil couldn’t understand his son’s words, so he made an album where the listener can’t understand the singer’s words.

Perhaps the most well-known song from Trans, probably due to it’s inclusion in Neil Young’s 1993 performance on MTV Unplugged, is “Transformer Man”. The only song on the album to not feature a single guitar, it is driven by a drum machine, keyboards and Neil’s voice processed to a computerized falsetto by the vocoder. It has a serene, lilting quality to it that immediately defies the cliché of synth-pop as “cold”. The song benefits from the vocoder immensely, the vocal sounding like a sad cry from the deep reaches of space. The keyboards are warm and unassuming, the drum machine beat is simple but the emotional punch of the song comes from what Young is singing.

A long time train aficionado, one of the ways Neil was able to connect to his son was through model trains. He even developed a remote control that enabled Ben to properly use the trains on their tracks. With this knowledge it becomes immediately apparent when you hear the lyrics (although reading along with a lyric sheet might help) that Transformer Man is Ben: “You run the show / Remote control / Direct the action with the push of a button / You’re a transformer man”. The most touching moment comes in the chorus, when Young sings “Every morning when I look in your eyes / I feel electrified by you”. It is at this point that the song becomes, in my opinion, one of the most moving songs of Neil Young’s career.

Neil never pursued electronic music further after Trans and I think it’s kind of a shame. I would love to hear what Neil Young in 2009 would do with the genre. Knowing Young’s penchant for bucking preconceived notions, an electronic album might not be that improbable.

by PopMatters Staff

15 Jan 2009

Neko Case
People Got a Lotta Nerve [MP3] from Middle Cyclone [3 March]

Everyday [MP3] from Tight Knit [17 February]

Handsome Furs
I’m Confused [MP3] from Face Control [10 March]

Cut Off Your Hands
Turn Cold [MP3] from You & I [20 January]

The Black Lips
Starting Over [MP3] from 200 Million Thousand [24 February]

Fol Chen
No Wedding Cake [MP3] from Part 1: John Shade, Your Fortune’s Made [17 February]

La Llorona [Video]

Sing Fang Bous
Clangour and Flutes [Video]

by Mike Deane

14 Jan 2009

The world of music journalism is on board with the new Animal Collective album, Merriweather Post Pavilion, and rightly so; it’s a varied, dense and accessible piece of weird-pop wonder. On it, there is one song in particular that I need to listen to five to 10 times a day because it makes me feel that good. I speak, of course, of “Summertime Clothes”

The song begins with some odd, pulsing, syncopating keys, then thumping bass joins in to smooth out the pulsations, making it a head-nodder by the 20-second mark. The song progresses nicely; when the layers of vocals begin the song gains some momentum and depth without taking any drastic steps. Then the vocal harmony starts and brings the song into Brian Wilson territory (or perhaps, more aptly, the excellent Brian Wilson aping of 2007’s Panda Bear album), and once the vocal inflection hits on the “makes me smile” line we know we’re in the land of Pop Monster-Jams. 

The chorus hits almost without warning sending a rush of emotion that makes me want to throw my arms in the in time to the “dusty but digital” electro-lushness. By the time “I want to walk around with you / And I want to walk around with you” (is that a direct refutation of the Ramones?) comes in, it’s a bit disappointing that the chorus has already ended, but there’s still the exciting anticipation of its return.

by Bill Gibron

14 Jan 2009

For some reason, the thriller/action/adventure genre just doesn’t get the same respect as the dour drama or the high minded epic. It seems like, the minute you introduce violence and mayhem into the mix, people assume that everything involved has been reduced down to the lowest of all the common denominators. In some cases, that’s more than true. Not a single installment of the Saw franchise can pass by a Cineplex without accenting its atrocities with endless reams of routines slash and burn nu-metal. Similarly, anything featuring cops, criminals, bullets, and the slo-mo battle between all three has to rely on faux electronica to amplify the already cheap and clichéd thrills. Perhaps that’s why the entire entertainment category gets a bad rap - not only do the storylines follow a set stack of studio-stated strategies, but the backdrop has to be equally derivative as well. 

In this installment of Surround Sound, SE&L will look at three new soundtracks, each one hoping to break out of the sonic stereotyping inherent in their creation. Luckily, all but one actually makes it out alive. The take on James Cameron’s Terminator series might seem like insignificant, small screen stuff, but Bear McCreary really delivers on the sci-fi thriller dynamics. Sadly, the approach taken by Underworld: Rise of the Lycans, is a lot like how the filmmakers addressed the lack of leading lady Kate Beckinsdale in this second sequel. They just substituted in something - or in this case, someone - else. Finally, an oldie but a goodie arrives in the form of The Dead Pool, the soundtrack to Clint Eastwood’s last appearance as “Dirty” Harry Callahan (that is, if you don’t count Gran Torino). Like any product of its time, it evokes the best and worst of the era it was created in.

