Thursday, June 30, 2005

A few thoughts about filesharing

In light of the Grokster decision, a few thoughts about MP3 filesharing:

1. The decision seems unlikely to prevent it. As I understand it, it makes a company liable for promoting a service on the basis of its facilitating unlawful activities, but it does not make peer-to-peer technology itself unlawful. It does nothing to end offshore-based peer-to-peer services. And it has no effect on the newsgroups, where filesharing first began. Those who want to scoop up free MP3s will likely be able to continue to do so until they become undesirable or outtmoded. Therein lies the hope for copyright owners -- a new technology that offers improved features while at the same time building in anti-copying provisions. But it's hard to imagine what feature is an improvement on "free".

2. Some argue that free digitial music means that the music industry needs to sell a better-designed physical object, something more akin to the 33 1/3 album, which more and more takes on the quality of a collector's item for its own physical sake rather than the music contained within its grooves. LPs are fun to have for their large-scale art, for the relative rarity of it. Whereas a digitally encoded song is literallly ubiquitous; in Benjamin's terms it has no aura whatsoever. It's infinitely copiable; therefore possession of it has no particular value. Music -- the sound of it, etc. -- may be irrevocably free, and maybe that's not a problem. What isn't free is the image of the performer, and the profit for the industry lies in exploiting that image, via live performances and more ingenious packaging. This is one of the ways free music leads to shallower music; what will be made and promoted will be more reliant on how big of a star the singer is, its relation to marketable doo-dads bearing the performer's image. Less promotion money will go to music that's just good music (as opposed to being flashy or trendy or sexy or whatever) and people who aren't devoting all of their time to sorting through what's available (for free) will never find it.

3. Listeners expend no special effort to master complicated music when its free. When another album can be had immediately for nothing, there's no incentive to give that compicated record another spin. For better or worse, the money investment in albums led to a time investment in giving it a shot, in attempting to come to terms with it. But in line with the fetish of convenience, one must consume as much music as is available as quickly as possible, with no heed to the impediments like complexity or sophistication that impede consumption. Goodbye Captain Beefheart, hello Anniemal. Bands making complex music will have a harder time securing an audience when their music is distributed for free, but perhaps this will be compensated for by the greater emphasis on performance. They will have to build their fan base through performance, which is the only place they'll be able to make money anyway. But the effect on the totality of the pop-music industry is that music on the whole will become less sophisticated, seeking to have a more instantaneous effect.

4. The more effort it takes to procure something, the more effort one will put in to appreciating it. Are there exceptions to this? When music is free the getting itself because the acitivity more than the listening to it, which is time-consuming.

5. Technology will perhaps force us to see recorded music the way we see the newspapers given away on the subways. The music industry could move to distributing its own music free but with ads embedded in the files.

Wednesday, June 29, 2005


As I was walking to pick up my lunch I saw a hipster waiting to cross 56th Street wearing a yellow T-shirt with a faded decal that read "Supermom." Once the point of wearing a patently inappropriate shirt like this was to signify that you didn't care how you looked in public, that you'd throw on any old thing and go outside. It signified that you were indifferent to what other people thought. But when the shirt, despite fitting into the old threadbare genre, is obviously something that you couldn't have had lying around, wearing it then signifies the opposite: that you care a lot about other people noticing you. It's always hard for me to fathom, but people do respect that kind of effort, they respect someone who dresses up for their approval -- perhaps it flatters them. But what this does is make every old T-shirt seem like an effort to earn attention rather than an expression of actual expediency, and suddenly those people who thought they were eluding the game by just wearing any old thing now discover that they are regarded as playing the game, and merely playing it badly. Of course, this may be true simply by virtue of consenting to appear on a Manhattan street.

But this is why the hipster is more than simply a parasite and a harmless narcissist. The hipster preys on all forms of indifference to fashion and expressions of authenticity, and inadvertently does the work of ruining them, making all signs of indifference into salvish adherence to fashion, all attempts at sincerity seem contrived. A hipster in your midst makes everyone around you, including yourself, a suspected phony. The hipster makes everyone he knows seem like they are trying to hard.

Against relaxation

One of the typical justifications for mind-numbing entertainment is that it helps people relax; indeed, I offered that defense of entertainment yesterday, suggesting it works as a placebo for removing stress, empty in and of itself but constituting a ritual that induces a relaxed state. But the pursuit of relaxation as an end in and of itself, as if relaxing could be a goal, an activity, seems just plain crazy, a living death, an admission that the actual business of living is too much trouble, always a hassle, always annoying. Part of the reason relaxing has become an activity, perhaps, is because capitalist society (or modern life generally) makes everyday life that unpleasant, removing the communal aspects that make it tolerable and replacing them with prefab entertainment, so as not to leave something that gives joy uncommmodified and unexploited. No pleasure without profit, this is the core ethos of capitalism.

The pursuit of relaxation is purely a reaction to the unjustifiable stressfulness of maintaining one's life, of earning a living and keeping up with the shopping and gossip and spectatorship and so on one's expected to keep up with. There's no reason for the stress, so it generates a counteractivity defined by its having no reason as well, relaxing. Relaxing tries to salvage a purpose for all the pointless stress by making pointlessness itself a pleasure, a goal. But relaxation only refreshes you to take on more pointless stress. It doesn't habituate us to having a purpose, to seizing upon and demanding more autonomy for our lives. It instead accepts the cycles dictated to us, to the stress of being directed and the relief of being able to do nothing. Built into relaxation is the assumption that activity in life is always being told to act by someone else, that activity is always a kind of slavery.

The exhoration to relax -- often delivered by friends who mean well ("hey, you should just relax, man"), a most subtle and effecctive way for ideology to be delivered -- is society's effective means of reinforcing quietism and negating rebellion. When you get upset about something, you typically have a good reason, and when you are told to relax, you're being told, hey, you can't make a difference anyway, you should learn to accept what's given to you and deal with it. Being told to relax is another way of being told to "be realistic," that other deeply ideological dictum, which makes the status quo into the eternally given.

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Monetizing the placebo effect

On the front page on section D, The Wall Street Journal has serendipitously placed an article about health insurance companies in the South charging $100 "co-pays" (note the distance from Canada) above an article about doctors trying to use placebos as medicine. It makes perfect sense: If a doctor's patients can't afford real medicine, she might as well prescribe sugar pills.

The placebo effect is fascinating because it shows how authorities and institutions can mobilize forces within an individual's body that the individual cannot summon himself. Placebos seems to work because they give a patient a sense of recognition, of having been paid attention to and of having the story of their symptoms respected, acknowledged. The doctor performs a quasi-religious benediction, after hearing the patient's crypto confession in the form of symptoms, and then works the scientific equivalent of casting out demons by prescribing magic pills -- the logic by which the pills are supposed to work isn't often explained; the implication is they work because you believe. A chart accompanying the Journal's article shows that the placebo effect typically occurs in those nebulous conditions with no clear causes: depression, irritable bowel syndrome, impotence and migraines. That so many people suffering these conditions can have their symptoms alleviated by insitutional recognition makes them seem like they are ultimately social disorders -- the suffering individual has lost their sense of their place in the society, and the doctor or similar authority figure steps in and nudges them back toward having a place, to having a rationalization for living the way they do, for why society is the way it is. Concentrated personal attention must have an effect on relieving stress, which in turn allieviates these disorders. The doctor visit is a ritual designed to induce a patient to release stress, to surrender responsibility for how they feel in some crucial way that leads to recovery.

In the article, the reporter describes how researchers are hoping to induce the placebo effect through Pavlovian repetition, so like dogs, patients will have certain physiological responses when the sugar pill is a dropped on their tongues. The idea is to induce a real reaction with actual medication, than replace the actual medication with a simulacrum. This is basically how much of pop culture functions: certain relaxing responses are conditioned through repetition so that the sound of a laugh track can trigger a comforting reduction of stress. Culture-industry-manufactured entertainment is another form of institutional intervention to provide the relief of placebos. Seeing a film or a TV show can be like visiting a doctor's office; it conforms to a routine and it leverages an enormous amount of social power and collective energy and focuses it seemingly on you personally. This may be why entertainment is intentionallly vacuous, free of any real substance. It is meant to be a placebo, delivering nothing real but eliminating stress by its very form, by the very ritual of its consumption. When I'm feeling wound up and I'm trying to go to sleep, I often put on the same DVD of Casablanca or The Maltese Falcon and immediately become soothed; something in Bogart's voice, I guess, has the same effect on me that a doctor's has on someone with irritable bowels. I'm usually asleep before Archer gets shot.

