For Tuesday’s Berkman lunch, we’re blessed with a visit from DJ, blogger and ethnomusicologist Wayne Marshall, one of my favorite chroniclers of the future of digital culture. His talk is titled “The Unstable Platforms and Uneasy Peers of Brave New World Music“, a title that we could probably spend an hour unpacking.
Wayne’s talk is timely, perhaps, because of the current attention to the events of Wikileaks cablegate and the takedown of Wikileaks from Amazon. “What people take to be public platforms turn out to be anything but, and our spaces for free speech are not necessarily so free.” They’re unpredictable spaces for public speech because they’re commercial spaces. And what happens to music in these spaces may prefigure other developments in online spaces. “The ways in which culture and music are routed through the web show us some of the fault lines in public culture,” Marshall argues. “We can hear some of these songs and dances as ‘canaries in the coal mine’” of online culture – sometimes, these works disappear before our eyes due to decisions made by tool and platform owners.
One of the signatures of new world music, Marshall argues, is the watermark. Many of the audio tracks and videos that define new music scenes are marked with watermarks left by unlicensed demo software. He suggests that these watermarks may be becoming part of the aesthetics of these new forms. The people producing them are using professional-grade tools and pushing them to a public that’s potentially limitless in size. But the watermarks suggest they’ve got a different set of priorities than most producers – they’re less concerned with polish than with immediacy and immersion in the moment.
He shows this video from LA dance crew Marvel, Inc. This is one of the groups associated with the “Jerkin’” movement, a street dance associated with a small set of high schools in LA. Dance crews often take their names from comic books and cartoons, hence “Marvel Inc.” Marshall points out that the dances take place in public places, on sidewalks and in traffic-filled streets, and suggests that jerk is about public performance, both “in public places and in places as public as YouTube”. The video is a promotion for them as a crew, and for the music they’re using – the tracks danced to are listed, as is digitaldripped.com, a site that shares links to new hiphop beats and tracks. (The tracks associated with Jerkin’ are usually not available for purchase, Marshall explains – they’re downloads, not traditional releases.) And the video is heavily tagged, not just with the Marvel Inc. name and “jerkin”, but with names of rival crews and other artists associated with the movement. Despite the watermark on the video, other aspects of production and distribution suggest a high degree of care and savvy, creating a non-commercial circulation mechanism intended for their local (and perhaps, global) peers.
Watermarks appear in audio tracks as well. One of the key Jerkin’ tracks is “Buckle My Shoe” by Fly Kidd. Every few seconds, a British female voice announces “AVS Media Demo” in the midst of a catchy track. Marshall has looked for an “original” version of the track without the audio watermark and hasn’t been able to find one. The track used to be available on YouTube, but it’s been taken down, perhaps due to a copyright complaint. Now it’s available on Dailymotion, where you can’t see the video until sitting through a 30-second ad. “These are our public platforms,” Marshall tells us, “riddled with pop-up ads and watermarks”.
These platforms and tools may be rough around the edges, but they’re easy to use and easy to learn. One of the seminal Jerk tracks – “You’re a Jerk” by New Boyz – was produced using Fruity Loops, a commercial software package designed for easy loop creation. (The program offers a downloadable demo, and Marshall tells us that unlicensed and unlocked copies change hands frequently online.) It’s easy to find instructional videos on YouTube that show you how to make hiphop beats in Fruity Loops, which lowers barriers to producing new tracks. The New Boyz put a beat together, added rhymes over it and uploaded the audio track to their MySpace page. People in the Jerkin’ community began making videos of themselves dancing to the song and posting them to YouTube, which allowed the Boyz to track their success by searching YouTube for their names.
You’re unlikely to find a good version of the song this way anymore. The track became so popular that the New Boyz were signed to a small record label, and that label’s parent company (Warner Brothers) evidently asked YouTube to identify videos using the music. You can find the “official” version of the video (above), which has been viewed over 45 million times on YouTube. (I mention that last statistic for those who, like me, hadn’t heard about Jerk and briefly thought we had an insight into underground American youth culture. Little late for that, evidently…) People who’d posted videos using the song were told by YouTube that they either needed to mute the audio or choose another musical track to accompany their videos. That led to some very strange videos like the one below:
This video shows the Action Figures crew dancing to “You’re a Jerk” – it’s one of the videos that helped break the song, and Action Figures are featured in the “official” You’re a Jerk video. But this video now sports a strange, synthesized, neo-tribal beat that’s pretty far from anything the dancers originally performed to. Action Figures get to keep their video up, and perhaps benefit if anyone buys the (dreadful) track they’re now featuring, but the original video, important in popularizing Jerkin’ is now a very different document.
