Reeling in the Real: Pale Eyes’ sweatshop Reviewed

Pale Eyes - Sweatshop

Ben McCarthy and Lisa J. Smith, formerly of Archivist (see my earlier review), have formed a new project called Pale Eyes, producing a debut album called sweatshop. It contains songs for the new age of anxiety, in which we feel the claustrophobia of globalization, and the disgust of complicity. Frequently confronting you with ugly feelings, Pale Eyes produce electronic violence; and broken hip-hop, time of fractured joint, when it won’t be long before we all come tumbling down. Their music and lyrics also perform a vivisection on the heaving mass of human need, and its peculiar anatomy of melancholy. sweatshop is comparable, and every bit as important and striking, as The Knife’s Shaking the Habitual. Pale Eyes’ debut is about futility, but also about facing up to that pointlessness. The heavy use of sampling and synth processing stitches together a whole from the disparate, leaving frayed edges that threaten to unravel, embodying the failure to repeat.

The opening track “waves & radiation” is a plunderphonic sound collage of tension, starting with a metronome and ending with “if I didn’t have my art, I would be madder than I am.” It is musically reminiscent of Portishead’s “Machine Gun,” and neatly introduces you to the ideologies working within the entire record, including memories of real protest, and the mental and emotional implications of our current world order.

It’s followed by “kltr kma,” the title of which makes me think of Massive Attack’s “Karmacoma.” It features an earworm chorus, and the breaks mirror the cracking of the pretence of the human pose. McCarthy alternates between rapid-fire wordplay and elastic, cyclical vocals that ply your brain, while Lido Pimienta moans behind him in a fractious, urgent way that reminds me of Sue Denim. McCarthy sings:

These bloody needs the body’s fee;
you must be hungry just to be.
It was the sun that taught your lungs to breathe
for a mesh of metaphor with a mouth for the meat. . . .

So take the fist and take this kiss,
and take our common helplessness,
cause the very very body you resist
is the flesh upon which all this subsists.

Pales Eyes continue to interrogate this schizophrenic human reality that belies the figurative sense of a universal, whole humanity in songs such as “empathy exhaustion (also sprach Sarahthustra)” and “the consolation of action.” A collaboration with McCarthy’s sister, Sarah (who I assume to be the Sarah of the final track “Sarah says”), “empathy exhaustion” is all sharp dissonance tied together with a weaving double helix of a melody line, carried ethereally by Pimienta. The lyrics are begging for release from the fatigue of a debt-laden, neoliberal existence, cleverly tying moral debt to the general debtfare lives of this generation. This track is followed by “the consolation of action,” which takes its title from John Gray’s Straw Dogs, an excellent argument against the idea of Humanism, and its unwavering belief in redemption through progress. (Of course, Pale Eyes is not the first band to draw on Gray’s work; Vanilla Swingers crafted a concept album inspired by it, and the Manic Street Preachers have also referenced Gray in recent years.) In this track, as in Gray’s book, there’s a friction and fear of letting go of the “need” for action and changing the world. The idea is one that I feel is at the crux of Gray’s thesis, one which I return to again and again: “The aim of life was not to change the world. It was to see it rightly.” The attempt to reconcile this possibility for a new paradigm with our own reality leads to additional feelings of lack and guilt. The sacred profanity of this wrecked psychological space blurs into poetry:

wake up the grace has fled
amplified daily dread
first day of the rest of your life
breaking across your head

have you been misinformed?
do you really not know what you do?
what were you crying for?
sweatshop livestock auto-tune?

Pimienta’s vocals are primal and fragile as the minimal sampled background sputters and clatters behind her. Lagging with the weight of conflicting culpabilities, McCarthy languidly sums up the earlier verses with the brilliant phrase “porno kingdom cum,” and then debt anxiety creeps in again as he follows it with “we cannot afford this wealth.”

