EDM Tribes


Last September The New Yorker ran a long piece on the Electronic Dance Music (EDM) scene in Las Vegas and noted that the top DJ’s were earning $300,000 a night at the biggest nightclub at The Encore called XS. They noted that perhaps there was an EDM bubble that might soon burst, so on Friday I took a plane to Vegas to check it out. The DJ Avicii was playing and by midnight the joint was jumping. I was the oldest cat in the room by about 30 years, but since I was on an anthropological field trip, I enjoyed my roll as observer of this new tribe. Of course we have always had dance music. I used to go to Studio 54 in the 70′s, but this is different. First off is that everyone is dressed in a uniform. The girls are all dressed in skin tight micro mini skirts, mostly in black or blue. The guys are all some version of the Hangover cast, with most opting for the Bradley Cooper shirt outside the pants look, but with a fair number of slightly schlubby Zach Galifanakis types scattered in the mix. By midnight it seemed like a high school mixer that wasn’t going well. The girls were all together dancing with each other, while the guys stood around the periphery of the dance floor, drinks in hand.

Where the real money is made is at the 100 reserved booths, each holding maybe 12 people with bottle service that starts at $2000. Grey Goose Vodka and Red Bull seemed to be the drink of choice and by 1:30 AM I understood why. Avicii doesn’t even go on until 1 AM and he was proceeded by a DJ who keeps everything moving. What surprised me was that the basic “four on the floor” beat was consistent for over 6 hours. There are what you might call songs, but they are more like chorus hooks–a short catchy phrase–that everyone seems to know and sing along with. An example might be “The Bad Touch” by DJ Gollum and Empyre One which has only one line for it’s 18 minute length–”You and me baby ain’t nothing but mammals , so lets do it like they do on the Discovery Channel”. “Like a Rolling Stone” it is not. But that of course is not the point. All three thousand revelers in XS seemed to sing it in unison, because they were fighting for their right to party. Whether there is some sort of generational lesson here is not clear. Having participated in some fairly psychedelic evenings at the Fillmore in San Francisco in 1967, I believe that Dionysus, rather than Apollo is the god of youth. But in 1967 there was a certain spirit of utopian optimism in the air. The belief in the power of the young to change the world. We had already marched in the streets for civil rights and were currently in the streets against the war in Vietnam. The kids in XS had no such idealism. It was more like lets get wasted and have a good time before the next bubble bursts. Continue reading

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Obama and Pop Culture

Trevor Paglen Limit Telephotography

Trevor Paglen
Limit Telephotography

About a year ago I quit blogging. I had mostly been writing about politics and my frustration with the political culture–what Mike Judge called the Idiocracy–led to James Joyce’s prescription–”Silence, Exile, Cunning”. So when I decided to resume a week ago it was because I felt that the world of culture was in such an amazing transition phase–what I call the Digital Interregnum–that I could confine my self to writing about music, film, TV, art, video games, social networks, sports and never have to get frustrated in print about oligarchy and the death of democracy.

And then this morning the front page of my New York Times featured a story, The Rise of the Drone Master:Pop Culture Recasts Obama and I felt the urge to comment. The thesis of the piece is simple.

Five and a half years into his presidency, Mr. Obama has had a powerful impact on the nation’s popular culture. But what many screenwriters, novelists and visual artists have seized on is not an inspirational story of the first black president. Instead they have found more compelling story lines in the bleaker, morally fraught parts of Mr. Obama’s legacy.

As the article points out most of the artistic themes are around surveillance, privacy and drone wars and I would be less than honest if I didn’t admit that my own disapointment with a man I supported from the day he announced in February of 2007, didn’t stem from his unwillingness to bring the National Security State to heel. Obama was, like every President who preceded him into the oval office since 1953, a prisoner of the establishment.

So what do I mean by The Establishment? Since 1953 when two senior partners of a Wall Street law firm, the brothers John Foster and Allen Dulles began running American foreign (and often domestic) policy, an establishment view, through Democratic and Republican presidencies alike, has been the norm. As Stephen Kinzer, in his book, Brothers, has written about the Dulles brothers, “Their life’s work was turning American money and power into global money and power. They deeply believed, or made themselves believe, that what benefited them and their clients would benefit everyone.” They created a world in which the Wall Street elites at first set our foreign policy and eventually (under Ronald Reagan) came to dominate domestic and tax policy—all to the benefit of themselves and their clients.