Whole sites and the ecosystems they support can disappear as well. Marshall shows us a screenshot of Jamglue, a site that served as an audio YouTube, allowing you to upload, sequence and remix audio tracks. A search for “Jerkin” revealed 775 mixes and 812 tracks. When the site shut down, not only did the content disappear, but people’s profiles, information on what tracks they’d liked and disliked and other metadata was lost as well. (I suggested to Marshall that there’s an odd parallel to traditional ethnomusicology here. Pioneers like Hugo Zemp spent their careers visiting people whose cultures were in danger of extinction from assimilation or the death of elders and recording their music. Perhaps we’ll start seeing modern ethnomusicologists documenting fragile digital cultures before their extinction.)
If the platforms that support this new music are unstable, Marshall tells us, the peers involved are uneasy. The people building the Jerkin’ scene were using digital tools to communicate with local friends, often people they knew in the “real world”. But the tools they used ensured that their work circulated more widely, which in turn led to some fascinating remixes.
This version – “El Paso del Jerk” – from Panama uses the backing track from “You’re a Jerk” and updates it with a Spanish rap. The accompanying video steals large chunks from the official video, but inserts scenes of Panamanian youth performing the dance steps… and also sporting some of the fashions and cellphones featured in the American video. Marshall sees this as “Panamanian kids inserting themselves into global styles,” demonstrating that they’re part of a global trend, not just in music, but in fashion and style. Marshall notes that it’s harder for YouTube to automatically remove videos like this one – because the track has new vocals, it’s not visible to YouTube’s systems in the same way as slightly distorted versions of the original are.
Other adoption of Jerkin’ are closer to a fusion – “Yaba Daba Du” is a new “Jerk Bow” song that combines aspects of Jerk with “dem bow“, a distinctly Dominican version of Jamaican reggaeton. The dance steps featured in the video include elements that are recognizably from Jerkin’, as well as moves that are clearly local. And you can see elements of Jerkin’ fashion (backpacks, tight jeans, neon colors) meshing with other fashion statements.
The frontiers of this new musical space are being documented in blogs like Dave Quam’s “It’s After the End of the World” and “Ghetto Bassquake“, which document local dance genres around the world: Cumbia, Bubbling, Dancehall, Chicago Dancehall, Jerking, Kuduro and more. This music isn’t generally termed “world music” – it circulates as “global bass music” or “global ghettotech”. Marshall wonders about the motivations in featuring this music, noting that on some blogs it can turn into “flavor of the month”. Generously citing my work, he wonders whether we’ll see more blogs acting as bridges between musical cultures, not just featuring what’s going on in Angola or Panama, but translating and contextualizing. At present, though, that sort of translation doesn’t always happen.
This new musical space challenges the old definitions about “world music” – it’s no longer about the West and the rest, the Global North and Global South, Marshall offers. Jerkin’ can circulate around the world, moving from one “ghetto” to another, whether or not those neighborhoods are actually poor or are simply asserting themselves as part of global urban culture. We need to think through the problems that come from these uneasy peers – how do we understand each other and learn from each other’s adoption and remix of these influences? And how do we solve the problems we face with our platforms. It’s great to celebrate the ways people have worked through and around these constraints, but we also need to address the limitations.
David Weinberger and Jillian York both liveblogged the talk, and did a better job getting down comments and questions than I did, as I was moderating the discussion. And if you’ve got time, you might enjoy the video of the talk and the questions and answers that followed.
I should also mention that Wayne is a tremendous blogger and writes about these issues at length at Wayne and Wax – if you’re interested in what he had to say, you should go there immediately.
