Archive for the 'new media' Category

21
Apr
10

Decadence, Doomed Youth, and Digital Rights: An Interview with Simon Indelicate

As promised, here is my email interview with Simon Indelicate. As expected, he gives thought-provoking, articulate answers – enough to stimulate many further intellectual debates. He did The Indelicates’ b(r)and proud.

Remember to go over to The Indelicates’ Corporate Records, pay for the privilege of listening to their music, and then if you’re so inclined, participate in their Versions Project, which you can find out more about at their website.

CTRR: This latest album is full of references to decadence, especially that of the 20s and 30s, musically and lyrically. What draws you to the ostentatious display of privilege for songwriting material?

SI: I think it’s fear. The defining feature of the 20s and 30s was really the way that they ended – with thuggish racists taking over whole countries and leading the world to the edge of destruction. Being a floaty intellectual in Weimar Berlin didn’t help at all, being young and drink-sodden didn’t help, reading academic theory didn’t help, romanticism did help but it helped the wrong side – in short, people like me doing things like I do, were utterly ineffectual in halting the advance of the worst thing that ever happened in the world. I find that scary and interesting.

Now I don’t want to say that any of this is fair or accurate – but when you’re at an upper middle class, libdem-voting party in Brighton and someone starts talking about ‘Jewish Power’ being a tangible force in global politics that needs to be challenged or when you see pop singers romanticising their nationality in near wagnerian terms or you see a parade of artificially kooky women neglecting the real world in favour of a silly pseudo-feminine dreamscape made of tits – you think about Unity Mitford and Sally Bowles and those liberal Germans who found Hitler such a fascinating dinner party guest and those German kids who found him boring and irrelevant and you start to wonder…

CTRR: Are there similarities between today’s “doomed youth” and “the young and the damned” of the early 20th century? Are they different? Discuss.

SI: I seem to have got ahead of you there. hmmm. Obviously, calling a song about methadone pretty tosspots in Hoxton ‘anthem for doomed youth’ is heavily irony laden and sarcastic – but this whole album is a more personal thing (when we use ‘I’ on this one, we generally do mean ourselves) and that song is a self-indictment as much as anything else: It’s all very well feeling hard done by because you can’t legitimately rebel against a broadly functioning society without a plausible radical alternative – but, hey, you could be having your cock shot off in Ypres, so cheer up…

I never do though – the lack of legitimacy makes it worse. winking smiley face.

There is a point to be made about the difference between today’s counterculture and it’s antecedents – it’s very easy to drop out now (and as easy to drop back in again with barely a blip on the CV) but you can’t really be Lenny Bruce without being prosecuted for obscenity, you can’t be Allen Ginsberg if bumming is legal, you can’t be Rosa Luxembourg and live. So I don’t trust the revolutionary heroes of the oxbridge dominated presses – there’s never been any risk in it. I suspect that the best minds of our generation are largely unheard behind the cacophony of careerism and networking.

CTRR: Your lyrics and music are socially engaged and espouse critical thinking, but at the same time there’s a strong vein of the romantic and anthemic. Are they both equally necessary for you?

SI: I would hope that we’ve never done romantic without undermining it in some way – it shouldn’t be forgotten that swooning entails a loss of consciousness. But yes, we have to admit to indulging in it a bit – you can’t really help it with music, it just sort of happens.

CTRR: You’ve written songs about specific people like Unity Mitford, Jeff Buckley, Pete Doherty, and now Patty Hearst. What attracts you to a particular public figure when writing a song? Are they generally exemplary of specific issues or did you choose these people for more of their idiosyncratic qualities?

SI: More often than not, songs will develop from a specific thought rather than from a broad set of intents; so, with Jeff Buckley, I was watching some 100 best songwriters of the 90s ever programme and listening to some pundit explain exactly what would have happened if he hadn’t died and it all seemed to have veered into the realm of hokum and soothsaying, because he was good at singing, Jeff Buckley, but ‘what if’ scenarios are reason’s wanks and no one’s more than just a person… hence song. You start narrow and aim broad.

the Patty Hearst one is a little different because it’s really not about her to any great extent. For one thing, it’s factually inaccurate, the SLA never ran guns to savages – that was this bloke in Brighton who I vaguely knew and who used to take guns to Papua New Guinea and then come back to the anarchist club to soak up praise for, essentially, being an arms dealer. It’s a song about a number of specific people like that – of whom Hearst is, as you say, an exemplar.

It is fascinating, the Patty Hearst thing though, especially when you consider that the terrorists we get nowadays are generally from prosperous backgrounds. There’s something about that bored, monied drawl coming out of a tape recorder to attack the ‘fascist insect’ and justify bank robberies. It’s so cool, so appealing and yet there was that innocent woman who got killed…

CTRR: This latest album features a wider palette of musical genres. Did the lyrics influence which genres you used?

SI: sort of. I mean, things like Roses and Be Afraid of Your Parents are about as close as we come to outright pastiche. but a lot of how the album sounds is down to having a long time to record it and being able to ponce about in a studio trying things out and recording ourselves goosestepping down corridors to use as percussion. Most of the arrangement was done on the fly and I think that, as much as anything, is why the genre shifts so much. The first record was done in a big hurry with a bunch of songs that we’d been playing live for two years. This time we had no idea what album we were going to make until we made it.

CTRR: You’ve decided to release a music video for each track on Songs for Swinging Lovers. Would you consider this a branding strategy to augment your already impressive “multidisciplinary” approach to selling music?

SI: The thing about music is that there’s loads of it. It is an abundant resource. The things that music does – provide an atmospheric backdrop, support dancing with rhythm and produce emotions unrelated to the immediate circumstances – are also abundantly available. There are billions of people in the world and millions of them can make music – the idea that any of them are special is pretty hard to support. And yet music continues to have a a market value. This clearly cannot be derived from its intrinsic quality as taste is variable and there are clearly others who can supply the same basic service as the highest valued music. The fact has to be then, that music acquires value from something tangential to itself: in other words, you’re not buying the music, you’re buying the fame. The fame is the whole of the work. Everything every band does is branding- I think you can do good things in that medium. So videos, books, economics lessons in interviews – we’re all about that now – if the brand is the art, then we want to make the best brand we can and we are proud to offer our range of Indelicates Lifestyle Enhancement Products.

I’m partly joking, of course, but I was reading an article the other day suggesting that the corresponding obligation to the right of digital freedom is to produce as much data as you can yourself. People should have free access to data but should feel a duty to contribute original data themselves – I like that idea. Lots of videos feels right.

CTRR: You have been very articulate about your opinions on the shift in the music industry, as well as on opposing the Digital Economy Bill (something I, too, am very much in opposition to, and I watch the proceedings of ACTA with equal frustration). Is this paradoxical conflict between information as capital and information’s immateriality down to a basic issue of incorrect metaphors and language? A way for money-hungry industry/government types to warp reality back into a past state that can’t be applied to current remediations?

SI: Yes, I think you’re right to an extent, there’s a real problem of maps being mistaken for territory in all this – information isn’t capital, it’s an abundant commodity that can be capitalised in the right context: when things get stuck in established categories they can very quickly become obscure. But also, I think, there is a real change in the economic realities that underpin the transfer of digitally encoded information – everything about it that was limited by profit-generating scarcity has become abundant and the only truly scarce resources left for the recording industry to exploit are nostalgia and sentimentality – hence all the handwringing about ‘record store day’ and all other processes that commodify and fetishise what really just amounts to shopping.

The whole business of copy and digital rights will have to be rethought by people who understand it.

CTRR: When I was taking my MA, I had an epiphany (rather belated, perhaps) about the necessity of rhetoric to to help us function in the face of too much information and not enough expertise. In the current climate of “universal” information access and an explosion of DIY art to be made immediately available to a global audience, how important are rhetoric and effective filters?

SI: I don’t have much time for expertise – it tends to be a distorting factor in the weighing up of information, there are no worse arguments than those which take the form ‘this expert says this, so there’ – especially now, in music, where the ability to hear the thing being described is so immediate. In many ways, those who know most about music are the least qualified to predict what a particular individual will enjoy listening to; a film reviewer who attends 5 press screenings a week and doesn’t read children’s books, for example, is entirely unqualified to tell a harry potter fan whether they’ll like the deathly hallows film. In that sense at least, I think people are quite capable of filtering the information themselves, finding particular bloggers who tend to agree with them, listening to albums that artists they like recommend… Expertise comes collaboratively from interaction not from any authority.

Rhetoric though, yes, I think I see what you mean – the assembling of thoughts into memorable phrases can clarify things as people go about the business of filtering their own data. I don’t think it creates opinion, but it probably helps to give it a form that makes it easier to share.

CTRR: Has the Internet merely exposed how much the average person values art?

SI: I think it has exposed the disparity between value and price. I wouldn’t want to live without Paradise Lost – as such, I value it highly, but I’ve never paid more than about £2.50 for a copy of it – that doesn’t necessarily mean I value it any less, just that value is expressed in broader terms than money.

CTRR: Would you ever plan a larger North American tour (including Canada, of course)?