Monday, June 27, 2005

There is no such thing as community

In anticipation of the Supreme Court's Grokkster ruling, The Wall Street Journal ran an editorial disguised as a column explaining why the premise behind the Grokkster's legality, that it is software that permits user communities to exchange files, that it enables the formation of a "file-sharing community" is silly. Says writer Lee Gomes in a parenthetical aside that really constitutes the essence of the Journal's ideology, "Note how often the word 'community,' with its warm, fuzzy connotations of Little League and bake sales, is invoked to provide an aura of decency and respectability to a crowd that doesn't particularly deserve it." Communities are for little children and housewives. Men do business. And to paraphrase conservative doyenne Margaret Thatcher, there is no such thing as community after all. It's a rhetorical strategy one group uses to steal from another group. That any group of unrelated people to unite to better each other, and not at each other's expense, is simply not to be believed. Out of hand, one must reject the notion of community and begin to seek out the ways to expose any so-called community's phoniness. This is simply because capitalist methods of doing business, espeically now, are fundamentally anticommunitarian. They rely on atomized individuals making redundant purchases and regarding their peers as competitors they must outspend to climb higher than them in the social hierarchy. In the minds of business people who share are criminals who are stealing profits from corporations. Remember that when this court ruling comes out.

Friday, June 24, 2005

Adult Child

I've been reading the widely discredited and lambasted anthology from the 50s called Mass Culture, edited by Bernard Rosenberg and David Manning White and compiling wrk by Dwight MacDonald, Ortega Y Gasset, Adorno, Leo Lowenthal, Clement Greenberg, and other early critics of popular culture. The anthology is widely dismissed today for its allegedly unenlightened elitist perspective on pop culture, and for its routine condescension toward the undifferentiated massses. The anthology is not nearly as monolithic as its detractors maintain, and actually affords an interesting picture of what immediate reactions to mass-produced culture were, before the ideology that sustains mass-produced commodity art's existence as purely natural had really settled in. Thus there is a freshness to their iteration of the argument that still dominates cultural studies -- does pop culture stultify and infantilize the "masses" or does it supply a larger number of people with material culture to improve and expand their capacities for cultural expression and self-definition? Regular readers of this blog know where I stand on the question. I think accusations of elitism are a canard, and I think the empowerment afforded by most commodity culture is already circumscribed within bounds tolerable to those in power. I think the form consumer culture takes robs as much pleasure as it gives, especially since it mimics the pleasure-hunger cycles of addiction to function.

Cultural studies, when it pursues an affirmative, celebratory course as it often did in the 1990s (as Thomas Frank documented in One Market Under God, loses its way and becomes an unwitting advertising arm for servicing niche markets. Leo Lowenthal's outline of what theses social research ought to take is an excellent reminder of what the point of such inquiries should be, a reminder of why it is not frivolous to study pop effluvia. Conservatives love to ridicule such studies as wasteul trivia and patentently silly perhaps because they cut close to one of their most effective mechanisms of power. But practitioners of cultural studies fall into their trap when they allow such criticisms to set the terms of the debate, and try to justify pop-culture junk as inherently good, as worthy not as a means to sociological insight but as a work of art in and of itself.

Lowenthal points out that social research should not begin with market data, should not accept consumer choices as votes of assent. Consumer choices are already circumscribed by what is produced and what is publicized. Similarly, consumer choices are not the expression of an individual psychology, but are indicative of broader systems of social control. They are not reflections of a personal taste, but instead a reflection of the degre to which culture-industry profit motives are adhering and social control mechanisms are working. Tastes are shaped by the means of cultural production much more than the means are dictated by popular taste. Writes Lowenthal, "While it is true that people today behave as if there were a large free area of selection according to taste and while they tend to vote fanatically for or against a specific representation of popular culture, the question remains as to how such behavior is compatible with the actual elimination of free choice and the institutionalized repetition characteristic of all media." In other words, how do we think the choice between McDonalds or Burger King is an expression of our total freedom and a example of our having the freedom to do and be what we want? And Lowenthal also raises what seems to be the most important question ( and most offensive to the affirmative pop-culture folks): "We wish to know whether the consummation of popular culture really presupposes a human being with preadult traits or whether modern man has a spilt personality: half mutilated child and half standardized adult. We want to know the mechanisms of interdependence between the pressures of professional life and the freedom from intellectual and aesthetic tension in which popular culture seems to induulge." That's what I want to know.

Thursday, June 23, 2005

Price customization

Tom Colligan sent me a copy of an article from the June 19, 2005 Washington Post describing how Internet retailers offer customers different prices depending on their online history. The author of the piece, Joseph Turow, writes "It seems to have become an article of faith that the unseen moguls behind all sorts of Web sites are cherry-picking consumers, customizing ads, manipulating prices and changing product offers based on what they've learned about individual users without the users' knowledge." Turow's reaction seems initally to be not one of outrage but of a reactionary blame-the-victim defensiveness: "I'm disturbed by what this reflects about our general retail environment -- the evolution of what I would call a culture of suspicion. From airlines to supermarkets, from banks to Web sites, American consumers increasingly believe they are being spied on and manipulated. But they continue to trade in the marketplace because they feel powerless to do anything about it." Turow seems to think it's wrong to be suspoicious of commercial operators and marketeres. Whereas it seems to me that one should never be anything but suspicious of them -- they have too much incentive to screw you over if you are content to be naive, with the incentive mounting in strength the more obvious your naivete becomes. Turow writes, "My point is, precisely because he's Internet - savvy, he's automatically suspicious that information may be used against him without his knowing it." This is a good thing; paranoia is a heightened form of awareness when it comes to the market. If you read The Wall Street Journal for any stretch of time, you'll realize just how true this is.

But Turow is also actually troubled at the market's power to ride roughshod over customers wishes. Customers, slavishly dependent on the market, must put up with however it chooses to configure itself in various sectors for maximum profitability. I learned this when I had to buy a mattress and was subject to some of the sleaziest salesmanship I've ever encountered.. (A reminder: NEVER BUY FROM SLEEPY'S, unless of course you like being treated like a simpleton, or a criminal when you try to hold them to their warranty guarantees.) Turow writes, " Frankly, it's hard for any dispassionate observer to believe there's no 'price customization' when associates from the influential McKinsey consulting firm write in a 2004 Harvard Business Review article that online companies are missing out on a "big opportunity" if they are not tracking customers and adjusting prices accordingly -- either to attract new buyers or
get more of their money." He details how companies will profile an ideal customer -- the biggest dupe -- and target them appropriately with rice breaks while weeding out the more demanding and discriminating customers. If you care about quality, you'll be discouraged out of the market in a variety of subtle ways -- meaner customer service, no price breaks, etc. And the pressure to connform to a personality type faashioned by marketers maximizing profit will increase to an even greater level than what currently exists. We'll have incentives to strive to become a perfect shopper for the corporations who feed us our palaver.

He forecasts an ominous future: "The mysteries surrounding database marketing will increasingly make us not so much competitive as wary: Are our neighbors getting a better deal not because they shopped harder or bargained smarter, but because of some database demographic we don't know about and can't fight?"

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Dangerous music

An editor who has since quit PopMatters once posed the question, Is music still dangerous? Convinced music has never been dangerous, except in the brainwashing, mind-numbing sense that pop is dangerous, I wrote a response, and I figured I'd post it here since it will probably never see the light of day there.

To answer this question, one must first define “danger.” Will music burn your house down? No. Will music send your children to war? No. Can music topple the heads of state and usher in a pacifist utopia? Despite what some folk singers seem to have believed, no. Some think it’s dangerous when music is terminally boring, as is the case with contemporary rock music and all jazz made since 1969, but it’s probably wrong to mistake disappointment for danger. Presumably, when we talk about music being dangerous, we mean that it is dangerous to the peace of mind of those comfortably ensconced in the status quo, that it challenges the existing order and its values, that it threatens those parents who want to control what messages their children are exposed to.

