Could You Feel Like They Feel?: Music Games, Listening and Fantasies of Identification
Tim Anderson / Denison University

If there was a way that you could accurately measure the most popular form of adolescent pop fantasy, I would bet dollar to donut that the one where you dress up, mimic stage moves and strum your air instrument of choice in rhythm with your favorite song and performer would win nine times out of ten. From the Kiss Army to Madonna Wannabes, from Goth Kids to Fantasia fanatics to the members of “Clay Nation,” pick your singer, your band, your genre or your subgenre of choice and remember that while style counts, rhythm is everything. It’s as much the law of the living room (while your parents are gone, of course) as it is the dance floor. The firm belief that you are something and can become ANYTHING other than your brothers, sisters, mom and dad is part of what bobbing your head and looking the fool is about. The other aspect is that it is so damn fun.

Guitar Hero

Guitar Hero

That desire for the “fantastic becoming(s)” of adolescence is all I could think about as I read the following passage from last issue’s article by Suzanne Freyjadis-Chuberka:

I’m standing on stage holding my guitar, it is a red Gibson and I have bright red hair and I’m wearing a punk ensemble. I’m playing the Foo Fighters’ “Monkey Wrench” and I ROCK! All the while I am standing in my living room using a guitar game controller that is allowing me to live out a fantasy of my rocker chick potential. In reality I would have no hope in hell of getting past one chord of anything on a guitar, but through the miracle of gaming I can inhabit many characters and be the rocker chick of my dreams.

Freyjadis-Chuberka’s use of the word “dreams” is interesting given her interest in the game, and other music-based video games, as immersive. The dream, that psychic state where fantasy and the concerns of conscious reality intermingle in the immersive atmosphere of an unconscious, is a state many of us seek in those few openings of waking life. In getting lost in that movie or night at the club we look for and, hopefully, find moments to observe, identify and fantasize that yield opportunities ripe for critique, celebration and wonder about others and who you could “become” at that very moment.

For Freyjadis-Chuberka the key to Guitar Hero and other music games is the issue of immersion:

There have recently been some games that have created openings for the traditional “non-game players” to experience video games in a way that feels immersive and fits their lifestyle. Guitar Hero, along with SingStar, Karaoke Revolution, and other games that use an alternative controller, have opened the doors of video gaming beyond the group of core gamers. These games have brought additional players to the video game arena through curiosity, and they have maintained these players through highly immersive game play.

Certainly this somewhat parallels my experience with the two games that have captured my heart in the past three months. Both Elite Beat Agents and Guitar Hero II are not only built on the logic of pop songs, but a deliberate, rhythmic interaction that is so compelling that somehow the term immersive doesn’t come close to adequately describing. Immersive, for me at least, suggests an initial act where a subject plunges him or herself into a specific environment only to have the environment take over and sensory input becomes passive. I’m not here to take the writer to task. Rather I would suggest that what is going here is that these games demand an engagement of the listening process, a process that is the key to the possibility of intersubjective communion. In the case of listening to music this process is intensely pleasurable. In his popular book, This is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession, Daniel Levitin makes a compelling case for the benefits of understanding the work neurologists have made to better understand why listening to music can be so pleasurably captivating:

Music listening requires, according to the theorist Eugene Narmour, that we be able to hold in memory a knowledge of those notes that have just gone by, alongside a knoweldge of all other musics we are familiar with that approximate the style of what we’re listening to now. This latter memory may not have the same or the same amount of vividness as notes we’ve just heard, but it is necessary to establish the context for the notes we’re hearing. (115)

In other words, this operational logic, combined with what Levitin calls “musical schemas” for listening, viscerally engage the player. Where these schemas come from and how they are developed are clearly cultural questions, a fact that Levitin readily acknowledges (114). Indeed, these cultural schemas, to paraphrase Simon Frith, are developed by learning what to listen to and, therefore, learn what is “valuable” in a piece of music. And when this schema is in place all you need to do is listen you can quickly sense valued music. Frith further states that, “the word I would emphasize here is ‘feel.’; Nobody needs to be told what is good or bad music — you know it the moment you hear it” (57).

And this is where that immensely pleasurable feeling of “immersion” once again comes to the fore. Reflect on any good to great night on a dance floor and it becomes clear that the experience feels particularly immersive because the particular type of attention that dancing demands is a form of listening where the one must actively submit to another aesthetic regime part of which you want to become yourself. “The relationship of ‘listening’ to music and ‘moving’; to music is, in short, a matter of convention,” notes Frith (220). In this sense, “Dance is not simply a heightened or more intense form of movement… rather, it is movement which draws attention to itself, in the very act of ceding control to the music–this is the difference between a movement that coincides with a beat and a movement that submits to it (221). And this is where, in my opinion, the appeal of these music games exist. Because they engage both a particularly important set of cultural processes that arrange an intensely pleasurable neural network, the issue of play is heightened while the ludic potential of instersubjective aesthetic activities highlighted at the same time. As Alex Rigopulos, President and CEO of Harmonix Games (the developer of Karaoke Revolution, Guitar Hero and Guitar Hero II), notes in a interview in the March 2007 issue of Game Informer

When we started the company, we weren’t thinking about video games at all. We considered ourselves an interactive music company. We wanted to solve the problem that we felt needed solving in the world. Making and playing music is this profoundly joyful experience. Tragically, very few people ever get access to that pleasure that comes from music making. Just about everybody tries that some point in their life, whether that’s piano lessons as a kid or guitar as a teen. But almost all those people quit after six months because it’s just too damn hard. We felt that we needed to invent new ways to let people who are not musicians have access to that very unique pleasure that comes from music making. (Anon. 38)

Donkey Konga (Joan)

Donkey Konga (Joan)

Indeed, the reason these games are so appealing is that they when they are good they efficiently provide an experience where one is “in communion” with the song that one is playing. Interestingly enough it is this experience what one feels as a musician when you are playing at the height of your ability within an ensemble and/or in the presence of an enthusiastic audience. The listening that one engages in these games demands that one becomes acutely performative in order to effectively recognize another affective/aesthetic domain. For example, in the time I have spent playing any of the Guitar Hero games I have experienced two surprising and enjoyable such listening experiences. The first is one where I play a song I once really liked as a youth but had subsequently left behind as something for which I no longer cared. In this case the song was “YYZ” by Rush and the experience of re-learning and “playing” the song was shocking as, over a few hours, the song went from a past novelty to a piece that flooded my entire body with a sense of delight that had either been dulled or forgotten some where in the time that I had moved from 13 year old “Hard Rocker” to 14 year old “Punk Rocker.” The second surprise came from song or an artist that I never considered interesting, let along engaging, would somehow open itself up in one revelation after another. Songs I loathe such as Chicago’s insipid “You’re My Inspiration.” In other cases I had simply ignored songs such as The Allman Brothers’; “Jessica” with all of its southern hippy beauty. Time and time again songs I didn’t know or appreciate would open themselves up to me because I was forced to listen to them in order to succeed. To paraphrase Peter Frampton, by playing games like Guitar Hero, Elite Beat Agents and Donkey Konga, I began to consider that I must have somewhat “felt” how fans and musicians must “feel” when they enjoyed these songs.

Of course, it could be that I am buying into a myth of sorts about music being some sort of “universal language” and, trust me, I am in know way equating and my experiences with somehow fully “understanding” those other musicians and fans. But the experiences have certainly made me much more curious than even I, a lifelong pop music addict, was before. As a result these games have effectively made me a little less “knee jerk” and little more open to finding what other’s value in their popular rhythms and melodies. As if in a dream, when I am sucked into these games I somehow relax myself enough to find associations and affections that I had not searched for earlier. And that has to count for something since there was no way in hell you were going to get me to listen that closely to “You’re My Inspiration” before.

