Here is the syllabus for a new course I’m teaching this spring at the Big H. It’s the culmination of a few years of piqued curiosity about “public” as term and concept, noun and adjective. As happy as teaching technomusicology made me, this sort of course — an intense, focused series of readings on a subject I find fascinating — has few parallels as far as intellectual pleasures go. Here’s hoping I have a good team of co-readers glad to read along. (I’ll note that, aptly, a great number of these readings are available, ahem, publicly.)
Without further ado…
Music 208r: Musical Publics
In the age of technological reproducibility and mass media, and especially since the advent of the Internet, the Web, and social media, the notion of the public is an ever shifting but paramount concern. Thanks to its special affordances and remarkable ubiquity, music offers a powerful lens into questions of publicness and public spheres. How do musicians and musical textsânever mind musicologistsâaddress particular publics, and how has this changed over time?
To better understand musicâs role in public culture, this course examines the idea of the public sphere in historical and theoretical perspective. From philosophy to the social sciences to more recent theoretical propositions and ethnographic work, we will consider a variety of publics, the (musical) media that bring them into being, and the implications for acknowledging music as part and parcel of collective experience. Our study will span the rise of print culture, the broadcast era, and the more recent development of what have been dubbed networked publics.
Week 2 / Feb 5 — Foundational Texts Arendt, Hannah. The Human Condition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958. (p. 1-78)
Habermas, Jurgen. The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1991 . (browse all, but esp: 1-56, 159-243)
Week 3 / Feb 12 — Critique & Elaboration Calhoun, âIntroduction.â In Habermas and the Public Sphere, 1-42. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1992.
Fraser, Nancy. “Rethinking the Public Sphere: A Contribution to the Critique of Actually Existing Democracy.” Social Text 25/26 (1990): 56-80.
Hansen, Miriam. âUnstable Mixtures, Dilated Spheres: Negt and Klugeâs The Public Sphere and Experience, Twenty Years Later.â Public Culture Vol. 5, No. 2 (1993): 179-212.
Week 4 / Feb 19 — Print Cultures & Imagined Communities Anderson, Benedict. âImagined Communities.â In Nations and Nationalism, a Reader, eds. Philip Spencer & Howard Wollman, 48-59. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2005.
Bohlman, Philip V. âComposing the Cantorate: Westernizing Europeâs Other Within.â In Western Music and Its Others, eds. Georgina Born and David Hesmondhalgh, 187-212.
Kay Kaufman Shelemay. âMusical Communities: Rethinking the Collective in Music.â Journal of the American Musicological Society, Vol. 64, No. 2 (Summer 2011): 349- 390.
Week 5 / Feb 26 — Mass Cultureâs New Musical Publics Middleton, Richard. ââRoll Over Beethovenâ: Sites and Soundings on the Music-Historical Map.â In Studying Popular Music, 3-33 (esp 3-16). Philadelphia: Open University Press, 1990.
Suisman, David. âPrologue,â âWhen Songs Became a Business,â and âThe Musical Soundscape of Modernity.â In Selling Sounds: The Commercial Revolution in American Music, 1-54, 240-72. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009.
Gitelman, “The Phonograph’s New Media Publics.” In The Sound Studies Reader, ed. Jonathan Sterne, 283-303. New York: Routledge, 2012.
Hilmes, “Radio and the Imagined Community” In The Sound Studies Reader, ed. Jonathan Sterne, 351-62. New York: Routledge, 2012.
Week 6 / March 5 — Aural Public Spheres Hirshkind, Charles. “Cassette Sermons, Aural Modernities, and the Islamic Revival in Cairo.” In The Sound Studies Reader, ed. Jonathan Sterne, 54-69. New York: Routledge, 2012.
Ochoa Gautier, Ana MarĂa. “Social Transculturation, Epistemologies of Purification and the Aural Public Sphere in Latin America.” In The Sound Studies Reader, ed. Jonathan Sterne, 388-404. New York: Routledge, 2012.
Week 7 / March 12 — Racial Authenticity as Public Form Radano, Ronald. “Music, Race, and the Fields of Public Culture.” In The Cultural Study of Music: A Critical Introduction, eds. Clayton, Herbert, and Middleton, 308-316. New York: Routledge, 2012.
Gilroy, Paul. ââAfter the Love Has Goneâ: Bio-Politics and Etho-Politics in the Black Public Sphere.â In The Black Public Sphere, ed. The Black Public Sphere Collective, 53-80. Univ. of Chicago Press, 1995.
Diawara, Manthia. âHomeboy Cosmopolitan.â In In Search of Africa, 237-78. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999.
Novak, David. âCosmopolitanism, Remediation, and the Ghost World of Bollywood.â Cultural Anthropology 25:1 (2010): 40-72.
Week 8 / March 19 (No class â Spring Recess)
Week 9 / March 26 — Counterpublics Warner, Michael. Publics and Counterpublics. Brooklyn: Zone Books, 2002. (p. 1-188)
Bickford, Tyler. âThe New âTweenâ Music Industry: The Disney Channel, Kidz Bop and an Emerging Childhood Counterpublic.â Popular Music 31/3 (October 2012): 417â36.
Week 10 / April 2 — Networked Publics (part 1) Castells, Manuel. âCommunication, Power and Counter-power in the Network Society.â International Journal of Communication 1 (2007): 238-266.
Ito, Mizuko. âIntroduction.â In Networked Publics, ed. Varnelis, 1-14. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2008.
Week 11 / April 9 — Networked Publics (part 2) Benkler, Yochai. âEmergence of the Networked Public Sphere.â In The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom, 212-72. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006.
boyd, danah, “Social Network Sites as Networked Publics: Affordances, Dynamics, and Implications.” In A Networked Self, ed. Papacharissi, 39-58. New York: Routledge, 2011.
Week 12 / April 16 — Publics & Social Media Baym, Nancy & danah boyd. âSocially Mediated Publicness.â Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media 56:3(2012): 320-329.
Marwick, Alice and danah boyd. âI Tweet Honestly, I Tweet Passionately: Twitter Users, Context Collapse, and the Imagined Audience.â New Media & Society, 7 July 2010: 1-20.
Crawford, Kate. âFollowing You: Disciplines of Listening in Social Media.â In The Sound Studies Reader, ed. Jonathan Sterne, 79-90. New York: Routledge, 2012.
Sterne, Jonathan. âThe MP3 as Cultural Artifact.â New Media & Society 8:5 (2006): 825â842.
Week 13 / April 23 — Precarious Publics & Platform Politricks Dean, Jodi. “Why the Net is not a Public Sphere.” Constellations Vol. 10, No. 1 (2003): 95-112.
Gillespie, Tarleton. âThe Politics of âPlatforms.ââ New Media & Society Vol. 12, No. 3 (2010): 347-64.
Ok, I promise to quit kvetching about SoundCloud soon enough, but the material just keeps piling up. So permit me one more for now, a little ludic repair, if you will, courtesy of Carl Craig, rightly revered innovator of Detroit techno’s so-called “second wave.” (Here’s a recent interview if you’ve got some catching up to do.)
Like fellow Detroiter and techno trailblazer Kevin Saunderson (as recounted here), Craig has taken to SoundCloud to stage a playful response to his discovery that a classic production of his, an early 90s release under the pseudonym Paperclip People, had been “bootlegged” — i.e., edited and supposedly “mashed up” with another track, then released as an anonymous 12-inch (“Track 3″ by “Unknown Artist”) with no attribution of the original.
For the record (ahem), here’s a vinyl rip of a recent reissue of “Climax” on Craig’s label, Planet E.
Rather than simply giving the infringing track away as Saunderson did, Craig has gone one better: he’s remixed the bootleg, no doubt improving it (though it’s hard to say without any comparison), and he has invited others to do the same. (To be clear: though I’m getting to it late here on the blog, Craig’s actions precede Saunderson’s by a few weeks and, for all I know, may have inspired them.)
