Culture

Convenience of Streaming Services

In a consumer society we have this sense that you have to put your money where your mouth is to "prove" your taste.

An article at the AV Club by Sam Adams looks at the implications of Netflix's streaming service and the growing popularity of Spotify, a music-streaming company. He begins with an observation that seems unassailable to me -- "Convenience and choice are the watchwords of the digital era, in which content must be instantly accessible and as quickly digested, lest consumers flit off to some more welcoming destination" -- but I was confused by the analysis that follows, which didn't really explain why consumers are so susceptible to novelty and what he calls the "convenience trap," the willingness to consume what's available as opposed to what is presumably good for you. Adams fears we may be "unconsciously downgrading anything that isn’t so ready at hand."

But what does that mean? Why does everything have to be graded? And does an unconscious grade have any meaning? If you can't bother to make the effort to make your tastes conscious, then what difference does it make to you what you watch? And why should anyone else care? Adams is concerned that the great works may be lost to history if streaming services don't assimilate them to their streaming libraries: "Spotify’s great, unless you want to listen to anything Hüsker Dü recorded before its major-label debut. Would you trade New Day Rising for the Black Eyed Peas catalogue?" This doesn't strike me as a serious question. If you badly want to hear New Day Rising, try this. If you care about music, you probably won't let Spotify dictate what you can or can't hear, and digital reproduction has made it fairly likely that digital copies of everything will survive and proliferate. (Our real archival concern should be with the survival of analog artifacts that have yet to be digitized -- even though digitization may lead to a not entirely representative version of a work surviving.) The people who have a lot invested in their entertainment choices will supplement streaming services with ready alternatives. The people who don't diversify their supply basically don't really care, and why should they? Because certain art is good for them, and they should be made to consume it through clever institutionalized market nudges?

Adams's implicit concern seems to be that the tasteless masses will be left to languish in their cultural ignorance because the streaming services they thoughtlessly adopt don't force more redeeming content on them. And he also seems to think that if you are not cleaver enough to make redemptive consumer quests for the great works, you will be too dim or disinterested to understand them: "If you’re not inclined to put forth the effort to get yourself in close proximity to a given artwork, will you be willing to expend the mental energy necessary to understand it?" Apparently if one lives next door to the Prado, Goya's works there become more or less indistinguishable for you from Hagar the Horrible comics.

Working hard to gain access to a work has nothing intrinsic to do with being willing or able to interpret it. Adams offers an S&M take on art appreciation, that art should dominate and master us while we subserviently mold ourselves to its masterful lessons: "the viewer—not, please, the consumer—is fundamentally subservient to a work of art, in which it is our responsibility, and often our pleasure, to come to the work rather than expecting it to come to us. After all, shouldn’t art be inconvenient, if not in the sense of being difficult to access, then because it forces us out of our comfort zones, requiring us to reckon with its way of understanding the world?" I am pretty sympathetic to this, but I don't think my attitude needs to be generalized. It's not the only way to engage with art. And though I may try harder to get something out of a show I have to travel far to see, that doesn't mean I necessarily cruise through a nearby show on autopilot.

The idea that difficulty is necessary to have a "real" art experience is similar to the idea that something more real happens when the art encounter is "spontaneous" -- being surprised by the beauty of a sunset, etc. It is always tempting to extrapolate a dogma out of such experiences when they are profoundly affecting, but that would be a mistake. I don't think there is a prescription for assuring edifying aesthetic moments. Instead, when people try to push some recipe for the aesthetic onto someone else, they are imposing an encapsulated version of a status hierarchy that favors them. Ultimately, whatever they are pushing now (no matter how universal the principles are presented to be) will be repudiated later in pursuit of some fresh form of distinction. Isn't this an extremely elitist question: "How much more likely are you to bail on, say, Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, when with a few clicks of your remote you can be watching a favorite episode of Friday Night Lights?" This seems to mean: You dummies should be watching the hard stuff (like me) but instead you are weak and let the technology trick you into watching what is mere middlebrow entertainment. You're trapped in your own lazy tastes.

Adams points out that "we carry around unspoken assumptions about what’s long and what’s short, what’s easy and what’s hard, and when those assumptions calcify, we may no longer be aware they’re there." Yes, this is how ideology typically works, and it extends far beyond how we choose to entertain ourselves. Making ourselves aware of our unthinking assumptions about what is common sense is probably always a good and worthy practice. But we don't encourage people to join in that project when we imply that the reason it is necessary is so that they can conform to some other dogma about what cultural product is correct and appropriate. That replaces one politicized mystification with another. Yes, Netflix -- like may consumer goods manufacturers -- would probably love it if we consumed simplistic mind candy as quickly and as often as possible; that's good business for them. And that incentive contributes to their trying to shape and promulgate a certain ideology about what it is fun to do. Their pay structure contributes to a materialization of that ideology. Convenience almost always serves an agenda of accelerated consumption, which is passed off as maximized happiness or efficiency. (You've consumed more, so you are better off!) But implying that people need to consume the "right" things instead of the convenient things seems to substitute an elitist ideology for a consumerist one, and may trigger reactionary retrenchment among the consumerists one may be trying to rescue with screenings of Bela Tarr films and copies of Metal Circus.

In 2007 I made the argument that subscription services "almost make the idea of having selective musical taste superfluous. Not there is anything wrong with that; musical taste's centrality to identity seems a peculiar quirk. Nonetheless, taste in commercial music comes down to what music you are willing to pay for specifically. If you are paying to have it all, you effectively have no taste." That is, in a consumer society we have this sense that you have to put your money where your mouth is to "prove" your taste. The idea that you need to suffer to acquire access to "real" art in order to appreciate it has a similar inflection to it -- that art needs to be scarce to have an aura of significance, which derives from people earning/paying for the privilege to consume it. But it seems more interesting to break out of the idea that scarcity imposes some mystical meaning on things to see what they might mean beyond that.

The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

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Music

The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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