Works Cited

Anon. (2007). “Alex Rigopulos: The Music Man.” Game Informer: 38-39. Frith, S. (1996).
Performing Rites: On the Value of Popular Music. Cambridge, Massachussetts, Harvard University Press. Levitin, D. (2006).
This is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession. New York, Dutton-Adult.

Image Credits:
1. Guitar Hero
2. Donkey Konga (Joan)

Please feel free to comment.




Passion is No Ordinary Word

by: Tim Anderson / Denison University

I knew the conference was a success on Saturday after I realized that after 48 hours I had not once wanted to go to the bookroom. Good thing too since I didn't see anything close to a publisher, or even a pile of books for that matter, which was fine with me. Flow, the conference, worked for the same reason that the online journal does: it simply doesn't feel careerist in any conventional way, shape or form. And because Flow is designed to prioritize the relatively quick engagement of ideas, I don't expect it to become wholly subsumed by the more standard practices of the academy. Yet I do think of Flow, the conference and the journal, is and will become an even more important place for media academics to employ because it provides such a rich and rewarding path for media academics to take their emerging passions and intellectual questions.

And I wouldn't be too surprised to be in the majority by noting how refreshing the conference was due primarily to its unconventional design. The architectural premise of the Flow conference, that its organization allow for a more “open source” set of inputs, was certainly the most compelling reason to attend and the most interesting part of the conference for myself. Having attended far too many other conferences, I had seen a few roundtables that tried to mix journalists, writers and academics together. But all too often I found these tribes talking across each other. And, to be sure, some of that happened here. But I also felt that for an inaugural event this was a success. While I have my suggestions, the fact is I left Flow with more ideas for research and conversation than I have from the last three major conferences I attended combined. I attribute that to both the organization and the willingness of those participants who attended to act in goodwill and abide by the format.

That said, my major criticism lies with some of my professorial colleagues who seemed reluctant to “give up the reins,” so to speak, and let the conversation emerge from a dialogue with the audience or other participants on the panel. Indeed, I was shocked to see how awkward it was for some of us not to think in “ten-minute answers” or “twenty minute papers”, myself included. While I found the two to three minutes of presentation time too short for anyone to say anything meaningful (I mean, haven't we learned that from years of watching televised presidential debates?), it seemed like five to six minutes was just enough. And I would hope that in presenting one's remarks us, as academics, become a little more “audience oriented” and encourage others to present in a way that engages the audience. For me, this is what the promise of Flow and other “open source” architectures offer us: by not controlling the terms of debate, we make those debates more fertile. For myself, the highlight of my own panel came when I had one journalist turn to me and claim that one of the points I had made about the necessity of musicians touring more in a digital environment was complete “BS”, a claim on his part which may or may not be true. Still, what was interesting about it was that it was he was listening, something that doesn't happen enough in the “four-paper-for-120-minute” panel model.

The other thing about his comment was that it made me laugh out loud because it was offered as a critique, but a generous and funny one to boot. For my money there was more laughter at this conference than I can remember at any other I have attended. And it was in these laughs where the most interesting moments for myself existed: because of the conference's organization around a specific ethos of listening you could actually hear the passion and spirit, that is the glue that drives our intellectual efforts. In watching other academics engage and exchange with other, more public forms of the intellectual such as journalists, musicians and video makers, I was struck by how surprisingly productive the conference. While I am a bit of a skeptic when it comes to academic conferencing, it isn't because I am anti-intellectual. Rather, I find that the “inside baseball” jargon, tribal behavior and the thinly veiled punishments for past academic crimes that exist all too often bury a vital discussion of ideas, methods and the importance of intellectual passion. For a weekend my skepticism was replaced a sense of intellectual promise, which is something worth getting excited about, indeed.

Please feel free to comment.




At the End of the Day We’re all “End Users”

iPod nanos

iPod nanos

I just finished two and a half weeks of travel visiting family and friends. I always find travel unnerving for a slew of reasons. Airports and four-hour flights are replete with awkward vies for my attention. It may be my forfeiture of privacy that bothers me, but I am going to guess that gobs of Airport TV, mediocre films and crappy sitcoms are likely villains. I often feel like my airlines are involved in some sort of large-scale media effects experiment to see just how much “in-flight Tim Allen exposure” an audience can take before it resorts to spontaneous, collective cannibalism in order to ease the pain.

But on this vacation I travelled prepared: my video iPod, Nintendo DS, the trusty laptop and some reading got me through my travels with a newfound ease. When flights offered their in-flight entertainment menus, I was able to put the “xnay” on it with my gaggle of video gizmos. And I was not alone. Each row in coach had two to three laptops running as well as a game system and a portable DVD player. A substantial majority of us were equipped to the hilt and using every piece of personalized media possible to ignore what they had never demanded.

The more I consider the above scenario of personalized media, the more I am reminded of Tara McPherson's comments about viewing television at the time of Katrina

I can't remember the last time I watched live TV. Even during the media circus that followed the devastation of Katrina, I had my TiVo working overtime, taping hours of coverage I'd peruse later, while I logged time at my keyboard searching interactive maps, video snippets, and blog feeds. We might read our current investments in DVRs and 500 gig hard drives as our attempt to stave off television's insistence that we immediately forget. Today, memory is cheap.

That's one way to look at it. Another way to think about audio-visual media is it has entered the world of the end user, a world that audio has had to deal for over a 100 years: a world of time shifting and, since the 1950s and the mass arrival of magnetic tape, textual manipulation by the “end user.” After all, DVRs and 500GB hard drives are little more than records that operate at the discretion of the user. Just like audio years ago, the audio-visual has completely escaped the clutches of its producers and, prohibitions be damned, is now firmly in the grasp of the user.

TiVo

TiVo

However, the move to “user” is not without its own thorny set of issues. As Henri Lefebvre notes in his recently translated, The critique of everyday life volume iii: From modernity to modernism, that,

Received representations and commonly used words are insidious vehicles for a morality, an ethics and an aesthetics that are not declared as such. It may be that innovations, gradually accepted and virtually unnoticed, conduce to the inertia or corruption of daily life. Here is an exemplary instance, already signaled elsewhere, which is worth stressing given the gravity of its consequences: the substitution of the 'user', figure of daily life, for the political figure or the 'citizen' (pg. 78).

As problematic it is for many of us to think of the “user” as a substitute for a citizen, the movement from the citizen/commodity audience to the end user is a convenient way to frame broadcast history. And even though anyone reading this column already understands this, allow me to share the simple conceptual tool I use give to my students. Since the arrival of broadcasting in the 1920s two competing visions of the listener/viewer reigned supreme: the citizen and the commodity audience. In variations on a Reithian theme, the state-run broadcasting corporation guides the “citizen”. The broadcaster paternally envisions the needs of the citizenry first which, as we all know, plays out in terms of programming. If we were to measure this in terms of “football matches broadcast” (FMB), it would mean, at best, a few matches a week. Even though demand may be nowhere even close to being met by two or three matches a week, their appearance in the schedule is strictly regulated in order to ensure proper program diversity as determined by the state.

Less grounded in the desires of the state is the vision of “commodity audience.” It is gained, lost, missing, demanding and, most importantly, a zero-sum commodity that is captured, exchanged and exists as the basis of commercial broadcasting systems, systems that are regulated though not governed by the state. As a result the FMB number is much greater and the matches are on at a variety of times, channels, etc. The audience in this frame is somewhat active, but most importantly for corporate capital they are measured and these measures
are interpreted as demand. Still, the audience is relatively passive as it is subjected to a set of textual and temporal choices that are beyond their control. In other words, you want your football; you wait till it is broadcast.

