Rip Off Your Labels

Rip Off Your Labels; Or A Science Fiction Nightmare

I
Or the section in which the author shows regret

“I’m tired of getting the fuzzy end of the lollipop!”
Marilyn Monroe, as Sugar Kane Kowalczyk, in Some Like It Hot

If Ms Molloy is reading presently (and it is within the realm of possibility that she is – in fact, you could find that you are Ms Molloy herself), I have cause to beg atonement. In the heady, frothy beginning of 2004, I compiled you a CD of various pieces of music which I hold, variously, close to my heart, head, loins or other parts. Ms Sarah Vaughan and XTC were represented within, so too was Mr Alice Cooper, but the one tune that I held above all others and which you too would come to love full-heartedly was Teach Me, Tiger.

That song, a landmine of sexuality, with its loungey Lynchian fretting and stripped bare arrangement/sentiment, summed up in those brief two minutes and twenty one seconds everything we dreamed and feared women could be in the nineteen fifties. To be at once dominant and submissive; to be in control, but to have the nature of that control altered at the whim of the great man they stood behind. “Teach me, Tiger, how to love you,” she demanded (naive, yet forceful), “or will I teach you?” Everything about those diaphragm-deep, yearning woah-woah-woahs sat perfectly with the dual-lifed tragedy that we had built up about Ms Monroe.

Alas, Ms Molloy, the truth must out: Teach Me, Tiger was not written by Ms Monroe, this I’m sure you had no doubt surmised long in advance of knowing of the song’s existence, but neither did she record it. The version to which we attached so much, as far as I know the only version readily available, was recorded by Ms April Stevens. Exactly, Ms April Stevens who was the sister of Mr Nino Tempo; the space-age bachelorette who padded about, yearning to be pawed by middle-aged bachelors; the GIs’ favourite brunette voted Miss Sexy Voice of 1952, The Girl To Replace Central Heating and christened Our Pert, Petite, Pretty, Powerfully Potent Package of Passion. The one who’s voice sounds as soft and sultry as Marilyn’s.

Despite her hits Don’t Do It, Deep Purple, All Strung Out, her extensive canon, her entanglement with the histories of Mr Benny Goodman and Mr Herb Alpert, the song will always belong to Ms Monroe. We simply like her more. Ms Monroe’s control over her own sexuality, if not her life, is iconic; while Ms Steven’s virgin who knows more than she lets on is merely pathetic.

When an MP3 is mislabelled, it starts a growth of difficulty on difficulty… It is only through the luck of my own expertise that I have corrected Soulseek when it suggested to me that The Birthday Party performed that particular rendering of Bela Lugosi’s Dead, that Boston had recorded Since You’ve Been Gone or that Nick Drake held culpability for the theme tune to M*A*S*H. On this one occasion, however, a bad un’ slipped me by.

Ms Molloy, I am sorry. Your forgiveness, please.

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II
Or the section in which the author bursts a big soapy bubble

It is a little known fact that a great many people know that Herr Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor was not written by Herr Bach at all; rather it was composed entirely by someone else, a person of indeterminate height, weight, nationality, hair-colouring or other tell-tale trait of identity.

Classical scholars have long squabbled about the true origins of the piece. The strong logic that they put forward centres around various judgments that they alone, as experts in the field, are qualified to make. They include:

a) There is no copy of the original manuscript bearing Herr Bach’s distinct signature, a date of copyright, a notary public’s official seal or evidence of his having posted it to himself on the off-chance that it may be required as evidence in a future intellectual property case.

b) It’s not really in Bach’s style, is it?

c) Oh, he was busy doing other things at the time, what with it being 1707 and him getting ready to up sticks, leave Muhlhausen and head to Weimar.

d) It doesn’t fit in with anything else that was happening in organ music at the time, mainly because it was visibly composed for violin.

e) It’s a bit crap. No, no, it’s really good, but in terms of Bach, it’s a bit crap.

f) Other things, technical things.

Two hundred and ninety-nine years later, it’s hard to image how that matters. Classical compositions attributed to anon are much harder to collect on a ‘best of’ compilation (how does one collect the greatest hits of anon in anything less than a boxed set? They’re all so good). And Herr Bach’s other works sit less well within the context of a scary cartoon short.

