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I got a glimpse, via my Facebook feed, of what appeared to be measured response of horror in the wake of Steve Stephens’ “Facebook Live” murder of Robert Goodwin Sr. on Easter. While I’ve been holed up within my own obligations and not paying too much attention to “mainstream” news or coverage of the event, I can’t really speak to the national response. That being said, in the very general sense, it seems as though the response was less than what I expected – less fatalistic, less enraged, less sensational. Not sure if that represents anything at all..but it did lead me on a thread.

In recent weeks I’ve been reading Whitney Phillips’ book “This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things: Mapping the Relationship between Online Trolling and Mainstream Culture,” and she makes some helpful observations – first, that “Lulz is engaged by internet users who have witnessed one major economic/environmental/political disaster too many.” Second, that in the wake of 9/11 “Americans were asked to dissociate. They were asked not to dwell on the consequences of the wars, of torture, of the resulting economic bloodletting. They were asked to go on vacations, and to shop, and to not ask too many tough questions. Is it any surprise, then, that trolls- who essentially function as cultural dung beetles – would hold the tragedy of others at arm’s length? Is it any surprise that trolling…following a series of massively mediated tragedies, would be explicitly and unapologetically fetishistic?”  And lastly, that “regardless of how aberrant (and/or abhorrent) it may appear, trolling makes a great deal of sense within the context of contemporary American media.” 

Ultimately, while the behavior of trolls are so often targeted and characterized as these indications of moral decline in younger generations, Phillips argues that within the context of media – trolling is an understandable, if not logical, response to media culture (or contemporary culture informed by media) relying on sensationalism, spectacle, success, and profit (monetary and cultural). Trolling reflects behavioral norms displaced, exposed in new social contexts, amplified by new media affordances and media narratives, feeding off of the attention gained from media coverage, and motivated by the same exploitative appeals that motivate media coverage. That is – two sides to the same coin.

Elsewhere, in his 2009 book “The Fragile Absolute,” Slavoj Zizek in his meandering prose, discusses the “void of the thing,” or, how sublimation hides the fact that behind the representation of some idealized aesthetic object/subject lies the abhorrent object itself, an unadorned, unmediated, actuality. He draws upon Courbet’s “Le Origine du Monde” to illustrate his point: “Courbet masterfully continued to dwell on the imprecise border that separates the sublime from the excremental: the woman’s body in ‘L’origine’ retains its full erotic attraction, yet it becomes repulsive precisely on account of this excessive attraction. Courbet’s gesture is thus a dead end, the dead end up traditional realist painting…In other words, with Courbet, we learn that there is no Thing behind its sublime appearance – that if we force our way through the sublime appearance of the Thing itself, all we will get is the suffocating nausea of the abject.”

So, using realist representations of feminine beauty as an example, Zizek argues that what these paintings were hinting at is ultimately the pornographic – that is the fantasy these representations tease, however masterful the painting. To be clear, from an art history/art crit standpoint, this position could easily be challenged.  This particular excerpt in within a larger text that is not interested in art criticism. However, I do think that Zizek’s analysis, combined with Phillips’ analysis of trolling, offers a helpful framework to think about the spectacle and tragedy of Steve Stephens. The two analyses constitute a contemporary context informed by a creeping, dramatized, nihilism-lite, one populated with false flags; the very basic desire for murder (in the figurative, or Leonard Cohen, sense of the word) dressed up in some aesthetic or culturally trimmed disguise that obscures a more destructive or unimpressive logic.  Murder is not new, nor is commodification of different characteristics that could loosely be considered “human nature.” Spectacle gains a lot of mileage – and the Stephens event is spectacle. As Guy Deboard wrote, “the spectacle is the bad dream of a modern society in chains and ultimately expresses nothing more than its wish for sleep.”

The Stephens event is not the terminal end before a cultural reset, it’s the entrenched pattern of life in late capitalism. While the actual event is tragic and complex, the mediated spectacle is algorithmic output. It’s not about an increasing degree of extremes exploited by content producers. It’s about the dead end of meaning, the dead end of our ability to grasp the event from any cohesive static foundations of moral reference against which to utilize, understand, or process meaning.  We want it to be deep, we want to ascribe to this event some cultural diagnosis – but there’s nothing there.

I guess this is my own attempt to conceptualize this event somehow – and I can only seem to do so theoretically, not necessarily poetically. In one sense, there’s really no logical thread to trace that offers a satisfying explanation (satisfying in the sense that it offers some degree of closure).

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Crowdfunding has been a huge shot in the arm for the arts, especially for musicians like myself. It emerged in a period of crisis for the industry and artists and it reflected a double movement. On the one hand, the large players (i.e. major labels) lost some of their leveraging power. As technology has made it more feasible to produce content from the confines of bedrooms and living rooms, and the capabilities afforded by social media has made content dissemination and promotion cheaper and easier, the artist was indeed liberated and empowered. On the other hand, because the artist did not have to rely on traditional (constraining) channels to finance creation, production, and dissemination, he or she had to look elsewhere. The emergence of crowdfunding platforms such as Kickstarter or Indiegogo provided a good way for artists to fund their projects, however, the platforms nurtured and benefited from a dynamic between fan and artist that had the potential for progress and regress. Progress because the fan and artist could more easily build a productive relationship that further undermined the need for corporate involvement. Regress because crowdfunding facilitated a one-way relationship capable of exploiting fan support under the guise of egalitarian rhetoric that emphasized value over cost. What emerged was an environment with massive potential and great vulnerability.

