Music

Negativland: No Business

Mike Schiller

Negativland fights the good fight against corporate America and the recording industry -- what they don't seem to realize is that winning that fight requires a hard and fast solution.


Negativland

No Business

Label: Seeland
US Release Date: 2005-05-24
UK Release Date: 2005-06-13
Amazon affiliate
Amazon
iTunes
In recent years, industry consolidation, combined with the unbridled advance of the internet, has created a disturbing disconnect in our relationship.
-- Michael Green, President/CEO of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, Inc., at the 2002 Grammy Awards

No Business is like that guy.

You know the one I'm talking about. This is the guy who's been out of college for four, five years, and can still be spotted in the frat house doing keg stands. The guy who will just as soon recite a dissertation on the symbolism in a porn flick as amuse himself for hours remembering how to do armpit farts. The guy that once, a long time ago, rearranged the letters on a gas station display to read "ASS ALE" instead of "GAS SALE", and still carries the 'G' around to prove it. Then, four beers into some random night on the town, he begs and pleads to be taken at face value while he offers his takes on politics, religion, and the meaning of life. At that point, it's impossible to take him completely seriously, no matter how valid his points may be.

In turn, there's Negativland.

Part of No Business is a completely straight-faced (though often dripping with disdain for modern capitalist thought) essay entitled "Two Relationships to a Common Cultural Domain". And part of No Business is a whoopee cushion with the circled 'c' for copyright emblazoned upon it. Therein lies the dichotomy of Negativland's approach, and therein is all the explanation one should need as to why it's difficult to take even the most serious of their thoughts at face value. Negativland, at heart, is a collection of pranksters, who happen to have something serious to say. Whether anyone cares about what they're saying behind their sometimes barely amusing, sometimes pretty hilarious bits of parody and snark is another story.

Of primary interest to most anyone who is giving No Business more than just a cursory glance for its loud packaging and odd shape (pointed out in loud type on the cover: "An oddly-shaped barrel of laffs!") is the CD that comes as part of the package. Negativland makes it abundantly clear what the mission statement was for the album portion of No Business with a disclaimer, found on the CD sleeve: "No elements original to Negativland were used to make these recordings". That's right, the members of Negativland don't play a single note on the album, content to make the entire record out of pieces of found sound sources. And, by current laws, most of it is probably very much illegal, though Negativland is quick to point out in the afterword of the essay that the big corporations "probably have bigger things to worry about than a bunch of audio collagists chopping up and reusing their intellectual property".

As "art", the album is fine. It's quirky, it's humorous, it makes its point. Negativland is not afraid of using so-called sacred cows as sources, and The Beatles' "Because" is the source for two tracks here: "Old is New" and "New is Old", both of which are rather unenjoyable bits of splicing that don't go far past their titles for deeper thoughts. Ethel Merman is a victim of Negativland's pranks as well, as a "traditional" version of "There's No Business like Show Business" is spliced with a disco version to hilarious effect. The lyrics are meticulously shifted as well, as the original is cut and pasted into words like "There's no business like stealing" and "There's no music like butcher music". Get it yet? "Downloading" splices ominous music and ironic soundbites on top of Michael Green's anti-downloading Grammy speech, "Favorite Things" lends Julie Andrews an unhealthy obsession with nose cream, and "Keep Rollin'" turns a Trailblazer commercial into a paean to the joys of reefer.

Unfortunately, it's almost impossible to keep an album of this nature from falling into the trap of novelty. Which it does. The "music" of No Business is the kind of music you listen to once, get a laugh or two out of, and then allow to collect dust until it becomes a collector's item and sells on EBay for exorbitant prices. The same goes for the spliced-together, pseudo-animated video on the CD, called "Gimme the Mermaid" -- putting a menacing, male voice on The Little Mermaid (apparently appropriated from a telephone message threatening the band for their use of copyrighted material) is good fun and all, but it doesn't really make for many lasting impressions.

What the media on the CD is good for, however, is illustrating the points of the accompanying essay. "Two Relationships to a Common Cultural Domain" is broken up into three parts, which basically outline the tensions that advances in technology have introduced between consumers and corporations, Negativland's place in those tensions, and Negativland's suggestions toward alleviating the situation. The strength of the essay lies in its narrow focus -- it provides a good outline for all of the different views in the current copyright fight, including what starts as a relatively levelheaded explanation of the corporate side of the argument. Unfortunately, the essay suffers for narrowing the focus even further, to where Negativland are suddenly arguing on behalf of Negativland and artists like Negativland -- that is, artists that compose music using found sound.

The crux of Negativland's argument is that art, and particularly music, has always quoted other art, whether it be folk songs passed by word of mouth or classical composers quoting their contemporaries as tribute. To put a price tag on the use of art to create new art is to stifle our society's artistic development. As such, the concept of "fair use" in an artistic medium should be expanded, such that as long as the sampled medium is being used to create a new, unique piece, any fees to use the sampled medium should be waived. The album portion of No Business shows such an aesthetic in action, as no one who hears, say, "Old is New" will mistake it for a Beatles song, even though it's composed entirely out of a Beatles song, because it's been manipulated in such a way as to create something completely new. Such an expansion of the "fair use" clause (which currently covers reproduction for things like news broadcasts, parodies, and personal copies) would benefit Negativland and those artists like Negativland, whose artistic endeavors depend entirely on the existence of material to be manipulated. Comparisons to the visual collagist movement abound, and Negativland would appear to have a pretty solid argument on their hands.