We need to specify what kind of music we mean as well. There’s social music, whether its the national anthem or dance-club pabulum, and there’s bedroom music, for private consolation or intimate mood-setting. Theoretically, there are different potential dangers latent in each: one might consider any music that reinforces a listener’s depression or glamorizes social withdrawal during sullen private listening sessions to be dangerous. Plenty of music can make one feel suicidal (e.g. Nico’s The Marble Index, Joy Division’s Closer, and most notoriously, Judas Priest’s Stained Class, which was once alleged to contain suicidal subliminal messages). Is this the real dangerous music? And the monotonous, hypnotic rhythms of social music are known to induce a state of high suggestibility, which is why they are often employed by cults to dissolve the individual will of its followers. Such music can be used to excite and incite a group to violence: the scene in Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 which details the songs soldiers like to kill to chillingly illustrates this, and pre-modern armies didn’t have drum and fife corps just out of pageantry. The music children learn to play at the prompting of (often lecherous) elementary-school instructors and marching-band leaders is a useful tool to inculcate discipline, and may be considered dangerous from the child’s point of view. The music created more or less spontaneously by teenagers or groups of friends, even if its covers of current radio hits or tired garage-rock standards may seem harmless enough in its content, but constitutes a grave danger to the music business, which has a vested interest in its customers not entertaining themselves. Prerecorded music has never constituted a challenge the existing order, whose primary function, after all, is to circulate commodities with blatant disregard of their specific use, regardless of whether its doilies, diapers, or dildos. The same goes for records. Tipper Gore famously found Prince’s Purple Rain to be extremely dangerous, but certainly the staid record executives at Warner Bros. saw no harm in its sales figures.

So we must consider this also: dangerous to whom? If prerecorded music is a danger to anyone, it’s to those who consume it in pursuit of some revolutionary quotient or in hope of securing some kind of subcultural identity. These people are likely living a lie, believing that somehow they are expressing their unique individuality through their consumption choices rather than seeing how that individuality has been entirely contained, stifled. Mass-market music continues to be what has always been: a pleasing distraction, conjuring up a false set of issues (usually strictly personal, along the lines of “I’m in love” or “My parents don’t understand me”) seeming to offer an opportunity for rebellion while instilling a higher form of obedience to the consumer culture. This is especially true of music that stands as a testament to once vigorous countercultural movements. The moment music captures social unrest, it also reifies and supplants it, pacifying it through a spurious expression that fundamentally alters nothing about existing power relations. You could have listened to Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth” and felt your solidarity to anti-war protesters without actually protesting anything. You could have bought the MC5’s Kick Out the Jams to show how you wanted to stick it to the man, even as you were paying him for the privilege. As inspirational as it might be to have cultural icons as ubiquitous as John Lennon espousing radical causes, such artists do as much damage to their pet political projects by oversimplifying them and trivializing them to the level of celebrity ephemera while distracting us from the compelling moral logic that should form the basis of the ideas’ gradual acceptance. And nothing is more damaging to leftist politics than the mediocre punk bands who adopt these positions and make them seem loutish and moronic.

When a particular genre of music promises danger, it’s safe to assume that the danger is purely metaphoric. What’s actually threatened is a teenager’s wallet, and perhaps, his self-esteem. This is especially true of rock and roll, whose history epitomizes the machinations of the mass market. After World War II, the federal government systematically offered breaks and benefits designed to stimulate private consumption, and the post-war economy boomed, with many jobs opening up for teenagers. Suddenly flush with spending money, and prompted to believe that personal acquisitions are the surest route to self-satisfaction, teenagers dying to buy something but with nothing particularly suited to them. To fill the breech, rock and roll emerged from Southern ghettos -- it was alien enough to threaten adults and thus be embraced by teenagers looking to for special recognition, and yet for all its miscegenated origins and its primal rhythms and its explicit fascination with sex, it was essentially tame, reinforcing the most important values of mainstream culture: hedonistic individualism and obsessional consumerism. (Has there ever been a pop music form that hasn’t dictated a uniform to its fans?) Any differences we might detect in pop music is ultimately a consequence of our being able to imagine different audiences for different songs -- this is pop music’s primary purpose, to segment the mass market while spreading the illusion of individuality. With its quasi-rebellious content, rock and roll flattered the young for its iconoclasm while actually standardizing their culture and narrowly circumscribing their possibilities for self-expression, reducing it ultimately to alternating positions on the fashion merry-go-round. As Adorno notes in “Perennial Fashion—Jazz,” that while music listeners “may play the non-conformist, in truth they are less and less themselves.” And unfortunately, according to Adorno, even if an audience begins to sense it’s being had, “it feels itself impelled to intensify its enthusiasm in order to convince itself that its ignominy is its good fortune.” The more the music industry co-opts our subversive impulses, the more rock cheats us, the more we’ll sing its praises and laud its artists for their profundity. No one is more guilty of this than music critics, whose fussy connoisseurship only serves to perpetuate the illusion that something legitimate and essential is at stake in music, that one’s choices about it matter in some transcendent way. But this is an alibi for the true significance of these choices, which, like all consumption choices, are about assigning social rank.

In The Lonely Crowd, David Reisman points out that “preferences in consumption are not viewed as a development of the human ability to relate oneself discriminatingly to cultural objects.” That is, one doesn’t learn about music to appreciate it more. The more you listen to pop music, the more your responses to it stay essentially the same. One learns about it to talk about it with others, to relate to others, to rank oneself against other consumers, but one doesn’t learn something that the music itself expresses. As Reisman puts it, “tunes mean people: roads to people, remembrances of them.” The music’s intrinsic quality is almost always a mirage, at best superfluous even if it could ever be established by any credibly objective point of view. Music is only important insofar as it makes others think certain things about you. When listening, the listener experiences a relation with a peer, not a relation to the music itself or the musician or the musician’s message, dangerous or otherwise.

What is truly dangerous, though, is how personal, how intimate our feelings about music can be, even as the music is embodying nothing but our own sense of ourselves and our place in social reality. This intense connection seems like a response to the music itself and what it evokes in us, and it’s nearly impossible to believe otherwise about the music we treasure most, music we would defend to our last breath as containing a emotional richness and a pure beauty. But in mounting such a defense, we are really defending some cherished notion of ourselves that has been displaced into the songs, a self-concept over which we’ve lost control long ago and of which we can only hear hints in the music that’s sold back to us -- in this Beatles song, in that Patsy Cline ballad, in this Dylan lyric.

Skate or die

I heard something in my pre-waking fugue state this morning on NPR that I hope was only a dream. Apparently a protest against biotechnology companies in Love Park in Philadelphia, which is reasonably proximate to some of the mammoth pharmaceutical companies that profit from withholding drugs and treatments until they extort their king's ransom, was disrupted when a second, unscheduled protest erupted in their midst. Skateboarders, egregiously banned from skating in the park, upstaged the pharmaceutical protest by storming the premises and shredding to their heart's content. If this is true, it seems almost too quintessential: a bunch of privileged kids with an aggrevied sense of entitlement to live out their lifestyle disrupt a protest about actual live and death concerns and the "liberal media" joins in the chuckling about it. They even interviewed one of the skaters, who expressed how empowered he felt by his particpation in an act of protest. Could it be any more plain? Phony protests revolving around lifestyle choices and posturing usurp actual protests about matters of corporate greed. We have trained the generation that will succeed us very well indeed.

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Subversive proxies

In a Wall Street Journal article last week about grand-ostrich Exxon Mobil's war of denial against global warming, a spokesman for an environmental group called Ceres was quoted. What he said wasn't interesting, but the way his group was described started me thinking. Ceres was called "a Boston-based environmental group that's trying to put shareholder pressure on Exxon to go greener." It occured to me that if the money you donate to enivronmental causes is charity money you are throwing away, why not pool it and invest it in the very companies you want to undermine. If you pool a large enough sum of shares, you could perhaps truly affect policy within the boardroom. I know there must be a flaw to this logic, though. Inevitably the shareholders would become corrupted by their own sudden access to power and profit were they to acquire a meaningful stake in a corporation. And the effect of buying the stock in an offending company could be that its price goes up, rewarding it for its polluting behavior. Still, the idea for a moment seemed attractive to me, an alternative to the slow slog of protest that our culture so effectively reports and portrays as paranoid whining.

