Tag Archives: copyright

Negativland: much more just merry pranksters

Sometimes a smartass is just a smartass. But sometimes that smartass has something important to say, something that will make you think if you wipe the smirk off your face and open your mind. Negativland falls into that second category.

The U2 album incident

If you know about them at all – and not enough do – you probably know them because of their “U2 album debacle.” For a long time, that’s how I knew them. I basically viewed them as smartasses and pranksters who went too far and let things get out of hand.

(In a nutshell, what happened: They put out an album called U2 with a picture of a U2 spy plane on the cover. The album contained samples from U2’s upcoming album Achtung Baby, as well as some profanity-laced tirades by American Top 40‘s Casey Kasem. Negativland released the album right before U2’s album was set to come out. That stunt got them sued by both Island Records and their own label SST; it also got their album pulled from record stores and banned – and earned them some notoriety. Expensive publicity, but it did put them on the map.  Wikipedia gives a pretty in-depth account of what happened.)

So, just pranksters? Not quite. Even the U2 incident made some pretty good points, about how how the act of sampling and collage-making IS an art form in itself, how overzealous copyright enforcement can stifle creativity, how shallow and false media can be (who would’ve thought the real Casey Kasem had such a temper and such a foul mouth? Could the friendly, avuncular Casey we all knew be nothing more than a persona?)

Perception vs. Reality

Are you conscious? Do you believe what you believe? Are your thoughts really yours or somebody else’s? Are you being controlled by governments and corporations without even realizing it? These are very important questions we rarely ask ourselves.

What Negativland does is rip away the veneer that you think is reality and show how manipulated we are by words and images. That’s not a prank, that’s a public service.

Listen to their ambush interview with U2’s The Edge for Mondo 2000 and you can get a feel for how smart they are and the amount of thought they put into what they do.

The Live Experience

I was disabused of my false opinion of Negativland by my friend Chris Kinney, who told me about the Negativland show he saw in 2000. I say show, not concert, because they are not precisely a band. They are not even especially good musicians. They are artists, however. Brilliant ones. The show he described was one of surreal beauty combined with incredibly subtle and astute social commentary, one that left the audience moved nearly to tears. I wish I had been there and I hope I one day get to see one of their multi-media spectacles myself (that was their last tour, hopefully not the final one). Meanwhile, here’s Chris’ account of what he saw and heard in Austin back in 2000:

I saw the show right after I moved here [Austin]. I dragged my girlfriend at the time out to the show. I had already been listening to them and she hadn’t. It was at the outdoor venue at Stubb’s, which was either sold out or very near capacity.

The stage was set up with 40 different screens. Anything from projections to TVs. The band members were all wearing white jump suits like hospital scrubs. Hospital masks covered their nose and mouth. A lot of projections were going on them too.

One thing I really remember was “Orange Crush.” They were playing old soda pop commercials from the ’70s. They were pure images, but with the song and the editing, the images became twisted. It somehow sexualized them in a creepy way. There were teenagers at the beach drinking soda, innocent children, then adults enjoying a beverage. It perverted the intent of the original footage.

Also, whoever was controlling the videos was masterful. There were so many images, so many screens. Sometimes different images on all screens. Sometimes just one image on one screen. Sometimes images juxtaposed with images on other screens took on new meanings.

They had anything from 12-inch TVs to 10 x 10 projection screens. It was almost telling a story. Your eyes were constantly darting around from screen to screen. It was almost disorienting at times. Film or images would shift from screen to screen. The only real stage lighting came from the projections and TV screens. It was like you were being bombarded visually and bombarded with sound and music.

They were very strange songs, talking about surreal things, using all this found footage and old advertising. It was almost anti-commercialism, or commercials for the surreal.

There was no real message, but you listened to their music and got caught up in these strange stories. It was more about the journey. None of their stuff is really linear.

At one point they turned off all the projection and there was just one 40-inch TV in the middle of the stage, with a guy who looked like Orson Welles but sounded like William Burroughs. Everything was turned off except this one black and white TV.

He was telling a story about renting a steam carpet cleaner that took you through time and space. We had been bombarded with images and noise and now everything else was silent and there was just one TV, so you got sucked into this story. And the steam cleaner takes you into another dimension. Your mind had been going crazy all this time and suddenly there was one thing to focus on. Very memorable.

The music was mostly really simple – guitar, loops, samples.

At the end of the show, there were all these beautiful images. Then it went into a nice ambient-like tune, something that almost made you want to dance. They were projecting with a couple of projectors and melting the film while it was running. Images were forming and bubbling during the song. One guy was running the film and lighting it in a little controlled fire. It was truly gorgeous. And that was the end of the show.

It was almost like being on a psychedelic drug during the whole show. Then they do this.

I felt really uplifted. I could barely speak. I felt physically and mentally changed after the show. My girlfriend was just blown away. We walked in silence back to the car till we kind of got back into the real world.

I was a fan of Negativland when I was a kid, as a teen and in my 20s. It was great to get stoned and listen to one of their albums. Just wind down and put it on in the background. I just thought it was crazy and weird. I always thought they were an interesting band, but not something I wanted to listen to all the time. They can be abrasive at times.

