[JPL] DAVID HAJDU ON MUSIC Instant Gratification

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Tue Feb 28 11:43:01 EST 2006


The New Republic

DAVID HAJDU ON MUSIC
Instant Gratification
Post date: 02.28.06
Issue date: 03.06.06

  A shamelessly goofy band of street musicians performs in and around the
subway station at Union Square in Manhattan--a banjoist, a washtub bassist,
a percussionist who plays cookware, and someone doing something else, as I
recall. Not long ago, I took the group's business card, which says "No
Music, No Party," and then gives a phone number. I wondered if the phrase
was the name of the ensemble or a terse statement of philosophy. If it is
the latter, the fellows have a point that is borne out through cultural
history. A great deal of human social interaction has always been conducted
to music, notwithstanding Adorno's protests that social function stains the
"purity" of music. A wealth of treasured and enduring music, formal and
informal (as well as duly forgotten background noise), was originally
created for get-togethers of all sorts, from Mozart's divertimenti and
serenades to Louis Armstrong's New Orleans stomps to Bill Monroe's
barn-dance bluegrass to Sly Stone's dense polyphony au go-go. No party, no
music. 

Every kind of socializing calls for its own music, and most of the action in
social interaction transpires among young people, enslaved by their hormones
to the service of meeting and attracting one another, thus perpetuating not
only the species but also its popular music. At the moment, the explosive
young website MySpace is enacting a transformation in the social behavior of
teenagers and people of college age (in addition to some younger and older).
In the process, the site has already had a stunning effect on the music of
youth culture. MySpace is rapidly establishing a new system for hanging out
and hooking up--a kind of new paradigm for young life; and, like all the old
paradigms, it carries with it hazards, only one of which is its impact on
music.

Founded in 2003 by Tom Anderson, who was twenty-seven at the time and who
handles the creative end, and Chris DeWolfe, then thirty-seven and the money
man, MySpace is a hybrid site, part networking forum, part music resource.
The idea, a primordial one transported to cyberspace, was to use music to
bring young people together. Anderson, who was playing guitar in an
alternative-rock band called Swank when he began developing MySpace, thought
it would be way cool to have a place on the Web where ambitious, unknown
musicians such as himself could try to attract a following by posting their
portraits, bios, information on upcoming gigs, and sample music files. But
unlike several dozen sites that already did all that, MySpace encouraged
users to interact with participating musicians, as well as with one
another--to chat through text messages and to exchange digital pictures,
building a community of people connected by an interest in new music.  

Anderson had the wisdom to enlist some acquaintances, gorgeous female club
kids, to be among the first MySpace users to post their photographs,
imparting upon the site a patina of phototropic cool. He created what is
essentially the biggest nightclub in the world (or more accurately, the
incorporeal world), open all day and night. It is open to virtually anyone
and to anyone virtual. The only velvet ropes, thin and malleable, are
MySpace's token restrictions: the site is prohibited to those under
fourteen, though MySpace requires no proof of age. (It has a bouncer at the
door but does not card.) MySpace also forbids the use of "personally
identifiable information," though it permits messages that might contain
hints of a member's identity, such as the person's name, hometown, and
birthday.  

As I type this, MySpace has some 55,667,000 members, and the number is no
doubt higher by this point in the sentence. More than a million bands and
solo musicians now have profiles on the site. On a typical day, MySpace
receives two and a half times the traffic of Google. The popularity of
Anderson and DeWolfe's venture among young people is such that last summer
Rupert Murdoch appropriated it, buying a controlling interest in MySpace's
parent company and access to another generation for $580 million.  

Open, loosely policed, and populated almost exclusively by young people
presenting themselves as attractively as possible, MySpace offers abundant
temptation to voyeurs and sexual predators. The site provides free and easy
access to a vast and constantly replenished supply of teenage girls and
boys, many of whom have posted images of themselves in various stages of
undress, along with messages describing their tastes in sex as well as in
music. Since anyone can pose as someone else on MySpace, it is impossible to
measure the lurking. Fifteen-year-old Kimberly, the girl on a farm in
Wisconsin, could really be fifty-two-year-old Buck, the parolee in a trailer
in New Jersey, hiding behind a scan from a high school yearbook and a few
convincing phrases of teenage jabber. At least two cases of sexual assault
of underage girls have been traced to initial meetings on MySpace, according
to newspaper reports.  