There are more efforts to ease this cognitive dissonance and its discontents. “figure/ground” is achingly beautiful and soulful, easily oscillating between a foreground of smooth woodwind sound and a background of stuttering, glitchy beats liberated from Radiohead. Trapped between order and entropy, McCarthy’s vocals are striving yet dropping at the end of each line, lapping at and slowly eroding his own footing. In “philosophka,” access, and the choices it presumably offers, only succeeds in smothering you with the ghosts of the “what if” and the circling paranoia of always missing something. Embattled by expectations, McCarthy quietly sings, “Spoiled for choice don’t make me free, this is a necessity.”

In “little rain,” apocalyptic fervor dissipates into an honest message to a future generation, in this particular case, an infant son. McCarthy’s vocals are soothing in their melancholic glissandos, as the synth sounds drip and drop, rolling like tears from beneath a blindfold. It’s a refreshing conception of “the child,” resisting the simple purity/innocence/hope for the future trope; McCarthy sings, “I’m disinclined to see you for the dream you are, little boy, for I know what dreams can become.” The further lament of “cry out your goddamned eyes at the movies” spins through slices of distortion as it bisects, dissects, intersects, intertexts, sexes, vexes. There is only a superficial catharsis. The self-aware-monster-inside motif, similar to that of Kevin Barnes’s more recent material, does not provide relief or a way forward. “cry out your goddamned eyes at the movies,” along with the track “Trust,” warps Marvin Gaye references into a brittle rendering of passionate resignation.

Rather than a desensitizing lyrical crutch, the extended use of “fuck” on five out of the eleven songs displays a nuanced polyvalence, placing carnality on a parallel plane with ruin, hopelessness, frustration, manipulation, and hostility. You get the feeling that we are all being endlessly violated by circumstance, and that sex and intimacy are just other parts of the broken system. Many of the comedown moments in sweatshop feel like coiling up in an empty, post-coitus position after being consentingly fucked by capitalism.

sweatshop sounds like inner war, the struggling and juggling under the weight of hypocritical, perhaps nonsensical, guilt. It asks the question of how we can truly protest, especially when the technologies that allow for pockets of protest to form around the world are the same that devastate the environment, exploit others’ labour, and depend on the corporate states. As we all move toward immaterial labour, playbour, affective labour, etc., which is often overlooked in terms of capitalistic value, we are ever more implicated. At the heart of this first question, is another one: What do we truly “need”? Perfection is impossible, happiness is temporary, and progress is a myth. Is seeing the world rightly enough? I’m inclined to think so, especially as I see despair as more productive than joy, and depressive people as having a firmer grip on reality than anyone else. When all of the manufactured stabilizers, like the nation state, religion, science, time, Humanism, and monogamous relationships, are removed, there could perhaps be an opening for a new model; however, as sweatshop intimates, we will probably make new fictions to cope. At the same time that so many British musicians are exploring the failed utopias of modernism and social welfare, the Canadian Pale Eyes have moved in a different, less nostalgic, way to try to take up the same challenges. They have also succeeded in penetrating my general numbness, making me feel bad, and then making me wonder why I should feel that way.

sweatshop is released on August 6 via Bandcamp. See the Pale Eyes website for further details and updates.

kltr kma – Pale Eyes

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Public Service Announcements with Guitars: When Rock ‘n Roll Becomes the Cause

public service announcement

Throughout the neoliberal heyday of the 80s people became accustomed to musicians performing for a cause or endorsing a particular charity ostensibly to raise funds and awareness for “others,” whether they were “thank God it’s them instead of you” Africans, war children, or AIDs victims. Spectaculars like Live Aid, its nostalgic damp squib of a successor Live 8, and numerous charity albums and singles dealt in high emotional appeal to make you feel like you were making a historical difference and that you were a hero. More importantly, just for one day. It’s quite apt to use music as the impetus for feel-good charity since the collective experiences of live music are often already charged with uncanny sensations of solidarity and goodwill. It feels powerful to be gathered with other fans who share your love of a band or musician, belting out anthems, and that feeling can be easily transposed to a belief that you’re fighting for a common righteous cause. The more charismatic the performer, the more the crowd loses themselves in the tide of togetherness. We are the champions if only because Freddie Mercury convinces us that we are.