Broadcast media, in the age of end user is something entirely different. It seems to be governed by the individual who is invested in specific lines of technology and standards that are often unregulated as well as being developed and administered by forms of private capital. The result is the audience finds the final two restrictions of text and time so substantially reduced that they can use audio-visual media the same way child might use playdough. Media for the end user is malleable: it is molded, shaped, stretched or simply placed on the shelf a ready-to-be-used entity. Let's put this in FMB terms once more just to follow this through with the example. Sure you cannot schedule the big match, but now you can purchase the big game after the event and play it over and over again at your own discretion. Better yet, you
really like football? Strike up your Xbox, play your matches, record them and play them back for your friends in an edited DVD that highlights moments of your virtual season. AV really goes DIY and television in the YouTube world is truly fast, cheap and (almost) out of control.

You Tube logo

You Tube logo

If countless Mentos-in-Diet-Coke videos have proven anything to us, it is that audiences with DSL, PCs and Digital cameras have become much more adept at making and molding video for their own purposes than I think most scholars could have predicted. It is interesting to watch two “old media” institutions react, as TV audiences have changed into TV users. As one New York Times article recently documented, when a number of dissatisfied groups of Star Trek fans didn't like what the broadcast universe gave them, they decide to pick up their consumer digital video cameras, edit on iMovie, and distribute their new series on the net. Allow me to editorialize for a second here: awesome. As the article notes, as long as these groups are not making a profit on the property Paramount seems to be more than willing to turn a blind eye
and let the fans live their dreams of exploration.

Of course when there is money involved, it's another story altogether. One of my more recent laugh-out-loud moments reading an on-line trade came in the reports that ABC wants MSOs to disable the fast-forward buttons on the DVRs they supply customers:

according to ABC President of Advertising Sales Mike Shaw, with the primary goal to allow TV commercials to run as intended.

Shaw also threw cold water on the idea that neutering the fast-forward option would result in a consumer backlash. He suggested that consumers prefer DVRs for their ability to facilitate on-demand viewing and not ad-zapping–and consumers might warm to the idea that anytime viewing brings with it a tradeoff in the form of unavoidable commercial viewing.

Once you stop laughing, consider that for every Mr. Shaw, there are smarter corporations who understand that the name of the game today is catering to the “end user” and, rather than neutering technologies, are interested in helping you better personalized media. To be sure, one of the reasons that I continue to bring up pop music examples, particularly the iPod in my Flow columns is that they are illustrative of the situation that the receiver as “end user” is in. As much “fun” as I found my iPod, the number of uses I have found for of my iPod has quickly multiplied. Like others, I thought it would be great for long walks, but rarely do I leave home without it and I always take it to work as a storage device so that I can quickly access media material and multimedia lectures. And, to be frank, I needed to become a much more adept media “user” in order to make my arguments. And guess what, the iPod, my Mac and a number of off-the-shelf programs are the kitchen tools I feel compelled to buy and upgrade to cook up my own “malleable media.”

Yet Lefebvre's comments concerning how the user has supplanted the citizen disturbs me because, truth be told, I like my malleable media even if it means that while I opt out of the state regulated media of yore, I am knowingly “buying in” to the Empire of Jobs simply because
it better designed to make me feel like I am involved in media production and that somehow my podcasts and blogs matter. And with this in mind I wonder if older political institutions such as city hall and the school district are getting the message that the need to embrace more wikis, blogs, and podcasts because it is important not only to have citizens make a difference but also feel like they are making a difference. No longer can they rely on the daily newspaper and the 6 O'Clock news to help curry effective citizenship. It used to be that the state, the city and the district had our attention due to hgeographical and temporal default. Because this is no longer the case, it doesn't mean that citizenship is dead, or even dying… but it should make us pause. If city hall and my local school board actually care about our participation (and who is to say that they do), then they better make the information they want to get out much more user friendly, much more malleable. Otherwise someone like myself will most likely miss the mayor's news release in my endless quest to avoid most things “Tim Allen.”

Works Cited

Lefebvre, Henri. The Critique of Everyday Life Volume III: From Modernity to Modernism. London: Verso, 2006.

Image Credits:

1. iPod nanos

2. TiVo

3. You Tube logo

Video courtesy of You Tube.

Please feel free to comment.




“New Media”? Please Define.

Bill Gates

Bill Gates

What, exactly, is “New Media”? I ask this question quite a bit these days. I read the edited readers, I go to conferences, and I chat with friends but with little satisfaction. I have a penchant for defining words. It's a bad habit, perhaps. At least that's what my students would tell you after they receive their papers with the comment “define please” scattered throughout the margins. But it is a serious question and problem since the last 160 years or so of communication history involves the succession of one “new media” after another and, as I will mention later, there seem to be a number of jobs posted that want research and teaching in “new media”. Given the lack of definition, I can imagine that I am not the only one reading those ads pulling at wits end to figure out what exactly that means.

By the way, I don't say this to be willfully obtuse. For example, as I write this article the Electronic Entertainment Expo or, as we say in geekspeak, E3, is meeting at the Los Angeles Convention Center and half of my “new media” will sink slowly into a state of “old new media” under the weight of planned obsolescence. Last year it was my Xbox. The new Xbox 360 crushes my green and black machine with more pixels per square centimeter and processing per nanosecond capabilities. If you own a Nintendo Gamecube, meet the Wii, a new gaming system which promises to “break down that wall that separates video game players from everybody else.” The result, Nintendo claims, will not only converge Johnny with non-gamers like Grandma and Grandpa, but wireless connectivity with the internet and other Nintendo game devices such as the DS. And as some of you PS2 owners may know, Sony will be getting big play this week as it unveils its latest, greatest version of the Playstation, the Playstation 3, an entertainment center that will be backwards compatible with all PS1 and PS2 software. And that's not all. The system will continue to play older DVDs, CDs and bring with it a 20 GB hard drive, ethernet, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth capabilities. But the big news is, as one industry analyst has pointed out, that
the PS3 will act as Sony's “Trojan Horse” that sneaks in the company's patented “Blu Ray” HD DVD technology under the Christmas Tree of many an unsuspecting American family
, Given Sony's losses to Apple in the market for personal musicplayers, it is fair to say that the PS3 is, as,one Sony executive claims “one of Sony Corp.'s most significant product launches in a long time.”

Sony Playstation

Sony Playstation

Don't make the mistake of thinking that these developments are simple “improvements.” Rather they are examples of how your video game box has gone from something that involved your television and sometimes your internet connection (True, Xbox has always had Ethernet capabilities, Sega's discontinued Dreamcast system had a port, but only some models of PS2 had internet capabilities and Nintendo's soon-to-be antiquated Gamecube ignored the net altogether), to one where it is an expected part of our entertainment experience. For me the key term in discussing these developments should be no surprise to anyone reading Flow: media convergence. Take the case of Microsoft for example. The news that the company intends to, as another analyst notes, “ accelerate the convergence of PC and mobile phone and Xbox 360 was the biggest news [he had] heard so far [at the convention].” I don't know about you, but I am paying close attention as these “media convergence machines” fight for marketshare.

I note all of these developments with the caveat that I have come to these systems relatively late in the game. To be sure, my interest in gaming and gaming technologies is a complete 180-degree reversal from the way I felt about these developments little over a decade ago. If we were to rewind eleven years into the past when the initial Playstation was released you would find me hard at work at Northwestern as a graduate student who couldn't tell the difference between a PS1 and smoke alarm. Sony's remarkable accomplishment of an integrated entertainment unit that would play something called of DVD as well as my Cds on my Tv, was not only off my radar screen, but was just a little pricey for a 27 year old living on a GTA stipend. Since that time I have been a full-time teacher for almost 8 years, have moved a couple times and now find myself more and more fascinated by these media machines. In fact, I will admit that even though I have no desire to get an Xbox 360 or a PS3, the new Nintendo Wii looks pretty tempting. This is partly Jason Mittel's fault, as he organized a wonderful weeklong seminar on video games that I attended at NITLE in the middle of Vermont where we spent our time immersed in Xboxes, Playstations and various PCs. Marginal interest has only accelerated over the last 12 months and now I can claim more than a passing interest in multiple systems and games.