 

s a social environment, MySpace is a sexual minefield. And this troubling
fact is not mitigated by the fact that, as a musical resource, the site
presents a set of problems of another sort. Much has been made of the
Internet's effect on the music business. Everyone knows that, thanks to
file-sharing and paid downloading services such as iTunes, CD sales have
been declining for several years. Apple (Steve Jobs's computer company, not
the Beatles' record label, the latter of which now profits nicely from its
trademark license to the former) has become one of the top three suppliers
of music in the country. Yet MySpace represents something other than a new
delivery system or a different economic model for the music industry. It is
altering the dynamics of the relationship between the two groups of young
people involved in popular music: the musicians and their audience. And so,
in due course, it is changing the music itself.  

MySpace, in its essence, seems like the realization of a democratic, almost
utopian ideal. It eliminates or marginalizes the traditional bodies of
mediation between those who make popular music and those who listen to it. A
band does not need radio play, nor a video in rotation on MTV, to find an
audience through MySpace. It does not need a record contract. It does not
have to play a single gig. It needs only a Web page with a few song
samples--though good photos and bio text, along with a willingness to chat
with fans online, can help considerably. The way MySpace works is that
members log on and message back and forth, exchanging thoughts on topics of
the moment, including music. If they want to know more about a particular
band, they click to the group's page and listen to (or download) a song; and
if they like what they hear, they can spread the word among MySpace members
on their list of "friends." Some MySpace users have as many as six thousand
friends. As Greg McIntosh, the guitarist for a Michigan-based band called
the Great Lakes Myth Society, said in an interview, "It's like being at a
giant music conference twenty-four hours a day every day." 

Emerging as it has in the wake of Clear Channel's domination of radio
stations and rock concert halls, MySpace appears to be a grassroots
counterbalance to the wholesale absorption of the music industry by a
handful of entertainment-industry conglomerates. At the same time, it is yet
another monolith--born of the people, yes, but owned by Fox.  
 

ySpace has begun to spawn a breed of its own rock stars, bands that have
made their reputations mainly through the site: Fall Out Boy, a punk-pop
quartet that was recently nominated for a Grammy for Best New Artist;
Hawthorne Heights, another punk-pop group; Panic! at the Disco, a kitschy
techno ensemble; and Arctic Monkeys, a quartet of nineteen- and
twenty-year-olds from Sheffield, England, who were already famous, largely
through MySpace, before they signed with Domino Records last May. When the
group released its first CD, Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not,
this January, the album entered the British pop charts at number one, and
the single "I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor," was the fastest-selling
record in English history. Arctic Monkeys, whose music is tuneful punkish
pop, will perform in the United States for the first time this spring.  

Through MySpace, some bands have built ardent followings so quickly that
audiences know the words to their songs before the musicians know how to
play them. Fall Out Boy headlined the Warped Tour of punk acts last summer,
and I caught one of the shows in Milwaukee, during a vacation with my son,
who is a senior at the University of Wisconsin. Fairly impressed by the
group's second CD, From Under the Cork Tree (an album with some good
juvenile thrashing), I was looking forward to seeing the band and was
surprised to find it utterly inept on stage--and I mean really inept, not
inept in accordance with the anarchic conventions of punk. The singers
(guitarist Joseph Trohman and bassist Peter Wentz) never used the
microphone, and the band stopped and started in the middle of tunes,
struggling nervously to find its place. (Not caring would have been punk.
Struggling nervously was incompetent.) I heard most of the words, though,
because the audience chanted the lyrics.  

One band wildly popular on MySpace, Hollywood Undead, never played in public
before becoming a sensation online. The group formed early last summer and
posted a MySpace page adorned with mysterious-looking photos of the seven
members of the band, their faces hidden behind hockey masks and gimmicky
shrouds, along with three songs, each a listenable amalgam of hip-hop and
heavy metal. As one of Undead's singers, Jeff Phillips, told The New York
Times, "We were just a bunch of loser kids who sat around our friend's house
all day, and we started making music and recording it on computer.... In a
matter of weeks it got huge, and it kept on getting bigger and bigger.... If
you look at our page, it's like we're a huge band that's toured a hundred
times." So far, Hollywood Undead has had more than two million plays on
MySpace, and it still has yet to tour.  

