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Judging a Record By Its Cover - De File
Does Collecting Make You Feel Dirty?
cbertsch
cbertsch
Judging a Record By Its Cover
My most recent piece for the magazine Zeek is up. Long as it is, earlier drafts made this one look puny. There was something about this record that really got under my skin. And that something was not the music but its packaging. It helped me to clarify my thinking on the relationship between new and older media, among other things. Also, I was able to make progress towards an argument about commodity fetishism in the internet era, a topic I've been struggling to address for some time:
The irony in this, as the liner notes make clear, is that the songs collected here, whether of religious or secular origin, whether traditional or modern, were recorded and sold in part because there was a burgeoning market for background music in the 1920s. Although wealthier individuals had phonographs in their homes, record dealers counted on the proprietors of cafés for much of their business. Before radio broadcasting came to the region, this was the way people became acquainted with new music. Unlike in a concert setting, though, where music is the main focus, phonographs were not the principal attraction in cafés. They lured new customers, surely, and inspired old ones to stick around. But they did not testify to increasing interest in music per se so much as the realization that it could make the pressures of existence easier to bear.

It is an attitude towards music familiar in our own age. In fact, it is probably safe to say that the dream of seamlessly integrating music into everyday life has prevailed over the dream of being transported by music into another life. We so badly want songs that go together, without forcing us out of our mental groove, that we are willing to consign the task of sorting them to robots like Apple’s new “Genius” program for iTunes. Disorientation is not something we seek through music now, but a condition we want music, our music to soothe. While the decline of record-album packaging is first and foremost the result of the technological changes that have made copying music as easy as listening to music, it also corresponds to our desire to strip music of its otherness. Freed of the reminders that it comes from somewhere else, a song is more easily incorporated into the sense of self. From this perspective, the function of music is to confirm identity, not challenge it.

One of the more striking developments of the filesharing era, though, is that this attitude towards music has increased even as its appeal in the marketplace has slackened. Maybe there’s something about the act of purchasing goods that lingers in the consciousness long afterwards, reinforcing the distinction between what is ours through nature and what is only ours through labor. By contrast, the sort of possession that results from downloading or copying music that one has no intention of paying for appears more pure, paradoxically, free of the taint of commodity fetishism. If we claim a song as ours without having invested hard-earned cash, that move then seems autonomously motivated rather than compensatory.
Lately, I've been paying more attention to the idea of "mutual aid" that underlies anarchist political philosophy. It holds great appeal for me, but also inspires a degree of skepticism. I'm wondering now, in light of what I wrote above for this review, whether it would be worthwhile to pursue the argument that people conditioned by life under capitalism, myself included, have difficulty believing in sharing that is not mediated by money. Maybe we need to spend what is dear to us in order to imagine receiving the return we dearly desire.

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masoo From: masoo Date: December 5th, 2008 01:15 am (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
"it is probably safe to say that the dream of seamlessly integrating music into everyday life has prevailed over the dream of being transported by music into another life."

I love this.

"We so badly want songs that go together, without forcing us out of our mental groove, that we are willing to consign the task of sorting them to robots like Apple’s new 'Genius' program for iTunes."

Not sure about the part about the mental groove, but I was just talking to Robin last night about shuffle play. I tried to construct shuffles before the ability to really do it existed, going back to the early 70s. It's tied to what I teach in my critical thinking classes, that one problem we have with logic is that our ability to make connections, which was essential to our evolution, is so locked in that we make connections now that don't exist. Using this in the context of mixtapes, you can obsessively spend hours on the perfect segue ... or you can let shuffle produce a setlist, and let the listener invent connections (that they will in all likelihood attribute to your excellence as a mixtape maker).

I find that I still spend a lot of time making mix discs for people, but the time isn't spent on choosing the right tracks, it's on using software to create good flow between tracks. Which tracks hardly matters ... it's all about the transitions. There was even a time (thankfully brief) when I was producing mix discs with only one track, with transitions and crossfades and the like, but with the markers between the songs removed so when you loaded the CD into your player, it said one track, 75 minutes long.
cbertsch From: cbertsch Date: December 5th, 2008 03:29 pm (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
Thanks for the thought-provoking comment, not to mention the words of praise, which are always welcome.

I like what you say about making mix tapes and how it extends to the idea of critical thinking. I make similar points using literature and film, usually centered on the concept off montage. I wonder if your early training in cinema studies influenced that approach to creating a space for meaning-making, rather than doggedly seeking to make your creations mean the way you meant them too.

