Charlie Bertsch (cbertsch) wrote,
Charlie Bertsch

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.
Tags: clips, music, new media
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