Friday, October 15, 2010

Everything sounds better

The tag-line for the Gregory Brothers' Autotune the News series is "everything sounds better."

I'm fascinated by the internet principle that there is almost nothing that cannot be improved by a dance beat. The Gregory Brothers (a misnomer--they are actually the Gregory brothers and sister-in-law) capture the highly mediated, corporatized medium of television news and mediate the hell out of it, editing, remixing, inserting themselves into the videos, and of course turning media and political celebrities into American Idol-like singing contestants. (Each Autotune the News video ends with awarding the unwitting participants "best accidental singer" rankings.)

In reappropriating the news, the Gregory brothers trivialize it, but perhaps not more than it has already been trivialized by the news media itself. There's a way in which Autotune the News performs the same work as the classic spoof trailer of The Shining, which pitches the horror film as a goofy family comedy:

It reveals the extent to which music and framing tell us what to think about the film we're watching. But Autotune the News doesn't just reframe; it also insists on a particular kind of reframing through music--patently derivative but joyous nonetheless. The "serious" news--where seriousness has been produced by grave tones and facial expressions, music, and infographics--becomes an occasion for catchy pop play.

This ethos seems to find the ultimate expression in the "Bed Intruder Song." The song is based on real news footage--a moment of the same kind of outbreak of human passion that Autotune the News celebrates. Regular guy Antoine Dodson delivered a brilliantly enraged rant on the news in response to a terrifying home invasion and the attempted rape of his sister Kelly. Breaking out of the dampening mediation of the interview format, Dodson addressed the public and the fugitive attempted rapist directly, expressing his righteous rage and heaping indignant insults on the criminal. The Gregory Brothers autotuned and edited the video to create the Bed Intruder Song:

Tellingly, Dodson was surfing Facebook at the time of the invasion, and later took to the Bed Intruder Song with glee ("it's my ringtone!", he acknowledges with some joy). Dodson himself is a part of the internet culture that believes that "everything sounds better" autotuned and set to a dance beat. And why not?

In the only logical turn of events, Dodson later performed the Bed Intruder Song live (but still autotuned!) at the 2010 BET Hip Hop Awards, with a Gregory backing him up on keyboard:

(Various other remixes and covers were inevitable.)

Even Carl Sagan sounds better with a beat, as one obsessive musician has demonstrated:

Perhaps naïvely, I see the "everything sounds better" ethos as a resistance to the corporatization of art and media and the utilitarianism of the information age. Students are increasingly trained vocationally; they're made to feel guilty for taking courses that don't feed into their pre-med requirements, or for (heaven forbid) majoring in music or theater or German (or French, Italian, Russian, Classics, or theater, the programs being cut at SUNY Albany, or philosophy, which is on the chopping block at, of all places, Howard University). Making art and engaging in critique, they're told, must be left to those who can make a living at it, and the people who can make a living at it are those who work for the major media corporations.

But people can't live without making art and engaging in critique; more to the point, they don't want to. Ordinary citizens who aren't going to win American Idol (one of the Gregory Brothers--sadly I haven't had time to research this in any detail--was briefly a contestant on one of these shows, I believe), at a time when everybody knows that breaking into sanctioned corporate art depends on luck and popularity with focus groups, rebel by reappropriating corporate media, often flirting with copyright violation in the process. Corporate media becomes everybody's media; CNN cannot do better than I can do, because "everything sounds better"--and a little funny--with a dance beat. Supposedly utilitarian information, routed through the infamous 24-hour news cycle, is revealed as entertainment--entertainment that now "sounds better." Sometimes it's creative and original (I think the Carl Sagan song definitely qualifies as original) and sometimes it isn't. But it's pop culture, and it's ours.


Maria said...

Fantastic post - this makes me want to be sure to include the autotuning phenomenon in my Message and Medium class next semester!

Natalia said...

Thanks, Maria! All my posts will be 50% YouTube videos from now on.