It’s nice to highlight a positive role for media. Here a virtual choir was created through Youtube demonstrating how communications technology can bring people together and amplify empathy. In a world that is often shown to be about divisiveness and hatred, people still find and connect with each other. It’s important to highlight these positive aspects of media so that we can move towards constructive social change.
And if this isn’t feel-good enough, here’s a bonus video:
In 1976 Frank Zappa performed on Saturday Night Live his brilliant anti-TV tirade, “I am the slime” (from Over-Nite Sensation). I love how the TV monitor oozes slime. Can you imagine such a courageous anti-media diatribe on NBC now?
In recent days I’ve been floating in the warm Mediterranean waters, contemplating life as I soak in a panorama of Etna blowing off steam and the silhouetted Aeolian volcanos on the sea’s horizon. I’m feeling a bit primordial, a bit lizard-like. So though the wheels are coming of the global financial system, I’m feeling more contemplative about our time together on Earth.
At one point during Lewis Mumford‘s massive polemic against Western civilization and technology he argues that neolithic cultures–the gold standard of ecological cultural harmony–continue to exist, though in tatters. He suggested that anytime a community still practices solstice celebrations–or something like it–it means there is a shred of ancient nature worship still intact. Indeed, this seems to be the case in many Mediterranean communities, and in Latin America as well. The survival strategy of the Roman Empire to adapt and incorporate regional cultural practices (as long as they didn’t challenge their authority) into their system carried through with the Roman Catholic Church. And as Rigoberta Menchú stated in her autobiography, indigenous Guatemalans–to survive by not giving away their secrets– practice syncretism–essentially layering over Christian religious rituals their own system of beliefs. Hence, God is the sun, Mary is Mother Earth and saints represent various nature deities.
Currently I’m spending ferragosto (a summer holiday in Italy–follow the Wikipedia link for its pagan roots) in Calabria, Italy’s impoverished southwestern province. In the town of Palmi, which overlooks the northern tip of Sicily and the Aeolian Islands, there has been an ongoing festival in celebration of San Rocco, the community’s patron saint. As an outsider, these festivities are every bit as pagan as the kind you will find in Latin American towns. Every day there are dancing puppets called giganti (“giants”) that depict an ancient myth about an African Prince, Grifano (Griffin) and a Sicilian Princess, Marta. They prance about from neighborhood to neighborhood accompanied by the continuous drilling of drums and late night fireworks that echo against the mountain like bomb blasts. In the different piazzas throughout the town there are free concerts. With daily processions, the place reverberates with noise, revelry and communal spirit.
All of this is funded by the community. You do not see corporate banners sponsoring this or that event. It has the true spirit of the commons, which belays the planetary trend in which global financiers and their cronies are privatizing and taking over as much of our communal cultural space as possible. Nontheless, this is by no means a utopian environment. The mafia are the counterforce to corporatization.
However, it was during these festivities that I experienced a bit of an epiphany. I saw in action a fully realized manifestation of ecology, culture and community coming together during a musical performance by a group called the TaranProject. Taranta–derived from tarantula–is a kind of regional folk music that makes your body shake and move continuously like a spider. There are examples of it from all over southern Italy. Much of the music is sung in regional dialect and performed with locally made instruments.
The logo, lyrics, music and spirit of the group celebrates regional identity, social justice for immigrants, advocates for laborers, and sings reverently for the land. As you can see from the logo, its music unifies land and culture. Throughout the concert audience members danced in circles and song along to various folks songs with lineages that go back generations. During the concert there was a real sense of unity and cultural pride that I have rarely experienced.
It occurred to me that this kind of folk music and art is really the true counterforce to all the negativity that we are feeling about the world right now. It is tonic that strengthens the bonds between identity and culture. It is done in the spirit of independence, healing, and respect, values that are counterweights to the atrociously amoral system of economics that is pillaging the Earth and its peoples. It is my firm belief the collectives like the TaranProject are an inspiring answer to the destructive and nihilistic force being unleashed upon Europe, the US and the rest of the world right now.
Girl Talk is the darling of the copyleft movement, having been made a hero in a number of online documentaries, including RIP: A Remix Manifesto and Good Copy Bad Copy.* However, to paraphrase curmudgeon and village atheist Steve Albini, though sampling shouldn’t involve the law, we should still ask if it is art. I’m not talking here of sampling across the board, but about the music of Girl Talk.
