I generally have my portable MP3 player on shuffle, playing random songs from a 5,000-track grab bag. In effect, this makes my device an ad hoc radio station, and as such, I find that it requires radio edits of songs that will be wrenched out of whatever context they originally garnered from their place on an album. I used to scorn the radio edits of songs—the truncated version of “Green-Eyed Lady” is especially egregious, as is the radio edit of Fleetwood Mac’s “Sara” in the original and disgraceful CD issue of Tusk. But now I am seeing their usefulness. When yo are not listening to the songs in the environment they were designed for, you must adapt them to suit your particular circumstances.
At first, for me, this was a matter of removing things like the tedious sound-clip intros on Wu-Tang Clan songs, and removing unnecessary space from the beginning and end of songs that once were hidden bonus tracks on CDs. (What a horrible trend that was.) Then I found that I had started to remove boring musical intros and long fades—the sonorous organ solo at the beginning of Led Zeppelin’s “Your Time Is Gonna Come,” and the drum machine loops at the end of Eric B. and Rakim’s “Microphone Fiend,” for instance.
Emboldened, I now have even started to remove parts of songs I don’t like no matter where they fall—that pointless drony part in Nirvana’s “Drain You,” the noise solo in Pere Ubu’s “The Modern Dance” and so on. Who has the time? Just give me the hooks.
When I first began doing this, I felt like a philistine tampering with the artistic vision embodied in these songs. Before I could re-edit them, I had to deal with them as they were, as did everyone else. We could only differ in our interpretations and opinions about what we heard. Now we can all make our own customized versions—the triumph of read/write culture! (Tom Slee makes some skeptical remarks about read/write culture in this review of Lawrence Lessig’s Remix—the key one, I think, is that hobbies in the digital age have become more subject to depersonalized commodification because the internet is eroding face-to-face interaction in localized, hobby-based economies—what he calls small-scale culture. The internet can entice us with a limitless audience, prompting us to underrate, or worse, ignore, the ready-made audience of friends and family we would have had without it.)
Gradually, I ceased to have any qualms about my song re-editing. Now I wonder if I am going to end up in Girl Talk territory, composing my own Stars on 45 mashups, or somewhere even more radical. And I wonder if this is a good thing, a liberation from top-down, culture-industry domination. I wonder if I am making laudable strides toward making my consumption more like production.
Consumption always is production, in the sense that we are reproducing ourselves (reconstituting our labor power, as Marx would have it). The problem is that even though I am being “productive,” I reproduce myself precisely as a consumer, an identity I alternately dread and wallow in. That’s not what I’m usually hoping to accomplish when I exhibit a bias toward “being productive”: I’m thinking instead about trying not being passive in the face of the onslaught of data and products and messages and images and such, but trying to engage it actively—usually in a doomed-to-fail attempt to manage it all. (Hence so much of my “leisure” time is spent on organizational tasks.)
But the problem with consumerism may lie specifically in that kind of engagement with cultural goods, particularly when it fails to bring the pleasure that it seems to promise or delivers the pleasure in addictive microdoses that create prolonged interludes of suffering want. In such productive “creative” activity, I am still reproducing myself with consumerism’s preferred tools and reinforcing in myself the desires that it suits consumerism for me to have—though I am not sure if I have any alternative.
This is the problem with the Situationist approach of detournement. Derivative by definition, it seems neutered, forced, circumscribed. Its subversiveness never actually registers on the level it would need to in order to fundamentally alter social relations or capitalism; for all its confrontationalism, it’s not actually disruptive. It just permits those subjected to capitalism feel as though they are struggling if they choose to; it permits us to redecorate our cages with more individualistic creativity, with signs of our unbroken but ineffectual spirit.