I see these vulnerabilities being manifested in two ways. 1) Obvious wrong doing on the part of crowdfunders (e.g. not fulfilling promises, high price points, and general forms of exploitation that are readily recognizable); 2) The proliferation of crowdfunding into various segments of society reinforce the process of neoliberalism that has long been at work. A vulnerability less easy to recognize (or perhaps criticize), but much more influential in relation to the negotiations of cultural values.

Neoliberalism has become a buzzword, but it is not always clearly defined. As one article antagonistically claimed — “’Neoliberalism’ has now morphed into a vague concept loaded with everything the left dislikes about market economics.” Honestly, that’s fair. So, let me try to define neoliberalism before moving on. I take from David Harvey ’s summation – that neoliberalism seeks to “bring [coerce] all human action into the domain of the market,” or more specifically, we can draw from Christian Fuchs who characterizes neoliberalism as the “dispossession of the commons in order to generate new spaces of accumulation and an intensified dispossession of income and wealth in order to raise profits.” This is accomplished by the creation a “legal framework for flexible wages and flexible working times,” the activation of “entrepreneurial thinking of the individual by creating new forms of self-dependence and self-employment, reducing unemployment benefits and welfare.”

One of Neoliberalism’s strengths is that it allows for a favorable rearticulation of certain cultural values in the service of market logic (we see this being played out in the gig economy). The contemporary fetishism over entrepreneurism has all but made it into a principle good, a moral value. It draws upon long standing cultural notions of individualism and work ethic, underscored by a free market ideology that understands economic productivity as the main goal. Indeed, embedded in the language of the neoliberal economy is an emphasis on flexibility, entrepreneurialism, and self-dependence. These three terms inform the ideological power of neoliberalism, and at the same time, signal inroads towards a restructuration that increases influence within the private sphere at the expense of the public sphere. As Zygmunt Bauman has written: “Public power has lost much of its awesome and resented oppressive potency, but it also has lost a good part of its enabling capacity.”

So when we consider that crowdfunding is being increasingly relied upon to fund public school classrooms, higher education research, town/state civic projects, and even Smithsonian exhibits, it calls into question the economic or social environment that necessitates this type of fundraising, i.e. private expenditure for public projects. The successes of certain crowdfunding projects, its novelty, and the opportunities for new modes of engagement that are often publicized across various blogs or news sites serves to redirect a critical glance away from critical questions that ask why private fundraising on the behalf of public school teachers, for example, is even necessary? Or, what are the potential implications that might develop from crowdfunding academic research? Even if we charitably assume that these are isolated instances rather than a reflection of problematic structural patterns, the increased need to crowdfund, i.e. to compensate for a lack of funding typically provided by state resources, may very well lead to budgetary policy that justifies the further withdrawing of state or federal resources motivated in part by the reported successes of crowdfunding projects. This article from Huffington post exemplifies this concern. While it briefly acknowledges the reason crowdfunding is needed, it ends by positing crowdfunding as a fix: “Luckily, though, crowdfunding sites are well positioned to shift the focus toward equity. Recent endorsements from celebrities, including Sheryl Crow and Stephen Colbert, lend credibility and help increase the numbers of people who use these sites.”

Thus, when we read about the success of crowdfunding campaigns that were launched to cover school costs, when we read about the un-coerced financial contributions from private citizens, it is celebrated as way to solve a particular problem, but it still fails to address the larger problem. Further, it reinforces the socio-economic patterns that continue to aggravate the wound – a neoliberal practice in which market logic becomes an “entire way of life, a common sense in which every action – crime, marriage, higher education and so on, can be charted according to a calculus of maximum output and minimum expenditure” (Michel Foucault), and within this process, our bodies, our minds, and our work, are reduced commodities that are only justified through formulations of cost and productivity. Thus, it crowdfunding justifies itself through its successes while simultaneously furthering its own need.

Crowdfunding is a powerful and productive tool with the potential to substantially impact standard practice in a positive way, but what happens if it becomes the standard practice?

The regrettable, but unsurprising, theme being expressed in the current debate over access to bathrooms for transgendered individuals on the part of social conservatives, is that the safety of transgendered individuals is less important than the safety of those who are cisgendered. The main argument for forcing transgendered individuals to use the bathroom of their birth assigned gender is to protect children and preserve privacy. Although, even if we avoid statistics that reveal the increased danger for transgendered individuals and assume that there is equal risk for both trans- and cisgendered people, the implicit position being taken is clear in its prejudice against those who are transgendered. Claims of interest in safety, privacy, or protection that arise only now, when transgendered folk are asking for equality, reveals the positions are not motivated by safety (children have always been at risk in public restrooms) as much as it is fear and misunderstanding. Those who oppose Obama’s directive , and this is important, consistently reduce a state, or condition of existence to a preference of, at best, identity play..at worst consciously aware predatory sexual perversion.

Perhaps it is odd drawing from 19th century Christian existentialist philosopher Soren Kierkegaard to help make an argument that supports transgender equality. Although, my goal is not to convince those opposed to reverse their position, but rather, to suggest a more empathetic understanding of transgendered identities through an existential lens, which then might influence a shift in how they view the individual, free from the stigmas associated with identity politic “agendas.”