Clearly when Obama appointed Larry Summers, Tim Geithner, Robert Gates and Hillary Clinton to the top posts in his administration it should have been clear that the Wall Street-Military Industrial Complex was still firmly in charge. But I refused to believe that Barack was just a front man for the oligarchs, and to his credit I believe that he genuinely believes that our 60 year post World War II belief in playing the global cop is a fool’s mission. But the Snowden revelations have shown how afraid he is to really challenge the conventional wisdom when it comes to the surveillance state. So the artists do what artists always have done, they take part in what Marcuse called the Great Refusal:”In its refusal to accept as final the limitations imposed upon freedom and happiness by society, in its refusal to forget what can be, lies the critical function of the artist.”

I don’t think there is any way for Obama to prevent the artists from defining his legacy in such dystopian colors. Unless of course he decides to go all Bulworth on the country after the November elections and use the last two years of his Presidency to really use the Bully Pulpit to reform our sadly broken politics.

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Donald Sterling:Egomaniac


Anyone who has lived in LA for the past 15 years knows that Donald Sterling suffers from an acute case of Narcissistic Personality Disorder that perhaps has no equal in the U.S. with the possible exception of Donald Trump. Symptoms include:

  • Expects to be recognized as superior and special, without superior accomplishments
  • Expects constant attention, admiration and positive reinforcement from others
  • Envies others and believes others envy him/her
  • Is preoccupied with thoughts and fantasies of great success, enormous attractiveness, power, intelligence
  • Lacks the ability to empathize with the feelings or desires of others
  • Is arrogant in attitudes and behavior
  • Has expectations of special treatment that are unrealistic

Both Donalds excel at putting their name on tall ugly apartment buildings and then taking out full page advertisements showing off their phallic towers. Sterling was worse in that not a month would go by when he didn’t buy a full page ad in the LA Times noting an award he had purchased from some poor broke charity. That a doddering old racist could be regularly honored as the “Humanitarian of the Year” only demonstrates how corrupt the charity banquet business is. That the local chapter of the NAACP would close its eyes and ears to twenty years of Sterling’s mistreatment of minorities in return for a fat check, is especially sad.

But now that the NBA has banned Sterling for life, we can appreciate some lessons from the last four days. The first is that the players really have the power in the NBA. That they spoke with one voice calling for the maximum penalty closed off any lighter sanctions that the other owners (having tolerated Sterling for years), might have preferred. The second lesson is that there is still a generational divide on race in this country. Crackers like Cliveden Bundy and Donald Sterling grew up in the 1940′s and 1950′s when the easy prejudice of their cohorts was tolerated. Listening to the tape of Sterling, I kept thinking, “Elgin Baylor was right. Sterling sounds like a plantation owner not wanting the slaves to come up on the porch.”

Hopefully. this will all be over soon. Sterling will realize that he is persona non grata in LA, will sell the team and move to Florida, next door to Donald Trump where they will live out their days complaining about the “girlfriends from hell.”

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Who Benefits from Silicon Valley?


I got into the music business in 1967, at the height of a creative and economic boom. Technology had almost nothing to do with the business, as the LP that had been introduced in 1948 was still in use. The Beatles Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album had been recorded on a 4 track Studer recorder (above) and that was the “state of the art”.But today, the business is dominated by technology companies. Just as much music is consumed as in 1967 (probably more), but most of the value flows to Silicon Valley and not to the musicians. Spotify had gross revenues of over $600 million last year, but an artist would have to have more than 4 million plays per month to make the minimum wage of $1,160 per month.

So if the massive reallocation of value has flowed from musicians to geeks, what exactly have we gained except “convenience”? This thought came to mind as I read Annie Lowery’s story “If A Bubble Bursts in Palo Alto, Does It Make A Sound?” Lowery makes the point that both the gains and the losses in Silicon Valley have relatively little effect on the rest of the economy. Tech firms hire relatively small numbers of people and pay them astronomic sums of money. So even if the bubble burst, not that many people would get hurt.

The truth is that most Americans have little interaction with the big-money, small-jobs technology boom, so they might be sheltered from the worst of the technology bust, at least as it looks today, if not years from now. But that might be cold comfort: It is a sad state of affairs if one of the most vibrant, explosive and creative parts of the economy — and one of the few that is minting millionaires — seems more like a walled garden than a public park.