Though there are still fundraising performances involving musicians for disasters of all kinds (oddly enough, even tracked at Music for Good), and some charity albums and singles still get made on behalf of the “helpless,” passive Other (see cringe-inducing songs like K’naan’s “Wavin’ Flag”), there just doesn’t seem to be the same resources for extravagant ego mash-ups anymore. Perhaps now that the music industry itself is in “crisis,” it doesn’t appear quite so eager to splash out for causes in the same way or with the same regularity. In fact, some artists are now endorsing their own existence as a cause.

I was prompted to think about this context of rock ‘n roll for a cause after observing two crowdfunding campaigns of relatively different scope, but similar rhetorical strategy. Ex-Dresden Doll Amanda Palmer made headlines earlier this year when her Kickstarter campaign raised over one million dollars, smashing through her intended target (see Laura’s review of Palmer’s Theatre is Evil album). Last month former Sneaker Pimp Chris Corner was pleasantly surprised (“fuck me outrageously” were his precise words) when his PledgeMusic campaign to raise funds for his next album as IAMX reached, then exceeded, his goal within an hour. There are many similarities between these artists: they both used to be on major labels; they are multimodal artists, engaging in other art forms like visual art, video, and fashion; they have theatrical, spectacular personas, often hearkening back to a different time of cabaret and burlesque entertainment, erotically using their bodies to imply intimacy and transparency in their relationships with their fanbase; and they are both vocal about their love for their fans, calling a familial, cultish public into being. These aspects may play into their success, or at least partially. Of course, crowdfunding isn’t new, and it’s becoming quite commonplace in the art and technology worlds. I’ve written about crowdfunding platforms and their relationship to digital music files a bit before, so I won’t get into that here, except in reinforcing how crowdfunding platforms enforce an artificial scarcity in order to produce monetary value for musicians’ labour.

I ended up being most drawn to the videos Palmer and Corner made to promote their campaigns:

There are many similarities. They are both handmade by the artists (and the artists’ collaborators) and feature direct appeals from them, meaning you see them quite prominently. They offer you glimpses and samples of what you are being persuaded to support, hopefully enticing you and convincing you that they’ve already begun their labour. By invoking other well-known names–whether the visual artists working for Palmer, or Corner’s use of Jim Abbiss as producer and Danny Drysdale as filmmaker–they associate themselves with quality whilst also demonstrating their collaborative spirit and justification for more money to be used for additional labour. Their rhetoric assumes that we as fans and they as artists have converging needs and goals, and characterizes potential funders/fans as people of distinction and taste, who will become activists by contributing to the future of music and making history simultaneously. Replace “music” with “this starving child” and the message seems more familiar. In previous blog posts, Corner has referred to his music as his child, so perhaps the comparison is apt. Palmer reinforces the thread of potential activism and public agitation to improve the future by using the public space of the street and title cards reminiscent of protest placards. In these videos, there is, in fact, a real focus on futurity, but aware of the demands in the speedy digital world, there is also a balancing of investment with immediacy in the form of updates and exclusives along the way. In both videos, the onus is on fans to determine the level of success and project execution by how much they will give. Palmer and Corner project identities that are bound up in authenticity and autonomy, projecting the same qualities and values on their fans who will presumably agree that their causes are real and meaningful.