Now shared globally as “The Climax Bootleg” Craig describes what he’s done as a “re-appropriated re-edit of the appropriated version” –
Quinto did a re-edit of my re-edit of the mash up of my paperclip people version of my original version that was released on Retroactive (my 1st label) back in 1990 and re-issued on my current label, planet e communications (20yrs this year!!!), that also included a fantastic ‘reshape’ by basic channelâŠanyway, Quintoâs version continues this language that i wanted to start. this is why i am giving away this download to you for âfreeeeeeeeeeeeeeâ. so, i want to hear your ‘new’ versions or reedits (theres some work involved) and i will post them here on my soundcloud page which will link to my carlcraig.net site. global forum here folks. much love from detroitâŠc2
You’ll note that Craig’s edit contains a wonky piano line (if not in the strict sense), which is apparently sampled from the unauthorized “mash up” (whether the use of mash up in Craig’s discussion is “strict” is also unclear to me since I haven’t heard the “original” “bootleg”; he does seem to enjoy playing loose with all “this language,” as he puts it). Commenters are torn on whether they like the “re-appropriated re-edit” at all: some express that it fails to improve on the original and hence extends and glorifies an insult; others appear to dig the new version, even the piano part.
Some remixers / re-editors have run with the new elements while injecting their own, others have hearkened back a bit more to the spirit of the original. Here are several, the titles of which, in some cases, get more and more recursive as they go (the sounds too):
Perhaps you’d care to join in the fun and try your hand at one? Gotta love a little collective, creative clowning.
Of course, there’s an interesting, though somewhat vague, distinction being drawn here between remixes, reedits, and bootlegs, generally turning on questions of commerce and attribution. At least for Craig, you get the sense that it’s one thing to edit/remix/mashup something and post it on the web; it’s another to press it up (or compress it up, into an MP3) and sell it without sharing the proceeds or the credit.
One key footnote here, as Craig himself points out, is that there have been many authorized remixes of “Climax,” including a “reshape” by Basic Channel. Here are a couple:
And you might be familiar with this Avalanches track, employing a subtle sample of “Climax” at the 4 minute mark –
– which Craig, in turn, himself (in the guise of Paperclip People) appears to have remixed (?!?!!):
orthogonal image copied from some website or other
I’ve been working on this monstruo post since last January, and hinting at it here and there, making it feel all the more urgent to finish though I haven’t had the time to tie it up. And yet, what has made finally publishing this post so hard is also what makes finishing it all the more pressing: the seemingly unending array of reasons to be suspicious and cautious toward the so-called “platforms” of the net.
The issue has, of course, come into more intense relief than perhaps ever before with the last weekâs commotion around Wikileaks and the way that what many of us understand as, in some sense, âpublicâ “platforms” hosting âfreeâ “speech” have been exposed as anything but public or free. But we’ve been following this plot for some time now, with ephemeral but irrepressible songs&dances serving up so many canaries in the coalmine. In other words, the so-called platforms falling out from under Wikileaks are the same ones that have been shifting beneath our footworking feet for years. Once again grassroots popular culture — as animated by music in particular — stands as a harbinger for a brave, new, and rather unstable future.
Clearly, mere vigilance will not suffice. New media literacies, even, only go so far. My aim here, then, is to reaffirm (with the support of many smart thinkers) that for those of us who see, hear, and feel a lot of promise in the participatory publics and creative, critical cultures that coalesce around certain websites and protocols, there is real need for action — toward bringing the most popular platforms to heel with regard to users’ demands and expectations of fairness, for one, but more importantly, toward a collective investment in self-determined and self-controlled architectures, where we can share in the value we ourselves create through the network effects of a critical massive.
While I don’t think I’m saying anything terribly new here, as my reliance on the writers below attests, I do think music plays a remarkable role in these matters and can offer an instructive, persuasive thread through this tangled web. Moreover, I’m interested in synthesizing various debates in recent technology and media studies for the music-centered conversation (esp for participants and practitioners — namely, many of you who read this blog).
IMEEM, IâM SAYIN
For some time now, my research has felt increasingly like sorting through a disturbed graveyard, names and dates scraped off tombstones, everything scattered if not missing.
Weâve all seen blogs and blogposts and videos disappear, often thanks to specious legal challenges. Even more troubling, weâve seen entire media ecosystems, such as imeem or Jamglue, succumb to the sudden slash and burn of corporate logic, which cares little for what we might celebrate as cultural vitality.
Many imeem users were shocked and dismayed when MySpace, after acquiring the site in a copyright-hobbled firesale (for reportedly under $1M), suddenly nuked it without warning. They promised post-facto to let users “transfer” their media over to the misguidedly redesigned MySpace Music, but this turned out to be true only for the sort of corporate-owned content that proved to be imeemâs downfall (in the form of unauthorized uploads impossible to monetize to the satisfaction of certain record labels). The substantial amount of independently produced and remixed music on imeem, which is what drew me and so many there in the first place, simply disappeared into the e-ther.
Whatâs striking is how much more vibrant imeem was as a musical-cultural space than MySpace Music or Facebook could ever be — precisely because it was so unruly. For some time, it stood as a remarkable platform for musically-organized social networks, musically-animated public conversations, and the peer-based, non-commercial sharing of worlds upon worlds of music.
I mean it when I say imeem was amazing: I often found myself drawn into a veritable maze of media there. As a somewhat self-contained (but outwardly connected & embedded) media ecology, it managed to become a willynilly archive for all kinds of audio (YouTube now largely fills this function, of course), and it networked a variety of vibrant publics (e.g., juke publics, Trini publics, West Indian publics, Caribbeanist publics, nu-whirled publics, and so on).
Unfortunately, especially from a research/advocacy perspective, unlike the more widely mourned and archived Geocities, no one seems to have mirrored imeem â or even get decent screenshots. More recently, a similar site, Jamglue, which also offered users the ability to (re)mix tracks online, joined imeem in the web2.0 scrapheap (though that metaphor fails to capture the utter lack of scraps left behind). At least in this case, there was a little notice, leaving me enough time to get some screengrabs. A glance at the number of jerkin mixes and tracks in circulation at the time of the site’s shuttering, most of them home-produced, is impressive:
This disappearance of archives, of crucial contextual data, is a product of “preferred” protocols as dictated by Big Copyright. Flash-based media are not so easily archived. (Had torrent technology triumphed in the battle over critically-massive streaming media, we likely wouldn’t be having the same problems.) And the sort of ad-hoc archiving that perseveres in an age of flash-media — save something here, fave something there — will hardly help us to reconstruct some of the most important information we lose when sites like imeem go under (whether data or “metadata”). Even if many of us take the trouble to download an FLV file or rip some other format from it, that’s hardly the same sort of preservation as one that would keep intact the broader contextual framework for any particular instantiation of audio or video. When platforms go poof, a lot more disappears than awesome dance vids.
Following a host of media scholars, we might productively (if provisionally) think of all this contextual data — interfaces, playlists, connections, conversations, and records of embeds and changes and the like — and to the careful cultivation it calls for, as constituting a particular site’s ecology (which, of course, is itself embedded in other ecologies, not to mention situated in various topographies). Thinking about media in terms of âecologiesâ or âtopographiesâ can help us to understand the implications of the so-called “architectures of participation” that increasingly structure social connectivity and cultural production. Such biological and spatial metaphors suggest modes of interplay as well as types of terrain, as shaped by particular affordances & constraints.