In his 1847 text The Sickness Unto Death, Kierkegaard explores what he refers to as “despair,” which is a “sickness of the self.” It assumes three general forms: the despair of having a self, not wanting in despair to be oneself, and wanting in despair to be oneself — these forms of despair occur when one is unable to be one’s self authentically. He writes, “having a self, being a self, is the greatest…concession that has been made to man.” What does “authentic” mean in this context? Well, for Kierkegaard, it has to do with Christianity…but we do not need to go that far, because what transgendered individuals are being deprived of is a very explicit expression of their being that is directly associated with their authentic self, and expression that cisgendered individuals have never needed to give a second thought too. As such, it doesn’t even venture into metaphysical or spiritual oppression. It is in the material..the here and now. What is crucial for Kierkegaard’s diagnosis is that it recognizes despair is born from mis-relation within the dynamics of one’s self. Thus, on the one hand, he recognizes an essential self with which we are tasked to develop authentically, on the other hand he recognizes that the reason for despair is born from an inability to relate to one’s self authentically. To express the magnitude of psychological disruption that inheres within despair, Kierkegaard writes that the despairer is “mortally ill…yet he cannot die,” and further, “to be forced to be ‘self’ in a way that he doesn’t want to be — that is his torment.” This degree of dysphoria might sound hyperbolic, but it is echoed by Laura Jane Gracewhen she interviewed by Marc Maron.

What Kierkegaard understands, and what social conservatives are apparently incapable of recognizing, is that in order for the self to authentically develop, it must be allowed to relate to itself authentically..which of course includes a representation of self that is aligned with the type of person one truly feels they are. Thus, if we consider this framework and apply it to the current debate, it is quickly understood that what is being denied these individuals is the freedom so much of us take for granted — freedom to be one’s self. Because, again, one’s gender is not an ornament or an accessory, it defines who someone is, it defines one’s place in the social dynamic…it is extremely meaningful.

Beyonce’s release of “Lemonade” has inspired a myriad of different responses, commentaries, and critiques, I want to discuss three of those responses here. Lasha’s piece in Salon that critiqued bell hooks’s critique, hooks’s critique posted to her website, the third was another critique of hooks’s critique offered up by Tamara Winfrey Harris at BitchMedia.org. After reading all of them, I began to wonder if these three pieces could be conceptualized as a dialectic with hooks offering the thesis, Lasha the anti-thesis, and Harris the synthesis. As it regards the function of criticism, I think that the examination of these three inter-related pieces provides a useful intersection through which to discuss the role of criticism and how it operates as a method and in a dialogue.

To be sure, I am not writing here to provide my approval of one critique over another (they all offer important insights), nor offer my own review or criticism of Lemonade. My voice regarding the focus of these critiques (i.e. Beyonce, black feminism, representation, and commodification) is somewhat neutralized by my subject position (white male). Rather, my inspiration for writing was born initially from what I perceive as a counter-productive conflation of affective commentary and mis-executed criticism of hooks’s critique on the part of Lasha, as compared with Harris’s commentary and critique which was able to better assess hooks’s critique from broader assessment of current instantiations of feminist representations.

Lasha’s main issue with hooks’s critique is that it neglects how the content might meaningfully connect with the listener, and that it suffers from a sort of quarantined elitist immunity. She writes:

Black women are enthralled, moved to tears, and motivated to unpack baggage and trauma, dead set on seeking support within the sisterhood because of ‘Lemonade.’ It is contrary to any stretch of feminist ideology to then issue us an edict that we have been duped, reducing our connection, a legitimate feeling of transcendent sisterhood and reclamation of our own selves substantiated by shared lived experiences, to our inability to recognize and reject imperialist propaganda.

Lasha definitely makes a solid point. Perhaps, hooks’s critique undermines the affective impact Lemonade, and the potential that affective impact has in nurturing a solidarity for black women. Indeed, Lasha recognizes a valuable and influential role that has long inhered in the power of art. Although, the critique then turns and attempts to implicate hooks within her own criticism. When hooks recognizes the representations of varied and diverse black female bodies displayed in Lemonade and writes that “Commodities, irrespective of their subject matter, are made, produced, and marketed to entice any and all consumers. Beyoncé’s audience is the world and that world of business and money-making has no color,” Lasha attempts to accuse hooks’s of hypocrisy in that she, like Beyonce, profits off her own mode of representation.

Fundamentally, any body in capitalistic service has been commodified. Yes, Beyoncé sells ample hips and enticing cleavage. Yes, she sells an hour-glass figure and a beautiful face. But does not Dr. hooks sell the image of her body, too? Is she, with folded legs sitting at a computer typing her thoughts from arched fingers, not commodifying her body? Is her choice not to show as much leg or to cover her bosom not because she has commodified the idea that women should be modest in their presentation of their bodies?

