Archive for June, 2009

June 30th, 2009

Songs as Shared Things


charlie sporting a hat bearing the name of his boat, a name inspired by some songs

No doubt most readers of this blog are aware that my father-in-law, Charlie Nesson (aka eon), is also very much IN LAW. And he’s been making the news a lot recently, mainly for defending (pro bono) Joel Tenenbaum against the RIAA who are suing him for mucho dinero for alleged copyright infringement in the DLing/sharing of 7 songs via a peer-to-peer filesharing network. The case is newsworthy in its own right, especially given that just last month Jammie Thomas, a Native American single mother of four, was ordered to pay the RIAA nearly 2 million dollars for 24 songs. The case has also become remarkable, however, because of what are widely viewed as Charlie’s unorthodox tactics.

Most of the commentary, in fact — whether by journalists or blawggers (get it?) — can’t resist throwing words like “crazy” and “reckless” around. They focus on Charlie & team’s procedural no-nos and, in the case of lawyer-blawggers (whether on the copyright or copyfight side), they all advise the pursuit of a fairly narrow legal strategy based on their interpretation of the crucial facts of the case (i.e., whether or not there is actual, admissible evidence as to whether or not the allegedly infringing distribution occurred).

I concede that it’s not all that crazy to wonder about Charlie’s strategy and tactics alike (though I do think that worrying for Joel seems disingenuous — the kid’s gonna be ok, whatever happens). There’s something unnerving to many that Charlie appears to approach Joel’s case as a rhetorical focal point — as well as a pedagogical opportunity — to stage a public conversation about copyright and closedness, or about openness and fairness and the re-empowerment of p2p justice, in the Internet age (and, especially, with concern to “digital natives“). Then again, while all this crazytalk continues to percolate, I just want to remind people that Larry Lessig’s cyberlaw classic, Code, bears the following dedication: “FOR CHARLIE NESSON, WHOSE EVERY IDEA SEEMS CRAZY FOR ABOUT A YEAR”

Now, even if that holds true, it doesn’t mean that Charlie doesn’t receive the strongest criticisms from those near and dear to him. Much as the case has been fascinating to me (and much as I cheer him on, for various reasons), there’ve also been plenty of times when I found his approach to the case rather oblique. But, and I suppose Larry had some of these moments while at the Berkman Center way back when, I’ve also found myself coming around to Charlie’s ideas, especially when one takes in the big picture — when one minds the forest rather than the trees. So when Charlie asked me (for a second time) whether I’d be willing to be offered up for expert testimony in the case, I agreed — but only after getting a clear enough sense of how he thought my ethnomusicological perspective might be directly relevant to the trial.

Last week I sent my expert report to Charlie, and Team Tenenbaum submitted a motion (a little late?) to have my report and testimony admitted to the proceedings (or something like that — legalese is not a slang I sling). You can download a pdf here, but I want to cut’n’paste the substance of the report into this post as I think it may be of interest to you, good reader — and moreover, according to Ray Beckerman, potentially useful in some RIAA trials (if not, in Ray’s opinion, Joel’s). As much as I find legal notions of “truth” to be weird, the following passages do resonate as true for me, increasingly so in fact (as I’ll explain below, after the text).

Songs as Shared Things

Songs have always been shareable and shared. People, young and old, share songs with each other – by singing or playing them – in a variety of ways and settings, through a variety of technologies and media or other manner of accompaniment (as well as a capella). Songs as recordings are not fundamentally different in this respect. Since the advent of recorded media, people have shared songs in this form as well: played for each other in private and public settings, on personally distributed mixes (mixed tapes / CDs), and, in the age of mp3s, as files sent via email, IM (instant message), torrent, third-party hosting site, or any manner of online sites and services.

Ironically, today songs are most often shared via a video site, YouTube, which has become a de facto public audio repository. This development and the explosion of music-centered blogs and forums offer evidence, in the form of pervasive and popular practice, of how musical recordings are treated as public culture, things which people send to friends, family, and colleagues, point to and comment on, and remix in the course of their everyday lives.

To click on a YouTube link in order to access a song (or to send such a link to a friend) would hardly be considered an illegal action on the part of the millions of people who do so each day, and yet the action is hardly different from the Defendant’s use of a filesharing network to access the seven songs in question just a few years ago. Those songs are [links & YouTube stats added 6/30]:

* Bad Religion – American Jesus [448 results]
* Green Day – Minority [1,870 results]
* Incubus – New Skin [266 results]
* Incubus – Pardon Me [991 results]
* Nirvana – Come As You Are [4,190 results]
* Outkast – Wheelz of Steel [21 results]
* Sublime – Miami [65 results]

If one searches for any of these songs on YouTube today, one finds numerous instances of each, sometimes numbering in the dozens or even hundreds. Notably, beyond merely presenting the songs, the users who upload the videos frequently add their own elements, personalizing the songs in order to share them with peers and other potential viewers: they add new images, both still and video (including found footage and self-produced material); transcribe and caption the lyrics; sometimes, they edit or remix the audio itself, especially in the case of hip-hop songs (e.g., Outkast) – an interactivity consistent with cultural practice in hip-hop more generally.

Only in the relatively recent past – within the last century – have songs, in the “fixed” media form of audio recordings, been so strongly regulated as pieces of property whose use by others might be strictly limited. An examination at the level of cultural practice – that is, how songs as audio recordings have been used by people – demonstrates that even in such “fixed” form, songs have continued to serve as a commonplace site of sharing and creative interaction (also known as remixing). This becomes particularly evident in the use of playback technologies such as turntables as creative instruments in their own right (aiding the emergence of hip-hop and disco in the 1970s), an approach powerfully extended by the tools of the digital age.

