Friday, January 3, 2020

i stream you stream we all stream

Here's a piece I did for last weekend's Guardian Guide looking back at the last decade's popular culture - music and TV -  focused on how streaming is eroding the idea of a mainstream, as we all follow on our own increasingly individualized streams that thread through the flood of content. The result is not so much the disintegration of the Monoculture as the de-synchronization of the Monotemporality: a swarm of micro-publics all tied to their own timeline.

My original headline was "Scattered and Shattered".

A scatter of further thought-shards from myself...

Lured down the path of least resistance (oh so convenient) I use Spotify (along with YouTube and Bandcamp etc) as the primary way of listening to things, unless I've been sent them as files, and even then sometimes it's just easier to stream. (A lifetime's worth of records and CDs lie inert in their vastness: I've even downloaded things I already own rather than be obliged to move my butt from this chair).

But I find streaming in general and Spotify in particular unsatisfying in a way that’s hard to explain...  The nearest I can get is that it feels like the music isn’t really going in.  Or that it passes right through me, like water (which is one reason why the utility analogy - piped music - feels so apt). That’s possibly down to the fact that I’m nearly always doing something else on the computer while listening, so that the concentration-pie is divided.  Streaming tends to turn music - even the most lively or attention-grabbing - into background listening.

But the lack of a public dimension is also part of the disconnection feeling. Radio feels realer somehow - more social, less atomised. A record that is getting increasing radio-play feels like an unfolding event within popular desire. And when you grow to like that record you feel like are converging with unknown others in social space.

Radio also liberates the listeners from the burden of having to choose (okay, it's true you'll often flick to a different station in the hopes of hearing a tune you like better - but that's as close to a toss of the coin as it is a purposeful act of navigation within the sound library).  For sure, there are algorithms at work in streaming that attempt to tune into your sonic libido and do the selecting for you. I find that the archival surfeit provokes in me a neurotic drive to master the flux, by building enormous playlists of genres or clustered artists, that once assembled would take a day or two to listen through. These playlists are almost always then immediately forgotten and never returned to, although catching sight of them from the corner of my eye as I assemble another never-to-be-played playlist I experience a shuddery twitch of self-disgust.

Talking about self-disgust, Andrew Parker chips in with a thought about the audio-cornucopia:

"Looking at my hard drive and seeing all the music files I've collected over the year is like walking into room flooded with my own vomit. I feel ashamed as I recognise almost all of it and know that it was only partially digested before being expelled."

Haha! In my case, the shame is the arrayed accumulation of things acquired but never unzipped - and the frequency of non-recognition: what the hell was that then, and why did I download it?

Andrew also mentions how his music-processing speed has massively gone up, his ability to extract nutritive-value from something in a single listen. I do think most civilian consumers are now in the position that critics and DJs (radio and club) have been in since forever, getting tons of stuff and learning to how to sift based on a single or partial listen. But with streaming etc it’s even more overwhelming the amount of music / TV that is available and you fall into an even faster browse/sift mode since you don’t even have to take things out of their packaging, place them on turntables or insert them into CD players…

On an earlier occasion of discussing these sort of issues here, an Anonymous Commenter suggested acidly that there was a kind of puritanism lurking behind the worries about the musical glut / gluttony. On the contrary, I asserted, these complaints are really coming from a completely opposite place: anxiety about the loss of pleasure, the dulling of aural sensuality. It's more based in a kind of "home economics" of the libido / psyche: excess of supply causes demand to wane and wither. Music fandom defeats itself.

You don't have to regard gluttony as one of the seven deadly sins to be wary of it - it might be unhealthy physiologically or emotionally.  There are reasons not to do the audio equivalent of stuffing 18 chocolate eclairs down your gullet in quick succession.  For instance, trying to listen to the complete works of an artist in a single chronological listen removes the interval in which digestion can take place - and which, in historical real-time, involved gaps of a year or more, multiple replays of the work in question etc. You can't really reconstruct that experience nowadays, but you can at least leave a gap between masterworks, before ploughing on into the next one.

If a truly profound art of listening could find an infinity in a single piece of music listened to for the rest of one's life and nothing else ... the inverse seems to imply a logical outcome in the other direction. A near-infinity of listening (both in amount and variety) available to you as individual, without any impediments of cost or effort, will lead to the ultimate form of undeep listening... pre-fatigued ears skim across everything in a futile attempt to take it all in.

There's disorientation too: Pelle Snickars, co-author of  Spotify Teardown: Inside the Black Box of Streaming Music, has talked about the downside of audio clutter: how you "lose track of your tracks". (Of course, that happened with the solid-form modes of music commodity, but there is something about the absolute inconspicuousness of immaterial sound, whether in your hard drive or in the cloud, that makes it easier to not-see and soon-forget).

But I know people have many other - and completely opposite - experiences with streaming.  And yes, there's a generational aspect.

Living with a TV journalist means that I see these syndromes play out in another field of entertainment that's been absolutely transformed by streaming. But most people are familiar with the downsides. The dither-inducing dizziness of all those options, a Tinder-ization of culture as you flick through deferring the moment of commitment - the decision on how to spend time, invest your leisure capital. Desultory browsing suddenly galvanised in the potlatch splurge of the binge session, the delirious release from choice through submission to the crack-fiend commitment to a single storyline and set of characters... knowing exactly what you'll be doing for the next X number of hours or days. (The uneasy laugh of recognition off of this Portlandia sketch about the couple who consume an entire series in one sleepless jag and then - in severe withdrawal - pressure a man they mistakenly believe to be the show’s creator to perform new episodes just for their own private delight).

Further, even more stray and shard-like thoughts...

Awards Ceremonies were never such a big deal in the past, were they? I don't remember watching a single one in my UK youth. Like the phone-in voice contests and the reality eliminations, these ceremonies are re-constitutions of the General Public, running counter to the centrifugal tendencies of everything else going on. Mark Fisher wrote and spoke about this, even saw something hopeful in it.

I wonder what Mark would have thought about the spread across all the end-of-year lists of what is effectively (regardless of genre or sonic specifics) a new singer-songwriter ethos...  recordings approached and analysed and felt largely as literary expressions... narratives of self, social comment, political stances and statements, representations of identity, thematic links  ....  the criticism surrounding it somewhat more attentive to sound and rhythm than Paul Nelson's purely literary appreciation of  Jackson Browne in Stranded, but fundamentally coming from the same place, the same understanding of how popular music works and what it's for.  Today, listening to and reading about this kind of album (fucking Norman Fucking Rockwell the supreme example), it feels like what's going on between artist and critics is a performance of  Importance and Seriousness - Masterpiece Theater you could call it - one that harks back achingly to a time when such major statements could be presumed to be of universal significance. In that sense, true retro rather than surface retro (although NFR is laden with the surface kind too, while Weyes Blood is a singer-songwriter era reeanctment).

The thought of Mark's scorn is a painful pleasure, since we'll never know how he would have worded it or what insights he'd have filleted from the middlebrow morass. He probably would have felt similarly about much of the quality TV of our time - the "must-see" stuff where the "must" connotes not so much "compulsive" as "compulsory"  - claiming our attention via an appeal to a vague dutifulness, the necessity to keep abreast of Important Statements.

I suspect Mark would have felt this kind of thing to be the diametric opposite of "pulp modernism", i.e. mass entertainment of a seemingly escapist and purely spectacular type (escapist even when dystopian), within which are secreted  concepts and philosophical-political thought-bombs - arguably all the more potent for being inveigled into minds that are not already primed to be edified or "challenged".

He would instinctively have been supportive of the kind of movies and TV that only get nominated for awards in technical categories like special effects, editing, lighting, etc.

He'd probably have liked Chernobyl though - for the science-fiction-NOW landscapes of catastrophe.

Others (including the missus) have noted the rise of culture/entertainment that feels like work (or homework). No wonder so many are going truant, returning to vegetative modes of watching that are purely relaxing (as with the popularity of Friends reruns, even used by some as a sleep aid). 

What will the next decade bring? Sometimes I imagine a sort of attention recession. An involuntary, reflexive reaction of withdrawal on the part of consumer-spectactors.  Appetite and interest wane to almost nothing in response to the escalating overload, as supply vastly exceeds conceivable demand. Turn off, tune out, and drop away.

For my own part, as I sit on the sofa, eyes arrested by some new accomplishment in art-TV,  I sometimes remember my teenage self discovering the work of the Situationists - theorists of boredom who coined the concept of “the spectacle” to characterize the passivity and isolation of mass media.

At the end of day, it doesn't really matter whether what you watch is quality or garbage, enlightening or vegetative: it's all TV, a way of taking your mind off your problems (even when you are informing yourself about other people's problems, or past problems). Your butt is stuck in the sofa either way. Real life is elsewhere. And so is politics.

Which is a reminder also that all of the above is among the least pressing of our problems heading into the 2020s.


Fernando Ramírez Ruiz said...

Well, for me at least, these problems are not that small. I really think culture retromania and reactionary politics are linked. A friend of mine the other day wrote that in 2002 new years eve in Cuba, on the radio, a Benny Moré song of the fifties was declared "Song of the year". Which I link to images in my mind of Nicolás Maduro dancing salsa (he´s known to dance salsa a lot) And of people I know who will leave a party if there is no salsa. And their expat friends, also salsa lovers of course. They are AMLO supporters and I can picture the foreign correspondents who cheered on AMLO without criticism, fitting in with the salsa crowd and working hard learning about mexico´s economic and political problems by reading books on mexican cooking on their hamacas. Turns out AMLO isn´t a progressive, he is actually conservative in many ways and no doubt he is a demagogue with a very dangerous authoritarian streak. Some on the left are finally finding that out, like in this New Republic article:

" It is worth pointing out that much of what is currently unfolding in Mexico was predicted. AMLO has outlined his policy aims and political beliefs for years in prior, unsuccessful presidential campaigns. And still, much like Hugo Chávez and Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega, he was broadly supported by left-leaning and even moderate public commentators in Mexico and abroad—quite a few of whom, just a year into his term, are backpedaling on the views they expressed before the election.

Latin American leftists, and their many supporters in academia and the media abroad, urgently need to explore why this keeps happening and what policy proposals and values progressives in the region stand for in the twenty-first century. Opportunist populism is not a coherent ideology."

It keeps happening because of the salsa I tell you, and i¨m sure there would be no Trump without the sequelisation of movies.

Carl Jung linked nazism to the lack of processing of the "anima" in german culture and whatever stuff needs to be processed in the american unconscious it won´t get processed in sequels or reruns I´m sure.

Kamil said...

Hello. Will you post your favorite albums of the year 2019 and of the decade?


soon, yes. a meagre aural haul of bliss this year though

seekenee said...

I think the next level for streaming will be voice command hi fi quality

Anonymous said...

Phil Knight sez:

The opposite of this is when Soviet dissidents used to press their own Beatles records on discarded x-rays:

These things were elicitly distributed and cherished like gold.

Lots of analogies for what is going on in contemporary culture, but really it is the old problem of abundance. A similar thing has happened with food - the sheer surfeit of it hasn't made people healthier, or improved the quality of the average person's cuisine. It's quite the opposite really.

Another analogy is the course of a river. As the original stream progresses it slows, becomes more congested with silt, until you arrive at the mud and grime and stasis of the docks. In many ways I think the idea of the advent of digital and streaming technology changing the way we process and experience culture is a bit unidirectional for my taste. I think there is more of a dual process going on - that as the cultural artefacts accumulate, so this in itself incentivises the search for technical solutions to maintain distributional efficiency. I'm not sure that Spotify would have made any sense in 1956, even if the technology had been available to enable it. As the cultural silt builds up, so you need to build the sluices and the dredgers.

But the best analogy I can think of is the invention of agriculture. We have moved from cultural hunter-gathering to cultural farming, in which the tribal group-bonds, the thrill of the chase, the quickening of the pulse, the great but irregular feasts, the reliance on instinct, the epic tales, the legendary warriors, are all replaced by sedentary regularity, certainty, comparative plenty, agglomeration, storage and distribution.

I think you are correct that people will move away from this. I already think that pop culture is a trailing indicator of social trends rather than a leading one. This is already being acknowledged by the semi-ironical and yet despairing trope of "the bubble", whose inmates, who once had the world at their fingertips, realise that they are unable to leave.

Kamil said...

Sorry to hear that, but anyway i'm waiting for it :)


the river / delta / silt is a good one

i used a similar riparian one at the start of Retromania - about the formation of oxbow lakes as the silt makes the river flow more sluggish

the agriculture one is also appropriate

'the bubble' - well i definitely feel like a creature of another age.... although i use many of the new facilities and platforms, they don't sit right with me, don't suit my cultural metabolism which was formed during the analogue distance/delay scarcity economy...

people who grew up within the new thing seem to be doing fine with it ... and judging by my kids, music is still a vector of excitation and also identity formation for many young people, especially in the area of sexual and gender identity

but you could right that music is just reflecting changes that it is trailing behind and not actually instigating, which is how things felt in the 60s/70s/80s/90s-still - that music was right at the core of change and in some way the motor for it, or the privileged medium for effecting it

Fernando Ramírez Ruiz said...

¿Streaming media brings a deluge of content or a deluge of content brings streaming media? ¿Salsa brings tropical dictators or is it the other way around? Carl Jung said there was a big trend of people trying to avoid pregnancy before the pill arrived, and he said it before the pill, i think he actually died before the pill.

Anonymous said...

Phil Knight sez:

Well there's the phenomenon of multiple discovery:

Certain ideas or concepts are "in the air" at particular points in history, and they emerge simultaneously in various places.

More generally, people tend to see technology as a monologue. There is the utopian monologue, in which humans create technology to control their world, and the dystopian monologue which sees technology as an amoral force that becomes the master of its creators.

It may be that what we have is a dialogue, in which humans and their technology interact with neither being fully the master or fully the servant.

Fernando Ramírez Ruiz said...

Yes, more like a dialogue. An utopian monologue vision misses the fact that humans rely on technology to make technology. And with AI maybe one of the sides of the dialogue will get on steroids...