Music and Torture

Too much of a good thing can become a bad thing pretty quickly. In the case of a municipality or Gov’t using music as torture, one must first go beyond the initial shock when imagining being bound and forced to listen to “Call Me Maybe” while being interrogated. It’s not necessarily the content of the music (although I am not the Guantanamo Bay DJ so I can’t be sure) but the presence of loud sound at an unwanted time.

In the case of music as torture, despite what artists like Pearl Jam and Rage Against the Machine have suspected (they filed a Freedom of Information Act request to find out if it was their music and to what extent any music was being used to torture POW’s), it’s not the music that is being used as a  vehicle for torture, it’s the sound. If a loud sound is depriving someone of sleep (like a car alarm or a thunderstorm or a train in the distance), it doesn’t particularly matter what the sound is. So while there is a huge intrigue over which kinds of music is being used for torture, you could point the blame at any artist whose music employs the use of sound. (That’s pretty much all of them, if you’re keeping score). So, why is there so much intrigue about the use of music as a means of torture when there already are so many other methods of torture being used by governments? Because this is one method that people can sympathize with or humanize. It has an emotional pull when you imagine a song that you might enjoy, one that could make your day better and uplift you, being used for someone else’s demise. More so than when you take a shower and thank heavens you can shower under the water and not be forcibly placed under it while being waterboarded.

Music can become “torture” when it’s just not the kind of music you want to be hearing at that moment. One of the readings mentions a mall that would blast Frank Sinatra to keep unruly kids away. To these kids, being forced to listen to ol frankie blue eyes at a mall probably was a form of torture to them. But to a prisoner of war, deprived of sleep and harassed sexually and physically, it doesn’t make a difference which song is being used to torture them, whether it’s Pearl Jam or the Barney Theme Song or dubstep. The key is that there are sounds being manipulated to high volumes which keep them awake when they want to sleep. The torturous thing is taking something which usually is used for pleasure and leisure, either you play the music yourself to listen to it or you walk into a store that’s playing music and you choose to listen to it or possibly even enjoy it. But having no choice in the matter, being forced to listen (or being forced to do anything for that matter) can be torturous. This is one aspect of our Government’s treatment of POW’s in Guatanamo Bay that many musicians and music fans have paid attention to, but imho it is just one small facet of a much larger problem, which is that human beings don’t deserve to be tortured under any circumstances using any method, sonically or otherwise.

I’ll leave you with a Pearl Jam song that is very much not torturous. Just don’t blast it outside my window at 4am or I’ll confess to pretty much anything.

“The Audio-Visual Ipod”

Sometimes we listen to music as a way to connect with others. Whether you’re at a concert trying to share a dance with someone or moshing with others, or you are on a road trip and everyone in the car is singing along to the song, music is very often a means for personal connection. But does music also have the ability to isolate one’s self and privatize their listening experience? The article by Michael Bull would suggest that it does. The author ties this closed experience to the experience of an urban dweller, one who does not need to look around at his/her environment while walking from point A to point B. I can definitely agree with this; when I walk on the NYC streets I want nothing more than to walk as fast as I can to where I’m going to and I want to outpace every slow walker in front of me. With so many distractions and people trying to stop me to separate me from my money, I also see the benefit of shutting myself out and tuning in just to my music. I think that when the article compares listening to music while watching the world to being in a movie and having a “soundtrack” it is a good point but slightly off base. It is a very existentialist thing to feel like you are a part of your own movie, and the music you have on for yourself can be your “soundtrack” but I personally like to believe that everything else that would happen that day to every other person has absolutely nothing to do with one’s own actions and the sounds they hear while observing the world. Some people believe that listening to music creates an environment of solipsism, where you are an outside observer. I disagree with that. You totally are there! You just are listening to music instead of taking in natural sounds or engaging in conversation. Furthermore, even in a case where let’s say someone sits across from me on a subway and observes me enjoying myself listening to whatever I am listening to. Let’s say that they even go as far as saying “gee, I wish I could listen to whatever that guy is listening to as I’m sure it would make my day better”. Well, it’s uplifting to think that we may then encounter a situation of “sharing” in the music socially, but it just is not the case. Even if I would lend that stranger an earbud (which I wouldn’t freaking do, ok), it seems highly unlikely to me that the person would enjoy some random improv-jam from a random midwestern phish show in the 90’s. Maybe they would, maybe not. But they certainly wouldn’t enjoy it in the way that I was enjoying it, as we are different people.

For all of the arguments that listening to music with headphones on can seem like an act of isolation, I do give credit to MP3 players for making music personal again. Many people prefer to collect their music and listen to it at their own discretion, and knowing that you are collecting this music to play for yourself makes it that much more motivating to create a good personal music collection.