SI: We’ve been planning one forever (we called the first album American Demo, after all) but cost is a massive issue and the benefits of being free from a record company do have to be set against the lack of tour support. If you or anyone reading knows a booking agent in the states who wants to book a viable tour for us – please feel free to send them stuff and ask them for us – it’s only the money that’s keeping us away :)

Anthem For Doomed Youth – The Indelicates

14
Apr
10

A Valuable Other to Everyone: The Indelicates’ Songs For Swinging Lovers

I had to come out of hiatus for this. Look at that album cover. How could I deny those puppy eyes and broken necks? Then there was the press release, which read:

Songs For Swinging Lovers is a stunning, diverse and intellectually complex record that marries the band’s trademark lyrical precision and songwriting skill with a broad palette of musical styles and influences. The strains of country, Weimar cabaret, holy bible-era manics, belle epoque cafe music, Muder (sic) Ballads-era Nick cave, 90s indie and 70s sleaze can all be heard in the arrangements.

My pulse actually turned to alka seltzer in my veins after reading that. It’s been over two years of admiring The Indelicates for their unpretentious intellect, their poetry, their leitmotifs, their dedication to critical thinking and dark humour. Now I can add new media warriors to their laudable qualities. I’m not overly passionate about most causes, but the one that I have been perhaps the most vocal about (well, my typing has been pretty deafening) is the paradigm-rattling effect of new media, especially on the music industry and the copyright vs privacy debate. I’ve been blathering on for years about the flaws in the music industry, about the McLuhanesque impact of the MP3 file, and about copyright laws in a digital world and the outdated metaphorical language that they are built upon. Here’s a band of artists that has taken a similar stance and used similar arguments to achieve something much more than a semi-academic blog rant. Instead, they have birthed Corporate Records and a praiseworthy sophomore album. As I’ve stated before, they are truly multidisciplinary in their branding and artistic endeavours; with their understanding of the direction the music industry is heading, The Indelicates should give lectures to the disappointingly backwards artists like those involved in the redundant FAC (I say disappointing because I was shocked at some of the artists on their list).

I first noticed Simon and Julia over two years ago while scanning through pages and pages of artists at the SXSW website; several months later, their debut album American Demo became the runner-up in my Top 40 Albums of 2008. Songs For Swinging Lovers is a much more varied affair in terms of genre; they actually fulfill the promises of their press release (no mean feat when so many bands fail to deliver on even the first of their claims). While this record may not be as immediately accessible as their first, it is very obviously both its sequel and equal and still teeming with more adept social criticism, including further incisive commentary on feminism, youth, the music industry, celebrity, fascism, hypocrisy, and narrow-mindedness. There is the same calibre of intelligent (often brutal) candour as that of Luke Haines, something that the majority of their cohort are missing and something that most are too afraid to touch. And while The Indelicates’ sleeves are draped in impressive influences (musical and otherwise), they twist them into something as original as art can ever be without being created in a vacuum, taking in history and apt social observations to complicate clichés and debunk everyday myths.

Pounding away as the first of two Weimar cabaret songs (a style preceded by the Indelicates’ Christmas treat of Zuhalterballade), Europe is a satire of decadence and privilege. The self-aware seediness to be found in continental salons of the early 20th century can be just as easily applied to the farcical display of more recent moneyed classes, and its undignified grasping is articulated perfectly through Julia’s vocal strength and unrestrained operatics. This is followed by the most Manics-inflected of the tracks, Your Money, which swells from a sweet piano melody into an electric guitar anthem bristling like a sea of broken flag standards. Simon spits a furious stream of brilliant lyrics, including a fantastic 1984 reference (“Do it to Julia”) that plays on his partner’s name as much as it does on the narrator’s self-conscious musings on hypocrisy and the sick dominance of money in the world of art. In yet another song about an ostensibly “brainwashed” historical figure (see the brilliant Unity Mitford on American Demo), The Indelicates serenade Patty Hearst with We Love You, Tania. It’s a loungey number with a staggering yet rousing feel, unsteady on its feet like someone who drank a pint glass full of yeasty honesty. It features the rather profound line, “When you’re other to everyone, you’re a valuable girl.”

Pushing on with their earlier themes of diseased celebrity culture, which yearns for damaged people, and parasitic media (see also New Art for the People, We Hate the Kids, Waiting for Pete Doherty to Die), they address one such hapless character in Ill. They chant:

Your sickness is your shibboleth
Your sex is your sickness
And you’ve got time, you’ve got time to lose
Because you’ll never take enough of those pills,
You know you’re too clever to be mentally ill,
You’ll never fashion your damaged soul
Because you’re too clever to lose control

The next track, Flesh, makes mine crawl a little, a testament to the combination of the astute lyrics and the interplay of Julia’s sweetly vacant vocals with Simon’s predatory background vocals, “oh, flesh.” The muted trumpet sounds filthy as Julia sings about the seemingly acceptable malleability of females and further feminist failings: “Hey doc can you take my skin and melt it into plastic/Beauty isn’t truth it’s just youth, it’s adaptive and it’s elastic.” Vocals then pass off to Simon for Savages, a tinkly ballad that turns into a soaring synthy anthem by its end, is a brilliant revel in the vindication of outsider-dom. With a wonderful tie-in with the album cover, the chorus goes, “the world has no need of the songs that we sang/We are savages and we’ll hang, hang, hang.” Savages also has one of my favourite lines of the record: “we are Greeks in the age of Rome/With no right to criticise the happily dull to Grecian eyes.” There’s fight and survival in the apparent surrender; any golden age is just a gilded cage.

I suppose it says something about my character that the macabre murder ballad, Roses, doesn’t disturb me as much as Flesh. In true Nick Cave style, Roses is mesmerizing and miasmic as it sways slowly through the savouring of a homicide – punctured lungs, sawed-off limbs and all – while also mocking the vampiric. The chorus, which gently croons “Do you bleed diamonds/do you bleed rubies/do you bleed roses?,” is enchanting and sinister to me in the same way Windmills of Your Mind and Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down) are. The pace picks up again with Sympathy for the Devil; rather than a cocky rebel sneer, it’s a knees-up Irish drinking song told by a much more believable Beelzebub than Jagger’s. As he recounts his journey out of Heaven, he plays Pied Piper to an unnamed lover, who is to meet him at the border in the morning. We learn that even the Devil is dissatisfied with this world. This is also the first track to be made into a music video – the rest of the album’s songs will eventually follow. The second Weimar-themed song, Be Afraid of Your Parents, continues with the dramatics reminiscent of Brecht/Weill compositions as it lambastes fascism and its attractive rhetoric, including the dangerous dialectic to be found in scapegoating. Simon takes over vocals as he namechecks Derrida and Foucault and the distance from humanity that academic theory provides. The sentiment in the track’s title is one that permeates The Indelicates’ body of work; keep your mind sharp and keep questioning precedents and “truths.” Julia and Simon keep you off balance by embedding layer after layer of latent meaning and then shifting them about, shaking you out of passive consumption.

The musical tone of the record becomes lighter with the jaunty Jerusalem, a satire of the stillborn revolution in today’s young people, who think “it seems rebellious to vote Conservative now.” It also serves as a parody of the English patriotic song of the same title and perhaps a stab at Labour Party idealism. The clueless subjects of this track “excel at drama and formal debating,” but care to know nothing of reality and take pseudo-political postures instead. The final track on the album proper, Anthem for Doomed Youth, is a delicate song that skips along in a lackadaisical fashion and ends in heavenly choruses provided by Julia; it also emphasizes many of the points already made in Jerusalem. Simon reiterates the futility of youth-based subcultures and the lack of something worth fighting for or against, singing “there’s nobody left in the West these days/wronged enough to be a punk” and “we are miners no more/never torn by a war/neither starving, nor struggling, nor incredibly poor.” There’s also an excellent snarl of “the three-inch bruise at the crook of your arm/that in the right light looks like Jesus,” which may or may not be a parody of a line in The Killers’ When You Were Young. The two bonus tracks currently available on the Corporate Records’ site are I Don’t Care If It’s True and an acoustic version of Savages; the former is a proud refusal to join in anymore with latin accents while the latter is a fragile rendition with hints of the shambolic sighs found in American Demo‘s Better To Know.

The album is available for download from here, where you can choose what you pay. Come June, I know I will be buying a physical copy of the album and any book or foodstuff that can be added on to it. I have never been disappointed with their challenging art. They continue to dissect societal ills with a surgeon’s precision and a cabaret MC’s panache. Songs For Swinging Lovers confirms The Indelicates’ paradox of condemning idealism and evading the romantic notion of promising revolution or escape while simultaneously giving people something exhilarating to rally behind, a whetstone for senses dulled on complacency. Oddly enough, they encapsulate a different semantic plane of We Love You, Tania; they are definitely other to most bands, and thus, so valuable. We need a band like this even if the masses ignore them and their witty words just hang, hang, hang. I’ll gladly go to the gallows with The Indelicates.

My brief sojourn back in the blogosphere will last for one more post as I conduct my Indelicates interview.

Ill – The Indelicates

Savages – The Indelicates

01
Jan
10

The 00s, The Noughties, The Decade In Music

I didn’t really want to attempt a list of my favourite albums of the decade – the list for this year alone was more work than I needed. Instead, I decided to hit some of the ways this decade dealt with music – how technology has changed the musical landscape further, what globalized capitalism has done to the music industry, and what media convergence did to help out. Then as a second part, I thought I should add some of my musings on the decade as far as my own musical development goes – after all, I became an adult in the 00s.

Once you’re done here, visit this excellent site put up by The Indelicates: The Noughties Were Shit. The post about Gary Barlow poised to take over the world was particularly enlightening.