The idea that Bach is responsible for Toccata and Fugue in D Minor is so deeply engrained in the popular conscience that even a particularly violent epileptic fit would fail to shake it out. It is certainly the Bach tune that the man on the street will be able to whistle with the least prompting and greatest enthusiasm; it is a darn sight easier to hum than St Matthew’s Passion. So let us think less in terms of truth and royalties for a man with no name, but instead of the benefits that Bach has bestowed on the tune and those that the tune has bestowed upon Bach.

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III
Or the section in which, hopefully, all becomes slightly more clear

“…I recur here to my personal point about the tendency to miss what the title means; or even what the title says…”
Extract from an article by G. K. Chesterton concerning The Man Who Was Thursday published in the Illustrated London News, 13th June 1936 (the day before his death)

The title of a piece, as I’m sure you can well imagine, is not the piece itself, nor is it wholly related to the piece. Rather it is a guide to intent. An untitled artefact is as much a statement as a highly descriptive moniker.

It was once a practice within art galleries that each painting be hung without indication of title, creator or explanation of historical context. It was supposed that this would leave the work in such complete isolation that each contemplator could read it solely as they saw it. However, the nature of visual art at the time was so lacking in abstraction and so full to the brim with acknowledged symbolism that every viewer was likely to see it in the same way or, at least, see it within a very narrow field of possible interpretations. If one wished to check out certain facts regarding the piece (presumably because you were in the market for buying or you were a bit slow on the uptake), the only catalogue provided was in the hands of the curator who had to be asked very nicely before he would agree to show it to you.

The necessity for clear and definite titling within visual art comes with abstraction. As artists move away from the accepted palette of symbols and shared mythologies (religious iconography, faithful hounds, etc.) into a territory that severs itself from tradition, the artist must give the audience something in terms of context or explanation to provide a starting point for understanding. It is much easier to interpret a work by Mr Bacon, for example, once the painter has given one a nudge in the right direction.

The same path is true of music as well. The traditional approach was for composers to title the work based on form, structure, key et al (for example Herr Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor) or simply attach the place or patron of composition (for example Herr Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos). Later nicknames (i.e. Herr Hayden’s The Surprise Symphony) are more likely attributed by critics or public after the fact. Naturally, longer works, like operas and ballets, bear some title that relates to the narrative arc that unfolds within the piece. It is mainly shorter, stand alone works that we are to concern ourselves with.

Again, then, it can be seen that once musicians begin moving further away from traditional rules and settings, it becomes more important to guide towards a specific reading through the use of a title. As the standard structures and forms become obsolete or less rigid, it is understandable that one can no longer rely on them as descriptors of one’s work. Once music became a process of exploring music in and of itself, rather than an exploration of the possibilities of beauty, it was necessary to explain the composer’s methodologies as they were worked out. For our examples we need look no further than M Satie’s Vexations, Mr Cage’s 4″33, Mr Lucier’s I Am Sitting In A Room or the works of the Fluxus group (my favourite being Where Is Le Monte Young?, where performers took to the stage then hunted amongst the audience in the hope of finding the titular artist, who, one would imagine, was very unlikely to be there).

These instances illustrate the relationship between the title and the art itself – they explain how the importance of nomenclature and labelling increases with the abstraction of the piece itself from recognised conventions. The point of titling, then, is to bring order to chaos or, at least, narrow the amount of possible chaotic readings open to the audience.

In an age of mass production, the relationship between work and title is no longer simply internal. The title must now bear a second external burden: the relationship between separate works. Where once one had to think only of a single first symphony by Brahms, one must now contemplate and comprehend numerous alternate recordings by a great many different groups of performers. So too must one distinguish between Let’s Do It as rendered on record by Ms Fitzgerald and Ms Holiday. All fine and well, as record sleeves are carefully considered by huge teams of graphic designers, slaving and labouring like a medieval master’s workshop.

What calls for attention, though, is the revelation of peer-to-peer file-sharing, that oceanic, ungoverned and ungovernable wash of chaos. In a world where the charge of labelling is left to the inattentive, the misinformed or, worse, the otherwise occupied, the relationship between the artwork and the title is liable to change. Depending on whose hands the task falls into, order could be restored to the chaos or it could be made more chaotic still.

