Saturday, February 15, 2014

Shortlisted: BEYONCÉ, the Yule Log and Minute-Brew Coffee

Old School New Media Whirling Dervish, Elizabeth Murphy, 2013

The impetus behind Beyoncé’s self-titled visual album, nostalgia for the way music used to be made and heard, is something that has been on the tongues of music aficionados for some time now. In a video posted on her Facebook page, she explains:
"I feel like people experience music differently… I miss that immersive experience. Now, people only listen to a few seconds of a song on their iPods. They don’t really invest in a whole album. It’s all about the single, and the hype."
And so, Beyoncé initially released her new album online, only available for purchase as a full 14-song, 17-video package. Announced and released simultaneously, as word spread on Friday, December 12, BEYONCÉ  triggered a pop culture news/media event of a sort only made possible by compounding fame and savvy viral marketing. Like the “high holidays of mass communication” of days gone by, “audiences recognized it as an invitation–even a command–to stop their daily routines and join in a holiday experience.” For Beyoncé and her eight million-plus fans, Christmas came early, abetted by smartphones in cubicles across America. She sold a record-setting 828,773 albums in just three days, a long weekend of Beyoncé-saturated new media. As Maura Johnston points out in Vice:
“…she essentially charged admission for the conversation. People talked about the record and discovered it simultaneously, making the discussion more electrified than, say, the chatter that ensued over the months-long span between the announcement and release of Lady Gaga's ARTPOP…”
The artist's lack of promotion was a calculated risk, as was the iTunes-only delivery method of the new work. Imagine if she had produced the same visual album – a clever concept in itself -- but allowed for the standard hype and first-week physical copies. Perhaps BEYONCÉ would have surpassed the previous first-week sales record, set by *NSYNC’s No Strings Attached, which sold 2.4 million copies in March of 2000, a time when “physical music” was the default.

It's worth noting that we now have something called physical music -- as in, Walmart is “happy to be able to carry her album and support all physical music." Here Walmart plainly aims to scoop up some cred with their support of things; this statement was issued in response to Target’s announcement that they will not be selling BEYONCÉ in their stores, citing as the main reason that her digital pre-release “impacts demand and sales projections.”

“Celebrity is scaling the concept in a way that’s not possible for others,” said Washington Post's Dominic Basulto of her new album. Let's be clear: the concept is proving lucrative for her, and it's unusually clever, yes - but it's not new. A visual album? That’s been done­ -- in 2005, by an indie rock band, The Sun (and signed to Warner Bros. at the time, mind you).* Their enhanced DVD album, Blame It On The Youth, had about nine years on this technological tide before Beyoncé rode in on it with such fanfare.

Here's a peek at some of the frustrations The Sun's 2005 iteration of the visual album concept was met with:

“I'm not just reviewing a batch of songs here, I'm reviewing a DVD that a good section of the buying public can't even listen to without watching TV for an hour.”
The A.V. Club:
“The problem is that not everyone wants to watch 45 minutes of video just to hear some songs, and even though Blame It On The Youth is supposed to be fully downloadable into MP3 players, there's still a disconnect in the consumption process.”
Whatever The Sun’s missteps -- not least being signed to a major label whose execs shit their pants over YouTube -- the criticisms above, published less than 10 years ago, show just how quickly technology has hijacked the way people experience music. What The Sun did for art school kicks and adventures in multimedia, Beyoncé is now deploying (very successfully) as a gimmick to get people to fully immerse themselves in the whole of her album. As if that can't happen through your ear-holes alone, you know, by listening to the music.

She says:
“I remember seeing (it) on TV with my family. It was an event. We all sat around the TV. And I’m now looking back I was so lucky that I was born around that time. I miss that immersive experience….”
Okay, so Beyoncé was talking about Thriller herebut in the spirit of the Christmas season, let’s see what happens if we swap Thriller with "The Yule Log." Nostalgia for the immersive experience otherwise known as real life was, in fact, central to the comedic conceit of The Yule Log when it debuted on public access television in 1966: an artifact of the new ubiquity of television, an emblem of the original crisis of mass media consumption.

Screenshot of the original "Yule Log" from 1966.
Screenshot of the original "Yule Log" from 1966.

Look at us now: We love panda cams, Norway’s Slow TV is coming stateside, and innumerable live streams are always feeding, even when nobody is around to view them. And that sheer saturation of media manifests as something like an uncanny throwback. "The Yule Log" is available, even on my crappy cable plan, in SD, HD, and 3-D.

About a month ago, the nation collectively focused their attention to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy. CBS did so, in part, by streaming the network's original four-day coverage of the historic event on its website. During an episode of As The World Turns, the second-longest-running television drama of all time, CBS first broke the news in 1963, interrupting a conversation between “Bob” and “Lisa” about Thanksgiving dinner­ -- a dispute likely still unsettled when ATWT ended 54 years later (soap opera jab!). Networks were not equipped for quick video changeovers. At first, it was just the audio:
“CBS NEWS BULLETIN” appears on screen

(paper shuffling)

 Here is a bulletin from CBS news. In Dallas, Texas, three shots were fired at President Kennedy’s motorcade in downtown Dallas. The first reports say that President Kennedy has been seriously wounded by this shooting.

(paper shuffling)

More details just arrived. These details about the same as previously. President Kennedy shot today just as his motorcade left downtown Dallas. Mrs. Kennedy jumped up and grabbed Mr. Kennedy, she called, ‘oh no’, the motorcade sped on. United Press says that the wounds for President Kennedy perhaps could be fatal. Repeating, a bulletin from CBS news, President Kennedy has been shot by a would-be assassin in Dallas, Texas. Stay tuned to CBS news for further details.
The “continuous coverage” which streamed on last month -- dubbed “As It Happened”, and which you can buy for $35.99 on -- would begin moments later, with the President confirmed dead. Until then, with nothing more for CBS to report, whoever was home at 1 pm on Friday, November 22, 1963 (watching the one and only program on television at that time of day) was abruptly thrown back into the simulacrum of the soap -- it's a juxtaposition that must have been as jarring as it was unprecedented.

In the absence of news, a swinging clock pendulum reappeared on screen. Midway through a commercial for Nescafe Minute-Brew coffee, a voiceover delivers the line: “Anybody can make a coffee more instant, but Nescafe makes it more coffee.”

Here’s to making things more coffee.

*This doesn’t matter, but for the sake of full disclosure: The Sun are from my hometown of Columbus, Ohio, and I appear in one of the videos. Further unnecessary clarification: the video I'm in is not the one with people masturbating.

Originally posted on Walker Blogs, December 27, 2013