Tag Archives: are we products of our tools

On Computers, Profusely

by Chris Randle


What’s a musician to do, now that “free” is not only a routine fact of cultural consumption but obnoxious tech-guru dogma too? You might try releasing your band’s next album online at a pay-what-thou-wilt price point, although that tactic has a high chance of failure if you’re not already famous. You could license and be sponsored. You should probably include digital download codes with your vinyl, nestling utility inside slabs of aura. Alternatively, you can bid to choke the insatiable maw: giving away so many songs, so much content, so much of yourself that the sheer size of your output attracts notoriety and obsession. The young rapper Lil B has achieved a strange, ultra-specific web renown with that marketing strategy, but he did so out of compulsion, not calculation. He’s one with his medium like James Woods in Videodrome.

I first stumbled across him a year or so ago at Cocaine Blunts, where blogger Noz has become a tireless though clear-sighted booster. In 2006, when he was 15, Lil B’s Berkeley rap group the Pack notched up a minor hit; their album later flopped and their label dropped them. Then the madness began. B, aka Brandon McCartney, created 100+ Myspace pages over a series of months (some of them “secrete,” like the Minus World), each featuring a handful of tracks and freestyles. His Youtube account is constantly updated with sort-of music videos, zero-budget clips he films around Berkeley.

B seems to spend more time tweeting than sleeping, perhaps because the former is a better outlet for his id. His fans, most of them young and fanatical, are encouraged to follow the Based Lifestyle – a philosophy stressing positivity and (relatively) clean living. Not yet an acolyte, I felt like Clement Attlee did about Christianity: “Believe in the ethics. Can’t accept the mumbo jumbo.”

The Based God’s discography already stretches well into the quadruple digits, with its own attendant tropes. He yammers about swag and sex a lot; the latter oscillates between the hilariously surreal (“I’m so wet that a pussy get mad at me”) and the unsettling (gynecological porn-talk rasps over a lo-fi footwork track). One of his maxims is “hoes on my dick cause I look like ________,” filled in with intentional absurdities: Mel Gibson, Aretha Franklin, Jesus.

The peacocking blowjob-related material might obscure how experimental B can be. For each of his stunt samples, like the X-men TV show, there are many more where he raps over New Age loops, ambient synths or Antony and the Johnsons. (He once struck up a Twitter conversation with me about Momus.) On a lot of the trademark “based freestyles” he barely bothers to rap, favouring spoken word, syntactical ad-libs and stream-of-consciousness rambling.

He slips in and out of personae with the same ease. On the infamous “Pretty Bitch,” Lil B goes from profane swagmaster to something far more protean: “I used to be a goon, now I’m a pretty bitch.” (He claims he’s finer than Nicki Minaj, too: debatable.) Elsewhere, the MC describes himself as a princess and “a faggot.” It’s not surprising that he’s been the subject of gay rumours, nor that his demurrals are so unbothered (albeit characteristically weird). Code-switching? Sure, and a genius at it, but that term feels clumsily archaic in this context. Lil B and his friend Soulja Boy are making a radical and overlooked break from the traditional hip-hop project of repping one’s hood. B is very, very Berkeley, of course, but only implicitly; his many selves live on the internet.

It’s easy to stalk someone online, and yet it’s not much harder to explore a new personality. B embodies this. He doesn’t even try to reconcile his contradictions; he gleefully heightens them. That’s one explanation for his rabid fanbase – I know it’s why I’m fascinated by the guy – but aside from the music, the Based Lifestyle also has its perks. As Noz wrote, “I can think of worse things for kids to fall into than a cult dedicated to positivity and aggressive-but-safe sex.”

Creativity, too: just click on a #based hashtag to see the results. There is an entire Tumblr site devoted to “cooking,” the MC’s new dance fad/culinary education program. His mania is viral. A few months ago, when I was talking to a friend and fellow obsessive on Gchat, she suggested that I make a Lil B mix so we could try having sex to it. We both soon realized this was ridiculous, but I think he would still appreciate the sentiment.

My favourite Lil B song is “The Age of Information.” It’s kind of like “Sign O’ the Times” if Prince had been a teenager who smoked weed every single day. Atop a dreamy, watery beat, B stammers out generational anxiety:  “I’m on computers, profusely, searching on the internet for answers (give it to me).” I have a couple of years on him, but I can hardly remember what life was like before the internet. By high school I was already writing myself onto message boards and keeping my status updated, which might be ideal preparation for high school. And yet, I was unnerved to find myself agreeing with the critic Tom Ewing when he argued that “it’s really only a matter of time before some kind of bluetoothy broadcast-what-yr-consuming tool becomes popular.”

Lil B, who knows whereof he mumbles here, is one dubious hippie: “This age of information, all we do is judge…Everything that we watch, all we do is classify people.” The thrill of being fluid and mercurial demands less effort than ever now, but it’s still mortifying when a stranger watches you change.

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Jennifer Egan, “Great Rock and Roll Pauses,” in A Visit from the Goon Squad (2010)

by Carl Wilson

Elvis Costello, “Goon Squad,” 1979. Number of pauses: 6. Pause length: 1 second (each).

Jennifer Egan’s recent A Visit from the Goon Squad is on one level a conventional novel, with (it becomes clear) a central character and an interrelated ensemble whose lives, inner and outer, are explored over time – time itself being the “goon squad” of the title, the random merciless attacker that leaves everyone ravaged.

But on another it’s an answer to the dilemma of the experimental or the postmodern, taking for granted the breakdown of linear narrative, and the freedoms previous generations of artists have established for her. Since obviously you can do anything you want, the question becomes what’s worth doing.