1. Web 2.0 and Music
I suppose this point actually affects all the other points in one way or another. Technology has continued the major upheaval begun in the 90s with MP3s and Napster, and has now proved there is no going back for the music industry. The MP3 file has changed the nature of music and the way it is consumed in a completely McLuhanesque fashion. It made music infinitely clonable and portable, aspects which led to the rise of the iPod and the spectacular decline of the record industry. Now music is disjointed and serendipitous by shuffle functions while being omnipresent and essentially valueless (at least in the capitalistic sense). The MP3 has shown us what art becomes when it is immediate and free.

Whilst Napster and its variations like LimeWire created the new rhizomatic gift-giving structure in MP3 file sharing, torrents have taken it to a whole new level of decentralization. And now 99% of the music/films/TV you want is up for the taking. This fact in tandem with the rise of online shopping makes me quite surprised that all record shops haven’t just folded, although many of them have in this decade.

The advancements of Web 2.0 have also heralded the birth of the MP3 blog and its attendant aggregators and podcasts. It has become ludicrously easy to set up your own blog and utilize free file transfer/storage sites to upload music for others to sample. The upshot has been a severe fragmentation of markets and escalation of taste wars while also a fantastic break from traditional music press. And in spite of a nasty rash of Blogger DMCA takedown notices, there have also been some really positive outcomes that proved the power of fandom, including this year’s Paul Haig Day, which was arranged by JC of The Vinyl Villain. Arguments over intellectual property and copyright laws in a digital world will continue to rage on, and I will follow them with fascination (who better to keep you posted on things of this nature but Cory Doctorow and his team at Boing Boing). Of course, no doubt MP3 blogs will suffer/are suffering the same fate as all countercultures. If you survive long enough, you end up as part of the establishment. It’s a bit Batman that way.

As we increasingly became a “peep culture,” social networking came into the forefront with sites like MySpace, Facebook, Twitter and last.fm. You could define yourself strictly by taste and choose your “friends” accordingly. And then ignore them in real life. Just as importantly, now any band could have a website with minimal work and funding. They could also market themselves directly to the type of people they conceived as fans through as many channels as possible. Combined with the technological capabilities of recording software, anyone could produce and market their own music, which is good and bad. Bands who wouldn’t have made it on a mainstream label, but who had a cult sound worth hearing, could get their music our there; unfortunately, many more mediocre bands clogged up the Internet with their soul-sucking tripe, making it a hard slog through cyberspace to find the music you actually liked.

The Internet imploded the world into solipsistic niches, which ceased to feel the collectiveness of mass-mediated moments. Even news of Michael Jackson’s death shattered into millions of pieces as everyone wanted to be the one reporting rather than receiving. Live 8 couldn’t be what Live Aid was to the 80s. The global village is taken for granted and too much access to information and entertainment has made us fairly lazy and impatient. Is music still the universal language? I suppose so, but it’s also become something to be hoarded and collected indiscriminately, as meaningful as soundbites for many people. And with music built directly into communication devices, it has become integrated into our fragmented lifestyles.

Related Posts:

The Medium is the Music: An Essay on Digital Music
This Is the Industry, But For How Long?: Thoughts on the State of Music Today
Of Resurrected FOPP and the Importance of a Real Record Shop
MP3 Blogs vs. Music Blogs: Different Purposes?
Has the World Changed Or Have I Changed?: Musings on the New Musical Express Train to Nowhere
MP3 Blogs vs Music Blogs: Part II
iTunes & I
Does NME even know what a music blog is?: The rhetoric and social meaning of MP3 blogs
The Pirate’s Dilemma: Selling Out is the New Cool
Sound the Last Post, Then Unite and Take Over
New IAMX Album Leaks and Chris Corner Reacts
Twitter-Pated: Music and Information Overload
Michael Jackson, Media Convergence and The Decline of the Global Superstar
A Monkey Wrench in The Hype Machine: Music Marketing and Integrity
Everyone’s a Critic: Fandom and Subculture
The Non-Interview: Music PR in the Blogosphere

2. Fan Investment in Musicians
In a rather positive turn of events, it has now become possible for fans to have a direct impact on the musicians they love by investing in albums before they are produced. Artists, including Einstürzende Neubauten, Patrick Wolf, frYars, and Morton Valence, have allowed their fans to buy shares of future albums to fund production costs. These artists have then rewarded their shareholders with various freebies and exclusives along with a right to some of the record’s profit. It cuts out the label middleman, which I think is a step in the right direction.

Some other bands decided that more was definitely more and added further value to their music and ethos by diversifying their art. One of my favourite discoveries of the decade, The Indelicates, have sold books of their poetry, tickets to a musical they’re involved in, art prints, and even fudge. This rather multidisciplinary approach to music is fantastically refreshing and holds fans’ interest while waiting for new album releases.

With a different twist on the new value of music, Radiohead decided to make their In Rainbows album available for whatever you deemed it should be worth this decade. Although it’s quite a forward-thinking idea, it isn’t exactly as feasible for bands who are not called Radiohead.

Related Post:

The “New” Music Industry: frYars and Bandstocks

3. Decline of the Music Video
Throughout my childhood and teenage years, the music channel played mostly music videos, live performances or interviews with musicians. Frankly, I’m not entirely sure what music channels play anymore, but I know it’s not really music. It’s not even like they’re playing the expected mass-marketed tripe that I would expect on a music station; they’re playing teen dramas about rich kids, reality shows about rich kids, and programs about kids competing to become celebrities, and thus rich. I reckon the marketing model for music has changed quite drastically since the 80s and their MTV heyday; as with much advertising now, products need to be more quietly and deeply entrenched in other products to be marketed effectively. No more blatant streams of music videos/ads for bands. Now you just have to make sure your music gets into the television shows and films of your target market. You want disaffected indie kids, get your music on a film like Garden State. You want romantic emo kids, get your music on the latest vampire product. You want to appeal to the shallow emotions of middling women with no imagination, play your song in a particularly heartwrenching scene of Grey’s Anatomy. Or you could just get Apple to use your music in an iPod promo.

YouTube, which started up four years ago (as unbelievable as that seems), changed the television landscape forever (along with DVD box sets of course). You could now watch music videos literally on demand and without other ads in between. Albeit the halcyon days of YouTube are also over and not every music video is available, nor are they ad-free anymore thanks to the Google takeover. And artists like Prince decided fans are the enemy, prohibiting any of his videos to be uploaded anywhere. However, YouTube has led to a new music video experience, which frees up the music video market for bands who would never have had the clout to get on a television screen. And YouTube sensations could cross into the consciousness of television watchers, which is what happened when OK Go performed their Here It Goes Again video routine for the MTV VMAs.

Related Posts:

I Don’t Want My MTV. The Tweens Can Have It.
If a Gallagher Falls in the Forest, and No One is There to Film It…
Not Down With Prince
A Post-Mortem on Patrick Wolf’s Dead Meat: Music Video For Vulture

4. The Transformed, But Nonetheless Continued Presence of Diabolical Disney Music
The latter half of the 90s saw the massive return on Disney’s investment in ostensibly squeaky-clean popstars, who were raised in their Mickey Mouse Club stables like cute, little, doe-eyed cash calves. These were the years when Christina Aguilera, Britney Spears, and NSYNC were royalty. And just when we all thought they had gone away to morph into the realms of crasser sexuality, we were hit with High School Musical, Hannah Montana and The Jonas Brothers. And they went global. Disney was no longer ubiquitous because of their animated projects, but because they had tapped into the tween market once again. This time, they made sure they used media convergence to its extreme. What these franchises also appeared to be espousing was the doctrine of the 00s: anyone could be a pop star. And they should start early.

5. The Reality Pop Star
It seems difficult to remember a time when there weren’t reality competition shows, especially the Pop Idol/X-Factor-types. Now it’s big business for the advertisers who slap their products and commercials into the programs, and usually brief big business just as an “idol” releases his/her debut album. Then he/she usually fades back into the obscurity from whence he/she came, and the cycle begins again, neatly representing our superficial, throwaway culture while making regular people think they’re entitled to more than they actually are. And all along the way, we had to stare at Simon Cowell’s smug, stump-like head.

Related Posts:

Christmas Number Ones: A Measure of Christmas’s True Meaning
Am I a Music Snob?: A Matter of Taste

6. Guitar Heroes and Rock Bands
Along with the wave of reality celebrity culture, video games like Guitar Hero and Rock Band also made it seem like everyone could be a star. And so we all learned what it was like when air guitar was dumbed down to a series of coloured buttons. I’m not being that critical – it’s more the bitterness seeping out from the fact I still haven’t learned how to play the acoustic guitar I got for Christmas two years ago and the fact I don’t own any video game systems.

7. The Renaissance of Vinyl
Here’s something we should have seen coming. As music grew less and less tangible, and thus, less and less valuable, music fans started looking for ways in which they could get more out of music when paying for it. CDs are pretty obsolete because they offer nothing more than MP3s, which are either rather cheap or free. Vinyl records, on the other hand, offer an entirely different listening experience, and one that cannot be replicated unless you have the capability of producing your own vinyl (not likely). Not only is the sound of analog warmer, but vinyl records also allow you to focus more on albums as wholes, including the larger scope for artwork. Vinyl records aren’t meant to be transportable media; they’re meant to be tied to a particular spot and require a different sort of listening. There was a time when I could only buy used vinyl unless I was in Europe or ordering from Europe; now I can buy brand new vinyl records on the Canadian Amazon shop and in several shops in the city. I hope this trend continues.