 

he instant fame conferred by MySpace is becoming the standard practice of
our time, of a piece with "American Idol" and its variants on television,
which pit amateurs against one another in competition for celebrity as
spectacle, granting us viewers the dual pleasure of glorying in the
ascension of one of our own and wallowing in the humiliation of those to
whom we relate more closely, the losers. MySpace fills most of the space on
its music pages with the work of awful bands, hundreds of thousands of them,
and trolling among them provides a kind of perverse entertainment. The music
is searchable by five criteria: band name, band bio, band members,
influences, and "sounds like." After an hour or so of using the search mode
to find something worth the effort, I got punchy and, after the words
"sounds like," typed "shit." Pages for more than three hundred bands popped
up, and the first five, I can attest, were well categorized.  

So much of the music on MySpace is so grossly underdeveloped that listening
to it is almost an act of aesthetic pedophilia. Thanks to MySpace, young
bands no longer need to start out by gigging, playing one-nighters, making
mistakes in near anonymity, learning what works, finding their voice through
a dialogue with their audience--I mean a musical dialogue, not a chat. Good
bands have no need, and no time, to get better before they get famous.
Surfing MySpace, I listened to a few of more than two hundred groups that
listed themselves as sounding like the Beatles, and I began to consider what
the moptops themselves sounded like in their apprenticeship, when they were
working out their style by labor and trial, playing six sets a night for
dancers in Hamburg. Then I remembered having heard Bruce Springsteen when I
was a kid and he was just starting out: he sounded like a garage-ish cross
between Van Morrison and Bob Dylan, but not yet like Bruce Springsteen.  

The boggling scale and speed of MySpace conspire to inhibit originality,
while rewarding familiarity and accessibility. The site attracts innumerable
groups that sound like other acts successful on MySpace, and it engenders
mediocre music that makes a quick, positive impression. Lost in the blitz of
clicking on MySpace is challenging music that might be off-putting at first
but could grow on listeners, stretching their ears and provoking their
minds. All the bands to rise from MySpace so far, including the talented but
madly over-praised Arctic Monkeys, are good, but there is not a great one
among them. One cannot help but wonder if MySpace is screening out the great
ones, or failing those with the capacity for greatness.  

As a measure of musical tastes, MySpace is skewed by its social character.
MySpace members generally discover bands through recommendations by other
members. But like all information disclosed among parties inclined to
impress one another, the data is loaded, likely to reflect social
expectations as much as, perhaps more than, musical passions. For instance:
the son of mine with whom I saw Fall Out Boy loves not only punk rock but
also the music of Ella Fitzgerald and Stephen Sondheim, yet he says that he
would never admit as much on MySpace. If many of the site's members are to a
significant degree mouthing what they hope will make them seem cool, they
are saying only what they are hearing (or typing only what they are
reading). Once again, the famously raucous individualism of the Internet
results in crass conformism. The spiral effect, accelerating to tornado
intensity, surely accounts for the almost instantaneous emergence on MySpace
of bands such as Hollywood Undead, which are simply nothing special.  

So MySpace is finally not quite as democratic as it seems, and its
ostensibly democratic systems are as susceptible to corruption as any in
non-cyber societies. MySpace has not eliminated mediation from the music
business, it has merely supplanted the old modes with new ones. There are
powerful instruments of influence in this allegedly free terrain. Webmasters
have the power, once consigned to concert promoters, to lure crowds to a
band. (On the day of this writing, the most listened-to artist on MySpace
was the sexy electro-pop vocalist Tila Tequila, and the lead photograph on
her page showed her sitting on the ground, her lips pressed to the end of
the picture frame, kissing something that we cannot see but which would fall
at the height of a standing man's crotch.) A whole new industry of "viral
marketing" employs surreptitious e-mail techniques to spread messages about
paying clients to music enthusiasts online. And acts such as Hollywood
Undead, a phony band hidden behind funny masks and elaborate concealments,
have mastered one of the most effective ways to prevail on MySpace:
pretending to be what others would like you to be. The sexual predators have
figured that out, too.
David Hajdu  is TNR's music critic. 


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