After seeing this show, I had a totally new respect for the band.  I know their history. I know their antics. But their show – it was art. All the projections and images… They really changed your perception of the everyday things you see.

They are a very visual band. They take things you see all the time and take for granted and turn them on their head.

I don’t know if they really have a message  as a band. If they have a message, it has to do with the way they bombard you with information and how they can mess with you just by the way they they convey that information. They just want to fuck with you. Make you think, make you conscious.

Music changes your perception of reality. If you’re driving down the road and a song comes on, the world looks different. Negativland are masters at doing that by the way they manipulate videos and images.

I have been to some great shows, but this one is really special. This was 12 years ago and it still stands out as one of most amazing experiences I ever had in my life.

As a Negativland fan, Chris recommends the following albums for adventurous people who would like to explore the band:

Escape from Noise – “I had a lot of fun with that. That one has ‘Christianity is Stupid,’ ‘Car Bomb,’ ‘Nesbitt’s Lime Soda.'”

Helter Stupid and Negativland are also good albums.”

And of course, if you want to get an idea what was on the banned U2 album that got the band in so much trouble and made them famous – and find out what Casey Kasem is like when he loses his temper – check out These Guys are From England and Who Gives a Shit.

Check out this visual and sound collage video for “Freedom’s Waiting.” Brilliant commentary about the way words are used to manipulate us – often completely without our knowledge.

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The Internet: land of opportunity or just a different way for musicians to starve?

Sometimes its good to be challenged, to step back and question if your beliefs still hold water.

I recently read a very thought provoking (but VERY long) article from David Lowery of Camper Van Beethoven and Cracker (I seriously love both bands): Meet the New Boss, Worse Than the Old Boss? I don’t agree with all of his points, but I can see where he’s coming from.

Like I said, it’s quite long, but it’s worth reading when you have time. You can skip around a bit and still get the gist of it, which is that the freedom and opportunity many of us thought the Internet would give musicians is not panning out, that tech industry giants — Apple, Google, Amazon, Spotify, etc. — are simply taking on the role that the music industry giants used to, and controlling the flow of content.

Only they actually appear to care even less about musicians than the cynical record executives did. According to Lowery, the potential for a musician to actually earn a living from what he creates seems to be diminishing, not growing. The new gatekeepers seem to want all content to be dirt cheap or free. Never mind that musicians are human beings who have to eat and pay rent. Lowery makes some good points.

I sometimes think of 2002 as a mini-golden age for rock ‘n’ roll. It was a time of discovery for me. I found so many great bands during that time. In part, it’s because I had recently moved into the orbit of KTSW, the excellent college radio station at Texas State University in San Marcos (formerly Southwest Texas State University).

But I also have a pet theory. I think there was a brief period in the early ’00s when the Internet helped independent artists find their audience and actually helped them. After that, the Internet turned into a drain for content and began hurting them, just like the major label artists.

If you had told me that at the time, I would’ve argued. I totally bought into the whole cyberpunk ethos (see my blog post on the subject). Ideas like: information wants to be free, always yield to the hands-on imperative, the street finds its own uses for things. Those ideas, and the sheer potential of computers and the Internet captivated me.

On some level I still believe those things. I enjoy the freedom of expression the Internet gives us and hamfisted attempts to stop copyright violations such as SOPA put that freedom at serious risk. It’s also not cut-and-dried. If you clamp down too hard on that sort of thing, you will eliminate some very creative works. I’ve blogged on that subject before.

But I’ve come to the conclusion that all that “sharing” I defended so hard for so many years, may indeed have been hurting many of my favorite musicians. As someone who works in journalism, I’m also a content creator, and my industry is also struggling because of the Internet. It would be very hypocritical of me to tell musicians to suck it up, when I am facing many of the same challenges.

That doesn’t mean I think we can or should go back to the old model, but it sometimes seems to me that we’ve raised a generation of people to believe that they should never pay for creative content. It would be nice if people who call themselves music fans would show some appreciation and spend a little money on the musicians they say they love. You can’t really call yourself a music lover if you’re OK with the musicians starving or winding up on the street. If we want artists to keep creating, we should throw a little money their way.

I quit trying to download the Internet years ago and now I pay for music when I can. I’m more likely to buy digital files than CDs, but I do buy them. It’s kind of hard to say after I’ve found some music I love and played it a few dozen times that the artist’s digital album is not worth $10 or $15. I’m pinching pennies too, but I can afford that every once in a while.

There are some signs of hope. As Lowery says in his article, Bandcamp and CD Baby appear to operate with artists in mind. They aren’t huge in the scheme of things, but I believe they are helping. Another interesting development is the rise of entities like Patronism and the Eye and the Sky Collective, which curate good music and create a system for fans who want to support and interact with them to do so.

If we can get musicians and music lovers on the same page maybe we can both get what we want: great music for us and the ability to pay rent and put food on the table for the artists.

I would love to get some comments on this subject, especially from musicians.


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