Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Crimes Against Autotune: Relevance and Vanity in Pop Videos

A few days ago the blogosphere picked up the story of Googoosha's new YouTube video.

So, why should you care?
A Quick Google Search and...

Googoosha's Dad is the Dictator President of Uzbekistan, Islom Karimov.
It's like if Uday Hussein had gotten his brothers together and started a boy band.
For real. Gerard Depardieu helped. No, Seriously. Her second single is a duet with him.

While the song is pure pop, it is one of the more chilling pop songs I've ever seen. The juxtaposition of who this woman is, and what she has grown up around put into the context of the milieu largely populated by Reality TV stars heavily autotuned and YouTubed is giving me a serious existential crisis. But for posterity, for future generations who will read this blog as a link from a twitter post in the library of Congress, here's a recap of a specific facet of the phenomenon.

For those of you unfamiliar, viral pop music videos are a huge thing among the "famous for being famous" set. Especially women. They're an essential part of the modern album release and a staple of Internet humor sites. If you're reading this when I post this blog post, you were alive in 2012 and know this, because in 2012, the viral video truly united the world through online and mobile distribution, you can go to any country in the world and dance to Gangnam Style with a stranger.

In the nineties every Disney Child Star with a TV Show also had an album: Lindsey Lohan, Amanda Bynes, Hillary Duff, Demi Lovato & Selena Gomez. A trend likely built from the success of the Mickey Mouse club's past alumni: Annette Funichello, Justin Timberlake, Brittney Spears, Christina Agullera... the list goes on. So, as goes these Disney stars, so goes the aspiration of young women (and old). The idea becomes: if every famous person is a multi talented snowflake capable of having a popular show and a platinum album, then every person on television should be able to launch a music career.

Don't even get me started on Miley Cyrus, Hannah Montana has a lot to answer for.
Wrong. So very, very wrong.

Let's be honest with ourselves, not everyone is good at everything. Someone who is clearly a skilled model, like Tyra Banks, clearly has a strong business acumen to have established a TV empire and respectable business endeavors. She tried to release an album and parley her other successes into the music business. It didn't work because well, making music is not her finest skill and ultimately the audience didn't respond the way she had hoped.

Autotune and the means of video production being more democratized means that more people can make music videos and distribute them at lower cost. What once was considered the exclusive per view of record companies and signed bands is now available for thousands of dollars, and there are many businesses and producers that will make your video if you have the cash. This has produced some great things, that's not in doubt. Bands like Ok Go blew up thanks to embeddable videos, Carley Rae Jepson's Call Me Maybe. These are now who are getting signed, who are finding their audiences and dozens and dozens of others singers, bands and mini-celebrities that you can find that suit your musical interests and desires.

Social Media Analytic data should be measured in microBiebers and macroBiebers
The grandest Internet Success story based on music videos is of course, Justin Bieber. Here receiving a Disruptive Innovation Award during the 2012 Tribeca Film Festival. Based on the popularity of videos distributed on YouTube, thanks to a wily Canadian producer that noticed his talent and a very supportive Mom. Justin Bieber found an audience, a very real army of (mostly female) fans, has become a millionaire many times over and a global celebrity.

Why Yes, that is the DARPA Cheetah Killbot next to him

Creative Commons with Attribution: @Caitlin_Burns
So, if anyone can make a music video and distribute it, any special little snowflake can make a video and get it seen. That doesn't mean the reception will be positive.

Rebecca Black's Friday was released in 2012. Ms. Black's parents paid the ARK Music Factory a fee to create a professionally produced music video and get it seen online, hopefully propelling her to music fame and fortune. Ms. Black's song became a byword for the horrible things that can be paid for and produced if you have the money and the ability to become infamous and a tale of how infamous a person can be for signing a bad song. For Rebecca Black; who it really cannot be stressed enough was a 13 year old, had the fortune to have the money and support of her parents,  there's forgiveness. The song is rather terrible, and terribly catchy, and it created tremendous opportunity for her because of it's viral awfulness.

In another decade, the video would never have been seen. Ms. Black's parents money might have purchased the video but it's unlikely that it would have been distributed. Ms. Black has years to hone her craft if she chooses and should she decide she wants another crack at the music business, does have a name to play off of, and a serious reputation to build from and overcome.

