Saturday, October 31, 2009

Grandpa, Could You Tell Us What An MP3 Was?

There's a big feature on Pitchfork covering the last decade of music (they've dubbed it "P2K"), and while I don't even want to start laying into their "Top 200 Albums of the 2000s" list, I would like to call attention to an interesting article by Eric Harvey named "The Social History of the MP3." It's the kind of piece you'd almost see in a literary journal, where the author tries to milk more profundities out of his observations on the music industry than are perhaps truly there. Nevertheless I found it enlightening, although (please no angry comments from Sarah) I don't quite agree with his description of The Beatles and Michael Jackson as artistic equals. Some highlights:
One of the promises of leak culture was the possibility of a thousand new Greil Marcuses and Robert Christgaus blooming-- hundreds of new fan-critics, or critic-fans, starting conversations about music that were accessible to anyone, arousing reader-listeners enough to buy music the same way radio and print used to. To a degree this happened, and is still happening: Careful searching and curious clicking through blogrolls will reveal plenty of wonderful music blogs, with styles ranging from affective to academic, with writers penning more poignant, sophisticated, and funny things than many "professional" scribes.
You're damn right.
If, as so many newspaper trend pieces assert, the number of "tastemakers" has exponentially proliferated through unmitigated access to music, that means that, on average, individual tastes are on the upswing as well. It's hard to argue this fact, if only through anecdotal evidence. While the Internet does not represent "the world," and there are plenty of folks who are just fine keeping with their old habits, those who keep up with online music have the capacity to turn into bona fide musical dilettantes, and occasionally straight-up experts, in no time flat. But broadening out to the aggregate, this trend looks different, and less rosy. The ideal would have been that a new network of independent music lovers would have elevated different types of music, or even found new ones, the way nascent rock'n'roll, honky tonk, bluegrass, and R&B benefited thanks to the 45. But online, new genres risk being strangled in the crib before anyone knows they exist, and people are "done" with new albums before the cover art has been approved. This time-compressing aspect of mp3-based music culture does not flow naturally from the technology itself-- it's a result of a lot of people, at the same time, publicly failing to resist their most basic passions for acquisition. Experiencing music in small, never-ending bursts is exciting, sure. But it's far from sustainable.
I guess this only applies to people following contemporary music? I'm not sure some of these new genres deserve a fate better than "being strangled in the crib before anyone knows they exist." And you can't expect people to "resist their most basic passions for acquisition." That's like preaching abstinence. I think if a piece of music were really strong, it could withstand a "small, never-ending burst." Maybe the reason "people are 'done' with new albums before the cover art has been approved" is because those new albums aren't very good.
So I'm not sad that print magazines, or newspapers, are dying; I'm sad that music criticism and journalism are endangered. I'm sad that publishers, advertisers, and corporate owners have lagged behind so incredibly long, holding onto an outdated critical model out of blind faith, leaving so many talented writers in the lurch. People expressing their musical taste to an eager audience in the offtime of their day jobs is one thing, and by all accounts a very good thing. But alongside these folks, we desperately need people to get paid to listen, discuss, contextualize, and critique music on a full-time basis.
Do we really? Maybe Eric Harvey does. Sure, perhaps our society as a whole would benefit, but "desperately need"? That's a bit strong. And this coming from someone who would love to get paid to write about music!
These sorts of nostalgic recollections, to a large degree, are facilitated because the old industry, built on selling magic, purposefully obscured all the backstage collaborators that helped superstars to emerge. But now, we find ourselves within a historical moment that allows us access to all the previously hidden aspects of music-making. Instead of approaching this situation as if the "magic" were gone, wouldn't it be much more productive to seize the opportunity to create an entirely new crop of idols? In other words, if "fan" is going to continue to have any resonance as a passionate listening strategy at a time when its definition is up for grabs, it's clear that fans themselves need to do the defining. The first step in this process-- the establishment of new infrastructures and technologies-- has already happened.

The second step is much tougher: using these new tools to push against the illogical constraints of those who think the old model is still viable, and set about redefining music's value. We've been conditioned for the past century to think about music as a commodity. While in good faith ("support the artists"), this way of thinking only propagates the most fundamental ideal of capitalism: getting the most stuff for the least money. Otherwise known as "downloading." Artists need to make money for their music (if they want to), and they need a set of flexible legal and technological guarantees to ensure this. But these guarantees need to be flexible enough to allow the fans themselves to use their collective intelligence and passion to help the artists themselves, without being exploited, or written into a script fit for retired actors. If the networked public sphere shaped by mp3s could collaboratively re-imagine itself not as an audience or a market but as members of a civil society, who feel that they deserve a stake in its own culture, then the rules going forward, and our appreciation of music's social and affective values, might emerge like mp3s themselves: from the bottom up. We've long since figured out how to grab and recirculate music. Now, let's make something with it.

