Digital Killed the Video Star:
My favorite music writer of the decade was not a writer, but a documentary filmmaker.
In Ondi Timoner's recent We Live in Public, dot-com wiz kid-turned-artist Josh Harris creates an installation--"Quiet: We Live In Public"--which functions as both social commentary and social experiment. With millions of dot-com dollars at his disposal, Harris constructs an underground enclave in downtown Manhattan whereby dozens of screened volunteers reside for one month, coinciding with the turn of the millennium, agreeing to be filmed uninterrupted for the entirety of their stay. They eat, piss, shit, shower, and sleep together--with an unlimited supply of booze, drugs, and, puzzlingly/creepily, firearms--while sporadically submitting to videotaped, white-walled, Orwellian interrogations which eerily foreshadow Guantanamo and early ‘00s anxiety.
Although the participants were initially uncomfortable with constant monitoring and psychological tampering, acclimation soon metastasized into enjoyment. But the moment they took pleasure in unbridled excess and attention, the experiment started knocking the participants askew. Some of the volunteers attacked others, while most exhibited a visible patina of derangement, paranoia, and mania. On New Year's Eve, drugged-out loons sit around watching a sex show, gunfire audible in the background, a palpable sense of imminent breakdown.
When I saw We Live In Public, what I took from Harris' experiment is that we're very much unaware as to what the real biological and psychological effects of increased surveillance really are. And the definition of "surveillance" is twofold: one that's created by external sources; and a self-imposed surveillance, one in which we broadcast our lives through Facebook, blogs, Tumblrs, Twitter feeds, LinkedIn resumes, Flickr pages, etc. I'm not here to disparage any of these things, because at this point their ubiquity has insured their inevitability, and people already born into these changes will experience them differently than those who encounter them later in life. But I do think that our own need to aggrandize our lives through these mediums plays out in pop music, to varying degrees.
For some pop stars, the psychological effects can have similar results to those in We Live in Public. Take Britney Spears: In his excellent profile of Britney in the February 2008 issue of Blender, Michael Joseph Gross briefly mentions this anecdote:
"Britney is money," says another X17 photographer, standing next to the BMW that pictures of Britney have bought him. Someone tells the story of the day they followed her halfway to Las Vegas. She got takeout from Taco Bell at a rest stop in the desert. Then she turned the car around and drove home.
Sneak a peek at a newsstand any time between 2000 and 2008 and there was Britney -- walking down the red carpet at a premiere with JT; walking out of a mini-mart, pregnant, holding hands with a smiling and nearly shirtless K-Fed; wide- and wild-eyed, frightened, head shaved, defensive. For Britney, real life is totally indistinguishable from music. Like Michael Jackson, she doesn't seem to have a choice; no matter where she turns, a camera follows her, barnstorms her car, begs for a picture. But what separates Britney from Michael, or Marilyn, or the hundreds of celebrities before her - even Madonna - is that TMZ, Perez Hilton, and their sort are accelerated versions of the tabloid culture prior celebrities encountered, and one to which Britney has been subjected virtually from the beginning. Like any frightened species, there has to be some sort of antagonistic response - and we were able to watch it, right there, whenever we wanted.
This drama went right into her music. On Blackout, and most explicitly on "Piece of Me," Britney talks about being hounded, possessed, batted around; and in "Gimme More," she hints that she likes the flashing cameras and attention. But Britney's not yelling or crying or laughing; her voice, frosted by a layer of digital effects, sounds almost completely removed from anything remotely representing a human larynx. And a crucial component of death is that it's primarily biological. When something is extricated from human experience--the voice as a robotic element--death is no longer a concern. The music is the dark, bloodless, coked-up pulse of electro, where Britney's blurred excursions into nightclubs feeds directly into her psychodrama, and vice versa. At the end of the '90s, Britney was just asking to be hit one more time. But would Britney have still so innocently and desperately wanted to be a pop star had she known that she would be hit over and over again, until she blacked out completely?
Some pop stars have dealt with media in more advantageous ways. R. Kelly’s situation, for instance, is quite different from Britney's. When a sex tape surfaced exposing him as a peeing pedophile, the natural assumption would have been for him to either retreat from the limelight, mitigate the sexual overtones of his music, or both. Instead, Kelly did the exact opposite: He produced music at an unprecedented clip, releasing volumes of performance- or production-based material. Concordantly, sex in his music became a ridiculous, overblown spectacle: Sex in the kitchen, in space, in the zoo, in his car, in the club, everywhere; innuendos and graphic details abound. Yet Kelly didn't just revel in sex--an equal portion of his music dealt with his spirituality, with love, with a confounding frustration as to why he was the target of so many people's ire. And all of this seemed to distort how people were viewing Kelly's real life.
So what's happening is Kelly uses his music to confuse how people perceive him outside of his work, which is confusing how people interpret his music, and suddenly everything is confused. But what's important is that the music is mostly spectacular--addictive hooks, bubbly beats (literal water drops act as percussion), pan flutes and bongos -- so that a lot of the time this confusion doesn't register: people are paying more attention to the strength of the music, distracting from the foibles of Kelly's life. R. Kelly’s greatest innovation as a 21st-century pop star was showing how the exposition of the trials and tribulations of pop stars are assuaged by the strength of the music and the candidness of the persona. The verdict isn’t based on the act, but on the music.
