Instant Gratification

By

A SHAMELESSLY GOOFY BAND of street musicians performs in and around the subway station at Union Square in Manhattan--a banjoist, a washtub bassist, a percussionist who plays cookware, and someone doing something else, as I recall. Not long ago, I took the group's business card, which says "No Music, No Party," and then gives a phone number. I wondered if the phrase was the name of the ensemble or a terse statement of philosophy. If it is the latter, the fellows have a point that is borne out through cultural history. A great deal of human social interaction has always been conducted to music, notwithstanding Adorno's protests that social function stains the "purity" of music. A wealth of treasured and enduring music, formal and informal (as well as duly forgotten background noise), was originally created for get-togethers of all sorts, from Mozart's divertimenti and serenades to Louis Armstrong's New Orleans stomps to Bill Monroe's barn-dance bluegrass to Sly Stone's dense polyphony au go-go. No party, no music.

Every kind of socializing calls for its own music, and most of the action in social interaction transpires among young people, enslaved by their hormones to the service of meeting and attracting one another, thus perpetuating not only the species but also its popular music. At the moment, the explosive young website MySpace is enacting a transformation in the social behavior of teenagers and people of college age (in addition to some younger and older). In the process, the site has already had a stunning effect on the music of youth culture. MySpace is rapidly establishing a new system for hanging out and hooking up--a kind of new paradigm for young life; and, like all the old paradigms, it carries with it hazards, only one of which is its impact on music.

Founded in 2003 by Tom Anderson, who was twenty-seven at the time and who handles the creative end, and Chris DeWolfe, then thirty-seven and the money man, MySpace is a hybrid site, part networking forum, part music resource. The idea, a primordial one transported to cyberspace, was to use music to bring young people together. Anderson, who was playing guitar in an alternative-rock band called Swank when he began developing MySpace, thought it would be way cool to have a place on the Web where ambitious, unknown musicians such as himself could try to attract a following by posting their portraits, bios, information on upcoming gigs, and sample music files. But unlike several dozen sites that already did all that, MySpace encouraged users to interact with participating musicians, as well as with one another--to chat through text messages and to exchange digital pictures, building a community of people connected by an interest in new music.

Anderson had the wisdom to enlist some acquaintances, gorgeous female club kids, to be among the first MySpace users to post their photographs, imparting upon the site a patina of phototropic cool. He created what is essentially the biggest nightclub in the world (or more accurately, the incorporeal world), open all day and night. It is open to virtually anyone and to anyone virtual. The only velvet ropes, thin and malleable, are MySpace's token restrictions: the site is prohibited to those under fourteen, though MySpace requires no proof of age. (It has a bouncer at the door but does not card.) MySpace also forbids the use of "personally identifiable information," though it permits messages that might contain hints of a member's identity, such as the person's name, hometown, and birthday.

As I type this, MySpace has some 55,667,000 members, and the number is no doubt higher by this point in the sentence. More than a million bands and solo musicians now have profiles on the site. On a typical day, MySpace receives two and a half times the traffic of Google. The popularity of Anderson and DeWolfe's venture among young people is such that last summer Rupert Murdoch appropriated it, buying a controlling interest in MySpace's parent company and access to another generation for $580 million.

Open, loosely policed, and populated almost exclusively by young people presenting themselves as attractively as possible, MySpace offers abundant temptation to voyeurs and sexual predators. The site provides free and easy access to a vast and constantly replenished supply of teenage girls and boys, many of whom have posted images of themselves in various stages of undress, along with messages describing their tastes in sex as well as in music. Since anyone can pose as someone else on MySpace, it is impossible to measure the lurking. Fifteen-year-old Kimberly, the girl on a farm in Wisconsin, could really be fifty-two-year-old Buck, the parolee in a trailer in New Jersey, hiding behind a scan from a high school yearbook and a few convincing phrases of teenage jabber. At least two cases of sexual assault of underage girls have been traced to initial meetings on MySpace, according to newspaper reports.