This point, while provocative, is undermined by its lack of faith in the reader to recognize the obvious distinction in these representations and how they both function, and how they are intended to function. Is Lasha seriously suggesting that hooks commodifies herself in the same way (i.e. using her body and voice) and to the same end that Beyonce is? Further, Lasha uses the ubiquity of neoliberal capitalism to neutralize one mode of critique (hooks) while still attempting to validate her own. To dismiss a critique that recognizes the systemic functions of patriarchal oppression so that one can then consume particular representations with a “principled” pleasure illustrates the very thing hooks is so persistent in pointing out. I feel as though Lasha’s piece reads more like a very thoughtful review of Lemonade, that for some reason also takes hooks to task. Although, hooks is not arguing against subjective enjoyment. Because, like both hooks and Lasha imply, all art and representation is commodity. Rather than using this fact to criticize a critique (a criticism based on what is seemingly motivated in part by fandom), why not recognize the how neoliberal capitalism appropriates and mobilizes all expressions and representations in the service of the market? As such, it should be recognized art operates on various levels that can maintain simultaneous meanings.

Ultimately, if Lasha wants to recognize the affective power of Lemonade, it doesn’t mean that hooks’s criticism isn’t useful in reminding us of how it operates within the larger context still infused with patriarchy, misogyny, and racism. Both are important and are not mutually exclusive. As consumers of media content and fans of art, when we earnestly engage in the latter, we are implicated in the former. hooks does not have the ability, nor does she intend, to take the affective meaning away from us. She just reminds us to remain diligent and not be easily taken by “empowering images” which, not only fail to meaningfully challenge power structures, but often redirects anger and reinforces those structures against which artists like Beyonce are, I do believe, attempting to disrupt.

In reading Harris’s write up in BitchMedia, we see a much more productive criticism of hooks’s critique, one that emphasizes hooks’s perceived elitism, and how it can work against the translation of a feminist message. While hooks might remain undiscovered, Beyonce (despite operating within and through a culture industry that surely deserves persistent criticism) has the power to play an important role. One can certainly be introduced to feminism, and the need for feminism, through the lived experience itself. My first introduction came when my mother (who never went to college or read feminist literature) rolled her eyes when a newly married couple were announced as “Mr. and Mrs. Ethan Jones.” For my mother, this was an erasure. It’s something I have never forgotten. Although by so many other standards, my mother plays right into the patriarchal framework. Point being – ground level access is just as important, if not more important, than the nurturing of a feminist scholar. Harris quotes Michelle Wallace:

One of the interesting things about young black feminist intellectuals and academics is how into pop culture they are and how much more populist they are… I think it’s annoying to some people of my generation because they feel like well, you know, ‘You haven’t really earned the right to make statements,’ but I think, ‘Open the door and let them in.’

Where Lasha positions her appreciation of Lemonade in opposition to hooks, Harris is able critically and productively assess hooks’s position by pointing out where it misses a very important aspect of Beyonce’s potential as it relates to feminism. Does the inclusion of a brightly lit “FEMINIST” as a backdrop during her performance at the 2014 MTV Music Video Awards perhaps represent the height of post-modern neoliberal kenosis? It can surely be argued that in such a context, the term is devoid of force and employed a media blitzkrieg reinforcing the very spectacle that necessitates it. Although, at the same time, it is perhaps the first time an 11 year old black girl sees the term and is immediately curious. hooks doesn’t allow for an easy entry point, but Beyonce certainly does, and that is important. Harris reminds us that Beyonce isn’t the end result of a static strategic white supremacist patriarchy, but the beginning of an awareness for young people who then go on to invest themselves in a fluid struggle by whatever means are effective whether it be scholarship, activism, art, education, etc.. Similar to Lasha, Harris calls out hooks for neglecting to consider the lived experience:

She ignores Beyoncé’s humanity and the complicated nature of practicing feminism in the real world, expecting it to follow the clean lines of academic feminism—defiantly anti-capitalist and rejecting all mainstream notions of beauty and sex. But Lemonade is not a textbook—it is the product of a black woman’s lived experience.

But then, acknowledges the variations of feminism that operate in different contexts. She concludes:

Perhaps in bell hooks’s eyes none of this is feminism, but these things and works like Lemonade represent the very real, valid, and important ways that women fight patriarchy. By dismissing them, through her critiques of pop culture feminism, hooks consigns feminism to elitist ivory tower theory and makes the perfect the enemy of the good.

Here Harris allows for hooks’s brand of feminism, but points out where it limits itself. Thus, in a way it validates both. Admittedly, perhaps these distinctions I’m pointing out between Lasha and Harris exists only in rhetoric, but if grad school taught me anything, it is that rhetoric is extremely consequential in how things are interpreted. Lasha seems to make a claim and end it with a period, whereas Harris makes a claim and ends it with en ellipsis effectively inviting more discussion. This is illustrated in the titles of both pieces. Lasha redirects the larger struggle towards an unnecessary, if not counter productive, exchange between herself hooks. Harris addresses the larger struggle and discusses the roles of both Beyonce and hooks

So, yes..maybe it is a stretch to conceptualize these critiques as a Hegelian dialectic. Although, as sites like BitchMedia, Salon, Slate, etc. continue to offer up thoughtful critical pieces that blur the lines of academia and pop criticism, I think this conceptualization helps illustrate how role of critique needs to be understood as a method of discourse, not pettiness or expressions of elevated informed tastes. hooks did not get anything wrong in her assessment of Lemonade, she merely employed a type criticism that readers of hooks have come to expect and engage with. I feel as though Lasha’s framing could have been much stronger if she didn’t locate herself in opposition to hooks, that is, as the anti-thesis to hooks’s thesis. Harris, on the other hand was able to use hooks’s critique, to absorb it into the service of a larger struggle that can benefit from diverse participants, i.e. she provides a synthesis that leads the conversation forward.