Formally the book is more like a set of linked stories; every story is from a different character’s point of view, and each story is (not just for that reason) in its own style, to varying degrees. This risks a showoffy writing-workshop effect that could be irritating. It’s not, because what Egan values is emotional truth and all the technique is just a way of getting there. (As she discusses, graphically, with The Rumpus.)

The most bravura moment is Chapter 12, which takes place in the near future, in the desert, and is narrated by a 12-year-old girl in PowerPoint slides. You can read/watch the story (with audio enhancement) on Egan’s website. (Though it’s much better if you read it in context.) She was inspired by reading in the NY Times that the Obama campaign had been turned around when someone on staff made a PowerPoint presentation explaining where they were going wrong. She realized “a PowerPoint” had become a genre, a recognizable mode of thought and representation. So just as she might write a chapter in the form of a magazine article, why not as a PowerPoint? (She didn’t have the program and at first tried to make her graphics by hand; now she makes fun of herself for this.) (Egan talks about the process.)

Many of the characters get involved in various ways in the music industry in the 1990s, so one way the goon squad catches up with them is technologically. By switching into PowerPoint, Egan teases at the parallel threat of obsolescence to her own medium – print, or more broadly the book, story, sentence, paragraph. The web (and, I’d imagine, e-book) version operates like real PowerPoint, but it’s funnier to have a kind of dead PowerPoint show in a book, manually turning pages instead of watching slides slip smoothly by. The chapter makes me think of how many of the non-fiction writers I know have had to learn to make such visual presentations, to be public speakers, or make video trailers for our books, and so on.

I missed my Wednesday post here last week because I was (a) moving; and (b) writing a profile for The Globe and Mail about the Montreal band Arcade Fire. People sometimes think the members of Arcade Fire are trying to be reclusive or guarded because they don’t do interviews whenever asked or update their Facebook status or send out a lot of tweets about what they’re doing. They’ve tried to explain that they’d like to be more accessible and meet fans’ expectations (expectations that didn’t exist five years ago ) but are simply too busy actually working on music, which, the way they want to do it, takes enormous energy all day, every day.

Something in the air right now makes this sound like an alibi. Part of me wants to complain on my own behalf – that it makes no sense to ask writers to be public speakers when the two activities demand almost directly contradictory sets of skills. But no one’s forcing you, as long as you’re content not to make any money. And as Egan’s PowerPoint chapter shows, learning new tools doesn’t have to undermine the essence of your activity, as long as you don’t let the marketing department tell you how to use them.

A few years ago I felt pretty persuaded by writers such as Edward Tufte and Ian Parker that PowerPoint nurtures an impoverished cognitive style. (In Egan’s story, the 12-year-old’s mother, Sasha, whom we know and care about from previous stories in the book, seems to believe this, or is at least wary that her daughter keeps her diary in slides rather than in a little notebook, maybe with a golden lock.) But then I began to see people using it less obviously, in manners not dictated by Microsoft’s presets. David Byrne started using it for parody and then found himself rather enchanted. As in any new genre, primitive firsts give way to a more sophisticated, self-reflexive array.

New genres are called for when there are new kinds of people. Twentieth-century urbanism summoned up noir, and jazz. The Internet is arguably rearranging the boundaries of selves. So artists need to notice and respond (not necessarily enthusiastically but somehow effectively), not whine, “But I only wanted to be a writer.”

Egan builds all kinds of mini-auto-critique machines into her PowerPoint – its centre is the whole family’s relationship to the narrator’s autism-spectrum brother, so affective disconnection is highlighted (though the empathic narrator uses PowerPoint because everybody at school does, so it is actually evidence of being right in the human tide, not of isolation by technology); the brother is fixated on pauses (gaps, disconnects) within mostly old-fashioned, 20th-century pop music, though it’s vital that these gaps also become joins – a pause, by definition, resumes. And of course the slides of the PowerPoint contain built-in pauses.

The reading process is broken up as well, because the eye has to decide where to go, in what order to put the cells of meaning in each slide, because it’s no longer a given of the old left-right, top-bottom grid. And in this the chapter is a microcosm of the whole book, which is a Rubik’s Cube of jumbled characters and chronologies and settings (though their particular sequence is important), within which much of the deepest feeling is found in seams and spaces between the narratives, so the reader has to infer how these people have been broken, rescued, grown, or sundered, in interludes and meanwhiles we’re not directly shown.

One last little irony: Because I was moving, and was spending days and days packing and unpacking boxes (more pauses, more gaps, more cells of meaning), I downloaded and listened to Visit from the Goon Squad as an audiobook. (Audiobooks = sanity savers for the solitary mover, by the way.) I haven’t read it – it was read to me. So when it came to “Great Rock and Roll Pauses,” I didn’t immediately get what was going on. There was a slide-projector sound effect between units, but the conscientious and excellent actor had figured out how to read each slide so that it seemed more conversational or interior-monologue-like than like a set of arrows or graphs or charts. So I didn’t really experience the “difficult” aspect of reading this chapter. It was more like a smart format for a radio monologue, a different experiment than the one Egan spent all those hours learning to do.

The story also made me cry a little, a quick moment of helpless, stinging salt. Nicholson Baker has claimed that some literary passages are funny on the page, but not on a Kindle – and then funny again on an iPad. I wonder if I would have wept over “Great Rock and Roll Pauses” in all its different possible media, which perhaps each comes with a structure of feeling or engenders one.

Maybe what worries me about every artist, no matter what their discipline, having to be a kind of multi-media artist is really whether there’s enough time to do all the rethinking and reinvention that should go into the translation between forms. Do you risk having much of the audience encounter the work in some kind of compromised state and never at its best? Perhaps we’ll just have to learn how to leave things unfinished in a way that’s more adaptable, and rely on groups of technicians (editors, remixers, post-production), as most film directors must?

We’ll see, if the goon squad doesn’t get us first.

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