Tuesday, October 10, 2017

John Ashbery's "Listening Tour"---A Reading

I tried, but forgive me John, if I can’t write about you without also writing about myself….

In her brilliant and moving tribute to John Ashbery, Kimberly Quiogue Andrews writes:
“But at the same time, we’re all trying a little bit to get out from under our various elitisms.
Ashbery’s later poetry tries almost too hard to do this, revels almost too much in its “gee willikers!” performance of nonchalance. It’s why a lot of the excerpted bits of verse you’ll see in our collective mourning will be from the ’70s and ’80s, those earnest decades in which Ashbery’s poetry hummed with a desire to crack the code of itself.” I certainly will not quarrel with the many celebrations of Ashbery’s earlier work, which has been a profound influence on my own, but reading his later poetry leaves me with the feeling that perhaps we just haven’t caught up with it yet.

In his review of Breezeway (2015), Dan Chiasson writes, “the finest lyrics in this book rank with Ashbery’s best short poems.” One of these poems, according to Chiasson, is “Listening Tour.” Here’s the first stanza of this two stanza poem:

We were arguing about whether NBC
was better than CBS. I said CBS
because it’s smaller and had to work
harder to please viewers. You didn’t
like either that much but preferred
smaller independent companies.
Just then an avalanche flew
overhead, light blue against the
sky’s determined violet. We
started to grab our stuff but
it was too late. We segued . . .

Of the many ways that this poem can be read---Susan Schultz reads it in light of recent American politics and Hillary Clinton’s listening tours---I currently favor an interpretation in which the “Listening Tour” is not a politician’s, but, rather, Ashbery’s own.

In an interview published in the New York Times on May 7, 2015 (not long after Breezeway was published), he said: “I’m told that my poetry has influenced a lot of younger poets, so it’s nice to find someone who might have absorbed it at second hand and be trying to shake it off — nice, that is, for showing me how to shake off my own influence.” This is a beautiful short description of the kind of (anti-essentialist intersubjective) democratic mutuality the later Ashbery finds and encourages in the process of reading and writing, as if to strip away the hierarchy clothes and one-sided narratives of “anxiety of influence” and such that may put up barriers between a famous poet and acolytes, imitators, the so-called “small people”—but, rather, see if what they have to say, their concerns, etc., can maybe influence his policies, or platform, I mean poetry, and at the same time save him from becoming a cliché immured in a not-so-divine sepulcher of a mere signature style. Or, you could say, in contrast to contemporary politicians, Ashbery may, sometimes at least, campaign in prose, but he governs in poetry.

Ashbery does not simply listen, but actively engages the “you” on his listening tour. The argument that starts “Listening Tour” is cordial, chatty, and seemingly gentlemanly enough (even if it may fall short of being a marriage of true minds). The “you” doesn’t necessarily disagree that NBC is worse than CBS, and the “I” doesn’t necessarily disagree that “smaller independent companies” are better…. Furthermore, Ashbery obviously did his research, for indeed CBS did have to “work harder” than NBC/RCA (CBS, incidentally, was born around the same time Ashbery himself was in 1927).

The poem invites the reader to cast his or her self into the role of the “I” or the “you,” but, as is often the case with his later work, I find it uncannily easy to identify with the “you” of this poem, as if Ashbery and I had the same thought at the same time, or perhaps that he had seen an essay I wrote (and if, so, it’s hard to avoid an embarrassment that he could be “slumming” it in my writing, like a negative muse).

Of course, this argument about networks may not be that important at all (abstracted as it is from body language), but is really more of a set-up for what happens next: the avalanche!

