The Ticket Booth
Sitting at home the other night with the wife, thinking about how much being an unemployed intellectual sucks, when my phone rings. "Maybe it's R.", I optimistically shouted as I went to get it, thinking of someone who owes me money and had promised repayment yet again. "Yeah right," my wife laughed. "He isn't calling you." And sure enough, it wasn't R. It was my old hometown friend Smokey Clutch. "Are you on your computer?" he asked excitedly. "I've just seen the best video ever. I know you don't watch TV so go find it on Youtube. Watch it, call me back." I mean, if anyone was ever raised by MTV, it was Smokey, so this must be a seriously good video. I reflected on my favorite videos of all time. Would this top Roddy Bottum's flopping fish and exploding piano? Or the Offspring egging the camera?
And so I watched the indie rock band OK Go race Chevy's latest economy car through an Rube Goldberg obstacle course of various improvised percussion instruments, played by improvised robotic arms attached to the car, while singing along, playing their song Needing/Getting. Indeed, they just had to be the coolest guys in the world at that moment. Driving around hitting stuff while singing a sweet tune about some girl they can't forget, just showing how brilliant and amazing and talented they are. All funded, of course, by Chevy. And who could be so hard-hearted as not to love this?
It's even a better mix than the album version!
It sort of reminded me of the White Stripes's similar concept but was just way, way out of that league technically. It also reminded me of that 60s clip of a very, very young Frank Zappa playing a bicycle on a variety show.
"It's real!", Smokey exclaimed. "They're really making that noise by hitting stuff with their car. Man, I just want to hit things with my truck all the time, and these guys get to do it. Like GTA. This is awesome. Isn't it real?"
"Is anything ever really real?", I asked.
"Ok," I said, "so it's real. Real as in a sound that you actually could have heard if you were there?"
"Sure," said Smokey. "So where are you listening from then?" I asked. "Inside the car? Sitting on the roof? Standing at one spot on the course? Chasing the car on a hoverboard?" "Does it matter to the sound?" Smokey asked. "Obviously. Doppler. Turbulence, engine noise, echoing back from nearby objects as it passes them. You know all about what a moving vehicle sounds like, inside and out. You know exactly what it sounds like when you sing in a moving vehicle. You drive for a living."
"Microphones!" exclaimed Smokey. "I think some of the stuff on the roof is microphones. And they've got their headset mikes too."
"Exactly. We've both listened to commercially recorded music for our entire lives, and we're used to this. Pretty much every song is put together by mixing signals from various microphones. The soundstage is completely artificial. Even in a theoretical 'live' recording there's no one place that you could sit and hear anything resembling what ends up on the tape or disk. This is music in our culture. The fake sounds realer than the real. Again, this is something you know. Remember when we used to record on that old boombox? That was real!"
"What's sad is your singing hasn't gotten any better in 20 years," observed Smokey. "And real recordings are done with real equipment by adults who know what they're doing. I know you've done better recordings lately." "Yeah, but this is really what we sounded like, isn't it? One microphone, sitting in one spot. You really do hear 3 kids smashing on cheap drums and crappy amplifiers turned up too loud in a concrete basement. You feel the confines of the acoustic space - you feel deafened and closed in. This is a real recording. It isn't hi-fidelity but it reflects the event it was placed in. This was standard industry practice for 'real' records once, but we weren't around then. But this is what real recording is. Doesn't it sound like you're really somewhere listening to something? Studio recordings are different - they're pretty much a collage. You're not THERE. You're sitting on your couch listening, like looking at a painting on the wall."
"And the video isn't perfect. There are a few bits that don't really match up. Doesn't the piano sound change slightly when they cut to the singer? Doesn't the guitar start when the car is like 100 yards away?
Does the engine note really match the way the car is being driven? You're the professional driver, you would know."
"Okay," conceded Smokey. "So it's put together from multiple takes, it's all been edited together, it's mixed from a bunch of different microphones in the car and on the track. All the standard stuff that real recordings do. So in that sense, it's really real? It's just as real as any band in a studio?"
"Kayfabe," I said.
The Backstage Area
I didn't have to explain to Smokey what I meant by "kayfabe". As a longtime fan of professional wrestling, he knew the term. The portrayal of various staged storylines as if they were real, scripted events depicted as the actual workings of the industry. A play inside a play, the audience drawn in to identify with the players on multiple levels.
"Kayfabe. You have to believe it's 'real'. That's the whole point. That's implicit in the presentation of the video and the buzz they've got going around it. Did you see the 'making of' videos?"
"Haven't looked," said Smokey.
"Kind of made me angry to tell you the truth. Bunch of rich kids bragging about how smart and awesome and talented and self-made they are, with Daddy's money paying their bills the whole time while all the 'little people' bust their butts for them and they take all the credit." "Hold on!," hollered Smokey. "Man, you're projecting. Not everything is about your lousy rich-kid academic peers. You couldn't possibly have gotten that out of this."