AS A SOCIAL ENVIRONMENT, MySpace is a sexual minefield. And this troubling fact is not mitigated by the fact that, as a musical resource, the site presents a set of problems of another sort. Much has been made of the Internet's effect on the music business. Everyone knows that, thanks to file-sharing and paid downloading services such as iTunes, CD sales have been declining for several years. Apple (Steve Jobs's computer company, not the Beatles' record label, the latter of which now profits nicely from its trademark license to the former) has become one of the top three suppliers of music in the country. Yet MySpace represents something other than a new delivery system or a different economic model for the music industry. It is altering the dynamics of the relationship between the two groups of young people involved in popular music: the musicians and their audience. And so, in due course, it is changing the music itself.

MySpace, in its essence, seems like the realization of a democratic, almost utopian ideal. It eliminates or marginalizes the traditional bodies of mediation between those who make popular music and those who listen to it. A band does not need radio play, nor a video in rotation on MTV, to find an audience through MySpace. It does not need a record contract. It does not have to play a single gig. It needs only a Web page with a few song samples--though good photos and bio text, along with a willingness to chat with fans online, can help considerably. The way MySpace works is that members log on and message back and forth, exchanging thoughts on topics of the moment, including music. If they want to know more about a particular band, they click to the group's page and listen to (or download) a song; and if they like what they hear, they can spread the word among MySpace members on their list of "friends." Some MySpace users have as many as six thousand friends. As Greg McIntosh, the guitarist for a Michigan-based band called the Great Lakes Myth Society, said in an interview, "It's like being at a giant music conference twenty-four hours a day every day."

Emerging as it has in the wake of Clear Channel's domination of radio stations and rock concert halls, MySpace appears to be a grassroots counterbalance to the wholesale absorption of the music industry by a handful of entertainment-industry conglomerates. At the same time, it is yet another monolith--born of the people, yes, but owned by Fox.

 

MYSPACE HAS BEGUN TO spawn a breed of its own rock stars, bands that have made their reputations mainly through the site: Fall Out Boy, a punk-pop quartet that was recently nominated for a Grammy for Best New Artist; Hawthorne Heights, another punk-pop group; Panic! at the Disco, a kitschy techno ensemble; and Arctic Monkeys, a quartet of nineteen- and twenty-year-olds from Sheffield, England, who were already famous, largely through MySpace, before they signed with Domino Records last May. When the group released its first CD, Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not, this January, the album entered the British pop charts at number one, and the single "I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor," was the fastest-selling record in English history. Arctic Monkeys, whose music is tuneful punkish pop, will perform in the United States for the first time this spring.

Through MySpace, some bands have built ardent followings so quickly that audiences know the words to their songs before the musicians know how to play them. Fall Out Boy headlined the Warped Tour of punk acts last summer, and I caught one of the shows in Milwaukee, during a vacation with my son, who is a senior at the University of Wisconsin. Fairly impressed by the group's second CD, From Under the Cork Tree (an album with some good juvenile thrashing), I was looking forward to seeing the band and was surprised to find it utterly inept on stage--and I mean really inept, not inept in accordance with the anarchic conventions of punk. The singers (guitarist Joseph Trohman and bassist Peter Wentz) never used the microphone, and the band stopped and started in the middle of tunes, struggling nervously to find its place. (Not caring would have been punk. Struggling nervously was incompetent.) I heard most of the words, though, because the audience chanted the lyrics.

One band wildly popular on MySpace, Hollywood Undead, never played in public before becoming a sensation online. The group formed early last summer and posted a MySpace page adorned with mysterious-looking photos of the seven members of the band, their faces hidden behind hockey masks and gimmicky shrouds, along with three songs, each a listenable amalgam of hip-hop and heavy metal. As one of Undead's singers, Jeff Phillips, told The New York Times, "We were just a bunch of loser kids who sat around our friend's house all day, and we started making music and recording it on computer… In a matter of weeks it got huge, and it kept on getting bigger and bigger… If you look at our page, it's like we're a huge band that's toured a hundred times." So far, Hollywood Undead has had more than two million plays on MySpace, and it still has yet to tour.

