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Commercialization

(Or ‘EEK! No! Somebody wants to buy my stuff!’)

We live in a commercial world and we are all material girls…, wait. Let me rephrase that; aw, screw it, I’ll run with it.

As artists (in this definition I’m including anyone working in the arts) we have to maintain a balance between art and commerce. Or so it is said. But because it is said by the majority does not make it true. Something popular can also be good. The unpopular can also be bad. Not just people who don’t ‘get it’ but people who understand it but believe the artist has failed to properly convey their message. Failing is never a problem, as artists and as people we learn from our failures and the more we fail the more we learn. Or so it should be.

But is that true now? Or has the critical culture become so engrained into the collective psyche that success has automatically come to mean a lack of artistry? The more money a movie makes, the less good the movie is. The curious part of this phenomenon for me is the reversal of critical acclaim. Wherein a movie or a band or a writer or an artist is acclaimed as an underappreciated genius and the critics lambaste the public for not embracing that artist. Until that artist finds a way to reach the mainstream. Then at that moment they become lesser artists. And I’m not talking about those that compromise (sell out in the vernacular) in order to make it big, but those that just suddenly are big. Avatar, as an example, was reasonably well reviewed out the gate and even at the beginning it looked like it would be a modest hit. But then it turned into a juggernaut and small misgivings became enormous problems for critics (not just official critics but people who criticize) and were then used as a club to beat on anyone who actually liked the movie. Forrest Gump faced the same thing, very well reviewed and then made a ton of money, suddenly a crappy film. By the way, both of those movies are ones I like, not love, but I found it interesting in terms of tracking a trend.

The worst example of this is with music critics. Too often I have seen critics give good reviews to CDs and new bands, trumpeting them to the skies, deliriously hoping that the public finds a brain and rewards this band’s genius. And in follow up columns where the critic then decries the popular band of the day, comparing them unfavorably to the critics’ favorite new band. Which is fine, the problem comes when that critical darling suddenly becomes popular. Then that same critic starts sniping at that band, calling them sell outs, fakes, and saying how that band can’t hold a candle to their new favorite band. And so it goes. All the time that first band is still on their first album. The music can’t have been compromised because it is the same music that was uncompromised to begin with. They can’t have sold out the music, all they could have sold out was their image. And if that’s what the critics were attacking that would be fine, but they don’t because then they would be revealed as vapid people focused only on image. The music didn’t change. Their reaction to the music changed.

Am I saying that the majority rules? That the piece of art that is popular is also automatically good? No, not hardly. Some stuff that is popular actually is crap. My problem is that it seems difficult for some to grasp the difference between stuff that is popular and good and stuff that is popular and crap. The more popular something is, the crappier some see it to be. Ridiculous.

Imagine if we applied that standard to the past and threw out all that was popular simply because it was popular. Gone with the wind, Star Wars, The Wizard of Oz, The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Bill Watterson, Charles Schulz, all crap because too many of the great unwashed actually liked them.

How does an audience detract from the art? I’ve always felt that an audience added to the art. That by being loved the art itself gained a patina of that love and was thus more loved by the ones coming after. The more people who saw the Mona Lisa, the more touched they were by it, the more they spread that love to others by stories and emotion, the more the Mona Lisa matters to the potential audience. Age adds to genius. Audience adds to the piece of art. The more something is loved, the more something is embraced, the more it matters to people, the more artistic it becomes.

Audiences matter. And a small audience is not better than a big audience.

Not smarter. Not prettier. Not more discerning.

 But, boy, do they ever like telling themselves they are.

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Get your own stuff.

I walked into a toy store a while back to look for a toy for my niece, Leah, and after perusing the shelves for a while I noticed something disturbing; I wanted all of those toys.

Not now, but back when I was a kid. There were Transformers, and G.I Joes, and Winnie the Pooh, and Sesame Street, and My little Pony (okay, so there never was a time when I wanted a My Little Pony but still…,) and I recognized everything. It was almost all from my childhood. Yes, nostalgia and all that, but whose nostalgia? The kids? How could they have nostalgia for the toys of my youth? I’m way old and they,being kids, are way young, so whose nostalgia exactly applies here? Obviously it’s the parents. Mom and Dad buying toys for their kids that they wanted when they were kids. Which seems fine, but I think something has gone wrong somewhere along the way. I didn’t want my parents toys, had no interest in their stuff. Because it was theirs (I am aware that G.I Joes were of my parents generation but I think there’s a pretty substantial difference between the Joes of their time and the Joes of mine), and I wanted my own stuff.