The avalanche suggests a clean break----“and now for something completely different” (as Monty Python would put it), as we must bow down before necessity, perhaps, or confront mortality……but it’s no ordinary avalanche…. for what kind of avalanche is it that flies (not falls) overhead? Can that be properly called an avalanche? It doesn’t seem to be cutting the very ground out from under us, but rather inspiring awe; it didn’t destroy us, but passed us by, maybe even waving and smiling. This avalanche, you could say, went over our head (spared us), and it wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to say that this avalanche that didn’t hit us is a virtual or vicarious avalanche, an avalanche we wouldn’t know about without the network airwaves (to say nothing of today’s wireless networks). Could this perhaps be saying something about the over-saturation of pop culture? Or have we left such trivial debates behind?

Is the “avalanche” like that moment when you’re on a long walking/talking date with a fast-talking New Yorker and suddenly s/he snaps you out of your logorrhea and says “look at that bird” and that could humble you into the kind of shared silence that has to happen before the kiss? Or has even a word as powerful as “avalanche” lost its power to rouse the reader out of complacency or the triviality of overdosing on culture-criticism and media studies from the perspective of a poet who (as Chiasson writes in his New Yorker review of the book) “has gone further from literature within literature than any poet alive?”

And, of course, the aesthete in me loves the color combination, as if this represents the “shared view” beyond argument, the sunset perhaps, but does the personified violet keep our mind off the argument, or does it tell us something about either the “I” or the “you” (who are having, or being had by, the argument) with which the poem started (I.e.—one is more “light” and the other more “determined”), and why would this flying light blue avalanche in twilight time make us want to start “to grab our stuff?”

And why was it too late? Was the avalanche going to hit us after all? Were we, was “the we,” too busy enjoying the beauty of slowing down time, of seeing the disaster as a kind of bird in flight, lost in wonder, or what some would call “a zone,” that it become too late to save “our stuff?”Oh, horrors; is Chiasson right, and this is the moment of death? The questions proliferate…

But wait,
too late for what?
I mean if it can be proven
there is no death but seque
… and ellipses….
as if somehow surviving
a disaster proves
it wasn’t a disaster?
Can we fuse—ourselves--
with death—
in a breezeway
or planisphere--to see?

Is it really posthumous, or just post us having lost “our stuff”? And what is “our stuff?” Maybe looking at the second (and final) stanza, can help explain:

And in another era the revolutions
were put down by the farmers,
working together with the peasants
And the enlightened classes. All
benefited in some way. That was
all I had to hear.
Whatever…

So, given the contrast between the two stanzas, what do you make of the elliptical segue, or the transition between them?

On one level, you could read it as death (as Chaisson, apparently, does), but it could also be time travel back to another era, presumably earlier than the present in which they’re arguing about 20th century radio (and television) networks, a less urban and suburban, but more rural, era, perhaps before electricity (or in a so-called “underdeveloped” country), a more placeless and vague time, a prelapsarian, and perhaps apocryphal, utopia.

What Susan Schultz calls this “bizarre take on revolutions” may deserve further investigation.
In this poem, all (both manual laborers and intellectual laborers) benefitted from the putting down of a revolution. There’s two questions to ask: did such a thing happen (descriptive assumption) and would it be a good thing if it did (value assumption), but since both “revolutions” and “enlightened classes” are what we could call “loaded terms,” vexed terms (that have been used by both left wing and right wing, the proles and the corporatists), in order to know whether putting down a revolution does more harm than good, or whether it has positive or negative connotations, we may first have to define revolution is.

Long before I learned of the tradition in poetry in which “revolution” is what Wallace Stevens calls “the pleasures of merely circulating,” my first memory of the term revolution had positive connotations, torn between some romanticized notion of the American and French revolutions of the late 18th century, and the failed (or yet to happen) revolutions that Marx, Malcolm X, The Black Panthers and Gil Scott Heron spoke about. Even though both are touted as democratizing, in many ways, they are on opposite sides (the American revolution, which by some definitions was really just a regime change, not only didn’t deliver on its promise to free the slaves, but actually increased slavery). So, the word could have as many negative connotations as positive---and in the poem (on first reading at least), it seems to have negative connotations (as if a revolution can keep everybody down!)

