Archive for December, 2013

December 17th, 2013

Vacuum Cleaner Relaxation & Other YouTube Natives

Been thinking about “native” YouTube genres, or genres which, in their way, are “native” to the platform, having necessarily emerged on YouTube — new forms and conventions, in other words, essentially made possible by YouTube’s existence and special features (especially, but not limited to, unprecedented access to an endless archive, thanks to massive uptake and network effects).

Lots of forms and practices that might seem novel to YouTube have been around as amateur / fan / folk / underground culture forever, which is why it may be instructive to ask not only about what is now more spectacular or obvious or invigorated (though those are all good queries), but what is also necessarily new (i.e., native). This would help us get a better idea of this juncture’s interplay between creative process, media ecology, and tech affordances/constraints.

I liked how several of my students’ YouTube montages from last fall — in seeking to plumb a song’s social life as depicted, richly if always incompletely, on YouTube — revealed certain YouTubey genres alongside and amidst the sundry contexts of meatspace (homes, buses, studios, stages) and their associated, overlapping genres (personal, public, pedagogical, performative and so on). Things like, say, Sponge Bob or Barack Obama belting cut-n-paste pop jams —

In addition to productions like these, native genres to YouTube would also have to include the likes of YouTube Poop, which, as the name suggests, is fairly obvious (if meta/dada) in its YouTubeness.

A lot of these examples are, tellingly, pastiches or other remixes — not surprising, given 1) wealth of access and 2) ease of editing — but native genres on YouTube are not limited to that mode. Something like the “Harlem Shake,” for instance, in centering on a shareable/viral syntax rather than a particular gesture or sign, suggests a class of YouTubey forms that are distinct from, say, the latest neighborhood dance step to jump from the corner to all corners (though those are also, as I’ve explored before, very much themselves YouTube abetted now).

***

In search of other native genres, I tried a little poll yesterday on Twitter, and I was treated to at least one class (or maybe more) of arguably native YouTube genres that have little if anything to do with remix or pastiche. One particularly interesting rabbithole, or more like a vacuumtube (if not quite a 9 hour suck), led me into a world of looooong non-musical sound clips on YouTube.

S/o Young Heraclitus / Dreamboat Slim for promptly pointing me to a video given the alluring billing of “Vacuum Cleaner Relaxation White Noise Sound Sleep Colic” and tagged with such canny search engine optimization as —

Mask Tinnitus, Sleep Aid, Enhance Privacy ,Block Distractions, Pacify children and pets, Soothe Migraines, Increase Focus
Lessen Stress vacuum cleaner sound
vacuum cleaner noise
sound of vacuum cleaner
noise of vacuum cleaner

Included in the description, you might be glad to hear, was a link to a page where one can download a 109mb 717 minute mp3. The page helpfully reads: “1 Man, 12 Hours of Vacuuming” and “You’ll get an MP3.”

Incidentally, I think the epic “performance” may simply be a 15 minute-or-so loop, but I haven’t studied it so closely; that said, I did have it on for a good hour yesterday. At low volume, I found it remarkably compelling.

Anyway, before you download, you might want to check it out on YouTube:

I should have suspected, I suppose, but it turns out there are LOTS of videos in this vein. The vid above leads, via YouTube’s recommendation engine, to any number of similar or indistinguishable efforts (especially at low volume). This 8 hour piece claims to be a “remix” but I have no idea what that means:

Truth be told, there’s a veritable plethora of epic ambient videos freely available on YouTube for your very own epic ambient experience, which, based on the descriptions and comments, mainly seems to be sleep. These include such evergreens as “Airbus 320 Cabin Sounds – 12 Hours – Take Off and Complementary treats served” or “The Sound of a Air Conditioner.” But for my money (i.e., earballs), you just can’t beat “Sucks 9 Hours” (tagged: Hood Fan Sound, Range Hood, Ventilation Fan, Cooker Hood, Extractor Hood, ASMR), though “The Sounds of a Box Fan 8hrs” (also available in mp3) is a close second —

This particular form’s nativity is, of course, directly related to one relatively big affordance: the unprecedented access to time that YouTube now provides. People, especially the non-Warhol sort, just didn’t typically make 7-12 hour films very frequently prior to the advent of unlimited time on YouTube. So one emerging “native” dimension of vernacular video we might lay at YouTube’s feet is the sudden desire to exploit the “platform” as something other than a visual medium — but not just as a jukebox, rather as a long duration white noise machine (or pink, if you prefer).