King Kong Game Cover

King Kong game cover

The initial reason I began to find these systems so wonderful is due to the fact, beginning in the late 1990s, it became clearer and clearer that their influence on older pieces of the basic media environment was becoming more and more undeniable. Simply put, I think it is fair to claim that without at least one of these little boxes, I would find it difficult to understand why all of the films and television programs that my students (particularly male students) love were morphing right before my eyes into even flashier, quickly edited, multi-screen affairs that feel more like puzzles and games and less like any kind of narrative form I grew up enjoying or studying. The most recent example of this from my point of view is Peter Jackson's King Kong. It's fair to say that the numerous scenes in the jungles if Skull Island where Jack Black, et. al. spend their time fighting dinosaurs and big bugs operates like an hour-long ad for Peter Jackson's King Kong: The Official Game of the Movie. Peter Jackson's close collaboration with Ubisoft is certainly exceptional: hand-in-hand cross-medium cooperation between videogame designers and film directors is rare but we can expect more of them in the future. As rare as it is, the collaboration has more than paid off for Mr. Jackson. The famed director is slated to be the executive producer of Halo, a film that will be based on the made-for-Xbox Microsoft videogame property and act as Microsoft's initial entry into the film industry. Indeed, in support this kind of cross-collaboration, a number of my students who are avid gamers are adamant Peter Jackson's King Kong: The Official Game of the Movie is far superior to Peter Jackson's King Kong, the film.

And this is where, for me, the engagement begins. For it is my experience that when students make claims such as the one above, I find myself more and more grateful for my training in film and television history, aka. “older media.” For someone like myself it was this training that emphasized the strategies of cultural institutions with long histories of cross-collaborations with each other and other mediums. In discussions with these students, I have been able to offer them a longer vision that helps them overcome un-nuanced hyperbole (i.e. “for the first time in the history of media” pronouncements) with nuanced curiosity. Film and broadcast historians are able to bring to the fore issues such as the institutionalized media intertextualization and how Hollywood helped usher in and develop these techniques in post-classical studio era of blockbuster films that focus more and more on the purchase, development, and nurturing of pre-sold, multimedia properties. Furthermore, when I have discussed the “battle of the videogame platforms,” this training has allowed me to provide students with lessons about how this struggle is one in a longer history of media struggles over “standards and practices” and patents. Many readers will be reminded of past media platform struggles and how each of these contained not only an economic desire to dominate the marketplace, but a promise to make two distinct media issues become as one. Whether they be the format wars between Vitagraph's sound-on-disc vs. Fox's sound-on-film, RCA's 45rpm 7″ record vs. Columbia's 33 1/3 LP, CBS's UHF TV vs. RCA's VHF TV patents, or Sony's Betamax and JVC's VHS systems, each of these struggles have their particular lessons for us, some of which are applicable and some of which are not. But for the moment, let's remind ourselves that in terms of “convergence” in each of these strugmediagles there existed a promised unification of sorts (i.e. “Sound + Film”, “In-Home Concert/High Fidelity sound” + “Great Music Repertoires”, “Broadcast Audio” + “Broadcast Video”, “Home Taping” + “Television”, etc,). Convergence is nothing new: these struggles were often over which system would better provide a promised convergence between seemingly disparate media forms, standards and practices. And more importantly, what is old was once new and what we now consider to be “standard” is ex post facto by definition.

So allow me to go back to the beginning of this piece because convergence is also one of those “hot words” for “new media,” the focus of my initial question. And “New Media,” to be honest, is a term that I tend to hold in contempt as, at worst, “newspeak,” or, at best, glib trendiness. This comes after a year of reading multiple job postings that seem to match the term “Assistant Professor” with “New Media” as if they were attached through some sort of unspoken bi-conditional bond. To be frank, in many of these ads I have no clue what “new media” is. In some cases, it seems that these ads want theorists that focus on “non-linearity” and “hypertextuality.” In other cases, these ads hint around and let the reader know that it has something to do with personal computing and videogames. But often these ads hedge their bets as if to challenge the applicant to define “new media” in their job letters.

In response, I would like to end this article with a set of questions
and challenges, each of which I hope we can begin to air in forums such
as Flow.

1) Is it so hard to ask that in upcoming posts for positions in “New Media Studies” that committees can do a better job of communicating what they feel does and does not constitute “new media”? Is new media “contemporary media”, “emerging media”, or does it have to do with “new media practices”? Many of us are not searching for justifications, rather better explanations of what you are looking for and what you mean by “new media.”

2) By hiring more and more “new media” scholars, does that mean that we somehow have a sufficient intellectual grasp on that “old media” so we can push forward? In what ways are we so significantly deficient in our understanding of said “old media” that we would be willing to commit time and energy to defining these deficiencies in order to argue with Deans and Provosts for potential hires that would help us address these needs?

3) If media is converging, shouldn't we demand that our students in Radio/Television/Film departments study BOTH film and broadcast histories, not one or the other? And if we do, should we do so in a way that “converges” either the subjects or the students with the intention of creating students who have an understanding of the multiple interests and histories that inform DVDs, TiVOs, VOD, etc.?

4) It's true that we need to better understand how “computertization”
and “Playstationication” alters our media experiences and practices. Given that this is the case, what would be so wrong in framing these developments as continuations of older media concerns? Is it wrongheaded to believe that these new media aren't as divorced from the issues of institutional control and programming as some would want us to believe?

And before it gets too heated, is anyone out there up for a game of Mario Karts?

Image Credits::

1. Bill Gates

2. Sony Playstation

3. King Kong Cover

Please feel free to comment.




“TV Time” is Now the New “Playtime”


iTunes Screen Snapz

For what it's worth, I didn't see Saturday Night Live (SNL) this weekend. I was in Vancouver eating and drinking with many of the Flow contributors and staff (great party, by the way) while celebrating a solid Society of Cinema and Media Studies Conference. While the American variety program is legendary for the comic performers it has developed, the names of which comprise a veritable “who's who” of North American comedy, the last two years just haven't been that pleasant. Indeed, the fact that fallow seasons have become something to expect by its audience is partially one reason why it hasn't been cancelled. In the US the show almost has the feeling of a weekly ritual, a sort of social obligation that people must, at a minimum, acknowledge in offices and between friends even if one has or has not seen the latest episode. And while there is no way to verify it, I am willing to venture that in the last 30 years only discussions about weekend football could claim more voices than discussions regarding SNL sketches in Monday morning, over-the-water-cooler office chatter. That said, I cannot remember the last time I sat through an entire episode of SNL, let alone found an SNL skit so funny that I could not stop talking about it with my colleagues, friends and students.

So it was a something of a shock to find in late 2005 a SNL skit that made me want to watch it over and over and over. However, the difference between this skit, “Lazy Sunday (aka, the Narnia rap),” and others, was that I didn't see it at home on my TV and have never seen it on my or any other conventional television set. Instead, I took up Apple's iTunes store offer to download the skit for free and watch it on my computer, which I have close to 30 or 40 times now. Indeed, the popularity of “Lazy Sunday” grew and spread quickly after this release. One Village Voice columnist asked whether or not it was “better than actual rap.”