The American Revolution is also contemporaneous with the “Scientific Revolution” or “The Enlightenment,” a paradigm shift that coincided with the rise of “the enlightened classes” that parallels the advance of capitalism, the slave trade, the Enclosure Acts that harmed the majority of farmers and peasants, and paved the way for “industrial revolution” and the subjugation of nature by “enlightened man.” But doesn’t the word “enlightened classes” make you cringe? Would it be better to say “intelligentsia,” “public intellectuals” or “culture workers?” Does the phrase itself imply hierarchical snobbery (peasants and farmers can’t be enlightened)? And does this argument have anything to do with the argument about CBS, NBC and the indies? I suspect Ashbery is up to something else here, but before we get into what that might be, I think it’s important to shift our attention (back to) the poem’s relational “framing device.”

In this second stanza, you may notice how both the “I” and the “you” (and even the “we”) are entirely absent in the first two sentences (or 5 lines). Now, let’s pause, or at least slow down, to consider what the transitional line unit (as opposed to the sentence unit):
                         
                                       “benefitted in some way. That was”

feels like the first time you’re reading it before the next line closes the sentence. At first, you may think it’s a continuation of the same argument about the revolution, as if he’s going to say “That was…..a better time” or, in the plural, join Edith and Archie or Mary Hopkins, in singing “Those were the days.” The re-emergence of the “I” in the next line, however, is jarring, especially considering that the “you” has not re-emerged. While it’s possible that the “I” survived the avalanche that the “you” died in, it seems more likely that the last two sentences retroactively changes (or at least contextualizes) the meaning of the first five lines by suggesting that they were spoken by the “you,” and that, despite the avalanche, they’re still continuing the argument, as if there are invisible quotation marks around the first five lines. If it’s the same “you,” is it possible that this coalition of farmers, peasants and the enlightened classes is to the “smaller independent companies” what the revolution is to NBC!

In this light, Ashbery is not telling us what he thinks about revolutions, but simply describing what a “you” he meets on his listening tour says. “That was/ all I had to hear.” could theoretically signify excitement, as if to continue, “and I was hooked,” but, as the final line makes clear, it signifies disgust, dismissal, contempt, even hurt…..as if this person the “I” meets on his listening tour could very well be like those folks wearing a “Make America Great Again” hat, being interviewed (by small independent journalists, if not CBS or NBC), and when asked “when was America great the first time” can’t come up with a specific time in which “all benefitted.”

Indeed, while the argument about Networks could seem a little more relevant to the present, the argument in this stanza is even more vague and general than the historical shifts with which Ashbery starts “Definition of Blue,” from Double Dream of Spring (1970):

The rise of capitalism parallels the advance of romanticism
And the individual is dominant until the close of the nineteenth century.
In our own time, mass practices have sought to submerge the personality
By ignoring it, which has caused it instead to branch out in all directions
From the permanent tug that used to be its notion of “home.”

Somehow between the stanzas of “Listening Tour,” the argument became more one-sided, more monologic, and more impersonal. And the final two sentences makes it clear that the “you” has lost the “I” as if the argument the “you” proffers is like that avalanche flying over the head of the “I” and frankly of itself, as if the avalanche had bombed it back to the stone age….or puts up a Trumpian wall, as if the “you” needed to get the last word, and fell into what Paolo Friere would call “the banking model” of conversation.

If it is the sentence, “All/ benefitted in some ways” that triggers Ashbery’s disgust, the final “Whatever….” hits hard, as if you can hear him muttering beneath his breath the word “dude!” as in “whatever dude.” In this light, the line break “That was/ all I had to hear” can also be read as “that was was all I had to hear” (as if to say, “get out of the past, and help the present!”)
You could even say the word “Whatever,” in this poem at least, has more power than the “avalanche” did to shake one of habitual thinking. One reader (who prefers not to be named) told me that the didactic point of this poem was to contrast poetry with cultural criticism, but he’s not condemning all cultural criticism here, just particular ones with a tendency to make too easy generalizations about eras. His permissiveness ensures that the disgust is more with a particular kind of argument, not necessarily the person making it.

