Music, Meaning and Money: The Special Ingredients of Media and Consumerism in Pop
On negotiations between the pop/rock singer, a media-savvy audience, corporations, and meaning itself. Entranced by media, we turn everything into media; beholden to commerce, we turn life into a commodity.
"I used to dig Picasso
Then the big Tech giant came along
And turned him into wallpaper"
-- "Driftin' Back", Neil Young
I. The Unrepeatable
The stage lights are flat white and washed out as Neil Young and Crazy just kind of stand there during "The Star-Spangled Banner" opening of the 2012 Alchemy Tour show in Cleveland, Ohio. The fake amp facades have been revealed, the American flag straddles the stage, and Young and Frank Sampedro are talking to each other like they're waiting for a bus.
By the time Young straps on Old Black and begins "Love and Only Love", the guy in front of me is holding up his phone, framing his shot like he's Scorsese or something. His fat elbow blocks my face. As the song storms along, I find my eyes drawn to the phone. Not the massive video monitors on either side of the stage, mind you, but this three-inch screen struggling to keep Young and the Horse in focus and turning the red lights onstage into a cold shade of purple.
I watch the man watching Neil Young through his screen for a while, then wonder why he puts it away when he does—what did he see before worth capturing?—and wonder again why, after a few lines of "Powderfinger", he feels the need to once again block my face with my elbow.
The rest of the show is a negotiation between what's happening onstage, which is Crazy Horse-loose and often transcendent, and what's happening on this guy's phone. My experience will always blend the unmediated sight of Frank Sampedro kicking Neil Young in the ass with the image of pudgy fingers fumbling with a phone.
We are so saturated by media that we can't help but be compelled to turn live events back into reproducible media.
I'm not above this. Throughout the show, I fight a compulsion to do exactly as the man in front of me does. What everyone does. The landscape glows with forlorn blue-white orbs. I'm taking notes tonight, writing a review—and isn't that a kind of intercession into the experience anyway, I ask myself. How pure could my experience be? And wouldn't a few photos with my camera help my addled brain remember a detail or two? Sure. Sure they would. Out comes my phone, and now the show is very small, even when I pan around the arena.
Is all of this any different from the tourist walking the streets of Venice or the Great Wall with his eye glued to the viewfinder? Is it any different from watching the home movies of a birthday party taken earlier the same day, before the guests went home, before the stray wrapping paper was balled up and tossed in a garbage bag?
Those are not events bearing witness to a performance in the strictest sense, though maybe, in becoming the photographer, the cinematographer, the choreographer, or simply the audience, we turn what we see before us into a performance of which the performers are unaware. This is what candid means. But no, the decades-old practice of surreptitiously photographing and video-recording live music performances is something different. We don't film movies as we watch them and then post them (unless we're bootlegging them); no one records herself watching The Big Bang Theory or Homeland. We do, however, record the live music performances we attend, because they're singular, once-in-a-lifetime.
But isn't every engagement with art singular? The philosopher Arthur C. Danto wrote, "There really is, in history, no such thing has having done something before", referring to how pop art illuminated its own similarities and differences with the ready-mades of Duchamp. (Most likely there's a fan film on YouTube; give it a look.) If that's true for visual artists, it's true for musicians: nothing has been seen or heard already. The new Neil Young album will sound slightly different to me, will exist differently, each time I listen to it, let alone each time you and I both listen to it. Bizarre as it may sound, the same principle holds true in regards to seeing Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer for the umpteenth time on FX.
But those are private experiences. Live music events are public. We record them and return them to the public, and the particular brand of recording I have in mind has emerged only in the past decade or so. These amateur documentarians are not the bootleggers who Dylan says "make pretty good stuff" and then trade or sell the tapes, like the Harry Dean Stanton character in the "Dreamin' of You" video. (Not as good a role as his cameo in Avengers, admittedly.) Neither are they all cub historians, recording the event to say "I was there", searching for Importance as it's made, placing themselves close to the white heat of fame and importance, or simply ordering the disorder of their lives.
What changed was the distribution method: YouTube.
When YouTube went live in February 2005, it seemed to be returning the public domain to the public. It immediately became the repository for shaky, hand-held videos taken from stage-side in some sweaty club or from the nose-bleed seats of an arena show. Some of these videos fuzz out completely, the tiny microphones unable to process the volume of the show, and some of them relentlessly hold an image of vague shapes on a stage seemingly miles away. Naturally there are gems. (There's one from the Cleveland show, in particular, which beautifully captures Young performing "The Needle and the Damage Done" and the new song "Twisted Road".)
What gets me, though, are those distorted, blurry videos that have little to no historical or aesthetic value. What assertions they are! Sad, sometimes, in their insistence? Sure, but fascinating, too, in their passive way of making the subjective, private experience of a public event into a public document.