What software do you use for crossfades and the like?
masoo From: masoo Date: December 5th, 2008 03:43 pm (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
Hmmmm ... I don't often think about my film studies background. It wasn't theoretical ... the purpose of the program was to produce filmmakers, not film critics, and our most important products were short films rather than, say, essays. And we watched tons of movies, several a day at times, but most of the context, when we got it, was historical rather than theoretical or social. (The shuffle aspect worked as well, since the free feature film program, where they showed a double-feature five nights a week ... it was the largest such free program in the country, pre-prop-13 of course ... anyway, those movies were shown in a hodgepodge fashion for the most part.)

Meaning-making ... don't remember how I thought about this in the past, but certainly at least since my days as a grad student, I've assumed the audience is part of the meaning-making process. As a writer, I'm always fascinated to find out what readers think of what I've written, but that comes largely from my insecurities, where I don't think it means anything until someone else tells me so. I know this ... the first movie I made was a short about a recently-divorced woman, starring my mother-in-law, who was herself recently divorced. I did a montage of family photos ... again, these were the "real" things, even though it wasn't a documentary, it played with the notion. At the end of the montage was a picture of the whole family, one of those staged ones who pay someone to take. I took a pair of scissors and cut the photo down the middle. To be honest, I thought it was a cheesy effect, undergrad Bunuel at best ... but audiences found the image startling ... it worked.

Anyway, thinking about shuffle play and the way repertory theatres worked, which is kinda how we do nowadays with our discs and DVRs ... I'm reminded of a piece Kael wrote about watching movies on television. I'm gonna try to hunt that down and post something about it.
cbertsch From: cbertsch Date: December 5th, 2008 03:56 pm (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
I'd love to see that Kael piece.

What I was thinking about was a conversation we had about Battleship Potemkin, I believe. You mentioned being educated about montage in your classes. That film is a great example of how the juxtaposition of images will generate connects in the minds of viewers.

Do you still have the film? Could you covert it to something digital? It would be great to see.
masoo From: masoo Date: December 5th, 2008 04:06 pm (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
I can't find the Kael article online. It was in the New Yorker, then in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, where it introduced the section with the mini-reviews, then finally in the giant For Keeps anthology.

Yeah, we did learn about montage, that's a good point. Robin edited the final scene from one of my movies using Potemkin as her model ... in fact, I had a dupe of the Odessa Steps in Super 8, if I remember right, she messed with that, too :-).

None of my films are available. Some of them have just fallen apart, the Super 8 sound projector I had is long dead. They're all fun from a nostalgic perspective, I'm sure ... there's one I made for Neal's first birthday where I walked him around some of the places in Antioch his parents had hung out and told him stories ... but I really only made two short films that were much good, the one I mentioned about my mother-in-law, and my "epic" (like 18 minutes or so) about Neal Cassady.
cbertsch From: cbertsch Date: December 7th, 2008 02:16 pm (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
But if you had the films, you could take them somewhere to get converted, no? I guess that might be too expensive. It sure would be cool, though!
masoo From: masoo Date: December 7th, 2008 03:23 pm (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
Yeah, but the films have deteriorated over time. The last time I tried to watch one, and this was many years ago, it kept falling apart in the projector.
cbertsch From: cbertsch Date: December 8th, 2008 05:41 pm (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
But a film restoration and transfer outfit could probably save it. You should ask Rick Prelinger for input. I bet he knows where to do it and how to do it the most economically. The world is waiting for the early films of Steven Rubio!
masoo From: masoo Date: December 8th, 2008 05:44 pm (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
I wouldn't be surprised if those films were thrown out when we cleaned things out for the remodel. Robin would know.
From: babyiwasshot Date: December 5th, 2008 06:48 pm (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
That film is a great example of how the juxtaposition of images will generate connects in the minds of viewers.

This relates to an experiement performed by Russian filmmaker Lev Kuleshov, in which he intercut a shot of an actor's deadpan expression with scenes of a crying baby, a bowl of soup, a coffin, etc. After seeing the sequences, viewers commented upon how well the actor conveyed paternal love, hunger and mourning, even though the expression on the actor's face/expression was fundamentally the same throughout the piece.

Actually, this phenomenon is know as the "Kuleshov effect"
cbertsch From: cbertsch Date: December 7th, 2008 02:17 pm (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
Absolutely. I talk about the Kuleshov effect whenever I teach film. And sometimes when I'm teaching literature, since film helps so much, I find, in trying to explain how to notice details, record them, and then subject them to interpretation.
e_compass_rosa From: e_compass_rosa Date: December 5th, 2008 03:14 am (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
I just glanced at the piece, and am excited to read the whole thing. Think I'm gonna have to print it out to do so though, as it is getting more difficult for my attention span to sustain when reading longer online pieces. Not a good sign.
cbertsch From: cbertsch Date: December 5th, 2008 03:31 pm (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
It sure is long! I often print things out. Sometimes I fail to read them -- I have more print-outs than time -- but I enjoy the experience more than reading online.
From: lawmilson Date: December 11th, 2008 07:14 am (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)

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