Monday, January 23, 2012

PIPA, SOPA, and the Lifestyles of the Rich and the Famous

Entertainment and Large-Corporatism
Who remembers DIY punk rock?  As a 20-year-old, I sure don’t.  Once, they say, this lifestyle movement was such a bright beacon of anti-consumerist, anti-mass media energy that Bob Marley himself (now, of course, just another tragic casualty in global capitalism’s attrition war on authenticity, but once, I’m told, a veritable High Priest of nonmaterialism) found the soul mate of his spiritual roots reggae in punk’s discontented spasms.  But by the time I was in middle school, this radical proposition - the proposition that the creative act of making music should never let itself become another unexamined way for the slimy-jowled back-room fat-cats of the world to line their pockets by exploiting the insatiable appetites of the developed world, even if that meant willfully choosing guaranteed obscurity over any shot at fame, in short, the proposition that there might be some force in the human spirit that is not reducible to a money-making enterprise - had been bought and sold in a manner that might have seemed ironic at first glance.  Except that it’s not ironic, because it’s perfectly logical in a society grossly infected by the malignant bacteria of Big Capital.

The narrative that the DIYers proclaimed was that the “big labels” - which of course are really just limbs of the handful of multinational corporate behemoths that have had the “free world” at gunpoint for decades - threatened their “artistic freedom” by placing the demands of “the mainstream” over the immunity of artistic expression.  How quaint and wishful this battle cry now seems.  The crime has never been that, faced with a conflict between a pre-existing, massive “mainstream” audience who all uniformly crave a specific “pop” musical sound and musical groups who have no interest in providing that sound but instead wish to create music that happens to have a type of sound that few people are interested in listening to, these labels choose not to invest money in the groups whose sound doesn’t line up with what most people want.  In fact, the real narrative here is that the very existence of a “mainstream”, of an absurdly large portion of the world whose musical tastes all happen to fall on a few dozen artists playing a handful of specific styles, is a construction by the entertainment and media industry, a stratagem to finance their obscene lifestyles.

Getting Mainstreamed by the MES
How is it possible that out of all the millions of musical artists currently operating out there in the world, or even in the USA, millions upon millions of music consumers would all pick the same favorite few artists, all have iPods filled with nearly identical playlists?  Isn’t the very idea of a Top 40 list, where only 40 specific songs, out of the thousands that are released every day, are paid for by the majority of consumers, an absolute absurdity?  The answer is no - what makes this incredible congruity of tastes that we take for granted whenever we speak of the “mainstream consumer” possible is something I will here call the Mass Entertainment System.  And what makes this system possible is the mind-boggling greed of almost everyone who comes into contact with the entertainment industry.  

So what is the Mass Entertainment System (MES)?  It is the system that presents the consumer with a limited number of big-industry-supporting artists (“are you a Miley Cyrus fan, or a Taylor Swift fan?  Do you prefer Jay-Z or Lil Wayne?  The Flaming Lips or Wilco?”) who stand for pre-determined consumerist lifestyles and whose popularity is a direct engine of disgustingly unfair corporate profits.  The MES involves an entrenched capitalist logic whereby one’s choice of entertainment  is made semi-consciously on the basis of one’s choice of “lifestyle”, while at the same time this choice of “lifestyle” actually represents a choice between various preset versions of the kind of alienating consumption that free trade requires.  This system exists for no other reason but the bottom line, and the well-known excesses of everyone from major-label artists themselves to the corporate heads of labels makes it clear that the system is inherently exploitative.
It is crucial to the MES that while people feel they have a choice between the several personality-lifestyle-consumption “sets”, these sets are fundamentally predesigned as whole packages, with little real room for deviation or customization.  This is necessary because it is the only way to make lifestyle choice a tool of mass-marketing.  In other words, are you a country fan, a hip-hop fan, a pop fan, or an alternative fan?  If music as a commodity existed in a cultural vacuum, and if it were typical for the average consumer to design his own stylistic preferences “from scratch”, as it were, choosing from among the millions of extent recording artists with no attention to which were already popular, it would be impossible for the big labels to make the kinds of obscene returns they enjoy currently from sinking huge investments into a small cadre of artists chosen to be made into celebrities.  In other words, in a hypothetical world where consumers didn’t give preference to certain artists because they’re already famous, a Jay-Z or Miley Cyrus could never exist as they do today.  This, though, is wishful thinking: This consumption-as-lifestyle tactic has been in operation since at least the “culture wars” of the sixties and owes much of its dehumanizing tendencies to the consumerism-for-consumerism’s-sake culture that has been inculcated by American capitalist interests since the end of WWII.

