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Friday, Jun 20, 2008

Amazingly enough, Girl Talk’s Greg Gillis has been met with virtual silence thus far by the major record companies, despite the relative ubiquity of 2006’s Night Ripper on Illegal Art Records. He released his fourth album this week, Feed the Animals, under the newly fashionable pay-what-you-will model used by Radiohead and Nine Inch Nails. Armed with an illegal mashaholic summer jamfest, a high profile scheme, and a potentially far-reaching audience, Gillis teeters himself closer to the orange alert attention of the music industry’s legal industrial complex.


Gillis is in many ways the music industry’s worst nightmare: a well revered artist on a populist and decidedly anti-capitalist bent. His music broadcasts the message of music as a universal language, both interpersonal and catholic, quotidian and intimate. In this space, a record exists amongst its peer albums as a dialogue, not a competitor. Gillis has avoided the polite avenues for fair use, gleaned through music’s top-selling brands for his own gains, and, to boot, he’s ahead of the curve in terms of utilizing the latest digital sales technology. Girl Talk’s pay-what-you will method is certainly at least five years away from any credible media giant touching it with a ten foot pole. After all, how do you convince the shareholders that the way to save your dying company is to let consumers set their own price? A free market economy is designed upon the Hobbesian principle that the proles, given the freedom to set their own boundaries, will always choose none. The uninducted masses, so the theory goes, would hypothetically act without restraint, without caution, and with only their own self-interest in mind. It’s easy to see why they would think so. That’s pretty much been the model the multinationals have followed for the past 20 years or so. 


Sure, Girl Talk is not a household name yet, but certainly the big five have to know about them. It’s not like their name or their source material are any secret. Unlike many sampledelic artists, Girl Talk do not mask their sonic bibliography under the plaster and latex of endless tweakings. In fact, they are rather cavalier about the orgy of pop radio sounds cross-pollinating throughout their records. The liner notes for Night Ripper give shout-outs to each artist whose work was used as the album’s mortar. And within hours of Feed The Animals‘s release, fans were already compiling a comprehensive list of all the album’s recognizable primary sounds on Wikipedia. The information is widely accessible. Yet unlike Jon Oswald’s Plunderphonics, which was voluntarily decimated 19 years ago under threats of legal action, Girl Talk have been asked to neither nor desist. Could it be that the music industry actually has, gasp, better things to worry about these days?


Rather than inviting trouble though, the pay-what-you-will model may actually present a legal loophole for artists like Girl Talk. The problem with selling material with uncleared samples seems to be an issue over ownership of the sounds themselves. Would the same rules apply if said sampling artist were to only accept “donations” for their art? Consumers are not being asked to give money out for the purchase of Feed the Animals. They’re being ask to donate to a musician and his label for having made Feed the Animals, which they will gladly give you for free. In this context, Feed the Animals is about as illegal as any mashup some kid in his living room designed for his blog.


Appropriately, the button under the field where you fill in your personal price for Girl Talk’s new album says “Feed the Animals”. The music industry long ago stopped caring about whether it could feed its artists. Maybe they’ll finally stop treating them like animals when the artists begin to realize they can feed themselves. Radiohead and Nine Inch Nails are well-fed post-industry cash cows. Gillis is another story. If proven a success, Girl Talk’s newest experiment may pose more of a threat than all the Napsters the music industry once refused to shake a ten foot pole at.


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Monday, Jun 9, 2008

Michael Barthel has a great post over at Idolator about the anti-intellectualism of some music writers in particular and music criticism generally.  This is particularly ironic, as Barthel notes, when the critic in question slams him with a Borges reference.  (That would be Jorge Luis Borges for those of you not on a first name basis.)  It’s a great post for a number of reasons, including that Barthel calls out incoherence of someone trying to hide their philosophical depth for some sad approximation of street cred. 


Populism, in this context, is essentially the denial of expertise.  If it’s true that no one, given the instantaneous access, needs the contribution of critics, surely they need even less the dubious contributions of most music blogs, who act primarily as extensions of PR one sheets, without the objectivity. Music crticism has many unexplored tensions with the academy.  Some of them certainly come from the fact that many music writers, especially in their late 20s to mid-30s come to criticism from a University-era heavily steeped in postmodern theory.  Many of them, by choice, chance or deficiency have not continued on into academia.  Those anxious influences frequently crop up in either naïve rejection or equally naïve assimilation.


