In the Clean Room with Todd Rundgren
I bought this record based on the recommendation of a real human being who sent me an e-mail. That’s fitting, as the Internet is a place where Todd Rundgren plans to spend much of his time. He’s always had the reputation of a “geek” whose artistic interests have incorporated leading-edge technologies. His contributions as an artist were validated in 1995 when he was honored with the Berkeley Lifetime Achievement Award from the Popular Culture Society at U.C. Berkeley. The award honors “artists who redefine a genre, show excellence through diversity in their art, communicate the essence of a time period, or work towards positive social change.” The following year, Rundgren and his partners founded Waking Dreams (www.wakingdreams.com), a collective that develops creative ideas into marketable content, services, and technologies.
Now, with the kind of visionary dedication that only people who slave in tech industries can fully appreciate, Rundgren is working to change not just the method but the concept of music delivery. He has developed a browser and is using the Internet to develop not just online patronage where fans underwrite and download the music of their favorite artist, but are allowed in on its creation. So it would seem that Rundgren has an idea of transforming the system from a product model to a service model. In such a leap, the relationship between the performer and audience will be redefined and the role of the middle-man will change. Patronet (www.patronet.com) is an online service that allows Rundgren fans a monthly subscription to his music. One Long Year is a collection representing the highlights of the service’s monthly singles releases for 1999.
Patronet does not exclude the music being released in more traditional venues. I bought my copy as a CD in a local music store as the tailing of this process. The liner art is swoopy, moire patterns. The photos seem best viewed with some sort of night vision apparatus, the portrait of Todd himself makes him look a bit like a ghost in the machine.
In giving a nod to ratings legends, Todd expands on the keyboard language we’ve all become familiar with over the last 20 years of email. He has refined the emoticons (emotive icons) for his songs to specify the actual emotion contained on the track, a little like consumer precautionary labels. Although most old textbooks come up with seven basic human emotions, Todd’s basic five feelings are convenient five letter words that are easy to read, understand, and pronounce: happy, hurty, angry, dirty, dippy. A “dippy” song is signified by a modified double Tesla coil to celebrate the roots of geekdom, while the “angry” song is signified by what looks like an old round shortwave radio aerial.
“I Hate My Frickin’ I.S.P.” is an “angry” song about internet surfing. You know how it is, there’s the occasional thrill of taking off on something good that swells up but in between are plenty of waits. Especially with all those increasing numbers of bandwidth hogs pigging the place up with their form of fun. Todd’s not just complaining about wasting away waiting in line for DSL hook-up or even the technological challenge of uplinking to satellites, but the very basic reason why most of us are willing to subject ourselves to a digital siberia. “The reason I signed up is the reason I hate it.” The internet can be a disembodied, isolated place that holds a promise of easing isolation or connecting with what we can’t readily acquire in other parts of our lives. People use the internet because of the need for human contact, no matter how complicated. The internet naturally is both another avenue and another layer of complication. Todd dials up even while being smart enough to full well know the basic risk that “I’ll never get back the time that I waste.”
“Mary and the Holy Ghost” listed as an instrumental is designated as “dirty.” The “dirty” emoticon looks a bit like the double film reels on old movie house projectors. The song is “dirty” not so much because there are words like “comin’” and “gun” that could probably be twisted and misinterpreted somehow, but it’s a “dirty” dj rhythm groove. “Yer Fast (And I Like It)” is “happy” and “dirty.” In “Yer Fast,” Rundgren’s lyrics move a bit like e.e. cummings, whose sexy funny climax in a poem was “your et cetera.” e.e. is a poet whose typographical inventions will still derail computerized language checkers. You have to admit e.e. was a forerunner of individualistic art, having lost use of capital letters even before the conventions of email. Like naughty movies spinning out from the reels onto the screens, Todd gives a brief graphic tour of anatomy, but unlike naughty movies he disengages and allows the listener’s own prurience to engage when he is touched and kissed “there.” That’s what I think good artists do, not so much spell things out, but allow the listener to use one’s own powerful imagination. Which or where “there” does he mean?
I remembered Rundgren from “Hello It’s Me” and “Can We Still Be Friends.” He is still capable of serving up a good pop song, as the “happy” and “hurty” love song “Buffalo Grass.” He’s included a “live” version of “Bang On The Ukulele All Day.” That “dippy” song already stood on its own as a novelty tune. There is a bit more fun to be had modernizing the version to poke a little fun at those who combine elements they shouldn’t and dare call the resulting malapropism “world.” Here it’s pop “Hawaiian” with Todd doing his best Babs Gonzales imitation in the Hawaiian war chant intro and pop “African” drawing in part of the loopy wimoweh chorus from “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.” I like “Jerk.” That’s an “angry” song. This song is an honest direct expression and ownership of feelings rather than the emotional displacement, transference, or dysplasia becoming so common in the PC world. More computer and internet references with “Surf Talks” about the frustrations of web-chats. An older composition “Love of the Common Man” has been reworked into a bossa nova. Like it or not, just blame it on Rio.
If you need more proof as to why Rundgren received the Berkeley Lifetime Achievement Award, you just need to spend some time exploring this record and how it came into being. You can start with the official website which the artist created and maintains himself is listed on the Yahoo search engine as The Artist Formerly Known as Todd Rundgren. You’ll need Flash, computer speakers to turn on, a small meal to sustain you, and lots of time. (A word of advice, let the video load completely while you’re steaming up a cup of joe or some chai, then go back and hit right mouse button and select Rewind). His studio is a clean room and has a friendly atmosphere. This is a dazzling site which shows Todd has all the real makings of an “IT boy.”