Furthermore, going back at least as far as “Definition of Blue,” Ashbery has over and over used poetry as a tool to rebuke the temptation for any sense of “the good old days” (that sometimes haunts his poems, for instance in Where Shall I Wander) in his relentless futurity (which even at age 88 had not abandoned him!). Reading this poem makes me realize how, in a history of radio and the record industry I wrote for RadioSurvivor.com,  I fell into the tendency to over-idealize at least one sector of what economists call “The Great Compression” (1945-1965) era, in an abstract way, being that I didn’t live through it. John, unlike me, did live through that period and certainly knew damn well that all didn’t benefit: Jim Crow, for instance, and Ashbery’s own lived experience of having struggled against homophobia in that normative closeted era.

In my essay about NBC, CBS and smaller independent radio stations and record labels, I was trying to master a rhetorical strategy one often finds in economists like Robert Reich and Joseph Stiglitz, historians like Howard Zinn, or cultural and music critics like Nelson George: that the people’s movements that helped create the middle class paralleled the grassroots building of a cultural infrastructure in mid-20th century America, and took a stand against the corporatists (like CBS and NBC) who used words like progress to signify their “revolution!” My argument about the networks and the independents takes place in this mid-century context, and a sense of nostalgia informs it, and, as everyone knows, it’s easy to be nostalgic for a time before you were born.

In this essay, I make exactly the same argument the you of the first stanza of “Listening Tour” makes; I wrote this essay for a different audience in 2011, after the illegal corporate takeover of a local community radio station. I felt that somehow spending 6 months researching a “people’s history of radio and the record industry” in the 20th century would help me ground my argument to help in the fight to save KUSF!  It didn’t occur to me that John might read it, but it’s hard not to wonder, especially given the fact that he liked my old poetry, and even though I hadn’t seen him in a decade since I moved to California, he might have checked out what I’m up to (and this is the era of Google).

Given what he says about reading writers who are influenced by him and watching them try to shake off his influence to show him ways to shake off his own, I could flatter myself to say that, stylistically, this poem may be a tribute to the “careless brilliance” JA admired about my work: I’m pretty sure I have at least one poem that begins with “we were arguing.” One may also notice Ashbery’s use of (clunky) lines with feminine endings, which I’m told was part of my “signature style” (much to Marjorie Perloff’s chagrin). A Rock critic once wrote that Lou Reed’s Transformer was Reed trying to imitate Bowie who was trying to imitate him, but if indeed Ashbery is imitating his imitator here, it must clearly be said that “he does Stroffolino better than Stroffolino.” So any pride I feel, if flattered, is mixed with enough shame and embarrassment (was I a negative muse?) that the two may cancel out to leave a sense of futurity---and even though that final “Whatever” may hurt like a door slam shut, there’s always the ellipses…..the poem is a gift I cherish, even if I have to use the personal allegory to enter into it. Meanwhile, onto the next…..person? channel? .

In the end, I read “Listening Tour” as a poem about an argument, or conversation, that goes wrong. For, this isn’t ultimately a mere poetic flight of fancy, but a hard-nosed realist anti-utopian anti-nostalgia generalization poem….                                          

Chris Stroffolino





Saturday, September 23, 2017

Thoughts Inspired By Jonathan Taplin’s Move Fast And Break Things (2017):



     A).    An Appeal To Warren Buffett and/or Pandora

Have you ever read Ralph Nader’s Only The Super-Rich Can Save Us? I haven’t, but I recently stumbled on a cartoon starring the animated voice of Warren Buffett called The Secret Millionaires’ Club. Buffett gives animated pre-teen aspiring millionaires (we can’t all be billionaires like Warren) innovative business solutions to everyday problems. You could call it a kinder, gentler, version of The Apprentice with the power to reach kids at an earlier age than Trump. American Entrepreneurialism at its best. I don’t know how successful this show is in making pre-teens think that Buffett and his ‘brand’ of capitalism is cool, but this particular episode, titled “Avast Ye Downloads,” features an aspiring rock band (they’re multi-gendered, and even multi-ethnic) upset that all these people have downloaded their song for free, and trying to figure out how to recoup their losses.