Related Post:

Sleeveface: Celebrating The Flipside of Vinyl’s Other Artform

8. Concert-Going in the 21st Century and Ticket-Touting
Along with the online revolution in music came the rather unfortunate rise of online ticket purchasing. No one lines up nor phones ticket lines anymore for gigs. If you don’t have a high-speed Internet connection and presale passwords, you either won’t get a decent ticket to your favourite artist’s show, or you’ll have to pay extortionary prices on auctions to ticket touters or the original ticket highwaymen themselves, like Ticketmaster. Or you may just die of a heart attack in the process. It’s why I favour rush seating gigs, where the spot you get is directly proportional to your leg strength, ability to combat boredom, and sharpness of elbow. What would you need to get a seat in the first to third rows at a seated gig anymore? It’s not a rhetorical question – I would really love to know.

Related Post:

It’s Not Fair: Ticket Sales in an Online World

9. Comedy and Music Became a Cooler Combination Again
This was the decade in which musical comedy duos like The Mighty Boosh and Flight of Conchords gained ascendence. There’s no shortage of older acts that made music funny and comedy musical (Monty Python and Spinal Tap spring to mind), but it’s nice to know that it all gained a surreal airing in the 00s. While both duos are in uncertain places as the decade closes (The Mighty Boosh haven’t said they’ll ever do another series and Flight of the Conchords said they definitely won’t), they provided me with many of my laughs in the last half of the noughties, and many of my catchphrases, too. The duos were delightfully different: The Mighty Boosh was like an intertextual acid mixture of Captain Beefheart and Frank Zappa with increasingly more London hipster thrown in, and Flight of the Conchords was like a monotone chameleon, able to capture any musical genre perfectly while delivering hapless adventure after hapless adventure.

Related Post:

Music Can Be Funny and Comedy Can Be Musical: The Mighty Boosh and Flight of the Conchords

10. Re-Packaging and Re-Fadding: Emo and the (Yawn) Ensuing Moral Panic and Mark Ronson and the (Yawn) Retro Revival
This decade saw the transmogfrication of the genre called emo into something more than merely Sunny Day Real Estate and Dashboard Confessional. If you want a decent history of the subculture (well at least up until 2003), read Andy Greenwald’s Nothing Feels Good: Punk Rock, Teenagers, and Emo. By the end of this decade, emo had come to mean some adolescent subculture obsessed with gothy aesthetics, poppy but melodramatic music, and self-harm. And probably vampires. What’s odd is how we got from emotional hardcore music to Fall Out Boy and My Chemical Romance in the matter of a few years. In the end, emo is just goth repackaged for the ADD digital generation. Gone are the gloomy dirges and swirling sadness of bands like Cocteau Twins and This Mortal Coil; now boys in eyeliner can play pop-punk with extremely long, but no more intellectually stimulating, titles and somehow unite the outsiders in their identical floppy fringey skunk haircuts. Ultimately, emo has come to mean goth lite, which can be easily marketed.

As with all teenage subcultures that adults don’t understand and which get seized upon by the media, emo suffered a strange moral panic by the latter half of the noughties. Parents were nonsensically alarmed at the propensity for self-harm amongst these dissatisfied angsty teens, and for the love of all that is sacred on this Earth, why did they have to stand out from their peers like that? At the end of the day, Morrissey and Richey Edwards would have been emo, but luckily for them, they escaped the tawdry tag before it became popular. People still don’t understand me, but I’m not going to cry about it.

On the other end of the spectrum, another bizarre revival occurred: retro brass sounds, largely the responsibility of Mark Ronson. With Amy Winehouse stumbling in tow and any number of celebrity guests covering songs for him (God forbid Ronson have an original song), this self-satisfied producer added horns to everything and was proclaimed a genius. Bumping along on his bandwagon of manure, were singers like Duffy and Adele. Singer/songwriter Tom Rosenthal (I wrote about him here) expresses the Mark Ronson phenomenon better than I ever could:

Oh, I’m the coolest man in all of the land
And all my friends are famous
And all my songs are bland
I’m akin to a thief
Like yoyos, I’ll be a fad
For I take quite good songs
And I make them bad

And I don’t know if I’m English or American
And if I can win a Brit Award, then anyone bloody can
I’m a glorified DJ
A riches to riches story
I borrow from the talented and I take all the glory

They say anyone’s grandma could do what I do
By putting a different drumbeat on it
And adding a few trumpets, too
But they don’t have my panache
And they don’t have my celebrity mates
And if I ever get round to writing a song,
God, it will be great

The other day I was asked
If I had a motto
I said yes, it’s not what you know, it’s who you know
I’m living proof you don’t need talent to succeed
I’m the George Bush of music
I’m the Prince of the Thieves

Now to my own personal experience of the decade. I should start off by saying that I found it hard to believe it had already been a whole decade – something that it seems most people haven’t noticed nor been too fussed about (aside from one two-part program on the BBC, I haven’t seen all that many retrospectives of this decade). It’s hard to fathom that, at the turn of this millennium, I graduated from high school. That makes these last ten years (supposedly) the most productive part of my life thus far: I got several degrees/diplomas from post-secondary education, I travelled more than I ever had before, I learned much more about the world and about this thing we call humanity, I read books I never thought existed, I got crap retail jobs and finally a proper grown-up job, I made friends, I lost friends, and most importantly of all, I expanded my love of music beyond anything I had in high school. When I think about it, this decade actually quite demarcated my life between adolescence and adulthood (the arbitrary age being seventeen/eighteen years old). For me, this decade was truly one of self-discovery and self-creation. With the same tenacity and interest that I applied to my academic studies, I dove into a music world that I hadn’t been acquainted with through high school (my exposure was generally confined to music television and Top 40 radio). Unfortunately, I didn’t have too many muso friends growing up – in fact, the majority of my friends had very limited taste in music. And my immediate family didn’t really encourage music – my father was the only one who had any sort of musical leanings. So, when I was seventeen, I started the search on my own, equipped with reams of music magazines, books, and new CDs. I didn’t have a computer at home until I started university, and I didn’t have cable Internet access until a few years ago; these facts made my search for music a much slower affair than it might have been, but perhaps it also made it more meaningful.

My magpie ways led me on a winding path that had me appreciating political and intelligent music; the first two bands that I really embraced after high school were The Clash and The Smiths. I absorbed a bit of musical influence from college peers and co-workers, but still made the journey largely on my own, trekking in my spare periods between university courses to the downtown A&B Sound shop and buying copious amounts of CDs to listen to whilst sitting in the university corridors (as all good shops appear to do in this city, A&B Sound closed its doors several years ago and became yet another retail husk in the downtown area). I bought up classics from The Velvet Underground, Joy Division, Kate Bush, Wire, and The Jesus and Mary Chain, alongside newer releases from Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci, Stars, Bloc Party, Idlewild, British Sea Power, and We Are Scientists. I started going to more and more live gigs. And the more I travelled over to the UK and lived there, the more I realized my preference for British bands. The last few trips saw me fill my suitcase and bag with CDs and vinyl.

I listened and I learned – to some people who know me, I became the Rain Man of music. I discovered I’ll never enjoy rap nor metal music. I discovered that I’ll always dislike Bob Dylan. I discovered how much lyrics meant to me. Music made me a more fully-rounded person and a happier person; it supplemented the myriad views of the world that I had also been gaining with books. It gave me something to cling to emotionally and it gave me something I could share with others. And it inspired me creatively. For me, MP3 blogs via The Hype Machine came within the last four years of the decade, and they opened my mind even further to more independent artists, and to the power of fans and DIY culture. Finally, there was something I could do that would allow me to write regularly (I gave up on the dream of a full-time occupation as a writer long ago), and it might even be read by others. Two years ago, when I started writing this blog, I was exposed to even more music and more people, and it was a fascinating learning experience as it became neccessary to try to articulate my thoughts and feelings about music (vigorously pirouetting and waltzing about architecture) and to attain a dialogue with some of the artists I wrote about.

In fact, when I tried to look back at the decade and what it offered in terms of music, I found it rather difficult because I spent a large part of the decade discovering older artists that I had missed out on. I returned to punk, glam, New Wave/post-punk, krautrock, folk, shoegaze, electronica, C86, synthpop, and many of the hyphenated hybrids in between. The only artists salvaged from my adolescent years were David Bowie, New Order, The Cure, Prince, Pulp, Depeche Mode, and Duran Duran, and a few other sundry 80s artists.

When I do actually try to put some perspective on the music that was released in the noughties, it becomes a bit astonishing just how many bands that I take for granted made their debuts. The decade seemed to begin with a violent shift from plastic pop, including boy bands and pop tarts, to legitimate musicians playing their own music, including The Strokes, The Libertines, The White Stripes, and The Hives.

A few years into the decade, the second-wave Brit Invasion happened with bands like Kaiser Chiefs, Bloc Party, Franz Ferdinand, Keane, Maximo Park, Razorlight, The Rakes, The Delays and The Futureheads (to varying degrees of success and longevity). And the most pernicious of all invaders was Coldplay. When I first saw their video for Yellow over in the UK about eight years ago, I never would have guessed their eventual U2-like world domination. And then came the Arctic Monkeys, which seemed like the messiahs people were waiting for after the sloppy, pathetic demise of The Libertines. I enjoyed their first album, but never really went further with them. Then again, a lot of the bands I first liked in the noughties turned out like that.