There are however, many, many adults out there who really should know better. Thanks to Reality Television there are dozens of "celebrities" who have become famous for being famous. People have heard of them not because of their artistic skills or notable acts but because they're able to scheme well on television or get in fights, or are wealthy, or are wealthy, have no practical skills worthy of the attention they're getting and get in fights on TV.

They get the ratings and they get paid. They may have been wealthy before or not but as soon as they're famous they get the bug to be more famous and more successful. So many of them have made music videos. The most notable set are from the Bravo epic continuum of "Real Housewives". Wealthy women who get in fights over perceived gaffs, snubs and talk about each other behind their back.

Someday I promise to dive further into all of that, but today I want to focus on the music videos. Patient Zero for this phenomena, at least for me as an audience member, was Countess LuAnn's "Money Can't Buy You Class".

So. True.
 WARNING: Terrible Music, Keep the Ear Bleach handy.  

Wait, it may have been Kim Zocolak of The Real Housewives of Atlanta's "Tardy to the Party"

The Hollywood Reporter says the the second of these, "Tardy For the Party" is the most successful financially of these to emerge from the glut of autotuned, objectively terrible but hopelessly viral videos that surround the Bravo franchise and give the reality show celebs a reason to go on the talk show circuit during the off season.
"The most successful song to emerge from the franchise? "Tardy for the Party" by Atlanta's Kim Zolciak, written and produced by fellow Housewife Kandi Burruss, which has sold some 101,000 downloads, according to Nielsen SoundScan. Factor in the piracy rate, and more than 1 million people own the tune -- despite Zolciak's questionable singing skills. The poorest performer: Michaele Salahi, one-half of Washington D.C.’s White House party crashing couple, whose “Bump It” moved a whopping 122 copies.

"These are fun, novelty records … not everything is a Grammy-nominated piece of work," says David Waxman, head of A&R at respected dance label Ultra Records, which signed and released two singles by New York Housewife LuAnn de Lesseps, including the autotune atrocity "Money Can't Buy You Class." He says "Tardy" influenced his decision to acquire the Countess LuAnn track. "She was popular on the TV show, the song was reactive, and we took advantage of it," says Waxman, adding that even with small profit margins, such tracks can have a long shelf life, re-emerging in reruns and syncs that could "cause a whole new surge."
But these videos are highly contextual, without the support of a popular television show, these women's videos would not be profitable, clearly, even with it, most are not. These examples though have spawned many imitators and aspiring reality stars to attempt to rise through the ranks of starlets to find their niche.

I would post a number of examples but in the interest of your sanity, dear reader, and the fact that I need to buy stock in ear bleach before I subject you to the onslaught; I will only post two examples for your perusal. If you have favorite similar examples, drop them in the comments.

Hot Girls Have Problems Too

And who can forget CHET HAZE (aka Tom Hanks's son)

Lots of these videos seem to come from the same place: people with money enough to hire a professional crew and purchase some music producing and a heavy spackling of autotune. (I'm not going to even try to talk about autotune or it's crimes here) These people and the content of their videos, really what makes them so abhorrent is that they genuinely have nothing to say. They don't seem to engage people who push them in terms of the content of their lyrics or their internal motivations.
  • "I'm Hot"
  • "I'm Sexy"
  • "I'm Rich"
  • "We're Just Like You, Except We're Hot"
  • "Look at my Money, Also I have Breasts"
  • "Look at my shiny possessions"
So, while I should really be incorporating White Privilege Records and exploiting this market for fun and profit. Let's take a step back.
  1. I apologise that you know about these now, that's time you won't be getting back
  2. I am all for everyone, of every race and socioeconomic class having a voice and a creative way to express themselves and share
  3. If your going to say something, please try and make sure that you are actually saying something of some value
The really galling thing about most of these videos is not that they exist and are popular, but they exist and are popular and are frustratingly vacant of meaning. The core thing that these videos say are "I'm desperate for attention, I want your adulation and I want to do the absolute littlest amount possible to get it." From paying for the production from a pre-packaged pop producer to the famous for being famous aspirations that seem to be the underlying business model; is it any surprise that so many of these valueless products don't accrue financial or social value on release into the outside world?

Many of these efforts do not achieve success for the people who hope to gain from them, in fact they cost them lots of money.