I only use the music industry as an example of what Big Entertainment does to culture because it is what I’m most familiar with, but film would serve as easily.  Any thinking person should already be aware that the vast majority of movies pumped out by the major studios every year are derivative junk that play into cultural expectations of certain tropes, plotlines, character personas, etc. which have been created by Hollywood over its history.  It is not that Americans/Westerners are born with an innate desire for stupid action movies, insipid romantic comedies, horror movies (which I won’t even give an adjective).  American culture, which for much of the twentieth century has been constructed by the corporate interests of the entertainment industries, teaches us from an early age about a few different kinds of movies, about happy endings, about a 2-hour timeframe and a certain narrative arc, etc.

What I am trying to create an awareness of here is something I call the act of mainstreaming and its role in the entertainment industry today.  Mainstreaming, the practice of which utilizes advertising, ideology, celebrity culture, and other social tools in all their permutations and combinations - is the act of creating a mainstream.  The entertainment industry, which in its corporate structure is close to monolithic, has consistently mainstreamed the entertainment of desires of the western world for many decades now.  Why?  Because the finances of big-money entertainment - action movies that cost millions in SFX costs, albums that cost six digits to produce - demand that these corporate interests be assured of the general demand for a specific music or movie before it is even created.  We know that Alvin and the Chipmunks 3 will make money, despite its worthlessness as a creative statement, because the mainstreaming of the entertainment culture of American children guarantees that parents will bring their children to it.

The Internet and the Freedom of Information
What does all this have to do with the current debate over PIPA and SOPA?  These potential laws represent Big Entertainment’s most recent and most brazen attempt to use the state as a corporate-interest-protector, “Robocop”-style, against the radical forces of intellectual-property theft which is currently dismantling the Mass Entertainment System and freeing the social flow of information.  As the critics of these bills have stressed again and again, they represent an attempt to fundamentally change how the internet works by making intermediaries and even ISPs legally liable for supposed damages caused by the sharing of copyrighted material.  To understand why this is necessary to the MES, and why corporate interests from far beyond the entertainment industry are ardent supporters of the bills, it is necessary to examine how the internet as it exists today threatens the profit structures of huge swaths of the corporate world.
The internet is a technology which is perhaps comparable to electricity in its ability to infiltrate and alter nearly every aspect of the human experience.  In a sense, though, the rise of the internet is, or is becoming, implicit in a far greater scope of radical change because while electricity allowed us to distribute physical power almost instantaneously, efficiently and easily, the internet does the same instead to information.  The online “world” actually consists purely of information, an immaterial substance created solely by the human race.  It is not a series of tubes; it is a collective repository of information, the vast majority of which is the well-deserved birthright of every living human.  Nothing distributed by the internet can directly harm or infringe upon the rights of other people; information is intangible.  Considering this, a viewpoint presents itself by which the information of the human race as a whole should be considered the fundamental birthright of every member of the collective, the race.

Of course, personal propriety of very recent creative information should be protected, within a reasonable temporal frame.  The current US model of pharmaceutical patents, where newly minted  information (i.e. chemical patents) is protected, legally isolated from the great current of the public domain, for less than a decade - this is more in the direction of appropriate intellectual property law than the decades-after-the-author-dies system that, by contrast, governs creative works today.  This approach retains a strong financial incentive to contributing new information, new creative entertainment, but at the same time, arises from a ground of public domain, shared collective interests, considerations of the true value of public property and the cost of its loss.

