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Post-commercial entertainment

The Hollywood writers' strike certainly helps throw this in relief, but it seems clear that the commercial entertainment industry is in trouble. Digitization and dispersed internet distribution has made it impossible for them to control supply, and the intellectual property concepts their business models depend on seem likely to come under attack or undergo extreme revision in an era where anonymous collaboration and open-source development become more and more customary. Not to wax too utopian about it, but it seems like the idea of commercial artists working for industry middlemen is rapidly becoming a thing of the past, and as that changes, the means by which our society defines what makes for an artist or entertainer will change as well. Reality TV and blogging are just the most obvious examples of semi-professional and, in some cases, post-commercial entertainment supplanting the work of pros. The expectations we have of polish and high-end production values may continue to become more and more relaxed; what lo-fi indie rock helped pioneer could become acceptable in every genre and every medium, as YouTube would suggest. (Though all I ever seem to use YouTube for is watching old clips of bands from the 1960s and 1970s appearing on European TV; it's become sort of a random-access collective memory. In fact, I can safely say that the internet, by enriching my access to obscure culture detritus from past decades, has guaranteed that I won't pay any attention to contemporary culture for the foreseeable future.) While paid ads still support part of the distribution medium for these works (i.e. Google's ad brokering makes it worth its while to host all this junk), the creators themselves, who are confronted with very little overhead for making and self-distributing their own product, are not necessarily compensated monetarily and seem to have attention (becoming more and more measurable, more and more useful as a means for status competition) rather than monetary reward as their motivation. This seems like a good thing, at first, but is it actually a license or a prod for all art to become even more about ego than communication? in other words, is self-expression as a goal wildly overrated, especially now that it's so easy, now that we are in the so-called age of microcelebrity Clive Thompson notes in this Wired column? Is art being subsumed to an even greater degree by the (commercially derived) ideology of personal branding? Are we getting the worse of both worlds -- the superficial, narcissistic culture without the discipline brought on by the need to make money?

In his book In Praise of Commercial Culture, economist Tyler Cowen points out that on the 18th century, when the printing press was having similar effects on culture as the internet is having now, critics worried that the commercialization of art, the market for books, would erode the power of fame as an incentive, without which writers would produce nothing but trash. But with fame devalued now that the trappings of celebrity are open to all, it seems like money and the professionalization that went along with it were last-ditch means to uphold standards. In Cowen's view, 18th century critics sought to impose aesthetic standards and use fame as the reward that would induce writers to adhere to them. In a similar fashion, centralized cultural production enables a few media corporations, or the state (as in China, Soviet Russia, etc.), to impose similar standards. In a market economy, mass popularity seems to justify after the fact those decisions made early on about which works met the approved standards and were worthy of being supported. But mass popularity, or monetary reward may not be as significant when you can bask in the recognition of a niche audience and feel righteous about not having sold out. The "microcelebrity" thesis perhaps bears out Cowen's argument that there is not a limited supply of fame, and that technology and the density of intertextual references multiplies the amount of fame there is to go around, albeit in ever finer measurements. But conversely, the demands on our attention may be stretched to the limit, leaving us in even greater need for filters and organizers of what's available. Commercial gatekeepers once served this function; perhaps now social networking tools (linked in to targeted advertising) will replace them. Nothing, though, stands to discourage anyone from producing culture and "cluttering" the public sphere with it. I waver between thinking this is a pervasive triumph over passivity and fretting that it's a disaster that's made self-branding and the commercialization of our intimate identity commonplace -- an eagerly sought accomplishment that we hope to confirm in the public sphere.

Having cheered for so long against the culture industry Goliath (without ever really suspecting it was actually vulnerable), it hasn't often occurred to me to consider what we lose with its decline. The need to make art that will sell is usually derided as forcing artists to pursue the lowest common denominator and compromise their vision. But it may also have required artists to focus, to consider how effective their work would be on audiences. Respect for the bottom line typically makes people more receptive to criticism, and criticism from invested parties generally improves things. And the commercial entertainment industry performed a useful filtering service, putting hurdles between artists and audiences that eliminated some poetasters (and, unfortunately, some talented but easily deterred entertainers). One could be critical of what made it through that initial filter, but usually the fact that it made it through meant it was worth taking the time to criticize -- it had been chosen and produced among thousands of other contenders. But free from the restrictions of commercialism, artists can ignore criticism and be as self-indulgent as they choose, selecting self-referential topics and making no effort to generalize subject matter so that others may get more out of them. Instead, artists can develop the expectation that others should be interested in their work for the sake of person making it, that it be interesting only on a personal level, the way Facebook pages are supposed to be.

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.

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Music

The World of Captain Beefheart: An Interview with Gary Lucas and Nona Hendryx

Gary Lucas and Nona Hendryx (photo © Michael DelSol courtesy of Howlin' Wuelf Media)

Guitarist and band leader Gary Lucas and veteran vocalist Nona Hendryx pay tribute to one of rock's originals in this interview with PopMatters.

From the opening bars of "Suction Prints", we knew we had entered The World of Captain Beefheart and that was exactly where we wanted to be. There it was, that unmistakable fast 'n bulbous sound, the sudden shifts of meter and tempo, the slithery and stinging slide guitar in tandem with propulsive bass, the polyrhythmic drumming giving the music a swing unlike any other rock band.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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