“Money appears here as the sower of death, shattering the social unity that had been restored through music.” – Jacques Attali

Recently Amanda Palmer submitted an article to The Guardian entitled “Art is a business – and yes artists have to make difficult, honest business decisions.” Essentially, Palmer plays the self-assigned role as the bearer of what she believes to be bad/suprising news to music/art fans, i.e. an artist must engage in ugly, unromantic business affairs if she or he is to be successful. Before I get to the main point of this blog post I think it is worthwhile to recognize Palmer’s insufferable rhetoric and faulty reasoning, e.g. —

Megastars can flaunt their tour revenue and album sales when they reach the millions, but you won’t see Lady Gaga, former London School of Economics student Mick Jagger, Pink Floyd or the management behind any of these artists chatting openly about the more painful moments behind their massive paydays,” or “If there was any naiveté in Jack’s post, it wasn’t in how the band spent their money but rather in his assumption that a compassionate universe was ready to accept his transparency as an important contribution to the music information economy instead of a mercenary gimmick promoting his own cause.”

So first, we should recognize the manipulation in this language, positioning the artist as a cautious, aware, discretionary, unfair target of the laymen’s uninformed criticisms on how art should be expressed and offered up. Certainly, Palmer is guilty of the same dogmatism from the other side of the coin, taking up this role of exposing the “reality” of the creative/commercial experience.

But that isn’t the main problem with this article, rather, the problem stems from a general false equivalence between art and business, the stench of self promotion and further explanation of her now controversial Kickstarter campaign, and most consequentially, what it reflects about this industrial shift in the production of music and the artist’s position within that change.

Palmer writes that risk based investing exists everywhere but the arts…I don’t agree, and either way..making such broad claims is transparent in its sensationalism. While we could agree that it is hardly a risk for a major label to throw $800,000 towards a failed record, it is an entirely different game when a small boutique label out of Seattle invests even $4000 in a new unheard of project. That is most definitely a risk to both parties involved. While one may combat my response by discerning the difference brought upon the industry by digital technology, I would counter that Palmer makes no distinction in her claim. It’s worth noting that small record labels still sign small bands, and while the framework of record deals have indeed changed to reflect this new landscape, it would be remiss to claim that there is no risk involved. Ultimately, such a claim disingenuously isolates and consecrates the artist which serves to instill a degree of impunity against accusations of unethical practice. Indeed, what is ethical is not determined by the fans. It should be recognized that fans are not unwilling to pay for products and in most cases music fans do not take such a critical or principled stance on the modes of production – that is..mostly, fans just want new music and want to have an experience. Most fans are willing to put up with a lot for very little. Most fans truly love and appreciate the artist. Thus, fans can not be the litmus for questionable behavior. So while Palmer is framing her article around the behavior of Pomplamoose, the underlying theme is one that arms artist against the fan and those who offer commentary by attempting a general defense of what could very easily be interpreted as deceitful (and let’s not forget that sketchy behavior is not exclusively associated with misappropriation of funds), and of course, not surprisingly, this leads to her own Kickstarter campaign. By emphasizing the art is indeed a business, she betrays an understanding between fan/consumer and artist that has generally been understood. The business side of the artistic career has always been recognized and utilized in the narrative associated with operative notions of the artist – i.e. the romantic notions of the transcendent genius. Indeed, the artist has often engaged in this notion and made efforts to distance him or herself from the business side of the equation by way of hiring others to deal with it. Ironically, this dynamic becomes promotional fodder. I’m sure we all remember Kurt Cobain’s t-shirt displayed on the cover of Rolling Stone, and surely, any amount of research into Nirvana’s career will reveal a conscious effort to maintain a representation despite peripheral and necessary dealings with business contracts. In other words, no one has ever pretended that the artist should, or is able to, avoid business. No one blames the artist for selling CD’s, t-shirts, beer coozies, and indeed, engaging in commerce doesn’t necessarily undermine perceptions of authenticity or “purity.” Here again, we see Palmer reducing the nuance when she writes:

“Perhaps the stickiest problem when comparing art and business is that the definition of ‘success’ becomes muddied when you opt for a career in music. On the one hand, you’re told you haven’t ‘made it’ until you’re a megastar – making a living at your art isn’t enough – and, on the other hand, musicians aren’t supposed to be concerned with profits if they’re ‘real’ artists – Didn’t you get into this job just for the love of it?”

