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Number of cables in my 'studio': 47

May 22, 1999: and all the time you wasted wasn't real

Saturday

A sometime friend of mine likes the Spice Girls as simple, fun, pop dance music. She gets mocked by other people we know for this, but I guess I can understand it--e.g. if all you care about is dancing. I'd like it more if I dance, yeah, sure.

If you ask me to tell you exactly what is "wrong" with the Spice Girls from my perspective, I guess I'd have trouble nailing it down in particular. The easy cop out is to say that the Spice Girls aren't art, just craft, and that artistry is important to me.

But that opens a giant can of worms requiring debate of the nature of art. And I'm not sure it even gets to the heart of the matter. A good craftsperson respects the product that he or she is making. Though I respect that a lot, I'm generally more concerned with art, but I think that gets to the heart of the issue.

If you were to look through my CD collection, you would find a dearth of bands with a female singer who doesn't play an instrument. (Mary's Danish and Tribe look to be the only two. Oh, and Bel Canto.) Despite inroads made by some female musicians, rock'n'roll is still largely dominated by males. Working as I do in an industry also dominated by males (the computer game industry, but even computer software development in general), I'm hesistant to attribute this dominance as being inherent to the genders, as opposed to being due to discrimination or other environmental bias--and yet... The predominance of female singers suggests there's no discrimination--well, at least not for that role. The whole male competitiveness thing seems like it might be responsible for the pantheon of guitar gods. Indeed, it seems plausible to me that the whole "practice a lot until you're good at this thing, just because it's fun" thing is a lot more likely to appeal to males than to females.

Of course, there are all these female singers, but I'm afraid I don't find that much different than the predominant use of women in advertising. Nearly anybody can sing. Not anybody can sing really really well, of course, and I'm not about to deny that there are plenty of talented female singers. But I suspect it's a lot easier to get them onto the road of practicing and training when it's something they can already do, and maybe even already make a buck doing. (But are you gonna make a million bucks?)

In my collection, I tend to favor female singers who play the guitar, since I'm a guitarist: Sarah McLachlan, Tanya Donelley (of Belly), Polly Jean Harvey (who has now stopped playing an instrument in favor of only singing), or Aimee Mann. And there's always modern girl groups like The Breeders and Elastica. And let's not forget multi-talented women like Lisa Germano, who sing, write lyrics, write music, and play three or four instruments.

I guess in some sense, for me, this is just a variant on the Milli Vanilli scene. Just as some people are bothered by the idea that the two guys out "fronting" the band weren't actually the ones doing the singing, so it bothers me when the women out singing and fronting the band aren't the ones doing the writing, even if they do have a lovely singing voice.

For me, I guess, the writing ("composing") is where the art happens. Maybe an orchestral performer would take me to task for this, but it's what I think, especially for rock music. (I thought that if you had an acoustic guitar, then it meant that you were a protest singer.) In some ways, in fact, I do find this an odd part of the whole "go see them play live" thing--why does it even matter who plays the music when it's played live? The music is the music. I guess there's a feeling that the original authors could do the music "more right" than anybody else, but I don't know if that's even true. There's this wacky notion that the original author's reinterpretation is more valid than the reinterpretation by others, I guess. But this wouldn't seem to apply to the Spice Girls anyway.

One day I was watching MTV and saw a pretty cool video. I forget the song, but it was an instrumental, I think by The Orb. The video consisted of a lot of sped-up-footage of city streets, Koyanisqaatsi-style, but "down in the trenches" more than watching from above. The crucial, distinctive device, however, was that there was an actress in the scene. During the filming, she moved extremely slowly, creating the illusion on final playback that she was moving at "normal speed". This didn't really work--her movements were jerky and wrong--but it was easy to suspend disbelief. Moreover, it did have the intended effect, which was to provide a frame of reference. Instead of looking at the footage as "sped-up", it invited you to see it from the frame of reference of the character--that time was passing normally (from her point of view), but everything was moving faster. It invited you to think about the degree to which people rush, and the degree to which people sit around wasting time (as both were apparent in the video). (Addendum: smarry says he thinks it was stop-motion, not sped up, which is I suppose possible; but it may be that simply dropping every Nth frame would give a similar effect; that is, the "actress" having to move very slowly versus the actress having to "lock-in" particular poses might still give similar results. I don't remember when I saw it whether I actually considered these two alternatives explicitly, though, so I suppose it's best to defer to his judgement until I find other evidence one way or the other.)

Some other day, much much later, I was watching MTV and saw a pretty lame Spice Girls video. In this video, a Spice Girl was standing on a street corner singing, while cars flashed by at incredible speeds--due once again to sped-up footage. The difference is that, unlike The Orb's video, the Spice Girl moved perfectly normally--no jerkiness, no wrongness. This was because she was being blue screened into the scene. The production quality was really quite top notch--I couldn't tell she was composited into the scene, but obviously that was what was going on. On the other hand, they weren't trying to make you think. They were just using this effect to create an "interesting" background for the Girls to sing over. There was no real reason to do it. It was an effect without a cause.

You'd almost think that the Spice Girls effect would be better, at least as just a pure effect. They were trying to do the exact same special effect, and they were pulling it off in a way that didn't cause you to immediately notice that something funny was going on.

But I can't resist the assessment that the approach taken by The Orb was more honest. Setting that aside for the moment, though, it also clearly worked better. That's because you can't create a scene like that without causing you to notice that it's wrong. It doesn't matter how seamless the effect is; you're creating something that doesn't happen in this world. The viewer is going to know that something is up. In The Orb video's case, you quickly figure out what's up, and return to watching it. In the Spice Girls' video case, you spend more time deciding what's going on, and then return to watching it. Either way, you know what's up. The approach in the former video allows the actress more freedom to move around and interact with the world. The approach in the latter "looks" better but lacks any such freedoms.

But now let's return to honesty. A craftsperson who is passionate about the thing she or he is creating will invest the effort to do it right. If one were just out to make a buck, perhaps not. "Doing it right" is often clearly defined in context. Can you picture Peter Gabriel's "Sledgehammer" video if Gabriel had said "I don't have time to sit through all the animation, so do that separately, and then we'll composite me in afterwards"? Of course, in that case, they would have given up a bunch of stop-motion effects that actually relied on his face being in there for the animation (such as his hair moving in response to the roller coaster). And once you're committed to doing a stop-motion animation involving the singer's face, how could you not demand the singer do stop-motion lip-synching? It's very clear what "doing it right" means in this context. Let there be no doubt about it.

But can you picture a Spice Girl spending ten hours trying to move at 1/10th speed, "just" to record a music video? One never gets the impression that the Spice Girls are after anything other than fame and a buck. I get no sense of a desire to contribute to the oeuvre of human artistry. If they don't respect their own work, why should I?

So I guess you can dance if you want to, but (to echo the words of another friend who was challenging my taste in food) I only have so much time to spend in this world listening to music, so I'd rather spend it on people who are out to do more than make a buck.


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attribution dammit: Singing to the Birds Lisa Germano
Geek the Girl Lisa Germano
Oh Daddy Adrian Belew
Sing Your Life Morrissey
Shakespeare's Sister The Smiths
Synchronicity The Police
Sledgehammer Peter Gabriel
Safety Dance Men Without Hats

Added 'addendum' on June 20, 1999