These videos can also seem like assertions of property: I paid for my ticket, after all. The experience is mine as much as it's anyone else's, and this video proves it. Entranced by media, we turn everything into media; beholden to commerce, we turn life into a commodity. Even if we're giving it away for free, even if we claim altruistic motives of collectivity and public domain, we're carving out our point of view and asserting its importance by way of this fixed media object. Maybe our fluid, unmediated perspectives are no longer satisfying, or satisfying enough.
Or maybe we've forgotten what to do with the unrepeatable? Maybe the king who resisted Thoth, the Egyptian god, was right. Presented with the god's invention—writing—the king replied, "The fact is that this invention will produce forgetfulness in the souls of those who have learned it. So it’s not a recipe for memory, but for reminding..." Thoth called writing a pharmakon, which everyone from Plato to Derrida can tell you means "antidote". Or "poison".
One day, I'll post videos of me reading a Philip Roth novel, especially now that he's not writing them anymore. However many videos and hours it takes. I won't read it out loud; you'll just see the pages from a few feet above, and their turning.
II. Take a Walk on Beef
As Neil Young plied his trade in advance of his second album this year, and as I watched the burly guy in front of me record pieces of that show with an insert-brand-name-here cell phone, I couldn't help but think how pleasant it was to experience music in public relatively free of corporate merchandising. YouTube, or Ye Olde Public Domain, is rarely ad-free anymore. In fact, more and more songs are themselves advertisements. Maybe we're more inclined to turn the unrepeatable event into the reproducible product because musicians are exploring new ways to commodify their music.
I can't listen to Passion Pit's "Take a Walk" without thinking of Taco Bell, thanks to the song's placement in that exciting commercial for Doritos Locos Tacos which features an exciting montage of various exciting ways to make and eat tacos as prepared for you by Taco Bell.
I know, I know: bands selling their songs to corporations is nothing new. But Dylan didn't sell "Love Sick" to Victoria's Secret until 2004, seven years after it first appeared on Time Out of Mind (and six years after it was Soy Bombed); by that point, I'd formed my own attachment to the song, and it was genuinely weird to see The Bard glowering in a campaign called "Angels in Venice" and actually look, well, lecherous.
This year, I had barely let go of my critical disdain for the current crop of electro-pop bands and admitted that, by God, "Take a Walk" had a insanely catchy synth riff before the commercial began to appear ubiquitously. In it, some clean-cut Young Man from Anywhere who lives, naturally, in a studio with retro furniture and a cello propped in the corner, takes a picture of his taco with his phone and, presumably, posts it to Facebook so everyone can know what a great taco he's eating. There's nothing weird about this.
Since my first encounter with "First Bite", that surging, jaunty synth riff in "Take a Walk" conjures only images of Taco Bell's unique brand of meat. Lots of it, too. Canvas shoes trampling through a beach of grainy meat. Mouths laughing, overflowing with beef mix. Woods and sidewalks and escalators and city park paths covered neatly with beef, as if spread carefully by enormous butter knives. Carefree teens rolling down a hillside slathered in brown beef particles. The adventure of a lifetime, supported by Taco Bells in every town. Take a walk, take a picture, and put it on YouTube.
When a song is sold in order to sell tacos—or cars or tablets or big-box-sell-everything stores or good ol'-fashioned jeans—can it retain its original meaning? Or does something give? Certainly any song has an infinite variety of meanings; most people get that Neil Young's "The Needle and the Damage Done" is not about a bad tattoo, for instance.
Those meanings usually exist within a spectrum of meanings, though. When a song appears in a commercial, the product adds something but—for me at least, and so often—blocks out pretty much anything else that's supposed to be meaningful. The product is so finite, the advertisement's motivation so obvious: BUY THESE TACOS. The size of the cultural stamp (pounded into a sheet of beef, naturally) flattens the song's meek story, if it has one, or if anyone cares.
And so, when I think of what "Take a Walk" might mean, I don't think of its vague immigrant story or some gestures toward economic hardship. Instead, I think of this, supplied by Taco Bell themselves after that nasty brush with a lawsuit in early 2011:
"We start with USDA-inspected quality beef (88%). Then add water to keep it juicy and moist (3%). Mix in Mexican spices and flavors, including salt, chili pepper, onion powder, tomato powder, sugar, garlic powder, and cocoa powder (4%). Combine a little oats, caramelized sugar, yeast, citric acid, and other ingredients that contribute to the flavor, moisture, consistency, and quality of our seasoned beef (5%)."
Pulling the classic distanced-artist maneuver, Passion Pit's front man Michael Angelakos said of the ad, “What does Taco Bell have to do with three of my family members struggling financially… I have no idea… It’s not about promoting celebrities or giant corporations or anything like that." Right, because Taco Bell is just your average Mom and Pop local-grow restaurant, and certainly not owned by a giant corporation. With presumably some hint of excitement about endorsing Taco Bell, he added that "It’s just airtime…It’s an amazing opportunity."
