Monday, April 25, 2011

The Obsolete Savant

A few nights ago I was at my local when the song “Fool in the Rain” began to play which, of course, led to a conversation with a slightly drunk patron about Led Zeppelin. One of the more mundane conversations that I had had on the subject, neither of us had any controversial statements to make (one of the most famous is the age old proclamation that “Led Zeppelin is overrated.”). Both of us liked the song. Both of us liked the band. Both of us believed that the album from which the song came (In through the Out Door) was decent enough, while certainly not as strong as their earlier albums.

“There were some good songs on that album,” he said. “’D’yer Mak’er’ is one of my favorites.”

“That’s off Houses of the Holy,” I told him.

“No. It’s off of In through the Out Door,” he asserted.

“I’m 99.44 percent certain sure that it’s off of Houses of the Holy,” I said in a tone which attempted to be authoritative but non-combative and non-condescending.

“No. I’m pretty sure it was In through the Out Door,” he stubbornly added.

As we had just met, he had no reason to believe me and doubt his own memory. He didn’t know about my collection of classic records, my memory for facts, my obsessive attention to the minutest details. He didn’t know of the late-night calls I frequently received from drunken friends to settle bar bets about who played what on what and so forth. I’m not bragging. In fact, I’m not sure this something worth bragging about.

Forgoing a long drawn out debate, I pulled out my smart phone, pulled up the Wikipedia page for Houses of the Holy, and showed it to him. He conceded and the conversation casually meandered elsewhere. No hours of bickering. No bringing up dozens of tangentially related facts in order to prove our expertise to each other with neither side willing to back down until finally agreeing to disagree, but not really because it would still be gnawing at us and every newcomer to the bar would be asked to weigh in to support one of our sides. No, we solved it in a matter of seconds and that was it. After so brief a battle, the victory was hollow.

What was the victory, anyway? To have recalled information that anyone with a computer or smart phone would be able to instantly access? The guy didn’t even seem impressed.

Today one does not need knowledge; one simply needs the ability to access it. With the internet available nearly everywhere on all sorts of devices, most people have that ability at any given time. One simply needs to be able to plug into this collective consciousness and pulls whatever morsel of data that is needed out of the digital ether.

I’m not saying that this makes us a nation of idiots. And it is important to note that this kind of paradigm brings with it issues of its own and a whole different skill set. The internet, that wonderful repository for all discovery, philosophy, epistemology, and pornography also includes vast amounts of hearsay, illogical arguments, un-cited quotes, and straight-up stupidity. It requires diligence to sift through this mess to find verifiable information. In fact, it’s the same kind of diligence required of any kind of research. Cross referencing and citation checking may seem a bit tedious to the modern internet surfer, but as concerned citizens of the digital frontier, it is imperative to use these new digital stockpiles of information fully and responsibly. That said, in a pinch Wikipedia is generally all one needs to quickly, easily, and reliably determine what album “D’yer Mak’er” was on(while nothing online is infallible, Wikipedia is pretty good for basic facts, and for things to be posted, it does require citation).

I guess what makes me the sad is the fact that people like me are simply not needed anymore. In years before the wisdom of the ages could be instantly accessed from the cloud, experts served a very particular function, to maintain the knowledge that others did not have the time, energy, or desire to acquire, either because they had more pressing concerns or perhaps they actually had social lives. Today, they don’t need some geek like me.

Worse, no longer are we simply unneeded, but more, we are largely undesirable. Who wants to have some guy around who slavishly dissects liner notes, pours through musicians’ biographies, and spends hours researching obscure session men? These loner geek-savants tend to make rather trying and creepy company. Now no longer kept on retainer to settle the odd bar bet, we mostly engage one another, finding weaknesses and exploiting them in games of geeky one-upsmanship.

I still maintain that, as good as smart phones are, the geek savant will be able to supply more information and faster. Not only will the geek savant tell you what album the song was off of, but the name of the session guy who played violin on the track, and what obscure band he used to be in with a guy who later played drums in Wings. However, while beating the machine in such a decisive way would be a point of pride with the geek savant, most normal people would probably rather take a few extra seconds to Google something than be inundated with all of the other extraneous information.

Most people would simply be glad to know that such information is accessible should want to find it at some point, and also comfortable knowing that they most likely never will.

But I argue that there are hazards involved with relying on the information simply being in the cloud, even beyond the apocalyptic fear that the whole system may someday collapse, plummeting us all into the dark ages before e-mail, Facebook and internet porn. The main concern should be the fact that the ability to remember vast quantities of facts tends to involve mind mapping and contextualization, which not only act as mnemonic devices, but also give weight to the information. Simply accessing facts may lead to a less critical eye when assessing information and determining its validity and importance. The bigger picture could be lost.