And, to be sure, it is easy to understand why the clip was so compelling. Andy Samberg and Chris Parnell's rap may be in a “gangsta style” but it avoids many of the clichés in which so many parodies of rap indulge themselves. Instead of dressing up “like a gangster rapper,” the two performers look like everyday 20 to 35 year old guys whose favorite piece of winter attire would be an old parka layered over two old t-shirts. As the duo rap about cupcakes and sneaking food in the theater with the help of a backpack and the power of “dropping Hamiltons,” it becomes cleaer that this is one of the funnier two minutes and thirty-one seconds to appear on SNL in years.

Yet, rather than seeing it on Saturday evening and talking about it on Monday morning, I saw “Lazy Sunday” on a Tuesday, played it and replayed it, and started e-mailing friends about it on Wednesday. That difference between how I consumed an SNL sketch, so seemingly minor, was the proverbial red flag that eventually lead me to take note, admit that everything had changed and plunk down around $350 for a 60gb iPod video. In other words, this was another one of those moments that, as mentioned in my previous article, where I could no longer deny the importance of broadband networks and personal end-user technologies. What the proliferation of personal playback machines such as the Sony PSP and iPods will mean for television is still up for debate. However, for those of us who have spent a good portion of our media lives waiting for new records rather than an upcoming television series, Tuesdays have a special place in our lives. In the years that I have been buying recordings, the one thing that I can honestly say that I never thought I would anticipate buying on a Tuesday is a new television program that I could then walk around viewing on a leisurely stroll or on an airplane. Perhaps I could imagine buying a relatively “older” television program in VHS or DVD form, but not one that had come out only days ago and afford itself such mobility.

But after purchasing my video iPod and going through a variety of video programs and sources, it has become clearer and clearer just how much the convergence of media on personal playback systems needs to be thought through by reflecting on how consumers have demanded, altered and enjoyed music as the listening experience of this art form has become more and more “personalized” in the last 60 years or so. Tapes, LPs, CDs, walkmen and portable radios are part of a long history of taking great music in relatively high-resolution forms out of concert halls and into homes, dens, cars, walks and beaches that begins after World War II. So let's begin with the proposition that television will, like music, become more and more “relatively detachable.” Not only will the program be able to be deconstructed by listeners who will take these pieces anywhere and watch only the portions they enjoy, but television will begin to become composed and marketed in such as way as to satisfy this desire. It is true that television programs have found themselves becoming more and more reproducible and repeatable, as VCRs and DVRs have become standard in-home media technologies, it was also the case that their detachability was limited. You still had to wait for the program to be aired and, for the most part, these programs would be replayed at home. Indeed, in the case of first-run programming, you were still obliged to deal with a regional distributor of some sort such as an affiliate, an O&O or your local cable operator's menu of channels. And while you have been able to take “older programming” in the form of DVDs out and about while traveling, at some level you had to put up with “the rest of the show” even if you could “fast forward” or skip through chapters.


iTunes Screen Snapz

But if you can legally download your favorite segments of an SNL program rather having to wade or fast-forward through a crap skit or a rotten musical act, i.e. “filler,” then what you have is the televisual equivalent of the “single” or a “choice cut.” Indeed, among the many pleasures of owning records is being able to skip forward in them, dismiss any author's organizational intentions, and place only those songs and passages that you prefer “out of context.” From LPs to CDs and mix tapes to mash ups, whether one is taking Beethoven to the beach or making a sample of a sonata funky, “relative detachability” is a critical source of pleasure. While “slash videos” have been around for years, even the most amateur ones required relatively expensive equipment and specialized labor skills (anyone remember what a pain in the rear it was to learn physical, linear editing techniques?). Indeed, as the ability to capture and create easily distributed video proliferates as broadband usage becomes more and more common, we are getting network formations that, as Derek Kompare and Jason Mittell have pointed out, avoid the conventional geographical gatekeepers of the past. But as they are downloaded and captured they now encounter a vast array of editing technologies such as Clip Creator, an open-source, freeware program for Mac users that conveniently allows one snip and clip sections of video for analysis and exchange.


Clip Creator

For me this kind of element of jumping into, out of and around a recording is best identified as “play,” i.e. the ability to move freely within a bounded space. Just as one plays a record or a CD in a car or on one's iPod, now we are able play and play around with television on our computers and PSPs. In video game studies this kind on play that “was not anticipated by the game
designer” is, according to Jesper Juul, known as “emergent play.” Indeed, movements revolving around “emergent play” capabilities such as machinima and quirk based strategies are growing more and more popular and show no signs of letting up in video game culture. Not only am I suggesting but I firmly believe that television, with its newfound detachability, is becoming more and more playful and is something that we should embrace. To be sure, this playfulness is a potential windfall for media educators who can now make their classrooms more pleasurable by combining a couple of freeware programs with students who posess gigabyte after gigabyte of audiovisual media on portable hard drives. The close analysis that I abhorred as an undergrad and graduate student because it seemed so clunky (Steenbecks, multiple screenings, 3rd generation tapes, oh my!) is now something that students can do as they playfully engage their objects of analysis and criticism in their own dorm rooms and in travel. And while I am certain that producers will most likely react by becoming deeply concerned with limiting how we play around with their shows, the genie is out of the bottle and I plan on downloading, editing and clipping together a number of my own SNL sketch compilations and giving them out to friends and family as gifts. Lord knows they work hard, deserve a laugh or two, and should never have to suffer through the filler that is a Jon Heder monologue and an Ashlee Simpson performance to get them.

Image Credits:

1. iTunes Screen Snapz

2. iTunes Screen Snapz

3. Clip Creator

Please feel free to comment.




Let’s Get Small: The Year When the Record Industry Broke and Listeners Became Crazy, Mixed Up, Downloading, File-Sharing Freaks

EMusic

EMusic

Like so many teachers, the end of the year for me is a time to catch up. Many of you may be catching up with unviewed programming, unopened letters or unread books you started in September but had to put down once the midterms, students and committee obligations rolled in for the next 10 to 16 weeks. For me, that means looking at end-of-the-year best of lists, particularly for popular music. Compared to film and television, trends in popular music move at light speed. The relatively low amount of investment capital it takes to produce a quality set of recordings has meant that significant aesthetic movements like local music scenes and subgenres can rise and fall without making an impact on the charts or popular consciousness. What this means for someone like me, someone who doesn’t get out to live music as often as they once did or has the free time to simply explore pop music with friends and music lovers alike, is that I play catch up when I can and my month-long holiday break truly becomes that most wonderful time of the year.

And Lord knows I need that time to catch up. To paraphrase Robert Christgau, unless you are obscenely wealthy or a professional music critic you probably aren’t going to have enough time and money to follow the vast set of genres and artists that constitute contemporary popular music. Furthermore, because social networks tend to depreciate and/or stagnate in terms of variety and numbers as one ages, an inverse relationship between your age and you’re your knowledge of contemporary popular music quickly develops. Put simply, the older you are, the less likely you will know or care to know who Young Jeezy is and why he is a “Soul Survivor.” So, in finding the time to read my issues of Spin, troll the web and have some old-fashioned discussions with my local hip baristas about “what I should be listening to”, a number of issues arose. While I finally had the time to listen to those Antony and the Johnsons, Bloc Party and Clipse records that had piled up, the story of 2005 lied not so much in what one listened to, or even in the fact that there was as much good music in 2005 as I can remember. The story of 2005 didn’t even reside in how one listened to music, but in how the listeners got those recordings. In other words, as I went about my days of reading, writing and grading, the kids had not only bought new music, but there were new ways of buying music. As illegal file sharing sources such as Kazaa and WinAmp were effectively slowed down, more and more legitimate distribution networks were established. In 2004 iTunes could claim a million song catalogue and by 2005 emusic, which specializes in independent music distribution, also met the million song mark. As one Major Label A&R person told me late in the year, “We finally plugged the holes in the system.” Furthermore, not only did those iPods get smaller and smaller, more and more listeners had gone from being curious about iPods in 2004 to finding them absolutely essential only one year later. But the most important story of the year wasn’t the iPod Nano, it was that an effective infrastructure of legal file distribution was finally in place. As a result, the music industry can put a stake in the heart of disk distribution. The combination of legal networks and a significant portion of the audience walking around with 60GB hard drives meant that, sometime in the last 12 months, both audiences and industry alike uttered a collective “iacta alea est” and crossed a “technological” Rubicon.