It is instructive to note how the distinctive design and address of Fotolog, for example, facilitated the efflorescence of flogger culture in Argentina and beyond. No less a spokesperson than the de facto leader of the floggers, a tomgirl photogenic who calls herself Cumbio, has discussed the signal differences of certain socially-networked media-sharing sites, and how they can seem inviting in certain ways, or not:
âFacebook asks your religion, your eye color, your relationship status,â she explains, âWe donât ask any of those things. We floggers just accept people as they are. We say, âShow yourself.â And we accept you.â
Floggers may be an extreme example in this regard; after all, they’re named after their preferred platform for a reason. But given such a clearly constitutive relation, we might wonder about the implications, say, for a substantial shift away from Fotolog (in Argentina, at least) in the wake of increasing inroads by Facebook:
Given the important irruptions of the public sphere that floggers staged in Argentina and across Latin America, we might find a statistical plunge like that worrisome. When we talk about disappearing platforms, we’re also talking about disappearing people. And in reflecting on various kinds of âdisappearing peopleâ on the net, from bloggers to floggers to subjects of extraordinary renditions that never get leaked, I inevitably start thinking of this as a serious collective action problem.
For some time, including rather explicitly on this here blog (sheesh — that post is nearly 4 years old!), weâve been bearing witness to, and bemoaning, the effects and losses associated with this relocation of public culture to the corporate net. But we haven’t done much at all to change the status quo.
âIS OUR CHILDREN LEARNING?â
After my âSkinny Jeans and Fruity Loopsâ talk last year, the ever-sharp Chrysaora asked me the silly but poignant question above. At the time, she was working at MITâs Center for Future Civic Media, and my concerns about public music-and-dance culture on the web clearly resonated with the underlying issues theyâve been exploring there. My answer was, simply, no. Savvy as they clearly are, I donât generally see a lot of young people (or older folks, really, myself & peers & forbears included) employing what we might call a strategic approach to culture on the net; rather, it would better be described as tactical.
But alas, moving relatively unhindered from imeem to the next thing, or ignoring âwatermarksâ from demo/unauthorized software — essentially privileging, as I’ve put it elsewhere, “participation, immersion and immediacy” — is not what activist-artists usually have in mind when they talk about “tactical media.” The sort of tactics we behold on web2.0 may represent a form of subversion, in a sense, but they hardly constitute an intervention.
As I attempted to trace out in the “Sounds of the Wide, Wired World,” what we see and hear on the net offers ground for celebration. And yet, the audible and visible aesthetic traces of our compromised ability to freely share the fruits of collective creativity also remind us that we’re building our cultural heritage on shaky foundations. They may even highlight what Siva Vaidhyanathan, in his forthcoming The Googlization of Everything, would call a “public failure.”
Clearly, this predicament is far from ideal. “Kids these days” enjoy an effervescent, exciting, but deeply compromised public culture. Which, among other things, gives the lie to facile celebrations of “millennials” or “digital natives” as inherently or naturally equipped to navigate this brave new world. Take, for example, David Parry’s warnings about assuming far more digital literacy on the part of our students (and brothers and sisters and sons and daughters) than is warranted:
I do not mean here to suggest all of that nonsense about digital natives versus non-digital natives; indeed I am actually suggesting something quite the opposite: students are not digital natives who possess some unique set of skills whereby they can magically manipulate the network and gadgets to do whatever they want with outstanding acumen, rather that students are for the large part unreflective about the way they use these network technologies, and what is more are unreflective about the ways in which their use (or our use) has already been historically determined and shaped, an unreflective response which gives up power and control over to these systems.
And yet, as important a reminder as this is, the critique of naive kids and their crummy tactics can also go too far, as in the elitist screeds of Andrew Keen, Mark Bauerlein, or Jaron Lanier. As pointed out in a pointed critique in Pop Matters, such rants tend to miss out on a lot of what does drive this stuff — the sort of thing I’ve celebrated here again and again, the stuff of music as social life:
The implication of Lanierâs argument is that people are motivated to create only by rewards rather than by the pleasure of creation or participation itself, an assertion belied by Web 2.0 voluntarism. âIn the open culture future, your creativity and expression would also be unpaid, since you would be a volunteer in the army of the long tail. That would leave nothing for you.â
Nothing, that is, except the pleasure that stems from creative work itself, the solidarity that derives from participation, the satisfaction of contributing useful social labor, and the expanded potential for recognition expressed in non-monetary terms.
This calls attention to the importance of understanding what motivates people to do what they do (and hence opens up important space for ethnography). The question of motivation came into fine focus, at least for bloggers, with last February’s so-called “musicblogocide” (which also extended to such seemingly unlikely targets as insouciant teen fashion blogs).
Among those that moved, some offered poignant testimony about what they do and why they take umbrage at having their platform unjustly pulled out from under them. Allow me to quote Masalaâs manifesto-like response to Blogger in some length:
- At Masala we believe that music, like culture and art at large, is a mix of influences and is largely derivative. No artist is creating anything from scratch. We also believe that if the copyright laws (DMCA) prevent culture and music from circulating and being reinterpreted and mix, weâre moving towards a monolithic culture (to the economic benefit of a few).
- The music weâre promoting here is the incarnation of this idea. Itâs often music made by young people wired to the world through internet or 1st, 2nd or 3rd generation immigrants. People who are inventing themselves through and with the world theyâre living in, trying to connect their local tradition and history with what they receive from the outside.
- We believe that by posting MP3s on this blog, weâre encouraging people to broaden their horizons, be curious and open minded about other peoples music and in the case itâs possible, (and itâs often not possible), to buy the music, support the artist and the people who made it possible to circulate.
- Donât believe the hype, every download is not a theft or one less sale. Music lovers have a pretty limited bank account. But do support art when you can! Recording music industry is shifting and doesnât make as much money as they used to and on the other hand, the music industry at large is doing ok (publishing, shows, merchandising, sponsorship etc.).
This resonates righteously with Larisa Mann’s (aka, DJ Ripley’s) notion of “saving the world” (a phrasing that also evokes archives), by which she means to underscore how music blogs, regardless of the platform on which theyâre hosted, are an important part of the cultural ecology of popular music and the forms of sociability that grow up around it –
Masalacism is a perfect example of music-making, in that the blog is part of the conditions for my favorite music, it creates the possibility of audience for/creation of music variously rooted in geographically and socially distant scenes.
I’m talking about music as a social practice, not music as a recording or a particular moment frozen in time or on paper. Masalacism makes music involving actors from all over the world, it draws them together and opens lines of communication between people, places, scenes, who might not get to know of each other in any other way. This is some of the best music-making there is, in my opinion. I love the specific &local, juxtaposed with other specific & local, to make a kind of conversation between localities and experiences, when music does this well, it also does this for the bodies &minds of people involved, bringing them into conversation or dance with each other, physically or mentally or both. Which is part of saving the world, kind of, or at least getting us there.
How do we save a world that can disappear behind a URL redirect in the blink of an eye? In the long term, we need to build better platforms; in the short term, we need to proceed with far more suspicion when that term gets so loosely thrown around.
In a recent article, Tarleton Gillespie discusses the politics of ‘platform’, arguing that the term serves as an effective bit of rhetorical judo to do the delicate job of knitting together the multiple constituencies of sites like YouTube — among them, the uneasy triad of professional content producers, advertisers, and end-users (that’s us, pretty much, though I hate being called a user, esp when I’m actually a product). For Gillespie, “This is where the discursive work is most vital.” He continues,
Intermediaries like YouTube must present themselves strategically to each of these audiences, carve out a role and a set of expectations that is acceptable to each and also serves their own financial interests, while resolving or at least eliding the contradictions between them. … Curiously, tropes like âplatformâ seem to work across these discourses â in fact, the real value of this term may be that it brings these discourses into alignment without them unsettling each other.
More specifically, Gillespie notes that
The term âplatformâ helps reveal how YouTube and others stage themselves for these constituencies, allowing them to make a broadly progressive sales pitch while also eliding the tensions inherent in their service: between user-generated and commercially produced content, between cultivating community and serving up advertising, between intervening in the delivery of content and remaining neutral.
