“I’m Hurting” is probably the most traditional song on Madness and Morals. My Communicative Education partner, Shane http://communicativeed.wordpress.com/, heard it for the first time last night and observed that it sounds like “Elvira” by the Oak Ridge Boys. He’s totally right, I discovered to my consternation. The beat is certainly the same, but then virtually all of what in the U.S. we call “country music” has the bum-chicka bum-chicka rhythm. The melody, at least of the first line or two, is pretty explicitly that of “Mercy, Mercy,” the first song on the Rolling Stones’ Out of Our Heads (1965), but the beat is the old timey bum-chicka. So today’s issue, Dear Reader, is the problem of intellectual property and copyright and ultimately the nature of creativity. On one hand, authors legitimately demand to be recognized for their creations, but on the other hand, those same authors did not create the materials from which they effected their creation. Right away I will confess that I am confused and ambivalent. These issues in their contemporary form were treated well if somewhat superficially in the 2008 documentary RiP: A Remix Manifesto. That film rightly points out that artists have always drawn their materials from the art of the past. However, the film does not attempt to distinguish among artistic borrowing (or allusion), plagiarism and piracy.
I will treat piracy, the last and simplest of these, first. Before the invention of the printing press, piracy was not a problem. Nobody objected if somebody took the trouble to copy out, say, a philosophical treatise, longhand. Indeed, I have heard that in certain phases of the Middle Ages, if you wanted your philosophical treatise to be taken seriously, you would ascribe it to Aristotle. The situation changed when books could be mass produced by the technology of printing. Authors hoped to make money with their pens (translated into printed pages) and they certainly did not appreciate their works being printed and sold in unauthorized editions from which the authors gained no profit. And so copyright law evolved. Unfortunately, human moral awareness typically does not keep up with technological progress; people understood the violation of copyright protection (a new legal category necessitated by the printing press) as equivalent to “piracy” or theft. But copyright violation differs from theft in that the “owner” is deprived not of a object of possession (the only copy of a book, say) but of the potential profits of the reproduction of that object. One could say with Walter Benjamin that a text, as opposed to a painting or the first edition of a book, does not display the aura of authenticity. A text can be copied as the Mona Lisa or an actual Gutenberg Bible cannot. (Artists of anarchist bent like Marcel Duchamps have a lot of fun putting beards on the Mona Lisa, but that has to do with allusion and not with piracy.)
If I were writing a book now, and not a public broadside, I would go into more detail about the history of copyright. Instead I will fast-forward to our current age, in which the content of digital media is infinitely reproducible, not just by those with expensive duplicating equipment, but by anybody with access to (pretty much) any digital device. This technological change has led to a cultural change: instead of paying to read this post in a newspaper, book or magazine, Dear Reader, you may read it for free at louderthandirt.wordpress.com. Of course, you can just as easily post your own bloggified meditations, and that’s great. But our culture and indeed our economy has made a tradeoff: in order to enjoy democratized access to digital content, that content is infinitely reproducible. Legal claims—copyright law—are not sufficient to limit this universal access. So when movies came available in the digital format of DVD, manufacturers install copy protection in an attempt to limit reproduction. But there is no lock that can’t be picked, and unlike a burglar, the copyist of a DVD is merely reproducing what is already infinitely reproducible. And, not depriving anybody of anything except potential profit. So I would say that capitalism must adapt to the inevitable universalization of digitized content. The Rolling Stones, for example, haven’t had a hit record in decades, but they make millions by overcharging for concert appearances.
The situation is more complex when we shift focus to plagiarism, which is not the mere reproduction of content, but the claim to have produced it. I must admit that this worries me. But this is an ethical issue, it seems to me, and only subordinately a legal one. (I’m not that concerned about legal issues anyway. I just made the self-incriminating claim that I’m okay with piracy.) Regardless of questions of legal soundness, it is not right to claim as one’s own the product of another’s efforts. This side of things worries me because I might be victimized by the unethical actions of somebody out in internet-world. Specifically, I would be delighted if some pirate made Louder Than Dirt go viral. I would be bummed if some plagiarist made “I’m Hurting” go viral claiming that song as his own. Now, a teacher can enforce the ethical stricture against plagiarism is school, but there is no such enforcement mechanism in society generally. Copyright law is aimed at illegal copying, but not primarily at claims of authorship. So basically we have the general relation of ethics and law: the individual is the only real enforcer of ethics.
