Call for Essays About Any Aspect of Popular Culture, Present or Past

 
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Monday, Jul 14, 2008
We constantly hear the argument that people aren't listening to music any more. How is that even possible when there's so much of it?

“I think it’s an exciting time,” Devo’s Mark Mothersbaugh recently told the LA Weekly. “I’m glad I got to be here to watch the record companies disappear.” I admit there’s a certain idealistic thrill at watching those quixotic majors slash and tumble on their way down after creating so many years of misery for their talent and their consumers. I don’t have to explain what they’ve done to deserve such bittersweet schadenfreude at this point. We’ve all read the Albini essay. The heads of music are like all those Bush appointees who spent their entire lives preaching against the superfluousness of the department they’ve now been selected to run. They don’t like music, musicians, or music fans. Just taking a huge margin off the top.


Of course it’s shameful, looking at the industry as a whole like a crumbling morass of cynical greed and perpetual ineptitude. It’s more like the toppling of the Saddam statue, being that those who will really suffer for these sins will be the low cats on the totem poll. All the executives sleeping in their beds full of dirty money will be just fine. They’ll make their mortgage payments and keep their swimming pools. For the rest of them, it’s back to Tower Records… er, Sam Goody… er, Wal-Mart? 


Still, even for an industry that took so many consistent wrong turns, the mainstream music empire has to be the most deeply out-of-touch monolith to ever sustain itself since the fall of Rome. Way back when people were still buying CDs, the record companies dealt with their wealth by raising wholesale and list prices, as documented by Bill Wyman here. The gratuitous litigation complex alone could probably snip a dollar or two off the list price of every disc. But as Wyman shows in a more recent post, we’re still having the conversation about pricing years later as physical music gets trampled by digital media in the pricing wars.


Nevermind that there are boatloads of music fans who don’t even get their music this way. If the record industry is going to throw all its efforts behind the traditionalist market like it’s still 1994, they might as well do it right. Half of all music sales are made at Wal-Mart not because they understand or even give a shit about music. It’s because they offer music at market values that may actually be worth the product they’re getting. Speaking strictly in terms of material value, a consumer “gets” far more out of a DVD or a video game than a CD, yet they’re paying essentially the same price for each medium’s back stock.


Even after displaying utter contempt for their consumers by suing and taxing their enthusiasm for the product, you’d think the record companies, radio, and/or print media might actually take time to find out who their buying audience is. With most big media divesting massive energy into public relations and individualized target marketing, the music industry has consistently tried to treat the lot of its consumer base as if they were a herd of sheep, limiting their options, doling out ubiquitous product, disengaging with technology or innovation, spewing disposable waste, and recycling faded heroes. Mainstream music hasn’t even been able to manufacture a lasting movement with a significant cultural impact since Alternative and Gangsta Rap, with the possible exception of American Idol. This has to be due in part to the fact that the industry buying and selling all this music doesn’t have a fucking clue who’s listening to it.


Theirs is a culture pre-branded with rebellion and individualism, one that thrives on, right or wrong, the listener being the center of the universe. It’d be common courtesy to try to find out what their wants and needs are. Yet the music industry consistently tries to manufacture these desires, not realizing how fragmented and polarized its audience really is. Not only do different listeners have highly specialized aesthetic tastes, but their preferences for how they experience, consume, interpret, and utilize music are as disparate as all those different listening subcultures.


Corresponding with music business’s mighty fall comes an era when its product is at its most omnipresent. You literally can not escape it. Popular music has seeped into every crevice of social and particularly consumer life. It’s coming out of speakers in cars, at work, in stores, in waiting rooms, on airplane headsets, in restaurants, and on alarm clocks easing us back into consciousness. It’s inundated behind television programming, advertisements, films, and video games. It shouts at you as you click on a website or a MySpace profile. It harasses you when you’re trying to ignore it. It intimidates you when you’re parked next to it. It finds you when you’re trying to ignore it. The government even uses it as a torture device, a kind of mass culture bomb to deafen, disarm, and dehumanize ascetic Islamists suspected of terrorism. It provides the soundtrack to the mundane for millions of headphoned wanderers on buses, trains, jogs, workouts, or long car rides. In universities, file sharing is a communal rite, allocated with the same philanthropic spirit of passing a joint. Peer-to-peer network have also increased the average middle-of-nowhere suburban kid’s musical acumen exponentially. I myself owe a great deal of my own musical knowledge to the access gained through my early college years and the ubiquity of Napster, Gnutella, Audiogalaxy, and the Massachusetts-specific Flatlan software.