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IV
Or the section in which the author invokes popular science

I am absolutely sure that I don’t have to explain Mr Dawkins’ concept of memes to you, but, I guess, it may be wise to re-cap for the sake of clear and concise reportage.

If genes are as selfish as her majesty’s protector of the sciences makes out, then we are but the bipedal motels in which a thousand-fold unprotected reproductive acts take place daily. Worse still, we are motels that breed whole chains the world over. Worse yet, our very brains act as conjugal cauldrons for not only genes, but memes…

Memes (a word much corrupted by weblogs and discussion boards – well, mutations will happen) are cultural components that, out of utter selfishness, seek to reproduce indefinitely, replicating ad infinitum in one brain, passing onto another and so forth.

In so much as a meme is anything at all (and most likely it is nothing), it is a song, a phrase, a bar, a note, a novel, a poem, a couplet, a routine, a regime, a tradition, it is both the opening thuds of Beethoven’s fifth symphony and the entire symphony itself. If you can imagine it, it is a meme.

The cruel cut and thrust of Darwinism applies equally amongst memes as genes; those best suited to the times survive, replicate and over-populate, those ill-suited are forgotten. Memes, then, will employ every device known to them to bustle to the forefront of your mind, demanding transmission to your nearest and dearest through whispers and recommendations. They will be catchy, insightful, uproariously humourous, emotionally resonant and visually striking. These are the dirtiest tricks that anyone can play.

Like genes too, memes are prone to cluster; those weaker concepts attaching themselves to something stronger and more appealing, until becoming so thoroughly integral that one cannot be imagined without the other. Something as trivial as no fish on Fridays clings to the undercarriage of the unshakeable Catholicism, though that doesn’t guarantee its survival. So too do the two flabby sides of Mr Tchaikovsky’s Romeo & Juliet flank the one thrilling climatic phrase that we all know from numerous romantic movie, thus making themselves seemingly immortal.

Anonymous violin pieces could all too easily suffer the same fate as bad sitcoms, but sometimes meme mutations just happen – a musical score is left too close to a radioactive source or a critical review is spliced by unscrupulous docs. As easily as Chinese whispers distorts a phrase or rumour becomes fact, a toccata can be attributed to a baroque giant and transposed to a keyboard instrument. The T&F in DM integrates itself with the Bach brand and canon and, with spooky TV shows, radio theme and pagan tradition, it grasps tighter and tighter to the public consciousness, making it harder for the genocide of cultural evolution to shake it.

The primordial soup of memes is information. And we live in the post-information age – the age of trivia – where cultural evolution progresses at a bewilderingly break-neck pace… computer terminals as imperfect brains designed to store nothing but memes in combinations of ones and zeros.

MP3s are almost perfectly memetic – they replicate exactly without changing or destroying themselves; they are replicated in others without your command; they may be selectively bid entrance, but you don’t know exactly what you’ve invited in until it has made itself comfortable. Sure, you may be able to delete them of your own accord, rather than waiting for nature to take its course, but that merely speeds evolution along. At their most memetic, they are selfish and unreliable.

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V
Or the section in which the author takes an example

With the music press becoming increasingly decentralised (i.e. that less people read a set canon of magazines, while most find a specific niche publication or webzine), the reader is faced, not necessarily with greater choice, but by narrower restriction. By choosing those critics that reflect their own tastes and those publications that make references they are familiar with, the reader further cloisters themselves within a specific way of thinking. Thus, it is possible, for mere example, that a Coldplay fan may be able to cut through a swath of articles without entertaining the notion that any music existed before the release of Parachutes, or that any set of groups has had a discernable influence on Coldplay’s work.

Now, it is known to me that, in their time, Coldplay have included a version of the Echo & The Bunnymen song, Lips Like Sugar, within their live set. Bootleg copies of this have, no doubt, been made and uploaded to any number of person-to-person filesharing systems, under the imaginative label: Coldplay – Lips Like Sugar (Live – 0/0/00). Suitably removed from the 80s Liverpudlian psych-new wave scene, it is understandable that some portion of the downloaders will, with no conscious thought, attribute the writing of this pleasing song to Coldplay, that band whom they regard so highly. It is understandable then how, if the Bunnymen’s original studio recording were later downloaded, the seeming mistake of the label could be amended and the proper copyright returned to the rightful owner, Mr Martin.