In each case, we aren’t looking at something sonically significant or aurally outstanding. Instead, each score settles in with the rest of its connected entertainment’s low rent sentiments and adds what it can, beginning with:

Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles - Original Television Soundtrack [rating: 8]

With a name like Bear McCreary, you’re destined for a lot of things: professional wrestler; bounty hunter; TV adventure host, cutting room floor character from John Carpenter’s The Thing. Scoring hour long network series wouldn’t necessarily be high on the list. Yet the man with a bruin for a moniker has been setting sci-fi TV straight since he took the reigns of Battlestar Galactica back in 2006. As a result, the in-demand composer has handled other speculative series like Eureka! and genre efforts like Rest Stop and Wrong Turn 2. With such a resume, it’s no surprise then that he currently helms the backdrop for Fox’s Terminator take, The Sarah Connor Chronicles. Unlike most big to small screen translations, critics have been fairly impressed with the way in which the weekly serial handles the well known Cameron classic - and some of that praise has been passed on to McCreary. One listen to the soundtrack CD confirms his abilities.

Things start out rockin’ - literally - as Garbage’s Shirley Manson shows up to belt out the slow burn stomp “Sampson and Delilah”. While not written by McCreary, his arrangement fits the show’s sentiments perfectly. We also get a track from BrEadan’s Band called “Ain’t We Famous”. It too is a lot of fun. From there on, it’s all Bear, and it’s all wildly entertaining and evocative. “Sarah Connor’s Theme” does a nice job of complementing the character, while “The Hand of God”, “Atomic Al’s Merry Melody”, and “There’s a Storm Coming” are all standout tracks. Sure, there are times when Brad Fiedel’s original melodies for The Terminator and Terminator 2: Judgment Day make an appearance, and entries like “Highway Battle”, “Central America” and “Motorcycle Robot Chase” all have the standard banal style suggested by their title. But as an example of large scope sound on a small scale budget, Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles is very good indeed.

The Dead Pool - The Original Score [rating: 6]

In 1988, Clint Eastwood was only 58. Still, many had written him off as a one note aging action hero whose better days lay a big steamy plate of spaghetti westerns away from his ‘current’ craggy persona. Now, 20 years after the fact, he’s one of our most respected actors and filmmakers. Funny what a series of stellar directorial jobs will do, along with a few supplementary Oscars. Still, The Dead Pool was viewed as a kind of career swan song, the end to Eastwood’s iconic Dirty Harry character and a franchise that hadn’t been viable since Sudden Impact, five years earlier. Yet the story of a secret list of celebrity targets, and the killer trying to complete the catalog, served Eastwood and his persona well. It was a nominal hit, and reminded Hollywood that older men could indeed carry off thrillers just as capably as younger ones. It’s a lesson Tinsel Town has taken to heart as of late, right Harrison Ford and Bruce Willis?

As a score, Lalo Schifrin’s work on The Dead Pool is highly reminiscent of the mid to late ‘80s. There’s faux “Axel F” (“Main Title”), a jazzy synth look at the city by the Bay (“San Francisco Night”), and lots of divergent, sonic cues. Both “The Rules and “The Car” offer up standard crime drama dynamics, while “The Last Autograph” is like a symphonic hodgepodge of conflicting cinematic emotions. Knowing Eastwood’s penchant for the original American artform, there are a couple of nifty combo workouts (“Something in Return”, “The Pool”) and there’s a haunting reprise of “Night” at the end (“The Pier, The Bridge, and the Bay”). All throughout, Schifrin keeps things tense and arcane, mixing melody lines with atonal intervals and occasional twists to keep the listener - and one presumes, the viewer of the film - off kilter and alert. While it won’t match some of Eastwood’s earlier or later works, at least the score for The Dead Pool was a winner.

Underworld: Rise of the Lycans - Original Motion Picture Soundtrack [rating: 4]

That’s right - Kate Beckinsdale is out. It may look like her in the trailers and coming soon materials for this tepid terror action film, but that’s remarkable lookalike (and DOOMSDAY lead) Rhona Mitra taking over for the absent Selene. Sure, our new heroine is actually returning in the role of Sonja, but it’s obvious she’s acting like a comely Kate substitute. As a matter of fact, much of this unnecessary sequel seems unoriginal and redundant. We get more of the standard story about vampires vs. werewolves, lots of hyper stylized violence, and a couple of English actors who should know better - Michael Sheen, Bill Nighy - cashing outrageously large paychecks. It would be nice to say that the soundtrack to this Gothic goof was filled with the kind of compositional cheese that lifts everything up a few kitschy camp notches. Instead, producers have gone the nauseating NIN route, recycling Reznor-esque material from 15 years ago and considering it original movie macabre fodder.

Almost everything here is a remix (and a ‘Renholder’ remix at that). With band names like Puscifer, Alkaline Trio, Genghis Tron, and Combichrist, you get an instant idea of the kind of sonic situation you’re dealing with. All the material here meshes metal with electronica, attempting to make the call and response chaos sound melodic and meaningful. Instead, it plays like Gary Numan having a conniption fit. Not everything here is awful - “Hole in the Earth” by the Deftones has some power, and “Tick Tick Tomorrow” by From First to Last offers up a wonderfully weird experience. But material like “Broken Lungs” by Thrice and “Miss Murder” by AFI is imitative, noisy, and unsettling. Maybe this is good for a film where monsters battle each other in overly choreographed examples of CGI carnage, but only 14 year olds with open iPod space need apply. Rock has sure come a long way from Zeppelin, Maiden, Crue, Priest, and GnR. While this bleak Bauhaus bombast may be someone’s sonic cup of tea, it doesn’t make for a meaningful film score.

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