The situation is further complicated when we consider artistic creation. As you know, Dear Reader, creativity is, along with integrity and loudness, one of the tenets of the Louder Than Dirt Credo. And I have defined creativity as the “capacity for translating the promptings of the imagination into material form.” Notice that imagination is spontaneous and preconscious, but it is not creation out of nothing. First, the production of mental images is obviously a physiological and not supernatural function. Secondly, and more importantly, any object of imaginary “origin” is in fact not original at all but comes from the material world. For example, I once had a dream focused upon an object made of ceramic, glazed with blue enamel, shaped a bit like a ten-legged caterpillar, with a circular black microphone built into its upturned head; the auditory instruction was issued from somewhere, “Speak (or blow?) into the biomorphic artifact.” Now, I’ve never seen such an object, but it obviously assembles things that I have seen, caterpillars and microphones and whatnot. Just so, a song is composed out of words, musical phrases and so forth that have a prior existence. And the grain of presentation, the grossness or fineness of the re-presentation, varies considerably. On the one hand there is the explicit quotation we call allusion; on the other hand, there is ever more microscopic micro-sampling.
To my ears, “I’m Hurting” has almost none of the former but tons of the latter. In contrast, the lyrics of “Disco Superman (Michel Foucault)” consist almost entirely of allusions to the work of the author explicitly names in the song’s title. The “Elvira”-like tempo and bum-chicka of “I’m Hurting” are just part of the idiom of American music. The three-note melody, E E C, is identical to that of “Mercy, Mercy,” but the tempo and rhythm differ, and come on, it’s only three notes (or two with one repeated!). A more interesting example of micro-sampling comes in Adam’s piano part. When we worked up “I’m Hurting,” Adam (ever the scholar) noticed that the tempo allowed him to play his “Professor Longhair riff.” Yes indeed, but the third chord requires an adjustment. The first two chords, the I and the IV (C and F in the key of C), accommodate the P. L. riff fine, but the third chord has no Roman numeral since nobody in the western tonal tradition (Bach, for example) would ever use that chord: B-flat in the key of C. You can use the note, but not the chord. So Adam can use a measure-and-a-half of Professor Longhair and then must make up his own whatever it is. I defy you to call that theft, piracy, plagiarism or any wrong. It’s just how artistic creativity works. Is Chuck Berry going to sue us because we play a back-beat and play in the key of C?
I like how I approached the writing of “I’m Hurting” as a style study. The inspiration came from George Harrison’s love of Carl Perkins (micro-sampling!) and one’s admiration for the Beatles’ compendious approach to tempo, rhythm and style generally. So I tried quite deliberately to write a sloppy bum-chicka song. The lyrics in the bridge represent an ambivalent allusion to Nietzsche’s myth of the eternal return http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eternal_return. On an emotional level, traumas seem to return eternally while happy moments, once you have experienced them, are gone for good. I know. Psychologically disturbed, but in one of these posts I will discuss, if I haven’t already, how we pour all sorts of disturbance and conflict and sorrow into art in order to keep it there instead of in real life. While there is some therapeutic value for the author in that action, the broader social value is that it allows everybody to contemplate conflict and horror at a safe distance while simultaneously enjoying artistic form and, indeed, entertainment (which is not to be dismissed).
Usual kudos for the band’s performance. The song is quite simple, and I appreciate that my bandmates never profess boredom with simple or repetitive parts. Joseph does a particularly good job of creating the sloppy effect without in the least playing sloppily. I know this praise sounds tepid, but I must acknowledge that “I’m Hurting” did not confront us with the technical challenges of, say, “Beloved Tease.” By the way, did I mention Julian’s exquisite vocals on that tune https://louderthandirt.wordpress.com/2011/10/12/dk-goes-song-by-song-thru-madness-and-morals-beloved-tease-2/? Adam sings the hell out of “I’m Hurting,” and thanks for the background vocals go out to Janis Joplin, I mean me. I must also acknowledge that I play some pretty good lead guitar on this song.
In the past, LTD gave its songs away on its website and charged only for physical CD’s. However, in an effort to defray production expenses we are going to distribute Madness and Morals online through BandCamp.com, in addition to CD’s. The charge will be minimal. Essentially we are asking our fans to support our efforts and understand that our expenses outweigh by a considerable margin any revenues that we take in. Go ahead and copy and distribute to your heart’s content—as I say, we are delighted when more and more people hear our music. But consider slipping us a few bucks to facilitate the production of our next CD.