Monday, June 20, 2005

Celebrity crack

Maybe it's been said before, but celebrity weeklies like Us and People and Star and Life & Style and In Touch and so on function on the crack cocaine business model: They deliver a mind-vaporizing rush that allows you to be entirely absorbed with yourself and your fantasies for a few minutes and they leave you high and dry and panting for more. This is why so many of these more or less identical magazines can coexist in the same market. You finish one so quickly and it leaves you so empty that you can immediately turn to another for a reprise of the same high. Their repetitiveness is actually a selling point; the echo chamber they form with each other amplifies the high they create, the illusion of significance they peddle -- they work together to make their shared fantasy world more concrete, more compelling. Reading celebrity weeklies is essentially a role-playing game, and the more comprehensive the weekly coverage is, the more compelling the fantasy world, the easier it is to immerse yourself in it the way Everquest junkies get lost in theie computers.

So I wasn't surprised to see that OK!, a British celebrity weekly, will be launching an American edition. The innovation that OK! will introduce is their practice of paying celebrities directly for their cooperation with the manufacture of editorial content -- the stars get paid for their photographs rather than the paparazzi. This seems like a production nicety as far as the final product is concerned -- there's nothing that's not contrived about these magazines and the handiwork of PR people marks everything that makes it inside the covers already -- but that didn't stop People's managing editor from fretting about the potential loss of "credibility," in the Wall Street Journal's words, for celebrity weeklies. "Everything becomes a commodity," the managing editor complained, "That's not necessarily the true. There are people and situations that don't have a price." What on earth is she talking about? Is she trying to suggest that People and its ilk respect life experience and seek not to exploit it for profit? Are she saying that People respects the sanctity of certain experiences, that there is a kind of gossip that they wouldn't pass along? Is she suggesting that celebrity weeklies have credibility in the first place? Is she pretending her magazine has a connection to news?

One shouldn't make the mistake of confusing celebrity weeklies with news. News attempts to refelct reality, to report on events. Celebrity weeklies work to create fantasy worlds that reverberate the ideologies of home and family and fame that make people feel good and spice up their fantasy life. If you have to pay the performers who help elaborate that fantasy, nothing will be compromised.

Friday, June 17, 2005

Ghetto tourists

This excellent column by one of my PopMatters colleagues, Michael Stephens, argues that American culture seems saturated by violence because middle-class car culture isolates so many consumers from the kind of friction-filled encounters that produce actual violence and instill a wariness and contempt for it. As Stephens writes, "the middle classes almost never intermingle socially with people outside their own race and economic class. The middle class and the poor often live within a few miles of each other, but their social separation is so complete that they might as well occupy parallel universes." The result is that middle-class consumers, hungry for the thrills of confrontation but socially isolated from it and constitutionally averse to it in reality, become ghetto tourists in simulacrums of dangerous environments -- created by MTV, video games such as Grand Theft Auto, hip-hop anthems, TV shows like The Wire, the Internet's dark underbelly of violent porn and execution videos, etc. Stephens claims that "the DVD player, the IPod and the video game console" are "technologies that maintain the middle class voyeur's distance from the 'press and danger' of life in ghettos and prisons, while displaying a digitized version of those worlds, a 'hell for eyes and ears', for entertainment purposes."

Middle class atomization in America certainly acts as a buffer from experience, and your point that it abstracts Americans from violence and makes them more keen to fetishize it opens up many possible lines of thought. Stephens trace it back to slumming in the 19th century -- I thought of insane asylum tours in the 18th century during the ascendency of the "cult of sensibility." Those slummers sought to affirm their moral superiority to the deranged and insane while proving to themselves their magnaminous capacity to feel. Cultural commodities generally serve that function: they stimulate feeling and flatter us for feeling it -- these commodities are harbingers of commercialized, reified feeling, held to be available on demand. Immediacy vanishes in a commercial society as spontaneous feeling becomes a contrived product. We pursue immediacy, "real experience" in ways that contradict the essence of such experiences. We try to buy them, but the price tag always obviates the authentic spontaniety, the realness of experience.

As feeling can be subsumed, metastasized into a product, so can another person's identity. As other people's lives become consummables, made into cultural commodities themselves, those people are saddled with an even more acute concern with authenticity. The wigger is never worried about authenticity; he comes from a position of entitlement which makes his identity ultimately an assured thing, a thing he has the social capital to play with. So even though he is the obvious phony, he is sublimely unconcerned -- like those fashionistas who wear Che T-shirts with no thought of who he is or what he means to people, thereby reducing Che to a cool icon -- the wigger's appropriation of black identity has the effect of engendering an identity crisis for blacks, which seems to be endlessly played out in black culture in debates over "realness." Then these discussions of authenticity are simply appropriate whole-cloth by wiggers, for whom authenticty is an applique, exacerbating the situation further, setting the spiral in motion.

Thursday, June 16, 2005


More fun in the Advertising Report in yesterday's Wall Street Journal, with an interview of the suggestively named Andrew Puzder. The Journal loves to point out when admen once did something creative and non-soulless in the past, which has the effect of making advertising seem less craven, giving it an ersatz halo of creative integrity. In this case, the dek tells us that Pudzer was a "former rock guitarist," a fact that is never once elaborated in the story that follows. We don't hear what band it was, or whether they were successful. For all we know, he may have simply learned to play "Stairway to Heaven" while in high school. The point is, people who read the Advertising Report don't really care about the validity of his musical career, they just want affirmation that what they do is really, really creative, that admen are really hip, with-it kinds of guys.

Puzder is responsible for the "provocative" and "sensual" (aka sex-driven) Carl's Jr. ads, the Paris Hilton ad, the ad in which a woman shoves her entire fist in her mouth, etc. These are for "the hoofoos," men between 18 and 34 who eat a lot of fast food. Puzder insists that "calling it porn in any sense is really unjustified." Yeah, I don't know why anyone would think a woman shoving her whole fist into her mouth is pornographic. Those people have their minds in the gutter. And PAris Hilton next to naked? That's not exploiting libido at all. Nothing porny about that. If you draw the porn line at "nude people doing sex acts" then you exclude a lot of what is sexually exploitative. It seems a pretty useless way to define the pornographic.

The good news in this interview is that Puzder notes that the generation born after 1982 watches far less television than generations previous -- these people seem to demand more "interactive" entertainment. However, this is destroying the ad market for television, driving advertisers to become more devious and insidious. TiVo has forced them to concentrate a larger portion of their budget on planting products into shows, into making the content of programming serve advertising purposes (much the way PR people make magazine copy serve their ends). More than ever, ads must vie to become a form of entertainment themselves, worth watching for their own sake. This is why they hype their awards show so much (the Clios), and push to have it covered. This is why the Advertising Report always reminds us what artists the admen are. This is why advertising-supported entertainment and advertisements themselves are converging into one big advertorial heap.

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Schaufenster Puppen

Sometimes I'll been on a subway car that's so quiet and lifeless, it seems filled -- myself included -- entirely with showroom dummies. Everyone's face is expressionless, everyone's eyes hollow, looking off into space at nothing, not even pretending to read the ads for Dr. Zizmor or the Language Institute. They seem like mannequins in a department store, inviting judgment on how well they have been dressed up. This attitude, this atmosphere of constriction and anti-sociality and wariness of strangers is what the fashion industry thrives on -- just as commercial ideology espouses isolation as a transcendental good, an ultimate form of liberty from the hassles of cooperation and compromise, fashion celebrates haughtty disdain and mutual alienation, so each can judge the other in lofty repose. Fashion relies on the adoption of death masks and a climate in which judging the surface appearance of others replaces social interaction and is regarded as good sport, as high entertainment. WHen people refuse to show animation, refuse to be anything other than images, when people emulate the passive stillness of fashion magazine spreads, they demand to be judged as images, not as humans. They submit themselves by their silence and their dour lifelessness to be judge by the harsh standards we bring to looking at people in photos in lifestyle magazines, the entirely unsympathetic glance one has when one knows that what one is looking at can't look back at one. And this critical attitude only reinforces our reluctance to trust anyone or to open up and reveal any life in public spaces. We are already on the defensive, already shutting people out, already concerned about how we are being judged and already looking for opportunites to gaze and judge ourselves.