Historicizing the Musical Commodity

The notion of the song as commodity is a relatively recent one, enabled by a certain technological confluence (the advent of recordable media and mass production), and it seems to be fading relatively quickly in the face of a new technological confluence (the digital). As musicologist Timothy Taylor writes in an award-winning article on “The Commodification of Music at the Dawn of the Era of ‘Mechanical Music’”: “the music-commodity has to be understood as always in flux, always caught up in historical, cultural, and social forces” (Taylor 2007: 283).

The album as a commodity form is a particularly illustrative example of this socially and culturally situated flux. The age of the album – roughly, the late 60s to the late 90s – was a fleeting moment, again enabled by a particular set of technologies (the advent of the long-player record, or LP, followed by the cassette and CD). While early album-oriented artists approached the LP form as an artistic opportunity, leading to the emergence of the “concept album,” by the late 90s album offerings were far more typically collections of “filler” material, propelled by a hit or two, sold at exorbitant prices (e.g., $18.99) to customers with no alternatives. At this point, the album is, in most cases, an anachronism, either an indulgent and/or exploitative exercise. Notably, internet vendors such as iTunes or eMusic and other distribution methods (including blogs and filesharing networks) have reinstated the primacy of the single track as the prevailing unit of popular music.

Reasonable paid alternatives to free downloading have only become available recently, and even then rather unevenly with regard to what is available and in what form. The defunct torrent tracker, Oink – and its ilk – offer(ed) higher quality files, better documented, uncrippled by DRM software, and of a far greater variety than one can find via any of the legally-permitted online music vendors.

Listening as a Transformative Use

Listening is an active process, a rich domain of interpretation and imagination, manifesting differently – according to personal idiosyncrasies and cultural mores alike – for each person and in each moment. As anthropologist Steven Feld explains in the oft cited “Communication, Music, and Speech about Music” (Feld 1984), the listening process is, when one considers all that is potentially involved, an enormously complex phenomenon very much centered on the particular listener in question. According to Feld, listening as an act of “musical consumption” involves, among other things: the dialectics of the musical object itself (text-performance, mental-material, formal-expressive, etc.), the various interpretive moves applied by the listener (locational, categorical, associational, reflective, evaluative), and the contextual frames available at any moment (expressive ideology, identity, coherence).

All of this activity is inextricably social in character, regardless of the musical object in question. As Feld notes, “We attend to changes, developments, repetitions–form in general–but we always attend to form in terms of familiarity or strangeness, features which are socially constituted through experiences of sounds as structures rooted in our listening histories” (85).

While grounded in communication studies and musical semiotics in Feld’s study, such an interpretation – centering the socially-situated hearing subject rather than the musical object (whether live performance or mp3) – is also consistent with a great deal of literary and media theory from the past thirty years, from Roland Barthes’s infamous 1977 “Death of the Author” to Henry Jenkins’s contemporary theories about spreadability and value.

With some exceptions, commenters on Ray Beckerman’s and Ben Sheffner’s blogs, as well as on an Ars Tecnica post about the submission of my report, are generally dismissive of the text above — some of them without even reading it. They regard it as another distraction in a trial that has become, for them, more a media circus than anything. Some of those who engage it on the merits think it’s extremely far-fetched to argue that songs are inherently personal(ized) and social — hence publicly shared things — or that listening might legitimately be understood as a truly transformative process. I wonder whether readers of this blog agree?

Let me say in closing — as something of a supplement to my report — that I have been more and more persuaded in the days since filing that what I wrote is, certainly for the purposes of the court, true. Exhibit A, if you will, is the astounding level of activity centered on YouTube in the wake of Michael Jackson’s death. As I wrote in a post published yesterday,

How do we get a grasp on the actual immensity of the event? What do we know, for example, about MJ’s YouTube views? — & not only on the thousands of instantiations of his songs and videos that fans have uploaded but even on the handful of tracks that sampled his songs and also have become shrines of sorts?

It would not be a terribly controversial contention, I don’t think, to say that YouTube — the #2 search engine, period — was/is the go-to place for listening to and sharing Michael Jackson songs (and their musical kin). And that goes for most songs/recordings. YouTube has become a de facto, if willy-nilly and ephemeral, audio archive for the world of music. I’m pretty convinced that if Joel — or someone like him (someone like you?) — wanted to listen to those 7 songs (or any others) on his computer today, he’d more likely look them up on YouTube (or some similar site) than seek them out on a filesharing network. And that’s something that a jury of his peers might well take into consideration.

But it’s not merely a question of easy access and the (open) social norms & values we see expressed in YouTube / internet practice (and, yes, there are plenty of dubious “values” expressed in these spaces too). What’s even more instructive about the Michael Jackson example — or any song/dance meme, for that matter — is how songs no longer reside in some pure, protectable commodity form, if they ever did. Songs today quite clearly reside on the internet, in that peer-to-peer space connecting me to you. Simply by observing YouTube practice, which this blog(ger) has spent a great deal of time doing, we bear witness to the profound degree to which music (as songs, dances, melodies, drum breaks, and other forms) is always already social, personal(ized), and constantly transformed in the process.

This (social) fact of music industry — i.e., the work that music does, the social and cultural activity it animates — has serious implications, of course, for THE music industry. As I argued on a few occasions last year,

the phenomenon of widely-distributed (or,
in p2p parlance, “shared”) music video represents a crossroads not
just for _the_ music industry, but for music _industry_ itself — that
is, the cultural work that music does.