I am not writing this to say that everyone should start pouring through tomes about musicians, songwriters and producers (hell, I’ve even heard that there are other things to learn about beyond music). This way of thinking is not for everyone. In fact, we are aware of being different and our undeserved feeling of superiority comes from that fact that we know more than others (care to) know. But please don’t throw us under the bus because of this. We still serve a function. We’ll still tell you want you want to know and a little bit more of what you were unaware that you needed to know. Don’t abandon us for the new toy.

Friday, April 8, 2011

A Steaming Cup of "Friday"

I feel like the subject of Rebecca Black, the new teen-phenom-in-training, and her opus “Friday,” has been exhausted by now. Younger and more in touch people have weighed in over a month ago and I expect that I am probably the last to offer my two cents. In fact, I really hope that I am. Originally, I watched the video out of curiosity. After all, it was being described as the worst song of all time, and I guess I just had to see it. After I watched it, I debated for a while about whether I would even bother to put down an opinion, which would be a open admission that I actually sat through four minutes of adolescent treacle instead of pursuing loftier things. I decided to let it rest.

This was until I saw that Stephen Colbert was to perform the song on Jimmy Fallon’s show. Clearly this phenomenon was now bigger than the adolescent girl who made the song and the pathetic teenage boys who took the time to write online comments urging Black to “get an eating disorder” or “die.” (Frankly I believe those comments should instead be directed at Ark Music Factory, the company that wrote the song and sold it to Black’s parents for two grand.) To be sure, I don’t like the song. I hardly think that even needs to be said. To be honest, I would be wary of any thirty-something males who do. Which is why I was so surprised and dismayed that Colbert, backed by the Roots, performed a special arrangement of the song on Fallon’s Friday night show, potentially giving the song more cultural weight (ironic as their performance was) and greater longevity.

I feel about “Friday” the same way I feel about “2 Girls, 1 Cup”: If it’s not your thing, don’t watch it. If you aren’t a preteen girl with a taste for sugary pop, don’t watch “Friday.” If you aren’t a far-out fetishist fecalpheliac, don’t watch “2 Girls, 1 Cup.” These are two internet sensations that became popular because of the horror that they inspired in an unintended audience.

But in spite of the fact that I belong to neither of the aforementioned demographics, I have seen both. They simply blew up in such a way that I felt that I was somehow disconnected from the reigning popular culture if I didn’t experience both of these things. In fact, I probably didn’t have to, and probably shouldn’t have. I don’t feel scarred by either of the experiences (but if I had to choose, I would probably say that I found Ms. Black’s video more disturbing), but found them both tremendously unnecessary. Both of those videos should have remained mercifully in obscurity.

The view count of “Friday” on YouTube is now pushing 90 million, but in spite of the fact that the number of views do not count as votes of approval (there are nearly 2 million “dislikes”, and only a quarter million “likes”, while the rest didn’t bother to vote), Rebecca Black has become famous. I feel slightly guilty knowing that I am 1/90,000,000th responsible for that. I added, in a small way, to its popularity, or at least infamy. I was even hesitating to write this piece because I thought it would further contribute to her notoriety if I thought for a second that anyone was actually reading this.

YouTube provides a way to satisfy our curiosity in the latest viral internet phenomena in a way that can be anonymous without making any type of monetary investment. This is especially convenient in the cases of videos such as “2 Girls, 1 Cup” and “Friday” when we know in advance that what we are going to see is a lot of shit.

For the most part, it was a combination of ridicule, indignation, and curiosity that made the song and video popular. Consequently, whether we like it or not, we will be hearing more from Rebecca Black. What direction her career will take is anyone’s guess. Will she go the Ashley Simpson route and find a degree of unearned success just through sheer marketing, or will she actually prove to have some artistic voice of her own (unlikely)? Or will she simply record an album that will end up in the bargain bins next to William Hung’s CD by the end of the year (see how old I am? I’m talking about CDs for shit’s sake!).

Seeing Colbert perform it made realize just how big it has become and how inescapable it is. Even we old farts can’t ignore it. Maybe if we had ignored it, not let our morbid curiosity get the best of us, maybe it would have remained what it was supposed to be, a frivolous video for a thirteen year old girl to show to her friends. As if its internet success wasn’t enough, in Colbert’s and the Roots’ hands, the song has been given a new treatment and an even bigger platform than it had before. But who knows? Maybe, hopefully, this will be the last word.

I will give Colbert and the Roots credit: they polished that turd to a shine, and as far as viral internet videos are concerned, I’m glad they recreated “Friday” instead of “2 Girls, 1 Cup.”