July 19, 2020

Playing music in public spaces again, as "don't disturb me" refractory phase wears off

For the first time in years, I brought a portable music player to a public space to spread some good vibes. It lasted about an hour on Saturday evening, in a public park, which did not have the usual amount of people due to the weather (cloudy and very humid). I had it playing while walking a lap around the place, and then settling down on a hillside with a picnic blanket.

The music was whatever I found interesting on the FM radio stations, played over a walkman that I found for less than a dollar. It's an old Sanyo made-in-Japan model, well constructed out of metal, with a telescoping antenna. Looks cool, too -- painted red, black trim, with silver buttons and dials. The built-in speaker is powerful enough that you can set it down on the ground and hear it just fine on 3 or 4 out of 10.

No complaints or funny looks, and a few showing interest. One girl was pleasantly surprised to hear Taylor Swift playing in an open space -- like, how was that possible? What invention from the future did this guy get his hands on? Everyone's so used to earbuds, and only used to hearing music outside the home if it's coming from a car, or a retail store's speaker system. Especially the Millennials and Zoomers -- they don't remember the boombox days. Good ol' reliable Gen X to the rescue, keeping the good traditions alive.

At the end of the hour, as "Hold On" by Wilson Phillips came on, two teenage girls veered off the asphalt walkway to stride in front of me, both smiling and giggling for attention. Maybe it was just the relief of getting to be near a random hot guy in the wild during quarantine, but I think the vintage music played on a vintage device added to the charm of the situation.

The fact that this is another one of those "first time in years" happenings, suggests a link to the 15-year excitement cycle. I don't remember doing this at all from 2015-'19, during the vulnerable phase where everyone's in a refractory state and just wants to be left alone, lest even the slightest stimulation overload their nervous system. I do remember one guy in 2014 carrying a boombox around a thrift store, playing "The Promise" by When In Rome among other less memorable songs.

During the manic phase of the early 2010s, I used to carry around a makeshift boombox -- a discman, attached to a portable speaker, and an assortment of CDs, all held in the large external pockets of a canvas briefcase, which I was already holding anyway to lug around books. I recall once seeing another guy walking around the streets with a proper boombox during that same period.

As long as you choose the right catchy songs, it will lift people's mood -- I remember the Cars compilation always playing well with park-going audiences. Just avoid stuff that won't be crowd favorites -- rap, country, metal, etc.

Fortunately for my recollection, I blogged at the time about the most vivid and hilarious experience I had with playing music in public. It was at a Starbucks, me vs. what we now call a Karen or an AWFL, before there was a label for them. And yes, she did ask to speak to the manager to intervene against me. (Since it was the manic phase, who do you think won?) Seriously, you have to read it, I'm LOLing seven years later.

That was the same summer, 2013, that I got to troll and shame a group of device-junkies who were ruining the otherwise screen-free atmosphere of Vegas in summertime. That really was the high point of public IRL trolling for me. I didn't even blog about all of them -- someday when I can get in the right mood, I'll tell another story from that summer, also involving a Boomer Karen.

Thinking back further, I don't remember playing music in public during the last restless phase of the late 2000s, and I don't recall seeing anyone else doing so either. Who knows how widespread portable speakers were? -- maybe we would've felt like it, but just didn't have the technology. So it's unclear whether this trend will return during the current restless phase, but it will definitely come back by the next manic phase in the late 2020s.

In the meantime, I'll do my part to get it started again, and you should too. No more boring low-energy public spaces. And remember, as of this year nobody is bringing their phones to serve as social insulators in public, totally unlike any period since the adoption of cell phones and smartphones. You won't be competing for their attention. Only the spergiest freaks are still in full "stare down at screen" mode in public.

Just remember -- you're not playing music to "tell the world something about your persona," since nobody cares. You're playing music to please the crowd. It could be something they haven't heard before, as long as it isn't off-putting or a narrow in-group signal. I was regularly playing Style Council over the car speakers a month or so ago, and always got smiles from pedestrians for "Long Hot Summer", which most of them probably hadn't heard before (even if music buffs have).

Great music has timeless appeal. The only obstacle is the audience's mood, and we're out of the vulnerable phase of the excitement cycle, so don't worry about them being in the same hysterical emo "leave me alone" mood of the past five years. They're not going to #MeToo you for making unwanted musical advances in a public space.

