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Savage Net: On Apple Music, Pop Art, and Heavy Metal

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My buddy Scooter once told me that “the burden of the Net is too much to bear.”

This year, my excavations of America’s underbelly for MetalSucks have taken me to places like the NAMM Convention in California, South by Southwest in Texas, and the base of Donald Trump’s hair piece/golden mane. I’ve been searching for the meaning of heavy metal and punk music in the culture, and where it fits within our paranoid, divided country.

Skip the rest of the article and just watch this vid if you’re already bored!

This summer, I believe that a line was drawn more firmly than ever before: between what the Internet deems “real art” and what just passes as “content.” The endless onslaught of stale Harambe/when the dank dicc succ is loud/Arthur memes, the disastrous reception of Hot Topic As Film Suicide Squad, and the shuttering of pseudo-journalism outlet Gawker that convinced itself and its readership that it was one of the last bastions of “real journalism,” became simply too much for the Net to bear. We are speeding towards a complete deconstruction of how we appreciate, digest, and consume art.

For many of us, this culminated in one of the most interesting things to hit the Net in recent years, with Apple Music’s exclusive release of former Odd Future punker-turned-pop-star Frank Ocean’s new album Blond. Even if you haven’t heard the album (or seen the accompanying, Apple-commissioned video piece), you’ve probably heard about it, as the flurry of brilliantly-executed press and fan social media posts have already deemed it one of the great albums of our time, an instant masterwork of “real art” during an age of corporate, consulting firm-designed product.

suicide squad

The opposite of “real art,” Suicide Squad was described by Vanity Fair as “…dull chore steeped in flaccid machismo, a shapeless, poorly edited trudge that adds some mildly appalling sexism and even a soupçon of racism to its abundant, hideously timed gun worship.”

One of the things I’ve noticed about what constitutes “real art” for Reddit users, Facebook posts, and Rotten Tomatoes voters, is that it often functions like a pop cultural treasure hunt. Where is the David Bowie sample on the new Frank Ocean album? Which Kanye song did Daft Punk produce? Can you spot every ’80s reference in Stranger Things? What does the mid-credits sequence in Avengers: Age of Ultron suggest about the next Marvel movie? Can you believe that Innaritu was able to execute that series of long-takes in The Revenant?

This treasure hunt pats audiences on the back for their ability to consume “correctly,” validating their personal beliefs on what constitutes “actual” technique, thematic arcs, and formal execution, which has been tremendously influenced by the glossy sheen of shows like Mad Men and Breaking Bad, albums by Kanye West, and movies like Birdman. Even metal has equivalents — not to knock these bands, whose music I enjoy — in Periphery, Animals as Leaders and the like.

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The Net is quick to claim Batman Vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice as the worst movie ever made because it doesn’t make sense (which some people really enjoy about it, given how neatly wrapped up in a bow Marvel’s films typically are), while the “Battle of the Bastards” episode of Game of Thrones was the best battle sequence ever filmed (super good, but even in the pantheon of pop-culture there is Zulu, Helm’s Deep, the opening of Saving Private Ryan, etc etc), and that Nic Pizzolato is a genius second coming of David Chase (how did that second season of True Detective sit for you?).

So I’m curious: why do we think it is “right” to consume art “correctly?” Why does the Net think that the only way to live is for everything to “make sense?”

Novelist Bret Easton Ellis’s (American Psycho) answer to this question is that nowadays ideology trumps aesthetics. In other words, you consume art “correctly” by aligning what you ingest with what you believe your morals are. Bret argues that in our culture, it is more important to proclaim your ideology than it is to have an opinion steeped in artistic sensibilities.

In my view, this goes hand-in-hand with Fear of Missing Out, which the big media companies are keen to take advantage of through subscription and paywall-based services. Apple Music just did this with Frank Ocean, while other high-profile exclusives, like Kanye West’s Life of Pablo deal with Tidal, are setting a new standard in music distribution. You can’t get this piece of art by an artist you like anywhere else, so you must pay for our service. This is key: you pay for a service, not an artist. Then again, if you’re like an impenetrable number of people, you’ll just pirate it anyway.

