As you know, I have been in a rather sour state about digital culture in the past couple of months. I didn’t come to New York City with the express intention of taking the cure for that state, but I got it nonetheless. The first treatment was the opening night of Eric Clapton’s Crossroads Guitar Festival. Five solid hours of (mostly) blues played with both acoustic instruments and vintage electric guitars pumped through tube amps, that mimicked the glorious Marshall’s and Fenders of the time when I was on the road.
There were moments that made the hair on the back of your neck stand up. Eric Clapton, Andy Fairweather and Vince Gill sitting down on acoustic guitars, trading incredible licks. A shuffle blues with Robert Cray, Jimmy Vaughn, Gary Clarke Jr, BB King and Eric that just was extraordinary. That BB King can still swing at 88 is incredible. And Jimmy Vaughn played a solo that had Eric grinning from ear to ear in admiration. And then there was a whole new generation of players like Doyle Bramhall, Citizen Cope, Gary Clark Jr and a 13 year old named Quinn Sullivan who just blew us away. In the end, the Allman Brothers played the classic shuffle, Statesboro Blues with Taj Mahal and Los Lobos. What a gorgeous cultural stew celebrating this most American of art forms.
What is so important about the Blues is that it is a relatively structured form of 12 bars, but one that allows for the most ecstatic improvisation (think Jimmy Hendrix) possible. What was so therapeutic was that the night confirmed that the art form is alive and well–a deep relief from a frightfully inauthentic cultural period.
This morningI went up to the Gagosian Gallery, where my acquaintance Ed Ruscha has an amazing show of small books, curated by Bob Monk. Ruscha started making small books in 1962 with “Twentysix Gasoline Stations”. He continued to make these small editions of everyday sights like swimming pools, parking lots and even a wonderful “Royal Road Test” in which he and two collaborators fiendishly documented throwing a Royal typewriter out the window of his vintage Oldsmobile on a desert highway. As clever as Ed’s books are, what is really amazing is the mini industry of copycat projects from conceptual artists all over the world. What Ruscha’s show poses is the same question I had from the night before. Why in an age of digital appropriation would you go back to making art that was proudly analogue? Why would you return to books when the Whitney Museum is filled with Video screens. Why make simple blues music when you could avail yourself of all the samples and beats from Pro-tools? These are important questions and I think they represent some sort of counter movement, what Marcuse would have called a Great Refusal.
Long live Books and The Blues.
Kim Dotcom is the alias of a modern day digital mafioso, who made more than half a billion dollars in the last few years by selling advertising on a site filled with stolen movies and music. Like any mafia lord, Kim hangs out with various low talent artists hoping that a little blow might be left on the coffee table. So today Kim and his lame ass disco music friends have released a song that is on a par with Triumph of The Will for those who study propaganda. The master of the field was Joe Goebbels who wrote “It would not be impossible to prove with sufficient repetition and a psychological understanding of the people concerned that a square is in fact a circle. They are mere words, and words can be molded until they clothe ideas and disguise.”
In his brilliant attempt to square the circle of his fortune built on stealing from artists, Kim equates his struggle with that of Martin Luther King. He attempts to hijack the whole Occupy movement to aid in his redemption. But in deciding that he could make $ million by selling advertising on Megaupload–with an inventory of quantities of stolen digital content–it’s easy to think that Kim Dotcom believed he was above the law. And the sad thing is that huge corporations like Google and Yahoo—some of Kim Dotcom’s early advertising partners–support this kind of conduct by enabling an underground advertising market that funds both piracy and pornography (usually on the same site) in the huge “remnant ad business” on the web. Read more…
Forty-three years ago I worked for Levon Helm. I was the tour manager for The Band and in my book, Outlaw Blues, I recounted how Levon changed my whole notion of the “cracker”, a name he proudly embraced.
The first night back in LA the guys brought me down to the pool house and in Sammy Davis’s playroom (complete with giant bed and mirrors on the ceiling) they played me what they had recorded in the three months I had been away. The first tune they played was The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down and by the song’s end, tears were welling up in my eyes. Once in a while works of art open up a window to a world one didn’t understand or didn’t even know. James Agee and Walker Evans had collaborated on Let Us Now Praise Famous Men and it had opened up a window onto the life of the sharecropper. For me and many others, Levon’s plaintive singing on Dixie achieved the same effect, but in three minutes time. For a Northern liberal who had marched with Martin Luther King, all “crackers” were like Bull Connors to me. But the song gave me an understanding of Levon’s world that would last me the rest of my life. I never viewed the South with the same eyes after that night.
Looking back years later, I think the root of that understanding was that Levon could embody a mournful 19th Century Southern cracker in “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” and yet live as one of the hippest 20th Century gentlemen I knew, who could hang out with Sonny Boy Williamson and loved Marvin Gaye’s music. The brilliance of the Robbie Robertson song of Southern defeat is that Virgil Caine (Levon’s character in the song) confesses at the end of the Civil War that “the very best” (including his brother) are dead and “like my father before me, I will work the land” (as a sharecropper?). There is no glory in war and you can’t eat off Dixie pride.
