Monthly Archives: June 2012

all silence

In an effort to distract myself from something stupid I did recently, I spent the bulk of today’s four-hour drive thinking about one word.  Specifically, I thought about the word “isn’t” in the song “A Little Lost” by Arthur Russell.  I’ll wait while you listen:

 

I probably fell first for the melody, the minimal arrangement, and the sort of dissonance between the positive, hopeful tone and the absence the narrator is dealing with.  Songs about longing are usually sad (though Björk wrote a notable exception, and I’m sure there are others), but Russell looks past his apprehension about this incipient affair and seems to relish in the insecurity.

Of course I’m only speculating here: this song was first released on a posthumous compilation and Russell only lived to see the limited release of a few full-length albums and various singles, only one of which bore his name.  It’s not even clear that he meant for this song to be released, much less analyzed by some navel-gazer in Tennessee.  Since his death, of course, several compilations and a documentary have been released to acclaim, but there will always be an air of mystery to this man and his work.

It’s that mystery and ones like it that I’m devoting this entry to.*  The verse in question can be heard around the 1:22 mark (punctuation and emphasis mine):

“It’s so unfinished
(our love affair) —
a voice in me
is telling me to
run away.
I hope your feelings isn’t diminished;
I hope you need someone in your life
(someone like me).”

The apparent grammatical error is subtle, perhaps even misheard.  I’m not sure when I noticed it, but it’s become one of my favorite parts of what I consider to be a perfect song.  Russell’s reasons may be simple: “isn’t” might just sound better than the correct “aren’t.”  I like to imagine, though, that he chose to condense the plural, complex, and sometimes conflicting feelings of a new love into the singular and all-consuming.

This got me thinking about other mysteries in pop culture: Why did Richie Tenenbaum say he was going to kill himself tomorrow and then immediately slash his wrists?  What did Tommy Lee Jones’ dream mean and did anyone ever catch Anton Chigurh?  Where did “Someone Great” go?  What is John Ashbury talking about?  What did Bill Murray say to Scarlett Johansson?  Why did J.D. Salinger not publish anything for the last forty-five years of his life?  How did Ted cost $65 million to produce?

If artists want to be heard (or seen, or read, or whatever), should they be heard clearly?

Maybe the word “umbrella” is just satisfying to repeat.  That would certainly make for a less solipsistic post.  It’s a fine line, too — I couldn’t care less about why Jake Gyllenhaal can manipulate time, who the mother is, or what Meat Loaf won’t do.  What makes a pop mystery compelling?  I’m not really sure.  I’m certainly not the first person to say that ambiguity in art allows for the injection of the self.  We like a little mystery because we get to play detective and argue with our friends about what’s in Marcellus Wallace’s briefcase, for example.  Some artists rely on that ambiguity (a few film directors famously won’t record audio commentary) and it’s easy to see why: they feel that their work should speak for itself.

It’s the complete lack of mystery, however, that infuriates me about the work of, say, Dennis Lehane** or M. Night Shyamalan.  Not unlike almost every network procedural, their movies are sealed tight, revealing every character’s motivation and connecting every dot in a way that completely excludes the viewer.  Don’t get me started on prequels: Midichlorians ruined the Force.  Ridley Scott seems intent on ruining the Space Jockey.  Why do some artists insist of imposing one single explanation on what could cause years of over-analysis?

Part of this, I think, is the Internet’s fault.  Anyone who has ever cropped a profile photo or deleted a LiveJournal post knows about curating an online persona.  This might be a stretch, but the connection I’m making is this: the delusion that a Facebook profile can somehow be an accurate (or even ideal or inscrutable) reflection of a whole human being makes us feel that every human action can be explained away.  I’m not innocent here — I’ve shared album streams and raced to be the first to link to breaking news in order to further offer my digital self to 500 some-odd “friends.”  I’ve scrolled through my Wall Timeline, content that friendly passersby would know me within a few clicks.

Before this devolves into that conversation about colors you had in middle school, allow me to point out that Abbas Kiarostami did a much better job of pontificating on the complete and overwhelming unknowability of everyone and everything outside of the self.  I suggest that you watch it soon so we can argue about what it all means.

*In the midst of writing this entry, I discovered that The A.V. Club did something very similar not two months ago, but oh well.  Simpsons did it first.

**I’m referring to the various film adaptations of Lehane’s novels, which I can only assume follow their sources pretty faithfully.

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NSA

This morning I watched The Terminator and read something that made me so mad I kind of wished it were a documentary. Now, I should point out that my anger is totally irrational and borderline sociopathic, but certain things really stick in my craw. American Idol, for instance. And this: http://www.npr.org/blogs/allsongs/2012/06/16/154863819/i-never-owned-any-music-to-begin-with

If you can’t be bothered to read the article (and I don’t blame you) let me summarize it: All Songs Considered summer intern Emily White has an iTunes library of 11,000 songs though she’s paid for only 15 CD’s in her entire life. I admire her post, though, if only because it is rare for someone not in the employ of Fox News to publicly depict themselves as such an unrepentant shitbag.

We (for better or worse) live in a capitalist society. The rules of that society dictate that you must exchange currency for goods. If you don’t, then you’re a thief. White seems to think the fact that she didn’t illegally download these songs insulates her to some degree from criticism. It doesn’t really matter, though, if she downloaded the music, ripped it from friends’ collections and the radio station she manages, or got it from a magical music unicorn–she benefited from the work of another person without compensating them. And that’s stealing. 

Now, I suppose I’m being too hard on Ms. White–after all, she’s a college senior. When I was her age, my biggest priority was tricking my wealthy roommate into buying a 30 rack of Coors pounders. I understand the budgetary constraints that face college students and it makes sense to save money by not buying physical albums if you don’t have to. And that’s not really my issue with her piece.

