Editor's Choice

Twitter and Newspeak

Yves Smith pauses from financial blogging to explain why she is skeptical of Twitter, which she likens to Orwell's Newspeak. First of all, if you haven't read the appendix to 1984, you should. The principle of Newspeak is to control how people think by emptying out the language they use for thinking. Orwell imagines some of the technical means for this would be to restrict vocabulary and simplify grammar to the point where complex thought cannot be conveyed and unorthodox thought is impossible for want of the words. (It's reminiscent of the alleged house style at Bloomberg, where the word "but" is banned.) Smith quotes this passage (among others): "And it was to be foreseen that with the passage of time the distinguishing characteristics of Newspeak would become more and more pronounced -- its words growing fewer and fewer, their meanings more and more rigid, and the chance of putting them to improper uses always diminishing." Twitter, which emulates some of the salient features of Newspeak, is of course perfect for advertising -- if you have to stop to think about what's being said, the persuasion has probably failed. But the most insidious aspect of it is how it encourages us to speak in slogans and catchphrases, to eschew logical exposition of our thoughts for a quick, allusive declaration.

Smith suggests Twitter is a technological means by which we voluntarily adopt Newspeak out of impatience with more complicated modes of discourse. Using herself as an example, she writes,

I notice how the Internet has affected how I read. I have become impatient with longer stories (unless I am on an airplane). I spend most of my time on the Internet, and the vast majority of what I read fits within the browser window. I find that has conditioned my expectations. When confronted with a longer piece (say Sunday New York Times magazine feature or New Yorker length) I find after the first page wondering if it really had to be this long, and often not finishing the piece. Five years ago, I never would have responded this way.

You can't say anything complicated or nuanced in 140 characters. I am sure readers will provide some cute counterexamples, but try explaining Plato's cave in those confines. Can't be done. You might allude to it, but you could not present it to someone who didn't know about it already. And Twitter encourages people to accept a medium that severely constrains communication, and calls a defect a virtue.

I have noticed a similar transformation in myself. It takes me much more effort to concentrate on longer pieces, and I have to print them out to have any chance. In front of a computer, my mind is always considering the alternatives, almost after each sentence I read. Smith points out how this impatience spreads to interpersonal relations:
It's one thing to take calls, check texts tweets, or the news when out and about by yourself. But it has become the norm to take them when meeting with others. That reduces the quality of the interaction and sends a message that the person you are with is merely an option, other options are ever present and must be assessed, maybe exercised.... Twitter feeds that addiction, that false sense of urgency. Most things can wait. Indeed, a lot of things are better off waiting. But we are encouraged to be plugged in, overstimulated all the time, at the expense of higher quality human relations.
Higher quality human relations take work, patience, effort to build trust and reciprocity, but they also seem to be the bedrock of human happiness. It's no wonder that the institutions of consumerism undermine those relations and offer fruitless shortcuts to intimacy that ultimately leave us dependent on technology and products that accelerate our ability to consume in search of personal meaning but never resolve our inner emptiness.

Twitter is supposed to facilitate our relationships by providing "ambient awareness" of the lives of others, but it seems more a way of persuading us to provide a constant stream of information about ourselves to those sureveilling us. In a sense, it ceases to be communication in any conventional sense; instead it reduces communication to the bleeps of a homing beacon. Twitter is a way to become one's own voluntary RFID tag.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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