For most of the 20th century, the monied, capitalist interests of the large labels, studios, and distributers have controlled this information the way a mob controls the drug flow into a city.  Now, the internet alone is a radical game-changer in the flow of information.  Users, freed of much (but not all) of the large-corporate structures that have only recently begun to lose their oligarchic grip on “intellectual property” (i.e. information) It is natural, then, that the internet has been seen as threatening to intellectual property rights in this nation almost since its birth in the early nineties.  Ironically, this occurs even as, elsewhere in public life, the national and multi-national firms that comprise Big Oil, Big Coal, Big Financial, the super PACs, continue to tighten their norming, commodifying, alienating hold on the populations of the world.

The PIPA/SOPA debate is not the first, but is definitely the most frightening, of large-corporatism's cannonblasts against the freedom of the internet, a freedom which challenges its domination over global culture in a way that nothing has in a long time.  This is why the great forces of the large-corporate world, with the exception of a few internet giants like Google, stand behind the legislation.  The PIPA/SOPA question is but a single battle in the larger war over whether, eventually, the internet will succumb to large-corporate control or remain free and therefore inherently antagonistic to large-coroporatism.  One only need look at television and radio to see how far large-corporatism can go in controlling the flow of information through a given medium.  The only difference with the internet is that the technology does not lend itself to centralized control the way that television and radio do; therefore, the corporations have resulted to legal battles, and their attempts to dominate all information flow by any means necessary will not stop with this apparently failed legislation. 

In 2011 we look forward to a century where the individualistic value systems will have to be abandoned in favor of collectivist thinking, or we, as a people, risk losing much.  We only must consider that, on both population- and species- wide levels, many the human race’s necessary resources on this planet are unavoidably finite.  Information, notably, is not finite.  It easily travels at the speed of light, is extracted out of thin air - or out of anything, “mined” as easily from the physical world as the subjective mind.  With infrastructure (which is minimal - cables, servers) provided for, information can easily be sent anywhere it is needed, rapidly and in detail, where it may... save a life? avert a crime? prevent tyranny? Information has infinite uses.  What may not be immediately obvious about the implications of collectivist thinking, in terms of information, energy considerations, housing, health care, whatever, is that the first obstacle that collectivist thinking will encounter in its widespread application is the large-corporate systems that currently structure the developed world.  I’m talking about Big Finance, Big Oil, Big Media.  These interests depend on individualistic thinking and resultant economic consequences to justify their obscene profit at the expense of the downtrodden of the world.  The internet is the beginning of a coming culture revolution towards an information economy whose protection from corporatism in favor of collectivism must begin now with the democratic protection of the freedom of the internet.  It’s really as simple as the First Amendment was obvious when the Bill of Rights was passed; the neutrality of the internet infrastructure should be the law of the land.


  1. While certain music does seem to satiate a universally broad audience, how can you discredit the popularity of independent artists? The whole counterculture hipster movement thrives on little-known artists and independents.

    And while an enormous corporate infrastructure exists that endorses cookie cutter artists and redundant Hollywood garbage, essentially "directing the interests of the masses," this same infrastructure actually promotes a wide variety of artists IF it is profitable. But this same corporate greed is what motivates many artists to pursue their passion. The prospect of wealth and prosperity is enticing. What musical variety would there be if no artists became widely appreciated enough to hit top 40 charts? I argue that fewer artists would even attempt to pursue that passion.

    And if there were no top 40 charts, or massively universally popular "mainstream" artists, people would be left to search through itunes based on genre and other determinants, or to discover music through live performance. Which is what they still do, and how non-mainstream artists are discovered. And when people tell their friends about how good this music is and their friends listen to it and the artists blow up, they don't become mainstream. They don't alter their identity. Mainstream adheres to them. And in that regard whoever becomes the next big poster band for big studios actually directly reflects the interests of the masses. And these poster musicians vary greatly in sound, style, genre, and persona.

    How does corporate America dictate the interests of the masses, and push the mainstream on us again?

  2. Well, to answer your last question first, which is really the crux of your comment, I will say that corporatations ("corporate america" seems to me a dangerously misleading name for them when you consider that these arebarely more than a handful of people in a nation of hundreds of millions) mainstream America through several tools, all of which require the media (which, let us remember, is almost completely in the hands of a few multinationals, besides internet media). One such tool is advertising. Advertising promotes a culture where worth is based on material wealth, and hip-hop culture is an excellent example of the carry-over from this materialist ideology to the entertainment tastes of a population: those who are rich and espouse richness for richness sake, whose art is a celebration of flashy displays of welath, are culturally valued because the culture shares these values.