Meanwhile, one of their friends, Millie, is struggling because her parents’ retail store (CDS, and maybe books) has closed down because sales have plummeted thanks to the 21st century tech “revolution” that has put so many out of business and onto the streets. No need to worry, however, for luckily superhero Warren is here to save the day.

Though Buffett is only 1 of 2 on the list of top ten richest men in the world who does not owe his fortune to tech, his advice to the kids realizes that “if you can’t beat them, join them.” Accept the paradigm shift. He’s certainly not going to suggest that we force Google subsidiary Youtube to pay royalties to the artists for their song. Rather, he advises them to convert the record store to an all-ages dance venue which will 1) allow Millie’s parents to make at least as money as they did with a record store, and 2) give the band a forum, a venue, with their ready made audience of kids who of course love them, to showcase their new smash without having to rely on clueless and greedy music industry middlemen down in LA. If the Music Industry does eventually come to you, you can bargain from a position of strength!

They can use that great democratic medium of the internet to get their songs out, and it doesn’t matter if they don’t make money on the art object commodity anymore, because they can create a live experience that can revitalize local culture! Even though these kids are all American, “anytown USA,” wholesome, and their song is that boring kind of post-Green Day watered down geeky rock (that doesn’t really rock), Buffett’s advice is kinda “punk rock,” and not significantly different from, say, Steve Albini’s championing of free-download culture. Certainly, Buffet doesn’t come off like an anti-fun cop the way the RIAA executives too often come off like greedy scolds when demonizing consumers with their talk of artists’ rights (that often don’t trickle down to the artists after they blow the advance on necessities like survival). I also like the way he seems to embrace a more decentralized, locally based culture as opposed to today’s centralized LA-based music industry….
Is Buffett’s vision realistic? Does he put his money where his mouth is?[1] or has he just drunk the tech utopian’s Kool aid that disguises libertarianism as democratic?

First, this fantasy assumes that there are still enough people who can afford to go to such shows that would generate enough revenue to keep up with the constantly rising prices of rent in places where they can find jobs (or that they even have leisure time to see shows in between working 2 or 3 jobs, and long commute times)….I mean, maybe it’s possible for a kids’ “hobby” band in the socialist economy of officially standard pre-18-year-old family life (no homeless street kids in this Secret Millionaires Club!), but the second you have to pay your own room and board, bye-bye, your nice little youth art scene, time to grow up now and get serious like Warren.

Secondly, given the expenses it takes to record music, and to convert a record store into a performance venue that’s “up to code” (and can pay all the municipal fees to be legal), obviously, it would take an influx of venture capital to pull it off. One might think if Buffett truly believed that this would be a way to save small businesses (record stores, and bands) that are threatened by the technocracy, that he’d make funds available to do so, that a venture capitalist like Buffett should do more than offer kids a story that is more fantasy than reality.

But even if Warren Buffett won’t put his money where his mouth is, I wonder if other institutions with cultural clout will? A coalition of artists, musicians and other culture workers have tried to appeal to the City Hall of our town that the arts can be an “economic engine,” for this city, but our offers (and/or pleas) have fallen on the deaf ears of a government too busy privatizing what used to be its legendary civic auditorium back when Oakland took more pride in its culture. So I ask even though Big Tech got us into this mess, could Big Tech help get us out of it, maybe by providing some form of reparations for destroying the record,  book and even video, stores? And can we convince them it’s in their self-interest to do so?

I think of that streaming service, Pandora, which is based in my town, and has employed some musicians I know. Nonetheless, as a music distribution service, it might as well be located in the everywhere-and-nowhere placelessness of web culture. It has no particular connection, or allegiance, with local musical culture. By contrast, 50 years ago, one block from where Pandora’s HQ now stands, the radio station KDIA made much more room for the local than Pandora does, while still being connected to a national (but more decentralized) culture.