July 16, 2020

Aimee Terese memorial song (Marina & the Diamonds tune)

The radlibs who control social media banned the princess of the anti-woke Left, Aimee Terese, from Twitter for the second time this year. In her honor, here are some verses set to a tune by a fellow mega-titty eastern Meddie -- "Primadonna" by Marina and the Diamonds.

(I'll bug her later about reincarnating as a blog instead of another social media account destined for cancellation.)

"Twitter Martyr"

* * *

Twitter martyr girl, yeah
Spending hours online casting pearls
I can't help that I see it all
The Twitter martyr's cry to heed the call

You say that I'm too political
But we're under left elite assault
Got the fiery content that you crave
I'll become your problematic fave

Twitter martyr girl

Lobbing bombs at the blue-check freaks
Tear the mask off the PMC
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees
Press the contradictions, all day baby

Tiny voice, but I've got to scream
Tattled on by a soyface meme
Never simp for the NGOs
The workers are opposed to the Green New Deal hoes

And the feed is a bore, bore, bore
New day, same war, war, war
Want clout? Gotta whore, whore, whore --
I'd rather be deplored

'Cause I'm a Twitter martyr girl, yeah
Spending hours online casting pearls
I can't help that I see it all
The Twitter martyr's cry to heed the call

You say that I'm too political
But we're under left elite assault
Got the fiery content that you crave
I'll become your problematic fave

Twitter martyr girl

July 12, 2020

Dignified, autonomous posting before the rise of social media striving in the 2010s

Social media -- with its focus on status-striving for likes, shares, followers, and paypig bux -- did not exist before around 2012. Before then, no one "generated content" online to get famous (chase clout), to pay rent (grift, hustle), or otherwise strive for status.

And yet people had been "generating content" and interacting with one another ever since the advent of web 2.0 in the mid-2000s.

In place of Twitter's unstructured, farted-out reactions larded with snark, there was the sincere effort-posting of the blogosphere. In place of Facebook's endless churn of reactions, takes, look-at-my-lunch shots, etc., there was the stable MySpace profile that was only tweaked every several weeks or months. And in place of Instagram's selfie / lifestyle snapshot competition, there was the outward-directed candid photo gallery of Flickr.

If the pre-social media platforms had been built for striving purposes, they would have included a rating system, and some way of pledging your fan-like support for someone (without reciprocation). The competitors in a status contest need a way to evaluate who is higher-ranked than who else, and without public numerical stats, the evaluation would be far too subjective to settle the contest.

Whether the competitors like it or not, all content generated on social media platforms is geared toward maxing out these stats, to the best of the user's ability, and suited to their niche and audience. They do more of the behavior that was rewarded with likes and followers, and do less of that which received few likes or lost followers.

As entertainers, they are entirely beholden to the demands of their audience, and cannot pursue whatever strikes their fancy -- whether that's the overall subject matter, or the particular views they express on some subject. In the pre-social media platforms, the "creators" played an authorial role, determining what topics to cover, and in what ways -- and their audience's composition and engagement changed however it might.

That's why blogs, MySpace, and Flickr did not build-in ways for the audience to rate the "content" and, in aggregate, let the "creator" know how well they were supplying what the audience was demanding. The "creator" simply did not care -- their focus was on the creation, and they just accepted whatever audience showed up as a result, and who reacted however they did.

Social media personas put the audience first -- either by selecting an audience beforehand and pandering / catering to them at the outset, or by doing their own thing for a little while, seeing what audience shows up, and then getting locked into a feedback loop of supply-and-demand for that existing audience.

As a direct result of this focus on supplying the audience's demand, these kinds of posters require feedback mechanisms such as a rating system (for individual posts, to signal do more or do less), as well as a census of their audience (the better to cater to it). Hence, the obligatory "like" and "follow" buttons on social media platforms.

I reject the view that the social media platforms took over the internet like they were a hostile superior race of aliens, and that all of the toxic garbage that is associated with such sites is an unwanted consequence of their colonization. Nobody forced anyone to join Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram.

Indeed, some of the social media posters must have had a blog, a MySpace profile, or a Flickr gallery before abandoning them for social media. I thought "network effects" and "first mover advantage" were supposed to lock the creators and the audiences into those older sites. And yet, not only are those old sites largely defunct, they were not replaced with similar sites that simply "did it better" -- it was an entirely different mode of creating and interacting with online content (likes, follows, payments).

What changed over the course of the 2010s was not the technology per se -- that was an epiphenomenon -- but the goals of the users. Now the "creators" wanted clout, income, and other forms of cyber-status. This is mainly generational turnover, whereby the post-Boomer generations -- Millennials more so than Gen X-ers -- have been locked out of the wealth-based status contests, so they have turned to different arenas such as lifestyle striving and persona striving. See here and here.