And yet — and you saw this coming? — for Gillespie, portraying itself as a platform “is a claim that arguably misrepresents the way YouTube and other intermediaries really shape public discourse online.” Gillespie’s use of the term “intermediaries” is important, for he argues that sites like YouTube, or in his own words “a handful of video platforms, search engines, blogging tools, and interactive online spaces,” have become — for better or for worse (for better and for worse?) — “the primary keepers of the cultural discussion as it moves to the Internet.”
Hosting the public conversation on private, commercial “platforms” is problematic for any number of reasons. One of the primary ones — and the one most salient for me — being that our shared culture (especially in the form of recorded sound and video), and all the discourse in and around it, is not only constantly vulnerable to cooptation and exploitation — worrisome as those are — but to outright disappearance. This is problematic from an archival/heritage perspective as well as for anyone interested in contemporary practices, politics/publics, and the chilling effects constraining the creation and circulation of the (peer-to-peer) popular culture of the 21st century.
Without needing to get so romantic about it (e.g., invoking das volk), we would do well to consider the framing offered by Yochai Benkler in chapter 8 of Wealth of Networks, which concerns the power of peer-production: âFrom the perspective of liberal political theory,” writes Benkler, “the kind of open, participatory, transparent folk culture that is emerging in the networked environment is normatively more attractive than was the industrial cultural production system typified by Hollywood and the recording industry.” He is quick to caution, though, that, “We cannot, however, take for granted that the technological capacity to participate in the cultural conversation, to mix and make our own, will translate into the freedom to do so. The practices of cultural and counter-cultural creation are at the very core of the battle over the institutional ecology of the digital environmentâ (277).
It should probably go without saying that the biggest threat to continuing the “cultural conversation” on our own terms is the hammer of copyright being wielded by Big Media companies — and more recently, in the case of Wikileaks, by the US government — to force compliance from the corporations who are hosting more and more of our socially-networked digital culture. In Benkler’s words: âthe tension between the industrial model of cultural production and the networked information economy is nowhere more pronounced than in the question of the degree to which the new folk culture of the twenty-first century will be permitted to build upon the outputs of the twentieth-century industrial modelâ (300).
Allow me to quote him at a little more length (as appropriate for Yochai ;) –
In this battle, the stakes are high. One cannot make new culture ex-nihilo. We are as we are today, as cultural beings, occupying a set of common symbols and stories that are heavily based on the outputs of that industrial period. If we are to make this culture our own, render it legible, and make it into a new platform for our needs and conversations today, we must find a way to cut, paste, and remix present culture.
On the other hand, lest technoptimism run away with the spoon, in a provocative article about what he dubs our emergent “network culture,” Kazys Varnelis contends that if âappropriation was a key aspect of postmodernism, network culture almost absentmindedly uses remix as its dominant processâ (150). The effect is to invite the tentacles of capital into everything we do, via legal capture and a certain subtle, insidious consumerism:
But such peer-to-peer production also faces challenges. Chief among these is new legislation by existing media conglomerates aiming to extend the scope of their copyright and prevent the creation of derivative work. Even if advocates of the free circulation of cultural goods are successful in challenging big media, it is still unclear if the burgeoning fan culture is critical, or if it only re-inscribes, to a degree that Guy Debord could not have envisioned, the colonization of everyday life by capital, with debates about resistance replaced by debates about how to remix objects of consumption. Furthermore, the possibility of consumers not only consuming media but producing it for the (new) media outlets suggests the possibility of new, hitherto unanticipated forms of exploitation.
FREE CULTURE, FREE LABOR
In an attempt to debunk the all too uncritical embrace of web 2.0 rhetoric in the tech conversation, Trebor Scholz charges that:
âA fine example of the Web 2.0 Ideology,â writes Scholz, âis immaterial free labor,â which he calls âa fairly unpopular and very complex subject.â But he gives it a shot:
The Web makes people easier to use. By âsurfingâ it, people serve their virtual hosts and they are not unhappy about it. Online, service platforms rather than products are offered, and users are encouraged to participate, communities become the brand.
Itâs precisely this scare-quotable way of âsurfingâ the net that inspires Astra Taylorâs recent critique of the myriad ways weâre actually âserfing the net.â For Taylor, the key bit of deception is with the word âfree,â namely that it excites both the technoptimistic âfree cultureâ kids as well as the rapacious capitalists eager to have “pirates do the work of mass marketers, while industry pretends to defend the very artists they have exploited for so long”:
Where free is concerned, weâre typically told that âthe kids,â impatient and entitled, want their culture this instant and will not pay a dime, so theyâve embraced piracy. But the young pirates arenât really leading a mass insurrection; theyâre a symbol or a scapegoat employed to obscure a larger struggle about culture and valueâand in whose pocket that value accumulates. The owners of social networking sites may be forbidden from selling individual songs posted by members, but the companies themselves, including user content, can be turned over for a hefty sum: almost $900 million for Bebo and far more for YouTube. Google doesnât see the mammoth archive of books it currently hopes to digitize as a priceless treasure to be preserved; itâs a trove of content to sprinkle with banner ads. Google, as Chris Anderson points out many times, succeeds because of an almost unfathomable economy of scale; each free search brings revenue from targeted advertising and fodder for the data miners: each mouse click is a trickle in the flood. Technology writer Nicholas Carr and others call this âdigital sharecroppingâ: Itâs not that the production or distribution of culture has been concentrated in the hands of the few â itâs the cultureâs economic value. Somebodyâs got a massive financial interest in free, and itâs not the people uploading footage of kittens to Vimeo.
Given all this talk of serfing, itâs no surprise that feudal metaphors appear to be proliferating in critical discourse about the current state of the net. Matteo Pasquinelli offers up âdigital neofeudalismâ to call attention to the alarming trend whereby the utopias of the net have shifted âfrom self-organised media to generic activism on corporate platforms with their closed code and protocols,â a provocative parallel to Jodi Deanâs critique of activism in an age of âcommunicative capitalism.â For Pasquinelli, digital neofeudalism describes
the polarised scenario where few landlords owns the whole infrastructure of communication (hardware layer, protocol layer, meta-data layer, social network layer) and face a multitude of cognitive workers forced to âcreativityâ.
profit is the income made selling commodities, rent is the income made by a monopolistic exploitation of spaces. In feudal times, it was the exploitation of land cultivated by farmers, in the internet age itâs the exploitation of the immaterial spaces cultivated by cultural producers, prosumers and the notorious Free Culture.
And while I’m not nearly as cynical and I might take issue with Pasquinelli’s use of music as an example — I’m not sure the situation is “squeezed” for more musicians now than a decade ago; the myth of a middle-class of musicians better off under Big Music is one that really needs debunking — taking a big picture view, with the idea of a hamstrung 21st century (popular, p2p) culture in the balance, this is a necessary and bracing critique.
Itâs a little dispiriting, to say the least, that this harrowing specter was raised at least a decade ago. In an article called “Free Labor” (pdf | html), first published back in 2000, Tiziana Terranova argues that, if I may update her argument a bit, the kids on web2.0 “are not working only because capital wants them to; they are acting out a desire for affective and cultural production.” For Terranova, “Free labor is the moment where this knowledgeable consumption of culture is translated into productive activities that are pleasurably embraced and at the same time often shamelessly exploited.”
She also speaks to the particular predicament of such collectively produced fields as fashion and music:
If knowledge is inherently collective, it is even more so in the case of the postmodern cultural economy: music, fashion, and information are all produced collectively but are selectively compensated. Only some companies are picked up by corporate distribution chains in the case of fashion and music; only a few sites are invested in by venture capital. However, it is a form of collective cultural labor that makes these products possible even as the profit is disproportionately appropriated by established corporations.