    Further, advertising actively norms and promotes normed standards of beauty; the result is a culture which values people based on their physical match to these normed standards; entertainment value choices are made as a result. Look at those top 40 artists - very, very few are anything less than "good looking" and most are "very good looking". This is because the entertainment desires of the mainstream are not inherent but constructed, constructed, that is, to value not only musical considerations but considerations such as wealth and beauty - and celebrity. Celebrity culture, also a construction of the media, is another way that media (i.e. corporatism) constructs values and mainstreams desires.

    The entertainment itself actually does much to contribute to this process. For example, TV shows produced by Disney, one of the world's largest corporations, and marketed to pre-teen girls, present a version of adolescence and pre-adolescence in which values such as conformity with friends (i.e. shared musical tastes) and obsession with celebrity culture are valued. Hannah Montana and the Jonas Brothers are good examples of a constructed celebrities. It doesn't matter what you think of their music, the point is they are popular because Disney corporation decided they should be popular and constructed that popularity, which is now a social reality: millions of teens idolize these figures not directly because Disney says they should, but because they were born into a culture/value-system which Disney had already had infiltrated.

    1. Hipster culture is merely an example of cultural value systems being created that attempt (with mixed success) to bypass the control of corporatism on culture - it is natural that wherever cultural norms are in place there will arise contrarians. However, to see why such practices are not adequate to threaten corporate mainstreaming, one only needs to think of the most common ideological judgement made by MOST non-hipsters about hipsters: "They're just people who think its cool to listen to stuff no one else listens to". This narrative, which is also of course a construction, undermines the radical potential of such a culture while entrenching the norms of the mainstream. In other words, the mainstream responses to hipster culture ("They don't stand for anything") highlight the value that our culture places on "listening to what everyone else listens to" for its own sake.

      What I'm definitely NOT suggesting here is a corporate brain-washing strategy, as though these corporations were the only forces behind the construction of a cultural entertainment mainstream. What I'm arguing is that our culture, as 21st century Americans, is first and foremost a culture of large-corporatism, and that the existence of such a mainstream is the result of that culture. In such a culture, music/movies are essentially investments, which exist for profit. Entertainment is therefore culturally valued by its profitability, and hip-hop, the epitome of the value system of modern entertainment, demonstrates this most succinctly. The internet, because it distributes information in a non-centralized and (for now) uncontrollable manner, threatens this culture. I'm not saying I have the answer to why our values and entertainment choices are the way they are, I'm just trying to give a radical look at why internet neutrality is such a valuable entity in a world dominated by the logic of late capitalism.

    2. Corporate America is a general reference to corporations, which may refer to an acute portion of America's population but refers to a large force in America's economy, hence the nomenclature developed.

      With your responses and clarifications, you make a sound argument. That said, your argument doesn't really come off as radical to me. The fact is that while children may not realize it 10 years after being born into this culture and while they watch Hannah Montana, I think most adults come to understand the materialist ideologies that provide 21st Century American culture with its foundation. That is why this culture is so threatening and pervasive. People tend to understand that a powerful few are feeding pop-culture, and they realize the shallowness of such a culture. But they still want to be a part of it and they still conform to almost predetermined archetypes. Transformers 3 is widely criticized for lacking merit in a number of areas, but those same people flock to theaters to see it and be a part of it.

    3. Right, but my point is to clarify that this perennial strength of this material culture lies in its importance to large-corporate profits, that the internet is a transformative tool for freeing information flow from these cultural structures, and is therefore anathema to corporate interests generally. Well, maybe I'm not so radical to you - but I do feel that online piracy is an inevitable and indeed necessary response by the population to the stranglehold of Big Entertainment on intellectual property, which should continue until the artists themselves create new, more equitable and less norming structures which profit off of creative info legitimately, while acknowledging the fundamentally collective ownership of almost all of it, and at the same time but bypass media multinationals.