There are at least two big ideas I’m deeply interested in that came out in Wayne’s talk, which is why I was so thrilled he joined us at Berkman. First, the issue of corporate control of platforms and its influence on the spread of media is something where lessons from the music world may spread into other realms. You can argue that Wikileaks is, in a weird way, an outgrowth of Napster: once you digitize something, a song or a secret, its spread online may be inevitable. But that spread can be checked by decisions made by people who own the platforms on which we exchange digital information. YouTube might have argued that an original dance video to a copyrighted track could be entitled to a fair use defense and forced copyright holders to challenge “offenders” one by one, rather than building tools for mass content removal. Amazon could have demanded an injunction before ordering Wikileaks off its servers. I don’t mean to suggest a moral equivalence between these actions – I’m far more sympathetic to YouTube than to Amazon here – but it’s worth recognizing that platforms are shaped by corporate decisions, made for business reasons, and that these decisions may not be in the best interests of free speech or free culture. Whether the answer is pressuring corporate actors to change their behavior to protect public forms of expression on their platforms or to build platforms more free of corporate influence isn’t clear to me. But Wayne’s examples are a reminder that these platform constraints can be subtle and far-reaching.
Second, I’m interested in the idea that music might have more mobility in crossing national, linguistic and cultural borders than other forms of media, and as such, I’m pretty fascinated in what global bass music might tell us about cultural adoption, fusion or bridging. I’ve been thinking about encounters between cultures through a lens provided by Pippa Norris and Ronald Inglehart in their book “Cosmopolitan Communications“. Norris and Inglehart are interested in the question of whether encountering media from other cultures changes ones cultural values. They look at the spread of news and entertainment media across national borders and analyze the World Values Survey to try and determine whether encountering media from other cultures changes local values.
They suggest that four things might happen when we encounter media from another culture:
- We might embrace it and it could overwhelm our local culture. (This is a fear often cited with regards to the spread of US culture – the fear of the McDonaldization of the world – and used to justify cultural protection legislation.)
- We might violently reject the other culture and ban it, as the Taliban has done with aspects of western culture
- We might embrace the outside influences and incorporate them into a hybrid culture, creating something new and interesting, like the majestic Bánh mì sandwich, in my opinion, the tastiest byproduct of European colonialism yet discovered.
- We might encounter the other culture, acknowledge it as different and choose not to incorporate or reject it.
Norris and Inglehart suggest that reaction #4 – which they refer to as “cultural firewalls” – is the most common, which explains why Paris is still Parisian despite the invasion of Ronald McDonald. Good multiculturalist that I am, I’m excited about reaction #3 and am patiently waiting for my local McDonalds to begin serving kelewele with their new Ghanaian Chicken Shitor Din sandwich. Wayne’s stories offer a good chance to test the possible models of cultural influence.
“Jerk Bow” looks a lot like evidence for reaction #3, the fusion of cultures, with LA meeting Jamaica in the Dominican Republic, and perhaps especially in the Dominican neighborhoods in NYC. At the same time, watching videos of Jerk around the world gives some support for outcome #1 – if you think that McDonalds is a powerful cultural force, take a close look at the international spread of the New York Yankees baseball cap. Hiphop, an art form built atop sampling and appropriation is either being appropriated all over the world, or is America’s leading weapon in a battle for global cultural dominance. I’m not sure I buy Wayne’s assertion that we’re beyond “the west and the rest” that categorized some types of world music – it seems like much of the influence in these musical spaces is flowing out from the US into other cultures and not flowing back into American hiphop. (Wayne points out that Mexican teens in the US are getting down to cumbia and Dominiyorkers to dem bow. And he points to MIA as bringing global influence into mainstream US dance music. I remain unconvinced until Kanye drops a Kuduro single.)
Music apparently has superpowers to leap across cultural borders. I listen to Baaba Maal’s Senegalese pop and I hear piano lines from Cuban jazz… which in turn came from West African influences filtered through the American South and cities along the Mississippi. Baaba Maal doesn’t speak Spanish, but he was able to pick up influences from latin jazz records popular in Senegal in the 1960s and 70s – musical influence can spread without the sorts of translation or cultural contextualization that we need to appreciate much media that crosses national borders on the internet. This superpower can be a curse – the ease of sampling means it’s quite possible to fall victim to “flavor of the month”, as Wayne warns, or to using source material badly or unfairly. The same technology that makes Yabba Dabba Du possible allows Deep Forest to appropriate a Solomon Islands lullaby and pass it off as pygmy music from Central Africa.
Wayne’s talk suggests to me that web video has this same sort of superpower. Not only can it convey music, it carries dance and fashion as well. And if we want to know if we’re assimilating, rejecting, fusing or ignoring cultures as they bump against one another, watching youth culture through the lens of YouTube may be our best lab to carry out these experiments.