Along with this British surge in indie bands, I became more aware of Canadian indie artists, which largely coalesced around the Montreal scene. As music press is wont to do, the journalists hailed the largest city in Quebec as the new hotbed of musical activity somewhere in the middle of the 00s (just as they had done with Manchester in the 80s, Seattle in the 90s, and Brooklyn now). The world took note of bands like The Arcade Fire and Broken Social Scene, and suddenly bands with sprawling orchestras were in vogue. I also duly took note of these bands and Stars, which led me to other Canadian bands like The New Pornographers, Hexes & Ohs, Allegories, The Rest, Archivist, The Dears, Metric, Death From Above 1979, The Stills, and many more.

It also seemed Sweden became increasingly adept at producing dreampop bands, each sweeter than the last, and I fell for The Radio Dept., The Mary Onettes, Twig, The Sound of Arrows, The Deer Tracks, Twiggy Frostbite, and Club 8 to name a few.

Additionally, I will remember the decade as the period that introduced Modular Recordings to a wider audience. Though the Australian label was founded in 1998, it really took off with a multitude of Australian electronic acts like Cut Copy, Van She, and The Presets, along with releases from Wolfmother and Bumblebeez. Along similar lines, this decade saw the formation of Kitsuné Music, a French electronic music record label, and at around the same time, Get Physical Music, a Berlin-based label releasing similar music, was established. New York’s DFA Records also came into being at the beginning of this decade. Between these four labels I developed a deeper love for electronic music.

There are too many bands that began their careers in the noughties to list here. Instead, I’ll just put up a handful of tracks that will always remind me of the first ten years of the 21st century (the restriction being that these bands had to have debuted in the 00s.

This is it for me for now. I realize that the Day of 200 Songs still needs to be done, but we’ll see how quickly I can get it out there. It might be some time next week.

Like Eating Glass – Bloc Party

Take Me Out – Franz Ferdinand

That Great Love Sound – The Raveonettes

Wake Up – The Arcade Fire

Somebody Told Me – The Killers

I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor – Arctic Monkeys

NYC – Interpol

We Only Stayed Together For the Kids – Luxembourg

The Great Escape – We Are Scientists

We Are Your Friends – Justice vs Simian Mobile Disco

Here It Goes Again – OK Go

Time to Pretend – MGMT

Remember Me – British Sea Power

Lloyd Are You Ready to Be Heartbroken? – Camera Obscura

Mercy – IAMX

Your Ex-Lover is Dead – Stars

You Are the Generation That Bought More Shoes and You Get What You Deserve – Johnny Boy

Giddy Stratospheres – The Long Blondes

Destroy Everything You Touch – Ladytron

All My Friends – LCD Soundsystem

Pulling Our Own Weight – The Radio Dept.

I’ll Be Next To You – Vanilla Swingers

The Modern Leper – Frightened Rabbit

We Hate the Kids – The Indelicates

The Magic Position – Patrick Wolf

Consolation Prizes – Phoenix

Snakes and Martyrs – TV on the Radio

Can’t Stand Me Now – The Libertines

18
Sep
09

Bloody Bizarre: The 2010 MTV VMAs

Last year, I used the unfortunate blight that is the MTV VMAs to rant about the state of music television. This year, it turns out, has produced fodder of a different kind. Sure, I could still rant about the lack of quality in music videos and MTV, but that’s not really top of mind after viewing the awards show on Sunday night. I’m not quite certain what it was that made this year’s show so surreal; it could have been a combination of the incessant Twittering and texting running along the bottom of my screen (I watched it via MuchMusic in Canada, but it could have very well been happening everywhere), or the long line of live airing debacles (the Kanye West outburst didn’t even seem quite as strange as the general malaise and/or bewilderment throughout the rest of the show).

The show kicked off with yet another Michael Jackson tribute (I had to watch just to see what the institution that really created him would come up with), and it was…boring. For an artist who based most of his career on spectacle, the performance was bizarrely pedestrian. I had expected several celebrities to make an appearance (hey, people like Usher and Justin Timberlake made a living off imitating him), but instead it was a long line of generic dancers doing a few of Jackson’s routines against a backdrop of the music videos. And these dancers weren’t even all that good – during the gravity-defying leaning move at the end of Smooth Criminal, one of the dancers ended up being rather conspicuously bent over like a coat hanger instead. Then Janet Jackson made her appearance during Scream in order to dance in-sync with her brother on the screen behind her – she fell out of step somewhere and ended up lagging slightly behind like a satellite feed. The quality control on the man’s memory was about as good as the quality control on his public image during the last fifteen years.

Then there was the odd, less-than-exciting cover version of We Will Rock You by Katy Perry and Joe Perry, which inexplicably summoned Russell Brand to appear as host for the second year in a row. (I suppose the fact the MTV VMAs never seem to have a specific theme to run with contributes to the lack of coherence in these shows.) There are times that I find Russell Brand funny. There are times when I really don’t (loads of puerile sex jokes). This was of the second variety, which is wearing very thin. He, himself, seemed out of step more than usual (granted certain types of British humour don’t always make much of an impression on North American audiences, especially of the award show type, but Brand seemed to lose the plot a whole lot more than last year). His one decent comment was about American health care, and then he seemed to be relegated to the fringes for the rest of the night.

And then the part of the show that interested me the most was the Lady GaGa performance, which you can view above. Essentially, she parodied a tragic opera, which saw her strung up and bloody by the end. Perhaps what interested me even more than the performance itself was the reaction from MuchMusic VJ, Devon Soltendieck, who was manning the airtime before and after the live feed would cut in from New York. He stood there as though someone had just ran past him and slapped him in the face with a fish. Then he inserted the remark, “When is too much too much?” I found this a bit puzzling. Too much? MTV Awards? Without trying to be too punny, the comment kind of hung there.

I’d be the last person to rush to Lady GaGa’s defence about anything (I don’t listen to her music if I can help it), but there’s no doubt that her performance was a spectacle in the spirit of pushing boundaries of taste and adolescent rebellion, which I had assumed MTV always stood for. She made this year’s awards show memorable, and when, let’s face it, the majority of the music MTV promotes is disposable pop, the way it is performed comes to matter even more. We’re not expecting groundbreaking music or art on MTV; we’re expecting a channel that parents would cringe at, and style prevailing over substance. I’m not even particularly interested whether Lady GaGa’s performance represented her view of paparazzi and privacy; to me, it was a conversation piece that stood out from the other very standardized, predictable acts (oh, Green Day, you’re so dangerous inviting fans on stage with you). From what I gather, Lady GaGa has seemingly attracted loads of publicity for her costumes, her performances, her bisexuality, and the rather fascinating accusations of hermaphroditism. Russell Brand made reference to the latter charges in a set-up for one of his opening jokes, questioning why a woman couldn’t be strong, successful and sexually aggressive without being called a hermaphrodite. Obviously Brand’s comment simplifies things, but it does pose a good question regarding gender, sexuality, performance and social taboos, including suicide, disability and insanity.

Why did Soltendieck, amongst many others, including anti-suicide advocates, find Lady GaGa’s performance so unsettling and/or offensive, but don’t mind rap artists glorifying violence and sexism, including a chainsaw-wielding Eminem (who looked very subdued during this year’s VMAs)? Lady GaGa was different because she portrayed violence turned inward, not outward. Another thing that struck me about Lady GaGa’s gory performance was the implication of insanity – she was wholly absorbed in her role, right down to the mad, vacant eyes. Mental health issues can scare people much more than violence; ever since the seventeenth century, madness has either been treated as a freakish spectacle or as something to be institutionalized, literally sectioned from the rest of society. She also brought disability into it by supporting herself with crutches and having a girl spastically dancing in a wheelchair. To most, those things don’t belong on the stage at a pop awards show. Nor amongst sexily-dressed dancers. Is it allowed to sexualize disability? It makes you question what society deems appropriate where.

I also wonder why it is completely okay for Katy Perry to prance about in scant clothing singing about kissing girls and liking it, but Lady GaGa gets branded a she-man. I think it’s because Perry stays within the acceptable boundaries of gender and sexuality; she’s transparent and non-threatening, she still dresses like a pop tart pin-up should and kisses girls to titillate others, she’s an object, not a subject. Gender is a performance; in fact, identity itself is a performance. Lady GaGa represents an exaggeration of that truth and a stubborn refusal to stop performing. It’s why she was so offputting to Jonathan Ross months ago on his chat show; her facade never broke. People focus on the outrageous costumes and stage shows and often quite brutally attack her gender and sexuality because they find her challenging and/or disturbing; it’s easier to reduce her to a caricature than deal with someone who will not play everyone else’s game. I suppose she didn’t write a song called Poker Face for nothing.

Sexy antics are easy and not so provocative – rolling around in a wedding dress just doesn’t mean much anymore, nor do lesbian kisses between heterosexual women. I don’t find what Lady GaGa did very bizarre, but I do find the reactions to it to be quite strange, indeed. I have to give it to her – Lady GaGa actually found a way to shock the masses in a world where nothing supposedly shocks. When the Michael Jackson tribute didn’t deliver, she did.

A Strange Day – The Cure

Is It Really So Strange? – The Smiths

28
Jun
09

Michael Jackson, Media Convergence and The Decline of the Global Superstar

I’m hesitant to contribute to the disgusting, inane circus that has been in motion since Michael Jackson died, but perhaps it’s a way into larger issues. Of interest to me is the (multi)media coverage surrounding this event and the idea of global, musical superstardom. The last time I remember witnessing this kind of coverage and global attention over a death was for Princess Diana. While at least a few hours were devoted to Michael Jackson’s death as “breaking news” on CBC’s Newsworld channel on the day he died, the first fifteen minutes of the CTV evening news broadcast the following night (in addition to at least five minutes more specifically about his autopsy and a couple minutes celebrating his career at the very end of the broadcast) was still devoted solely to Michael Jackson. My reaction to all of this coverage is still frustration and disgust; the world does not stop when a celebrity dies, and it is completely self-indulgent and useless to cover it to this extent, not to mention the hypocrisy of praising a man that was mercilessly derided and/or ignored for the last third of his life.