In both campaigns, fans are expected to fund dissemination and mobility, specifically allowing the artists to distribute, promote, and tour, in addition to promoting the message of the campaign itself. Their campaigns and rhetorical strategies speak to notions of access, the public, and participation, which are all quite popular topics in the context of the digital economy, which is definitely overlapping with concepts of cognitive and communicative capitalism, immaterial labour, the attention economy, the multitude, and the commons. Amanda Palmer states: “I hope you will join our rock ‘n roll cause. . . . We are the media.” Chris Corner declares: “We need you hand in hand, mouth to mouth intertwined for this survival of art.” The implication is that we are more powerful in numbers and that we are truly participating in their art. In a recent Guardian article, Yancey Strickler, one of the co-founders of Kickstarter, said, “When I’m supporting some band [through the site] I love, I’m not ‘shopping’ in the record store, I’m creating alongside them. I get to see the thing happen and be part of the process and know that I made a contribution. I think the emotional resonance that comes with that is huge.” Though crowdfunding platforms imply that fans are creating in collaboration with their favourite artists, there are differing degrees of actual engagement and reciprocity. Amanda Palmer’s digital music is already free, she crowdsources onstage musical support, and provides multiple venues for feedback, which all seem in line with ideas of the commons and multitudes. In the case of IAMX, a distance between artist and fan still exists despite the repeated invocation of “we.” Corner says in his video, “You can give. I can create,” quite clearly delineating the artist and fan roles. You may pay for engagement, via email or in person as a guest at a soundcheck, but contact is otherwise limited. However, Corner’s campaign isn’t unique in this respect—most of the crowdfunding campaigns I’ve seen for musicians have offered similar constraints on participation. In a way, the supposed voice and participation allowed for fans is wrapped up in communicative capitalism and its pretence of a democracy that it doesn’t actually create. Despite the rhetoric of participation, collaboration, and access, these campaigns are still fundraisers looking for public donations.

The hierarchy of the pledge menu mirrors the structure of typical arts fundraising gift charts and pyramids, anticipating a few gifts at a very high level and many gifts at a minimal level. These campaigns aren’t unlike fundraising for public art projects or institutions like galleries. Can you call Amanda Palmer’s and IAMX’s music public art? There seems to be a bias in thinking of public art as mainly or solely visual, such as the display of street art or museums. Whilst there are forms of music related to public space and access, including busking and audio installations of the Eno kind, they aren’t as readily apparent or discussed. Even musicians are essentially looking for visibility, especially in light of the necessity for an online presence; Amanda Palmer and Chris Corner want you to watch their videos, not just listen to their music to encourage you to pledge. The so-called post-scarcity economy is abundant with information and art, thus attention is often perceived as the scarce commodity in this late form of capitalism, and often, the attention economy is linked to visual “noise” and the public spectacle, which implies visuality. Despite being an ostensible commodity, attention has also become a form of work on the part of those obliged to “pay” attention and to participate. In the words of Jonathan Beller, to look is to labour. Could we also say to listen is to labour? As someone who became exhausted and slightly mad in the face of an endless stream of available music online, feeling compelled to listen to and blog about as much of it as possible, I would say yes. Jonathan Sterne has argued that the MP3 is a format that favours distraction, not attention. I agree, but I also think that the same kind of hyperabundance and hyperavailability that is producing multitasking distraction is demanding ever more cursory attention, and thus, creating a heightened feeling of unsettled agitation linked to the an irrational need to hear everything because you can. To me, SXSW would be as overwhelming as Nuit Blanche.