THE INSTANT FAME CONFERRED by MySpace is becoming the standard practice of our time, of a piece with American Idol and its variants on television, which pit amateurs against one another in competition for celebrity as spectacle, granting us viewers the dual pleasure of glorying in the ascension of one of our own and wallowing in the humiliation of those to whom we relate more closely, the losers. MySpace fills most of the space on its music pages with the work of awful bands, hundreds of thousands of them, and trolling among them provides a kind of perverse entertainment. The music is searchable by five criteria: band name, band bio, band members, influences, and "sounds like." After an hour or so of using the search mode to find something worth the effort, I got punchy and, after the words "sounds like," typed "shit." Pages for more than three hundred bands popped up, and the first five, I can attest, were well categorized.

So much of the music on MySpace is so grossly underdeveloped that listening to it is almost an act of aesthetic pedophilia. Thanks to MySpace, young bands no longer need to start out by gigging, playing one-nighters, making mistakes in near anonymity, learning what works, finding their voice through a dialogue with their audience--I mean a musical dialogue, not a chat. Good bands have no need, and no time, to get better before they get famous. Surfing MySpace, I listened to a few of more than two hundred groups that listed themselves as sounding like the Beatles, and I began to consider what the moptops themselves sounded like in their apprenticeship, when they were working out their style by labor and trial, playing six sets a night for dancers in Hamburg. Then I remembered having heard Bruce Springsteen when I was a kid and he was just starting out: he sounded like a garage-ish cross between Van Morrison and Bob Dylan, but not yet like Bruce Springsteen.

The boggling scale and speed of MySpace conspire to inhibit originality, while rewarding familiarity and accessibility. The site attracts innumerable groups that sound like other acts successful on MySpace, and it engenders mediocre music that makes a quick, positive impression. Lost in the blitz of clicking on MySpace is challenging music that might be off-putting at first but could grow on listeners, stretching their ears and provoking their minds. All the bands to rise from MySpace so far, including the talented but madly over-praised Arctic Monkeys, are good, but there is not a great one among them. One cannot help but wonder if MySpace is screening out the great ones, or failing those with the capacity for greatness.

As a measure of musical tastes, MySpace is skewed by its social character. MySpace members generally discover bands through recommendations by other members. But like all information disclosed among parties inclined to impress one another, the data is loaded, likely to reflect social expectations as much as, perhaps more than, musical passions. For instance: the son of mine with whom I saw Fall Out Boy loves not only punk rock but also the music of Ella Fitzgerald and Stephen Sondheim, yet he says that he would never admit as much on MySpace. If many of the site's members are to a significant degree mouthing what they hope will make them seem cool, they are saying only what they are hearing (or typing only what they are reading). Once again, the famously raucous individualism of the Internet results in crass conformism. The spiral effect, accelerating to tornado intensity, surely accounts for the almost instantaneous emergence on MySpace of bands such as Hollywood Undead, which are simply nothing special.

So MySpace is finally not quite as democratic as it seems, and its ostensibly democratic systems are as susceptible to corruption as any in non-cyber societies. MySpace has not eliminated mediation from the music business, it has merely supplanted the old modes with new ones. There are powerful instruments of influence in this allegedly free terrain. Webmasters have the power, once consigned to concert promoters, to lure crowds to a band. (On the day of this writing, the most listened-to artist on MySpace was the sexy electro-pop vocalist Tila Tequila, and the lead photograph on her page showed her sitting on the ground, her lips pressed to the end of the picture frame, kissing something that we cannot see but which would fall at the height of a standing man's crotch.) A whole new industry of "viral marketing" employs surreptitious e-mail techniques to spread messages about paying clients to music enthusiasts online. And acts such as Hollywood Undead, a phony band hidden behind funny masks and elaborate concealments, have mastered one of the most effective ways to prevail on MySpace: pretending to be what others would like you to be. The sexual predators have figured that out, too.

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This article originally ran in the March 6, 2006, issue of the magazine.

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