However, this time, Facebook, Twitter, texting, YouTube, and even Google as a whole, were also jammed with messages to crashing point. And that lengthy breaking news broadcast on CBC Newsworld was greatly bolstered by reports from not only so-called experts in the field, but also from sources like Twitter and Facebook. The mass media’s dependence on new media, especially of this nature, is pointing to a new media convergence that is both liberating and alarming. Do we need this many perspectives to contend with, and how much is verified before stated on air? Immediacy in any breaking event is always a waste of time because details will settle and change, and these social networking platforms are probably the most immediate forms of media there ever were. The crash of these technology-based social networks ostensibly shows an active rather than passive collectivity, meaning rather than experiencing a historical moment together via the exact same channels (limited to a few mass media networks), people wanted to reach out and create their own moment, their own reportage and rapport; however, this crash of systems also points to some intense displays of cultural capital, something a lot of these social networks are built upon. The reasons for this unprecedented crash are likely manifold, but it then raises the issue of the subject matter that prompted it.

The Pitchfork obituary makes some interesting, valid points about Michael’s role as a superhero and then as a cartoon. There’s something about his level of success and fame that made him completely unreal, and most people’s reactions to his death confirm it. There seems to be a lack of belief that this could possibly happen. I first heard about it while at a bookstore; a worker was running around the store telling his colleagues that Michael Jackson was dead, and everyone he told initially brushed it off with a nonchalant “You’re kidding.” And most reactions caught by the media and personal new media are ones of shock, as though Michael Jackson was always there and would always be there like some immortal. Where did this sense of superhuman come from?

Despite his earlier success in the 70s as part of The Jackson 5, there was something very essentially 1980s about the creation of Michael Jackson; he was a fixture of the cultural zeitgeist by being a brand and an overblown music video aesthetic in a nascent globalization. It’s no coincidence that his career glory years were bracketed by that money-hungry, visually loud decade. He was the living embodiment of the “American Dream” and represented all of the nation’s ideals and hopeful potential: rags-to-riches, creative innovation, celebration of the individual and his/her achievements, erasure of racial barriers. It’s when he started erasing his own race that he began reflecting a different side of America: self-destructive excess, worship of the artificial, delusions of grandeur, mob mentality and tabloid fascination with the grotesque and “different.” I firmly believe there won’t be another global musical superstar like Michael Jackson; not because no one will ever be as talented or exceed his level of talent, but that the media climate will never be so conducive to producing one ever again. Nor a shockwave like this.

The world is imploding into fractured pieces as much as people want to believe that the web of the Internet is pulling us closer together in a global village. No artist can hope to have the same impact Michael Jackson and even other, less famous, 80s pop stars had worldwide. Our sources for information and entertainment are divided into niches and people are increasingly creating their own information channels and entertainment. We are now all living in pockets that are dominated by cult artists, or we get bombarded by too many mainstream artists to care too deeply. Marketing ploys have made most of us very cynical and suspicious, making it a massive challenge to maintain brand loyalty. So many things are free and immediate that we don’t place too much value on anything or anyone. We are so easily connected and space and time have been so effectively tamed, we stopped feeling awe at sharing cultural objects and moments. Live 8 was by no means as culturally significant and as historically memorable as Live Aid.

In addition to his representation of America and the multiple channels through which he was sold and promoted, Michael Jackson’s global superstardom was a product of the fact he was non-threatening, a characteristic that often defines the genre of music he was purported king of. In spite of some of the bizarre, hard-edged, or spooky performances he gave in his music videos, there was always something of a child playing at adult roles about him; he wasn’t really going to fight in the streets, he was playing dress-up to be “bad,” and when he attacks you as a zombie it’s all in the name of make-believe. His Peter Pan syndrome, which ultimately became an exercise in entrapment and self-harm, spoke to a deep-seated, sometimes unhealthy, need for the rest of us to remain youthful and responsibility-free just like the myriad advertisements told us to be. And like mean-spirited children, the media and large parts of the public took part in the incessant bullying and gleeful picking and poking at Michael Jackson. By disintegrating and rotting with excess and mental illness, he showed us our face in the mirror more than any trite song ever could. And we didn’t like it. We only like to see the positive side of the zeitgeist. It was all fun and games until we lost an idol.

I probably shouldn’t be surprised that the most blogged about artists on The Hype Machine for the last few days have been Michael Jackson and The Jackson 5; however, after having read through many posts about him, I am a bit surprised how overwhelmingly positive and sympathetic they are. It’s as though people are desperate to forget the fact he hasn’t been top-of-mind for so long and hasn’t been at the top of his game for so much longer. And considering I’ve rarely seen Michael Jackson tracks posted on the blogs that are part of The Hype Machine, it somehow feels a little bit like too little too late. He had become so beyond comprehension, and we were all so desensitized to outrageous behaviour, that the media couldn’t even be bothered with him anymore – for all intents and purposes he had disappeared off the radar, even after announcing the continuing excesses of the 50-date O2 engagement. He had figuratively died a slow death for the past twenty years.

True to Morrissey’s Paint a Vulgar Picture, the response of unprecedented spiking sales for Michael Jackson music, downloads and otherwise, just seems more cynical than celebratory to me. There’s something tawdry about this financial tribute, and as with the amount of people coming forward with texts, tweets, and posts, I begin to wonder how much is genuine and how much of it is just not wanting to be left out. It’s yet another part of why I was reluctant to write this post at all.

In the global reaction to his death, it seems people are most sad because of nostalgia and ties to their own youth. I was born in the same year of Thriller’s release, but I obviously still grew up being very aware of Michael Jackson. My awareness of his music was probably first through the Dangerous album, which some of my friends and/or family members had, and the song Black or White, which always seemed to be playing at the roller rink when I was a child. I also have vague memories of seeing the Thriller video at a young age (maybe at Halloween), and back when music television still showed music videos, I would watch 80s weekends, which were dominated by Madonna, Duran Duran, and of course, Michael Jackson. Videos like Billie Jean, Beat It and Thriller became iconic to me at a later date, but they did still form part of that cultural touchstone in a way that I can’t imagine any music video becoming now. There’s no doubt that I love the music videos that my favourite artists are producing, but the likelihood that I could mention them to anyone else in the world and have them understand and know what I’m talking about is remote. They will never become global reference points, nor will they create moments of waiting for a music video world premiere like the one above this post. I’m by no means some huge Michael Jackson fan, and I wouldn’t consider him among my musical heroes, but I definitely acknowledge that Thriller is and was an important album, and Billie Jean is still genuinely one of my favourite songs.

As a society, we project a lot onto celebrities, but you can’t be a global superstar if the globe ceases to have any meaningful weight as a concept. The very networks that heralded his death to crashing point are the very same technology that is heralding the death of global superstardom. After all, Michael Jackson didn’t change the world, he merely reflected it. He was the King of Pop, but when all the world is a popularity contest, it’s impossible to crown another one. The world’s stage is groaning under the surplus of “stars.” There will never be another Michael Jackson because the world is a different place.

Billie Jean – Michael Jackson

Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough – Michael Jackson

12
Apr
08

The Medium is the Music: An Essay on Digital Music

I realize that this post may be a bit lazy, but I’m in the process of writing a take-home exam this weekend for my social semiotics class, and I’m a wee bit panicked at the moment. So, I decided I would post an essay I wrote for a previous media studies take-home exam because it involves music and new media. It may seem a bit too academic for a blog post, but I think it’s a relevant topic for those who are interested in music and the study of media in general. The question for this exam was to discuss the following Wired article about Universal and its CEO Doug Morris and their being completely unprepared for new media in the music world: http://www.wired.com/entertainment/music/magazine/15-12/mf_morris . In addition, we were supposed to reference Neil Postman’s book Technopoly and Mark Poster’s book Information Please. It was actually one of the more fun essays I’ve ever written.

The Medium is the Music
Seth Mnookin’s article about Doug Morris, the CEO of Universal Music Group, reveals how the music industry’s major, and costly, mistake was its inability to understand the nature of digital media in relation to traditional analog media. This error extends to the music industry’s misunderstanding of the Internet as a medium as well. Mnookin demonstrates how not only did Morris err in failing to recognize the changes that digital music and peer-to-peer sharing would pose, but he also initially responded in a way that attempted to control a medium – through lawsuits against Yahoo, YouTube, and MySpace for using Universal music videos without paying for them, and through charging Microsoft’s Zune Marketplace for using the Universal back catalogue – that cannot be controlled by traditional means, and perhaps not at all. As Mnookin notes, “the more restrictions you put on your files, the more you encourage customers to turn to illegal services to get songs the way they want them.”
Mark Poster views the potential of the Internet and peer-to-peer music downloading as having two possibilities: “an Orwellian extension of governmental and corporate controls or a serious deepening of the democratization of culture” (193). In Mnookin’s article, it appears that Morris and Universal Music tends to favour the former more than the latter. Because Universal’s goal is to increase profit, and because its primary way of achieving this goal is through selling music, Morris ostensibly still sees peer-to-peer downloading of music as theft. Poster argues that the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), who also view MP3 sharing as theft, was making errors in their understanding of media differences: “In their suit of September 2003, the RIAA acted as if downloading music files is the same thing as taking a music CD from a retail store without paying for it. This claim of equivalence is a political move that ignores the specificity and differences of each media – CDs and digital files. When the CD is taken from the store, the store no longer has it; when the file is downloaded, the person sharing the file still has it” (189). Morris’s “blasting MP3 players as merely ‘repositories for stolen music’” makes the same assumption as the RIAA, an assumption which does not make sense in that digital objects like MP3s are copied, not actually stolen in the traditional sense of theft. This issue also complicates and evades traditional copyright law. Poster states: “Copyright law covered the medium in which inventions or acts of genius were embedded for reproduction” (197). However, now that the medium has changed from traditional ones like printing presses and CD manufacturers to the Internet and its attendant programs, the nature of how production and reproduction function has changed drastically.

