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Monday, 22 December 2014

Welcome to the wrong side of the tracks.

You may not have realized it yet, but you're living in a bad neighbourhood.  We've turned a corner with the attack on Sony Pictures. Hacking is hitting us where we live, and that new real estate happens to be in the virtual realm.

It’s not the distopia that many a sci fi writer would have you expect. Diminishing social skills, increased anxiety and twitter may suck, but Snow Crash this ain’t. When you consider the North Korean hacking an act of terrorism – that is, an action that leverages fear to advance a political agenda, which it most definitely is – this almost seems like a step in the right direction.

There are no burning buildings, no shrapnel in the spectators. Hack attacks are real, but this is an epoch where reality can simply be turned off.

Consider, for example, the mass celebrity hacking last summer, when stars like Jennifer Lawrence and Kate Upton had nude photos from their phones hacked out of the cloud and displayed on the internet for all to see.

From different corners, the scandal simultaneously inspired mass outrage and apathy (after the sound of fapping had died down). Victims called it a “sex crime” (which it undoubtedly is), while the less sympathetic noted that if the best way to prevent having nude photos stolen from your phone is to simply not take nude photos with your phone. That logic is infallible, but when Ricky Gervaismade the argument he was met with cries of victim blaming. A few people on twitter went as far saying, “That’s like saying if you got raped it’s your fault for wearing a short dress.”

No. It’s more like undressing in front of an open window. There shouldn’t be anyone with their eyes pressed up to the glass, but of course there is. Now, peeping is a sex crime. It’s shameful and cruel, but it can’t give you a venereal disease, can’t get you pregnant, and most likely won’t cause P.T.S.D. Welcome to the internet. It’s a rough neighborhood, but not that rough.

By participating in online life, you are buying some shady real estate.  Think downtown Manhattan in the eighties – what you gain in convenience you sacrifice in security. Even respectable sites like facebook and ebay fall prey to hackers – the celebrity photos allegedly came from Apple’s cloud. It’s something the users of the internet have not quite been able to grasp, and it’s also an oddly unifying concept: no matter how well off we are in physical reality, we’re all more or less equally vulnerable to cyber attacks (the wealthy might actually be more at risk). This is something people are only beginning to grasp, and though I agree we should treat each other with love and respect, I can also mediate my expectations a little bit.

21st century connectivity has thrown the best and worst kind of people into a slop and asks us to fend for ourselves. The hackers I have spoken of do not pose a credible physical threat – not even North Korea, but these days they don’t have to. It turns out smearing someone’s reputation with a cluster of embarrassing emails or a nude photo is enough to scare them off course these days. Destroying someone online is like the equivalent of destroying them in real life.

When I learned about the Amanda Todd tragedy, the uncharitable thought came to mind that she should have just deleted her facebook account. The bullying she endured was mostly online, so you’d think she could have just turned it off, tuned out and carried on. It would have been lonely being the only young person not plugged into social media, but it would still have been a life.
Yet if there's anything these hacks and the reactions to them have shown us, its that people seem oddly unable to keep perspective on their virtual world.  For now, being destroyed online is the same as being destroyed in life.
Snow Crash, indeed.

*Just in time for this post to go to print, Madonna blessed us all with 6 new completed songs of her new album, following another hack wherein 13 unfinished demos were leaked onto the internet. Commenting on the leak, Madonna says,W don't put things up on servers anymore. Everything we work on, if we work on computers, we're not on WiFi, we're not on the Internet, we don't work in a way where anybody can access the information. Hard drives of music are hand-carried to people.”

There you have it. I sense the golden age of the internet is over, and the smart money is on scaling back our dependence on it. We’ll see where that takes us.