To recap, GirlTalk (Gregg Gillis) is a likable Pittsburg native who works (worked?) as a scientist by day but is motivational remixologist by night. He mashes-up familiar and recognizable samples from across the frequency spectrum, using top 40 G-rated pop as a backdrop for hip hop MCs who deploy all kinds of R-rated words that would make suburbanites blush. Unfortunately, such a juxtaposition feels a bit like cultural imperialism, for the mixes appropriate the appropriators and lack the reverence that crate diggers have for musical tradition. To me Girl Talk is like snacking on an all you can eat bar at Sizzler. Yeah, it tastes relatively good (high in salt!), it’s cheap (or in this case, free), it can be fun if you are doing it with people you like, and it’s appealing to a wide audience. No harm, no foul.
Yet, why does listening to it make me mad?
I recently downloaded All Day after an initial burst of Twitter hype. As the soundtrack for my commute on the bus, I found it digestible and easy on my ears, but annoyingly simplistic and unartful. The opening track to All Day is a very long sample of Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs.” It is so long that it might as well be a track from a Sabbath album with a few embellishments. It’s a fun listen, but where is the artistry of Public Enemy’s Bomb Squad which makes sampling an act of hermeneutics? PE’s music is not just ear candy but rich, layered, dense and cryptic. Or DJ Shadow who builds with an amazingly eclectic palette to create something entirely new? Or what about the innovative push of DJ technology by artists like Christian Marclay, Otomo Yoshihide, Philip Jeck, and Janek Schaefer? The great hip hop artists were always reverent to their sources by drawing on a sophisticated knowledge of jazz, soul, or funk. Girl Talk is more map than territory, like surfing the Internet without deep listening.
One of the questions pondered in RIP is whether Girl Talk’s music is piracy or something entirely unique, and whether or not it is creative. Well, I don’t want to side with the record companies to argue that he shouldn’t make the music he is creating, but I think calling it new or “creative” is almost an indefensible position considering the lack of innovation and novelty of the mixes. I agree that the sheer number of samples and their seamless editing is definitely part of the craft of DJing, but I think a DJ and musician do different things. I know because I have done both. Nonetheless, DJing can be high art. Watching turntablists like DJ Q-Bert, DJ Quest, or DJ Krush in action is a sublime experience. Editing this shit together on a laptop at home just isn’t the same. I’m guessing Girl Talk’s popularity is based on his live shows, which look really fun and intoxicating. I’m down with that. Certainly it’s a skill, I just don’t want to call it art nor do I feel like dancing with his big fan Paris Hilton.
Being “illegal” gives Girl Talk’s albums a veneer of legitimacy and rebelliousness. But this is hardly punk or anything avant-garde. Rather, it’s white middle class folk music. Again, I don’t mean to speak ill of something that gives a lot of people pleasure. I also know I’m coming off as a bit conservative, but I just wish our cultural heros were more interesting and cutting edge.
In a time when information abundance and zero transaction costs should translate as lower prices, eMusic defies the laws of Internet gravity to increase prices so as to appease the monopoly tactics of major labels. This is rather disappointing. I’ve been an eMusic subscriber for more than five years. I have moved from $19.00 for 90 tracks a month to a miserly 50 tracks for the same price. But in order to satisfy Sony, Warner and Universal, they have restructured to a monthly pricing plan that has basically increased the average track cost from .40¢ to .49¢ for older music, and then charges 69¢, 79¢, and 89¢ for major label fair. Meanwhile, as a result of the new system, eMusic lost the Beggers Group, which includes one of my favorite labels, Matador. The net result? In exchange for Kiss, we lose Spoon. Pretty dumb considering that eMusic was a boutique service that specialized in indy music.
Unfortunately, this goes in the opposite direction of where we should be heading. Internet competition did drive down the cost of many CDs, but not from the majors. The majors continue to gouge customers with exorbitant retail pricing, which has driven customers to piracy. There is no reason a CD should be more than $6. So when we get to the plus $15 range, who should bother? Smart artists are hip to the emergent culture of their customers and have gone to appeal directly to their fans to allow them to volunteer their price (i.e. Radiohead, Nine Inch Nails, to name a few big acts). (Here is an interesting pricing analysis from the view of an artist on eMusic, and this take on the company’s economics.)
It may be that in the background eMusic is feeling the heat from streaming services for mobile devices. Since I’m not a “smart” phone user, I don’t know how this works exactly, but I believe that the paradigm is for people to pay a monthly fee for access to the streaming cloud. I’m still old school enough that I prefer to own my tracks and have them on my hard drive. I’ve been burned by Net services when they go out of business. When I pay for something I also like the illusion of a tangible object. Moreover, I liked eMusic because it was not what the major’s offered. What is to keep me there now?