If one person were to begin a conversation with a stranger, as the odd soul will bravely attempt, the stifling hermetic mood would lift, and people would relax fom their plasticity into humanity again. People will begin exchanging social glances as opposed to wary judgemental ones, and a joviality will spread -- even if the loud invasive talker is held to be crazy, the animation he will have brought to the car will let others form a human bond in laughing at him.

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

The Wacko Jacko Industry

It's unclear whether the Michael Jackson jury delivered a debilitating blow to the tabloids and "news" shows that make up the Wacko Jacko industry or gave it a fortifying shot in the arm. No one suspects Jackson is innocent in the broader sense of not doing anything his fellow citizens think is weird, but no one should see him as one of America's Most Wanted or as any kind of actual dangerous criminal. His arrest and trial was an entertainment industry showpiece and it had absoutely nothing to do with justice or law and order. It was like a summer blockbuster that people feel obliged to see though they can muster little real enthusiasm for it. It seemed as though everyone felt like they had to talk about this trial even though no one was especially captivated by it. Just one of the many ways we experience entertainment as coersion, proving yet again how little autonomy we really experience in that field.

By transforming himself into a hermetic gender-ambiguous plastic-surgery disaster, Jackson performed that great service of providing a society with a distracting boogeyman to divert attention from the decidedly dull institutions -- banks that discriminate in their loaning practices, elections commissions that disenfranchise the poor, twenty members of political bodies like the Senate who won't sponsor anti-lynching measures and thereby perpetrate racism's cloak of respectability in the American South, insurance companies who won't cover children who they deem to be bad inevestments, oil companies that declare that burning fossil fuels have nothing to do with global warming and invest huge sums in political races to assure that nothing is done about it -- that are actually systematically perverting justice and making lives miserable for vast swaths of people. Wacko Jacko gives reporters and media consumers alike something to be preoccupied with so they don't have to contemplate these dull issues, and for that he should be thanked, not tried.

The argument in favor of the publicity celebrity show trials receive has something to do with their functioning the way myths are supposed to, affording a culture a shared story through which values about certain difficult topics such as the sexualization of children and the unstable foundations of our concepts of gender are worked out. Our society is naturally quite ambivalent about the sexualization of children even as it continues unabated, fomented by the same media outlets who scurry to cater to the public rage at Jackson's alleged pedophilia. The trial perhaps allows people to feel like the problem is being addressed so they can safely ignore the copious evidence to the contrary. There's something powerful, too, in seeing someone ambiguously gendered being publicly punished -- it makes us all a little more secure in our own sexuality, a little more vigiliant in maintaining our own gender-appropriate postures. It vindicates our own conformity and justifies our own quiet desperation when weirdos are publicly humiliated.

Monday, June 13, 2005

Menu copy

One of my many annoying traits is my tendency to be a fussy eater. I'm not a person who dives into new culinary experiences out of a spirit of adventure or camaraderie; I have a very defensive attitude toward food, particularly certain vegetables and condiments, which give negligent waitstaff the potential to unsuspectingly ruin my day at any given meal. I am hamstrung by a contradiction: I want to know everything about what I am going to eat before I eat it, but the more I know, the less I'm likely to want to try it. My palette has been expanded only by stealth, or by ethnic restaurants where the dearth of information has forced me to blindly blunder into realms -- often entrail-related -- I would have certainly avoided otherwise. Nothing puts me off more than elaborate descriptive menus, the ones with many effete adjectives and arcane verbs like "julienned," as these always arous suspicion. I hate the sense that I am supposed to be digesting the flowery copy rather than the food. And I don't want to know what sort of mushrooms and other should-be-unmentionables are in the "reduction" or what have you. Language is the enemy of sensual experience, here as in many other arenas in life. Language tries to make gastronomic taste a verbal skill, tries to reduce it to le-mot-juste hunt of hyperliterate connoisseurs. Those who are bullied by such jargon must be thankful for it, as it authorizes their pleasure and appears to elevate their taste, but I in my inferiority complex never fail to resent it, for the same reason I hate ad copy; it is trying to talk you out of trusting your own senses. The more pervasive such copy is, the harder it is to escape its baleful influence.

Sunday, June 12, 2005

A Contract in Our Mutual Interest

Financial metaphors have long since colonized and infected our way of understanding emotion; this may be inevitable in a commercial society, which forces us to understand everything in terms of bargains. Arlie Hochschild's concept of emotional work especially conveys the degree to which we habitually reify emotion, and think of it as a social currency. Feelings are something we owe or spend or hoard, we incur debts of gratitude, we imagine we are owed certain amounts of love or respect, as though we could tabulate them on a balance sheet and present our acquaintances a bill for a specific amount of emotion. Hochschild's point, following Erving Goffman, is that emotions are produced on demand, that we expend a certain amount of labor manufacturing socially appropriate emotions for various occasions. Emotions aren't reactions, as common sense might suggest they are; emotions don't necessarily happen in response to stimuli. Instead we print them up like paper money in anticipation of events, we expend labor to manufacture socially consumable moods that we expect others to find appropriate. Or we measure up what we save and what we risk by withholding the emotional expenditure that's expected.

If this theory holds, then varied, unpredictable social interaction is required in order for us to develop the skill of producing a variety of emotions, to ready us and permit us the full scope of emotional life that we're capable of. When capitalism -- and its convenience fetish that hinges on isolation and streamlining away unpredictable, unmediated, uncommercial social exchanges -- eliminates our public sphere and our potential for social life, it circumscribes our emotional development at a very early age. Since we are born into it, we don't even really know what sort of emotional life we might be capable of outside the commercial paradigm, outside the accounting of emotional debts and hoarding emotional energy. Goffman goes so far to regard the emotion expediture required to conduct interpersonal relations to be a kind of "emotional tax" that we owe. This builds in the antisocial bias of capitalism into the analysis at the level of terminology.

Friday, June 10, 2005


For those of you who have never heard of Jandek, you should go here, where you can find out everything you ever wanted to know about the legendary outsider-art musician. I would recommend an album, but singling out any one of the albums for special recognition is tricky, even churlish, since to the ear's of most listeners, they are all likely to sound equally unlistenable. Put any one of them on, and immediately you are transported to a utterly alien sonic universe devoid of any familiar anchoring points from which you can begin to relate it to what you already know. The thing is, you can't assimilate it. It constitutes pure alterity; it is as ineffable and unknowable as the man himself, who until very recently remained resolutely anonymous.

Jandek's approach is idiosyncratic to say the least: Most of his compositions are almost certainly improvised on the spot on
instruments -- usually guitar, but more recently piano -- that he can't seem to play in any conventional sense. No chords or melodies here; he seems to speak a musical language that has only one word in it, and no grammar. But what's amazing is the varying levels of intensity his music uncovers; his records delineate more degrees of sadness then you ever thought existed. His lyrics are broken, meandering interior monologues mumbled to no one, utterly stripped of the ornament we use to frame our feelings for others' consumption. His voice, haunted and forlorn, equally prone to moan, whisper, or shout, is usually saturated in echo, making it sound as though he's singing from inside a sensory deprivation tank. Sometimes his voive is so close, it sounds like the mic was placed somewhere inside his cerebellum. Sometimes he sounds impossibly far away, broadcasting from the dark side of the moon.

Don't try listening to Jandek with other people, because you'll inevitably break into nervous and embarrassed giggles to shield yourself from the enormity and the near-obscene intimacy of what you're hearing -- not that its lewd, it's just spiritually naked, as disconcerting as suddenly eavesdropping on the voices in someone else's head. Accordingly, Jandek is best listened to on headphones, preferably at night, and preferably while walking through deserted streets. Because his music challenges every assumption about why people make it and why people listen to it (he demonstrates no musical talent, he has no interest in fame or money, and he has no apparent interest in being in any way entertaining), it forces you to a zero degree of musical comprehension -- all the prejudices and preferences about music you may have accumulated over the years are suddenly wiped away, because they simply don't apply here. Some people find this terrifying; being cast into a entirely unpredictable world without rules, where all your assumptions are wrong or moot is pretty much analogous to being driven insane. But others find this strangely liberating. Listening to Jandek can have a purifying effect, it washes your ears clean so you can really hear other music again.

