What is your fascination with my forbidden closet of mystery?
Much has been made of Web 2.0, and the shifting power structures of the media industry. Suddenly, it’s no longer about the stodgy, old-school mentality of international record companies, or the lumbering media conglomerates; it’s about the punk kid recording albums in his suburban bedroom, and the auteur shooting feature films on his iPhone.
As a society, we are increasingly aware and concerned that media is produced to view and “target” us as “market segments”It’s a great narrative. It taps into the increasing anxieties we all have about how much corporate control there is in our lives. As a society, we have become increasingly aware of how media is produced to view and “target” us as “market segments” and to sanitize true artistry to crudely cater to broad demographics.
How many times have we heard the story of an artistic visionary whose irrepressible genius was, er, repressed when a profit-motivated production company/record label/publishing house demanded some unthinkable aesthetic compromise or else!? For me, this story has been repeated so many times and about so many projects, that it’s virtually the most common trope I’ve heard about a “genius” work of art— that it was shelved because corporate accountants voiced concerns at boardroom meetings that these projects were too insular, too weird, too difficult to attract a mainstream audience, and thus had to be dropped.
“What is your fascination with my forbidden closet of mystery?”
These immortal words, spoken by ersatz police chief Clancy Wiggum to his son Ralph on the long-running television program The Simpsons pretty much sums it up. The fact that you can’t have something means you want it even more. If someone is telling you that you aren’t allowed to hear a record, well, it suddenly becomes important to find out why and what the controversy is.
Sometimes you hear these stories when they leak out through gossip and media reports. Think Nirvana’s In Utero or Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. The former was supposedly dubbed so “unlistenable” by Geffen Records that it was demanded that the entire album be scrapped and re-recorded. There’s something so poetically apropo about that story for a band whose roots were so firmly entrenched in the punk ethos. Ironically enough, this type of talk only galvanizes public interest in this suppressed content, most likely unintentionally in this case.
This story has been repeated so many times that it’s virtually the most common trope about a “genius” work of art.For the case of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, there is an oft-repeated tale of how crazy and unapproachable this album was upon completion and how record execs were just so stunned with its sounds and experimental nature that they just couldn’t release it, and dropped the band from its roster. This story is especially confounding to me because this album hardly counts as a wacky avant-garde freakout or anything remotely close. In fact, it sounds fairly run-of-the-mill to me, at least in terms of sonic quality, except for some random smatterings of “numbers stations” recordings, which maybe to people raised on Backstreet is a little weird, but the presentation is not so left-field as to create total puzzlement.
But that’s not the same thing as saying that execs actually heard YHF and felt like there was no way this could go through. But this is exactly the story that was spread at the time of release— that this monumental artistic achievement came on the heels of deliberate sabotage by a record company, who was too dense to understand its advanced artistry. Frankly, I think the story was a tremendous help in selling the album, and gave people who wouldn’t have otherwise cared (or even have a reason to be aware of this record) a reason to pay attention. Is it a coincidence that YHF ended up at the very top of year-end critics’ lists? I’m not sure, but I cannot imagine how it could have hurt it.
The Album that the Record Industry Didn’t Want You to Hear
KMD (aka Kausing Much Damage) was a not very famous rap group back in the early 90s that mostly got famous because in 1994 1) their DJ was run over by a car on the Long Island Expressway and died, and 2) that same week, their record company, Elektra, shelved their apparently already-controversial new album Black Bastards before it even came out. The album was supposedly was pulled from release for its shocking cover art, which depicted a race-baiting image of a golliwog being lynched.1
By the time the album was released 7 years later, it was a legendary album with near-mythic status, and was one of the most bootlegged rap albums of all time. This is despite the fact that most who had heard it didn’t seem to think it was particularly good.
When the album finally came out in 2001 courtesy of a small record company that had acquired the rights, it had a big sticker plastered on the front that advised consumers that it has been suppressed by a record company but was now available for the first time! The very fact that the media marketing machine was against it gave it a marketability that it wouldn’t have had on its own.
One can’t help but feel that as a society, we need these stories. We like these tales because they remind us that we’re not numbers. We’re not target markets. We are smarter than the media moguls and corporate marketing jerks think we are, and we have much better taste than they think. They serve as proof, particularly to certain sets of cultural first-adopters (read: hipsters and trendspotters) that these corporate types just don’t get it.
Of course, by stating this I don’t mean to argue the reverse, that they do get it. In fact, they often don’t. And honestly, I don’t have a lot of faith in the aesthetic sensibilities of most marketers or business leaders. Good ones are able to understand how to steal and co-opt genuinely revolutionary or merely very good aesthetic movements and resell them to mainstream audiences, despite the fact that they are risky investments and have no pre-existing markets. And I’d argue that it happens more frequently than we’d like to think. After all, throughout history, there have been few things with more cultural and financial traction than branding the rebellion against mainstream, even if that rebellion eventually becomes the mainstream.
1 One wonders why, however, the record company didn’t just change the artwork if that was the point of contention; Metallica’s first album originally had the charming title Metal Up Your Ass and was accompanied by the even more charming image of a clutched knife emerging from a toilet bowl. Elektra Records did not approve. But instead of abandoning the project from the fledgling metal band (who could have easily been dropped), Elektra simply attached a new title, Kill ‘Em All, to a way classier image, a shadowy hand dropping a bloody hammer.