Wednesday, 3 December 2014

Music / Industry

Taylor Swift makes it in under the wire with 1989, and 2014 finally has one (1) album go platinum. The music industry isn't dead yet, but spectator's say it's breathing is pretty haggard. I disagree. The music industry is fine. It's the music that died. The internet may have ended the golden age of record buying, but the funny thing about money is that it throws its weight around the most when there is less of it to be had.
Now, every era has its talent and its hacks. Nostalgia has a way of buffing out the shitty stuff and convincing our parents that they really were the hippest generation, when in fact the number one song of 1967 was "Sugar, Honey Honey" by the Archies.
Still, you'd have to be a fool to pretend 1989 is in even the same ballpark as Sergeant Pepper, or The Wall, or even Rumours. There is no version of 2014 where a song like Neil Young's "Ohio" becomes a top forty hit (as it did in 1970), let alone captures the zeitgeist enough to change popular opinion about a major historical event. No matter the quality of popular music today, it is no longer important.
Money, on the other hand is always important. It has a way of exacting its influence no matter what. So when sales dry up, that's when the Industry roars to life and makes its interests clear. People aren't buying music anymore, so the Industry stopped selling it.
They're selling artists - no, not artists, personalities- to plug into the more lucrative game of product placement. The most obvious example is Beats, which has sponsored almost every major music video in recent years - at least every one with any kind of budget. You're supposed to look at Nicki Minaj and think: "If I own these speakers, I'm almost like a famous person." For the record, listening to mp3s with expensive headphones, is like buying an HD 70" flat screen so you can watch the Blair Witch Project in all its grainy glory.
Once again, commerce beat common sense. Dr. Dre is now a bazillionaire and Rock and Roll is dead.
I'm not here to rant about artists cashing a cheque. I'm sure Katy Perry works harder than anyone I know personally. I'm here to remind you that the Industry is a force of nature that even when incomes shrink - especially  when incomes shrink - cuts the fat and protects itself.
Beyonce got paid a reported $50,000,000 for her Pepsi ad (which, while I'm on it, "Embrace the past but live for now"- really? All that money and they couldn't come up with a better line?) So someone's making money.
And people are still making real music, but its not getting promoted, because the Industry knows no one will buy it. So they attach music to things that people do buy, and take a percentage.  Art and commerce are not making the sweet sweet love they used to, and we the public are getting the shaft.
There is great music out there: Phosphorescent's "Song For Zula" is one of the most beautiful songs I've ever heard. Do yourself a favour and click "Play" so you can listen as you read:
But no matter how great a song is, it's never going to hit the mainstream unless it can be used as an advertising jingle. How else can it recoup the cost of promotion?
Listening to Janelle Monae's Metropolis Suites is like meeting the lovechild of Peter Gabriel and Star Wars - after that lovechild was abandoned by the side of the road then nursed back to health by Andre 3000.* It's amazing. But its no coincidence that the closest that album got to a hit single was the song used in a Chevy ad.
So what happens when artists, who might be legitimately great, have to cow toe to their sponsors? What happens to society when our culture is dominated by advertising, an art form explicitly dedicated to promoting mindless consumption over independent thought? The revolutionary spirit of Rock and Roll has been squished under the rock of commerce, and if that doesn't scare you, let me answer the above question for you:
Twenty five years ago, Madonna - peace and blessings be upon her - released the video for Like a Prayer:
 The video involved burning crosses, controversy, and the end of her endorsement deal with Pepsi. It is also one of the great artistic coups in the history of pop music. Corporate sponsors would be weary of her edginess from then on out, but losing endorsement deals didn't matter, because she was selling millions of records. Back then it paid to shake up the system.
Would Madonna make the same decision in a world where she couldn't count on music sales to pad her fortune? We don't need a parallel universe to answer that question. All we need to do is look at Beyonce. Pepsi's latest fly-girl is always polite, always perfect looking, and never controversial. It no longer pays to be a revolutionary, but that doesn't mean that we as a culture don't still need them.
My parents had Neil Young, Bruce Springsteen, and, yes, Madonna. Are millennials capable of staring down a social problem and turning it into a hit song like their parents were? The Industry's not going to take a chance on finding out. Where's the top forty hit about Trayvon Martin?
I don't want to live in a world where the Like a Prayer video gets pulled in favour of this inane Pepsi ad, but that seems to be the direction we're heading in.

Alas, you get what you pay for.

*And seriously guys, get hip to the Archandroid already!