Another interesting thing to note is how Apple has played such a large role in this. Those white earbuds are totally ubiquitous! So much so that other companies have taken advantage of pointing out the irony that Apple, who used to advertise about individuality and breaking away from the pack now is the reason that a vast majority of people listen to their music from the same kind of device on the same kind of headphones.

I want to illustrate how some in the media like to point fingers at Apple for this. Here is a great ad that kind of spoofs a legendary Apple commercial from the 1984 Super Bowl.

original ad:

Dance music and drug culture (part 2/2)

After reading the writings of Shane Morris, an EDM event producer and manager of several dubstep artists, I would like to share my findings about the evolution of drug culture in the electronic music scene.  Here is a link to the article: http://brojackson.com/long-reads/finding-molly-drugs-dancing-and-death

part 2 (follow up) can be found here

What Morris is arguing is that the ability to sneak certain drugs past the dogs of DEA officials has led to a rise in the drug MDMA finding its way undetected into clubs and raves in insanely large quantities. Morris accuses the promoters and security behind these events of being involved as well, because it allows them to receive drug money and inflate their attendance numbers artificially (he explains it better in the article than I ever can). Because it would be pointless to argue against doing drugs in general (because, after all, it is so much fun) I would theorize that the problem with the rise in MDMA use is the danger that it presents to young fans of the EDM scene. Is it that the glamorization of the drug usage turns MDMA into something way bigger than the drug itself? Now, no one in particular is to blame for the glamorization of the drug, despite what critics of Rick Ross or Madonna or Miley Cyrus would say. Even if those artists were encouraging their fans to use drugs (which they are not), by merely voicing their opinion, does endorsing certain drugs does not make them guilty in any way of leading to drug consumption? (just ask Timothy Leary).

The problem that carries the most significant weight is the inability for the scene to control just who is handling the drugs and what they cut their product with. Fans on the lookout for “Molly” may be rightfully seeking the purest form of ecstasy that they can find, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that the person selling it and advertising it as Molly is being honest. And very often it is dangerous additives such as bath salts or research chemicals being mixed into the drug compound. So, while the argument made by many after the cancellation of E-zoo following the death of attendees was “why should the whole event be cut short because someone couldn’t stomach their drugs?”, that argument assumes that all the eventgoers who “rolled” had taken drugs from the same source (nevermind the fact that we all digest drugs differently). Promoters of the event can try all they would like to distance themselves from those attendees who end up too drugged to function, but it was that promoter’s willingness to cater to MDMA dealers that allowed such a wide variety of tainted drugs into that promoter’s event in the first place.

 

My final issue with EDM and the drug culture surrounding it can be attributed to the fan base and the musical subculture. I don’t know when the “scene” aspect eclipsed the part where people attend a live music event to hear/see/taste live music. I know my previous post mentioned authenticity, but I’m going back down that road here. Much of the EDM scene relies on the commercialization and proliferation into the mainstream of something that was intended to be countercultural. House music has its roots in greater social issues like civil rights and LGBT progress, but that never eclipsed the music itself to become a bigger storyline than the beats. When something becomes this large, presented to so many people, it is natural for the American Consumerist Machine to spin it out of control and dilute all the good parts. Welcome to the music industry, everyone! So something like Ecstasy, which used to be a part of the music scene but only as a vice or a rare luxury became much higher in demand. And obviously it wasn’t enough for Americans to get their hands on Ecstasy; it had to be “Molly”, the purest form. Well, fans may be thinking that they are buying pure drugs but the hard reality of a business that involves a large number of violent criminals is that unadulterated product is probably pretty hard to come by.

There are some who are attempting to do something about it. The people at Bunk Police enjoy full cooperation from music festivals to sell drug-purity-testing kits that employ advanced chemical technology. Their founder explained to me at a festival how he used to be allowed to set up a stand where he would test anyone’s drugs for them, but that he faced legal troubles from some events for “promoting” drug use. Here is someone in the music scene who recognizes the appeal of drug experimentation while putting safety before profits. If music venues open their doors for partnerships with people like the Bunk Police (who are more than happy to help you test the purity and safety of your drugs at no cost), and allow them to operate with transparency, then we could see safer electronic music events in our future.

 

 

“Night Club Royale”: The Spectacle of EDM Culture (Part 1/2)

I would like to write about Electronic music from 2 different angles, and I think that my follow-up to this post will focus specifically on drug culture and criticism of the genre. First, I would like to offer my opinions on the scene and the music based on some of my experiences of EDM music at raves, festivals and concerts, of which I have noticed distinctions between the kinds of experiences at each event.