Sometimes media manipulation and musical output are interchangeable, and then there's Kanye West. With his massively popular blog, he was especially intuitive of the direction in which celebrity culture was headed. Whenever something happens to Kanye in the media, he almost invariably responds in his blog with childish, all-caps laden posts detailing his frustration. Kanye has beaten the paparazzi to the punch: Why should anyone but Kanye provide the 24/7 window into his life? Kanye's 808s & Heartbreak is really a musical extension of his blog. His private struggles had already been laid bare in public, so the album functioned as a means for Kanye to air out his grievances: With his ex-girlfriend, his ego, the doctors who botched his mother's operation. And the music is cold and spare, the 808 aurally enhancing the Heartbreak.
This exiguous backdrop of Kanye's music has permutations all over present-day hip-hop and R&B. While the first half of the decade seemed to advance hip-hop and R&B's fascination with rhythmic complexity and unusual sonic details, the progression in the latter half of the decade has been away from musical abstraction. Instead, Britney, Kanye, R. Kelly, and even Lil' Wayne, The-Dream, Eminem, onto current pop mainstays like Gucci Mane, Lady GaGa, and Rihanna, have been relying on the more straightforward, linear rhythms of electro and synth-pop. The clashing rhythmic interactions of funk and late-'90s electronic music have been supplanted by minimalism and vapor.
What's become fairly ubiquitous on the radio is a sort of perpetual zombie state: personalities on the cusp of death for extended periods of time. My favorite example of this is Lil' Wayne's "I Feel Like Dying," wherein he indulges all sorts of narcotized fantasies--playing basketball with the moon, falling into a ground that transforms into wine. Wayne deals with drugs in a unique way here, because while he evinces enjoyment, his voice sounds distant and wobbly, conveying intoxicated fright. In the chorus, a steady 4/4 is punctuated by the frequent tapping of a hi-hat, all the while a spectral female voice whinnies the refrain of the title. This is Wayne's music, so out of tune from reality that his voice has to be AutoTuned to perform sexually, as on "Lollipop." Wayne is the best example of today's rapper: mournful even when he's projecting joy, stumbling through words as a way of mimicking the way he stumbles through life's obstacles, totally hollowed out and expunged. But while Wayne’s weariness could be attributed to a pervasive ‘00s sentiment, the song explicitly states that drugs are the primary catalyst.
For Radiohead, however, the connections between disillusionment and technology are more concrete. One could argue that Radiohead’s thesis as a band is in describing the alienation produced by technological progress. But crucial here is that they make the themes of the music and the lyrical content inform one another: Realizing that all of the styles they're playing provide the ideal context for their concepts. For hardcore music listeners, Radiohead borrows liberally from styles that are considered "challenging" to a more inattentive audience: neo-classical, electronic music, Krautrock, ambient; but in making them palatable to less "experienced" listeners, places them in a pop-friendlier structure.
One reason I think that Radiohead were able to reach both a mainstream as well as an underground audience was by being the first to tap into a general mindset of discomfiture. And this didn’t pertain exclusively to their records: Radiohead were also savvy marketers, cloaking the advertising campaigns for their albums in cryptic, dystopic imagery, mostly through abstract art rendered in the form of a website. In their music and image, Radiohead precipitated the aura of the ‘00s in the creation of an aura for themselves, one where ebullience and excitement slowly gave way to dourness and disembodiment.
Radiohead, Britney, Kelly, Kanye, et al.: What bridges these sonically and tonally different artists is their ability to control not just their image, but also the way their images are presented. The rules of the game have changed. The way a listener encounters a pop star is no longer through the formats of radio and TV; those technologies are not obsolete, but they’re now tertiary agents of a much broader network. That network, while digital, is nonetheless a manifestation of ourselves—our interactions intermixed with our desires. Self-presentation is now a much more complicated and elaborate process, one in which artists must possess the ability to control multiple forces in deft, intertwining juggling acts. But if everyone comprises and controls those forces, then who’s manipulating whom?
The answers are unclear. Parsing them requires a greater understanding of a system that grows faster at the rate with which we are able to navigate it. Personally, I’m excited about a future in which the tropes of pop music mutate into monstrous distortions of themselves. Maybe we’ll find a six-year-old kid with an incredibly skilled voice. As he matures, his remarkable dancing will align with his voice, so that he will become an improbably gifted pop star. Then we’ll obsess over him to the point that his life and his music merge, until suddenly the pressure of attention and fame begin to bear down on him. His body will reflect that pressure, chiseled and bleached out in proportion to the effects on his psyche. Eventually, he will transform into a horrifying, butchered version of that sweet-smiling kid, and remain that way, still watched and obsessed at all times, until he dies. And then we’ll do it all over again.
– Tal Rosenberg