First of all, as a musician, I have never been asked that question. Second of all, and more importantly, the question fails to recognize one side of a two sided argument. Indeed, I would suggest that being concerned solely with “profit” is a potential liability for anyone when it comes to decision making. Of course, concern with operating in “the black” is a wise goal. What Palmer is doing is essentially PR for an emerging phenomena – the neoliberal artist. In as much as the monetization of art has been disrupted by digital technology (e.g. file sharing, web 2.0, hyper-access, etc.), Palmer has become the spokesperson for a model (crowdfunding) that allows the artist a degree of unchecked autonomy which opens up a vulnerable space the artist must negotiate. This plays out against a recent history rife with corporate abuse of the artist. Thus, within this emerging space exists a new freedom for the artist to take full advantage of new tools which allow for the production and distribution of one’s artistic product without the constraint of third party investors. This arrangement is full of potential, and simultaneously, it’s vulnerable to abuse. This new autonomy, combined with this nurtured notion of the artist as the underdog, provides a space in which questionable behavior can be laundered in through a false principle…such as the one taken up by Palmer. It’s one step away from Gordon Gecko, but this time it’s couched in this promise of artist/fan redemption and emancipation from the chains of “enemies of art.”

Palmer is inventing a tension that isn’t there. Music/art fans don’t mind contributing to crowd funding campaigns, paying for concert tickets, paying for records and re-releases of the same record, etc., and are relatively uninterested in peripheral commentary offered from music writers. What fans do mind is deception and duplicity. The locus of my disappointment with Pomplamoose, regardless of how they budgeted their tour (and to be sure, I know from experience that it can be done more efficiently and economically), lies in the fact that their plea for understanding and sympathy was ultimately an advertisement for Conte’s crowd funding platform Patreon. The rhetoric feeds into a myth wholly betrayed by the driving motivation of those decisions.

No one would argue that an ambitious artist (depending on his or her goals) must be aware of business and surely, I am not claiming that the artist can not take advantage of opportunities that arise… but I would argue we should strive to maintain an operative distinction between art and business by way of transparency and discourse. Business should not find an opportunity in art, and artists should indeed do their best to reverse the degree to which it already has, and that is why crowd funding is so promising. Although, in the wake of the absence of the corporatized apparatus (or some breathing room to operate without the corporatized apparatus), the artist must respect that void and engage the fan with transparency in order to establish trust and see this transformation through until the “major label” (used here in the pejorative sense) is either eliminated or reformed. Palmer’s rhetoric arms all parties and forces a tension by defending questionable practice by claiming it is simply part of the game, i.e. “how things are.” This type of language sustains the fans suspicions towards both the artist and the corporations. Fans are tired of duplicity. For all the criticism Palmer or Pomplamoose has received, I would bet that their fan base is still with them, which begs the question…what exactly is Palmer defending?

Art is most certainly NOT a business. It is a form of refuge and release for both artists and fans. The transition from artist to businessman and fan to consumer is unfortunate and to be told that it’s simply a matter of how things are reeks of an ideology which betrays the power art has to effect change.

The anxiety that arises from subjectivity in relation to one’s faith is aggravated by two juxtaposed, not necessarily opposing, forces, so to speak.

There is a humility, and I would call it a wise or productive humility, evoked in the midst of certain moments, often during a sermon, often while reading related texts (scriptural, devotional, theological, philosophical), that challenges one’s own understanding of his or her faith. Last Sunday, I was inclined to believe that I was indeed not a Christian because there wasn’t enough conflict in my life. This idea is of course scripturally supported in Matthew (10:37-38). (I’ve written a blog before which expressed my view that I can not consider myself a Christian because there are very basic and straight forward scriptural teachings which I repeatedly betray, or even worse, don’t really think about.) This sermon in particular was frustrating because the preacher attempted to lay out a kind of objective schema (albeit brief) against which to judge one’s own status of faith. I was left with the unscrutinized understanding that I was not a Christian because there wasn’t that type of struggle in my life..one that seemed worthy, or indicative of Christ’s presence. The sermon reminded me that I’m not a Christian..well according to what this expert was teaching (we all, in good faith, assume our preachers knows more about certain matters of faith than we, the general congregation, do). Regardless of an authentic proclamation of belief..the conscious decision to believe in Christ and God, it turns out that I’m still not a disciple because substantial conflict is absent from my life. I must be avoiding God’s will. While I can concede that the decision to “follow Christ” is one that necessitates (“necessitate” is a term that reflects a misguided attitude towards love) a qualitative change in one’s life, that the decision is not one that can be monitored by another according to infrequent admonishments which do not seek to understand one’s psychology and circumstance in any intimate way.

And this last bit can belong at the other end of the above defeatist mentality that runs on bad faith in the Sartrean sense. While one might be inclined to accept defeat, his or her friends may come to the rescue, as all good friends do. They reassure me of this common problem, one that is counter productive to attempts to exist as a Christian. That is, “we all struggle with what you’re struggling with.” The good friend presumes to help me along by identifying with me, with my thought process. Indeed, it is because I assume defeat that ultimately reveals an authentic faith, a faith which can’t exist without some form, or some frequency, of doubt. Therefore, my shortcomings are bolstered as positive signs of my humanity, one that Christ recognizes and is patient with (Meanwhile, Hebrews 10:26 hangs oppressively over me…but maybe I’m misunderstanding it). While there is perhaps a comfort that comes from realizing your thoughts aren’t yours alone, that is, that others “struggle” with the same ideas and recurring behaviors, there is also something unsettling about it. If the world is full of people like me, then that means no one is being honest about the depths of their thoughts…not that we should be required to confess in detail via an itemized list…but, in the more general sense, the unsettling depths of skepticism, desire, hate, dismissal, prejudice, resentment. Of course, if I am so fortunate as to truly be unique, then I am alone in my thinking, and my self-reflection becomes something more acute. Either way, it’s unsettling.