In this regard, I think Kevin Driscoll could serve as a good expert witness as well; his master’s thesis, especially the history of mixtapes –> YouTube narrative, strikes me as a deeply persuasive account of the technological-social migration of hip-hop practice — and youth culture more generally — into new media.

The big question is, I suppose, whether Joel’s judge and jury will also agree that such testimony is germane to the case. As one of Joel’s peers, dear reader, your opinion is relevant too.

28 comments

June 29th, 2009

Pop Goes the World

There’s little I can add to all the tributes and reflections gumming up the web these days, but like so many others I feel compelled to say something. Inspired even. I found Andrew Sullivan’s and Jeff Chang’s posts pretty resonant, Jason King’s too, among others, and I’ve been particularly struck by all the MJ music I’ve been hearing in the street and on the radio — and especially all the callers explaining to DJs how his passing feels like losing a family member.

Of course (of course?!), my experience of sharing the loss and the joyous, deeply-embodied memories of his music has probably been most strongly textured by Twitter, where I hardly needed a hashtag to hear from dozens of friends and “friends” about the man we all knew and loved (despite his serious problems). Many have made mention of the Twitter effect on MJ’s death — not to mention MJ’s effect on Twitter. Sasha Frere-Jones noted the irony in turning the radio off and letting the TV sit dormant while he and James Murphy’s people received and tapped out tweets on their phones and laptops. Ethan Zuckerman, who wrote a script to track Twitter activity (post-Moldova and the like), announced on Thursday night that 15% of all tweets were about Michael Jackson, a remarkable statistic given that he’d never seen Iran or swine flu top 5% (others have placed MJ’s footprint at 30%, though Ethan offers some important qualifications here).

I admit that it was pretty surreal “watching” MJ die via Twitter. One tweet it was cardiac arrest maybe, a few more speculated wildly, the stuff of rumor: a coma? stopped breathing? There were a couple dreadful say-it-aint-so’s, and then, before long, the news was pouring in, confirmed, unbelievable but not surprising.

Weird as it was initially, though, it quickly turned cathartic — in a beautiful way — as disbelief morphed into something more like eulogy and second-line at the same time and the “digital bouquets” began piling up. What was especially mindboggling, as I settled into a several hour face-to-face listening session with some friends, was the knowledge, repeatedly suggested by my phone, that millions of us (a wild extrapolation, I know) were listening to Michael Jackson’s music at the same time. A realization that made me wonder aloud whether anything like it had ever happened before in the history of world culture.

I suspect not — for Michael Jackson is a sui generis pop star, unrivaled in popularity (never mind Lennon’s claim to be “bigger than Jesus,” MJ just might), who, beyond his remarkable talents as a singer, dancer, and songwriter, happened to come of age at just the right moment in global media, a moment that may not ever be reproduced. In a piece published last Friday, Jody Rosen hits the nail:

Weeping for Michael, we are also mourning the musical monoculture—the passing of a time when we could imagine that the whole country, the whole planet, was listening to the same song.

Though that era may be over and the mainstream dissolved “into a trillion scattered data-bites,” at least on Thursday night and Friday, and to some extent through the weekend and still today, that’s kinda what it feels like, as if we’re all listening to the same thing. Not one song, but one artist’s oeuvre is suffusing soundscapes the world over in a manner that can only be unprecedented and seems unlikely to happen again. (But go ahead, make me myopic.)

I guess my relationship to MJ and his music is not unlike others of my generation. I know many of his songs by heart. A Victory Tour ’84 poster hung on our bedroom wall. Had a birthday cake with his face emblazoned on it sometime in the mid-80s. Wore a pin with his Thrillery face on it back when I was 8 (a tweeted remembrance that found itself in SFJ’s NYer post).

Michael Jackson was incredibly awesome and deeply flawed, and so was his music. He produced a bewildering number of absolutely flawless songs, don’t get me wrong, but he’s also responsible for some of the schlockiest, heavy-handedest pop ever crafted (as well as plenty of unremarkable clunkers). He practically invented the modern r&b power ballad, complete with gospel/kids choir and gear changes run amok (not a good look, IMO), so much so that soca star Machel Montano, mourning his loss, erroneously included R. Kelly’s “I Believe I Can Fly” (“I Can’t Believe It’s Not MJ?”) among Jackson’s anthems.

I’ve actually been a little surprised that I haven’t (yet) seen many Michael Jackson remixes and DJ sets making the rounds. Perhaps people have been too busy remembering in real time. So I was glad to see Hank Shocklee ask people to send some his way. I did a little digging and a little on-the-fly warping and I came up with a trio of tracks, one made by me, that offer some new angles on ol’ MJ, transposing him into house, jungle, and reggae —

     * Masters At Work’s remix of “Rock With You” (mp3 | YouTube)
     * DJ C’s remix of Shinehead’s cover of “Billie Jean” (mp3)
     * and my own mix’n’mash of MJ’s “Billie Jean” vox + Sly & Robbie’s “Billie Jean” riddim (mp3)

My own effort is a lot more slapdash than the sophisticated, detailed productions by MAW and DJ C. More mashup than meticulous. What I’ve done is added the acapella from “Billie Jean” to Sly and Robbie’s slinky reggae version of that song’s instrumental (actually, it’s just one of their versions — they also support the Shinehead cover that DJ C remixes, as it happens). I’ve applied a little delay and other bits of digital manipulation to MJ’s voice, hoping to estrange a little so well-worn a performance, and I’ve cut and pasted some chunks of the riddim around to maintain the right harmonic motion at points where they diverged.