Recently, a number of artists, writers, bloggers, etc., in sectors like fashion, are picking up on this, um, thread. And clearly, a large number of artistsdesign workers also agree with this perspective, feeling more and more like assembly-line workers in a precarious world of rapid deskilling, reskilling, and unsatisfying work.
I like the Rasta term ‘politricks’ for its slip-tongued critique: in a Babylon system, politics is rigged so better to turn to (and invest in) culture, to various practical toolkits for dealing with, persevering under, and triumphing over Babylonian fuckery. But what happens when that culture to which we’ve turned gets folded back into what Peter Tosh dubbed the shitstem? And where does a total retreat leave us? (All too often, it seems to pave the road not for independence but for exploitation.)
The irrepressible DailyMotion so embodied by youthful (net-abetted) dance crazes tells me, again and again, that the genie’s out of the bottle. They can’t shove it back in. But they can try to build a bigger bottle. And call it a platform.
THE FUTURE OF MUSIC âŠ AND HOW TO STOP IT
Against this creepy, creeping context, some suggest that âweb 3.0â might well be conceptualized as a âgrand retreat back to our own servers.â
But will this vision of an interconnected independence prevail, or will it be a ZuckerBorgian colonization of the net as we know it? Given what Iâve sketched out above, the specter of a âsecond Internetâ should be a scary one–
Facebook, with the private information of over 350 million members, now constitutes what Wired magazine has called a “second Internet.” By encouraging members to bring their Facebook settings with them onto the rest of the Web, Zuckerberg hopes to take this new Internet, with its pretensions to privacy, and place it at the foundation of the old one.
While Zuckerberg’s ambition to reduce the experience of the Internet to a more human scale should be applauded, his site, despite its recent openness, prevents users from transferring their information to other social networks — a restriction, considering the huge time and effort many members put into their profiles, akin to prohibiting homeowners from packing up their houses and moving elsewhere. Moreover, with the site’s huge database of personal information and its hopes to profit from highly targeted ads, Facebook creates its own surveillance problems. If anything, Zuckerberg looks, in some distant but discernible way, like the Robert Moses of the Internet, bringing severe order to a chaotic milieu.
Facebook’s OpenGraph indicates that they’re moving away from the walled garden approach toward simply being one’s portal to the web (like AOL 2.0), but the fact is, there’s an increasing amount of self-censorship in the ever-expansive realm of Facebook. And that’s not great for the kind of unruly culture that many of us prize.
As far as silver-linings go, the Robert Moses reference above makes me wonder: if Facebook is the Cross-Bronx Expressway of the Internet, what sort of hip-hop will emerge from under its overpasses and beyond its walls? What kinds of cultures will thrive in the corners of the net, unhindered by auto-takedowns and the prying eyes of parents and employers?
This degree of dominance, Facebook’s increasing mediation of the internet itself, opens up the idea that Facebook resembles a utility and perhaps, as danah boyd argues, it should be regulated as such:
If Facebook is a utility — and I strongly believe it is — the handful of people who are building cabins in the woods to get away from the evil utility companies are irrelevant in light of all of the people who will suck up and deal with the utility to live in the city. This is going to come down to regulation, whether we like it or not.
Iâd advocate turning social networks into public utilities to better hew it towards the Bill of Rights, but not in a country that passes the Patriot Act. Weâll have to wait until the revolution comes to nationalize Facebook. And by that point, lots of people wonât even be able to afford the internet.
But why expropriate when we can innovate? That’s what Mark Andrejevic suggests with regard to YouTube — or more to the point, suggests that YouTube, as a commercial venture, may never become the platform it promises to be:
The objective is data-driven control: the channeling of usersâ own activity to further a goal arrived at neither through shared participation not conscious deliberation: that of increasingly accelerated consumption. âŠ That the offer of a platform for ânon-estrangedâ production might threaten this goal constitutes the contradiction at the heart of YouTubeâs marketing plan, and helps explain the ambivalence and even hostility of commercial content providers toward âamateurâ content. They want the user-generated data without the user-generated content. If sites like Hulu start to gain large and loyal followings, they may well succeed, and in so doing demonstrate that the more appropriate infrastructure for a site like YouTube may not be commercial, but collectively owned and operated.
It’s been all too easy to let corporate enterprise host our collective culture. We didn’t know some of these things were possible, and we didn’t necessarily have the critical capital to bring such things into being. But this is a devil’s bargain we’re making. Certainly we can do better. The network effects of critical mass constitutes a great proportion of the value that we bring to these sites (user-generated data, as opposed to user-generated content, pace Andrejevic). But when will our critical mass become a truly critical mass?
At least in the near term, one way, among many, to address the issue of control (and hence stability/sustainability) is what some have called “virtual rights management” (and hence, activism, architecture, self-determination). Along these lines, see, e.g., the Berkman-related Project VRM (and Doc Searls’s emphasis on internet geology), as well as the Mine! Project (about), or the badly-named but well-meaning Diaspora, or the fledgling Poyozo. If any of these gain serious steam, they can create a serious opening.
While we’re at it, as Kevin Driscoll asked many months ago, who wants to start a broadband collective?
To return to the words of Jace Clayton, let us commence our grand retreat —
NO SURRENDER, NO DELETE
Or, as he put it elsewhere and with regard to something else:
The key is openness. Together we can make everything last.
Last week a daily newspaper from Abu Dhabi, The National, published a piece I wrote about “nu world” music under the title “Sounds of the wide, wired world” (29 Oct 2010). As usual, while I think my editor — here, the mighty Dave Stelfox — did an utterly admirable job of making my prolix prose ring pretty damn clear, it still feels weird for stuff to fall under my byline that didn’t come directly from this horse’s mouth. And there are lots of words and phrases and names and things that I’d rather like to cram back in. So as with other things I’ve written for newspapers and magazines, I’m providing here at W&W a “director’s cut” (which nonetheless preserves many of Dave’s careful cuts and amendments). Thx again, Dave!
Sounds of the wide, wired world
In the autumn of 2009, Dave Nada, a Washington DC-based DJ, was playing a midday party in a basement for his cousin and a couple dozen of his high-school-skipping friends. The DJs preceding Nada warmed up the room with bachata and reggaeton: mid-tempo dance music from the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico that offered deep, familiar grooves to the Latino crowd.
At 32, Nada was the oldest person at the party, and more of a techno/electro guy. In a flash of inspiration, he decided to drop something out of the ordinary on his young audience. Afrojack’s remix of Silvio Ecomo & Chuckie’s “Moombah” – a typical example of Dutch “dirty house” – already had all the elements of a reggaeton club banger: thumping kick drums, piercing synth-lines, cut-and-paste party chants, and a distinctly Caribbean cross-rhythm in the snares. The only problem was that it was too fast. To make the track fit the vibe of the gathering, Nada reduced its speed by 20 beats per minute. This simple adaptation sent the kids into a frenzy.
Unexpectedly, it also birthed a new genre that embodies a much broader phenomenon: a reclamation and redefinition of global street music for the internet age that we might call world music 2.0. Spurred by the success of his experiment, Nada recorded an MP3 edit of his Afrojack remix and constructed several more slowed-down interpretations of house tracks. These were circulated on the internet, representing a sound that its creator, perhaps not entirely seriously, dubbed “moombahton.” Ever hungry for the new, the global dance music blogosphere seized upon this strange, hybrid sound. By March of this year, Nada had been featured on the website of The Fader magazine; by summer he was running a popular weekly club night, Moombahton Mondays, in DC.