Music criticism also has a habit of writers competing with their subjects for having the most “rock and roll” values, something art historians probably don’t have hanging over their heads.  Consequently, Lester Bangs gets idolized for in part, getting fucked up all the time, because that’s way more hardcore than doing a systematic study of the evolution of brand mentions in hip hop lyricism.  That’s clearly not as cool.  Surely some people use philosophical jargon to obscure their insecurities, but just as many people deign to defend American Idol or Shania Twain based on some just as postured sense of contrarianism.  Barthel touches on some crucial issues that are worth arguing at length, but that wouldn’t cool, so I’ll keep it brief.  Foucault my ass.


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Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Reading Slate’s coverage of the R. Kelly trials fills me with that self-loathing that comes from being entertained by morally toxic junk culture.  Levin’s style is funny and slick, but there’s a dead hole in the place where any analysis or bigger picture might be sketched in.  The hardest part about the piece is the undercurrent of class disdain that hangs over the diaries, when people named Sparkle argue with an an attorney they are “doing the dozens” as opposed to just having a nasty exchange on the stand.  That tittering “it’s like the ghetto version of The Hills”  starts to sink in your stomach when you realize that the man on trial may in fact be a prolific, serial child molester who, in this case, decided to film himself urinating on the face of a little girl.  The only people who seem more repellant are Kelly’s Manson girl courtroom fans vying for his attention between all this boring sexual abuse.  Aren’t there any single serial killers that need pen pals?


Of course, the age old question here is whether or not you should try to separate art from the artists, especially since talent is an indiscriminate whore who would just as soon make Jeffrey Dahmer a figure skater as Kristina Yamaguchi.  But it’s a principle that in practice comes with little consistency or coherence.  At some level you have to forgive artists for their ugly humanity, but at what point does the art implicate the viewer in something sinister.  I cringe when I first read that Johnny Deep purchased some paintings of pedophile/serial killer John Wayne Gacy precisely because this is a no brainer on the artist/art distinction.  It’s Gacy’s sickening crimes which produce the market for his art and not great art that just so happens to be a product of a sickening mind.  With R. Kelly, the problem will not be so severe, in part because he’s just not so seriously talented that his music needs to be framed in any ethically grand conflict.  But still, one does have to wonder if he’s convicted if that changes the probable sexual object of his infinite number of lamely metaphored sex jams.  Will it still be easy to bump along to “Ignition” if you know that key is destined for a thirteen year old?  Listening to R. Kelly obviously wouldn’t make you a child molester, but in all cases like this, the question becomes how much the artist pollutes your experience of their art by obscuring its virtues with their vices.


Tagged as: r. kelly
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Tuesday, May 27, 2008

I try as much as possible to avoid overtly political commentary in this blog, because it’s not usually germane to discussions of music.  Sadly, this is primarily because politically oriented music is almost as anachronistic as phrases like “artistic values”.  I couldn’t help but comment on a recent National Review post that suggested that Barack Obama’s 75,000 person rally in Oregon was due in large part to The Decemberists opening with a free show.  I’m hardly uncritical of Obama and his followers, but doesn’t this claim smacks of tone deaf desperation. 


Do the Portland, faux Brit Oregonians really have that level of mass magnetism?  This is what happens when your clueless stepdad tries to politicize pop culture in order to denigrate an opponent at all costs.  Would the same undercutting claim be made if Toby Keith opened for John McCain?  Clearly, the Decemberists were not the draw all the Obama rally and nothing nefarious is going on by giving a free concert before a political rally a tradition as old as driving people to the polls and the far more questionable practice of “walking around money”.  God knows, “My Mother Was A Chinese Trapeze Artist” is certainly as frenzy-inducing as “We Will Rock You”.  But the worst part of the post are the unsubtle McCarthyite gestures suggesting that The Decemberists are a bunch of communist radicals purely based on selected lyrics from “Sixteen Military Lives”.  I mean, they make negative gestures about the flag pin in their video.  Clearly, The Decemberists are terrorists.  Surely, Obama deserved to be smeared for associating with a Molotov-tosssing librarian like Colin Meloy.  Next thing you know he’ll be drawing a crowd of a 100,000 by getting the Jesus Lizard to open for him.


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