So, we are left to our own minds and hearts in relation to our perceived authenticity…and I think we knew this all along. But isolation is disconcerting, there is no support. In relation to God, we are alone. While we may surround ourselves with supportive networks, we are nevertheless alone before God, or perhaps more charitably, alone with God.

I’m frustrated by the back and forth. My friend had a discussion with his pastor once, and he ruminated on similar problems/questions to which the preacher responded with some brevity, if I recall correctly. Essentially, he emphasized the need to make a decision regardless of these unanswered/unanswerable questions. This type of response is both understandable and dismissive. Doubt is encouraged, or “allowed”, but ultimately dismissed as a childish phase that usually occurs in college when we all (ideally) learn how big the world is..so to speak. Doubt when one is 22 is admirable and attractive, doubt when one is 33 is silly and immature..or worse, boring. I’m not saying that we should embrace a Cartesian method of doubt…and I fully agree with Kierkegaard’s warnings about doubt (De omnibus dubitandum est). 

It’s just…all these voices are so loud. It’s all so important.

I recently wrote a somewhat lengthy blog post (lengthy by blog standards) about our record Singularity. It received a lot of traction. The other day someone asked me if I was going to write another one. I thought…why not. I feel it might be something that is worth doing, especially in leu of the recent announcement that Mae will be doing some shows in 2015 to celebrate the 10 year anniversary of our second release The Everglow. So..ya know, I thought I’d write about The Everglow

Where to begin? The Everglow was definitely a fan favorite. Ever since, people have compared all subsequent releases to that record. There is no need to discuss the conceptual aspects of the release, as they have been talked about in interviews ad nauseam. Also, in as much as the record was released almost 10 years ago, the task of recalling particular anecdotes is somewhat challenging. I am a big idiot now, and I was an even bigger idiot when I was 23. What is even worth mentioning? 

I’ve been sitting here for 10 minutes asking myself…what is even worth mentioning?

My previous post on Singularity recalled the fact that after the release of that record..things for Mae became difficult. Shows were getting smaller, fans were moving on, and relations in the band were struggling. Our experience during the recording and release of The Everglow was the opposite of that. Surely, that dichotomy of experience was difficult to make any sense of. 

My first tour with the band was in 2003 with Elliott..from there it never slowed down. For me, The Everglow was the first creative venture I had with the guys in Mae. Also, it was the first collection of songs that were arranged collectively. While a few of the song had been left over from the DB sessions, many of them were tediously structured by the 5 of us. So, it was a combination of ideas Dave was very familiar with, along side an uncharted process of creative collaboration. For myself, I was trying to find my place within the band. Well, more accurately, I was trying to find my creative identity within a group of four very talented dudes. What’s strange is that I knew Dave could do everything on guitar I could, I also knew that his sense of melody was better than mine. I had to figure out how to be a meaningful addition to the band. One that both played by the rules, but also brought something of value to the table. Dave taught me a lot and the whole band was entirely encouraging. The first show we played was one that we did not rehearse for. I listened to DB songs in my room and figured out the parts, Dave confirmed or corrected me via telephone conversations. The fact that they allowed this show to happen sans rehearsals shows both a confidence in me, but more so..a confidence in the group to manage a newcomer. Being on tour constantly over the next couple of years, our writing sessions were pretty scattered. I remember working out Suspension in an apartment in Texas. I remember This Is the Countdown being worked out during a soundcheck in Iowa. I remember working out guitar parts to Cover Me in some apartment in Kansas while on tour with The Starting Line..I think. I remember trying to find out lead melody lines to Someone Else’s Arms back stage in Lancaster, PA. I remember Dave showing me a skeleton of The Ocean backstage in San Diego…I loved it immediately. A lot of the record was written on the road. While we were on tour with Simple Plan, Mark set up a studio in the back lounge of our tour bus. We would sit in the front lounge and map out songs in tedious detail, even down to the placement of percussive afterthoughts such as the shaker. I mention this to mark a distinction in the creation of The Everglow which counters narratives I’ve heard about a band’s second record. Often times it is said that a band spends their whole life writing the first record, and the 2nd record has to be written rather quickly which presents new challenges to navigate. This wasn’t the case for Mae. The Everglow did not feel like a forced record, or one that was rushed..or perhaps not thought out. The Everglow presented us with new opportunities to explore in an environment that encouraged our creativity, and a producer who nurtured us in the right way. 

I forget when we made the decision to go with Ken Andrews, I’m not sure we really had a complied list to choose from..maybe we did..but I can’t remember. I just remember Ken being who we wanted and who we were able to get..and I don’t even know how. I wasn’t too familiar with Failure before I met the Mae guys, but they were all smitten with the idea of Ken Andrews being our producer. I was still new in the band at this time and on cloud 9. Our shows were great and we were so anxious about the next album. Our team at Tooth and Nail were so really excited and unquestionably supportive. Our A&R John Frazier was (and still is) one of our best friends and he knew the band like no one else. Our booking agent Eva, also a very close friend by this time, was attentive, focused, and knowledgable about the “scene” (so to speak) and knew how we were to fit in and excel. I think that a very important we made early on was to book a headline tour with Copeland, The Working Title, and Slow Coming Day. It is very appealing for a band to continue taking support slots with bigger acts with the very justifiable plan to gain more fans. Although, it is very easy to get into that habit and then never really break that identity of “support band.” I’m really thankful we took that plunge. The headline tour was beautiful and I have so many fond memories of it. From 2003 to 2005, everything was a green light. It might seem odd to think about a band like Mae taking a support slot for Sugarcult (who were awesome guys by the way), or one with Simple Plan…but I think that it ultimately was a good play. We could tour with anyone from Elliott to Vendetta Red, from Sugarcult to Hot Rod Circuit and Something Corporate…our sound was very accommodating and it allowed us to learn how to be who we wanted to be, and it taught us how to play to different audiences. As confident as Mae perhaps became over the years, we always wanted to experience new things and learn as much as we could. 