Throwing fans under the bus for growth is yet another example of capitalism’s dumb rationality, in particular the logic of media companies that are no longer satisfied with stability and slow growth. It used to be if a newspaper netted 5% growth during the year, that was dandy. The steroid economy will no longer tolerate such incremental stats, and must zoom along at 20-30% every year. That puts a big demand on people, resources and especially the Earth. This kind of insanity really has to stop. Why eMusic caved into this logic is unclear. But inhabiting Manhattan’s economic reality bubble may have something to do with it. I’ve certainly had enough of it. Such behavior definitely makes me appreciate piracy much more.
The majors are a dying dinosaur. Rather than show vision and leadership, those guiding the eMusic ship have gone way off course. They have headed the Siren’s call, and may end up sinking the operation. Judging from the multiple complaints on their Facebook page and rants from Indy music Websites, I can’t imagine what calculous eMusic is using. Maybe they are guessing that raising prices will cover the loss of loyal customers. But in an era of affective economics, the incalculable value of loyalty, trust and goodwill is something very hard to come by. Sorry eMusic, it was fun while it lasted.
I’ve written previously about my view that Warhol was a zen master (click this link to see my favorite Warhol quotes listed at the end of the post). Now, I know it’s a stretch. I realize that thinking of a Warhol as a bodhisattva contradicts the view that media are the destroyer of all that is good in the universe. Indeed, Warhol celebrated and created many of the most reprehensible and superficial aspects of contemporary media culture, such as the concept of “superstars” and the idea that visibility is worthy enough for celebrityhood. (Even though he said that someday everyone would have 15 minutes of fame, little did he know that it would only take three minutes a la YouTube to do the trick.) Films like Factory Girl, about troubled Warhol protege and starlet Edie Sedgwick, even depict Warhol as a user of humans in the worst way.
All these criticisms are valid. However, as a friend once said, trust the art, not the artist.
From this perspective, I’d like to share with you my enthusiasm and love or Warhol’s most interesting work, his screen tests. Made during the Factory’s 1964-66 heyday, they were short films lasting a reel, with the only instruction being that the talent stare into the camera without moving. Many who came through Warhol’s Factory were asked to participate in such experiments, including uber-celebrities (Bob Dylan), uber-artists (Salvador Dali), quasi-famous actors (Dennis Hooper), resident artists (Lou Reed) and an assortment of characters that will remain historically anonymous (except for their presence in these films and at the Factory).
I’m not exaggerating when I say that I have had profound and deeply moving spiritual encounters with these films. In fact, it is extremely rare that works of art cause me to shiver, but these do. The video I posted here is a compilation of several screen tests set to a soundtrack by Dean & Britta (formally of Luna), who were commissioned by the Warhol Museum to create a series of tracks to accompany a live screening of the films. The DVD (and soundtrack too) is called 13 Most Beautiful… Songs for Andy Warhol Screen Tests, and is absolutely wonderful. Dean & Britta do a great job of emulating the Velvet Underground without imitating their sound, thereby replicating the mood of Warhol’s Factory while also sounding contemporary. I can’t imagine a better, more atmospheric tribute to the screen tests than this.
You can get a flavor of the screen tests on YouTube, but it is not nearly as moving as seen projected onto a large screen. One of the subtle manipulations of the films is that Warhol slowed them down very slightly to give them a slight unreality. Though I love the soundtrack Dean & Britta created, the films were originally silent (unless they were projected during live Velvet Underground shows, which is possible, but I cannot verify) and when viewed as such they have an unearthly quality.
Warhol has said that the camera “turns people on.” This could be a double entendre meaning that on the one hand people will light up/perform for the camera, but also it is a turn-on to look at other people without them knowing it. There is some truth to both aspects. I think, though, there is something more revealing and less performative about the screen tests. If you stare into someone’s eyes for four minute you will likely lose your guard and reveal your insecurities. I dare you to try it sometime. In fact, I challenge you to look intently into your own eyes in the mirror for four minutes. Staring at a camera takes the edge off the fear of exposing ourselves, yet you can see in many of these clips that a profound vulnerability, and hence humanity, reveals itself. I don’t think you will find such a deep, penetrating look into people’s souls in any other kind of media. Perhaps that is what I find so wonderful and sublime about viewing the screen tests.
For some YouTube Webcam posts can produce a similar feeling. Michael Wesch’s An anthropological introduction to YouTube culminates in an interesting exploration of the camera eye of the computer that is both highly personal and global. But I think it takes Wesch’s anthropological sensibility to point this out. I don’t have the patience to watch YouTube confessions, but I remain enraptured by Warhol’s screen tests. I hope that you can find a way to watch the DVD with a projector so you can see them larger than life. I can’t guarantee that you will have the same experience of the sublime that I had, but I’m guessing that you will find something eerily remarkable about these films.