While we’re on the subject of remixes and the like — or, of how Michael Jackson’s very public presence inspires waves of activity across public culture — it’s worth noting that there’s also already been a corrido composed in his honor:

MJ’s reign as global pop king is perhaps still ungraspable. Thomas Friedman-esque anecdotes only go so far. We need greater data, quantitative and qualitative, and more local histories of his presence and influence and resonance. Emma Baulch noted on the IASPM listserv that “In Indonesia, Bad and Dangerous were more successful than Thriller, in terms of official sales.” But she pointed out that this fails to account for pirated sales (and, I’d add, other forms of informal / non-commercial circulation).

Of course, there may be no better bizarro embodiment of MJ’s global reach than those memetastic Filipino inmates doing their pitchframe-perfect re-enactment of the “Thriller” video. Then again, we should bear in mind that the Philippines is perhaps something of a special case.

Given all this activity, not to mention the reports of off-the-charts sales in the wake of his death, I do wonder how we would begin to take measure of such a thing as Michael Jackson’s global popularity. How do we get a grasp on the actual immensity of the event? What do we know, for example, about MJ’s YouTube views? — & not only on the thousands of instantiations of his songs and videos that fans have uploaded but even on the handful of tracks that sampled his songs and also have become shrines of sorts?

Speaking of shrines, which indubitably contain a range of images of the man (as this post itself does), I have to note that when I think of MJ, I seem to picture him as the blur in between the black and the white, the lean mean singing-and-dancing machine and the media freakshow, the unbelievably awesome and the transmogrified tragic. Having first grown up with his music and later grappled with him as an embodiment of American racial imagination, I still have more questions than answers. And one of the most notorious questions is the one posed over 20 years ago by Greg Tate: What’s Wrong With Michael Jackson?

Upon reading Tate’s piece again, I wonder how much the man (in the mirror) was precisely that: a cipher upon which we read the twisted American story in growing contortion, progressive disfigurement, a grotesque from which we could not, cannot, turn our heads. A sad story, to be sure. But a narrative that, as Michael showed as well as anyone else, leaves plenty room for improvisation and for (occasional) transcendence.

This was my initial, and remains my lingering, impression on the death of Michael Jackson —

And I’ll leave it there for now. Thx for letting us rock with you for so long. So long…

8 comments

June 22nd, 2009

Can We Talk About “Can We Talk About the Reggaeton Crash?”?

Gavin’s throwing darts again, and he hits a couple bullseyes — or offers some sharp prodding at any rate. The post is on par with his thoughtful and provocative ruminations on the ethics of musical tourism from almost exactly a year ago, and we can read it as something of a follow-up, a continuation not just of bloggy resonances but of nagging questions that must be asked.

The subject Gavin returns to is near and dear to me: (brave?) nu-whirled music / global ghettotech. He distills into a neat narrative arc a certain dynamic of the musical blogosphere (or at least one humble corner of it). As Gavin sees it, most of the nu-whirled/global-gtech genres follow a predictable pattern, the ol’ boom-and-bust of the hype machine —

The dominant narrative is well established: in the midst of urban poverty afflicting a community of color/nonWestern nationality, young people appropriate the techniques of hip hop/reggae/techno and make their own version of these established genres in their vernacular. A flurry of creativity creates an entire musical culture full of rapid stylistic changes and hybridity; meanwhile, the older generation and middle classes disdain the music as oversexual and immoral. Then the music hits the shores of the West, through immigrant diasporas, study-abroad programs, and canny journos looking for the next big thing. Gushing articles are written, cosmopolitan centers host parties centered around the sound, and the most recognizable sonic elements of these genres (dem bow, tamborazo) show up in remixes and DJ sets. A few artists are cherrypicked as leading the crop. A compilation album firms up the brand identity (what are genres but brands?). Tours and careers are launched. And then the genre fails to keep up with the rapid cultural turnover endemic to digital capitalism and interest fades. Luckily new genres from new locales spring up to fill the void.

A lot of this makes a lot of sense. And Gavin’s call for a close examination of the “political economy of global ghettotech” is imperative. Of course, the call for an attn to specific political economies seems in conflict with the impulse, on the other hand, to offer meta-narratives (i.e., “global ghettotech” itself) — but perhaps Gavin acknowledges this with his use of “dominant narrative,” a distancing gesture or sorts.

It’s funny, though, that Gavin picks reggaeton as his example — & funny for two reasons:

1) it’s misleading
2) it’s wrong

Wrt #1: As I initially commented on Gavin’s post, I think reggaeton is a misleading example for understanding the general dynamics of global ghettotech because it is, in some respects, exceptional. Although it may have been one of the first non-Anglo/non-mainstream genres to find uptake on the (world/whirled) music connoisseurosphere (getting lots of love here, & at Muddup, Ghettobassquake, Masala, etc.), it also departs from what I would consider more representative worldmusic2.0 genres (funk carioca, kuduro, nu-cumbia, juke) in significant ways. Perhaps most obviously, while we might be able to argue that nu-whirled bloggers played some role in the popularization of such genres as funk carioca and kuduro and (nu)cumbia — outside of their originary/primary sites of production, that is — I think we can hardly say the same for reggaeton.