The aftermath of the Great Recession may have heightened their awareness of the futility in striving for career and wealth status, but they were destined to find that out sooner or later during their 20-something years. That seems like the explanation for the timing -- when Millennials were 20-somethings discovering that, recession or no recession, the Boomers had locked them out of upward mobility in career / wealth contests, and that they had to adapt by pursuing upward mobility in lifestyle / persona contests instead. And talking heads -- or rather, reacting avatars -- are nothing if not personas.

I'll conclude with another call to those I mentioned in a recent post about ditching social media and starting a blog. (Angela Nagle, Heather Habsburg, Alison Balsam, and Marina / Shamshi_Adad.) That argument was based on not being tethered to the 24-hour news cycle and its junkies, but now we see that it's more general. If you want to pursue authorial intent, you cannot do so on social media -- it has to be on a platform without buttons for rating and following.

Yes, you would be giving up potential Twitter points, but you'd enjoy the dignity of being an autonomous writer. You don't want to be some over-glorified wedding DJ. Toil then no longer under the yoke of fave-slavery.

Alison Balsam said that "sincere posts are the nudes of the mind". But if there's a tipping jar installed onto your posts, a social media platform is at best the Only Fans of the mind. You can only reveal your inner thought, with any humanity, on a blog.

July 6, 2020

The mixtape concept, and implementing it in 2020

I got nostalgic and started browsing through some old things, and found a "mixtape" on CD that a close friend from college sent me in December 2004. It was the year after we graduated, and were still keeping in touch through the mail -- real handwritten letters, magazines, clippings, postcards, whatever felt natural. Yes, the same Japanese friend for whom I shoplifted an edgy / minimalist designer wallet earlier that year (as related in this post on the waning cultural appeal of New York City).

I still have this tangible token of her affection over 15 years later, and just played it last night. She wrote out the track list in her own handwriting in sharpie on the disc itself, with a little "To [Agnostic]" dedication and the date.

Most of the songs are deep cuts from indie groups of the late '90s and early 2000s, which was not the greatest period ever for music -- but that wasn't the point. I could've bought myself a compilation of garage-rock revival music if I had wanted something that resonated best with my tastes at the time. The point of a mixtape is to convey a gestalt message to the recipient, through a series of impressions.

It's only natural to search through contemporary songs for the intended lyrical content and emotional tone -- unless you're going for "remember our good ol' days" nostalgia after some time has passed. But we had just seen each other less than two years before, so the track list reflects that (the Flaming Lips, Bjork, Death Cab for Cutie, Belle and Sebastian). There actually are some older songs, but they're mostly contemporary renditions -- Aimee Mann's cover of "One" (is the loneliest number), the Sea and Cake's cover of "Sound and Vision", and the Delgados' cover of "Mr. Blue Sky". The one genuinely old song, "Kaze Wo Atsumete", was still contemporary in its own way for being featured on the Lost in Translation soundtrack.

Contemporary recordings make it more of a time capsule, so that when you open it later on, you'll be transported right back to the time of its creation. And not in order to re-live that cultural zeitgeist per se, but to feel once more the social and emotional connections you had back then with its maker, touched by their ghost across time.

* * *

That was from the tail-end of the CD's dominance as an audio medium, when mp3 files on a hard drive was becoming the new way to store music. The main source was mp3 files, and the blank CD was just there to receive them. This mirrored the pattern in the '90s, when the cassette was fading in relevance as the CD became the standard. At that time, the mixtape was a blank cassette that received music from the main source on a CD. Even before the rise of the CD, the original mixtape was a lower-quality blank, recorded onto using a sub-professional stereo system or boombox, and the source was a higher-quality official release from the record labels.

The common thread throughout that technological evolution is that the mixtape was not only DIY and personal, rather than professional and mass-produced, but using a somewhat antiquated format. At least, a format that felt like it was slipping out of our grasp, that we were deciding to let go of. It gave a wistful tone to the experience, like sending a handwritten letter instead of an email / text message / social media DM.

What would the next step in the progression look like in 2020, when mp3s stored offline on a hard drive are going the way of the dodo, replaced by online streaming services? Unfortunately, this is yet another fatal weakness of streaming vs. owning digital music (touched upon here). If you primarily listen to music by streaming, and you want to give those songs to someone else, you can't do it because you don't own them. You can't give them up to the recipient (like something physical), nor can you copy and transfer them (like information).