Back in the Netherlands, meanwhile, an aspiring producer stumbled upon Nada’s work during a routine trawl of the web. Like the kids at the party, he was floored. A 20-year-old Dominican, born and raised in Rotterdam, Rayiv “Munchi” MĂŒnch was a long-time fan of bachata and merengue, especially a recent streetwise version of the latter, known as mambo; Dutch bubbling – a mid-1990s collision of hyperspeed gabba techno and Jamaican dancehall; and hip-hop of all kinds. In moombahton, however, he heard a new future for reggaeton, a genre he loved but believed had become creatively stagnant.
He worked all night long, emerging the next morning with a digital “promo” package of five new songs. Rather than editing pre-existent tracks, Munchi built his productions from the ground up. Using samples from his ecumenical music collection, he injected influences from Brazilian funk carioca, Angolan kuduro, Latin American cumbia and more. In April, he wrote to a number of bloggers, myself included, to share his music. Over the next few months he maintained a prolific work rate, producing 50 tracks in all and releasing concept-driven online promo packs every four weeks. These circulated rapidly via blogs, tweets, and the SoundCloud account where he streams them and provides links for free downloads, either there or at free (but ad-riddled), temporary âdigital lockersâ such as MediaFire.
The feedback loop doesn’t stop there. In just the last month DJ Orion, a producer from Austin, Texas, uploaded 30 tracks to his BandCamp site (where customers are asked to pay as much or as little as they like to download the music), in a style he is calling “boombahchero.” Many of the songs are second-generation interpretations of Nada’s and Munchi’s remixes. However, Orion has gone a step further, infusing his edits with the strains of Mexican tribal guarachero, an emergent form of electronic dance music mixing cumbia, techno, and a distinctive triple-time swing – often produced by teenagers, the genre has been making the rounds recently as the latest local fusion of global elements to resound more widely than, say, the clubs and communities in Monterrey and Mexico City where it sounds right at home.
These interconnected stories form but one knotty vignette in the wider narrative of world music 2.0. Largely brought together online, this tangle of diverse street-level sounds is bound by common tools and shared reference points. Its accelerated interactive pace is driven by the proliferation of accessible music and video-production software, and the connective possibilities of the social web or, in marketing parlance, web 2.0 – the key feature of which is the explosion of networked platforms that enable anyone with access to publish their music and dance moves to a limitless audience. Needless to say, this is precisely what thousands of young people are doing.
The commonplace use of cracked or demo software in many of world music 2.0’s more rough-hewn productions produces a patina of piracy, an unintentional but marked aesthetic effect that privileges participation, immersion and immediacy. On YouTube, Colombian teens dodge “Free Trial Version” watermarks as they do a modified Melbourne shuffle at the local mall. Robotic voices interrupt homespun raps from Los Angeles to remind us that weâre listening to music made with unlicensed programs. Pop-up ads piggyback on the networked DailyMotion of young people across the Francophone world trying on and showing off the latest steps from the tecktonik and logobi scenes. Chains of compression lend a sizzle to MP3s of reggaeton and Baltimore club music, filled with uncleared samples and made everywhere from the Dominican Republic to Romania.
Because most of this activity happens on corporate “platforms,” the unruly openness of online enterprise is constantly vulnerable to the caprice of bottom-line logic and rearguard legal attacks from twentieth-century copyright giants. Videos disappear regularly, sniffed out by audio-detection algorithms. Entire sites vanish overnight. In the last year alone, imeem and Jamglue, two popular audio-streaming sites which played host to such burgeoning scenes as Chicagoâs juke and LAâs jerk, suddenly shuttered, falling prey to licensing nightmares and hostile takeovers. Down the ether hole with them went thousands of conversations, personal playlists, home-produced gems, and peer-to-peer connections.
But who cares about quality control or posterity? Clearly not the kids who keep uploading. They’re hacking their way through contemporary media ecologies, motivated more by making and doing than by legal strictures or commercial profit. The result is a vivid picture of a truly global youth culture. Kids doing what kids always have done: dancing, performing, goofing around. The difference is that they now broadcast it to the world – if often as an afterthought, the result of default settings that encourage openness.
Public culture is being remade by all this so-called “user-generated content,” including the ever curious category of âworld music.â In some contrast to its creation by a consortium of British music-industry players in the 1980s to market recordings that represented musical traditions of the non-western world, a multinational network of grassroots producers, DJs, and bloggers are now renegotiating and redefining this freighted yet inclusive term.
Their work embraces a fluid but thoroughly urbanized idea of worldliness. The stylistic signposts of world music 2.0 are utterly contemporary, grounded not in traditional instrumentation but the ubiquitous structures of hip-hop, reggae and house. The music’s themes are more often than not as unvarnished as its sound: sex, social domination and the travails of life in the big city – be it London, Johannesburg or Rio. Nonetheless, and more than likely as a direct result of this fact, it resonates widely.
A wealth of websites have sprung up, bringing these far flung sounds together. On Ghetto Bassquake (London), Generation Bass (Tilberg, Holland), Dutty Artz (New York) and many others, New Orleans bounce, Colombian champeta, Jamaican dancehall, desi bhangra and South African house all find common ground. Many of these sites have also become record labels, releasing music from and inspired by urban dance scenes from around the world – and around the corner.
A prime example is Dave Quam’s It’s After the End of the World, an open-eared blog from Chicago focused on the city’s juke scene but often extending its remit to Dutch bubbling and Memphis rap. Quam launched a digital label called Free Bass last month by giving away a three-song EP by Cedaa. A teenager from the small city of Bellingham, Washington, Cedaa’s music takes flight from juke’s stuttering drum machinery and adds a certain, synthesised Pacific Northwest pastoral. It’s glorious stuff that could only have happened now.
As the vibrancy and resiliency of youth culture from the inner-cities of the world inspires urbane curators and globe-trotting DJs, it animates another new strain of world music: Trinidadian soca filtered through Montreal’s Ghislain Poirier, funk carioca via MIA and Diplo, the cumbia of Buenos Aires’ slums recontextualised by the uptown crew ZZK. In a sense, this slicker, commercially released music by savvy interpreters of the Global North recalls the earlier, successful mediations of Paul Simon and David Byrne – albeit rather more modestly, at least in terms of sales.
Informed by the diasporic settings that so many cities have become, the “bottom-up” revision of world music is a valuable development, offering new ways of engaging with the world, often undergirded by intimate, everyday experiences of cosmopolitan conviviality. However, certain queasy connections with its earlier incarnation also persist. Despite the necessary translation and filtering provided by metropolitan mediators, the xenophily animating their work can cloak familiar fetishes of otherness in slum chic.
Another name for world music 2.0, in this regard, might be “global ghettotech” – a term I floated on my blog a few years ago, hoping its implicit critique would be clear. Surprisingly, it has since been unironically embraced by a number of artists and entrepreneurs across Europe and the Americas. The ghetto remains a major signpost in this new world, but its romanticization or exploitation as a signifier of edginess, especially by those not of it, will always create tensions. Teamed with a recent embarrassment of tropical tropes and neo-tiki motifs, it’s almost enough to return us full circle to hearing the world as kitschy exotica rather than the noise next door.
Fortunately, critiques are not the sole preserve of critics. They can come in musical form, too. In June a New York/Vancouver collective called Old Money, with Jamaican, Guyanese and Polish membership, posted a track to SoundCloud called African Kids! A sardonic send-up of the use of generic African imagery, it fits seemingly random lyrical fragments – “shapes, colours, African kids!” – to a bass-wobbling beat that nods to several recent UK dance genres all at once. The only tag added to the track reads “TribalTribalAfricanKidzzz,” a lyric in the song. It was amusing, but also discomfiting. Old Money sent it around to the usual network of websites and blogs, some of whom had helped hype their previous recordings. No one wanted to touch it. Perhaps it hit a bit too close to home. Or maybe it’s not such a brave new world after all.