Indeed, the economic arc of reggaeton’s story — which Gavin describes pretty accurately, actually — makes it seem like quite the outlier in all of this, since none of the other genres so popular among “global ghettotech” (for lack of a better term) DJs and bloggers, etc., have enjoyed even a modicum of reggaeton’s remarkable success within American (and global) commercial culture. One might be able to make an argument for cumbia — but not nu-cumbia — which has enjoyed a steady, and growing, level of popularity across Latin America for the better part of a century (though reggaeton’s incursions into English-language media still make it special in this regard).

Given the scale of the reggaeton phenomenon, it’s popularity among a relatively small number of DJs and music bloggers hardly seems remarkable. I do think it’s remarkable that reggaeton was among the first non-English genres to make inroads in the INTL urban DJ/enthusiast scene (for lack of better terms), and in this way it’s an important footnote in the story of global gobbledicunk, sin duda. Perhaps, and maybe this is what Gavin cares more about, the way in which reggaeton quickly fell out of favor for this set (which, yes, finds parallels in a broader “recession” for reggaeton) is endemic to the nu-whirled phenomenon. In that case, I would certainly agree. Nu-black is the new black.

Wrt #2: Despite all the chatter about it crashing or, more cutely, running out of gasolina, reggaeton is far from dead.

Among other indicators, as I tweeted the other day (pointing to this):


And I was happy to get some quick, on-the-ground affirmation from Brooklyn:


For my part, in the days since reading Gavin’s post I’ve counted several dembow-rattled trunks passing me on the street here in Cambridge.

And indeed, I was heartened to read this morning that Gavin himself has recanted somewhat. After attending Chicago’s Puerto Rican Pride festival this weekend (in my former hood, Humboldt Park!), he reports that, having heard a dosa buena de dembow, “[r]umors of reggaeton’s death are be greatly exaggerated.” That’s reassuring, especially since I think Gavin has long held a keen ear to the reggaetony (under)ground, as demonstrated in this relatively early piece on the genre.

Moreover, Gavin’s critical ears and eyes remain sharp. His description of the contemporary sound of reggaeton (or wot-ever se llama) hits the nail on the head —

The Dem Bow is definitely muted or completely absent in a lot of these tracks, instead there’s a kind of digital-dancehall feel, with lots of effervesynths and autotune. The way reggaeton (if you can call it that) is looking in 2009 is a hybrid of T-Pain R&B, Caribbean pop, and hints of trance.

But what more should we expect from a “genre” that has consistently engaged with contemporary hip-hop, pop, and dancehall for the last 15 years? To my ears, this is hardly a departure for what we call(ed?) reggaeton, but which has gone under many other names (and forms). If anything, the LunyTuny dembow orthodoxy of 2002-07 stands as a greater aesthetic aberration — a formal “distortion” produced by a timely collision with market “forces” — than the current crop of tracks coming out of PR (and the diaspora).

Even without an explicit dembow in the more recent productions (by the same people who produced hits during reggaeton’s heyday, to date), there’s still a recognizable aesthetic core there, I’d argue — one that emerges precisely out of the PR-based engagement with US and Caribbean and Latin American dance/pop/rap. You might miss it if it’s dembow orthodoxy you’re searching for (and I may be as guilty as any in pointing people to keep their ears on the snares). I could go on in some detail and elaborate, but, you know what, I already have. If you’re interested in this aesthetic history (and the role different genre names and forms have played), READ MY CHAPTER ALREADY.

To me, it’s more telling that reggaeton continues to generate such heated debate than that radio stations (and reggaeton stars) have shifted their strategies and broadened their palettes. That the genre still serves as such a (self-serving?) target speaks volumes.

For one, I’ll point any curious gawkers to the video I posted to YouTube in which Vico C demonstrates by beatbox the difference between hip-hop and reggaeton. Like a lot of other reggaeton-related postings around the net, it has become a vehicle for anti-reggaeton vitriol. How could something so dead generate such heat?

For two, consider a couple germane texts that my co-editor, Raquel Rivera, emailed to me recently: 1) the comments on her blog generated by her appearance on WNYC; and 2) an article in El Nuevo Dia in which salsa legend Willie Colon argues that reggaeton has peaked (the original is now behind a pay wall). My response was this —

i think reggaeton’s gonna be around (and popular) for some time to come. we’ll see what it sounds like, though. and whether people still call “it” reggaeton (they did, after all, used to call “it” any number of names).

colon may be right that the “euphoria” has passed, but that doesn’t mean the genre’s days are numbered. plus, this is clearly a bit of self-promotion for his own music, talking bout how people have returned to salsa. they never really turned away.

on another note, isn’t saying “música urbana” basically like saying “música negra”? it is in english — a pretty specious euphemism really. might as well say “race records.” so maybe we’re back where we started, but in a worse place?

The exchange made me think that if I were writing my chapter now, it might have to be titled “Música Negra to Música Urbana” — a sly story of commodification, accommodation, and shape-shifting.

I also spoke recently to a reporter asking essentially the same questions (is reggaeton dead? has it crashed? its moment passed?), and I told her I think it’s just as possible that 2004-06 represents the first of several “reggaeton” waves (que onda!), as opposed to but a flash in the pan. And I’m not simply talking in terms of the periodic Latin “booms” (and busts) that have punctuated US popular culture for at least the last century. It seems totally plausible to me that “Gasolina” and the other reggaetony blips on the “mainstream” radar were just the tip of the iceberg for Afro-Latin-American media finding a permanent place in American (in the broadest sense) mass culture. I guess we’ll have to wait and see whether history & demographics & (American/global) popular culture bear this out.