Except for one thing: the ambiguous matter of scope.

What constitutes "new" art? If I add a note, as Vanilla Ice notoriously did to the bassline of Queen's "Under Pressure" for his hit "Ice Ice Baby", is it "new" art? One certainly can't make the reverse case, that Vanilla's song is the same as Freddy and David's. Shouldn't the original artists be credited and compensated for such a use? An expansion of "fair use" to the degree that Negativland is proposing would leave the definition of new, worthwhile art in the hands of the courts, a far more dicey proposition than the cut-and-dried system that exists right now, flawed (and stunting) as it may be. It's no different than the outlawing of pornography, in that leaving the definition of "pornographic" in the hands of the courts means that the definition is malleable, and constantly changing -- never a good thing in matters of law.

Even if I don't necessarily think that Negativland has a solution on their hands, however, their problem statement is well-put and interesting. The media that comes with it is solid, if not exactly suitable for repeated listens or views. And I don't have to explain just how useful a whoopee cushion can be. Ultimately, No Business is primarily for those who agree wholeheartedly with Negativland's views, preferably those who are already fans of the band and share their sense of humor. While free exchange for artistic purposes is a utopian outcome I'd like to see in my lifetime, I've seen no evidence thus far that has convinced me that it's a realistic goal. I suppose I was hoping that No Business would change that.

It doesn't.

6

To be a migrant worker in America is to relearn the basic skills of living. Imagine doing that in your 60s and 70s, when you thought you'd be retired.


Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century

Publisher: W. W. Norton
Author: Jessica Bruder
Publication date: 2017-09
Amazon

There's been much hand-wringing over the state of the American economy in recent years. After the 2008 financial crisis upended middle-class families, we now live with regular media reports of recovery and growth -- as well as rising inequality and decreased social mobility. We ponder what kind of future we're creating for our children, while generally failing to consider who has already fallen between the gaps.

Keep reading... Show less
7

Very few of their peers surpass Eurythmics in terms of artistic vision, musicianship, songwriting, and creative audacity. This is the history of the seminal new wave group

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nominating committee's yearly announcement of the latest batch of potential inductees always generates the same reaction: a combination of sputtering outrage by fans of those deserving artists who've been shunned, and jubilation by fans of those who made the cut. The annual debate over the list of nominees is as inevitable as the announcement itself.

Keep reading... Show less

Barry Lyndon suggests that all violence—wars, duels, boxing, and the like—is nothing more than subterfuge for masculine insecurities and romantic adolescent notions, which in many ways come down to one and the same thing.

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) crystalizes a rather nocturnal view of heterosexual, white masculinity that pervades much of Stanley Kubrick's films: after slithering from the primordial slime, we jockey for position in ceaseless turf wars over land, money, and women. Those wielding the largest bone/weapon claim the spoils. Despite our self-delusions about transcending our simian stirrings through our advanced technology and knowledge, we remain mired in our ancestral origins of brute force and domination—brilliantly condensed by Kubrick in one of the most famous cuts in cinematic history: a twirling bone ascends into the air only to cut to a graphic match of a space station. Ancient and modern technology collapse into a common denominator of possession, violence, and war.

Keep reading... Show less
10

From Haircut 100 to his own modern pop stylings, Nick Heyward is loving this new phase of his career, experimenting with genre with the giddy glee of a true pop music nerd.

In 1982, Nick Heyward was a major star in the UK.

As the leader of pop sensations Haircut 100, he found himself loved by every teenage girl in the land. It's easy to see why, as Haircut 100 were a group of chaps so wholesome, they could have stepped from the pages of Lisa Simpson's "Non-Threatening Boys" magazine. They resembled a Benetton knitwear advert and played a type of quirky, pop-funk that propelled them into every transistor radio in Great Britain.

Keep reading... Show less

This book offers a poignant and jarring reminder not just of the resilience of the human spirit, but also of its ability to seek solace in the materiality of one's present.

Marcelino Truong launched his autobiographical account of growing up in Saigon during the Vietnam War with the acclaimed graphic novel Such a Lovely Little War: Saigon 1961-63, originally published in French in 2012 and in English translation in 2016. That book concluded with his family's permanent relocation to London, England, as the chaos and bloodshed back home intensified.

Now Truong continues the tale with Saigon Calling: London 1963-75 (originally published in French in 2015), which follows the experiences of his family after they seek refuge in Europe. It offers a poignant illustration of what life was like for a family of refugees from the war, and from the perspective of young children (granted, Truong's family were a privileged and upper class set of refugees, well-connected with South Vietnamese and European elites). While relatives and friends struggle to survive amid the bombs and street warfare of Vietnam, the displaced narrator and his siblings find their attention consumed by the latest fashion and music trends in London. The book offers a poignant and jarring reminder not just of the resilience of the human spirit, but also of its ability to seek solace in the materiality of one's present.

Keep reading... Show less
8
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image