Josh Eells’ article makes an indication that success in major EDM events in Las Vegas is often measured measured by consumption, as in, “how much alcohol did clubgoers consumer tonight from the bar?”, rather than ticket sales or album and merchandise sales. Electronic music capitalizes on the belief of music as an experience vs music as a product. EDM events aren’t a vehicle to increase an artist’s record sales, (as rock concerts essentially were for most of the height of the music industry’s success) but rather seen as a spectacle or a way to get rich consumers through the door of the event in order to sell them designer drinks and designer drugs at high profit margins. Those involved in EDM believe that music is not a product. There was a line in the article from will.i.am who claimed that DJs intend to circulate their music for free in hopes of a club promoter finding that music and paying them to perform a live event. Electronic music is not a product; DJs are not pushing CDs and Records, nor are they even able to sufficiently distinguish what makes their music “theirs” in order for consumers to choose one artist over the others. That weight falls onto the DJ to perform a distinct live show in a desirable location, as opposed to a rock band trying to craft that “perfect record” in hopes that many will buy the album and listen to it indefinitely in the future.

Now, I am not going to tell you that all EDM events are the same; that would be quite ignorant. Having attended various events, I would like to make a personal distinction between what I see as a dichotomy between regular music festivals and music venues hosting a DJ and an EDM-only event such as a rave, nightclub or “Electric insert-noun-here Festival”. Events like Deadmau5’s 6-night residency at Roseland Ballroom or a “DJ Tent” at a major music festival such as Bonnaroo or Made In America lend an air of legitimacy to the artists and enable them to play their music to a fresh set of fans who already distinguished themselves as loyal music fans willing to spend money on live entertainment. Just as important to note is these festivals, while still having a very high rate of drug consumption, don’t suffer the same tragedies faced by EDM-only fesitvals such as E-zoo at Randall’s Island or Ultra Music in Miami, which are riddled with bad PR from deaths of attendees. I think the difference here is that music fans at festivals are coming to these festivals to get a return on investment on those $300 festy passes and want to hear a large variety of good music. Yes, that may involve consuming drugs, but first comes $300 worth of live music. The spectacle of it all, the experience and the enhancements, are secondary to the product: the music. I don’t think this is the case with EDM-only festivals or events. Yes, there is a reason the old idiom is “sex drugs and rock & roll”, but I don’t think many people attend rock concerts just to do drugs in the same way that EDM events have a reputation for attracting people who are “there to do drugs party”. That is rooted in the lifestyle of those who attend EDM-only festivals, which at first glance seems to be only young, wealthy white people who may or may not have not developed a diverse musical taste. Contrast that to the average crowd at a large rock concert or music festival, who partake in subcultures like the indie/diy scene and value musical authenticity while questioning the “industry” (aka “money”) aspect behind the music. This is not a knock on EDM listeners, but it speaks to authenticity of artists when you realize that there is only one genre of music whose fans allow the performers to take 5 minute cigarette-and-restroom breaks while their set is still ongoing. These are fans who would not even believe you if you told them about the strict no alcohol policies of early dance music venues (or the stark difference between todays EDM fans and the people who were a part of that early dance scene). Electronic music is not a subculture that demands authenticity from its artists, but one that relies heavily on spectacle to stay hip and in touch with the young target audience of 18-25. Those are fans who are not discerning, but rather seeking the spectacle and trendiness of EDM.

There is a difference, in terms of quality of music, between a DJ set in a club in Vegas or Miami or Ibiza and seeing Deadmau5 or Afrojack perform at a festival alongside other performers from other genres who have risen to the top of their genre and are featured in the top 3 rows of those festival lineup announcements. The difference is who the music is being played to. And I’m sure there are plenty of “diehard” EDM fans who can come back at me with subcultural capital and knowledge of diverse electronic musical subgenres, but I am speaking to the larger movement of EDM, which is not necessarily targeting electronic music fans or even music fans at all, but rather just those willing to spend money on live entertainment and alcohol in the most exclusive settings.

Stay tuned for a part 2 about the issues of EDM and drug culture as I research the topic.

Project pitch? “Life During Wartime”

for my project I would like to analyze the musical subculture that grew out of Manhattan in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s. During this time, I theorize that the geopolitical climate as well as the collaborative environment of the arts movement of Lower Manhattan contributed to a unique kind of music that tried to stretch beyond the limitations of recorded music and ventured into territories of social criticism, art, and technology. I will focus on the “Downtown 500” (as mentioned in the Basquiat movie “The Radiant Child”) and how their collaborative environment of arts, music, culture and drugs led to the rise of venues like the Mud Club, CBGB and others. Bands I will focus on will be Talking Heads, Grey, Television, Brian Eno and to a lesser extent David Bowie, The Velvet Underground and maybe even the Beastie Boys.