 Heidi Montag, the poster girl for Reality Stardom, is the strongest story I can think of to describe this absolute vacancy of meaning and the desperation for fame for its own sake I know of. Montag was a staple of reality shows for a few years in the aughts, starting on The Hills and moving on with a publicly toxic, very fourth-wall-breaking kind of bad relationship with another reality star called Spencer aaand according to a google search I just did are STILL doing this on reality TV. The reason she's the poster child for this sort of plastic vacant fame-for-fame's sake kind of thing is evident in her personal story, but also on her literal face.

To remain press worthy after her first album flopped, she literally turned herself into another person.

This is a role model to millions of little girls who watch television... who's buying drinks?
Ms. Montag's ability to be on reality TV shows is unquestioned, she exists in front of cameras with the best of them. But, very few people ever accuse her of having anything of real world import to say, or with deep meaningful value to the wider world. But this is about MUSIC. 
"Ex-reality star Heidi Montag has released a new album of four pop tracks even though her last effort died a hideous death and cost her $2million.
And the four tracks on it aren't even new - they're just repackaged versions of songs she released a while ago - Your Love Found Me, Party Is Wherever I Am, No More and Overdosin'.

The album called 'Dreams Come True' shows Heidi looking glam on the front cover wearing a cut out pink swimming costume, but, er, we've had a listen and we don't think even her gravity-defying boobs will save this album from going much the same way as the last."

So, why are we talking about this? and can I stop doing it and make the bad video research stop?

Well, while the vacancy and absurdity of many privileged fameballs is represented in videos the fickle mistress of Internet distribution does reward some interesting pieces. For example, Psy's Gangnam Style is actually a coup in South Korean pop not just because of it's wild international success but because of it's satire of wealth and aspiration to the trappings of the bourgeois.

From the Atlantic Monthly,

The video is "a satire about Gangnam [a ritzy neighborhood in Seoul] itself but also it's about how people outside Gangnam pursue their dream to be one of those Gangnam residents without even realizing what it really means," Kim explained to me when I got in touch with her. Koreans "really wanted to be one of them," but she says that feeling is changing, and "Gangnam Style" captures people's ambivalence.

So, let's take it back to the beginning. Googoosha's video with Gerard Depardieu, why is this video and pop star produced by a wealthy princess compelling. I'm going to repeat myself:


This isn't the daughter of a plastic surgeon from Pasadena we're talking about. While I am absolutely and utterly revolted by the actions she and her family are implicated in I am disgustingly fascinated by the idea that in this pop song there is some insight into the perspective of someone who has been born into this particular space when and where it is, whether she is complicit in criminal acts or no. 
Karimova — who moonlights as a fashion designer and pop star in between serving as Uzbekistan's ambassador to Spain and permanent representative to the U.N. in Geneva, and, you know, being implicated in trafficking thousands of Uzbek women against their will to work in the international sex trade. 
She's also a DIPLOMAT, which is as astonishing as it is compelling. This is not to say that political figures have no other skills, Let the Eagle Soar, anyone? This is a woman with actual political power, someone who has accomplishments outside the fame-for-fame's sake reference point.
Despite the Karimov dictatorship's abysmal record on freedom of the press, its brutal suppression of dissidents, and its fondness for torture, Gulnara Karimova, a Harvard graduate and a resident of Switzerland, travels to the U.S. frequently and apparently freely; she has shown her clothing line, Guli, at New York fashion week. That Karimova fancies herself a player in fashion is perhaps especially galling considering that one of Uzbekistan's largest and most corrupt industries, after oil and gas, is cotton. The country is one of the world's biggest suppliers of cotton for the apparel and textile industries, and Uzbek cotton production is notorious for its reliance of child and forced labor. Karimova also plays up her tenuous associations with various charities, including the Susan G. Komen foundation. Karimova is reportedly using a PR firm to secure fawning coverage of her various fashion-related endeavors ahead of this coming runway season. So far, the Huffington Post "Style" section has taken the bait.
This is a perspective from an artist humanity rarely gets to glimpse into, and when it's done, it's worth taking a look. Even if it's uncomfortable to do so. What does this video say about her perception's of men and feminine power? What level of involvement did this woman have in the choice of the set, the actual lyrics? We know they're her clothes and EVEN THAT gives us some interesting perspective into the country she comes from even though morally the reason we know about her is because she's a controversial figure and may be a party to human rights atrocities.

I also hate that I kinda like the song. Fuck.