But another arguably “native” dimension here — at least in terms of popular practice — is this particular use of sound, via YouTube, to produce physical/psychological/psychosomatic effects. Many of the videos like those above, you may notice, are also tagged with ASMR — i.e., “Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response” — which Joshua Hudelson describes in a post on Sounding Out! as “a pseudo-medical designation whose native soil is YouTube.” (h/t @pm_jawn)

For Hudelson, ASMR videos “traverse the gap between the sonic and the haptic.” Notably, for all its “nativity,” this blurring across sensory registers as well as cultural domains / listening contexts, and this particular use of YouTube as source of pleasure and therapy, makes for an uneasy and sometimes rather dissonant experience. According to Hudelson,

The slow-paced, low-volume respite that Whisper videos offer is made all the more necessary by the fact that viewers must go online to watch them. This paradox is amplified by YouTube’s advertisements, which will sound especially abrasive because viewers tend to turn the volume up while listening to Whisper videos.

While this discordance may be more acute in the “Whisper video” genre Hudelson examines, than, say, low-volume and interminable ambient noise clips, it does suggest that native genres on YouTube are not exactly “at home” there even if that’s where they reside. In other words, just because something is native to an ecosystem doesn’t mean it will enjoy ideal symbiosis.

Which is certainly one insight to emerge from this vacuumhole.

But what else am I overlooking/hearing/touching? Let me know. I’m all earballs.

4 comments

December 4th, 2013

Welcome (African?) Wizardry

I’m a little late sharing the good news of the John Wizards, a producer-singer duo from South Africa who put together my favorite recording of this year. But given that even some of my most musically voracious friends have still not heard them, I’m clearly not too late. So let me put it like this: John Withers and Emmanuel Nzaramba deserve some of your time. We’ve already given them a lot of ours.

In a year with nuff great releases from smallbatch labels & independent artists (see: exhibits A, B, & C), John Wizards’ self-titled debut most captured my ears — and lent itself to realtime, and virtual, sharing with friends — and so I feel a need to sing its praises more publicly.

Let’s start where they do, the opening track, “Tet Lek Schrempf” —

A careful but whimsical opening, the track gestures in almost overture-ish fashion to the diverse musical corners the album eventually winds its way into. Beginning with something reminiscent of Soothing Sounds for Baby, by 0:45 we dwindle into a slowing-then-speeding piano arpeggio, eventually mirrored and replaced by a plucky synth lead and, at 1:05, a rollicking triple-duple beat. By the time we hear “Greetings from John Wizards!” at 1:45, we’ve arrived yet somewhere else, with live-ish sounds evoking birds and crowds and a warbling melodic loop. Along with an increasingly menacing, bubbling bassline, these occupy the foreground for about a minute before shoved aside by a bluesy, wailing guitar line, teetering on the edge of schlock. When the guitar jumps an octave at 2:52, the whole thing comes to screaming life, synthclaps splattering, like that’s exactly what we’ve been waiting for. As we lurch toward the end with the brief appearance of an acoustic riff that seems (in a moment of good judgment) second-guessed before yielding again to the electric wail, we get a good glimpse at the music’s meticulous construction — a sly moment of subtraction amidst all the accretion and allusion.

John Wizards’ restless approach to form and sui generis stylistic synthesis make them pretty irresistible even for a recovering-rockist listener like myself. Sure, there’s something very rock band at work here — plenty guitfiddle, pretty chord changes — but it’s balanced by a wealth of electronic signposts and presence, from the waveform drums & synths weaving through every track, to the occasional Shangaan electro-esque freakout, even down to the misleadingly low-fi demotape disco / bedroom bubblegum vibes of “iYongwe.” John Wizards pack an enchanting number of ideas into their music, but never too many, and always executed with care and panache.