In explaining these fundamental shifts, Poster writes: “Digital cultural objects do not fall under the laws of scarcity and the market because they require almost no cost to produce, copy, and distribute, and like ideas they do not diminish when they are given away” (195). In this way, digital cultural objects threaten the capitalist market and those, like Morris, who gain most from it. If music is no longer viewed as a commodity, but instead a public possession that does not require economic power to exist or be distributed, then corporations like Universal seem to be obsolete under this new system: “In short, digitization changes the nature of the producer and the consumer, blurring the boundary between them” (Poster 195-96), and “Digitization threatens the media corporations because one no longer requires great amounts of capital to produce, reproduce, modify, and distribute cultural objects” (198). Mnookin writes that Morris and Universal’s “current moves – DRM-free songs and the Total Music subscription service – aren’t about serving consumers, at least not principally. They’re aimed at taking on Steve Jobs and, specifically, limiting the power of iTunes,” meaning that it appears that Morris has still not completely understood the nature of the new media and how it is changing the capitalist market for cultural products.

Morris insists on continuing to think about competition within the traditional capitalist system, and his long-term competition is not other corporations, but those who understand the new media better than he does – the consumers themselves. Not only is there a serious threat to the cultural corporations of America, but there is a further political link in that, for the US, cultural objects are “second only to defense in export value” (208). If the national economy can no longer support itself through cultural exports like music, the entire country will be affected, and the government may be more likely to try to step in and control media sharing; however, as demonstrated by the control problems experienced by the music industry, there would be great difficulty policing the Internet for media sharing, especially under current laws. The global networked nature of the Internet also poses a dilemma because every country would have to adopt the same laws regarding media sharing, a daunting task, and it would not necessarily safeguard against constant innovation in technology finding ways around these laws.
The constant innovation in the sharing of digital music creates an interesting paradox in which the very foundations of the capitalist system are the cause of its problems. Despite Morris’s acquiescence with giving music away through Total Music, Mnookin points out: “The irony is that if he decides to base his plans around DRM, Morris will be missing the larger truth that has propelled his business for the past 30 years. Ultimately, it’s convenience and ease of use that drive new media formats.” Morris’s attitude demonstrates this paradox in that “If the music industry wins its case against Internet technology, capitalism loses its legitimacy as the bearer of progress” (Poster 190). With the advent of digital media and file sharing networks over the Internet, the progress narrative of capitalism is halted because the advances that appear to be in the processes change the nature of the product; in a McLuhan-like way, the medium becomes the message.
Furthermore, this aspect of the Digital Age has been overlooked by the music industry, and it ensures that process exceeds content in its importance and dominance. Neil Postman argues that “Because of what computers commonly do, they place an inordinate emphasis on the technical processes of communication and offer very little in the way of substance […] The computer is almost all process” (118). By looking at the issue of digital music sharing in this light, it seems that the computer and the Internet value speed and reach of communication over what is actually being communicated between users; this is not to say that people do not care about the music they listen to, but that they feel entitled to it because of the very process and medium that makes it available to them.
In Mnookin’s article, Rio Caraeff, executive VP of Universal’s digital strategy, says “the company will eventually need to transition from running a product-based business to running a service-based one,” including ringtones, subscription services, and deals with mobile providers. This shift in strategy shows how the attempted control over the products, which are arguably the content of the medium, has been shifted to control over the form of the medium; in effect, Universal realizes that music and many other cultural products are no longer physical, tangible commodities, and their existence is both fluid and public. This issue also raises the question of what happens when something becomes part of the public domain, and with the Internet, what is actually public? As Poster demonstrates with his discussion of internet identity theft, everything tends to become externalized through the medium of the Internet, radically changing the perceptions of privacy and the public domain.
Besides the loss of profit for the corporation, the music industry’s main argument against peer-to-peer file sharing is that it is also violating artists’ royalty benefits. Poster gives three reasons to refute this argument: it is not necessarily true that artists receive compensation for the reproduction of their work, file sharing does not mean the sale of commodities, and the artists themselves have “borrowed” from others in the creation of their art (201-02). He also argues that most of the royalty money an artist earns is taken by production costs, and that distribution of an artists’ music has not been a fair process before file-sharing in that radio stations and DJs were often bribed to play certain artists on heavy rotation (205). The “unfairness” of file-sharing is unfair to the industry only because it negatively affects the industry itself and has nothing to do with popularity being an indication of music’s status as an art form.

The recent tactic employed by Radiohead in allowing their fans to choose the monetary value of their latest album poses an interesting alternative to current music download practices and raises particular issues about the capitalist market and the value of cultural objects. Since Radiohead was no longer attached to a contract with a major label when they released their latest album, they chose to release their album as a download and those who wanted it could pay any amount they deemed worthy of the album, including paying nothing. The average price chosen by those who purchased the album turned out to be £5 (approximately $10 US), which perhaps places the album at a slightly lower price than it would have sold at conventionally; however, considering the record company was not involved, thus not making money from it, the band likely made more profit per album than by selling it through a major label, which would have taken a higher percentage of each total, thus increasing the price presented to consumers. Also, there may have been a higher percentage of people who paid a considerably lesser price than the average, but would have illegally downloaded it for free elsewhere otherwise. A tactic like this may not have worked as successfully without a high-profile band with an established, strong fanbase, but it does change the way in which people think about music and other cultural products. By allowing consumers to assign their own worth to a cultural product, Radiohead relinquished the control that Morris and Universal refuse to.

There also many bands with profiles on MySpace, who are either unsigned or are signed to a truly independent label or distributer rather than an “independent” branch of a major label. In these bands’ cases, they remove the middleman of a major label and sell their music directly to their fans. Because music production technology has also become more available and relatively cost-efficient to use, many artists no longer need a major label to pay for studio time or producers. The role of major labels as having promotional clout is also waning with the amount of buzz being generated by either the artists themselves or independent music bloggers. Most recently, an independent act named IAMX (www.iamx.co.uk), which is based in Europe, managed to tour successfully throughout North America without any promotion outside of their Internet networks and “street teams” composed of fans. In effect, they have cut out the need for a major label for production, distribution, and promotion. While Morris and Universal have chosen to attempt “an Orwellian extension of governmental and corporate controls,” artists as diverse as IAMX and Radiohead are embracing “a serious deepening of the democratization of culture.” The difference lies in the recognition and understanding of the new media and its inevitable effect on capitalism and culture.

Nude – Radiohead

House of Cards – Radiohead

We’re in the Music Biz – Robots in Disguise




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Gigs Attended

Arcade Fire w/ Bell Orchestre + Wolf Parade (2005)

Arctic Monkeys w/ Reverend and the Makers (2007)

Austra w/ Young Galaxy + Tasseomancy (2011)

Big Audio Dynamite (2011)

Billy Bragg w/ Ron Hawkins (2009)

Billy Idol w/ Bif Naked (2005)

Bloc Party w/ Hot Hot Heat (2009)

Buzzcocks w/ The Dollyrots (2010)

Damo Suzuki (2012)

David Bowie w/ The Polyphonic Spree (2004)

Diamond Rings w/ PS I Love You + The Cannon Bros. (2011)

Diamond Rings w/ Gold & Youth (2012)

Dragonette w/ Ruby Jean & the Thoughtful Bees (2009)

Frank Turner w/ The Cavaliers (2010)

Frank Turner w/ Into It Over It + Andrew Jackson Jihad (2011)

Franz Ferdinand w/ Think About Life (2009)

Gang of Four w/ Hollerado (2011)

Good Shoes w/ The Moths + The Envelopes (2007)

Hot Hot Heat w/ The Futureheads + Louis XIV (2005)

IAMX w/ closethuman (2007)

IAMX w/ Coma Soft + The Hourly Radio (2007)

Interpol (2007)

Janelle Monae w/ Roman GianArthur (2012)

Joel Plaskett Emergency w/ Frank Turner (2012)

Jonathan Richman (2011)

Keane w/ Lights (2009)

Lou Reed w/ Buke and Gass (2011)

Manic Street Preachers w/ Fear of Music (2007)

Manic Street Preachers w/ Bear Hands (2009)

Manic Street Preachers at Wanaja Festival (2011)

Mother Mother w/ Old Folks Home (2009)

Mother Mother w/ Whale Tooth (2011)

Mother Mother w/ Hannah Georgas (2012)

MSTRKRFT w/ Felix Cartal (2008)

Muse (2004)

Nine Inch Nails w/ Death From Above 1979 + Queens of the Stone Age (2005)

of Montreal w/ Janelle Monae (2010)

