Pretty Adept for a Man in a Steel Trap

Came across this post about Show Business Is My Life from the late, great Music Ruined My Life blog while pawing through my own archives trying to determine what might warrant preserving. (As one does.)

It’s a nice — in both senses of the word — song by song compendium of “liner notes for an unrealized tenth anniversary re-issue.”

Example:

5. Bitter Homes and Gardens
Leading a little band of lesser-knowns, Dr. Frank keeps the mood dark for this sad but clever tune, which Glen Campbell oughta cover.

Well, it’s too late for that now, obviously. (RIP, Glen.) It was no doubt always too late (or something) for that. But that’s the kind of thing makes a guy like me want to quote it and link to it, so here I am doing it.

Anyway, now it’s getting toward the twentieth anniversary of this record. (Jeez, right?) That’s a commemorative tchotchke that might actually happen, believe it or not. Though we’ll see. If it does, maybe I should use those notes.

(The title on this piece comes from another MRML post about the “…and I Will Be with You” 7" — then, as now, I’ll link to anything that compares me to Roger Miller.)


I miss music blogs, and MRML in particular. (I say “late, great” above because MRML hasn’t been updated since 2014, though its author, Jeffen, is still around on twitter.) I learned a lot from them in their heyday, and acquired a huge collection of obscure digital music through sites like WFMU’s Beware of the Blog (now also gone dark, sadly.) The archives for both of these are still up and well worth pawing through, if pawing is your game.

It’s not just music blogs that faded out, of course. Blogs per se aren’t really a thing anymore. There are exceptions, but by and large people don’t visit individual sites and there isn’t much point updating a thing that people don’t visit. Our internet now is scattershot, just throwing stuff around and hoping the machines created by our betters on The Platforms will deign to let people see at least a little bit of it; or trying to trick The Platforms’ machines into showing more of it than they think they are, till they figure out what you’re doing and downgrade you to even less visibility.

Consumption of “content” (and what an apt, perfectly dystopian term for the degradation of art and discourse we have overseen!) is largely passive in the here-and-now internet. You stand there on “the platform” holding your device and wait for an automated system to present you with a tiny bit of something it feels you ought to see, no more, no less. You glance at it, chuckle, perhaps, at whatever is supposed to be funny or fascinating about it; or you get slightly outraged about it, if that’s the hook. But only rarely do you read it intently; and increasingly rarely is there anything there to warrant intent reading. (e.g., listicles, memes, quizzes… the Buzzfeedification of culture, essentially.) In a moment whatever it is is completely forgotten, as are the following ten blips that serially supplanted it. In the end, if you’re like me, you’re left with nothing but a vague sense of dissatisfaction and the suspicion that you’ve just wasted the last couple of hours of your life like such hours have never been wasted before.

I think there’s maybe an analogy, or rather, perhaps, a certain congruence between this situation and the virtual media paradox I alluded to when I posted this blip (because “content” blippifies itself, “content providers” — God, what have we done? — must adapt, and the blip is mightier than the essay…):

Virtual media’s greatest strength is also its biggest flaw: you can’t trip over it. Easily stored, easily forgotten.

My iTunes tells me I’ve got 37,180 items, 88.9 solid days of“content”, on there. I would guess I’ve listened intently to only around 20% of it. In fact, I don’t have any idea what’s on there, for the most part. It was “collected” and forgotten, and might as well not even be there for all the attention I pay to it. If something happened to a large portion of it so that I somehow no longer “had” it, I’d have no way of knowing it was no longer had. In other words, there’s very little difference between its existence or non-existence.

Of course nowadays keeping a bunch of files that may or may not be there on your hard drive is itself a bit old hat. Now all the files are in a collectively accessible cloud, served to you, once again, by a Platform. (Well, not all the files. There are files they don’t have, lots of them, as well as lots of stuff no one ever thought to turn into files. But they’ve got plenty and you probably won’t miss what’s missing unless you’re weird.) It’s very a convenient, efficient, gloriously elegant system of “content delivery.” But try as I might, I can’t manage to get all that interested in it even when it’s useful, and when my attention wanders it tends to stay that way.

Whereas these dumb physical objects, while inferior and cumbersome and all that, manage to clutter up your life, get in your way, trip you up and remind you of their existence, in a way that pure “content” can’t do, especially if there’s a lot of it (which there is, by definition.) 37,180 items that may or may not be there, or a cloud containing everything that might as well be nothing, can’t compete with Phil Lynott’s face staring at me out of the the Thin Lizzy “Whisky in the Jar” 7" leaning against the shelf next to the record player. And the greatest, most lossless file of it with a perfect reproduction of that cover attached, splendidly organized and gorgeously displayable on the screen, searchable, copyable, etc. can never compete with it in that one respect. One of them reminds me of itself when I trip over it, while the other does not. One is real, the rest isn’t quite.

In a way, you could say our Platform situation isn’t technically that different from that of the music blogs the passing of whose Golden Age I was just lamenting. That was all “virtual” too. But the curation made the difference. Maybe the Platform should hire Jeffen to curate it, or certain bits of it. That sounds incredible, both in the sense of “great” and also “never gonna happen in a million years.” If the Platform undermined itself with quirky curation like that it would have to sacrifice the efficiency and consistent lowest common denominator appeal that is essential to a functioning platform. But the basic, paradoxical dynamic is that as things get more efficient and convenient and useful, they become less personal, and thereby less interesting. That is, perhaps, a tale as old as time. And it is inescapable.


All of that connects to my ongoing dilemma about what to do with my so-called “legacy,” i.e., all my “content” that once was sort of “real” but is now just floating around in that vague space between real and not-quite-real. “Put it all up on the internet” is the usual answer, and I’ve done that, for all the good it does me or anyone else. (At least I can say without exaggeration to people who complain about this or that, “whaddaya want for nothin’?” That’s one of those QED kind of questions, really.) I’m just a guy with a vague sense of wanting his songs not to disappear, at least for a little longer. Turning them into files and trying to scatter them on virtual “platforms” like so many pizza coupons isn’t going to do it. Maybe nothing can do it.

But I’ve realized that what I’m actually after with this stuff is not simply the most efficient way to store and transfer it.

Rather, I’m thinking along the lines of creating things that can be excavated, in a worst case scenario, long after I’m dead and forgotten (and also while I’m still living and forgotten.) And by that I mean not only some kids amusing themselves laughing at Engelbert Humperdinck record covers in bargain bins or thrift stores or what have you, but also actual archaeologists digging up Englebert or Show Business Is My Life and dusting them off with one of those brushes, calling to the dig supervisor: “Professor, I think I may have found something, just take a look at these curious markings…”

If I make a thousand more Show Business Is My Life LPs, or cassettes, that’s a thousand more things for people potentially to trip over, now or one day.

It ain’t much, but it’s better than a blip, surely.

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