I think one could contend, at any rate, that reggaeton is as popular as it’s ever been, billboard hits notwithstanding: reggaeton stars still fill stadiums across the Americas, sell millions of CDs, and have secured a spot on urban Spanish-language radio and in the “Latin” wing of the Music Industry; moreover, there are more “bedroom” producers at work producing the music than ever before, and in more places. That reggaeton (whatever it gets called) continues to thrive at both the corporate and grassroots levels is not to be underplayed, whether or not the “euphoria” has passed (for whom?).

In a sense, this question of whether reggaeton is “dead” amounts to the PR-centric version of an odd question posed recently in the Jamaica Observer: “Is Dancehall Still Dancehall?” On the one hand, as I noted somewhat cheekily, with a nod to Norm Stolzoff, dancehall is now, was always, and ever shall be dancehall. On the other, it’s also reggae. But then again, it’s not. People distinguish roots from dancehall all the time, sometimes with the confusingly metonymic use of “reggae” as a stand-in for “roots reggae”; ask these sample people, however, and reggae is reggae is reggae (even if it’s ska). Or yet another angle: a good friend of mine, a Jamaican who grew up in Cambridge, wouldn’t consider Bounty Killer to be dancehall since, for him, Josey Wales chatting over some rub-a-dub reggae was dancehall (indeed, the music of Josey, et al., was the first style of Jamaican pop to be so strongly identified with the music’s social space — the dancehall — that it took on its name); rather, Bounty & Beenie, et al., represented something else, perhaps better described as rap (at least from my fren’s perspective).

As usual, I’m not saying there’s a there there. It can all get pretty tautological really. (Word to Wiley.) Some labels stick, some don’t. Some become brands, some don’t.

It’s still pretty astounding to me that something as clunky and freighted as “global ghettotech” might prove a useful brand, but DJs/bloggers like UMB are waving the banner, apparently with some modest success. Guillaume has some interesting thoughts about all of this, which I hope he’ll share soon. Lest we get carried away, I think we should keep in mind, as /Rupture noted, that

The exposure and interest is overrated. ‘Global ghettotech’ club nights are a minority, it is just a few individuals in a few cities doing it.

As I put these thoughts together, and commented on Gavin’s next post, it occurred to me that I might sound at times as if my own meta-narrative about reggaeton is akin to some sort of Afro-Latino version of TEH NUUM. And I hardly intend anything like that. The last thing I want to do is “overdetermine” a lot of fresh music by imposing some sort of totalizing theory on it. And I sure don’t want to produce for myself (and others) a myopic lens for interpreting new music by saddling it with the weight of tradition (e.g., bassline as hardcore?), much as that can seem inevitable. Kinda like missing the trees for the forest, innit.

On the other hand, sometimes these metanarratives can serve as profoundly meaningful frames for making sense of music (and cultural politics) as it engages our senses. For better or worse, that’s what “global ghettotech” has done / attempts to do — to contain within its ambivalent name(brand?) a set of questions, challenges, critiques. Not to beat a dead horse (or an undead one!), but one reason I employed the term “ghettotech” — problematic or confusing as that “appropriation” may be — is that it perhaps acknowledges the “uncomfortably romantic” dimension in so much of this engagement and activity. Then again, my hope — if I may risk such technoptimism — is that the (increasingly) p2p nature of all this musical exchange might promise some rapprochement between the celebraters and celebratees, the metropolitan DJs/promoters/bloggers/critics and their bredren on the peripheries (or right next door).

This is something I’ve been struggling with — in part c/o some provocative talks and interviews given in the last 6 months by Kode9 (occasionally with Kodwo Eshun). Honored as I am to find “global ghettotech” appearing alongside the ‘nuum and their own possible (afro)futurisms, I am definitely wary of creating a critical apparatus that somehow absorbs the future shock of new music. Grappling with this issue — with the critical effects of web2.0 discourse on worldmusic2.0 — seems very necessary, indeed central to my next/current project.

But I’d better stop here, as I’ve still got a lot to think through in this regard, and I’ve already written too much already. (Congrats if you made it this far!)

Thanks for the continued conversation, all –

51 comments

June 19th, 2009

Well-Tempered (& Notso) Sounds for Baby

As can be imagined, I give a lot of thought to the soundscapes my two daughters soak in, especially when so much of it is structured by me — at home, in the car, or anywhere else I can plug my iPod/Phone, whistle a tune, or bang out a rhythm.

When I’m selecting a kind of background music, something to inject a little colorful noise into our home, I tend to draw on particular playlists I’ve put together. These are labeled, for better or worse (I know there are categorical / ontological problems with these, but let’s set those aside for now):

baby-music-perse: id est, per se; baby music qua baby music; kids songs; sing-alongs
baby-music-tonal: baroque, classical, romantic, minimalist
baby-music-weird: whale song, Indonesian jaw harp, Ghanaian “honk horn”
baby-music-worldy: mostly traditional music from SE Asia, Africa (N and S), Middle East

I also draw heavily on folders labeled things like jamaican-jazz, electronic-fun, ambient-music, technos, all-gamelan, and so forth. Mostly instrumentals, or some foriegn language vocals; very little, if any, English language. (I tend to find English vox distracting, hence not as easily “ambient” as I want.)

As I mentioned way back when, I’m concerned with exposing my children to as wide a range of musical forms and aesthetics and tonalities and ontologies (what is music?) as possible. And I do feel some need to foreground non-Western music given how inevitably “Western” so much of what they hear elsewhere tends to be. I’m not joking when I say that I don’t want their hearing to be “ruined” by too much (Western) tonality. And so I’m careful to balance Mozart with mbira, Bach with Bali; indeed, never mind balance, I’m hoping to submerge the so-called “common practice” “canon” in the vast oceans of the music of the world.