This contradiction embodied in this wonderful man, Levon Helm, is a contradiction we are still living with in America. This is the argument I have with the Techno utopians like Alexis Obanian. 99% of musicians, writers, actors are just “working the land”. They don’t need to get rich, they just want the honor of getting paid for their work. Levon and Garth Hudson made a good living ($150,000 a year) off royalties from The Band’s eight recordings in the 60′s and 70′s up until 2001 when the Big Pirate sites like Limewire and (in 2003) Pirate Bay really got going. And then the record royalties came to a halt. Levon and Garth did not write songs (I was there). Robbie, Richard and Rick did. There is the difference in income.
But the point is that in a normal economy (pre-piracy) Levon would have made a good living for his whole life, just for having been a brilliant singer and player on all those great records.That was quite enough.
His death hit me harder than I thought it would. Listen to “The Weight” and “Dixie” right now. You will agree he was one of the greats.
A profound reversal in attitudes has taken place in the last twenty years. While in the 1960′s the cries of “freedom” and “liberty” came from Progressives, today it is the right that sees liberty under attack. The campaign rhetoric of the four Republican candidates for President all put the defense of liberty at the top of their agenda. They see in Progressives attempts to regulate bad actors in the world’s of finance, health insurance, or environmental pollution a basic attack on the free market. As Rick Santorum said on Super Tuesday about Obamacare, ”Ladies and gentlemen, this is the beginning of the end of freedom in America. Once the government has control of your life, then they got you.”
I think we need to really consider whether liberty is the value that trumps all others in our society. Let’s take the case of the publisher of backpage.com.
The biggest forum for sex trafficking of under-age girls in the United States appears to be a Web site called Backpage.com. This emporium for girls and women — some under age or forced into prostitution — is in turn owned by an opaque private company called Village Voice Media. Until now it has been unclear who the ultimate owners are.That mystery is solved. The owners turn out to include private equityfinanciers, including Goldman Sachs with a 16 percent stake…
There’s no doubt that many escort ads on Backpage are placed by consenting adults. But it’s equally clear that Backpage plays a major role in the trafficking of minors or women who are coerced. In one recent case in New York City, prosecutors say that a 15-year-old girl was drugged, tied up, raped and sold to johns through Backpage and other sites.Backpage has 70 percent of the market for prostitution ads, according to AIM Group, a trade organization.
Now the State of Washington has passed a law creating criminal penalties for sites like backpage.com for advertising girls under the age of 18. And what is the response from backpage.com–”Censorship”.
“There’s going to have to be a challenge to it,” said Liz McDougall, general counsel for Village Voice Media Holdings. “Otherwise it would effectively shut down an enormous portion of the Internet that currently permits third-party content.”
Now where have I heard that before? The defenders of Kim Dotcom and the other pirates who have lived luxuriously off the stolen work of musicians and filmmakers around the world, say that any attempt to block these sites is censorship. This is utter nonsense. As I have pointed out before, the issue is not Google or Baidu’s precious freedom, but their precious revenues.
How did we get to this point that the Libertarian rhetoric dominates our political debate? The Village Voice’s liberty to service pimps of underage girls, trumps society’s right to protect those girls from exploitation? The selfish individual’s liberty to not buy health insurance and make the rest of us pay for his emergency room care trumps society’s right to create a working health insurance system? Megaupload’s liberty to host stolen movies trumps the artist’s right to get paid for his work?
As I have said before, we must come off the barricades and stop using this foolish rhetoric of censorship and liberty where it really does not apply. You have no right to free food. Why do you think you have a right to free music? It is time for all the parties involved to sit at the table and figure out some solutions that afford the creators of imaginative work to get paid for their considerable labors.
A rainy Saturday in Los Angeles seems like a good time to put down some random thoughts.
The SOPA Battle
So SOPA is dead, and as I said earlier in the week, it was a fatally flawed piece of legislation. But before the Free Culture crowd gets too self-righteous, please consider your new hero and spokesperson, Kim Dotcom.
Kim’s a fun loving guy with 30,000 square foot mansions in three countries, a fleet of Ferraris all made possible by selling stolen content from artists around the world. A bunch of the musicians I worked with in the 1960′s and 1970′s, who made wonderful records that are still on everyone’s I Pod, have seen their royalties cut by 80%. Not enough for a retired 70 year old to live on. American’s are truly stupid when it comes to discussing this issue. The one thing we make that everyone else in the world wants to get a hold of–our music, our movies, our video games—the knuckleheads on the copyleft want to fight a death match to make sure they are free to the whole world. Of course these same people don’t mind paying an arm and a leg for their German car or their Japanese TV. Read more…
Categories: Afghanistan, Art, Barack Obama, Education, Energy Policy Afghanistan, Barack Obama, China, Credit Crisis, Music, Politics, Ron Wyden, SOPA, Stock Market
Part 1 of Henry Jenkins’ interview with me on my new book, Outlaw Blues. I think you will enjoy this.