And while we’re on the topic of awesome online flip-page book scans (check that first URL above), this is a fine time to share a link to a flippy version of Tomo, the art/architecture/design magazine edited by some of the same DF denizens who were crucial in making the event an event (or a series of them). I’m happy to report that my post on graf en La Ciudad has been translated & excerpted to run in the latest issue of the magazine, devoted to Postopolis DF. Looks sharp!
Finally, I want to append to the discussion another resonant passage about all the writing on the walls in Mexico. This comes from John Ross’s “phantasmagoric” history of Mexico City, El Monstro (p. 145-6):
Painting walls was a Mexican art even before the people had a name — ancient caves from one end of the country to the other are enlivened with prehistorical glyphs. The Toltecs embellished the walls of their short-lived empire with painted images of the gods. The Mayas decorated the chamber of their dead emperors with messages to the future. The Aztecs daubed the snake wall that fortified their sacred precinct with fantastic serpents. The messages advertised on these rough canvases often depicted the gods’ predilection for the peoples who had painted them and the peoples’ heroic supremacy over their hapless enemies.
Tomorrow I’ll be joining the fine folks from the Music and Sound Studies Colloquium Series at the University of Minnesota to talk about the synaesthetic publics addressing each other via skinny jeans, electronic dance beats, and wonky shuffle steps. I’m pasting the title and abstract below. As you can see, I’m flogging some familiar, but hardly dead, horses: social media practices and aesthetics, public spheres in a networked age, and platform politricks (and, yes, I still have a mega-blogpost in the pipeline that examines the latter in some detail), especially as illuminated by youthful YouTubey dance exchanges. The event is open to the public, so if you’re in the Twin Cities and want to join us, click here for deets –
The Sound of Skinny Jeans: New Media, Networked Publics, and Affective Labor
In recent years, the rise of so-called social media has been propelled rather remarkably by the music-centered affective labor of young people. Using corporate hosted social-networking platforms like MySpace, YouTube, imeem, and Fotolog, teenagers in such far-flung cities as Buenos Aires, Los Angeles, Paris, and Melbourne have shared photos, music, text, and video (especially of dance) with their local and networked peers and, inevitably, with the wider world. In the process, these everyday acts of publication and recirculation, enabled by the radical reconfigurability of digital artifacts, have facilitated the emergence of vibrant, youthful counterpublics. The conspicuous presence of day-glo colors and skinny jeans across these disparate if loosely connected scenes offers a synaesthetic way to hear how sound and image intermingle in the brave new worlds of network culture.
The annual HONK! Festival is going down this weekend, making Somerville the joyfully cacophonous meeting ground for an international bloc of brass bands (and related ensembles). I missed HONK! last year, out of town, so I’m looking forward to taking it in this time around, especially with the girls, who will no doubt be amused and amazed (and hopefully not too alarmed).
Quick shoutout to Rozele, who chimed in on the treble culture conversation and snuck in a plug for her band, Brooklyn’s Rude Mechanical Orchestra (who I look fwd to hearing at HONK!). I enjoyed her musings about contemporary and historical brass culture & the politics of frequency, i.e. –
itâs making me think about how this plays out or doesnât in the street-brass world i hang out in (what you could call the live & unamplified wing of globalized ghettotech)âŠ and in other live & un-/minimally-amplified contexts.
lots of the brass music that my circles play (and listen to on record), especially the older stuff, is from contexts where the emphasis was on high, fast and loud, the balkans in particular. and as instrumentation changed over the past century-plus (and recordings began to be made), the highs there got higher and the louds got louder (fiddle to clarinet to trumpet leads in the balkans, for instance). my understanding is that this is partly the same as the tenor-centrism of older opera: the higher it is, the farther it carries, especially over a crowd thatâs chatting in the usual conversational range.
a lot of the current bands, though, have serious low end, and often prioritize it in their arrangements. part of this probably has to do with bringing the (âbass cultureâ) new orleans brass tradition into contact with the balkan side of things. and that change being reinforced by bands covering pop songs that come out of other faces of bass culture (âPush Itâ, âCrazy In Loveâ, âThrillerâ, &c). and itâs least evident in the most trad-oriented bands, which supports that theory. but i wonder whether itâs also about acculturation to a general bass-heavy mode of listening to music, and whether itâll change over time if this âtreble cultureâ motion continues.
As the treble/bass culcha conversation continues here and there, we keep coming around to the words & work of Kode9 / Steve Goodman. It became increasingly clear, esp as we wait for his book to come out (yo MIT Press, get at a Fellow!), that I should ask him if he’d answer a few building questions, as artist and/or theorist, producer and/or scholar. He was nice enough to shoot back “some quick thoughts.” They appear below, with my questions in boldface. If anyone else has opinions to offer, I am — as they say — all ears. (Thx also to Derek Walmsley for his questions, referred to below, that have spurred my own — and for, presumably, letting me run that great photo above.)
* Listening to music via mobile devices appears increasingly common, and has been an aspect of street/public culture especially remarked on in the UK/London. Don Letts recently told the Guardian that, “It’s disturbing when I see kids on buses, listening to music on their phones, and it’s just going: tsk, tsk, tsk, tsk, with no bass. Bass culture is Jamaica’s gift to the world and technology is, kind of, ruining that. Bass is sexy. Women respond to bass.” Knowing something of your own interest in bass, both as a scholar and as a producer/DJ/labelhead, I’m very curious about your take on this phenomenon and its phenomenological implications.
Well while I can definitely relate to where Don Letts is coming from, thats not my point of view regarding mobile devices. While I share a concern with the bass poverty of new media and clubs etc., the fact is that music has never been more ubiquitous, coming through so many different technical channels. Clearly there is a politics of frequency going on when these technical devices are designed, just like there is “expert decision” making going on behind the supposedly psycho-acoustic criteria involved in perceptual coding of mp3s that favours certain average frequencies over others. There is a politics of frequency that permeates the whole technical ecology of sound recording, storage and playback devices. And I’m the first person to complain about crap sub bass response on your average club sound system. But I think something much more interesting is going on with kids using the mobile phone speakers as mobile sound systems. The potentials of young people carrying sound reproduction (and increasingly production) devices around with them at all times I think is more significant than the fact that they are trebly. . .the becoming trebly of mobile culture is perhaps part of the cost of sounds ubiquity – bass is heavy – i.e. its not so portable. I think that sonic culture is in transition right now, and this kind of ubiquity is going somewhere quite unpredictable and i don’t think you get half of that picture by just complaining about lack of bass, as much as I do generally complain about that.
* If bass (pressure) is, in some basic sense, about mobilization, about moving masses/massives, does something fundamental about this socio-cultural circuitry get lost when frequencies drop off? Or does perhaps the representation of bass (in higher frequency ranges) or the imagination of bass (on the part of listeners) serve to compensate?
At least in the club setting, what gets lost is a certain sensual relation between the dancer and their body, the sense of the materiality of their bodies, that they are just another vibrating object in the room. What I think is conceptually powerful about bass culture is that it reminds the arrogant human race that they are really mostly composed of non-organic matter, are not self-enclosed individuals but permeable membranes through which forcefields can pass and interfere with your insides. I think there is a extent to which bass culture educates dancers about their bodies, literally vibrating parts they didnt know they had.
The thing is, the mobile phone sound system – what are its precursors – transistor radios on buses? ghetto blasters? well not really I don’t think – there is something new about the mobile phone sound system which maybe has not fully materialized yet. . .i.e. that it is potentially a production and a reproduction devices, as well as a transmitter – like a junior pirate radio micro-transmitter. So my problem is not with tinny playback devices in situations where there traditionally there was never much bass playback. . .my problem is more with the squeezing out of bass in music performance venues/clubs/festivals etc. Now obviously there is a feedback from a youth culture used to hearing their music as purely in the mid-range of frequencies, and you can hear that e.g. in the brittle production of grime, but thats still a very bass heavy music.