Amen! Unfortunately, just like the rest of us, Harvey has no idea as to what kind of music we should begin making. But yes, the power rests with us "fans," even if we haven't realized it yet. We're like Dorothy with the ruby slippers: we could have gone back to Kansas whenever the fancy struck us, we just didn't know it! I do like Harvey's phrase about not feeling like we have "a stake in our own culture." When I was a kid, all I knew was that I really enjoyed music, and that I didn't have any money, so I needed to acquire music as cheaply as possible. The "artists" seemed like distant, ephemeral apparitions. Acquiring music was like a game, where I needed to "outsmart" the record companies by taping music off the radio, or by borrowing CDs from the library. I never really did feel like I was part of the same world that musicians were a part of. There's another quote earlier in the piece where Harvey writes, "There is nothing inherent or natural about paying for music, and the circulation of mp3s through unsanctioned networks reaffirms music as a social process driven by passion, not market logic or copyright." Was there once a "golden period" where music did not come with a price tag, but was simply a social activity that was generated for free by Grandpa on the porch, or Ol' Joe and Crazy Sam down by the river? How did we start "paying" for music? I guess people started paying entry to clubs in Harlem or other urban places of that nature. At some point I guess capitalism completely took over. And it wasn't entirely natural?! Maybe there became a situation where the people making music needed a lot of money in order to keep making the music we started to like. And that's not really true anymore. It still costs some money to go into a studio, but much less than it did forty years ago.

And now it costs nothing to "buy" music. On the one hand it's great, but on the other hand it's killed the art form entirely. "Making money" was not the sole, or even primary, motivation behind the careers of The Beatles or The Beach Boys, but it was definitely a key motivation. I think part of what drove those bands to great artistic heights was the vague notion that they could also become obscenely rich one day. In a couple more years that notion may officially be untrue.

And, although seemingly an annoying obstacle, it's clear now that back when the music scene was being run by a small elite group of people, it forced people to concentrate their attention in a few places at once. We used to think it was a bad thing that we couldn't get our hands on music very quickly, or that we had to wait for hours and hours before we could see our favorite music video. Turns out there were benefits to such a system after all. Be careful what you wish for, eh Grandpa?

Monday, October 19, 2009

There's Still Hope for The Beatles

This post is mostly for Little Earl, but everyone else might find this interesting as well. The Liverpool Hope University recently announced that they will be offering a degree in, you guessed it, The Beatles. This is actually a pretty legitimate thing. It's a year long, intensive MA track and dissertation. It promises to be a "serious academic study" of the fab four and their place in popular music. Sounds kinda cool to me.

Start saving up for that plane ticket, LE. Zrbo; this might be a good thing for you to do in your off time as well. Anything's better than that We Built this City video, right.

Worst. Video. Ever.

Sorting through my mp3 collection recently I came across "We Built this City" by Starship (Jefferson?). I had a hazy recollection of the music video that went along with it so I fired up youtube and took a look. Boy, was I rewarded with a gem. Ladies and Gentlemen, I think we've found the Worst Music Video of All Time.

Before rushing to the Cosmic American to share my thoughts though, I did a little research. Conveniently, Wikipedia has a whole entry on the song, and it looks like others share the same opinion. In 2004 Blender magazine named it the worst song of all time with editor Craig Marks saying the song "seems to inspire the most virulent feelings of outrage. It purports to be anti-commercial but reeks of 80s corporate-rock commercialism."

Ok, but I'm really just talking about the video. It's just so bad. I mean, I grew up watching loads of MTV, and I remember lots of silly, poorly done videos. But this one is just so awful. Sure, the style of clothing has changed, and it's pretty obvious from the first few seconds of watching that the video is dated. But the 80s hair and stylings are the least of your worries once the video gets going.

First there's the montage of people's faces looking thoughtful and contemplative. Why are they looking so stern while lost in their innermost reflections? Why? Because they're all looking at the Lincoln Memorial of course! Now, I wasn't aware that Lincoln built this city, or country, on rock and roll. Actually, I'm pretty sure he didn't found much at all. And I'm damn 100% sure he didn't listen to rock and roll.

