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In Trouw (NL: trowamsterdam.nl), September 27-29 2012.
This Saturday Les Enfants Terribles invites DJ Sprinkles (Terre Thaemlitz) to De Verdieping to play a three hour deep house set during their hosting night at Imprint. We thought we keep it short and were planning to ask Terre three questions. But Terre was so kind to take the time to answer every question in detail. Something we seldom see nowadays. We decided to split the answer, so here's part one. The two other questions and answers will follow in the next days. Take your time for once and don't click back to your Facebook, 'cause this is interesting stuff.
September 27, 2012: Part #1
Les Enfant Terribles: Hi Terre! From what we've read in other interviews you seem to have a very outspoken opinion on the state of (electronic) music today. Please allow me to set out a small summary of your opinion on this matter to make sure I fully understand your arguments, before asking you a few questions related to it.
If we understand correctly popularity of records is often determined before it's even on the market due to, amongst others, the production & distribution mechanisms of capitalist political economy. This severs actual productional quality of a record from its popularity. This then leads to the situation where music sold to the public is worlds away from the music that would be on sale if people had a real choice in the matter. As opposed to these pre-determined taste "preferences" and prefabricated identities that are pushed on us.
Apart from that you state that house music is affected by a conservative backlash as it went from a free and experimental environment to a very traditional one due to the sheer scale of todays market and the resulting pressure on producers to cough up tracks like machines.
All of this seems to point in the direction of an unfriendly environment for contemporary music, both for the artists and the consumers. It could be argued that this is leading to a radical drop in artistic quality of musical output: A pessimistic conclusion about the state of electronic music.
This situation leads me to the following question(s): Would you say above statements are a more or less accurate reflection of your views on the subject? In case I misunderstood, could you kindly elaborate? And more importantly, related to the issues above, how would you describe your own music? Seeing as it's not very realistic to disconnect yourself completely from the current production system, you must have thoughts about how to position your music within the framework imposed by our current capitalist "zeitgeist".
Terre Thaemlitz: Yes, this is all very old news, and completely documented by mainstream media itself. It's not conspiracy theory. It's SOP. In the ‘70s there was the Billboard scandal, where it was exposed that record labels had been purchasing chart placements for decades. It is also easy to understand that tracks or producers with major financial push and promotion behind them will receive more press (which goes hand-in-hand with labels and PR firms buying advertising space in magazines and online), get their products prominently placed in all the major shops, etc. This is standard capitalism - money talks. Then there are more subtle things, like when online shops list their "best sellers." Often times this does not refer to what records the shop has sold the most of, but what records distributors sold to them in the largest quantity. Many "best seller" records would be more accurately described as "biggest stock influx records." It's similar to the way that first-edition books come from the printer with "#1 Best Seller" printed right on the cover - it is not a "legal lie", but certainly a misdirected quote of the fact they are talking about sales from publishers to distributors, or distributors to shops -not the actual number of consumer purchases from stores. Of course, store buyers bring in what they expect to sell, and they also have an invested interest (literally) in recouping their expenses by ensuring they sell the items they bought in large quantities, so this is all considered an acceptable hype to move product and pay the rent. And for sure, there are buyers who go out on a limb to support unsellable projects they like, despite their bosses' opposition. But what defines a "best seller" is not simply consumer purchases. It is more about everything leading up to the consumer's "choice." Yes, there is consumer choice - but it is not an idyllic choice born of free will amidst endless possibilities. Our choices are crafted and limited both economically and culturally. We choose within a generally small range of available possibilities. That's all. And those possibilities generally tie back to a business model of some sort - even for small shops.
Within this setting, I would describe my projects - hell, myself as a person - as "referential." I am not at all interested in authenticity, uniqueness, originality, etc. If I concede that my own subjective tastes - even seemingly perverse or deviant ones - emerge from my exposure to culture, then originality is no longer a possibility. Originality is only a representational fiction, which is ultimately either in the employ of metaphysics or capitalist enterprises - none of which appeal to me. So once all that bullshit artistic rhetoric is thrown out the window, I think it is a little easier to think about how audio and other media are really affecting us on a socio-material level. How they support or subvert certain systems of domination - often hypocritically doing both at the same time. And this affects my modes of production. For example, sampling is not just a way of copying some other author's original riff - it is a way of constructing sonic footnotes, and creating social traces. It can be a way of constructing histories. However, we clearly live in a cultural environment where it is unsafe for audio producers to talk openly about what samples they used if they were unable to afford the legal clearances. This severely limits the depth of discourses around sample-based audio, and binds us to the privilege of authenticity. Most people tend to internalize this limitation of discourse, and feel it makes sense to discourage sampling in favor of every "artist" developing their own "original" sounds and compositions - unless they have a massive budget like Puff Daddy, then all's cool, right? But through my projects I am interested in revealing that this fundamental internalization of belief in artistry is, in effect, the very internalization of a cultural domination that severely confines audio production, distribution, and consumption.