Because Jandek's music is so intensely subjective, because its so thorough a rejection of the music that's familiar and easily
consumable, listeners are confronted with their own subjectivity to a degree that can be startling. You realize what you bring to listening, and how far you are willing to be challenged, how much you are willing to pay attention to what's there. We hear normal music everywhere, we are so saturated with it, it's almost impossible to hear. But Jandek is unthinkable until you hear him; and if you care anything at all about music as some form of the individual spirit holding out against the increasing conformity and commodification of all aspects of life, you have to hear him.

With many of his songs, it's more important to imagine the physical activity and the intensity of will involved in making sounds you hear than the actual sounds themselves, which are just traces of the original burst of creativity, if that's what you'd call it -- some might call them spasms or psychotic episodes enacted on musical equipment. Because in his anonymity you had so much room to imagine what Jandek is all about, it's a bit disconcerting to read about his concerts, which after nearly 30 years of total seclusion, he's just begun to perform. Was the point of Jandek always his refusal to appear? Was that refusal what animated and charged his music with that palpable desolation? His albums seared you with the sense of a person on the other side of communication, some one who could not muster the energy to abide the codes of ordinary social discourse, and all the personal pain and isolation incumbent on that. Now that he appears in the same world we live in, is the other place from where he used to speak now lost to all of us, except in our own personal nightmares of alienation?

Thursday, June 09, 2005

Identity as wound

In The Managed Heart Hochschild suggests this about the splitting of one's ego under work pressures to contrive certain moods for the benefit of customers:
In the end, it seems, we make up an idea of our "real self," an inner jewel that remains our unique possession no matter whose billboard is on our back or whose smile is on our face. We push the "real self" further inside, making it more inaccessible. Subtracting credibility from the parts of our emotional machinery that are in commmercial hands, we turn to what is left to find out who we "really are." And around the surface of our human character, where once we were naked, we don a cloak to protect us against the commercial elements

This seems a fair assessment to me, but I wonder if it's not the process of commercializing feeling that instigates the quest for the real self, if the real self is not itself a product of the reifying and selling of emotions to begin with; in other words, before we are expected to pretend to certain feelings, we don't ever worry about an authentic self, meaning we don't worry reflexively about identity at all. No identity pre-exists the "subtraction" of part of it to tithe over to industry. In this theoretical pre-lapsarian world of character, we instantaneous self-identify, without a gulf between thought and action. Not to wax too Lacanian here, but selfhood, identity would then be the product of alienation, an entry into the commercial world that is already always prepared for us when we are born into capitalism. Far from an "inner jewel" the real self is really the scar of commercialization, the wound that won't heal. We are convinced it is valuable to compensate for the original wounding, the original cleavage of self from community.

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Flat vs. Level redux

At least I'm not alone on Friedman anymore than I am on Coldplay. This article from the New York Press captures the horror of Friedmanism perfectly. But the suggestion that Friedman is a quintessential American is too terrifying to contemplate.

Thanks, but no thanks

I used an ATM yesterday and I noticed something that has continued to bother me, the more I think about it. This is probably proof that I'm losing it. I withdrew some cash, and then the machine asked me if I wanted a reciept. I could press a button that said "Yes I would like a recipt" or one that said, "No, thanks!" and I thought at first, that's funny how they try to make the machine seem polite by elaborating these imaginary dialogues we're supposed to be having with machine, as though that mitigates the dehumanization involved. That's nothing new, and I wouldn't have been inordinately troubled by that -- industrial engineers are always looking for ways to permit machines to ingratiate themselves further into our lives. The more we embrace machines the more machine like we become, and the more predictable we are and the more we can be accurately exploited. This is old news. What trouble me still, though, is that the machine isn't thanking me in our imaginary little conversation, but that it has presumed to speak for me, and it has me thanking it for offering me a service, as though it had a choice in the matter. It was such a subtle thing too, which makes me think that the machine takeover is at some new level now, where we are being conditioned to be thankful that machines (and the corporate entities that commission them, of course) are willing to do what we program them to do. It made me think how easy it is to mistake these insidious gestures as well-meaning. And how paranoid I've become.

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Turning water into waste

Today's Wall Street Journal has a long piece about Coca Cola's alleged environmental infractions in India, where the company's plants are believed to leak toxins into local water supplies when they are not simply using up all the water in the area. The company feels that they are unfairly targeted -- that protesters have a problem with globalization rather than their environmental record, and there's probably some truth to that. But the protestors probably don't see much of a distinction: Having your country sullied with a foreign brand is a kind of pollution of the cultural environment -- sure, Coke's misdeeds are not as serious as Bhopal, as has been histrionically alleged, but it is invasive pollution nonetheless, a kind of dumping the destroys local businesses and local ways of life. (A hypothetical question: Suppose all the fast food restaurants in America were suddenly transformed into Chinese take-out stands -- would Americans start protesting? Would they even notice?) Globalization is a kind of environmental destruction, if you find something sanctified in local, organic modes of life.

But what shocked me in the story (apart from the stunning willingness of the Journal to entertain the possibility of corporate wrongdoing) was the detail that it requires four liters of water to make a single liter of Coke. That's shocking because when I go to the grocery store, the water that Coke is peddling is always more expensive than the brackish sugar-water that sails under the flagship brand name. What is going on here? Why is Coke cheaper than water when it takes so much water to make it? Is it that Americans are just dumb enough to pay that much for water? Is it that Americans don't appreciate the value of water unless it has a big price tag attached to it? Who will stop the madness? Any economists out there reading, I would truly appreciate an explanation of this. Thanks.

Chillout is for sellouts

I couldn't disagree with Jody Rosen more in this assessment of chillout, the somnambulent genre of music that puts relaxing on the highest pedestal of humankind's achievements. This is a perfect example of the ahistorical journalistic music coverage that I was complaining about earlier today. Rosen wants to come across as putting chillout into sociocultural perspective, but she (he?) dehistoricizes chillout by arguing that there has always been music that serves the particular function of numbing the pain of existence. When Rosen makes a tentative historical assertion -- "Like Muzak before it, chillout exists largely to ease the flow of goods and services" i.e. it's specific to our form of consumer capitalism, or "The current boom market in chill music is an indication that many former ravers now have jobs and mortgages and children, and have traded in nightlife for bourgeois domesticity" -- the rest of the piece and its insoucient tone invalidates it. Chillout is not an industrial product specific to our dire times but yet another iteration of the eternal cyclical passing of generations. No need to be alarmed; life flows on. Her critical approach adopts the acquiesent and ameliorative ideology of chillout itself.

What more could you possibly want out of life than to be able to relax, right? Never mind what aspects of modern life cause stress -- just chillout and deal with it, okay? Here, listen to this compilation of Moby's greatest commercials. As Rosen says, "Sooner or later, every club kid has to grow up and make peace with dinner music." If growing up means reducing your aestehtic scope to background music, then no one should ever capitulate, and you should pretend to be sixteen forever. Maturity should mean the precise opposite, that one has attaining the sophisticated listening skills that open up your musical palette. It shouldn't mean that you are so beaten down by adult life that you have no energy left for anything more demanding than hypnotic smooth jazz noodlings. I can't stand the fatalist, quietist approach that takes stress as a given component of existence and then apologizes for the commercial product that exploits it and condones it. Those people who manufacture chillout are capitalizing on stress; far from wanting you to "chill," these DJ entrepreneurs have a vested interest in assuring that you are constantly cyclically stressed. And the musical wallpaper that they traffic in has a corrosive effect on all music that I was hinting at it in the previous post -- it makes it impossible to conceive of music appreciation as anything other than a tranquilizer. So if we're not listening to some brand-name music to advertise our identity or our subculture, we are listening to it to stop our synapses from firing. The public conversation necessary for supporting a different way of hearing music, the kind of conversation musical performance demanded before the days of recording, is all but dead now. Music critics intermittently try to keep it alive, but then indifferent cynics like Rosen come along to say that it all doesn't matter, and who cares what your neighbor does? "It's a hard life," Rosen writes, "and if it takes some lame Gotan Project track to help my neighbor unwind from his day at the office, who am I to judge?"

We are all autonomous individuals who are free to make our own taste choices and they have no impact on other people. Sure they don't. That bogus myth that "it's all subjective" announces the end of the critic's function, and make of him another mouthpiece for PR firms. Chillout is music for sellouts, that's why anyone who still cares recoils from it as if it were a pile of brain-wasting prions.