"Well, I quote for you then. 'An opportunity to collaborate with people from all walks of life..'"
"Fine then," admitted Smokey. "If they can even fit a sentence like that into a 2-minute making-of video, they're preppy snobs."
"Not only are they brilliant and capable young geniuses who can command whole armies of people to do awesome things for them - but the singer even went to 'stunt driving' school! Of course, being a genius, he just learned it like that. See how real it all is? The whole concept would fall to bits if we even allowed ourselves to suspect that, say, a professional driver was actually driving the car. Even though obviously there's been enough editing to swap drivers. Even though you have never seen any other car commercial - which this video really is, it's a car commercial - which doesn't feature a disclaimer about professional drivers on a closed course! Because if you doubt the driving, you might doubt the music too."
"I guess when you put it that way," said Smokey, "it makes Michael Jackson look pretty down-to-Earth and humble by comparison. That reminds me, didn't the Warren Commission report mention that Oswald took shooting lessons, so it must have been him? But alright. You've seen their behind-the-scenes clips. Now how do you, in your expert opinion as a guitar player in a smalltime bar band and failed scientist, think they really made the video?"
"Well, you've pretty much got it. There's microphones in and on the car, on the track, and they're doing quite a bit of editing and mixing. Now, let's have another look at the making-of. Blink and you'll miss it - they sample models of their percussion gadgets and Damian composes the song on his computer using those samples. They tell you that they use his sequences to design the course layout - which they obviously do. But they don't say that this track is only for that. There's a good chance that most of what you hear is this programmed guide track, with vocals laid on top of it, with the recordings from the actual car used only to add ambience and effect. And at one point, I'm sure I even hear the bassline from the album version just subtly mixed in with no visual counterpart. So that's what goes into this. More than meets the eye."
"Sounds like a conspiracy theory," responded Smokey. "But yeah, probably."
"And maybe they really wrote the song without any help, and maybe they got help sequencing the guide track and maybe they didn't ... but what matters is that they got investors and they're seen as the geniuses who can do anything and get all the credit from what amounts to a massive enterprise. They're charismatic CEO types. Job creators. Randian supermen. The ruling class."
He thought for a few seconds. "You know," mused Smokey, "Kurt Cobain couldn't have done this."
"Yeah. I'm not even sure he even knew how to drive a car, actually. Did he? If he ever wasn't too wasted to?"
The Luxury Skybox
"Where are you going with this?" asked Smokey, "Because I just don't see it."
"Rock stars used to be mostly good at music and not a whole lot else. If they were especially literate or poetic, that helped. But it wasn't mandatory. The Ramones probably really did sniff glue because they couldn't think of anything else to do. There's nothing really new about this - a lot of old-timey blues guys were pretty much drunks. But drunks - with talent. That was the old economy. If you had a talent to do a thing that people appreciated, and if you did it well, you could make a living. If you did it really well, you could make a really good living."
"But now it's not about doing anything. Workers have no value. It's about being management. And a guy like Kurt would never make it today. Which is a shame, because as awesome as OK Go are, I can't see a kid watching this video and deciding to pick up a guitar."
"Your theory has a great big hole in it," growled Smokey. "What about all those hip-hop guys rapping about being CEOs?"
"That's an outside point of view," I argued. "That comes out of a long history of Black men being kept down. And it's still an outsider point of view - the rappers focus on the trappings of wealth, the fat paycheck, the company car, private jet. That's what they see, because that's what it looks like from the outside."
"But nobody on the inside sees it that way. They don't think about the luxuries because they take them for granted. Their self-image is tied up in their perception of themselves as this brilliant, visionary individual who can do anything. And that's the point of view of this OK Go video. And so many working people identify with this lifestyle now, even though they'll never have it no matter how hard they try and how much they dream."
The City Outside
"So ... do you even listen to rock music anymore?" asked Smokey.
"Not really. I like the Black Keys I guess. But no, not very much. People have always complained that rock was too corporate. That goes back to the beginning. And we all still laugh at Grace slick's whiny anthem about how rock isn't what it used to be, decades later. I guess my problem isn't really rock, it's the decadence of our society. Rock is part of it, it isn't any sort of statement."
"So your life sucks, you're jealous, and you can't enjoy this awesome video."
"I enjoy it. I'd enjoy it more if I was successful and popular and rich and cool."
"Say something nice about rock music," challenged Smokey.
"It was - maybe sort of still is, in a small way - a really fun thing that lots of people really used to like. Just banging on that guitar, making noise, and having a good time. I think that's still out there, but rock isn't it anymore and hasn't been for a long time. I think I'm gonna go watch that old video with the guy who invented rock guitar, gonna watch him bang out those three chords one last time."