Now, Pandora may not exactly be up there with Facebook, Google, and Amazon in the super rich category, but if they could devote some resources into the creation of a multi-genre “local music” channel, ideally somewhat curated, it could help create a sense of local pride in the wealth of culture available in this town in which many more young folks are more aware of the music being imported from LA than of the great musicians who may live on the same block. If Pandora, or other digital tech services, would take a chance to re-establish connections with the community in which it’s based, it could create avenues so that some of the “entertainment buck” that is currently being drained from our town to enrich Hollywood and Silicon Valley’s coffers, could stay local and may even create a cultural export to help brand Oakland (or insert your town here)…

In trying to convince the techies that such ideas would be in their self-interest, I’ve found myself banging my head against the wall for several years, and Jonathan Taplin’s Move Fast And Break Things confirms my suspicions that the reason the venture capitalists in the tech sector remain unreceptive to such an alliance with local musician collectives is not simply because they are indifferent to local culture, but actively hostile to it. Since Silicon Valley’s reigning ideology, by their own admission, is monopolistic, anti-democratic (and libertarian), they consider a thriving local music and arts culture a threat to their business model at least as much as Hollywood has since the 1970s. Besides, a thriving local arts culture could lure people away from spending so much time on social media! So, if we can’t find venture capitalists in the tech sector to realize how local “independent” music can help them, maybe Hollywood’s music industry, who has also been decimated by Big Tech in the 21st century, may finally realize that supporting local music may be in its best interest….

B) What Kind of Co-op Can You imagine: Notes To A Plea To Hollywood

“I’m not interested in nostalgia but rather in figuring out what changed.” (240)

“The entirely new fact is that the monopolist in the digital world enjoys a power that the monopolist in the physical world does not. This is the ability [not only] to isolate producers one from another and discriminate among them, but also to isolate consumers from one another and discriminate among them.”(120).

“If the digital revolution has devalued the role of the creative artist in our society, then we need to do more than play around the edges.” (279)

“On November 13 and 14, 2015, around one thousand activists and techies met at the New School in New York City to talk about reinventing the internet. Their hope was to create a co-op model: individuals dealing directly with each other without having to go through data-scraping corporate hubs such as Google and Facebook.” (214)

Subsidiarity, according the Oxford English Dictionary, is “the idea that a central authority should have a subsidiary function, performing only those tasks which cannot be performed effectively at a more immediate or local level.” (267)

I love Jonathan Taplin’s Move Fast And Break Things (2017) not simply for its brilliant diagnosis of the cultural and economic crisis in which most Americans find themselves in the era of 21st Century Monopoly Technocracy, but also because of its passionate defense of an alternative ethos (for instance, “Small is beautiful”), and possible solutions for collective institutional change that could better the lives of the vast majority of us. Taplin’s wisdom is backed up by 50 years of experience working in the culture and/or entertainment industry, and he does an amazing job of creating cross-generational solidarity against a common enemy in unregulated 21st century technocracy. He compels me to ask some difficult questions.

When he spoke to an audience of mostly Generation Xers and Millennial “creative types,” in Oakland this summer, the talk inevitably turned to how Big Tech is largely responsible for the crisis in the music industry and culture, and possible ways out of it. Near the end of Move Fast and Break Things, Taplin writes: what if artists ran a video and audio streaming site as a nonprofit cooperative? Let’s assume they would let the co-op keep 10 percent of the revenue, either from ads or subscriptions, in order to run the infrastructure and have money for general marketing. The artist would take the remaining 90 percent..” 269

Such “cooperatives do not ask artists to forgo other distribution outlets but rather enable them to take advantage of a series of distribution windows that could lead to much higher income, even if it means less for the middleman. The model exists in the music business in the form of Bandcamp……” (271, 272). But Taplin is aware of a need to go beyond the Bandcamp model. “In an ideal world, this kind of decentralized infrastructure of artist co-ops might bring back some of the regional distinctions” (273) before the industry centralized in Hollywood circa 1970. So how do we bring back regionalism?