If you think about the technology boom at the beginning of the 20th Century–electricity, automobiles, airplanes—the benefits were widely dispersed throughout the society. Millions of jobs were created and everyone’s life improved. It seems to me the tech community today has been very good at the “creative destruction” part of the innovation equation, but has been far less creative in imagining how to rebuild the businesses they destroyed. From my own personal experience, neither the music not the journalism business has recovered from tech’s wholesale disruption. When people point out to Google what a huge part they play in this destruction, they hide behind libertarian tropes to excuse the fact that they are constantly linking to pirate sites.

The artists themselves as well as the editors of news sites are pushed into the role of “branded content”, which is a nice way of saying “selling out.” You can make a nice parlor game of counting the amount of product placement in a music video or which piece of news you are reading is “sponsored content”. I assume the guilt of destroying once vital businesses eventually comes home to roost in the guts of the tech billionaires. They buy a newspaper, sponsor a film festival or build a museum to honor Jimi Hendrix. But it’s just guilt money. It’s not helping the average guitar picker or beat reporter trying to make a living.

When you live in a walled garden, everything seems perfect.

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Culture of Distraction


Honey Boo Boo

Honey Boo Boo

The last few days have brought forth a number of studies that would make most conscious citizens of a republic take to the barricades (or, more productively, the ballot box) in anger. We start with a report from professors Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page at Princeton and Northwestern that concludes that the United States is an Oligarchy.

The report, entitled Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens, used extensive policy data collected from between the years of 1981 and 2002 to empirically determine the state of the US political system.

After sifting through nearly 1,800 US policies enacted in that period and comparing them to the expressed preferences of average Americans (50th percentile of income), affluent Americans (90th percentile) and large special interests groups, researchers concluded that the United States is dominated by its economic elite.

The peer-reviewed study, which will be taught at these universities in September, says: “The central point that emerges from our research is that economic elites and organised groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on US government policy, while mass-based interest groups and average citizens have little or no independent influence.”

This was followed by a report in the New York Times new Upshot column on the shrinking American middle and lower class incomes.

The American middle class, long the most affluent in the world, has lost that distinction.

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Comcast-Time Warner Cable Merger


Most of you know that I am basically optimistic about the future of the media and entertainment business in world of 5 Billion smartphones all serving up media content. But there is one aspect of the future that is potentially troubling which is the lack of competition in the Broadband business.

The proposed merger of the number one and two broadband providers (Comcast and Time Warner Cable) raises the specter of a single provider controlling 40% of all high speed broadband in the U.S. Comcast has made the argument that since each company operates a de facto monopoly in the individual cable markets that they serve, their merger would not change the competitive environment for the individual consumer. While it is true that a broadband duopoly is the standard in most major markets with a single cable provider and a single telco, this should not be cause for celebration. This duopoly provides us slower broadband at higher prices than almost any developed country in the world.

At the USC Annenberg Innovation Lab we have had a chance for the last two years to see what really fast broadband looks like. And no, we didn’t have to travel to Seoul, South Korea to experience the future. We go down to Chattanooga, Tennessee where we can test applications at 1 Gigabit per second over the EPB Fiber Network. EPB’s story points us towards a future where we may no longer have to worry about the Broadband Duopoly. EPB stands for the Electric Power Board of Chattanooga, a municipally owned utility. A few years ago the folks at Volkswagen told the Chattanooga city fathers they would like to build a high tech auto plant in their city. There was only one problem: they were in the middle of Tornado Alley and the electricity went out several times a year during the big storms. So EPB promised to build a smart grid so when a tree fell on the wires on Flynn St., only Flynn St would go dark, because the smart grid would route power around the trouble.

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Transcendence, directed by Wally Pfister (Christopher Nolan’s cinematographer) is one of the smarter action movies I have seen in a while. As would be expected of the visual artist behind “Dark Knight”, it looks really good with almost “Godfather” like rich blacks and dark interiors contrasting with the vast expanse of the white shimmering underground quantum computing facility that is the center of much of the plot.

Like Her which preceded it by months, it plays on our suspicion that the benefits of ubiquitous 24/7 connectivity are not all they are cracked up to be. Using the Frankenstein myth as it’s jumping off point, the film questions whether Ray Kurzweil’s Singularity will be a blessing or a curse. Johnny Depp plays the Kurzweil stand in and a wonderful Rebecca Hall plays his super smart wife, Evelyn, who fulfills her role in the Adam and Eve myth by getting Johnny to eat the apple and upload his dying brilliance into the Internet.