Just like any gamble, what exactly the outcome of all of these new organizations and their effects will be on listening and production is not clear. What is clear are the numbers. And the numbers tell us that audiences are buying significantly fewer and fewer pre-recorded discs. As the radio industry website fmqb.com noted in an end-of-the-year article (December 30, 2005):

“While there’s still two more days for cash registers to ring in 2005, sales of albums in the U.S. should come in around seven percent behind last year, according to Nielsen SoundScan, however, digital downloads have more than doubled in the past twelve months.”

There was even more bad news for the disk-oriented portion of the industry, which was already in a slow, but steady decline. With the exception of the less-than-outstanding 1.9% rise in number of CD units shipped in 2004, according to the RIAA the years of 2001 (-6.4%), 2002 (-8.9%) and 2003 (-7.1%) confirm the diminishing importance of pre-recorded music. Compare this to the rise of legal downloads skyrocketing between 2004 and 2005 and one certainly does not need a crystal ball to notice that the 148% upward trend (134.2 million to 332.7 million) speaks volumes. And less than 10 days into 2006, Billboard reports that, “In the seven-day stretch between Christmas and the new year, millions of consumers armed with new MP3 players (primarily iPods) and stacks of gift cards gobbled up almost 20 million tracks from iTunes and other download retailers.”

Again, the key is not to confuse consumption with distribution. Despite what Ken Tucker claimed on a December 20th, 2005 interview on Fresh Air, it isn’t consumption that changed. People may not be buying discs, but they are buying laptops and digital music players. Lest we forget, an iPod is little more than a small but powerful record and playback device. And while “podcasting” and “TIVOing” of television may be a radical change for television and radio, concern about “time shifting” performances began to dominate the music industry beginning in the 1930s. By the late 1940s, when long play and magnetic tape recordings began to outstrip sheet music in terms of sales and industry importance, time shifting had effectively become the rule of thumb for musicians and listeners alike. This isn’t to say that the musicians thought that time shifting was good idea. In fact, they vehemently resisted in the form of two national recording bans, but that’s another story (Anderson 2004).

Myspace Music

Myspace Music

What is interesting is that artists such as Clap Your Hands Say Yeah and Annie may be the first two critically revered pop music acts to rely more so on the distribution capabilities of the internet not simply to outflank broadcast radio, but in a direct-to-listener micro fashion that effectively grants music and bands a “personalized” aura. In fact, while major labels still aim for the distributive potency of radio airplay (it’s still the only way to move a million units or more), more and more artists are utilizing various computer and Internet networking techniques for viral marketing opportunity. And these techniques are effective. For example, while my students rarely speak about radio stations, they do talk about the songs they hear through their peers online playlists and personal sites such as those found on MySpace.com. And just like a virus that you can catch simply because you briefly connected with a fellow traveler, popular music is no longer something that we need to go some specific place to hear or purchase.

(a) Clap Your Hands Say Yeah (b) Annie

What this has meant for someone like myself is that assignments I used to give in popular music classes regarding music purchasing no longer have the pedagogical impact that they once did even 5 years ago. Because more and more of us no longer go to record stores (or even frequencies on the dial), a specific musical geography is dissolving around us as the music industry has adjusted to make bricks and mortar. Over 18 months have passed since Virgin shut down a number of its US-based megastores, leaving my city of Columbus, Ohio with second tier acts such as FYE to fill the bill as a local catalogue store. At the end of December part of that second tier began to fall as Media Play, a chain associated with FYE through the holdings of Trans World, announced it would, close the doors to all 61 of its stores, including the four in the Columbus area. If poor fourth quarter reports slammed the doors of the chain shut, the poor Christmas season of 2005 was the equivalent of Snidely Whiplash throwing the chain’s possessions into the cold with one hand while changing the locks with his other. And while this Christmas season was bad for many retailers, for many music retailers it was simply beyond the pale. According to the same article,

“The biggest drop during the season was in music sales, which were down 15 percent. However, sales of electronics and other equipment were up 3 percent, he said.
The soft season comes at a time when many entertainment retailers are struggling. And the trade newspaper Billboard reported that U.S. album sales were down 10 percent in 2005, although digital sales tripled in the 53-week comparison.
Rocky Roy, owner of Music Shack in Colonie, can empathize. He said the CD and music store saw holiday-season sales decline 15 percent in December from a year ago.
I get the feeling, based on the sale of iPods, that’s going to continue,” he said.”

Indeed, that loss will continue and we should recognize that we are at the beginning of one of those unique cultural moments, a moment where we end one mode of distribution and begin another, a moment that cuts both ways. I assume I will miss my catalogue stores, look forward to my trips to San Francisco, Phoenix and New York so I can visit Amoeba, Zias and Towers, and continue to frequent a number of smaller used and specialty shops. But I can’t say this kind of longing for a media space has any place in my student’s lives. While the extinction of the large, well-stocked, colorful, multi-genre record store is inevitable in all but the most hip, urban American centers does not exactly signal the demise of a overly centralized system of control, it does make it clear that many of the centralizing forces of geography have been effectively removed. And while I may mourn the loss of the record store as an element central to the popular music experience, it is something that I hope artists and producers will continue to organize around. If we no longer have to press as many physical discs let alone pieces of cover art, then maybe our investments can get so low that we won’t have to worry so much about making a video or paying for the airplay that is so persuasive that when we see or hear it we are forced to get up, leave our houses, drive to our local Sam Goody and plunk down $15 to $19 on a CD with only two good songs. Maybe this will be one of those moments when the music industry can become, for lack of a better phrase, “fun” again, something it hasn’t been in years. And as bottom line excessive as capitalism wants us to become, perhaps we can find some time at the beginning of the post-disk era to explore what it would mean to live in a pop music world where artists and producers need not deal with those excesses that so many of us believed had become part and parcel of the music industry. Maybe we will get a chance to, like punks in the late 1970s and hip hop of the early 1980s, once again see what it means to get really small together.

Work Cited:
Anderson, Tim J., “Buried Under the Fecundity of His Own Creations: Rethinking The Stockpile, The Standing Reserve and the Recording Bans of the American Federation of Musician, 1942 to 1944 and 1948,” American Music, Summer 2004.

Image Credits:

1. EMusic

2. Myspace Music

3a. Clap Your Hands Say Yeah

3b. Annie

Please feel free to comment.




Television and the Work of Mourning

Nate Fisher Jr.

Peter Krause as Nate Fisher Jr.

“You gotta go through all of the necessary stages of grief. That’s how you honor what a person actually meant to you.” — Nate Fisher, Jr. in “In Case of Rapture”, Episode 2, Season 4 of Six Feet Under.

I had not planned on writing this column. Of course, I had planned on writing a column, just not one about missing a television series, particularly one whose episodes I can easily access on DVD and online. But you can’t always plan where life is going to take you, even when you know that a significant portion of it is coming to an end. And throughout the past five years Six Feet Under held a significant place in my life. It was that one show that I tried to never miss, the one that truly compelled me. When in 2004 Alan Ball announced he would end his HBO series fans prepared with predictions and all of the other chatter typical of fan boards. Much to my chagrin I would have to accept the loss of what one friend of mine called this “own special brand of fucked up melodrama.”