When I watch Palmer’s and Corner’s campaign videos and look at their reward menus, I’m also reminded of the fund drives for public service broadcasting, where the more you pledge, the more you receive as a “gift,” and where you are repeatedly told that you, the viewers, are responsible for the range and quality of the programming through the level of your monetary generosity. PBS emphasizes the service they are providing: cultural, educational, and independent of commercial advertising and interests. Can you call Palmer’s and Corner’s music a public service? Although they promote themselves as culturally beneficial and independent of the kinds of corporate controls PBS would also eschew, they are still not really acting in the same public venue, nor are they attempting to reach the same kind of broader audience. Perhaps it would be more helpful to view them as a public narrowcasting service. Their art is potentially publically free and accessible via free downloads, sanctioned and otherwise, but access to the material goods and tickets to concerts is still restricted to those who can afford to pay, and concert tickets are often not included in pledges. In a way, they end up involved in the same conflicted situation as publically funded arts institutions like museums and galleries that also have to charge the public for admission. I suppose the most significant contention here is how public and access are defined. In a way, these campaigns appear to be asking for funds from the publics they’re shaping through their rhetoric with the ultimate goal of private consumption, barring the later, paid-for collective experiences of concerts. Though Palmer and Corner utilize many of the same rhetorical strategies as public arts/service fundraising, they are ultimately still selling commodities, referring to their music as a product, and in Palmer’s case, calling her work a business. So, like the causes endorsed by musicians before them, are theirs actually non-profit? It’s a complicated question, including such tangles as Amanda Palmer entertaining the idea of an interest-free loan from wealthier supporters and Chris Corner’s intention to donate a portion of the funds raised to the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science. And these aren’t the only concerns and reservations involved in crowdfunding music.

I agree with many of the points in Chris T-T’s recent argument against crowdfunding. There’s definitely a chance for things to get a bit tacky and cynical, and the use of services like Kickstarter and PledgeMusic is similar to creating a new middleman. However, artists still have a choice to use crowdfunding or not, and some artists do flourish on such a platform, especially those who already have a cult following and/or are already creative in arts beyond music. Amanda Palmer and Chris Corner are hardly unknown entities—in fact, they come in with quite a cult following already, and it’s to these established fans that they are appealing. They are also both involved in other forms of art, allowing them to offer items or experiences they would have likely put labour into anyway. Finally, I could dispute Chris T-T’s point regarding the lack of creative freedom in the face of fan investors by saying artists always answer to fans at some level if they’re selling their art; sales and support will depend on the fans’ enjoyment and interest.

Perhaps the traditional exchange of music for money really is no longer enough. What people are asking of musicians is what many already ask of themselves: affective labour. Many people, including myself, labour outside and beyond their regular jobs, especially to create things that are otherwise not financially sustainable. The controversy that came out of Amanda Palmer’s use of fans for unpaid labour on stage points out the affective labour already inherent in the fan experience. Activities such as fan-created zines, sites, fiction, blogs, and record labels, along with participation in street teams or sharing of links through online social networks, are generally unpaid, emotional labours, and in many ways, similar to the types of affective labour that does get paid, such as public relations or advertising.

I, myself, did pledge towards both of these campaigns, among others. I wouldn’t even say the exclusive offers necessarily attracted me – I can’t afford the truly one-of-kind experiences, and am quite satisfied with a good vinyl copy and digital download. My personal reason for pledging is a genuine desire to ensure that my favourite musicians are able to produce their next projects, so I view my pledge as paying for the art up front. Very recently I contributed to of Montreal’s Kickstarter campaign to help pay for the documentary they’re making. The idea of seeing more footage of a band that is so unique live is hugely attractive and important to me. I wouldn’t say I feel like I’m more involved in the musicians’ processes by funding them. I usually don’t even have the time to keep up with the exclusive updates.

Do Amanda Palmer and Chris Corner manage to precipitate the same sort of tide of togetherness and goodwill that used to be the province of fundraising rock ‘n roll spectaculars? I think that there’s a bit of virtual togetherness and celebration when these types of campaigns succeed, but that the gathering in a space in the real world is more persuasive and powerful by being more visceral. These campaigns are also on such a smaller scale, yet across such wider space and time, that they don’t have the impact of a single collective entity, nor a single collective moment. They are diffuse, but also intense in the specific public they are generating and addressing. And that’s not a bad thing. Spectacles for the masses aren’t terribly trustworthy and are becoming more of an anxiety-inducing, screaming demand in a noisy world. If music itself is now in need of aid and CPR for its survival, then it can surely be another cause. Just as long as we recognize the capital and labour behind all of the “love.”

Strength Through Music – Amanda Palmer

Music People – IAMX

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