Please do not suggest "creating" a Spotify playlist and sharing the link with them. You might as well just text them the titles of the songs and say, "Find these on streaming when you get the chance, they're kind of amazing." You aren't giving them anything, since streaming does not confer ownership. While fine as a casual recommendation, as a gift it is impersonal, immaterial, and minimally thoughtful.

But this is not just a matter of tangible things bearing greater meaning than intangible concepts. It gets right down to the difference between renting vs. owning. Suppose you "created" a playlist of songs on YouTube, and sent them the link. At least for the time being, they can hear those songs in the order you chose, even if they don't own them. But then they return to the playlist a few years later, and all the videos have been taken down -- the uploader privated / deleted the video, the uploader deleted their entire account, the rights-holders locked the video out of the recipient's country, the rights-holders took down an unofficial upload, the rights-holders replaced one official upload with another one (say, with better audio/video quality, but now using a different URL from the one in the playlist), or any of a million other reasons.

All of a sudden, the playlist you "created" has been un-created by the streaming service, rendering it worthless on a functional level. All that's left is "the thought that counts" -- better than nothing, but something that will leave a bitter taste in the recipient's mouth, thanks to your choice of medium.

If you doubt this could happen, you've never clicked on a link from an old webpage (on the internet, "old" is 5 years or more). I experience this every time I look at an old blog post of mine -- the link sends you to a page that no longer exists, and possibly the entire site no longer exists. This is almost 100% when it's a link to an image file -- all gone, and only preserved if I saved the image to my hard drive and uploaded it myself to the blog when the post was originally composed.

Returning to the main point, almost no YouTube videos have survived that I'd linked to or embedded, whether they're of music or of people filming themselves goofing around. Some were recoverable, if the record label replaced one upload with another -- I could go back and edit the HTML code to point to the new, visible video. Generally, though, files that are streamed have a very brief lifespan. That's also why I write out the title and artist when embedding a video in a post now, despite that information being plainly visible in the video itself -- because in a few years, the video will be deleted, and the only trace of what I intended to convey will be the identifying text in my post.

* * *

And yet, all is not lost as long as we ditch the fake world of streaming and stay in, or return to, the real world of owning music. You can still buy mp3 files from iTunes and others, or rip them from a CD onto your hard drive, or dig them up from an old device that you still have lying around somewhere (whether you originally got them legally or not).

But how to store them on a medium that you will give to the recipient? You could go retro and burn them onto a CD, although you'd have to ask them if they have a device with an optical drive to play it. If not, send them a discman along with the CD (include batteries). You could pick one up at a thrift store for cheap, just test it first. (Bring batteries, and possibly headphones in case there aren't any at the store, then get a test disc from their CD section).

If they really like vintage stuff, and are special enough to be worth all the effort, you could make them a literal mixtape. Boomboxes with CD players and tape decks are a dime a dozen at thrift stores and Craigslist. High-quality blank cassettes can be bought on eBay. If the boombox also has an mp3 player, you might be able to dub them onto a tape. If not, burn the mp3s onto a CD, then play the CD in the boombox, and dub the playback onto a tape. You'd have to send them a tape player of some kind, too. Most walkmans by now have worn-out belts and won't play tapes, but you can buy refurbished ones with new belts on eBay.

However, I think the natural thing to do, at this point in the tech evolution, would be to transfer the mp3 files onto a good ol' mp3 player and give the whole package to them. To convey the slipping-away-ness of the storage medium, make it an mp3 flash player distinctly from the 2000s or early 2010s, not the handful of state-of-the-art ones that are still being made. Just make sure it's working and comes with any peripherals needed for playback and charging (e.g., 2nd-gen iPod Shuffle needs its dock, 3rd-gen needs earbuds with the player's control buttons on the cable).

The "newest" iPod Shuffles are still going for $40 on eBay, with older models around $15-25. The iPod Classic models go for a bit more if working, so not worth it for storing a mixtape, although perhaps worth it if you wanted to make a double-gift for a tech geek -- a nostalgic, functional iPod, and the mixtape. Avoid iPod Nanos, whose batteries bloat and compromise the screen. Non-Apple devices should be $10-15 for something decent.

With mp3 player hard drives of at least 1/2 GB, and up to 4 GB, you could easily load 10 separate mixtapes onto it if you wanted.