One would think that the distinctions between Mr Martin’s and Mr McCulloch’s voices quite clear, but so too would any 40s jiver think that of Ms Fitzgerald and Ms Holiday and I have downloaded more than my fair share of mix-ups between those two fine ladies. If one is not looking out for the differences, or one is not aware that there are differences to spot (consider myself with Ms Monroe earlier), one will not question the label.

The problem that arises is one of memetics. Consider the popularity of Coldplay and then the popularity of Echo & The Bunnymen. Surely the multi-platinum sales of Mr Martin are going to generate more downloads from thieves and pirates than the cult confines of Mr McCulloch. Thus, over time, the number of people who accidentally happen upon Lips Like Sugar by Coldplay will begin to outnumber those who own it, intentionally or accidentally, by Echo & The Bunnymen. The meme that is the song itself will, in time, adapt and attach itself to the more successful meme brand of Coldplay, rather than the relatively weaker Bunnymen. By sheer weight of numbers, Lips Like Sugar moves from being an Echo tune in the mind of the public at small into being a Coldplay song in the mind of the public at large.

In much the same way, Teach Me, Tiger, is capable of perpetuating itself longer and disseminating its laid-back, salacious charm wider by attaching itself to the Monroe meme cluster than by staying true to the relatively unknown Ms April Stevens.

Mutations within nomenclature can occur in many ways, but it is those conferred and accepted by ignorance that will last longest. A joke at the expense of Mr Bush, the president, was maliciously mis-titled as songs from various unrelated genres (everything from Oingo Boingo to Mr Orbison), with the intention of it being mistakenly downloaded and listened to. Naturally, this mutation resulted in the joke’s quick spread, but the blatant difference between the cover and contents meant that, no doubt, the MP3 was swiftly deleted by all who heard it. The adaptation from one title to another was unfit and certainly did not allow for much further propagation. The exchange was made too knowingly and was too easily detected by the recipients. The meme, as it was, died a quick death, while a subtle spelling mistake or misattribution of an album title or release date (perpetrated and accepted by the inattentive) may live forever.

Of course, it is all one joyous convenience. If one is downloading records instead of buying them, then one clearly is unconcerned with whether or not the author gets the royalties due to them. Selfish musical memes are only concerned with continuing their existence as musical ideas, regardless of from which brain juices they first sprang. And you, dear reader, are happiest when lovely sounds are passing into your ears. If memetics result in your hearing more delights than you would have heard had someone somewhere stuck to text as written, aren’t you marginally better off?

This whole process could lead to two entirely different musical futures for us all and it is hard to say in which way we are most inclined. Our options appear to be:

A magical wonderland of Hanslickian formalism, where musical ideas are no more than musical ideas, happily divorced from composer and context and all inhabitants listen freely and without prejudice, where there is no musical history or canon and we can all enjoy whatsoever we wish in the confines of our lonely rooms. Each individual has their own private musical lineage, in which, for example, Mr Johnny Cash wrote Personal Jesus in 1965, thereby inspiring Mr Rick Rubin to invent hip-hop.

A nightmare reality, where each individual has their own private musical lineage, in which, for example, M Satie begat Mr Cage, who begat Kraftwerk, who begat Mr Morley, who begat Ms Minogue. Thus, with no common points of reference, no two people can speak about music and be entirely sure what the other is talking about. With no person ever completely sure what they are listening to, all discussion of music becomes unreliable and progress within music ceases.

Rest assured, this science fiction will come to be… if it hasn’t already begun in some manner. The world can oftentimes seem divided between ‘real music lovers’ (just like us) and those who don’t much care (just like them). Thus it can feel all too frequently, to the music fan, that discussing some obscure group of your own preference is like discussing a character that has been created in one’s own head, demanding you to continually explain who and what they are in relation to musics more manageable. While the rest can carry on, uncorrected, enjoying each sound as it strikes the ear, never having to relate or explain. In the future, then, the music lover may have to learn, in order to love music, to stop caring about it.

Stephen O’Hagan