End of Part #1
Les Enfant Terribles: As in chemistry where every reaction is determined by it's context (heat, pressure etc) so it is often said that musical cultures are purely a reflection or expression determined by the contexts from which they came. On a broad global scale you can generally observe that when the new left ideology of the 60's & 70's gave way to the current neoliberal one, mainstream musical culture / industry surely changed with it. This should imply a relationship between ideologies (or peoples beliefs if you will) and musical cultures. Would you agree with this? And do you believe that, on a global scale, mainstream musical culture is purely a reflection of our current zeitgeist or can mainstream musical culture also influence and change our zeitgeist? Looking at it on a more local scale, where music is often used to express traumas like discrimination of minorities, can the music that comes out of these minority musical cultures help change their situation or will it always be "stuck" as a reflection? In your answer could you perhaps elaborate on how these local musical cultures and our mainstream musical culture interact? And perhaps you have a few ideas on how musical culture will change the next decade when looking at how interconnected our society is becoming.
Terre Thaemlitz: Yes, I do believe music is inseparable from ideology. I think music and audio media are basically languages built of sound. Despite most people treating music as a pre-lingual universal, the fact that each of us only respond positively to certain genres (and more importantly, that we all have genres we totally hate, which should be an impossibility if music truly were universal) indicates that we are not just responding to sounds, but to their structuring. Music is structured even when employing the signs of improvisation. There is an immediately identifiable difference between, say, improvisational jazz and improvised Baroque keyboard embellishments. We respond to different genres not only in relation to sound, but in relation to our understanding of those practices' relationships to class, ethnicity, wealth, gender, etc. And many times our understandings can be greatly misguided or twisted in prejudiced ways by musical mainstreams. So anyone who claims they can simply appreciate "sound as sound" is either a liar or a dupe. I'd say most are dupes.
When you bring up music on a global scale, and the spread of certain styles, we are simultaneously conjuring and concealing issues of cultural imperialism. For me, the fact that Western pop music dominates the planet signifies something brutal and grotesque: globalization. At the same time, to exclusively imbue pop music with all the power of White Male domination erases how, for example, the US "White" pop sound was heavily influenced by African Americans. Those African American musics were developed under the extremes of slavery and racial discrimination, which forced them to be something other than traditional African musics (complicating the notion of a purist "black music" in the US as well). And of course those non-US African musics, like musics in other continents, were influenced by exposure to different musical practices and instruments through trade routes, etc. Meanwhile, other countries are currently adapting Western pop music into their own things via exposure through trade routes, and so on... Because of all this, I cannot claim to know what pop music means on a global scale, in all of those various contexts. It certainly reflects more zeitgeists than our own. This is not to say pop musics from other countries are something to get excited about (Korean "K-Pop," Japanese "J-Pop," etc.). I prefer to remain generally suspect of all mainstream musics, since they seem to provide the soundtrack to so many economic and social abuses. I can't imagine any culture's "mainstream" being free of implication in such abuses.
About whether we are terminally "stuck," I don't think anyone could deny that the perspectives of those of us who actively and politically identify with our cultural alienations are also conditioned, educated, and infused with a lot of mainstream shit. This can be seen in the lack of imagination behind Lesbian and Gay "love marriages" (as opposed to marriages clearly rooted in political necessity, such as securing health insurance for one's partner); or gender reassignments rooted in the desire to cure gender dysphoria by attempting to surgically align one's body image with one of two acceptable gender variants under heteronormative patriarchies (two very culturally biased concepts of "man" or "woman"). The desire for acceptance saturates most every major minority movement, no matter how "deviant" it may be represented by mainstream culture. This clearly results in very complex, and often times hypocritical, relationships between the acts of internalizing and constructing media from an underclass. The example I brought up in "Ball'r (Madonna-Free Zone)" from Midtown 120 Blues was the tension between queers who saw Madonna's "Vogue" as an unforgivable act of cultural imperialism, and those who saw it as a moment of long overdue mainstream recognition. The difference came down to where one culturally derived their sense of validation - from the mainstream, or from that which was deliberately other-than-mainstream (generally in traumatic resistance to that which oppresses). For me, praise from the mainstream is similar to a warm moment of approval from an abusive parent. It is a completely understandable, yet brutally twisted desire. It's quite sad, actually. And I am therefore unable and unwilling to celebrate such cultural moments of "recognition."