What has been interesting, however, is the discovery that I actually find myself gravitating frequently toward baby-music-tonal, which may take liberties in its interpretation of “tonal” (putting Riley and Reich and Rachel’s alongside Bach and Chopin) but remains fairly anchored in what we might (as well) call “Western tonality.”

I think it has a lot to do with the mellowness of solo piano stuff (won’t wake the kids!), though I have to admit that — as much as I seek to counter the influence of Western art music and think Mozart-for-Babies is a bunch of bullshit — I am also a believer in the potential effects of (slowly, somewhat subconsciously) comprehending the often wonderfully symmetrical (and asymmetrical) forms so powerfully modeled by something like Bach’s fugues (or his Goldberg Variations, which, in the form of Glenn Gould’s landmark 1955 recording, kicks-off the playlist). I am persuaded — or inclined to believe — that hearing and listening to such forms and retracing them in one’s mind might help to build all kinds of conceptual bridges. Good grist for the mind’s mill. Can’t hurt anyway, I don’t think — at least not in the healthy company of all kinds of other forms.

Given this apparent predilection — as well as my boom-bap leanings — I was delighted to hear that Mad EP, a fine cellist and beatsmith (and hence a fan of Bach & Shostakovich as well as Dilla & FlyLo), not to mention a devoted dad, recently put together 24 Breakbeats, one for every major & minor key. Stream or download here; & share it with the kids (of all ages) —

I definitely want to share some of my favorite baby/kid music here in the near future. There are some truly striking and beautiful songs in those playlists, most of which go well beyond the typical w&w fare. (I also listen to “acoustic” music! SRSLY) Perhaps a mix of some sort is in order. It’d be the sort of thing, like Ripley’s recent & radical contribution to the repertory, that would hardly scream “kids” and might, I would hope, work in a variety of settings and for young & old alike.

Also: still very much open to recommendations! The last round bore some sweet fruit.

11 comments

June 11th, 2009

Late Spring Adventures Flicks ’09











2 comments

June 10th, 2009

Bots Burners

Botswana’s Ruff Riddims (now tweeting) have been putting in work lately. Now that the studio is up and running, they’ve been grinding out some promising stuff — a mix of kwaito and kwasa-kwasa, hip-hop and reggae — and they’re starting to reach out, nationally and internationally, to share their work with the wider world.

Check these two recent videos, one by riddim-rider Tebza, the other by young up-and-comer Skeat, who bubbles over a classic sounding (i.e., mid-90s, v housey) kwaito track. Nice vids too!

Oh, and the MaSuper Star stuff — wow, wait til you hear that! Fruityloopy beats, loose acoustic guitars, tight joyous vox. RUFF RIDDIMS, nuff said. Gwaan, Bots bredren–

1 comment

June 3rd, 2009

Tune In, Stream Out

So, as some of you might have noticed, I didn’t make it down to NYC last week for the Soundcheck segment after all — life intervening as it can with two young kids (not in any serious way, tho) — but I did listen to it live thanks to the Public Radio Tuner iPhone app.



The app is a creation of PRX (Public Radio Exchange), a Cambridge-based nonprofit where — O disclosure! — my dear Rebecca just started working. Btw, a BIG congrats to Bec, who’s graduating tomorrow with a PhD in computer science; & even BIGGER kudos for finally ending her 15-year stint at Harvard! (I should note that said stint includes an undergrad & law degree.) Her dissertation title, for the curious: “Synchronous and Multicomponent Tree-Adjoining Grammars: Complexity, Algorithms and Linguistic Applications.” Having spent far more of her grad-school career, ironically, doing thought puzzles using Greek symbols than actually coding (which is how she got into CS in the 1st place), Rebecca’s quite happy to finally find herself doing some real programming.

Before Becca joined PRX, however, I was already a big fan. And though I’ve been enjoying the Tuner app to stream everything from local NPR affiliate, WBUR, to the one and only WFMU, to community-flavored WORT when I want some ol’ Madison vibes, my affection for the org extends beyond their recent and maybe best known release.

As someone who cares deeply about facilitating the independent production and distribution (and conversation around / reframing) of audio works of all kinds — i.e., making and sharing (digital) stuff in a peer-to-peer world — PRX is right up my alley. They’re basically a well-designed, well-meaning clearinghouse for independently produced programs intended to air on public radio. Or as they put it

Public Radio Exchange is an online marketplace for distribution, review, and licensing of public radio programming. PRX is also a growing social network and community of listeners, producers, and stations collaborating to reshape public radio. The mission of PRX is to create more opportunities for diverse programming of exceptional quality, interest, and importance to reach more listeners.

This neat lil video explains it well:

Or to put it yet another way, a la eon, let the radio message follow

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

which, as it happens, is this

Nesson’s final for his winter-term “Evidence” class consisted of two digital audio files, and a single question: “Of what is this evidence?” The first of the two recordings is particularly bizarre—an eery mash-up; distorted snatches of speech echoing over hollow instrumentals below. Of what is this evidence?

3 comments

June 2nd, 2009

Last Night MIT Saved My Life

Yesterday morning I wrote what I feared might be the last rent check I could write for the foreseeable future; by yesterday evening those fears had vanished, as I learned that MIT would be offering me a Mellon Fellowship for the next two years. Wayne saved!