It's auto tuned poppy ear worm combined with the political intrigue perspective is like my addiction to Takogo Kak Putin a few years ago. Lord knows I don't want to give money to someone wrapped up in human trafficking. So, I will rant about it online, because discussing it is probably the best thing we can do.

How dare, how dare, how dare you can be so different?
How dare, how dare, how dare you can do it?
How dare, how dare, how dare you can be so different?
How dare, how dare, how dare you can break the wall?
Who dares? Is Googoosha’s the voice of jealousy that others can do what they want, but she is trapped by her position at the top of society? Or is it society’s voice (Uzbekistan? The international community?) judging her for trying to break free from the chains of her pre-defined identity and behaving in ways that are acceptable only for a man in her society (i.e., wielding economic and political power) or like a Westerner, in ways her father’s government inconsistently emphasizes are unacceptable for Uzbeks. The object of the song’s scorn is ambiguous.
Because of the context I can barely handle not knowing. It is genuinely provocative. The questions it raises in the sociopolitical context of Uzbekistan and the attitudes of it's elites are fascinating. The fact that a political figure and unquestionably rich as Croesus Asian oligarch is using the same methods as any other rich kid with unlimited funds to get attention and get her 15 minutes of fame are both appalling and awkwardly precious, we really are all the same these days in some ways. Back to
The benefits to her of playing such destructive games with impunity are great, but limited to her home country Uzbekistan. For example, her attempt to buy success in the West by purchasing an advertisement in Billboard magazine to bolster her false claim that she had become a pop sensation in the U.S. paid no dividends outside Tashkent.
Painted by Adolf Hitler. Maybe we should just build more art schools?
In closing, I don't want my kids to grow up wanting to be famous without there being a reason for their fame that is compelling. Doing some genuinely notable work whether it's artistic, political, philanthropic, or even scientific is totally acceptable.

Ambition to fame does not have to be a bad thing.

Hell, Autotune, like radiation, is a tool that can be used for good (in theory, I'm not sure I've got any examples of that, anyone? anyone? Bueller? Bueller?) I intend to push my kids as hard as I try to push the people around me to do something meaningful, even if it's silly or small in scope. 

The ambition for fame can be a wholly consuming and destructive force that makes people twist their bodies and morals out of shape. Something that can backfire on you horribly and if you are unprepared for attention it can pull you deeper into insecurities and despair that can swallow you whole and spit you out again while the world laughs.

So think a bit about why you're doing the things you're doing as well as if you can do them. If you're talking about something larger than yourself you can likely engage in a fascinating discussion with the wider world, rather than being the butt of the joke. 

And if a privileged woman makes an autotuned pop video that prompts greater attention and discussion of horrors and corruption in a part of the world that usually exists in a media vacuum...  does it justify giving it attention thereby feeding her desire for fame?


  1. Before I respond in a much more detailed way on my blog, in answer to your ultimate question, Yes. The fame's gotta go somewhere, and if their stupidity sheds light on the atrocities, thereby lessening them, bravo for telling us to look.

  2. Caitlin this was possibly one of the most "spot on" amazing blog posts that pinpoints the lack of admirable values in the pop music industry today - and has over-pinned it, rather than underpinning it - for as long as I can remember. Wouldn't it be nice if the stars of today were not just rich kids with celebrity launch trusts and a vapid lack of social responsibility? Makes me glad I still rock out to the same old punk rock and post-punk albums I loved in the 80's and 90's. But still, it's time for a more responsible music industry - one of the problems with a decentralized, social media driven market is that there is less need for PR people to encourage their young stars to send positive messages & "heal the world." I'm not saying we need the sort of censorship that Tipper Gore brought in the 1980's (obviously I'm way against that), but at this juncture nor do we need the antagonistic revolt of people like Jello Biafra to challenge them, but people need to be informed and stars need to shine for a good reason - not just because they got bling and plastic surgery to look the part. And auto-tuning is a terrifying neutralizer of vocals (and denier of talent) - it makes everyone sound compressed and metallic - but it is funny when it fails like when Black Eyed Peas played the Super Bowl a few years ago...was nice to remind the public that their heroes are not necessarily spotless fashion plates with compressed voices....Time for real talent to spread real messages that inform the public about the global society they live in! As internet denizens I can only hope next gen fans find social responsibility and talent as must haves in their idols...