What follows may not make logical sense after you emerge from the theater, but Pfister keeps everything moving at a quick pace so you never shout WTF? at the screen. Having sat through 20 minutes of trailers for the summer’s blockbuster season, all of which seemed to be some sort of adoption of the Transformers man vs really big machine formula, I can confidently say that at least Transcendence will engage your brain while it is trying to raise your heart rate. Exactly when the Knuckleheads will tire of the big machine destroying the city trope, is an open question. As for me, I will be catching up on my TV series over the summer.

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Gabriel Garcia Marquez


On the 8th of December in 1982, Gabriel Garcia Marquez gave his acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize in literature. A cold war raged between superpowers armed with nuclear missiles and all across Latin America, dictators still reigned.

On a day like today, my master William Faulkner said, “I decline to accept the end of man”. I would fall unworthy of standing in this place that was his, if I were not fully aware that the colossal tragedy he refused to recognize thirty-two years ago is now, for the first time since the beginning of humanity, nothing more than a simple scientific possibility. Faced with this awesome reality that must have seemed a mere utopia through all of human time, we, the inventors of tales, who will believe anything, feel entitled to believe that it is not yet too late to engage in the creation of the opposite utopia. A new and sweeping utopia of life, where no one will be able to decide for others how they die, where love will prove true and happiness be possible, and where the races condemned to one hundred years of solitude will have, at last and forever, a second opportunity on earth.

Marquez for me embodied the role of the artist in society–the refusal to believe that we couldn’t create a more just world. Utopias are out of favor now. We are too cynical to believe in the power of love. We have too much evidence of the power of money to triumph over justice. But Gabo never gave up believing in the transformational power of words to conjure magic and seize the imagination.

The other aspect of Marquez’ work that is crucial is that he teaches us the importance of regionalism. In a McWorld commercial culture of sameness where you can stroll in a mall in Shanghai and forget you were not in Los Angeles, Marquez’s work was distinctly Latin American. He was as unique as the songs of Gilberto Gil, or the cinema of Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu. God knows we need to celebrate more of our differences, but young artists also need to have the sense of history that Marquez celebrated when he said, “I cannot imagine how anyone could even think of writing a novel without having at least a vague of idea of the 10,000 years of literature that have gone before.” When I realize that 80% of the downloads of music go to 1% of the content, I am not sure that anyone has an appreciation of the cultural history that led to this moment. Amnesia only leads to death.

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A True Artist

We lost Jesse Winchester last week. I’m sad because he was the real deal and not enough people knew that. Robbie Robertson “discovered” Jesse in 1969 when I was working as The Band’s tour manager and as I recall Jesse couldn’t come into the U.S. because he had fled to Canada to escape the draft. He made a great record that Robbie produced, but he never reached the James Taylor level of stardom. Listen to this song he sang on an Elvis Costello TV program and look how it affected Elvis and Neko Case.


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Guy Time Running Out


Ben Ratliff’s rumination on the Coachella Music Festival raises an important cultural issue and then just drops it. Ratliff wonders if the audience has become more important than the performers–and who is that audience?

One is a young man who bangs his body around to show you that he has been to the gym, or that he has a basically competitive attitude. He has grown simpler over the history of the festival. He wears black sunglasses, sleeveless shirt or none at all, backward baseball cap or headband, a water-pack on his back. He is a flat, hardy example of power and privilege. He seems to have no history. If style is something specific to a time or place that pleases the eye and the mind, he has no style. His time is running out. (Don’t blame him. Blame globalism, the major banks, professional sports.)

By contrast, Ratliff notes that the woman in the audience “looks more flexible, curious and specific to the region” and that the music pitched at them has more nuance than the EDM the guys flock to. But by going on to describe the wonderful women performers at the festival, Ratliff does not pursue the truly existential question he raises. Is a culture aimed at buffed out knuckleheads with their caps on backwards devolving into meaninglessness?

I don’t just mean EDM or the blatant sexism of a good deal of hip hop. I mean a movie business that seems trapped in a Spiderman 4, Fast and Furious 7 trope aimed at the young men with no history. I mean a video game industry unable to escape the first person shooter adreniline rush and a web culture built around sites like Reddit that celebrate the obnoxious know it all geek life that “has no style”. I don’t know how we get out of this trap thinking that young guys are the only audience for entertainment, but I know we have to do it.

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