As for the future of music, we can all see the ways that globalization exploits a model of controlled diversity, mainly focusing on providing a variety of consumer choices. And like I said in the beginning, we choose within a generally small range of available possibilities. We are actually in an era where the constructed nature of this faux diversity is becoming more transparent - such as a single fast food restaurant serving items from two different restaurant chains, like KFC and Pizza Hut. Have you seen these places? There was a time when the Left believed that transparency was the key to dismantling the hegemonies of dominant cultures, but this strategy has been coopted by the Right. It seems that for most people it makes no difference that all 20 shops in a shopping mall, each with their own individual visual branding and identities, are owned by just one or two massive corporations. For sure, the transparency of buying Pizza Hut items at a KFC comes along with a meta-layer of obfuscation. We can now see the two chains are connected, but by whom, and exactly how, remains vague. That meta-layer of vagary is not just the future of music, but in relation to major labels, it's absolutely the present.
The same goes for films - like Disney owning Touchstone, Hollywood Pictures, Miramax Films, and on… Diversity in media is not about actual difference, but about a controlled level of white noise that leaves us with the sensation of consumer choice. Market researchers understand that as long as people have the appearance of free-will choices when shopping, that seems to be enough. It's just like Devo sang in "Freedom of Choice."
In the world of minor labels, that Disney-esque corporate role is played by the distributors. They coordinate the physical manufacture, distribution, and sale of items by labels who sign a contract with them. Most people only see the dependency of small labels on distributorships as a bad thing when they go out of business - like when Germany's EFA collapsed in 2003 and took dozens of labels down with them. But the dependencies are there, directing our choices. And those limited choices are enough for most people.
The same goes for online audio culture, where most people limit themselves to YouTube, MySpace, Facebook, and Soundcloud. The fact that I don't have user ID's or pages on any of those renders me invisible to a lot of people I meet these days. They really don't know how to contact me, or find my online shop, despite the fact that they just need to type my name in a search engine to get a direct link to my website. People are that fucking lazy these days. They seem to want to have their interactions mediated by those other corporate websites. So that's what I see the audio marketplace becoming - a billion choices almost completely restricted to a very few select platforms. And a key reality of this circumstance is the fact that the majority of people - even those active in fringe media - will not feel the restrictiveness of their end-user options.
End of Part #2
Les Enfant Terribles: Apart from being a musician you seem to have put quite some time into understanding the way modern music industry functions within our current society. However, if you had the chance, wouldn't you like to share your knowledge concerning the subject with the public on a much larger scale? For, especially arguing from a Marxist perspective, we need people (dare I say intellectuels) like yourself to show the general population how these frameworks are affecting us. Only then can we start doing something about it. Is this the reason for your research and writings concerning the subject? If so, wouldn't you feel like your knowledge needs a wider platform so it can reach a larger audience? And following from this, how do you view artists like Bono that use their position within this system to, perhaps hypocritically (but still), spread a message of peace and "change". Is it all just a big scam to make money?
Terre Thaemlitz: As for "politically vocal artists" like Bono, Madonna, Lady Gaga, etc., I think they probably believe in what they are doing. I don't know any of them, so I have no reason to doubt their sincerity. But I think their ideological reconciliation with dominant culture is part-and-parcel with their ability to have become prominent figures within dominant culture. And this reconciliation with dominant culture - regardless of how deliberate or conscious - ultimately undermines any subversive potential they wish to manifest. Of course, in the end, they are not about cultural subversion, but about a kind of Humanist agenda for mainstream acceptance of all peoples. The problem with this logic is that it chooses to overlook the ways that most cultural diversity is actually born of oppressions - reacting with or against domination. So they fail to see that their ultimate goal of "mainstream acceptance for all" would be the death of actual diversity. They are promoting KFC meets Pizza Hut diversity.
Some people might then ask me, "You don't want all people to be accepted?" To which I reply in complete honesty that I believe acceptance to be an impossibility. We are too brutal and ignorant of an animal. Therefore, I am more concerned with identifying and reacting against the threats to diversity that I see happening under Humanism, from the Left, Center and Right. In which case, from a pragmatic level, the question of whether I want all people to be accepted is entirely moot. Of course, stupid people might hear my refusal to embrace the rhetoric of acceptance as a counter-embrace of separatism. That is not the case at all. I am not a separatist - I am right here, fucked up and implicated in all this mess. But when it comes to talk of acceptance, moot is moot! Humanist rhetoric keeps us speaking in a pointless loop. I want to hear, think, and speak in other terms as much as possible. Terms that do not try to replace my anger, outrage, depression, and horror at the violence of this fucking shit planet with sugar-coated talk of a brighter day. Let's figure out how to actually talk about today, and be motivated even in the absence of a payoff tomorrow, because we really can't take what is happening today! But it's difficult, not only personally in relation to deprogramming my own thinking, but in social interactions with others as well. How does one strategize to communicate through the absence of shared language, rather than the typical presumption of dumbing things down for mass appeal?