So as the fifth and final season ended with the Fisher family in mourning, we were somewhat prepared. To loyal audiences, Nate Fisher Jr.’s death wasn’t terribly shocking. After all, Nate had had a near death experience that began at the end of season 2 and carried over into the beginning of season 3. And it was never clear whether or not his Arterio-Venous Malformation was sufficiently corrected. Because the Fishers specialized in dose after dose of denial, anger, bargaining and depression, the three episodes of televised grief that followed Nate’s passing weren’t even that shocking. If anything it was appropriate that in the final episode of the final season that we see the Fishers accept the loss of Nate through an impromptu commemoration of his life. The gesture provided as much closure as one might expect from a series that specialized in providing audiences with that occasional unresolved death, the kind that reminds us that narrative is the necessary frustration for those who remain.

Six Feet Under: Nate\'s Burial

Six Feet Under: Nate’s Burial

Yet, after the series ended, what surprised me was how much I missed the show. And it wasn’t just me as friends and acquaintances acted, as if they, too, had lost a significant portion of their lives. As a media scholar, I had never underestimated the television’s significance. What pages of research and speculation had not explained to me was why I would begin to compulsively review old episodes and search for a familiar position on the couch in search of something to take Six Feet Under‘s place. Indeed, I was reminded that television, when it is important, brings to our lives a sort of mystical combination of everyday relevance and predictability that reveals the prosaic as simultaneously ordinary and illuminated. When a program is at its most noteworthy even the most pedestrian elements of life shine through. Since I moved to Ohio, Sunday night has meant that I would watch an HBO drama after my preps for Monday’s classes were finished. But Six Feet Under, more so than any other HBO “Sunday Night Program”, became a part of my life. But I am not here to praise Six Feet Under, I am here to mourn it.

Mourning, grief, that part of the human experience that most of us must endure in order to heal after a significant loss, contains complexities of memory that resist language and conventional “understanding”. Reviewing Derrida’s The Work of Mourning, Sorcha Fogerty notes that Derrida accepts:

“the challenge of making the impossible a possibility in mourning; i.e. (i) invoking the possibility of an interiorization of what can never be interiorized (in that the dead are both ‘within us’ but ‘not ours’); and (ii) establishing a language for the unspeakable work of mourning, of how to mourn and how to speak in mourning, how to contend with the intolerable choice between what appear to be the two betrayals of silence and speech. This leads to the central paradox of the work of mourning: that success fails and failure succeeds. This typically Derridean contradiction indicates that if we achieve in some way the successful interiorization (but this is impossible) of the other, we in fact fail, because then the other is no longer other, we are no longer respecting the other’s ‘otherness’ if we somehow draw the other into ourselves, And conversely, if we fail (which we are bound to), we succeed, because we have retained respect for the other as other.”

If this paradox helps explain anything with regards to television production, it may help us understand why so few spin offs of “dead programs” ever measure up to the programs whose legacy to which they are attempting add. Perhaps the failure of show like After MASH may not only be a confirmation of poor writing and less-than compelling characters as it is confirmation of the strength of its parental text. Indeed, successful spin offs effectively distance themselves from their origins: Frazier succeeds in its failure to become yet another Cheers. Frazier invoked its past, however its legacy was dependent on sufficiently exteriorizing its efficient cause so it could become something sufficiently other from its textual universe.

I don’t want to spend much time debating the above proposition. Frankly, that would be the work of a lengthier paper, and fortunately, this column is not that. I am much more interested in exploring how media institutions address the many acts of memory that are fundamental to the experience of significant loss. To be sure, television contains multiple lessons about how we deal with the past. Yet, to invoke Raymond Williams, perhaps we should continue to look at the practices of social communication to understand what the development of televisual communication systems provide us:

“The true basis of this system had preceded the developments in technology. Then as now there was a major, indeed dominant, area of social communication, by word of mouth, within every kind of social group. In addition, then as now, there were specific institutions of that kind of communication which involves or is predicated on social teaching and control: churches, schools, assemblies and proclamations, direction in places of work. All these interacted with forms of communication within the family” (1974. 14-15).

If the work of the family and the church has been the primary site where the consideration of passing and loss took place, perhaps we
need to think through what our many reactions to media change can teach us about our social status as social animals of the late 20th and early 21st century.

It is no secret that studying television we can learn how we have invested in the past. Derek Kompare points out in his book Rerun Nation that numerous historical and institutional issues have been fervently negotiated so that past television programming can be presented as a fundamental and valued commodity in American television culture. Yet the manner in which media and memory are processed go far beyond the printing of DVD box sets and the process of off-network syndication. Online spaces such as Television Heaven claim “to preserve the memory of television programmes both past and present that the writers/reviewers either consider to be true classics, or have a lasting influence on what we watch or how we view the world around us.” And TV Land’s Caught on Camera web page promises us that we can “Hear the juiciest stories, relive the most touching moments, and find out some of the quirkiest facts — all straight from the source.”

TV Land\'s \'Caught on Camera\'

TV Land’s ‘Caught on Camera’

If “celebrity reunions” provide audiences a chance to celebrate a past televisual memory, we should not forget how the verb, mourn, has an etymological connection to the Ancient Greek term mermEra, a term that means, “to care or cherish”. Such reverence is not only evident in the letter-writing campaigns and online petitions circulated by fans in attempts to save their favorite programs, but on the many chat boards. These online testaments exist are often maintained by producers with a vested interested in preserving a space for memorial. And if all this investment in “cyber cemeteries” feels just a bit uncanny, perhaps it is because there is a fine line between nostalgia and commemoration. Yet while the former longs to return home, the other is mindful that there is no possible return as it calls the past into the present, and ritualistically moves forward.

Allow for the possibility that a fan board at JumptheShark.com could act as a sort of ritual space where tribute and longing intermingle, where numerous memorial acts may be composed. Take for example, the following post about the 1980s television program, Frank’s Place, that exists on a JumpTheShark.Com board regarding the program:

“I’ve been in mourning for the past 14 years for the best show ever aired. I petitioned my cable company to have BET placed into the line-up because it was the only place where I could see Frank’s Place. Unfortunately, by the time they complied, it was no longer being shown on BET. It was intelligent and wildly funny, unlike most series with predominantly black casts on today. Wish this show would be available on DVD because a visit to the Chez would be like a trip home.”

While the quote reveals a wish to go home, we should not simply conflate it with a nostalgic longing. The post also reveals that the viewer of Frank’s Place, like the mourner who lacks photographs and letters of a loved one, lacks the convenient mnemonic devices that many loved ones utilize in order to move one through the processes of loss. Of course, I am not claiming that by observing how we react to the loss of a television show we necessarily gain a finer understanding of what it means to mourn our brothers and sisters. Rather, I do believe that an honest observation of the way we react to the expiration of a television show offers us another chance to understand the complexities involved in the institution of television as a portion of our social fabric.

All of which, brings me back to the question of what it means to “miss television”. When I informed one of my colleagues about the possibility of writing this column, she reacted by saying, “I think you should. I mean, I miss Buffy even though the final season kind of sucked and I have every available DVD.” Indeed, that was the very sentiment that confused me: even though I have every episode of Six Feet Under I still miss the show. More specifically, I miss the show’s particular rhythmic presence and ability to predictably surprise me about questions of death that I simply would have never asked.

For my money, the character I will miss the most is Nate Fisher, Jr. As the heart of the show, Nate grew from resentful to accepting over his five-season span and moved through more melodrama than anyone short of Job. Indeed, the following testimonial posted on an HBO maintained Six Feet Under fanboard indicates, I am not alone:

“Our family will really miss the Fishers this next year. For the past three years, my teenage son (while in the ninth through twelfth grades) has said that his role model for being a man is a combination of Nate and David–and I am pleased with his choice.