Another fine example is “Lusaka by Night,” including the video’s parallel, playful imagery —

Much as I attempt to listen independent of biography and other narrative frames, the strikingly peripatetic quality running through the music seems consistent with the group’s official backstory —

John Wizards might have started in Maputo. It also might have started in Cape Town. It certainly owes a debt to Dar es Salaam.

These are the three places that band leader and producer John Withers either travelled through or lived in, and he feels have had a marked influence on his musical output. They also happen to be cities in which Emmanuel Nzaramba, John Wizards’ Rwandan singer has lived too.

John met Emmanuel while he was working as a car guard, outside a coffee shop in Cape Town. Emmanuel noticed the guitar strapped to John’s back, and they began to talk about music. Emmanuel had moved from Rwanda to Cape Town to become a musician, and John told him that he had been writing music requiring vocals. They didn’t get around to recording that time: Emmanuel quit his job, lost his cellphone, and moved to a new place and lost contact.

A year later (2012) John moved house and had got together some new songs and by chance ran into Emmanuel again: they were living in the same street. John invited him to his place to listen to reggae band The Congos, It turned out that he didn’t like them, but he did like some of the new songs John had written. He would listen to them once or twice, and start singing. The outcome of these evenings can be heard on their debut album.

It’s a compelling story, to be sure (except for that bit about not liking the Congos!). Tailormade for today’s vexed representational struggles and mixed modes of reception, the narrative seems to anticipate congealed frames of reference, playing into the enduring importance to audiences of place and experience, especially when we’re talking about Africa, even as it seeks to evade the cliches of cosmopolitanism and authenticity. It helps, then, that John Wizards’ music itself says as much — and more — about the serendipity and movement so central to their myth of origins. Narrative aside, this is great music which deserves to be heard far and wide. But can we put narrative aside?

Given the panoply of reference points and stylistic curveballs, could John Wizards’ relative obscurity in an ocean of new music have anything to do with the difficulty of finding a bin? In 2013? On one hand, I find that hard to believe. On the other, I suspect that the question of genre — and its enduring social and infrastructural contours — continues to shape circulation and reception of musical media fairly profoundly, even well into the digital era.

Personally speaking, I owe it to Gamall, the discerning dude behind Backspin Promotions — and to the fact that I blog and tweet and sometimes actually review new music for other publications — for bringing John Wizards to my attention. Gamall’s always on top of new electronic releases, affiliated with such stellar, dependable outlets as Hyperdub, Editions Mego, and Planet Mu — the latter of which, perhaps surprisingly, is responsible for bringing the John Wizards to the wider world. As such, John Wizards have been inserted into a rather particular musical ecosystem, and some of Gamall’s promo copy has been pretty straightforward in creating distance from certain frames of reference:

… a unique sound that many have compared to Vampire Weekend in reverse (African music looking outwards taking in European influences). Don’t be confused and think this is some kind of world music project though – it isn’t …

It’s telling that the few times I’ve seen John Wizards come across my radar have been via the likes of Catchdubs and Obey-City, two producers/DJs generally more drawn to the (wide) world of club music than tempo-hopping, shape-shifting, bedroom-studio guitarry stuff. So maybe this tack is working after all. I won’t be surprised to see a well-deserved late surge for John Wizards in years-end Best Ofs.

Suggesting that this approach to spreading the group’s music will continue, their second single arrives this week accompanied by two remixes which transpose the dubby, ethereal “Muizenberg” into different genres — new channels to surf.

Far as newness goes, though, the newest thing here is the synthesis, not the synths. There’s no reason that electronic music audiences shouldn’t be receptive to a stunning take on the world of sonic possibility grounded in southern African soundscapes. Drum machines and squealing, squelching synths are not, by any stretch, new to African music. In this sense, John Wizards offer one of various points of entry into a long, loopy history of musicians using technology to constantly reinvent the Sound of Africa.

Could this be a controversial thing to say about a duo comprising a heavy-handed white-dude producer and a black vocalist? As John Withers put it in an interview with Pitchfork (so, yeah, it’s not like these guys aren’t making the rounds — and good for them for that) —

If you’re white and playing an African style, even in Africa, it’s a touchy thing. … But I’ve got no real problem with people drawing on anything — if the music is nice, the music is nice.

I’ve got to agree with that. John’s and Emmanuel’s music is nice indeed. May it touch you too.

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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