Technology and music

An article in last week's New Yorker (not the egregious debut-fiction double issue) chronicled the effects recording technology has had on popular music and the way music is produced. It was an extremely cursory survey -- the topic probably requires a book the size of The Printing Press as an Agent of Change to be thorough -- but a welcome relief from the ahistorical criticism that typifies magazines. Typically magazines are enlisted to promote the idea that whatever is happening now is the most important thing that has ever happened, the culmination of trends that have building for a long time. Magazines serve the purpose of binding us to the present, selling us the status quo as the teleology of history. Readers enjoy this, as it convinces them that the accident of their birth in these times was extremely fortunate for them. And it's extremely freeing to have the zero degree of memory modeled for us day after day -- the way several different books can be cited as the most important book of the year on successive days, the way that one long-term economic prognosis on the front page of the Money and Investing section of the Journal can be completely contradicted the next day with no notice of the sudden shifts in direction. An alternate history is always generated spontaneously to make the current pronouncement inevitable, which has the sum effect of making the past irrelevant.
People are generally uninterested in historical/technological studies like the New Yorker piece because they expect magazines to confirm that the readers themselves, as the profound individuals they all are, are really the only agents of history -- that we have complete autonomy and our choices have the complete impact we intend. We want magazines to pander to our importance.

The article debates whether recording has destroyed music, an Adornoesque plaint that follows this logic: recordings commodify sound and mechanical duplication alienates it from the performer. Music reappears in culture as an industrial product, accomplishing the promulgation of industrial ideology. It thus accustoms workers to the rhythms of the assembly line, it teaches them to mistake flashy tricks and effects for true creativity and improvisation, it flattens composition to the repetition of a few set formulas and encourages listeners to see that as true creativity, the wise choice among circumscribed options (kind of like American democracy). The ease with which music can be played with records makes it ubiquitous, and utterly devalues it, destroying its "negative" function -- its ability to negate the techno-rational affirmative culture that entombs us. Positivists might say that technology allows consumers to become more active in their consumption, that reproduction makes consumption productive -- the sort of thinking that views dee-jaying as a creative art. The real problem is that music is already a commodity the first time we hear it -- we cannot conceive of music that's not already implicated in consumer capitalism. No music remains innocent.

Monday, June 06, 2005

Paid to smile

I just started reading Hochschild's The Managed Heart, in which she introduces her provocative concept of "emotion work" -- the labor commissioned to maintain moods for clients. Her example is flight attendants, and the expectation that they keep passengers docile and mellow. Hochschild's question is to find out what effect doing this work has on the ability of individuals to manage their emotions privately. Does the line get so blurred that one loses the ability to have emotions naturally? Are there any "natural" emotions for anyone in a society where they are up for sale, and where their construction is a huge, huge service business? Capitalism reifies emotion to make it a product, to make it suject to supply and demand, profit and loss. The very notion of "emotion work" captures that reification -- perhaps alienation is a better word; I could be mixing up my Marxist jargon. The point is the capitalism configures innovation as this: the ability to see profit potential in the experiences we heretofore took for granted. We are encouraged to find ways to make people pay for experiences they are already having, no matter how deeply interior they are. The feelings we offer freely in a kind of potlatch to make social interactions more pleasant and frictionless become valuable objects, commodities we can sell like baseball cards. As a result, spontaneity, the illlusion of unmanaged feeling, becomes rare, treasured, and therefore becomes a valuable commodity itself, and thus the cycle claims more and more of experience, leaving little room for authenticity -- once something like authemticty becomes rare, the pressure to make it a commodity becomes more intense. Consequently there is no authenticity left, even as every one is posturing it.


“I could record a Prince song, people wouldn't probably misconstrue what I'm saying as something dirty because it's Donny Osmond, right? But if Prince recorded it, then it's dirty. That's not fair.” -- from Barry Scott's book We Had Joy, We Had Fun: The Lost Recording Artists of the 70s.

As an adult, Donny Osmond clearly regretted his having been used as a squeaky-clean weapon in the war MGM boss and one-time California gubernatorial hopeful Mike Curb waged on popular culture in the early 1970’s. Curb, even in his twenties a conservative right-wing ideologue, despised the hedonistic individualism that crossed into the mainstream from the ’60s counter-culture thanks in part to the pop music that celebrated and advertised such a lifestyle. The Osmonds (who were discovered at Disneyland and honed their chops on the Andy Williams show), perhaps MGM’s most successful act during Curb’s tenure there, represented his ideal cultural product: a vaguely religious, ultra-white group of boys who were malleable enough to be used to co-opt any other vital form of pop music and neutralize it, draining it of any of the progressive possibilities implicit in its popularity. Thus, when the Jackson 5 suggested America could accept a black family into its pantheon of stars, Curb was ready with the Osmonds, and their Jackson 5 rip-off hits “One Bad Apple” and “Yo-Yo,” to offer Americans an opportunity to keep their radios white. When hard rock began to become a way for teenagers to express rebellion, the Osmonds were there with their guitar-heavy albums Crazy Horses and The Plan, to remind kids that the establishment was one step ahead of them. Whenever a teen idol threatened to inject some sexuality into the lives of young fans, Donny Osmond’s hits were there to make the whole notion of love and sex being connected seem ludicrous: A pre-pubescent boy with the voice of teenaged girl singing wistful, self-sacrificing love songs addressed to other teenaged girls effectively drains all carnality out of the situation.

For Donny to claim that there was something subversive in their 70’s hits seems rather far-fetched at first, particularly when the liner notes to their recent hits collection Osmondmania! is at great pains to reassure us of how concerned they were with protecting the delicate minds of America’s children, explaining how they edited suggestive lyrics out of their 1974 hit “Love Me For a Reason,” and reminding us that depite being banned in parts of Africa, the Osmonds’ heavy-metal anthem “Crazy Horses” is not really about the alluring power of heroin, but rather the air pollution emitted by California power plants. That anyone could have thought the Osmonds were cooking up drug hymns suggests that perhaps Donny is wrong, and that in fact, their aggressive wholesomeness almost demands that we start looking for double entendres in the Osmond ouevre. It’s not hard to discover a plethora of salacious possibilities: what exactly do they mean when they claim that they’re going to give a woman “double lovin’,” claiming that she’ll “get a double pleasure every time”? What exactly is it that “they” call “puppy love”? And in the song “Sweet and Innocent,” who in the world could be too young for the 12-year-old Donny, who nevertheless has “a little wiggle in her walk” that he “loves”? Because the Osmonds took their role as family entertainers so seriously, because they seem so utterly trapped in a Reader’s Digest version of the American heartland so extravagantly out of touch with both the world in which it was made and the world in which we now hear it, because they are entirely without pretensions of their own, they are perfectly suited for us to enjoy them as camp. The packaging is designed with this in mind, emphasizing their ridiculous uniforms and their congenial lack of self-awareness, with photos of them performing karate kicks and wearing mock Native American costumes. The relentless schmaltziness of their sound (what another reviewer has called their “variety show arrangements”) manages to be wonderfully silly without ever seeming like the band’s fault. Their obvious desperation to please is guileless, completely unsophisticated, hewing to some aesthetic bottom line that rejects all subtlety, complexity and mystery. Musical lobotomies like “Down by the Lazy River” are irresistibly infectious, still resonating with the same shallow feel-good vibe that originally made them hits. Overall, we can enjoy the absurd, surreal fantasy of a world where all youth is remade in the image of the Osmonds without ever fearing it could come to pass.

Counter-cultural groups at the time, however, must not have felt the luxury of such detachment; judging by the irrational ferocity of their responses to the Osmonds, they must have felt very threatened indeed -- the liner notes reveal that the SLA, the anti-capitalist radicals who abducted Patty Hearst, announced they would “annhilate” the Osmonds if they performed, and that the Hell's Angels once invaded an Osmonds concert in Germany and threw “anything they could get their hands on” at the Osmonds on stage. (Written by Alan, the eldest Osmond brother, these liner notes are, incidentally, fascinating in their peculiar lack of perspective: in explaining how “Osmondmania” was “overwhelming” in “Malasia, Europe, the Far East and in Norwegian countries,” he depicts without regret how their limo ran over two girls and how their tour bus rolled over someone's legs, and he cites Sgt. Pepper and Pink Floyd's The Wall as inspiration for their 1973 concept album about Mormon theology, The Plan, even though The Wall wasn't released until 1979. Alan proudly boasts the Osmonds “were once known as one of the loudest musical acts in the business,” as though their sheer volume would prove to skeptics how with it they were.)