Owen Pallett w/ Little Scream (2010)

Patrick Wolf w/ Bishi (2007)

Prince (2011)

Pulp w/ Grace Jones, TV on the Radio, The Hives, The Horrors, Metronomy, Devotcka, Vintage Trouble (2011)

Rufus Wainwright w/ Teddy Thompson (2010)

Snow Patrol w/ Embrace (2005)

Snow Patrol w/ OK Go + Silversun Pickups (2007)

Sons and Daughters w/ Bodies of Water (2008)

Stars w/ Thurston Revival (2006)

Stars w/ The Details (2008)

Stars (2010)

Steven Severin (2010)

Stroszek (2007)

The Antlers w/ Haunter (2012)

The Flaming Lips w/ Ariel Pink's Haunted Graffiti (2010)

The Jesus and Mary Chain w/ Nightbox (2012)

The Killers w/ Ambulance Ltd (2004)

The New Pornographers w/ Novillero (2008)

The New Pornographers w/ The Mountain Goats (2010)

The Ordinary Boys w/ Young Soul Rebels (2006)

The Pains of Being Pure at Heart w/ Suun (2011)

The Rakes w/ The Young Knives (2006)

The Raveonettes w/ Black Acid (2008)

The Stills w/ Gentleman Reg (2009)

The Subways w/ The Mad Young Darlings (2006)

Tokyo Police Club w/ Smoosh + Attack in Black (2008)

TV on the Radio w/ The Dirty Projectors (2009)

Yann Tiersen w/ Breathe Owl Breathe (2011)

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The only certain thing that is left about me

There is no part of my body that has not been used

Pity or pain, to show displeasure's shame

Everyone I've loved or hated always seems to leave

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So I turned myself to face me

But I've never caught a glimpse

Of how the others must see the faker

I'm much too fast to take that test

The Smiths Queen is Dead

A dreaded sunny day

So let's go where we're happy

And I meet you at the cemetry gates

Oh, Keats and Yeats are on your side

A dreaded sunny day

So let's go where we're wanted

And I meet you at the cemetry gates

Keats and Yeats are on your side

But you lose 'cause weird lover Wilde is on mine

The Clash London Calling

When they kick at your front door

How you gonna come?

With your hands on your head

Or on the trigger of your gun

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Charles Windsor, who's at the door

At such an hour, who's at the door

In the back of an old green Cortina

You're on your way to the guillotine

Here the rabble comes

The kind you hoped were dead

They've come to chop, to chop off your head

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Then you came with your breezeblocks

Smashing up my face like a bus-stop

You think you're giving

But you're taking my life away

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Won't someone give me more fun?

(and the skin flies all around us)

We kiss in his room to a popular tune

Oh, real drowners

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Don't walk away

In silence

See the danger

Always danger

Endless talking

Life rebuilding

Don't walk away

Walk in silence

Don't turn away in silence

Your confusion

My illusion

Worn like a mask of self-hate

Confronts and then dies

Don't walk away

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You don't want to hurt me

But see how deep the bullet lies

Unaware I'm tearing you asunder

Oh there is thunder in our hearts

Is there so much hate for the ones we love

Tell me we both matter don't we

The Associates Affectionate

I don't know whether

To over or under estimate you

Whether to over or under estimate you

For when I come over

You then put me under

Personal taste is a matter of gender

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I wake at dusk to go alone without a light

To the unknown

I want this night inside of me

I want to feel

I want this speeding

I want that speeding

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You'll never live like common people

You'll never do what common people do

You'll never fail like common people

You'll never watch your life slide out of view

And dance and drink and screw

Because there's nothing else to do

Vanilla Swingers

All I have is words, words that don't obtain

And I feel I'm a stain on your horizon

So I stay away - it's easier that way

And there won't be no-one I need to rely on

Is it him, is it me

Or is there something only I can see

How did I get here, why do we blow around like straw dogs on the breeze

I'm a special one, what they used to say

But I've to stay on, finish levels-A

You don't need exams when you've read John Gray

The Indelicates American Demo

And nobody ever comes alive

And the journalists clamour round glamour like flies

And boys who should know better grin and get high

With fat men who once met the MC5

And no one discusses what they don't understand

And no one does anything to harm the brand

And this gift is an illusion, this isn't hard

Absolutely anyone can play the fucking guitar

JAMC Darklands

And we tried so hard

And we looked so good

And we lived our lives in black

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Plucked her eyebrows on the way

Shaved her leg and then he was a she

She says, hey babe,

Take a walk on the wild side

Said, hey honey, take a walk on the wild side

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Hide on the promenade

Etch a postcard:

How I dearly wish I was not here

In the seaside town...that they forgot to bomb

Come, come, come - nuclear bomb

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Back when we were kids

We would always know when to stop

And now all the good kids are messing up

Nobody has gained or accomplished anything

Wire Pink Flag

Prices have risen since the government fell

Casualties increase as the enemy shell

The climate's unhealthy, flies and rats thrive

And sooner or later the end will arrive

This is your correspondent, running out of tape

Gunfire's increasing, looting, burning, rape

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Well, maybe there's a god above

But all I've ever learned from love

Was how to shoot somebody who outdrew you

It's not a cry that you hear at night

It's not somebody who's seen the light

It's a cold and it's a broken hallelujah

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And what costume shall the poor girl wear

To all tomorrow's parties

For Thursday's child is Sunday's clown

For whom none will go mourning

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My body is your body

I won't tell anybody

If you want to use my body

Go for it

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Oh it's opening time

Down on Fascination Street

So let's cut the conversation

And get out for a bit

Because I feel it all fading and paling

And I'm begging

To drag you down with me

Mansun Six

And you see, I kind of shivered to conformity

Did you see the way I cowered to authority

You see, my life, it's a series of compromises anyway

It's a sham, and I'm conditioned to accept it all, you see

Japan Gentlemen

Take in the country air, you'll never win

Gentlemen take polaroids

They fall in love, they fall in love

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We just want to emote til we're dead

I know we suffer for fashion

Or whatever

We don't want these days to ever end

We just want to emasculate them forever

Forever, forever

Pretty sirens don't go flat

It's not supposed to happen like that

Longpigs The Sun

There's no perfume I can buy

Make me smell like myself

So I put on perfume

To make me smell like someone else

In bed

Calvin Harris I Created Disco

I got love for you if you were born in the 80's, the 80's

I've got hugs for you if you were born in the 80's, the 80's

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Does his makeup in his room

Douse himself with cheap perfume

Eyeholes in a paper bag

Greatest lay I ever had

Kind of guy who mates for life

Gotta help him find a wife

We're a couple, when our bodies double

Simple Minds Sons and Fascination

Summer rains are here

Savaged beauty life

Falling here from grace

Sister feeling call

Cruising land to land

No faith no creed no soul

Half a world away

Beauty sleeps in time

Sound and fury play

Bloc Party Silent Alarm

North to south

Empty

Running on

Bravado

As if to say, as if to say

He doesn't like chocolate

He's born a liar, he'll die a liar

Some things will never be different

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LCD Soundsystem

Well Daft Punk is playing at my house, my house

I've waited 7 years and 15 days

There's every kid for miles at my house, my house

And the neighbors can't...call the police

There's a fist fight brewin' at my house, my house

Because the jocks can't...get in the door

Johnny Boy

I just can't help believing

Though believing sees me cursed

Stars Set Yourself

I am trying to say

What I want to say

Without having to say "I love you"

Josef K Entomology

It took 10 years to realise why the angels start to cry

When you go home down the main

Your happy smile

Your funny name

Cocteau Twins Bluebell

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Doesn't she look a million with her hairagami set

Hair kisses 'n' hair architecture

Yes, she's a beautiful brunette angel from heaven with her hairagami set

Hair kisses 'n' hair architecture

Augment a beautiful brunette

New Order Power Corruption

How does it feel

To treat me like you do

When you've laid your hands upon me

And told me who you are

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You must let her go

She's not crying

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Baiting

Feeling like I'm waiting

Modern times

Valentines

Hating

Hating to distraction

Just leave them alone

Whipcrack

Girls in the back

Girls in the back

Puressence Don't Forget

They say come back to earth and start getting real, yeah

I say come back to earth and start getting real

I know I can't

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So I walk right up to you

And you walk all over me

And I ask you what you want

And you tell me what you need

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The problem of leisure

What to do for pleasure

Ideal love a new purchase

A market of the senses

Dream of the perfect life

Economic circumstances

The body is good business

Sell out, maintain the interest

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Sitting in my armchair thinking again and again and again

Going round in a circle I can't get out

Then I look around thinking day and night and day

Then you look around - there must be some explanation

And the tension builds

Psychdedelic Furs

India, India

You're my love song

India, you're my love song

In the flowers

You can have me in the flowers

We will dance alone

And live our useless lives

Ladytron Light Magic

They only want you when you're seventeen

When you're twenty-one

You're no fun

They take a polaroid and let you go

Say they'll let you know

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No consolation prizes

Spit out your lies and chewing gum

Cut off your hair yeah that's it!

If you look like that I swear I'm gonna love you more

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All the neighbors are startin' up a fire

Burning all the old folks, the witches and the liars.

My eyes are covered by the hands of my unborn kids

But my heart keeps watchin' through the skin of my eyelids

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Prince charming

Prince charming

Ridicule is nothing to be scared of

Don't you ever, don't you ever

Stop being dandy, showing me you're handsome