To be fair, you all made this happen, with your free downloading and whatnot. Bands no longer can make a buck off of their CDs. It's all about touring: ticket sales and merch, merch, merch. So before I sound too rigidly ideological, let's admit that when Angelakos says in the same audience Q&A that "A lot of older artists are adamantly against the usage of their music in commercials. They can actually afford to turn that down", he's got a point.
Why can't Passion Pit afford to turn that down? Perhaps because the shelf life of pop-rock bands seems to be getting shorter and shorter, and to make any money, like an athlete, they need to maximize profits as efficiently as possible—which is a sentence that reads like death. The increased availability of media has increased, if not actually created, its demand. There's a fleet of bands out there waiting to take your spot, and the way things are going, there's not much you can do about it. You are instantly disposable. If the band is more readily disposable, it follows that the songs are, too. And that may be why, in the video of that Q&A, Angelakos sounds resigned to the dissonance between the song's meaning and its added, "special ingredient" meaning.
Or maybe there is no dissonance. Maybe the perception of any dissonance reflects a generational divide between olds like myself who look into songs for meaning and a younger generation that looks at songs as platforms to be linked with other platforms, whatever they may be, for their meaning. Is meaning threatened, or are we just so damn savvy that we can hold multiple, cross-media meanings at once, and accept that this song "Take a Walk" is both a genuine story of immigrant financial success and ruin across generations released at a time when millions are out of work, and thus some kind of 'social commentary' at the same time that it is a series of sounds and words designed to seduce a person into buying a taco or a bag of tacos or maybe a taco meal with that hard-earned and hard-to-come-by cash?
Miserably, this seems quite reasonable.
III. This Meat's for You: Television Music
In 1988, with Eric Clapton schlepping Michelob and Michael Jackson dancing for Pepsi, Young spit out "This Note's for You", which begins with the lines, "Ain't singing for Pepsi/Ain't singing for Coke/I ain't singing for nobody/Makes me look like a joke." In the video directed by Julien Temple, popular at the time for the film Earth Girls Are Easy, Young broods his way (rather Dylan-like, in fact) into a cheesy L.A. nightclub where a saxophonist plays some limp, blues-soul fusion that you'd expect to hear at the end of an episode of Saturday Night Live. And that's before the video gets funny.
No one saw the video for a while, because MTV refused to air it, claiming that its parody of brand-name products would have put them in a precarious legal bind. At the time, Young told Rolling Stone that endorsing or being endorsed by a corporation was "one of the first fucking lines that's ever been drawn" for rock musicians. "I mean, if you're going to sing for a product," he went on to say, "then you're singing for money. Period." As recounted in Jimmy McDonough's Young bio, Shakey, once the network finally caved, it actually broadcast a 20-minute program and allowed Young to criticize its hegemony before suggesting that it "should be called television music, not music television".
All of that seems quaint and distant now, or, alternately, bizarre. It boggles the mind, honestly, to imagine MTV having anything to do with music let alone take twenty minutes to explain its position about, well, about anything. There would be no broadcast because the video would never be shown, the question would never be raised, no answers demanded.
There was a point when the perception of music distribution was unavoidably connected to major corporations. MTV was a major corporation, but they were supposed to be on the side of the underdogs: bands trying to make it, and the young male and female consumer. What's happened since is pretty amazing. The perception is that corporations are involved less, thanks to the internet, when in fact more popular music is controlled by fewer corporations, and more bands are selling their songs to more corporations. When I hear indie folk-pop these days, I generally stop and think, "In what hybrid car commercial have I heard this song before?"
Ever since somebody sold Nick Drake's "Pink Moon" to Volkswagen, companies have discovered a kind of twee, inoffensive style of music that smiles at you and cutely and respectfully says, "youth", and would never, never suggest anything to do with sex. No one seemed interested back then that, as "Pink Moon" floated solemnly over a quartet of 20-somethings driving along in the night, the specter of Drake's depression and suicide was following them. It's a gorgeous song, hypnotic and blue beyond blue, but overdoses don't sell cars, so here it becomes a hymn to nature and independence, lyrics and history be damned.
Are there songs that can't be converted, diced, sampled and shoe-horned into a commercial? It's tough to imagine anything on Neil Young's new album Psychedelic Pill being used to sell chicken Caesar wraps, dresses, or even Viagra. The music is too raw, his voice too tremulous, his guitar too much out of time, as if someone had set up a Fender stack in the pre-John Winthrop North American wilderness. There's a moment at about 13:30 in "Ramada Inn" when Young's lead guitar seems to trick itself, twist and roll over on itself. I don't think that would sell a Prius, but then, I never would have thought "Pink Moon" would sell a Volkswagen, either.