The Osmonds didn’t enact a new era of morally pure entertainment: the record industry universally accepts that they can maximize the profits they extort from the youth market by selling them circumscribed pseudo-rebellion and a castrated form of übersexuality both hyper-present and completely unattainable. These days we are in no danger of having our culture sanitized by the like of the Osmonds. If anything, the Osmonds, with their florescent smiles, their robotic identicalness, and their complete surrendering of any will to individual expression, come across like proselytizing members of some creepy cult. Their cheerful cooperation with whatever exploitative measure was commercially necessary, be it performing many of their shows on ice skates, singing incestuous romantic duets with a sibling, or wearing outrageous jumpsuits that reportedly made Elvis jealous, makes them seem even more innocent and harmless now. The marketing maneuvers that shaped them are so transparent to us that they seem laughable rather than repugnant and reprehensible, as they must have seemed to observers at the time when such tactics earned the Osmonds mainstream acceptance. Outdated hype sometimes seems like failed hype, which tempts us to appreciate the Osmonds, whose marketing strategies now seem so misguided, as a demonstration of how silly and stupid hype really is. But because audiences embraced the Osmonds despite their being overtly synthetic, their success helped usher in an era of popular entertainment where more and more variables are controlled from the top. Audiences made it plain that they didn’t care how much pressure was put on a band to conform. If the record industry was afraid that developments in the late ’60s made the quirks and idiosyncratic concerns of individual artists important to audiences, the success of the Osmonds laid such fears to rest.

Saturday, June 04, 2005

Stop Coldplay

At last! How reasuring it was to see in the Arts section of the Sunday The New York Times the beginning of the backlash against the inexplicably popular Coldplay. The writer, Jon Pareles, was afraid he was the only one who thinks that Coldplay is "the decade's most insufferable band" but he's not. It just seems that way because of the hegemony of opinion around them enforced by fawning media coverage, ubiquitous airplay, and high corporate stakes in their success. It's good to see the cracks in the monolith finally showing. I have wondered since I first heard of this band why anyone would feel any passion about it and when they would go away. It was an ill wind blowing through pop music that brought Coldplay and their oppresive mix of contrived earnestness and self-absorption to the forefront -- as Pareles notes, anthemic self-pity is an especially toxic mix. But it's one that mirrors the personality that rampant consumerism expects in individuals, a self-pity so concentrated you don't recognize the underlying conformity (everybody's vicariously pretending to be pathetically alone on the largest stage in the world with Chris Martin). The kind of self-centeredness and unrestrained individualism that Coldplay's music implictly endorses as a winning personality trait is the very thing that ultimately prevents communitarian aims, that makes absurd the idea that you should be selfless without getting to whine to the entire universe about how much you are sacrificing. It's ego music of the worst sort, and its listeners are encouraged by it to retreat into its eiderdown layers and make an ostrich hole out of them, since what is going on between a person's ears (or in their "heart") is all that matters in the world anyway.
Hopefully this article will be the first voice in what will become a chorus of naysayers to the oppressively antiseptic music of earnest ego. And then maybe they will go after Kanye West, another inexplicable musical hero, prized for his very ineffectuality and inoffensiveness, next.

Friday, June 03, 2005

Friedman: still a fool

At Tapped, Sam Rosenfield points out more Friedman idiocy -- this wonderful metaphor:
Indeed, there is a huge famine breaking out all over India today, an incredible hunger. But it is not for food. It is a hunger for opportunity that has been pent up like volcanic lava under four decades of socialism, and it's now just bursting out with India's young generation.

And to think I got scolded for not cleaning up his redundancies and malapropisms in the interview text I edited. Isn't that's what his readers have come to expect? Don't we want to show the beauty of that fine mind at work in the white-hot heat of inspiration?

Vanity taxes

On June 1, The Wall Street Journal ran a story about vanity taxes certain states have levied on cosmetic surgeries and other elective procedures. Of course, the plastic surgeons hate these taxes, and field some pretty weak excuses for why they shouldn't be eliminated, like how hard it is to tell what is truly elective and truly medically necessary. My intital instinct was to cheer this as an extremely sensible way of collecting revenue. Why should these things be exempt while other things -- buying shoes or hamburgers -- are not? It seemed a typical way in which luxuries for the rich elude governmental crackdown while the poor are surcharged for everything and anything. The poor generally are forced to pay more for basic things, as they lack the access to cheaper alternatives or the expertise that would allow them to circumvent such things as tax laws. Just as poor defendants go to prison, poor people in general always pay top dollar. Ehrenreich's Nickel and Dimed is a good guide to the way the life of the poor is series of petty extortions. But none of this fueled my inital delight, really. Really what made me giddy was the moral stricture of the tax, not merely the social engineering implied in the disincentive but the punitive overtones of it. And therein lies the problem -- if my knee-jerk reaction to a levied tax is to think it's a punishment for behavior, then I'm just as culpable as the Norquistians who think the income tax is government-sponsored larceny. If we're ever to approach the social-democratic nirvana I sometimes permit myself to imagine, our society will need to conceive of taxes as a kind of do-gooding charity payment, not a mechanism of social control or a punishment inflicted on those not too lazy to earn. Of course, that may be impossible, particularly when money is a proxy for status and the profit motive serves as the categorical imperative. When you give in to the idea that taxes are the best instrument for guiding moral policy, you have already surrendered to the notion that all human behavior is guided by self-interest. Moral choice and marginal utility seem mutually exclusive -- but the chief function of much of our ideology is likely to collapse them. This way credit becomes credibility becomes trustworthiness becomes dignity.

Thursday, June 02, 2005


If English has steadily become the international language of business, is Russian becoming the international counterlanguage of piracy? Yesterday's Journal had a report about Operation Firewall, a by and large successful attempt by authorities to shut down websites that were auctioning off personal information and credit-card numbers. The problem, however, was that they only shut down the ones operating in English, while the one operating in "local languages" continue to flourish, particularly the ones in Russian. Bred during the Cold War with a contempt for their bourgeois targets in capitalist countries, especially America, the Journal suggests, Russian criminal syndicates can regard their activities, which might be extended to include the burgeoning movie and music piracy sites launched from Russia, as a kind of guerilla war against capitalism, which makes their language the code of anticapitalism. Cyrillic is slowly becoming the symbology of subversion. If language encodes the hegemony, if we are trapped into the dominant ideology by the prison-house of the language speak, if capitalist prerogatives are enmeshed in the very vocabulary and syntax of English, then perhaps there's a kind of liberation waiting in the vocatives and diphthongs of Russian. Theoretically, as global capitalism spreads and entrenches itself, its official language will become more dogmatic, more univocal, more like Orwellian Newspeak. And the marginalized languages will become protests in their very form. рабочие мира объединяются!

Wednesday, June 01, 2005

Flat-earth society

I've long since learned to ignore Thomas Friedman, but unfortunately my job has brought me into direct contact with his toxic moronity. One wonders how many times he was told by various editors and well-wishers that "The world is flat," the meme he's chosen to pimp for globalization, makes no particular sense and in fact implies the opposite of his intended meaning. A flat earth suggests you can't get from one end to the other without great difficulty, whereas the discovery that the world was round was what vastly shorten distances and linked separate economies. A "flat earth" implies a refusal to accept new scientific technologies, not an eagerness to embrace the "reality" they predict. Am I missing something here? Isn't this really fucking obvious?

In reading through an exposition of his "thinking" in his own words, I was reminded of Thomas Frank's critique in One Market Under God, one reiterated in a recent Harper's book review -- free-trade mavens like Friedman are blinded by the ideology that technology produces some sort of inevitable future that there is no point in resisting. His answer to all criticism: I didn't make this happen, I'm just the messenger. On the one hand no one can do anything to stop the changes being brought on by technology, but on the other hand everyone must do all these things to adapt to it. It's clever really, making you responsible for the changes they wish to imagine by convincing you that it's already too late, it's already happened. If he was an ideologue and a flunkey like David Brooks, he'd have an excuse, but he's a free-lance fool, and that's much more dangerous.