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.