Marketing plays a huge role in this phenomenon. Nobody cared about Attack the Block (a brilliant, beautiful, hilarious movie that was buried by its distribution plan), while Stranger Things — which had a brilliant ad campaign that managed to evoke the feelings of an era on its own — is proclaimed one of the greatest pieces of film art in our lifetimesStranger Things was anointed a masterwork before anyone really even had the chance to live with it. The impression left by its surfaces (an analog title sequence, hand-drawn posters) was so powerful that it influenced the reception of the show more so than the marketing for most pieces of art I can remember.

Stranger-Things-poster

This is the exact sort of thing that the Net agrees upon as “correct:” inoffensive, presented in a neat box we can categorize, glossed up and shiny-looking (the way a masterpiece is “supposed to look”), status-quo. Thematically, this show is literally about cliffhangers, meaning there is a golden, doo doo-soaked umbilical cord between its form and content. The Net wants everything to “make sense,” and in Stranger Things, I think we have a true example of a show that, despite its creators’ intentions, was almost designed to self-generate Buzzfeed articles.

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Spoiler alert: I got Barb!

Meanwhile, incidentally, most of the late ’70s and early ’80s films that Stranger Things draws on are bleak, nihilistic, and formally anti-authoritarian. They are the opposite of “making sense,” and were often reactionary to the glossy, vapid sheen of Hollywood at that time. Filmmakers like Joe Dante, John Carpenter, and even Steven Spielberg in his early years, were reacting to a broken economy, urban decay, Ronald Reagan’s presidency, and the looming realities of climate change.

Dark analog synth soundtracks, the distrust of government, and misaligned youth convinced that the adults of the world had left them behind were responses to feelings of the eraThe Thing is one of the greatest films ever made not on the merits of its style or technique, but because its innards are so deeply wired in to a critique of life at that time. In the universe of these movies, you can never stop evil, only halt it for a moment: the Gremlins will return, the Thing will take over Earth, the Devil will possess again.

Heavy metal isn’t experiencing quite this level of overhype/overrate, but it is definitely dipping its toes in the pond, as is all of music in the Pitchfork era. Fans, bloggers, and news outlets alike have a criteria for evaluating whether or not a band has made a “good” album that has little to do with the actual notes a musician plays: what sub-genre does the band fall into, how do they dress, how do they come off in interviews? Many critical metal listeners unconsciously believe there is a “right” and a “wrong” way to experiment, which mimics the Net’s reception of pop art. The “right” way tends to mean “this band validates what I understand about music” while the “wrong” way means “I don’t know how to listen to this.” Often, this “wrong” way happens when a band expresses a specific, personal point of view.

One of the virtues of outsider cultures like metal that separates it from pop-art is its intimate connection with fans, through live shows, social media, and forward-thinking digital services like Bandcamp. Metal’s least valuable attribute as a commodity (excepting Slipknot, Metallica, Lamb of God, etc) is also its strongest. It doesn’t ignite major-label corporate rivalries, and when it’s done well, it can achieve a truly personal artistic connection.

These days, the flow of content through social media makes me feel as though each night when I go to sleep, I am forced to download a whole new information pack about some surprise album, television show, or news story. Steve Albini once cautioned against an industry that constantly “dangles a band” in audiences’ faces, and in America, this may have come to pass. Since the advent of Nielsen Soundscan, the success of an album has been graded on its first week numbers, download counts, and extravagant tour revenue.

But now, we have a new, savage beast to contend with. These streaming companies have convinced public opinion that an art object they didn’t know they wanted, yet also waited years for (in the case of Frank Ocean, Kanye West, D’Angelo, Drake and so many others), is the “best” kind of art. While on the other side of the coin, the public tells itself that it is smarter than the marketing campaign Warner Brothers put together for Suicide Squad: as though there are truly aesthetic differences between the bottom-line financial goals of Warner Brothers and Apple. Apple may have spent more cash on Frank Ocean than they will make back in the short-term, but the long-term brand-building associations they build with artists through exclusive releases are invaluable.

Even more so than seeing a band dangled in front of me in a classical PR sense, nothing turns me off more from engaging with a movie, album, or TV show than seeing an endless onslaught of thinkpieces, listicles, and pretty-looking marketing campaigns that tell me something is great. I want to be invited in, forced by the material itself, to study and grow with it. But the American public has been dissuaded from a more mysterious, personal, and anticipated experience. Pundits say that the Internet has ushered in a kind of socialist age for information and art – everything we want is at our fingertips – while others argue that this freedom only works if we know how to use it. I think we’re somewhere in between.

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