But then, what follows afterwards! I'm just going to call it folks, it's the MOST cringe-worthy moment in music video history of ALL TIME. As our oh-so-80s rebel protagonists look on in adoration at Lincoln, the statue comes to life, raises his fist, and sings the chorus! It's just so, so awful. Even in 1985 this scene must have been perceived as awful. Words can't honestly express how truly awful it is. Not only that but it's creepy as hell.

The video just proceeds to be awful from there on out. Grace Slick sings about corporations and how annoying it is that they're constantly changing their names (boohoo!), all set to the backdrop of... Vegas casinos?! I wonder if the band realized the irony in these lyrics, as Starship are well known for having changed their name multiple times. Then a bunch of people are running away from giant tumbling dice. Why? I guess those dice represent those pesky corporations and their pesky habit of changing their names.

Then there's the radio announcer part during the bridge. I think it's there to give some 'street-cred' to the band, but if you listen to what the announcer says it makes little sense. He starts with "looking out over the Golden Gate Bridge on another gorgeous sunny Saturday." Ok, that sounds pretty good. Then: "and I'm seeing that bumper-to-bumper traffic." Huh? If you're trying to get the the radio guy to hippen-up the song, do you really want him talking about bumper-to-bumper traffic? How about something like "and there's no traffic today!" My reaction to this part is something like "Bumper-bumper traffic?? Oh well, I'll just stay in today and let someone else build this city."

During the next sequence we see a montage of skyscrapers pop-up in the background as the band plays. Hey look, there's the Chrysler building! And the World Trade Center, soooo rock and roll!!

And that's pretty much it. The whole thing is just so bad that I can barely watch. The song was already bad enough, but then someone must have said "Hey, let's make an equally atrocious video!" And one last thing, just why is Marconi playing the mamba?

Sunday, October 18, 2009

The Blog Is Dying

No, it's not dying dying. But I think our best days may be behind us. We probably peaked right around late 2007/early 2008 with our Top 10 lists. Since then we have gradually lost our mojo. Yoggoth is finishing up law school and working part-time; he doesn't even leave comments anymore, let alone post. I'm not exactly sure what's happened to Zrbo since, the last I heard, he was still unemployed. And Ninquelote is busy creating other humans.

Well what about me, you ask? Let me tell you. In addition to not being able to surf the internet at my job, I am finding my low-budget short film acting career quite rewarding and time-consuming, and I am also writing a short story that is becoming longer and longer and may end up being a book. So I am becoming less and less concerned with lengthy blog inactivity. It's just a question of where best to place my energy in this crazy old world. The true moment of realization was last month. We'd only had nine posts for September. Normally I would have written one more post so that I could boost our September total to at least ten. But I decided not to do so. I decided ... to let it go. I'm still shaken up.

For a while we seemed to be gaining some serious traction. I assumed that our audience would simply expand and expand. But at some point last year it seemed to ... plateau. Quite how some of these other blogger sites gain a mass audience I can't really say. It certainly isn't their content; I remain quite proud of our high standards of witty repartee. Perhaps other bloggers put more energy into marketing. I was never really into that. "Marketing." Sounded like effort. Perhaps what's hurt us is that we're not specifically a "movie blog" or a "music blog" but rather a "whatever's on our minds and might make our friends laugh" blog. I have to say that if the shoe were on the other foot, I would probably not read this blog on a regular basis, because I am a very picky internet surfer. I might enjoy certain posts, sure, but would I remain a loyal reader of a blog with subject matter so diffuse? Yoggoth isn't even a loyal reader of the blog anymore and he's one of our bloggers!

Of course, this is cyberspace, and the blog does not need to go anywhere. Let us not forget the blog's original purpose, which was for Yoggoth and I to make our clever and insightful e-mail exchanges slightly more public and see what would happen. After only a month or so, I would say the enterprise surpassed our wildest expectations. I'd always walked around saying I was a writer, but suddenly, I sort of was! Smelling even a sliver of an audience, my ambition kicked in and I began putting some serious effort into my posts. Why not? I was sitting at a work and I had nothing else to do. Little Earl the blogger was, shall we say, overdue.