Me and my two brothers didn’t really like westerns very much as kids, but my dad loved them so when he decided to rent movies he rented a western for us. We tried to watch it for a few minutes but pretty soon we just drifted away. Our tastes were different. He didn’t keep renting westerns and getting us to watch them. He saw we didn’t share in that interest so he moved on. He didn’t take offense to it, he just understood it wasn’t what we wanted.

I’m not saying kids aren’t interested in Transformers (for example) but just asking where this generation’s toys have gone. For every Transformers there should be a Power Rangers (which was the generation after mine’s big thing. And it sucked. But it was theirs. And it sucked.) For every Power Rangers there should be a Pokemon and so on down the line. Each generation enjoying the cool stuff of the past but also getting their own stuff. But at least in that toy store (which is probably pretty representative considering it’s the only national chain toy store), it was almost all stuff from my generation.

I get annoyed with baby boomers who denigrate my music and celebrate their own for this very reason. Their music will never mean as much to me as it does to them. I can appreciate a lot of it on the technical level, even on a visceral level, but it wasn’t made for me. It was made for the baby boomers. They got to hear it when it was new and vital and spoke directly to what they were feeling at the time. And some of that comes through the decades but not all of it. It was their thing, and it was great. But it could never by my thing and the way boomers tried to shove it down my throat made me resent that music, that tone. And I’ve been pretty impressed with my generation so far who have not done the same thing to the current generation. We don’t yammer on and on and on about grunge and how kids today don’t know what good music is because they don’t listen to grunge anymore (I’m sure there are some that do that, I’m talking about the preponderance of opinion here. Ours is not one voice yelling about how crappy this generation’s music is, whereas I maintain a whole bunch of boomers talked in that one dismissive and arrogant voice).

So we haven’t forced our musical tastes on the next generation but we appear to be strongly encouraging our kids to love the same toys that we loved when we were their age. Why? Because my generation (mid thirties now) are the ones buying the toys for their kids. They have the buying power and are using it on toys they would have wanted to own. I think it’s a bit selfish. If you’re going to buy a kid a toy, find one that they will love. Find something that they can call their own because it will mean more to them.

Transformers were mine.

Get your own damn stuff.

And I mean that in the nicest possible way.

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IMplications

The IPad doesn’t look revolutionary, does it? It’s been called a big Iphone, as if that somehow lessens its impact. As if lack of originality automatically equates to a bad product. But if it does what its been advertised to do it really will change everything about the publishing industry.

I’m not just talking about business, though that will certainly change, I’m talking about the presentation of books, comic or otherwise, I’m talking about the writing itself. About the way different genres are respected and viewed. The difference between what people want to read and the books they feel they should read.

Stigma. There’s a stigma to reading science fiction and fantasy. That we don’t interact with the real world, that somehow those readers are still reading childish books they should have given up years ago. Adults wanted to read Harry Potter but they didn’t want the ‘silly’ childish covers of the regular books so the publisher gave them alternates. Covers that looked like any other kind of book. Apparently readers didn’t want others to think less of them for reading that kind of book. A book they enjoyed in a genre they enjoyed. Remove the book itself and all you have left is words. Who is to know what kind of book you are reading? And if that matters to you, and you’ve chosen to read books that you don’t really enjoy in order to impress others, then now with an Ereader such as an Ipad, you can read what you damn well want. No one looking over your shoulder. No one lifting up the cover and sneering at your childishness. That’s even more important with comic book and comic strips. Even I, being pretty much inured to mockery of that sort, choose not to read those kinds of books in public. As if reading them is something of which to be ashamed. And yet it’s just another way of telling a story through a combination of words and still pictures. The combination of the two can do some things that the written word alone cannot do. Such as humor. Yes, there are books that are very funny, that make me laugh out loud, but those books are few and far between. Most that try humor purely through the written word fail to deliver on that promise to any great degree. Because it’s damn difficult, not because they suck. But most humor comic strips succeed in eliciting a chuckle or a laugh on a fairly regular basis. A more consistently effective method of communicating humor. So if people want a smile and a laugh on the way to work, a novel is not quite as effective as a comic strip. And yet I see more people reading novels, and unfunny ones at that. Might they not change their ways and start the day with a smile instead if they didn’t have to worry about how it looked to others? Over time more people may read comics and comic strips and over more time perhaps the stigma that currently exists may disappear entirely.

That changes perception but how does the method of presentation change the publication itself?

Writers know a lot of words. Many love to show off with that knowledge but are constrained by their readers. Readers like to know what is being communicated. But if a reader can click on any word and see its definition writers might be tempted to show off a bit more. I believe this would be a bad thing as clarity should be paramount when trying to communicate an idea or emotion but I can certainly see some writers taking advantage of that technology. And in some cases it may even be appropriate. Imagine a Shakespeare play with explanations of passages, links to articles discussing those passages, translations of words. Instant access to an actor reading that passage with the correct intonation that helps indicate meaning. Might be ponderous, but might also be workable and exciting. You finish reading a book and immediately go to read the reviews of others. It may change your perception, positively or negatively, of that work. A feeling of community with that author and their other readers.