I don’t want to neccesarily focus on the birth of CBGB as a venue (punk will probably not be my focus; New Wave will) but rather the fears felt by living in a treacherous age where Cold War politics led many Americans to fear the unknown. This anxiety is shown in the music, with a very heightened sense of artistic vision being put out along with the music.

For my presentation, since it falls during the week of technology and music videos, I will show clips from Stop Making Sense, the Talking Heads concert film shot by Jonathan Demme (and the best damn concert film ever made) as well as clips from The Radiant Child.

I am tentatively titling the project “Life During Wartime” for the impact that Cold War politics (as the mental “what could happen next?” impact on music) had on music at the time. Yes, I also named the paper after a song from Talking Heads’ Fear of Music

Cover analysis: “All Along the Watchtower”

 

The Bob Dylan song “All Along the Watchtower” from his album John Wesley Harding tells an ominous yet incomplete story based loosely on biblical scriptures. In the song, which relies heavily on the use of imagination, a joker and a thief walk together in the night towards the city walls that they were cast outside of. Inside the city, they claim, are businessmen drinking the wine of others, Princes marveling at the view, and barefoot servants. The thief urges the joker to keep his patience as they approach the city, saying that they have been through enough to know that they can see beyond the great joke that is life. The song, which has no choruses, builds and releases tensions strictly based upon the listener’s imagining that the joker and thief are descending on an important pilgrimage. The third chorus hints at the growling of a wild beast and the howling of the wind, implying that an epic battle is soon to take place. The entire song follows a repetative chord structure of Am-G-F and the music only really builds when “the wind begins to howl”; here the “storm” is represented by the emergence of the harmonica solo.

The introduction to the Hendrix version immediately identifies his interpretation of Dylan’s songwriting: the song starts right in the middle of the action with a simultaneous drum crash and G chord (as opposed to Dylan’s Am-G-F progression), but establishes a start-and-stop cycle that swells and builds, only to halt.

Looking back at a famous cover from the classic rock era, it is easy to dismiss the potential controversy that could have arisen from music fans and critics at the time. There were more than enough examples of artists and labels poaching the work of others and marketing it to suit their own needs. Worse even, many instances were done specifically to cash in on the talent of artists who couldn’t sell their own work due to the bigotry of others. But the “remix culture” today has somewhat dulled our senses of authenticity, especially after the rise of hip-hop. It was then that we watched A Tribe Called Quest co-opt an entire Lou Reed song, as if somehow by 2013 we wouldn’t pretend to be surprised when Jay-Z mimics a Nirvana classic in his song or Kendrick Lamar benefits from the deep pockets of Jimmy Iovene and Interscope to buy him excellent indie songs for him to sample (on “The Recipe” and “Money Trees”, respectively).

Yet this is a rare instance where the sheer power of the tribute is open for all to hear in the music, and the listener can become aware and sure that Jimi Hendrix is just showing his appreciation for the classic Bob Dylan song. Even though Hendrix released his version a mere 6 months later on the much anticipated album Electric Ladyland, I do not think that Hendrix was aiming to exploit Bob Dylan. Rather, I believe that Hendrix was trying to reinterpret the message that he received from Dylan’s songwriting and use it as inspiration for his own art. Hendrix already had an established history of covering an extremely wide variety of music from songwriters of many different backgrounds (Muddy Waters, the Beatles, Chuck Berry, the Rolling Stones), and as we read last week in Werner’s article, even Bob Dylan himself wasn’t immune to the influence of other cultures, especially early R&B artists.

It is refreshing to look back at music that is consciously marketed as one artist’s reinterpretation of another artist that he/she admires. Hearing an iconic guitarist add another dimension of mystique to powerful lyrics is a reminder of the effect that great art has on all people, even if those people happen to be great artists themselves.

Lyrics:

“There must be some way out of here” said the joker to the thief
“There’s too much confusion”, I can’t get no relief
Businessmen, they drink my wine, plowmen dig my earth
None of them along the line know what any of it is worth.
“No reason to get excited”, the thief he kindly spoke
“There are many here among us who feel that life is but a joke
But you and I, we’ve been through that, and this is not our fate
So let us not talk falsely now, the hour is getting late”.
All along the watchtower, princes kept the view
While all the women came and went, barefoot servants, too.
Outside in the distance a wildcat did growl
Two riders were approaching, the wind began to howl.

 

 

 

works cited:

http://www.reasontorock.com/tracks/watchtower.html

Research Method (aka audio source): Jimi Hendrix “Smash Hits” LP, Bob Dylan “Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits Vol. 1” LP