Bandcamp may be fine for some musicians, but its default position is placeless. And, in an era in which “the longstanding principles of individual success, taken for granted by an older generation, are moving out of fashion,”(271) it lacks a collective thrust needed for the daunting task of luring the music listener and/or consumer away from Youtube and other established streaming services (especially in an era when Youtube’s parent company Google can make sure your streaming site doesn’t show up high in its search engine). I think such a co-operative would need to be primarily locally based, connected to an actual place, say a live/work performance venue that’s also a recording studio (like the warehouse I lived in here in Oakland before the city government used the tragedy of a warehouse fire to crack down on such spaces). Nor need such a nonprofit cooperative be exclusive or based on genre, or sub-genre and niche-marketing. It could provide an alternative to the placeless and niche music culture encouraged by the web (in conjunction with the major labels), but emphasizing an eclectic array of local musicians. We don’t have to like each other’s music to work together for the greater health of the local culture in the spirit of “unity in diversity” or strength in numbers…..

The nonprofit cooperative video and streaming site could not only serve the function that “the record store” (or video store) did in the 20th century, but also take on some of the functions the radio had, or should I say podcast. DJs will curate shows of new, local, talent, and host local events (for instance a dance craze contest, open to musicians of all genres, or another contest in which musicians write tribute songs to the heroic efforts of the Electric Power Board of Chattanooga against the digital monopolies) to strengthen the connection between recorded and live music, and create a productive symbiosis between the virtual reality and the visceral reality, to restore the “balance between local and global” (273) Taplin claims his NPR station has…..and, working from the grass roots, could perhaps provide some push back against the trickle-down culture that Big Tech pushes on us. Yet, this would be difficult to start without some venture capital….perhaps a public/private partnership….

C) Generation Gap: Appeal To Hollywood

When Taplin talks about regionalism I get nostalgic for the days when many musicians didn’t have to become national celebrities, or move to LA, to make a living….And I can hear cheers coming from the audience when he says, “In a culture such as ours, which has long advocated a “melting pot” philosophy that papers over differences, it is valuable to recognize that allowing our dissimilarities to act as barriers is not the same as appreciating the things that make each culture unique, situated in time and space and connected to particular people.”(29)

While Taplin got his first gig working with Bob Dylan in 1965 in an era of top 40 radio that appreciated “the things that make each culture unique, situated in time and space and connected to particular people” much more than today’s more monopolistic culture, many in attendance at the talk came of age at least 20 years later, in an era of diminishing returns for innovative musicians, yet before the advent of the internet. We are often labelled “underground” because we try to create a grass roots locally-based sustainable minimalist cultural economy (like they could in the 40s and 50s) against increasingly difficult odds, or you could say we were abandoned by the record industry. For instance, a national network of local Punk and Hip hop rose from the ruins left by 70s centralized corporate radio and record industry only to be cherry picked, coopted, and fragmented by it circa 1991. The Telecom Act of 96 played a role in further exacerbating a wealth gap in the music business (narrowing playlists, and purging much of the more innovative hip hop and post-punk alternative from the radio), as did the media conglomerates devoting much more energy and money into pushing music from a previous generation at our expense than they did when that generation was our age.

Taplin paints a picture of an old Hollywood that valued frugality and transparent relationships with its artists, but that was largely gone in our (pre-internet) era: a bridge had become a wall.
This hurt the consumer too. The RIAA labels’, and Media conglomerates like Clearchannel, short-sighted bottom-line obsessed cultural economy in the 80s and 90s created much discontent among both producers and consumers of music. This became fertile ground for Napster, and, later, Youtube to prey on. I also believe that had record labels not phased out the more affordable single, and inflated the price of the CD-single, or EP (with maybe 4 songs) to $9.99 while the full length CDs prices nudged close to $20.00, that many would not have been attracted to Napster’s promise of “free.” I think many would have gladly paid less, but the only alternative available was “free.”