“Nate was a stand-up guy. He didn’t want to be a funeral director; yet, when his family’s finances were in peril, he decided do do what he didn’t wish to do — but to do the ‘right thing’ and pitch in. And he found that he was empathetic and advocated for those grieving (in his profession and in his life as well) in a unique, skilled way. He was horrified at Brenda’s betrayals but tried to understand. He ‘did the right thing’ despite not loving Lisa and married her and TRIED to love her, tried to make their marriage work, despite her distance, her obsessiveness.

“Yes, he acted like a grieving person. A theme of SFU is about how we grieve. And we behave in ‘an unusual manner’ during grief.”

Ending the post with, “Thank you for the best show we have ever seen. Thank you all.”, after substantially rehashing the past narratives, one senses that our writer has finally achieved some sense of closure, no matter how awkward and forced it may seem. But then again, so is grieving.

Work Cited:
Williams, R. (1974). Television: Technology and Cultural Form. Hanover, New Hampshire, Wesleyan University Press.

Image Credits:

1. Peter Krause as Nate Fisher Jr.

2. Six Feet Under: Nate’s Burial

3. TV Land’s ‘Caught on Camera’

Please feel free to comment.




How Much Do I Love myTunes? Allow Me to List the Ways…

From Wired Magazine’s July 2005 “Remix edition”

From Wired Magazine’s July 2005 “Remix Edition”

As interesting as Wired Magazine’s July 2005 “Remix edition” was, I couldn’t help but ask why among the celebration of hip-hop culture, slash narratives, adobe photoshop, Andy Warhol, Barbara Kruger, Machinima and Robot Chicken, the lowly “mix tape”, the one form of modified media that almost every one of my friends who are 30 or older own, was left unmentioned. Lest we forget that well before the trend over file sharing spread across Universities endowed with multiple T1 lines and gained the attention of the RIAA and MPAA, there was the practice of home taping. As far as remix culture goes, while a home mixer may never receive a praiseworthy grant or honorary degree, there aren’t too many remix practices that have inspired as much consumer passion. Of the many “compilation tapes” I made and received, those that stand out are those cassettes of songs based on a theme or determined to make an “album better”. Long before college kids were “modding out” their favorite video games with television characters they wish they could get to fight in computer-driven combat (imagine Homer Simpson with a laser rifle tracking down Spongebob Squarepants in a real-time 3D “manhunt” such as the Unreal Championship video game and you get the idea), I had made a tape of all of the one album worth of “good songs” from The Clash’s excessive, three-disc set, Sandinista! Other compilations were put together under the romantic inspirations of friendship and love. As Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth puts it in the introduction of on his latest book simply titled, The Mix Tape,

“This book can only represent one zillionth of the people out there who have made the coolest tapes for themselves or others. In that respect, it simply exists as a nod to the true love and ego involved in sharing music with friends and lovers. Trying to control sharing through music is like trying to control an affair of the heart — nothing will stop it.”

To be sure, putting together the right compilation tape, the right playlist of songs, was something of a sacred affair. As Nick Hornby puts it in his novel on obsessive record collecting, High Fidelity, “The making of a great compilation tape, like breaking up, is hard to do and takes ages longer than it might seem.”

Of course, the practice both inspired debate and industry-sponsored paranoia. Memories being what they are, allow me to remind the reader of the “Home taping is killing music” campaign. The slogan would find itself on just about every record store shopping bag and on the lips of every record fan and music lover in the US. Music journalists often asked artists their opinion of home taping and the campaign’s ubiquity became spoofed by one of the most memorable critiques of a public relation message ever launched: the “Home Fucking is Killing Prostitution” bumper sticker. And it wasn’t simply because the sticker used the “F word” that you could buy this piece of latex commentary in independent record stores. By equating the at home practices of record listeners to a rather, ahem, intense pleasure of communication, the sticker underlined the complex set of ethics that have long accompanied the “personal use” of a very “public medium.” Ever since 1940 when in the case of RCA Manufacturing Co. v. Whiteman , 114 F.2d 86, 88 (2d Cir.) the Second Circuit Court of Appeals decided that the claim of the music conductor on “common-law property in [musical] performances ended with the sale of records,” a consumer could now take his own collection of records and, as long as they had no intention of profiting from this stockpile of recordings, share them in any number of manners. In the US at least, this decision opened the door to view recordings as both a good that was at once both potentially private and social. Making a personal copy of my records to give away to friends may be legally contested, but what mattered was that it simply felt like another mode of generosity, one step removed from providing records for a party or dance. Indeed, no matter how high profile a campaign the RIAA initiates, it’s unlikely to change the fact that sharing recordings will almost always be seen as a mode of association, a form of communication that is personal and is none of the industry’s business.

Which is a long-winded way to point out that the “personalization/modification” of media by consumers has deep and entrenched connections with recordings in general. And as outmoded as the “home tape” is, your PC’s hard drive is simply another record and playback device, albeit an extremely sensitive and complex one. Of course, the kind of personal affection that inspired the compilation tape has found its way onto a whole new set of technologies. With the proliferation of mp3 players, CD burners and cheap CD-Rs the art of the mix is practiced now more than ever. Given the fact that the high end iPod now sports a 60gb hard drive that can hold well over 10,000 songs and work in concert with PCs and Macs, as programs such as WinAmp and iTunes that encourage listing and burning, the production of CDs with personalized playlistings has reached a new level. Uniting these technologies with file sharing programs, and the proliferation of DSL capabilities and you more of less have a supercharged in-home music publishing technology in every middle-class American home and office.

So what does a music industry that has been based on the sale of discs of some sort since the late 1940s do? Well, adapt of course. For one, this sort of adaptation has meant less of an emphasis on the direct promotion of discs and more on their indirect promotion through the licensing and cross-promotion of properties. Most specifically this has meant that the role of the music supervisor for any film or television program has become an even more important gatekeeper than it was before. When a company licenses the synch rights that place a band’s song on The OC it is doing the double duty of generating revenue and distributing their commodity. For example, after the screening of the much-hyped finale of Six Feet Under prominently featured Sia’s “Breathe Me” in the final few minutes in a sort of “montage of death” music video. The day after, the “soundtrack” to the show vaulted to the number two position on Amazon sales chart.

A Soundtrack Cover for Six Feet Under

A Soundtrack Cover for Six Feet Under

But moving units is only one method. The second includes the gradual co-optation of personalization, specifically the act of “playlisting.” MTV2 has produced Playlistism, a program which claims to feature “fans and bands talking about what’s on their mp3 playlists as well as the hottest new gear for your m3 player.” But most aggressive by far has been Apple. In its continual quest to commodify taste and style, the company most responsible for the success of personal mp3 players in 2004 launched both a paper and internet version of a music magazine simply titled Playlist through Mac Publishing, LLC. As a place where readers can learn about new portable media technologies, review submitted playlists, and access the occasional free mp3, the magazine conveniently provides a place to integrate consumer desires with the abilities of both its soft and hardware. And even more interesting is the manner in which Apple’s iTunes store regularly features “celebrity lists”, playlists that are ostensibly compiled and annotated by the likes of Tommy Lee, Robert Rodriguez, Bobby Brown, Nicole Kidman, Al Franken, both Brooks and Dunn, Kathy Griffin, Gus van Zant, Howie Mandel and so on. And if for some reason you care what Mr. Mandel has chosen for his listening pleasure, or you find his explanation for listing the Foo Fighter’s “Best of You” convincing, you too can simply download the song from the iTunes for your iTunes player at a convenient 99 cents a pop. At which time, theirTunes become yourTunes and what was once a practice dreaded by the music industry becomes a licensed mode of distribution. And what was once sacred, is now simple, convenient and profane.

Image Credits:
1. From Wired Magazine’s July 2005 “Remix Edition”

2. A Soundtrack Cover for Six Feet Under

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