I don't think it would work to just give them a USB drive with the files loaded onto it, since they would just transfer the files to some other device that could play them, and then never come back to the physical token that you gave them. They should be reminded of you and your gift each time they play the songs. For that, you need to include them on a player, and only half-jokingly tell them to play them from that very device that you gifted them.

You're going to need to write some kind of note or card anyway, since you have no other way to leave them with your handwriting (unlike a cassette or CD, which you could write on directly, or on a liner sleeve). Something simple: a dedication, the date, the track list, and a reminder to listen on this device. They wouldn't see your writing every time they played it, unlike the cassette or CD, but only when they went through their memento box -- better than no writing at all, though.

* * *

Of course, this all assumes that kids these days -- or 20-somethings or 30-somethings -- have formed a close enough social-emotional bond with someone, to motivate them to commemorate that relationship with a personalized musical anthology. This was common for the last of the Gen X-ers like my college friend, but I'm less sure about the Millennials.

I'm certain they could find a current or old friend to make a playlist of songs for, and that they could get into the idea of using a CD or old mp3 player. They might not have difficulty doing the kind of mixtape which is simply a sampler of stuff you think they'd like but might not have heard yet. That is thoughtful and personalized, but not a commemoration and not conveying a larger message or impression to them.

Am I just prejudiced against a different generation? Well, when have Millennials made mixtapes for each other in any format? Again, with the purpose of making some kind of larger emotional point to the recipient, to cement a bond, not just give them a helpful sampler. The technical means have always been within their grasp -- illegally downloading mp3s, then burning onto a blank CD, and handing it or mailing it to the recipient. It's dead simple, and dirt cheap.

But did they ever do it? I've never heard them talk about the concept for their own experiences, although they may be aware of the practice among older generations. Perhaps it always has been and ever will be a Gen-X practice. Still, I think Boomers would have done it, too, if they had had the technical means available back in the '60s and '70s.

I think it does come down to Millennials and Gen Z-ers being raised entirely under helicopter parent norms, during a cocooning social mood, and under falling crime rates that make people feel safe enough to get by daily life on their own. All of those trends began circa 1990. It makes them uneasy opening up to others in a natural, sincere way. Those of us who grew up under latchkey kid norms, during an outgoing social mood, and under rising crime rates that made us rely on others, do not get paralyzed by anxiety at the thought of opening up to friends and acquaintances.

I'd be happy to be proven wrong about that, though, and it's never too late for the post-X generations to start sincere-posting IRL.

July 1, 2020

Must-hear dance-rock revival: "Something I Can Dance To" by Alright Years

First the song, then some remarks. Just heard this brand-new single tonight on college radio. Link to full song because it's not on YouTube, and Spotify only embeds a 30-second sample (gay).

Well well well, more signs of the dance-rock revival I've been predicting for the first half of the 2020s. We're out of the vulnerable phase of the excitement cycle (2015-'19), when energy levels are crashed into a refractory state and people just want to hide in their cocoons.

As of this year we've entered the restless warm-up phase, one of whose hallmarks is dance fever. That includes dance-rock fusion, which defined the last restless phase in the late 2000s (see here and here).

The manic phase has even crazier dance music -- early 2010s, late '90s, early '80s -- but when people are just waking up from a slumber, they need simple-step exercises to get their bodies back into the swing of things.

In "Something I Can Dance To" by Alright Years, there's another sign of the 15-year excitement cycle -- it's a nostalgia song, consciously referring back to an earlier time. And what do you know? -- it's nostalgic for the same phase of the cycle. It's out in 2020, a restless phase, and the lyrics refer to the last restless phase, the second half of the 2000s (Superbad, iPod shuffle, 2007). This is part of a consistent pattern of nostalgia songs reminiscing about the same phase of the cycle.

It would've been impossible to create this song in the late 2010s, when the mopey mood prevailed. (In fact, the hit nostalgia song of that period was "2002" by Anne-Marie, referring back to the last vulnerable phase.) But now that we've shifted into the restless phase, and energy levels have recovered to baseline, the musical mood has changed from emo to scene. It just sounds like it's from 2007 -- mainly Metro Station, with a little Panic! at the Disco in the vocal delivery of the pre-chorus.

Also worth noting that it's in a major key, unlike the nearly uniformly minor-key mood of a vulnerable phase. Nice hi-hats on the offbeat to set up the disco rhythm for dancing. Very bouncy.

All it needs is a MySpace-themed video -- if not a proper band video, then at least an animation of the original MySpace music player, with the track information and colored bars showing the volume.

It'll take a few years before it reaches peak intensity, but dance-rock fever is back baby!