Archives for posts with tag: Adam Curtis

In May 2011, the documentary maker Adam Curtis (for it is he) was interviewed by the Guardian, commenting on social networking as the commodification of emotion:

On Facebook and Twitter, you are performing to attract people – you are dancing emotionally, on a platform created by a large corporation. People’s feelings bounce back and forth – happy Stakhanovites, ignoring and denying the system of power. It’s like Stalin’s socialist realism. Both Twitter and socialist realism are innocent expressions of the ideology of the time, which don’t pull back and show the wider thing they are part of. We look back on socialist realism not as innocent but as a dramatic expression of power; it expresses the superiority of the state, which was the guiding belief at the time.

Yesterday, Adrian Short wrote a piece on the recent redesign of Facebook and why he wouldn’t be caught dead on social networking sites. By supporting the social networking sites, he suggests, we are helping to hinder and restrict a free, open and independent internet:

When you use a free web service you’re the underclass. At best you’re a guest. At worst you’re a beggar, couchsurfing the web and scavenging for crumbs. It’s a cliché but worth repeating: if you’re not paying for it, you’re aren’t the customer, you’re the product. Your individual account is probably worth very little to the service provider, so they’ll have no qualms whatsoever with tinkering with the service or even making radical changes in their interests rather than yours.

We give more power to Big Web companies with every tweet and page we post to their networks while hoping to get a bit of traffic and attention back for ourselves.

Facebook’s Open Graph technology allows third-party websites to tell Facebook what people are doing. It extends Facebook’s Like button to include any action that the site owners think might be interesting to Facebook.”

Okay, if you “like” something, you’re actively seeking something out. What about if you don’t actively like something? It doesn’t matter, Facebook knows you’re looking at it:

What most people don’t know is that the Like button tracks your browsing history. Every time you visit a web page that displays the Like button, Facebook logs that data in your account. It doesn’t put anything  your wall, but it knows where you’ve been. This happens even if you log out of Facebook. Like buttons are pretty much ubiquitous on mainstream websites, so every time you visit one you’re doing some frictionless sharing.

The result is that, without a paid-for contact, these mass internet hubs are creating a restricted, unhealthy, limited version of the web. We are given what they think we want and perhaps we accept that because the change is gradual rather than sudden. All together, now: Code is Law. We get used to it, and when we really want to find out, say, what is happening on Wallstreet with the protesters, we can’t even find the independent sites that’ll report it accurately.

Your identity will be your accounts at Facebook, Google and Twitter, not the domain name you own. You don’t pay Big Web a single penny so it can take away your identity and all your data at any time.

The resulting mindset sounds paranoid, but not unreasonable. It is also evident that it is not an innocent transaction: we are not simply using these networks freely in exchange for their increase in popularity (and it, thus, seem profitability in the market). Instead, we are signing away the power to create and use the net as we want, or even, need. What is more, we won’t even own our (online) identity anymore.


“We’re Not the Radio Movement, Every Station needs a Good Tuning.”*

In the first chapter of his book, Listen to This, the New Yorker music journalist Alex Ross describes a process of how classical music became insular, how it stopped being relevant and connected to the mass public consciousness. He referred to the process as “the sacralzation of music” and “the fetishizing of the past”:

“Classical music began to take on cultlike aspects. The written score became a sacred object; improvisation was gradually phased out. Concert halls grew quiet and reserved, habits and attire formal.”

This morning (2 June 2011) BBC Radio4’s Today programme – not the first place many would look for an argument on the ‘hip’ and the ‘cool’ – featured the brief discussion on if “retromania” was “stifling pop culture?” Simon Reynolds, the author of Retromania: Pop Culture’s Addiction to its Own Past, arguing it was; someone else putting forth the suggestion that genres like grime are keeping pop music fresh. And does seem today that the 80s is more popular than ever, and the bands selling the biggest number of gig tickets are reconstituted ones. However, a key feature missed in the argument was the idea of the popular base.

Since the advent of the mass internet and mp3s, there has been an endless stream of articles about the decline in music sales. Major labels whine on and on, in a seemingly never ceaseless plea for someone to please buy the bile they decided to sign between a coke binge and sexually abusing sea life. However, the BPI recorded in 2009 that 116 (digital) million singles were sold in the UK, compared to 2002’s 43.9m (physical) singles (2002 has been cited as a high point for CD sales). Digital singles were up last year, too.

Sam Page pondering music in Copenhagen

The key difference is arguably how it is sold and how much money the record companies make. The Guardian reported in 2009 that Florence and the Machine’s Rabbit Heart (Raise It Up) sold a total of 64 (physical) copies to make it to the chart position of 16. Something that is quite shocking, and quite contrasting the above overall figure. Florence and the Machine headlined a few festivals that summer, and remain a popular band. On the other side of the scale, Eminem’s Love the Way You Lie, featuring the umbrella salesperson Rhianna, sold 840,000 (digital) copies in 2010. The scale of what can be called popular music today is very, very steep.

While there is evidently still room for mass-appeal in music, the internet has radically changed things. Frequent complaints can be heard about the state of music today: two friends have both said the one good thing the Tory’s can do is bring back is angry music in popular consciousness. Crufts-like music shows like the X-Factor seem to make and break who is the popular consciousness. However, the legendry sludge band the Melvins made it into the US Billboard top 200 for the first time in their 26 year career with their 19th (bloody excellent) album “The Bride Screamed Murder.” It is not their biggest selling album. However, this begs the question: why are we discussing what is popular rather than what does popular mean today?

“What I refuse to accept is that one kind of music soothes the mind and another kind soothes the soul. It depends on whose mind, whose soul.” (Alex Ross, Listen to This)

The internet is an amazing tool, even if Adam Curtis is probably right in his cynical attitude towards it. The diversity and the possibility of the net has thrown popular music into turmoil, and this has been evident for a while now. For those who thrive on “underground” music, the internet has been wonderful in many ways. Never before can we access as many bands, musicians and ideas if we want to. A little searching can reveal a global, healthy, vibrant, interesting, realm of music that is well rounded as you want to make it. While the old hands still create what is popular, we can now live the genuine possibility of a blissful existence, away from BBC Radio1 and all its bile. The internet has bought around the idea of the possibility, if not actuality, of picking and choosing to the variety one likes. Arguably, what it reveals for mostly is the illusion of choice.

Simon Reynolds seems to be observing the invention of a tradition: reinventing the past as we pick from it. However, what is popular culture is not what popular culture was. And, what is playing in the charts does arguably not reflect is playing on people’s ipods. Ultimately, we need to stop talking of “Popular” music and “Underground” music, or of any fixed genres. If we carry on treating music the way we are, there’s a fair-to-good chance that the music of today will come to resemble the world of “classical” music. We need to stop talking of popular music, and start listening to music again, to remember it is more than a commodity to be sold. It is music.

* Da Skywalkers, “Radio Movement,” Heartache & Scars (Household Name, 2004):

Originally posted as a guestblog at Andrew Laws’ blog: