I YEARN for that era where “Rock Star” was still a term that had Romantic connotations, when it was more than a hollow modifier that heads on the tube use only to describe only Mick Jagger and Barack Obama. Instead, I nostalgize a (honestly, maybe a nonexistent) past where primal charisma, jagged lyrics, and the perception of one man as being at the helm of a band were culturally meaningful. Yes, of course, Mick Jagger, but also David Bowie. Bob Dylan. James Brown. John Lennon. Robert Plant. Bruce Springsteen. These were Rock Stars.
I’ll be the first to admit that Rock Stars are fallible and aren’t usually brilliant, systematic thinkers. John Lennon’s grasp of some cultural elements was as facile and undercooked as today’s overt political commitments from Thom Yorke. But the former was absolutely vital to the zeitgeist in a way that renders Radiohead’s concern over carbon footprints absurd. To disagree is to overlook the fact that, as much I love all the artistic peripherals and intricacies of a Radiohead album, buying the Kid A: Special Edition was a niche consumer choice, never a culturally monumental event. Unlike, say, being there for Sgt. Pepper… or Plastic Ono Band).
But the Rock Star horizon was erased before I was even a toddler. Take your pick of those dreadful 80’s bands that soaked themselves in insignificant excess (Journey, Mötley Crüe, etc.), who would even pretend to treat those hacks as icons? Thus, “We” have not even memory of the death of the Rock Star.
No, the musical form that has suffered an ignominious demise before our generation’s eyes is the Album itself. With the advent of iTunes, tracks reduced to a la carte purchases in their most convenient form, and the emergence of sleeker hardware and faster internet connections, the physical record—a plastic artifact with cover art and liner notes—is useless. Sure, they may work if one likes a sub-genre like free-form rock, post-rock or freak folk. But these are outliers.
What’s an artist who still makes Albums to do?
Most are not concerned with this type of “meta” question. After all, most songwriters and bands are struggling for mere survival (I’ll let Houston Marchman explain that to you in “Viet Nashville”). They haven’t the wealth or the status to contemplate and control, in real time, the cultural impact of their music. But remnants from the era of mega-dollar record contracts, radio airplay, and sales measured in actual records/tapes/CDs still have some measure of influence. U2, the Rolling Stones, Madonna, Coldplay, and the Foo Fighters sell out arena-sized venues and, though diminished by new technology, still have creative clout. But, aside from focusing on their own work, they seem to just “do their own thing” and are not overtly concerned about the state of music (creation and consumption) in our culture.
Some have tried fight this present age. In one humiliating episode, Metallica sued their fans and taught the music industry to stand athwart history (and technology) yelling, “Stop!” Metallica was angry that the internet provided a platform where consumers could steal music without regard to ever having to, you know, pay for it. But their strategy was clumsy: rich rock stars complaining about declining revenue isn’t effective, even if your appeal is aimed at protecting the livelihoods of (considerably less well-off) roadies, technicians, and producers.
Radiohead, the last band standing from the British re-invasion of America in the mid ‘90s, also took a stab at dealing with the challenge of piracy, but in the opposite direction: they let their fans choose what to pay for their record, In Rainbows, to muddled financial results. Financially muddled or not, the creative destruction of the market continues with a new figurehead, Trent Reznor.
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AS AN adolescent, hearing Broken and The Downward Spiral introduced me to the experience of cultural transgression. Cuts from those records felt dirty, dangerous, thrilling to hear, and unlike anything else available. Between the cover art, the packaging of the discs, and the brutal creativity of the beats and hooks, it was irresistible.
Those records became the templates for other bands, and the genres from which NIN borrowed (disco, post-punk, thrash, new wave, industrial), were not treated with the same aesthetic acumen. The next successive generations of corporate rock raped and pillaged and ended up writing a lot of ineffective screeds about half-hearted suicidal thoughts, their mothers, and the girlfriends who “just don’t get them.”
Now Trent Reznor (a.k.a. the NIN entity) has chosen not only to discard the current model of album distribution, but to also take a theses-pounding approach to musical Reformation. Reznor is responding to the habits of musical consumption and experimenting with exactly how to take his product and (re)engage his audience. The consequence has been to hold onto the concept of the Album, albeit with a relaxed grip, and simultaneously to encourage an interactive and democratic promiscuity between himself and his listeners.
In the past two years, Reznor has released two Nine Inch Nails LPs (Year Zero and The Slip), a remix compilation of Year Zero (Y34RZ3R0R3M1X3D), the instrumental Ghosts I-IV, and produced Saul Williams’ The Inevitable Rise and Liberation of Niggy Tardust. Year Zero and its remix fulfilled Reznor’s contract with Interscope Records and, given the his nasty feud with Interscope that culminated in the Australia incident (“steal it … steal and steal and steal some more”), it was clear there was only going to be an “I” in NIN.
Beginning with the 2007 release of William’s Niggy Tardust, all of Reznor’s music has been posted on the WWW—in various forms and for various amounts of cash—as soon as production has wrapped. What separates Reznor from Radiohead and, in fact, signals his interest in breaking with the traditional “album” form has been how he has released the post-Interscope material: Reznor offers consumers the ability to download, directly, the files in the 320kbps LAME format and that are not regulated by a Creative Commons license. Essentially, he’s giving the music away (or selling Ghosts I-IV for a mere $5) in high-fidelity files and expecting people to steal and reuse, remix (repeat) what he’s sent to their Gmail.
And here we find the post-album turn: Niggy Tardust through the The Slip are expected to be experienced in their released form, but that form is merely a first draft. People are expected to take the layers of data and reform the music in their own image. Thus, the turn hinges on the relationship between Reznor and his consumers. Reznor is still vital in this equation, but instead of being an artist that births a fully-developed “album,” he has the option of distributing his work as an assortment of embryos and bits of genetic material (like Ghosts I-IV) and let all those products evolve and change inside the audience-as-surrogate.
In this move, Reznor not only alters the status of the album, but also reassesses the position of Rock Star. Instead of his identity depending solely upon “his” performance of “his” material, he now operates as a cultural patron of the arts. He takes the rhythms, lyrics, beats, vibes, hooks, and grooves that gestate in his head and converts those neurons to zeroes-and-ones in the laptop. There is still enormous power in his position; the “tyranny” of the author is always inherent in the first draft. But now his status as Rock Star is not some sort of musical messiah, but rather his Rock Star is creative fountainhead and aural apostle of what is emptied from him.
Reznor spent the ‘90s transgressing norms in the content of his music; he’s spent the last two years transgressing the very form of music. To this end, Reznor is at the head of the post-album turn. But there are two other notable, though less influential and ambitious, figures playing a role in this phenomenon worthy of consideration: mash-up wunderkind Greg Gillis, better known as Girl Talk, and beat-murderer of the rap game Lil’ Wayne.
Feed the Animals, Gillis’ latest offering, is a perfect circle of samples and, like its predecessor, both a cultural Rorschach test and an hour-long “how hip are you?” interrogation (ummm … yes, that’s 50 Cent on Cat Stevens and The Cardigans on Hot Chip). Gillis’ method is an anarchic/anachronistic riff on what Reznor is demanding from his audience in the post-album era. Gillis’ is an example of Reznor’s “ideal listener” because he’s taking content produced by the cultural patrons and creative class and inventing his own recontextualized spin on the original material–weaving and layering beats and hooks together that culminate in his spectacular and debauched live shows.
In this limited way, Girl Talk assists in ushering in the post-album age. Sure, Night Ripper and Feed the Animals are “albums” insofar as they exist as bookended, coherent sets of singles. But on a functional level they exist, instead, as enticement to other types of consumers to create more exotic mash-ups and invitations to one damn good party.
Lil’ Wayne’s Dedication/Drought series shares with Reznor its insurgent distribution method: free records for the fiends who steal it anyway. In the interim between 2005’s Tha Carter II, Wayne gave away Dedication 2 and Drought 2 and 3, in anticipation of June 2008’s Tha Carter III. Dedication/Drought subverted the “Album form by beingcollages that could pass for stand-alone, but were instead advertised as cock-teases for the eventual (and long-delayed) release of Tha Carter III.
The Wayne mixtapes resemble Girl Talk by demonstrating Wayne as another form of Reznor’s “idea listener.” In this case, though, Wayne doesn’t focus on the details of reshaping and reforming rhythms and sounds of his samples. Rather, he takes extended samples from rival, contemporary singles (MIMS, Purple Ribbon All-Stars, Rick Ross, Three 6 Mafia, etc.) and with your standard-issue hip-hop bravado, raps over them. Why? Because he knows his flow and associations are better. Obviously, this technique is ubiquitous in hip-hop; diss tracks and sampling are foundational to the genre. But in the hands of (enjoying-a-few-moments-of-his-15-minutes) Wayne, and in the context of the advent of Reznor’s questioning the forms of music consumption, the mixtapes are urgent examples of how artists are developing was to adapt to today’s landscape. They not only create, but also revise the work of others.
In the case of Wayne, he still creates within the old model, as well. Look no further than Tha Carter III. It’s a competent record. Highlights include the wildfire singles “Lollipop” and “A Milli,” but it’s also worth the money for “Dr. Carter,” the Jay-Zed “Mr. Carter,” “You Ain’t Got Nuthin” with Fabolous and Juelz Santana, and the Al Sharpton assault (over Nina Simone’s “Please Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood”).
Yet, for all the exuberance and flashes of excellence in Tha Carter III, ultimately the form it takes is regressive and should only be assessed as a respectable “album,” not as anything visionary (as an album or post-album experiment). Don’t get me wrong, “A Milli” is as hot as hell, but no more so than “I Feel Like Dying” or the Nas-rooted hook on “President.” Perhaps a bold post-album strategy for Wayne would have been to keep promising III and simply release mixtapes for the remainder of his tenure as “best rapper alive.” The incidental lesson to learn was “who cares if Tha Carter III drops if this is what keeps hitting the net for free?”
By no means is Reznor and Company’s journey into post-albumism the inevitable and inescapable future. It isn’t. It probably isn’t even the “first draft” of the project. But with pop music in ruins because of the industry’s insistence on irrelevance and technology’s conversion of the music collection from the real to the virtual, at least this is moment of resistance and imagination.
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