* With regard to “bass you can hear” (as you said to Derek Walmsley, since subbass is, as you put it, “not even a sonic thing”) have you yourself tailored, or are you aware of other producers tailoring, tracks knowing that they might often be listened to sans bass? Is the “fuck off” riff-based craze, “across different dance music genres,” an inherent/inevitable product of treble culture?
I’d say its got some relation to mid-culture and the way riffs resonate with alchohol, drugs, your average club sound system, and radio compression
* If, as you note, “you canât underestimate the impact having to play on shit sound systems has on a music culture, and itâs aesthetic decisions, and what it feels it needs to do to translate into as many environments as possible…” — how do producers reckon with the commonplace that their tracks may be largely listened to on mobile phones and tinny laptops, never mind “shit sound systems”?
Well I think tracks get EQd and mastered with this in mind, to make the tracks brighter than you might think is necessary or comfortable to listen to in the studio.
* Is bass (increasingly) a luxury?
Certainly in the club world. Even when commercical clubs buy in Function 1 sound systems, they are usually not tuned up properly so you are not feeling anything under 70 Hz.
Last night at Beat Research the employees of Cambridge-based video game makers Harmonix swarmed the E Room with their friends, their gadgets, and their various musical side projects. They put on quite a show, and to a packed house! Video killed the radio star, but Rock Band might make some rock stars yet.
Harmonix is in the news right now as they gear up to release the newest edition of Rock Band. Devoted to the Beatles, the game has been generating a lot anticipation and a lot of commentary. The Fab Four — by which I mean Paul, Ringo, Yoko, and Apple Corp. — are remarkably and, in somecases, notoriously strict controllers of their music and brand. Case in point: their recordings are still unavailable via iTunes. So the fact that they signed on with Harmonix speaks significantly to their belief in the potential of the game — and, it goes without saying, their ability to maintain close control.
This emerges, alongside countless other fascinating bits, in a recent NYT magazine article, in which Harmonix founder and CEO Alex Rigopulos claims no less than to be on the brink — and at the helm — of a new era in THE music industry:
… last month Harmonix announced that it will license software tools and provide training for anyone to create and distribute interactive versions of their own songs on a new Rock Band Network, which will drastically expand the amount and variety of interactive music available. Already the Sub Pop label, which released the first Nirvana album, has said it plans to put parts of its catalog and future releases into game format. The Rock Band Network is so potentially consequential that Harmonix went to great lengths to keep its development secret, including giving it the unofficial in-house code name Rock Band: Nickelback, on the theory that the name of the quintessentially generic modern rock group would be enough to deflect all curiosity. After a polite gesture in the direction of modesty, Rigopulos predicted, âWeâre really going to explode this thing to be the new music industry.â
The possibility of opening up the Rock Band platform for all manner of artists and labels (not that they’re offering to do that exactly) is definitely an exciting one, and the release of the Beatles game will no doubt prove a major marketshare expansion for Harmonix. What struck me throughout the article, however, was not so much the implications for (the?) music industry, but rather, the bizarre contradictions that emerged around questions of control (of the Beatles’ “property”) and, simultaneously, an acknowledgment that the Beatles are inherently (and increasingly) a fan-produced phenomenon.
Paul seemed to voice this recognition most clearly when he says that a Beatles edition of Rock Band “reflects where the Beatles are at,” since, as he puts it –
We are halfway between reality and mythology.
I suppose I’d agree with that (and/or this). But this recognition of the Beatles’ mythologization seems pretty ironic alongside the band’s cautious and occasionally litigious actions with regard to “unauthorized” uses of their music. The article describes the deep degrees of tricknological secrecy and protectiveness applied to the project c/o Giles Martin, the audio engineer son of fifth-Beatle and legendary producer George Martin and Harmonix’s point of contact with the Beatles’ master recordings.
Mainly Martin worked in the less-iconic Room 52 down the hall, next to the menâs room. Appleâs preoccupation with security meant that the high-quality audio âstemsâ he created never left Abbey Road. If the separated parts leaked out, every amateur D.J. would start lacing mixes with unauthorized Beatles samples. Instead, Martin created low-fidelity copies imprinted with static for the Harmonix team to take back to the States â in their carry-on luggage. They were just good enough to work with until the game coding could be brought back to Abbey Road and attached to the actual songs.
I found the references to “amateur D.J.”s and “unauthorized samples” — even though it’s unclear whether these are Martin’s or the author’s words — pretty interesting to read against McCartney’s quote above. In other words, THX 4 THE MYTHOLOGY BUT DONT DO ANYTHING UNAUTHORIZED K? Or, you’re welcome to re-meet the Beatles, but don’t try to re-mix them.
One wonders what would be the harm of “amateur” DJs “lacing” mixes (now there’s a verb) with “unauthorized” Beatles samples. I mean, as “amateur” products such mixes would not circulate in the same market at the Beatles, or any market for that matter. Moreover, however craptastic their new contextualizations, they could never lessen the power of the original songs. And what harm would fantastic remixes be? Could such critically-acclaimed and popularly shared projects as the cease-and-desisted (but only kinda) Grey Album, or DJ BC’s The Beastles, actually degrade or dilute the Beatles brand? Detract from their mythology?
How is one supposed to participate in the Beatles’ mythology anyway — a mythology which, like all myth, can only be collectively produced and maintained — if one needs “authorization”? This paradox brings us to one of the oddest, and perhaps most disturbing and incoherent, quotations in the piece:
McCartney sees the game as “a natural, modern extension” of what the Beatles did in the â60s, only now people can feel as if “they possess or own the song, that theyâve been in it.”
Only now? You mean that when I bought those CDs and sang-along with friends and family and learned to play your songs on guitar and tried my hand at remixing a few tracks … you mean that all that time I’ve yet to inhabit or possess your songs. Shucks. I guess I’ll have to get the game.
This is all a little maddening for those of us who insist on our rights to work with and riff on public culture — especially public culture we hold dear. (And I do hold the Beatles’ oeuvre quite dear, in case you didn’t know.) Few things could be more public than the Beatles’ repertory, which, to paraphrase John, might be more popular than Bible hymns. In the face of all of this, I have to stand by a bit of insight I came by some years ago: if Michael Jackson can own the Beatles’ music, so can I.
McCartney is either disingenuously hyping this product with a quote like that or, I just don’t know — maybe the author distorted the sentiment somehow. I can’t swallow that Paul actually believes playing Beatles Rock Band is truly the first or only way to “possess” or “own” or “be in” his & his bandmates’ songs. I think we either do all of these things anytime we engage seriously with a song, in the many ways that may happen (listening, singing, playing, tweaking), or we never do, even those of us who write songs.
Musician and writer Ethan Hein, who himself recently posted about Rock Band and inhabiting songs, also seemed a little irked by McCartney’s comment. His retort? “You know what really makes me feel like I possess a song? If you let me remix it.” The last few words of that sentence link to a meditation on sampling which includes a pretty resonant paragraph with regard to the ownership of songs; allow me to quote Ethan at a little length –
When I was an angry, confused teenager, I let myself be convinced that ideas are property, that itâs possible to steal them and thereby harm their owner. I listened to strongly opinionated musicians and critics hold up originality as the main criterion of artistic worth. Then I got out into the world and did a lot of playing and interpreting and composing of my own, and at the end of the day Iâve come to feel that to assert ownership of a song is like trying to assert ownership over a person or an animal or a place. You can have a close relationship with a song, you can be present at its birth and you can give it nurture, but once it grows up, you canât control it. Why would you want to?
Say word. At that, I’ll leave you with perhaps my favorite Beatles mashup. Good luck removing this from the world! Or figuring out who “owns” it –
Oh, and props to Harmonix and the Beatles. I bet the game is gonna be great. SRSLY!