So the blog has certainly served its purpose, and it may well serve its purpose again someday, when I am allowed to surf the web at my job and I am not busy writing five other things first. I am just not going to worry about posting something every three days lest we "lose our audience." I mean, let's face it: we really worked our asses off on this thing. Look at our posting history. That's almost three years' worth of hardcore Cosmic American content right there. I always knew in the back of my mind that there was no way we could have kept that up forever. So a lull is in order. Nevertheless, every now and then, there will be that certain little internet link that I'll simply need to share with the world, or a rant that I know Zrbo will find irresistable. And Cosmic American Blog will be here.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

That's Like The Pot Calling The Taco Black

So I'm watching TV and on comes this commercial: "Black boots ... black pants ... black eye ... black sheep ... black taco ..." And there I see a picture of what looks like the same crappy Taco Bell taco with the same crappy ingredients, only now with a black tortilla shell instead of a yellow one. Are only morons breeding at this point? You're telling me there's some kid out there who's watching that ad and he's thinking, "Wow! A taco that's a different color! I must try that in the near future!"

Just give up now, people. We're doomed.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Nobel Please

Come on. I mean, I actually support the guy, but in the words of Nobel Prize-winning author William Faulkner, "WTF?" Obama hasn't done anything yet. Yeah, sure, maybe he might do something Nobel Prize-worthy in the future, but this is absurd. What did he do, give good speeches? Run for president and not get shot? You mean to tell me there wasn't anybody else who was more deserving? Hell, I probably deserve a Nobel Peace Prize just as much as Obama does. So let's see, he gets it for his "vision of a world free from nuclear arms"? Guess what, I've got a vision of a world free from nuclear arms too. If all it takes to win the Nobel Peace Prize is a vision, then Miss Cleo should get a freaking Nobel Peace Prize. You always knew those Norwegians were just a bunch of starfuckers.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Westworld (Crichton, 1973)

I confess the sole reason I decided to watch Michael Crichton's Westworld is because I was trying to track down a sample used in a VNV Nation song ("notify ground crews"). That particular phrase is uttered within the first five minutes of the film, but luckily I stuck around for the rest of the film.

Can someone please tell me (perhaps Little Earl) which movie did the whole "robots/theme park gone crazy" motif first, because watching this movie felt like so many others I'd seen before, but then of course this film came long before any modern day blockbusters.

Westworld was written and directed by Michael Crichton, which by the first 15 minutes came as no surprise. As far as I can tell, Westworld is simply a rough draft for Jurassic Park. Good looking well-to-do white folk go on vacation to a theme park with a slightly futuristic concept - theme park goes haywire - theme park becomes hostile - escape is made.

Westworld stars James Brolin doing his best John Wayne impression and Richard Benjamin. Their characters are on their way to Delos, a futuristic theme park where one can live out their fantasies in one of the Disney inspired theme parks, Roman World, Medieval World, and Westworld. Our heroes choose Westworld and upon their arrival find it to be a fully realized recreation of the wild west, with all the parts played by extremely convincing life-like robots. In fact it's nearly impossible to tell who's human and who's robot, which makes for half the fun.

On their first trip to a saloon Benjamin's character is accosted by the Gunslinger, played with menacingly cold conviction by Yul Brynner. After a quick gunfight Benjamin takes out the Gunslinger and all seems well. Soon we are given a behind-the-scenes glimpse of the inner workings of Westworld, where we see the Gunslinger being repaired so he can be used again. We also learn that some of the robots are starting to act strange. Needless to say, the robots all eventually go haywire, with the final third of the film consisting of the Gunslinger as he hunts down Benjamin's character with nary a syllable of dialogue spoken by either for a good 30 minutes.

This is also where I realized that not only was Westworld a rough draft of Jurassic Park, but must have also strongly influenced James Cameron and The Terminator series. Yul Brynner does the relentless robot out-to-kill perfectly. I swear there's even a few shots that Cameron ripped straight off of Brynner's performance. The way Brynner walks, his cold, robotic gaze, even the Terminator's infamous half ripped-off face with the glowing red eye - here the Gunslinger is given strange white glowing eyes, but the effect is nearly identical. I felt like I had seen this all before as I watched, but then again, Westworld came first. Really, I'm half surprised Crichton never sued Cameron for stealing his idea and imagery.

All in all, it's not the greatest film. The characters are fairly boring, not much really happens overall, and there's virtually no falling action after the climax, the film just ends. But Westworld was interesting just for the realization of how many things it's influenced, from The Terminator, to the Simpsons (Itchy and Scratchy land anyone?). And damn, does James Brolin think he's John Wayne.

Saturday, October 3, 2009