Thus, many musicians have an almost ideological opposition to Hollywood’s “Blockbuster” mandate for success, but know that music comes alive more in small venues. Many understand the phrase D.I.Y (do it yourself) is not just about “individuals dealing directly with each other without having to go through data-scraping corporate hubs such as Google and Facebook,” (120—emphasis added), but was originally understood more collectively (do it ourselves), and labored intensely in defiance of Hollywood’s gerrymandered niche marketing relentlessly bent on dividing us. Some of us may have fallen for the temptation, and the promises that the web could liberate us and provide an alternative to the way the music industry had disseminated local scenes, only to see Big Tech cut further the ground out from under our alternative arts scenes in a number of insidious ways, including gentrification (though that’s outside of the scope of this essay): meet the new boss, worse than the old boss….

So, reading Move Fast And Break Things almost makes me feel sorry for the old-money mostly white male Hollywood oligarchy, and the thought occurs to me, “if they too have been victimized by the New Technocracy, maybe they could be an ally?” Maybe Taplin, “with suspiciously close ties to the entertainment industry establishment” can be an ambassador and help forge a truce between Hollywood and us.

Though many agreed with Taplin about the cultural and economic disaster the technocracy has caused, we wonder if Hollywood can be a true ally, given its own history of crushing local music scenes almost every time they sprung up in the last third of the 20th century? Can the Hollywood establishment bury its hatchet with local musicians and regional scenes and be willing to forge a new coalition against the Technocracy that has hurt both of us? Can Hollywood realize that it’s in its self-interest to work with the “underground?”

Surely, we can find common ground with Hollywood and the RIAA establishment. Even if we may not have been receiving as much in record sales in the “Jam-Econo” era (the regimen of relentless touring of a national college radio small venue circuit until your lead singer/ guitarist dies on the road in a van), and thus may not have felt the sting that maybe Sting and his ilk felt when sales royalties dropped in the 00s (“when you ain’t got nuthin, you got nuthin to lose’), it doesn’t mean that any of us would object if we did get more fairly compensated for our artifacts—but for this to happen in the internet age the old Hollywood/RIAA/Clearchannel media conglomerates have to be seduced and convinced that it is in their best interests to cede some of their centralized power back to what currently remains of the local communities…to the benefit of all.

Taplin quotes Yrval Levin’s “The Fractured Republic: Renewing America’s Social Contract in the Age of Individualism” on the concept of “subsidiarity.” (267) Certainly, this is lacking in the contemporary music, and culture, industries. Yet once upon a time, back in Taplin’s day, the major labels had more regional offices (back when they still had to compete with viable local labels that produced national hits before they bought them out). Perhaps subsidiarity is the only thing that can save Hollywood and, frankly, America.

So perhaps the streaming online and video cooperative mentioned earlier (section B) can actually be funded by Hollywood and serve as a “regional office” from their perspective, but one with much more autonomy, rather than the “colonization” model some of these older regional offices relied on. This would certainly help create the bridge between local and global and make cultural exchange more of a two-way street rather than the one way street it currently too often is. And I believe that if Hollywood took such a chance, and rethought its model of how it pours its profit back in to investing on content, it may be the one thing that can save it (and us). You have a choice, Hollywood, either try to compete with Silicon Valley on its own terms, or decentralize.
                                                         

#MoveFastAndBreakThings. #JonathanTaplin. #WarrenBuffett #SecretMillionairesClub

[1] Buffett is best known by many ‘progressives’ for his comments about how whack the tax code is when his secretary pays more than him, which makes him sound more ‘enlightened’ (noblesse oblige?) than many billionaires, though he adds nothing about giving her a raise, or paying her taxes! I suppose even a billionaire has more mouth than his money can back up; I certainly do….