Another thing that I think is almost certain to change are book covers. Publishers are going to want simple more iconic images because of how small the covers might appear on the screen (perhaps a list of three or four per screen, maybe 2 inches tall?). The simpler designs will stand out more than the ones with busy designs as the details of the busy design will be lost. But then when blown up to full screen size the simpler designs will look a little boring so I can see the publishers going to a two tiered cover system; one simple iconic design that when expanded to fill the screen reveals interesting depth and detail. Fluid covers. Moving covers. It will be interesting.

One of my pet peeves is that a lot of books seem padded these days. Mystery novels for years were under 200 pages but are now routinely over that number and the way that extra length is accomplished is usually through the exploration of the character of the protagonist, antagonist, and supporting cast. Some of which is needed, some of which is good, but some of which bogs down the story and slows it to a crawl. I’ve been told publishers go with the extra length for several reasons, one is a bigger spine takes up more space on a shelf and is more likely to be noticed and the other is that readers tend to think they’re getting better value by getting a longer book. A 200 page book for 9 dollars, or a 400 page book for 10 dollars. The second looks like a better deal, as if you’re getting two books for the price of one. With both of those reasons gone with the popularization of Ebooks I wonder if books will again find their natural lengths. I hope so, though I tend to worry that the lack of publishing costs might lead to even more bloat. As in a 2000 page book would be ridiculous on the shelf and normally the publisher would want it cut way down, partly to improve readability and partly to lower costs but with the costs out of the equation, and with people not being confronted with the thickness of the book (seeing a note at the bottom of the page saying it’s 2000 pages is a hell of a lot different than seeing the reality in front of you). It might be good, it might be bad, but it certainly changes things.

How does the addition of color change things? For books I think there are some that might experiment with color as mood enhancers. Blue text with a cream background to help calm the reader when going through a calm passage, slowly changing to a deep red with a metallic background when danger rears its head. Not saying that’s a good thing, mind you, I do think a writer should be able to pull that off with just words but I can see the experiment being tried. And I can see it being embraced by younger readers who would be used to reading on a tablet and might prefer the addition and be more accepting of it. For me, for this comic, it means that one day I will have to add color in order to compete with the vast majority of comics that will be in color. I think black and white has nice contrasts and works pretty well to communicate the idea. Perhaps even communicates the idea and the joke better than color, but without color I have a feeling readers would look upon it as unfinished, rather than looking upon it as a design choice.

Which means I have to con someone into coloring Dodge The Bullet one of these days.

Perhaps if I smile and whistle while coloring someone will come by and offer me an apple core to take over the job.

Stranger things have happened.

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The Brighter Side of Critics

As much as some of my previous posts might have focused on the negative aspects of critics I do believe they have their uses. Bands have improved themselves because of criticism of certain aspects of their sound. The focus that comes from knowing someone is judging your work is often beneficial.

There are quite a few movie critics that I actually do trust and respect. Those critics are usually the ones who focus on telling their readers not whether a movie is worthwhile/important but whether a movie is worth seeing/entertaining. They often have blind spots (like some comedies and Woody Allen movies) but overall I feel they realize that if they are just negative and dismissive they will damage their own reputation and damage the business most of them actually do like. They like the art form that films represent. They want people to watch movies and enjoy themselves.

Music critics are somewhat similar though personally I find some of their quirks annoying. And worthy of much mockery. Which is why Rick Dodge is specifically a music critic.

Artists of any stripe need to know that someone is looking critically at their work because often that will cause the work to rise to a new level. Also a good critic can point in direction he or she might never have considered. The artist may not be aware they’re repeating certain ideas and themes over and over again and if made aware can have their thoughts pushed in new and exciting directions. A critic telling a band that they’re all wrong for the genre they’re trying to crack and suggesting they look at other genres can help produce a cross-pollination that can create something new and fantastic.

Critics can expose their audience to new music, new movies, new artists that those audiences would never have seen. Champion new bands. Celebrate great new film makers. Raise the public discourse.

In praise of the critic.

Y’know, writing this without going negative was quite difficult so next time I write on critics I promise to go the full negative.

And yes, I am aware of the irony, thanks.

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Beatles Even Big?

The Beatles were a boy band. They played pop music. They wrote jingly happy songs that people liked to sing along with. They were idolized by young screaming teen girls. They were not particularly good musicians or extraordinarily talented songwriters. But things changed, their songwriting improved to such an extent it might be fair to say they are among the very best songwriters of the 20th century. Some would even put them at the top (where I would probably put them for their entire catalogue of work). Their musicianship improved, their singing got better and more inventive, their experimentation in the studio created something new and different almost every time.

