Creative Differences

by Mike O’Brien

I remember attending my fair share of concerts as a youth in the 90’s, beginning with the Barenaked Ladies and moving through the slew of grunge/alt-rock groups that crested through those years. Sometimes it would be a day-long festival featuring a selection of the hit bands du jour, like a live performance version of the “Big Shiny Tunes” CD series, enriched with heat stroke and usurious water vendors. More often, it would be a single attraction, preceded by mostly worthy opening acts, in a medium-sized theatre, many of which have gone extinct even before Covid forced a shutdown of performance spaces. I can remember having gone to see such megastar acts as Beck and Radiohead in my high school days, moving on to more niche (but still a very large and well-promoted niche) acts as my tastes became more my own through my university years: art rock, trip-hop, electro and such, with a more intimate vibe and more circumscribed fan base better suited to the smaller venues that are sprinkled throughout Montreal.
I remember these events in much the same fashion as I remember historical events, even those historical events which I did not witness (which is most of them). I have a marker in my brain indicating the fact that such a group performed at such a place on a given date, and that the list of attendees included myself. It is a propositional, rather than an experiential, mental content. The only visceral impression left on me by absorbing those many hours of musical performance is a particularly annoying form of tinnitus (if you can recall the mosquito-like whine of a cathode ray tube television, imagine hearing precisely that sound, emanating from inside of your head, forever. At least I was not able to indulge my attraction to shooting sports, or I would be stone deaf right now).

Why do I not retain an aesthetic memory of these events? There are a few possible, partial explanations. First, I was quite delayed in developing an emotional and self-regarding awareness. If I had been born in the 90’s or later, I almost certainly would have been diagnosed with some kind of autism-spectrum disorder. Affective impact plays a very large role in fixing memories, and I suspect that my diminished emotional experience impeded the formation of narrative memories. Much of my personal past is just a blur of things that happened to someone to whom I feel very little connection, as if my younger self is just someone I went to school with and eventually lost track of. What little I can recall are disconnected highlights, the sort of snapshots that would be cut together for a flashback episode of a sitcom that had run out of ideas. Mostly injuries, embarrassments and particularly funny bits. I do occasionally have full sensory flashbacks, but these are from more recent years.
Another partial explanation is that, as someone of short stature, I spent most of those concerts trying to see over the people in front of me, and whatever aesthetic rapture I was experiencing had to compete with frustration and muscle fatigue to fill my consciousness at the time. I got good calves out of it, though, so it wasn’t completely wasted. This perspectival challenge also motivated me closer to the stage, and the ear-blasting speakers, though perhaps less so than did the desire to get as close as possible to the performers. After all, I could hear a properly-mixed and safely amplified version of the music from the comfort of my home. The whole point of going to a concert was to be there, with the band, and see the real thing happening. I am tempted here to dive into a digression on Walter Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”, but I will spare you his a-bit-much theorizing and my hazy recollection thereof. It’s a few dozen pages long, and freely available online, and more importantly, perhaps, it is less idiosyncratically whack-a-doodle than many of his other works. Anyone with an interest in what might be called “economics of authenticity” will be well-rewarded by reading it. I bring it up not to score name-dropping points (I have seen enough back-asswards mis-citations of philosophers, especially of peripheral figures like Benjamin, to hold such ostention in the deepest contempt), but because its focus is quite on-the-nose for the questions I am entertaining. To whit, it questions the relationship between “originals” and “copies” of works of art, and how such a distinction is newly afforded by modern technologies of reproduction and distribution.
I used to think quite rigidly (I still do, but I used to, too) about the fidelity owed to some objective standard for X in order to correctly identify some iteration as being an example of X. A paradigmatic case of this rigidity is comparing concert versions of music to the album versions, and judging whether I had a good musical experience on the basis of how closely that “master” version was reproduced. I think much, if not most, of my diminished experience and recall of concerts is due to receiving that experience in such a state of mind. Rather than being open to all the spontaneous possibilities of live performance, I was primed for an experience that was rewarding because it reproduced a familiar stimulus. Stereotypy and repeating patterns over novelty and variation. I would not have made a good Dead Head (doubly so because my enjoyment of these performances was hindered by sobriety).