And not a moment too soon. 11th hour, really. Goes without saying that I’m totally thrilled. Weights have turned to balloons. This constitutes a serious lifeline for me & my career. It affirms a project I’m quite excited about — a critical examination (and, inevitably, celebration) of what I’ve been alternately calling “nu whirl(ed) music” and “global ghettotech” — and offers much support at a crucial time for bringing one expression of that project to completion: namely, what they call in the academy, a monograph (more on that below).

First, I should say that I’m especially indebted to two fine future colleagues at MIT who encouraged and supported my application, Ian Condry and Patty Tang. Interestingly, due largely to idiosyncratic / bureaucratic reasons, my host dept will not be Music — as it has been throughout my grad and post-grad career — but what MIT calls Foreign Languages and Literatures. Happy as I would have been to be in Music & Theater Arts, I’m quite looking forward to being in a more interdisciplinary situation, a place where Ian, for example, studies and teaches Japanese popular culture, including hip-hop.

I also want to thank all the Brandeis students and faculty and other supporters — various and sundry — who lent their names and testimony to the Save Wayne campaign. Although I’m sorry that something didn’t work out for me at Brandeis, I feel affirmed as never before, that I’m on the right track, and I’m deeply grateful for that.

In so many ways, I gotta say, MIT seems like the right place for me right now. Given the tech focus of my research proposal, the school is just a perfect fit. Did I mention that I live but a short walk away?

Enough basking though, I just wanted to share the good news with all my dear readers, and to thank you in particular for providing another crucial source of support and affirmation. It was a long dark winter in some ways, and knowing that I have this forum for sharing and discussing what interests me with a bunch of interesting, informed, passionate people has provided some key consolation.

I’ll leave you with a few paragraphs snipped from my proposal, just to clue you in on where I’m headed. If you’ve been reading along with me here for a little while, this will hardly be news, but I think I’ve brought a lot into focus on this most recent go-round —

Brave New World Music: Making and Sharing Music in a Peer-to-Peer World

Bringing together theories, methods, and data from music and sound studies, media and cultural studies, digital anthropology, sociology, and work across the “digital humanities” more generally, my project seeks to reevaluate the question of “world music” in light of the remarkable technological and discursive shifts represented by socially networked, online exchanges of music. This necessarily international, multi-sited project emerges from my ongoing research into the global circulation of such popular genres as hip-hop, reggae, and reggaeton, as well as their local resonance in places like New York, Boston, Kingston, and San Juan. Continuing an attention — grounded in ethnographic, historical, and theoretical perspectives — to the ways music draws and redraws lines of community, my intention is to produce a monograph situating the production, circulation, and reception of music (and media more generally) in our globalized, digital world — a world of peers, in some sense, if one where we still bear witness to profound asymmetries.

Whereas “world music” once connoted the traditional music of the global south (or accessible, slickly-produced fusions of those traditions with Western pop), in recent years a new set of connoisseurs in the US and Europe — as well as a global, grassroots network of producers and promoters — have departed from such notions to embrace locally-inflected versions of global pop which foreground digital modes of production, do-it-yourself production aesthetics, and shared — rather than exotic — cultural referents. Although largely facilitated by the Internet, this degree of international engagement — mediated not by record companies but by MySpace, YouTube, blogs, and other peer-to-peer technologies — also suggests that on-the-ground metropolitan multiculture is alive and well. On the one hand, the consumption and circulation of “new world music” (e.g., Angolan kuduro, South African kwaito, and South American cumbia) nod toward an emergent, everyday cosmopolitanism in the US, reflecting the degree to which “the world” now resides within American borders. On the other, the decentering presence of US genres within this “new world” constellation (e.g., Chicago juke, Atlanta crunk, Bay Area hyphy, Puerto Rican reggaeton) signals a reevaluation of what “world” can mean now that the “American Century” has passed. What does all this activity say about contemporary conceptions of selfhood, nationhood, and — if you will — neighborhood?

Lest this picture appear too utopian, it should be noted that first world filters — now more often as bloggers than stars or labels — still occupy positions of power, reflecting continued hierarchies even as the tools of production and distribution have been widely democratized by the advent of digital technologies. Whether we are talking about Brazilian funk or Jamaican dancehall, such genres continue to be represented through the lens of the exotic and authentic — albeit an exoticism and authenticity flowing from signifiers of the urban, hybrid, and futuristic rather than the rural, pristine, and traditional. Slum chic has arisen as an aesthetic counterpoint to the unprecedented growth of megacities around the world. And yet, despite problematic parallels, there may yet be some genuinely new and promising facets to today’s “world music.” For one, we might hear a leveling out such that all genres travel at once as local and global. Although produced in the U.S., for instance, Chicago juke — a distinctive form of electronic dance music formerly known as “ghetto house” — has been embraced as “worldly” subculture by young people in Switzerland, France, and England. Second, even while reproducing certain racial ideologies, we might detect a new mode of engaging with others in this new world music. As today’s “data flaneurs” seek xenophily over homophily they build cultural and conceptual bridges that attend to local (as well as virtual) soundscapes and, in the process, reshape ideas about here and there, especially in metropolitan social contexts which bear the burdens of postcolonial legacies.

Onward & sidewayz, y’all –

46 comments

June 1st, 2009

ART

1 comment

Wayne&Wax

I'm a techno-musicologist, internet annotator, imagined community organizer.

I left my <3 in the digital global, but I reside in Cambridge, MA, where I'm from.

I represent like that.

wayne at wayneandwax dot com

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