After the Simple Plan tour, the bus dropped us off at the back door to NRG studios in North Hollywood. By kizmit, we ended up with the main live room for those sessions. We walked in and swooned at Ken’s road cases lined up against the wall in the hallway. We all shared an apartment right down the road. I don’t remember much of the recording process in detail. I do remember using Ken’s guitar a lot. I remember Rob tracking We’re So Far Away. It was done without a click track I think. At one point Ken suggesting some changes we didn’t like. It was funny because for us it was such a crisis..saying no to him. We literally had a meeting outside to make sure we were all on the same page. Ken suggested we really flip around Breakdown and make the verse really dark, like E minor to C rather than a play between D major and G major. I’m glad we didn’t capitulate. Months later while in Orlando, I was listening to some rough mixes of the songs and it was during the bridge on Breakdown that I remember feeling chills for the first time despite the fact that it wasn’t even in its final form. Another victory was Painless. Mark wrote that intro riff years prior and it’s really friggin’ weird. It’s a dotted 8th note delay over a descending chromatic riff that to this day makes very little sense to me. But that has always been Mark’s strength, well..one of many (The verse on SST from Singularity was built on an idea from Mark, as well as the verse from Waiting. Both initial ideas were genius and difficult to comprehend). The verse from Painless is driven by Rob’s piano line and Mark’s bass underneath it. Dave supplied the ideas for arrangement and the chorus riff which is really cool to me. For Suspension, we initially had so much going on during the verses, a whole slew of layered melodies. Ken wisely suggested we strip it down some. If you have seen the DVD that came along with The Everglow special edition release, there is an interview with Ken. He points out that we had too many ideas…he was right. With Rob and Dave working together, melodies keep coming and the challenge is selecting the most meaningful one. On a personal note, This Is The Countdown was a personal milestone for me as it was the first Mae song built around an idea that was initially mine. 

I was really blown away at what was developing because, in certain ways, it was so much better than the D:B songs..more involved, more intricate, more melodic. Songs like Cover Me and Anything showcased two different sides that all of us both loved..kind of weird and pop respectively. I learned so much during the writing and recording of this record. It was the totality of one expansive first experience. 

One of the joys from that experience was showing up at the studio each day and getting some bagels and cereal and chilling out with Ken for a bit. There was a pool table in the lounge, as well as an Xbox…we would just hang out. Ken’s dogs were running around and he would always have a bottle of wine near by. We all wanted to be there…to be present, even if we weren’t working on our particular parts. That vibe was present again over the week in Nashville when we were rehashing some older songs for the re-release of Destination B-sides. It was wonderful. 

We sold almost 20,000 copies of The Everglow first week. I remember the numbers coming in while were in upstate NY on tour with Armor for Sleep. We were so fortunate to tour with so many great bands while promoting The Everglow. The Starting Line, Mutemath, Circa Survive, The Spill Canvas, The New Amsterdams, Relient K, Vedera, Foo Fighters, Weezer, Lovedrug, The Acadamy Is, Jamison Parker, etc. We traveled to Hawaii and Japan, played beautiful venues across the country. Maybe some bad seeds were being planted between us while were on tour, if so..we were too busy and ambitious to notice. We didn’t want to stop. We truly enjoyed every minute. 

The Everglow, the positivity of those songs, was something we wanted to counter when going into write Singularity. We wanted to keep moving forward, but I think we wanted to move forward too fast. In hindsight, I wish we would’ve stayed with Tooth and Nail and I wish Ken would’ve done the 3rd record. Although, that is only something I can say now. We never wanted to disavow The Everglow..we just wanted to grow, and we did grow..but not together. We did want to be honest with our fans..but that is a hard thing to do..especially if we wished to keep a unified front. In a lot of ways The Everglow eventually ceased to represent who we were..so playing the songs became more isolating. We had different ideas on how to move forward creatively. Personal relations began to be strained which made productive creative conflict difficult. Business issues became problematic as well, differing philosophies, different ethics, new concerns..both phantom and real…this is the bed that Singularity was built upon. Band frustrations are not easy to recognize, nor easy to address because no one wants to admit to being vulnerable. It’s hard to know how to allow differences and manage them. Communication becomes difficult or half hearted, people section off to those who only reinforce their own ideas or concerns. 

As a band, we love The Everglow and we are very proud of it. I can’t wait to play it from beginning to end. Distance is a great buffer, it lets me look back and make sense of things. Listening to The Everglow evokes so many great moments and great creative experiences. I love it and I’m thankful to have been a part of it.