My experience of music back then was also more culturally reified and economically burdened than it is now. Music was consumed via radio, CD’s (cassettes, even!) and music video stations. Canada’s Much Music, and its Quebecois sibling, Musique Plus, were reliable sources of new and interesting music once upon a time, particularly when they produced their own content and gave wide programming discretion to their more musically adventurous hosts. Music journalist and host Claude Rajotte was single-handedly responsible for introducing me to many of my favourite artists of that era, like Bjork and DJ Shadow, and I shudder to think what my music collection would have become in his absence. (Of course, both Much and Plus were eventually acquired and putrefied by Canada’s rightly despised media behemoths, which fill roughly the same role in this country’s cultural landscape as did “The Nothing” in the film “The NeverEnding Story”.)
Where was I? 1980’s references, Bell Media bashing… ah yes, the ontology of cultural commodities. I think the reification of “correct” versions of songs was reinforced by the fact that a single version (in fact, the “single version”) predominated in a media landscape dominated by commercial outlets that trafficked in commercial commodities. No bootlegs, no studio outtakes, just the label-approved official version of a work that might have had a hundred alternate instantiations before settling on its most market-ready form. Both the recording and the concert were instances of a standardized product, and I expected to get what I paid for. These products weren’t cheap, either. And I very much was. Handing over twenty-five 1990’s-era Canadian dollars for a CD with two or three hits (“hits” being the market-certified artistic triumphs) was a weighty financial decision, and being pathologically risk-averse made me reluctant to take any leaps of faith at the music store. “Singles” were abusively over-priced, dashing the potential for more granular choices in music consumption that might have been afforded by such a format.
Under such conditions (external and internal to my own head), I only attended concerts by known quantities, bona fide musical stars with certified goods to deliver. This compounded my lack of spontaneous enjoyment at live performances, because nearly every song that was played was already fixed in my mind in its “correct” form. The more enjoyment I had derived from an artist’s recorded performance, the less I was likely to get from the live performance. I was aware of this disappointment, but persisted in seeing live shows. I think I was in the consumptive mode of collecting experiences rather that enjoying them, otherwise I might have given up on them long before I did. Not that I gave up on enjoying concerts, but I did re-assess the value of seeing established blockbuster acts, making exceptions where the live show was deliberately created to stand on its own unique merits. For instance, seeing Rush play an arena show replete with lasers and holographic dragons. Invisible airwaves did, indeed, crackle with life.
Much has changed in the last couple of decades, both in how music is disseminated and in how I appreciate it. The virtually costless and boundless affordances for musical discovery online, both of new and of past artists, allowed me to pursue my own wont without the distortions and ligatures of marketing and ownership. Equally important, the deadening effects of “heavy rotation” no longer fatigue my appreciation for any particular artist or work. In my own circumstance, I was lucky to fall into the festival scene in Montreal over the last decade, both in theatre (the Fringe Festival) and in music (Pop Montreal and Under Pressure, the former being wildly eclectic and the latter being more focused on hip-hop, with graffiti, break-dance and skateboarding in addition to music). This was salutary for my aesthetic development on two fronts; first, the benefits afforded to volunteers allowed me to see all the shows I wanted without a making any economic calculus, and second, I mostly saw performances by artists about whom I knew nothing, and from whom I expected nothing. My stubborn, kill-joy brain was not given the opportunity to prepare a fun-smothering matrix to impose on these experiences.
I didn’t abandon the idea of “correct” versions of iterated works of art, though. Not entirely. I just appropriated it. After hearing multiple versions of songs, as interpreted through different musicians, producers and track selectors, I would often find that the canonical version was not the most “correct” one, understood as that combination of performance and production that best realized the aesthetic potential of a piece. This judgment was only valid to myself, but that satisfies the only arbiter who matters. This was most evident in seeing multiple performances of a theatre piece, where so many factors have to harmonize over such a long stretch of time that guessing when the performances will coalesce into the “best” iteration is impossible (although it’s usually the third or fourth). Perhaps “best” is not quite the right word. “Truest” is better, insofar as it captures the sense of fidelity to the logic and promise of a work. This is not restricted to works of art, either. I’ve seen philosophical ideas get worked to death, or extended into absurdity, as their originators mishandled them over their careers. This is aggravated by the economy of academic work, where thinkers may be incentivized to work an early thought to death and beyond. Such talk puts me in the presumptuous position of second-guessing authors’ choices in articulating their own ideas, but I will say that (1) if I recoiled from presumptuousness then I would not write at all, and (2) philosophical ideas do not belong to their originators as do works of art, and those who birth them are not necessarily qualified to raise them to maturity.