There are hit TV shows about performing songs, dancing to songs, knowing the lyrics to songs, and reminiscing about songs (“I Love The [Insert Decade]‘s”). This is not to mention the ease in which any one and their kid sister can make their own profession-quality songs on a standard grade laptop, post them on the internet, and win an instant fan base. Overall, despite the music industry’s failure and segregating its attentions, there are more people exposed to, interested in, involved with or knowledgeable about music than ever before. The quality of their relationships to the music is largely irrelevant in a market context. The fact is, regardless of what the broadsheets say, people have not given up on music.


In upcoming posts, I will attempt to profile the different types of listeners and how their habits and attitudes fit into the cultural marketplace, from the professional thieves to the perpetually loyal benefactors, in the hopes to convey the multivalence of a broad and increasingly unclassifiable strata of music fans.


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Saturday, Jun 28, 2008

I’m a pretty begrudging late adopter of the music blogosphere;  someone deeply skeptical about its grandiose claims of revolutionary potential. At this point, it appears little more than an en masse, passive, bitchy decimation of one particular group’s intellectual property rights. The technological ease of the theft has made the debate all the more quaint, because technology often demands moral imperatives where there clearly is none. The disembodiment of the internet makes the debate all that much more surreal. If I could find the technical means to steal a bunch of Cindy Sherman’s original photographs, few people would hail me as somehow changing the paradigm of a consumerist society, robbing all those evil corporate, um, artists. Just as the internet gives all fat people “swimmer’s builds” (i.e. floats in water), it also provides a home to philosophical fantasy and ugly displays of id. No insult is too impolitic, no opinion to stupid to utter, no thoughtlessness too thoughtless. The MP3 is not an actual CD in your hand and the person you’re calling an asshole is not sitting in front of you bearing your brunt.


Which is why I find the morphology of Perez Hilton to be a fetching snapshot of the music stealing revolution. On the one hand, I can totally appreciate a good scam. I love televangelists and Ryan Phillippe. And, if I’d thought of Hilton’s signature photoshopped jizz on celebrity photographs first, I would have done him one better and used the real deal and scored an NEA grant with heralded works like “Money Shot Hasselback”. But if all these prominent bloggers really want is better paying jobs in the industries they’re economically undermining, what revolutionary content is left in the act of releasing an album early or parlaying your cum stain photography into a Hot Topic line of John Hughes casual wear? Worse still, is Hilton’s idea for his own record label. Don’t we remember how evil those people are? They never gave artists enough money anyway, which is why it’s so much better to give them absolutely nothing by stealing. Hilton’s project is itself designed on the most regressive corporatist model. His unpaid minions send him music, he does the hard work of clicking through the stuff he didn’t find and then gets to brand himself a tastemaker. That makes sharecropping look like Whole Foods.


And what of his discoveries? Mika? He forgets that the excesses of the blogosphere have created an environment where the consumption cycle is accelerated to the point of instant incineration. How exactly will he be able to shepherd these dubious “discoveries” through the old label system and make them profitable before they are irrelevant?  Perhaps I’m picking low hanging fruit in knocking Perez. He has never seemed more than a nakedly honest opportunist trying his hand at the celebrity alchemy of making something from nothing. But his example makes me doubt much of the talk about the unprecedented and new world created by online file sharing and its curiously concurrent revival of vinyl sales. As Tricky once said, “Brand new, you’re retro.” And all of this talk of revolution makes me think that there are a lot of dislocated liberal arts majors like myself looking for an angle in a movement with no collective, a revolution in resume padding.


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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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