Last week, 500 million iTunes users received a $100 million virus. Given without consent and received without gratitude, Apple’s gift horse of a new U2 album is surely the biggest gust of halitosis to blow from Ireland since Shane MacGowan was last permitted use of dental floss.
Nobody with an online opinion seemed to want Songs of Innocence for sundry reasons, not the least of which is that Bono, in song, sounds increasingly like the guy from Maroon 5, and, in the discussion of global affairs, like Sean Penn’s even simpler cousin. But the most consistent and valid objection was not just to the band’s current lack of discernible talent, ethics or cultural charge. It was, as Sasha Frere-Jones said in a New Yorker moment of virtuosic bitchiness, to the act of violation. Nobody asked for this, and a “lack of consent is not the future”.
A number of other music writers, including The Sydney Morning Herald’s Bernard Zuel, have called for restraint and advised that the album “won’t kill you”. We can only suppose the critic is yet to make it to track seven. In Raised by Wolves, a recording of deadly inanity such as to make Coldplay sound like music, Bono tells us “my body is not a toilet wall”. Sure, B. But neither is my iPhone. So why did Apple take a whizz on it?
Yes, we can wipe the warm piss of misguided corporate largesse from ourselves and yes, we can delete the files. But what we cannot expunge is the memory of having our collections torn apart by an unexpected blast. Zuel and others telling the privacy and taste freaks to hush would do well to re-read the famous Walter Benjamin essay on collections, “Unpacking My Library“. The collection remains in our digital age as it was in Benjamin’s age of mechanical reproduction, “a passion that borders on the chaos of memories”. The music collection, like the book collection, is a “disorder to which habit has accommodated itself to such an extent that it can appear as order”. Which is to say, collectors build and live within their collections of reproducible artefacts with more than just the data themselves.
Benjamin talks of a taxonomy of the self within the world and frankly, I’m a bit surprised that so many old-school music critics, a breed so shamelessly made from the stuff of their own inquiry, were so ready to say “it won’t kill you”. An incursion in the collection does kill the collector whose self and work is made from memories.
But, not all of us are collectors and not all of us have passions that border on madness. Some of us just want to workout to Katy Perry and some of us have no trouble at all with the pro Bono disturbance in our iTunes. In fact, most of us are probably like that; at some point in the last decade, I stopped listening to albums, started copping suggestions from Spotify and gave up on being a collector. How I stopped being a Rock Snob is not clear but what is certain is that I now think of music more as the “soundtrack to my life” than my lifeblood. There was a time I lived in service to music and I spent hours of every day honouring it with the labour of arrangement. Now, music serves me. It lives even beyond chaos in the cloud and it just helps me burn up calories.
I can remember and appreciate the anger of the collector and even though I can no longer feel it, I’m glad that true collectors have the shits. But these people who live in a sort of self-service to reproduced art are endangered. The net neutrality for which good activists rightly campaign in law will probably only come to pass in the culture. It already has. All information is equal. And this, I think, is the real shock of the U2 violation; all information is equal. All art is of identical merit.
And this is why it won’t hurt Apple a bit to piss in the collections of products that contain them. Certainly, there are some funny, angry old-fashioned music collections who believe in the sanctity of connoisseurship, and we should love them for their rancour. But most of us care far less for the genius of the stuff inside our iPhones than we do for the iPhone itself.
I cannot think of a band that appeals to persons who are not 11 and female who excited the level of interest that Tim Cook did last week. He said the Apple Watch would change the world, and a room full of actual adult humans screamed. He said that there was a slightly bigger iPhone available, and journalists, people trained to be unnaturally cynical, reported it. He spoke of Apple Pay, and you’d think that an older dude in mum jeans had not just announced another iteration of electronic payment but that this was a pyjama party and he was One Direction.
Apple makes nice products, and it is all very well and good, I suppose, to applaud their release. That is, if mild technological advance serving great company value is your kind of thing. The fanboys can knock themselves out. But what has also been KO’ed in an era where, truly, the medium has eclipsed the message is that old-timey fandom for popular arts. Information is equal. It’s only the devices that give us that information that are unequal.
About a decade ago a nice guy I knew showed me how to download American TV. I looked through his Seagate hard drive — a real brick, and the greatest number of gigabytes I’d seen anywhere outside a company server. He had just about every movie and album made that year. “Are you going to get to all of these, Anton?” I wanted to know. “Of course not,” he said. “But I need to put something on my hard drive.”
When much-loved comedian Robin Williams died last month, a multi-gigabyte package of all his films shot to the top of illegal download charts. I doubt that many downloaded these films with the intention of watching them all; the guy was OK, but RV, Moscow on the Hudson and World’s Greatest Dad are unbearable. This act of impotent piracy was nothing more, or less, than a respectful gesture. This wasn’t about wanting to steal or wanting to watch. It was a memorial for a man who had gone, and a time (when we actually had taste in movies) that is fast disappearing.
The worst Williams film or the most indulgent U2 record or the hits of One Direction as reinterpreted by Katy Perry and the Walter Benjamin Chipmunks. It doesn’t matter what artefact you launch the next iPhone with, it’ll never be as good as the device that plays it.