The vast archival resources of the internet ago makes this kind of evaluation possible, drawing back the curtain on creative processes once only visible to that small portion of people involved in them, or having the resources and inclination to dig through the records of such processes after the fact. Not only works of art and theory, but also iteratively designed and engineered objects, are opened up to such informed scrutiny. Podcasts, in their infinite diversity and volume, have given an opportunity for anyone who has done anything consumed by a public audience to share the details of how that thing came to be, replete with stories of decision points and discarded possibilities. This is often traded as “fan service”, as those who love something love to hear about how it came about. There is also the obverse, “critic service” perhaps, giving insight into how the things that people love to hate came to be so badly botched.
On this point, I have in mind a video game franchise that is on the cusp of releasing its most recent installation. The “hype train” has been rolling for months, with tentative details being strategically leaked to test the reaction of prospective customers. And the consensus seems to be that the development process has gone rather badly, distorted by marketing considerations and creative incoherence, resulting in an iteration that betrays some key distinguishing features of the franchise’s identity. It is significant that this is a multiplayer game, in which 32, 64 and even 128 players have played with (their team mates) and against (the opposing team) each other, instantiating the game millions of times around the world. In a sense, the players cause the game to exist as much as the developers do, turning lines of code into a simultaneous shared experience. However, they can only choose to play the game within the affordances chosen by the developers. If the developers choose to radically change the rules of the game, excluding the “correct” ways established and recognized through the success of previous iterations, the players can no longer play the game “correctly”. They are free to play another game, or to create their own game that recreates the “correct” experience, but within certain constraints. They may fall afoul of intellectual property rights. They may lack the resources to produce a game of adequate quality. And, perhaps most beyond their control, they lack the power of a well-known franchise to attract and keep enough players to make their game an ongoing experience rather than a languishing collection of code.
The legally and creatively valid possessors of such intellectual property are quite capable of “doing it wrong”, as gamers are fond of saying. They clearly have the legal freedom to do so, as I am free, absent some prior binding agreement, to purchase a beloved artwork and destroy it for fun. In both cases, there is a sense that some shared good has been removed from the world, and that this was made possible by some failure in the law or the market to account for the kind of value that was lost. Imagine if someone bought the rights to Beethoven’s catalogue, and insisted that henceforth all performances were to use kazoos and Auto-tune, or face legal repercussions. This is obviously worse than a bunch of video gamers being under-served by a corporate game-maker, but still. The fact that previous iterations of a franchise, in which things were done “correctly”, can be rendered inoperable by discontinuing online support for them, points to a special burden carried by their corporate creators. They do not merely neglect, but can actively forbid players from performing the kind of play which these companies claim the sole right to provide. The sense that such control brings certain curatorial responsibilities is not entirely baseless, and the mishandling of long-beloved franchises, particularly when such mishandling is seen as the product of deliberate financial calculation, provokes not merely disappointment but also justified indignation.
I don’t suppose there is any legal remedy to creative malfeasance by legal rights holders, except perhaps some kind of “use it or lose it” provision for control of abandoned intellectual property. But, just as the internet broke a particularly dysfunctional system of disseminating musical experiences, perhaps the future holds a similar disruption for the legally and economically enshrined arbiters of the “correct” forms of digital play. It already has for single-player experiences, as downloading and modding enable anyone to play whatever game they like, in whatever manner they like (some assembly may be required). The challenge of doing this with multiplayer games, without dividing the player base into a Babel of gaming solitudes, requires some coordination in meat-space and so might be trickier. It seems more tractable and less important than just about every other problem that attracts my attention (ecological collapse, nuclear brinkmanship, yadda yadda yadda), though, so it’s been a rather nice bit of gristle to chew.