What makes me angry about Emily White–and all the people like her–is that she claims to care about something that is actually worthless to her. Look at her opening description of herself: “I’m almost 21 and since I first began to love music I’ve been spoiled by the Internet,” (emphasis mine). A self-described music lover, White later says that she is “an avid music-listener, concert-goer, and college radio DJ. My world is music-centric.” If that’s the case, why does White not find it necessary to compensate artists for making music? 

I concede that artists do benefit from concert attendance and merch buying. Former Camper Van Beethoven leader/current professor David Lowery makes a good point here, though, about why that isn’t enough: http://thetrichordist.wordpress.com/2012/06/18/letter-to-emily-white-at-npr-all-songs-considered/ (In the interest of fairness, here too is a remarkably eye-opening piece by noted asshole Steve Albini from the 90’s about the flaws of record companies that Lowery seems to be trying so hard to flatter: http://www.negativland.com/news/?page_id=17)

Artists make money from fans attending their shows and buying their shirts and posters, yes, but that doesn’t compensate them for the actual artifact that they produce. Unless you exclusively like listening to live music and wearing shirts, your refusal to pay for music does nothing to incentivize its creation. Even the laziest Weird Al parody that gets farted out in 30 seconds deserves SOME compensation. 

Claiming that you love something doesn’t mean you actually love it. Lots of people claim to love things because it makes them seem smarter or more worldly (I, for instance, claim to love L’Avventura, which I’ve never seen, when my favorite movie is actually Red Dawn). But I think that White actually is a music lover. She just does very little to support the thing she claims to love. 

On one level, this is emblematic of a huge problem with current society: we have little interest in making the arts a lucrative enterprise. It is monumentally difficult for any type of artist to make a living income solely by practicing their art. In spite of the fact that most people would say that, after spending time with other humans and drinking, art is the most meaningful thing in their lives (including television and movies) there is no economic reason to go into the arts. Only a fraction of the number of poets, novelists, actors, directors, guitarists, comedians, drummers, sculptors, painters, et cetera who go into the field will ever be able to support themselves with their art. As things stand now, only the children of the super-rich and people who are willing to live in hovels and eat grass soup stand to make it as artists.

Musicians are more vulnerable than other artists to this paradigm. Publishing companies still control the distribution of literature, movie studios and theatres produce films and plays, visual artists use galleries, museums, and fairs to disseminate their works. Music, however, is much more susceptible to piracy. Especially now, in the digital age, it is possible to be a “music lover” and never have to exchange a single cent to access hundreds of thousands of songs.

When a person like Emily White claims–remorselessly–on NPR that music has played a huge part in her life and she has obtained most of this music for free, it’s a giant middle finger in the face of all those musicians. What about the bands whose catalogues fill her iPod whom she has never seen live? And what about bands who don’t tour? Fuck those guys, I guess. One would believe that if music really played such a big role in Emily White’s life, she would be willing to OCCASIONALLY exchange some money for it.

I’m not interested in getting into a debate here about capitalism (which is a fucking scam and a half and SUCKS) or the virtues of the music industry (which is two scams). My problem is this: I consider myself a music lover. I read 20-30 pages of music journalism a day. I am constantly seeking out new bands and going to shows (EVEN ON SCHOOL NIGHTS YOU GUYS). And I buy CD’s AT LEAST once a month and usually more. It’s only fair that if I want a band’s product, I shell out for it. That’s the world we live in. And it’s not a perfect one, but it’s all we’ve got for now.

White spends some time complaining about the current system of music distribution without offering any alternatives, claiming “…I honestly don’t think my peers and I will ever pay for albums.” Well, why not? Because you’re cheap? Because you’re thieves and liars? Because you actually don’t care about music as much as you think you do? She the envisions some worldwide Spotify-esque database where artists can upload music and fans can access it on any device (if you’re bleeding from your nose now, just wait). She closes by saying (and this is fucking amazing): “All I require is the ability to listen to what I want, when I want and how I want it. Is that too much to ask?” YES THAT IS TOO MUCH TO ASK! “All I want is the ability to access 100% of humanity’s musical recordings anywhere at any time on a whim whenever any mood strikes me, an ability that has never been available to any previous people and requires zero effort on my part at all.” Can you not meet the bands or the labels half-fucking-way? You want us to invent a worldwide cloud for ALL MUSIC so that you can stream “Holocene” via iPhone whether you’re on the quad, hiking in Tibet, or taking a runny dump in the library??? Fuck me.

Emily White’s problem isn’t that she’s selfish. I’ve never met her and likely never will so I can’t say. That last line certainly makes it seem like the case, though. I just think she’s grown up in a world where certain things (arts) were assumed to have no value and she’s internalized that belief, even though she intellectually knows it to be wrong. As someone who 1) loves music and 2) works in the arts, I find it incredibly distressing that a well-educated young woman who works for one of the biggest proponents of culture in America could espouse these beliefs with so little remorse and with no suggestion for ways to improve the situation. 

I’m not saying Emily White has to fix the problem that Napster started. And I’m sure she’s a charming young woman who really does love music (and likely most of the same bands that I do). What I’m saying is that WORDS MEAN THINGS and if you want to claim that you love something, you had better stand behind it. In the (vaguely shitty, often stupid) world we live in, that means compensating people for their efforts. Psychopaths…oh, sorry…people who truly love capitalism often note that the market is beautifully democratic because it allows people to “vote” for the best goods and services with their dollars. Until we get rid of it (which could be any day now, the way things are going), the Emily Whites of the world need to put their money where their mouth is. 

 

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