In my new book, Outlaw Blues; Adventures in the Counter-culture Wars, I talk about the role of the great protest song in the early days of the Civil Rights Movement. Songs like If I had a Hammer, Blowin in the Wind, We Shall Overcome were the basic tool of non-violent protest sit-ins. If you were going to get arrested, it was easier if everyone was singing the same anthem. I thought about that the other day in New York when I visited Occupy Wall Street. The main music of the encampment was some drum circles. That’s like a performance–full of ego. It’s the opposite of singing an anthem.
I think we need some new anthems, but it also raises a larger question. The great non-violent protest movements of the past have had at their core a leader whose core vision was of love, not anger. As Michael Shellenberger pointed out years ago, King’s most famous speech was “I have a dream” not “I have a nightmare”. The core of OWS is the concept “We are the 99%”. It is brilliant in its simplicity to distill the notion that the whole system is rigged to advantage the 1%, but without a dream—a vision of how we get out of this Interregnum—the movement will never advance beyond drum circles, witty posters and identity politics.
I will add but a few words to the millions that will be written in the next few days about Steve Jobs.
At the Innovation Lab we try to inculcate the notion that you can’t be afraid. You can’t be afraid to fail. You can’t be afraid to “be different”. You can’t be afraid to celebrate the weird mix of art and science that is true innovation. Steve Jobs embodied all of those qualities. I wrote a bit about him in my new book and there is a cool video in the book of his graduation speech at Stanford that you will see replayed too often in the next few days.
I think Steve Jobs represents everything we hope for in our vision of the entrepreneurial America we have in our dreams. As a country and as leaders, we fall short of that dream on a daily basis. At Apple, which has been a wonderful partner to our Lab, they have a saying, “Culture eats strategy for lunch every day.” Steve inculcated a culture of innovation into the people he worked for. That may have been his greatest gift.
I’m lucky in that I get to work pretty closely with Apple at the USC Annenberg innovation Lab. So if I have anything to add to the reams of copy written this morning about Steve Jobs’ decision to step down as CEO of Apple it is this: “Culture eats strategy for lunch, everyday.” That’s a saying you hear around Apple a lot and it is one that needs to be understood in the halls of Congress, in other executive suites and in the society in general. Apple is the most innovative organization in the world, not because it has a strategy of innovation, but because it has a culture of innovation.
From my vantage point that culture has two elements: reward risk and marry science to art. In the long succession of hit products in the last decade, it’s hard to remember that Steve Jobs had some epic failures early in his career. Anyone remember the Lisa or the Newton? Both were total flops, but the Lisa morphed into the Mac and one could argue that the dream of the Newton ultimately was realized in the I Pad. So the culture rewards both risk, failure and the lessons learned from both. And then there is the marriage of science and art, at which Steve Jobs and his team excelled beyond his competitors. There is a bad tendency in this country to think our “innovation deficit” lies in what policy makers call STEM (science,technology, engineering and math). But Jobs understands that the magic formula is STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art and math). It is the basis of what we teach at The innovation Lab and it is the core of the Apple brand. Steve’s obsessive belief in the role of the artist goes way beyond his early fascination with typography. What makes each of his products so thrilling is that they are aesthetically pleasing just to look at, never mind how cool they are to operate.
So here are my take aways from Steve’s departure. We better start building a culture of innovation all over this country. That means we have to let lots of experiments happen at the state and city level in order to start putting people back to work. Some of them will fail, but hopefully we will all find the best practices quickly. In congress, they better stop thinking about strategy every morning and start thinking about culture. And in our schools we better keep teaching the arts and not just concentrate on math and science. As to the continuing success of Apple, I have no doubt. Because innovation was never a top down strategy, but rather a bottom-up culture, Apple will thrive. Steve’s vision will be missed, but he embedded the culture throughout the organization.
Our correspondent, T-Bone Burnett, added that comment to the New Yorker cartoon I posted which has generated so much traffic in the last couple of days. This comment is echoed in a magnificent essay in this morning’s New York Times by Michiko Kakutani, entitled Texts Without Context.
Other challenges to the autonomy of the artist come from new interactive media and from constant polls on television and the Web, which ask audience members for feedback on television shows, movies and music; and from fan bulletin boards, which often function like giant focus groups…As reading shifts “from the private page to the communal screen,” Mr. Carr writes in “The Shallows,” authors “will increasingly tailor their work to a milieu that the writer Caleb Crain describes as ‘groupiness,’ where people read mainly ‘for the sake of a feeling of belonging’ rather than for personal enlightenment or amusement. As social concerns override literary ones, writers seem fated to eschew virtuosity and experimentation in favor of a bland but immediately accessible style.”
From the day I started this blog, I have tried to resist this urge to write what the search engines tell me would be popular. For reasons that are lost on me, posts with the word “Torture” in them are very popular on Google. This 19 month old post is still regularly on of the most searched out ones on this site. And of course there is always this favorite, which must be an immense disappointment to the thousands of web surfers who have landed there searching for porn. If I wanted to really get a lot of hits, I’d combine these two “focus group” hints and just call the site “Torture Porn”. I’m sure it would be very popular. Read more…
Categories: Advertising, Art, Entertainment, Futurism, Technology, Television Internet, Jaron Lanier, Jersylicious, Kirstie Alley's Big Life, Michiko Kakutani, Torture Porn