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Columns > Jesse Jarnow - Brain Tuba

Published: 2003/08/28
by Jesse Jarnow

Slave Mix

Two strange moments from movies, coincidentally viewed over the weekend:
In Josie and the Pussycats, an evil record impresario named Wyatt
Frame, played sinisterly by Alan Cummings, hands a CD to a record store
clerk. It is labeled "slave mix." The clerk pops it in, and teen pop by the
hilarious fictional band DuJour fills the shop. Customers perk up their
ears, suddenly filled with an uncontrollable impulse to consume. A gaggle of
girls giggles as they rush off to spend, spend, spend. As it happens, the CD
has been encoded with subliminal messages, put there by the music industry,
encouraging teens to buy, buy, buy.
In High Fidelity, record clerk Rob Gordon, played by John Cusack,
turns to Dick, played by Todd Louiso. "I’m gonna sell five copies of The
Three EPs by The Beta Band," he says quietly. "Do it," Dick whispers
back conspiratorially. Cusack slides the disc into the Championship Vinyl CD
player and hits play. The melodramatically gorgeous ending of "Dry The Rain"
yowls through store. The camera pans around the shop as customers begin to
nod their heads and smile along with the song. "This is really good," one of
them says to Rob. "I know," he responds, well, knowingly.
It’s clear that, in the first instance, we’re expected to be distrustful of
the listeners’ reactions while, in the second, we’re supposed to think "wow,
cool, right on Rob!" It helps, of course, that "Dry The Rain" is a great
song. My first exposure to the tune came after my friend Jon rushed out and
bought The Three EPs after seeing High Fidelity.In that sense,
it was a successful move, product placement be damned. John Cusack might not
really be a record geek, but he plays one in the movies (quite well,
at that).
"Dry The Rain"‘s appearance in High Fidelity is one way music
listening has changed enormously in the past few years. It’s a great time to
be a music fan, if a horrible time to be involved in the music industry. But
who cares about that, eh? The songs rock, and – what’s more – the act of
listening to them has flowered out into a new kind of experience, perhaps
richer than any previous generation of rock fans. Fans carve swaths through
the mess by singling out great tunes in blogs, or creating new ones via mash-ups.
Old rituals break down and fresh ones are established. Even the act of
trading live recordings has mutated. My first Phish recordings were acquired
after responding to an ad in the back of Relix, waiting weeks for a
response, sending blanks to some dude in the mail, and eventually getting
them back. With the ‘net, the tapes at first stayed the same, though the
trades were worked out by email. Eventually, the tapes became CDs. Then,
digital file transfers replaced the mail.
At first, it seemed that Phish’s live download program would eliminate the
element of human interaction that made tape trading such a sacred ritual.
Instead, for those truly committed, it seems to have made it stronger. With
fresh soundboards circulating, Phish trading has actually become illicit.
People exchange FTP passwords and files via Instant Messenger, tapers being
replaced by those willing to dish out a few bucks for the show. It’s a new
way to listen to the shows, also, having them trickle in via late night file
transfers, when people return home from work and much of the ‘net lies
Songs seem like revelations. Last night, a file called "PH030723.mp3"
transmogrified into "Gotta Jibboo," the song suddenly regaining its
freshness as the sweet-natured pop tune in the spirit of Johnny Nash’s "I
Can See Clearly Now" and Vincent Stan’s "Ooh Child" that guitarist Trey
Anastasio was enamored with circa 1999. Information overload can be
daunting, but it can also be the basis of a new experience.
Spam arrives in droves, advertisements for penis enlargers and pyramid
schemes little different from the patent medicines and real estate swindles
that filled 19th century broadsheets. Waves of viruses overrun the ‘net and
people kvetch on message boards and mailing lists, as if complaining about
the weather. They dig their email accounts out from fresh digital snow each
morning, endlessly deleting, deleting, clicking, and shoveling the bits
These are strange days, online and off. The ‘net seems to be coming apart,
but so does the real world. Viruses stop systems flat while state senators
from Texas hide out across the New Mexico border as the Texas governor sends
private bounty hunters after ‘em. And music is still fuel, or at least an
entryway. The byways of the message boards are no less
bizarre. Sinister rumors about Phish members’ personal lives are common
fodder, alongside fierce opinion, though all are just as frequently shot
down. After a brush with the Hell’s Angels and the cops, Phish bassist Mike
Gordon was largely vindicated in fans’ eyes thanks to an anonymously
circulated account of the incident. A day or two later, the story was a
non-issue on the discussion boards.
The scenes from High Fidelity and Josie and the Pussycats
represent two sides of pop culture. The latter is a top-down hierarchy of
mass-fed artifacts. The former is an unruly tangle of unpredictability.
Thankfully, almost 10 years after the beginning of the ‘net boom, chaos
still seems in order.

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