So this affects my concept of audience, too. Most fundamentally, my concept of myself as a consumer, and how I have come to relate to certain media while rejecting others. Someone like Lady Gaga is all about the Pink Economy, and creating mainstream recognition of Lesbian and Gay identities for people to embrace and consume. According to that essentialist model, Lesbian and Gay identities are things that exist in and of themselves (ie., "born this way"), which were traditionally ostracized but can now be blended into mainstream society. That thinking is completely alienating to me, in that I consider my queer and transgendered identities as socially constructed outgrowths of, and reactions to, mainstream dominations. The queer and transgendered forms I take, the life choices I make, the life choices that are mentally and physically forced upon me, these are also quite few and limited because these identities arose through a combination of protest against, and struggle to exist amidst, dominant gender and sexual orders. My identities do not exist in and of themselves. On a gut level I cannot "feel" identities within in me, other than to feel how I was socially led to feel about them - often at the exclusion of other feelings or sexual object choices. The question of genetics and how one was "born" is secondary to the fact that we socially operate in relation to choices to accept or ostracize others. So for me, even the most fringe identities are always derivative, implicated, part-and-parcel with the systems of domination through which they take on the appearance of perversity. Identities are not who we are. They are strategies employed and rejected in our navigation of cultural tides. Therefore, if I wish to address and represent this model of diversity - which I hope you can see is completely different from the model proposed by Humanist Liberalism, Bono, Madonna and Gaga - the notion of a wide audience loses its appeal. In fact, a wide audience would prohibit the discussion from going anywhere, simply because the terms of commonality that communications on that scale rely upon are too broad and homogenizing to convey my points. I would be limited to the already familiar terms used by the likes of Madonna and Gaga. For me, those terms are patently offensive, patently misdirecting, patently alienating, patently suffocating. My target audience is those who are similarly disgusted. I realize that is not the only type of person who listens to my albums, but I am basically ambivalent about the rest. Asking me to speak to a wider audience would be like asking me to explain calculus to people who only need to know algebra. There is a need for queers and trans-people to produce media that focuses on cultivating language that delves deep into our experiences and struggles, without the unreasonable expectation that the messages make sense to anyone and everyone. That expectation is another device of that keeps people from developing contextually specific discourses and strategies against dominations that are not experienced by everyone. My priority is in trying to generate projects capable of sharing useful language with similarly disaffected people. I do not want to focus on "making the general public aware of the plights of others."
I am a nihilist. I don't believe in telos. I don't believe in progress. Those are all smoke and mirror tricks of representation. For every increase in our standard of living, countless others in poorer countries are forced into industrial sweatshops. One group rises, only to have another fall. So over the decades I have tried to distance myself from the Humanist trappings of vague goals like "world peace," which I believe are too ungrounded to be useful. Rather than focusing on "Yes we can!" dreams of what we wish to happen - dreams that are always rooted in desires corrupted by the dominations of the present - I prefer to talk in pragmatic terms of identifying and obstructing forms of violence and discriminations that are no longer tolerable. There is a huge difference between saying some fluffy shit about how "we all need to get along together regardless of gender or sexuality," and getting specific about reacting to the very real acts of violence and discrimination thrust upon us. While mainstream discourse focuses on solving problems through cooperation, there is also a simultaneous demand for noncooperation. There is a need to refuse to participate in certain patterns of domination - if only briefly, and chaotically, dare we die. I can't help but feel that the rhetoric of optimism diverts us from any specificity of action. It's like a fucking impenetrable fog. So fuck optimism. Let me work with what I know… negativity, anger, alienation. At least it's real. And when trying to enact material changes, I think it's always better to start from positions that are rooted in the real - not in our fucking dreams born of our desires to overcome the oppressions beaten into us. I value a direct attempt to reduce violence over the promise of realizing a dream, any day.
There are also practical advantages to a small audience. For example, going back to the sampling issue, it is impossible for people without money to legally clear all their samples. For most of the twentieth century, the history of sample-based electronic music - from musique concrete to hip-hop to house - found protection in its small audiences which reduced the chances of "getting caught." These days, with everything online, sample-based producers have to worry about recognition software developed by media industries to scan files online and compare them to databases of images, sounds, texts and videos they legally control. The software is really sophisticated. For example, image recognition software used by Getty Images is actually able to identify fragments of images that have been used in a completely different collage image. It's totally scary shit. Plus you have weird music community blog sites asking people to identify all the audio samples they recognize in different tracks, which I can only assume are trolled daily by legal reps - if the sites weren't actually made by them. Culturally, do we really want to log all this shit online for major label legal squads to sift through? And you're kidding yourself if you think they don't. I mean, there are corporate trolls in Second Life whose job is just to go around listening for people using unlicensed music in their spaces, and then send those people emails asking them to pay back royalties. It's a self-sustaining industry with employees and everything! This is all part of how mainstream culture does not allow for certain kinds of audio discourses to develop, or certain discussions to take place. Deliberately or not, that is the end result. Basically, it is the tyranny of authorship.