They were a boy band. They became legends.

Take that as paid. The question now becomes could that happen in this day and age? Could a band progress like that or would they be torn apart by critical dogs. Would they have ever gotten over the ‘boy band’ tag? Would their experimentation be lauded and listened to or dismissed out of hand? Would the Beatles have become THE BEATLES?

I don’t think they would have. I think their initial fame, the screaming girls, the happy songs, the seemingly calculated nature of their personality profiles (the cute one, the quiet one, etc) would have been enough to brand them in certain people’s eyes and allow those people to dismiss them as untalented hacks who somehow fell into fame and didn’t deserve it. And no matter their subsequent work that label would remain.

The subsequent work is also at question. Would they have progressed in the same direction or would the pressure of critical disdain have ripped them apart? Or would they have tried to make that progression before they were ready for it? Before they had mastered the basics of songwriting? Trying to run while still learning to walk. And if they had would they then have fallen flat on their faces? Or would the stress of trying to progress too quickly, chasing the critics, have lead to the early dissolution of the band?

There clearly was a progression that took time, effort and maturity. Without that process they probably would not have been advanced enough to record Sgt. Pepper. Even if they had the idea it would have ended up as an album with no depth but a pretentious attempt at creating depth.

I come not to bury the early Beatles, I love that music, but to examine their growth. From popular and good to popular and great to popular and legendary. A process that took years.

How does that differ from today? Partly there is no time allotted for growth, bands must be great out the gate and most aren’t. Also the way criticism is levelled has certainly changed. As in Mainstream and Popular is now almost automatically equated with bland pap for non-discerning listeners. As if one cannot be both great and popular.

The Beatles would have been dismissed and buried by the critics before they had a chance to become great. And, yes, they were derided at the outset but I maintain it wasn’t in the same way, as in the;  ‘You Suck!’ that often poses as modern criticism but more of a ‘You guys have a lot to learn and I don’t like what I hear.’ And while no one wants to hear others don’t like their work at least there’s some hope in the second. That one can turn the critic around, that the critic might be more receptive to your music when you improve. Also, critics weren’t quite as prevalent back then in terms of the internet. Everyone’s a critic online. Everyone knows more than everyone else. And the largest difference to me is that the online critics are often failed artists (whether it be writing, music or art itself) and embittered by that failure and viciously disdainful of the successful. Negativity gets attention and the more negative you can be the more attention you will receive.

The more albums a band sells, the more tickets a movie sells, the more views a webpage gets, the less good it must be in some eyes.

Because everyone knows everyone else is a moron and if something is popular that must mean morons like it and no one wants to be associated with the morons who like the stuff that you like that makes you a moron….

Strange.

And the strangest part to me is a lot of the critics who deride modern bands are fans of the Beatles. As if the Beatles came out fully formed with an entire body of brilliant work and the critics expect the same out of new bands. No patience for progression. No chance for the popular to become great.

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Idol Begins. And Ends?

A new season of American Idol has begun and it feels familiar. It feels like the same show that I’ve been watching off and on for eight years. Not a bit stale and yet I can’t quite get past the feeling that it isn’t right anymore. As if it’s become somewhat of a parody of itself somewhere along the road. We’ve always known that the producers craft things in such a way as to up the dramatic tension but I think last year I became too aware of it. From the bikini girl, to the annoying girl who kept getting airtime just because she was good for ratings, to the order of the contestants singing in the final rounds; everything just felt staged.

I still think it’s a good thing in that it provides an avenue for singers who might never have gotten any real shot to get that shot but when it feels manipulated it starts to feel dishonest. And when it’s dishonest does it make the winner and the other singers look somewhat dishonest? As if they won unfairly?

A niggling problem. One that gnaws at the back of your brain stem. But because of how entertaining the show is also something that can be overlooked.

But this year is different. This is the last year of Simon Cowell and the first year of Ellen DeGeneres. I think Ellen is very entertaining, very funny, but completely wrong as a judge. Not just an odd, out of the box, type choice. A wrong choice. Say what you will about Paula Abdul but she was an extremely successful singer and performer at one point in her life and had credibility. As whacked out as she often appeared she was a survivor of the popular music grind. We’ll see how Ellen does but I don’t think even the contestants are going to listen to what she has to say. Abdul often kept her comments brief but Ellen doesn’t often do brief anything, so more blather, with less purpose. Tedious.

Idol might have been able to survive that decision but not also losing Simon Cowell. That’s the big one. That’s the brick bat to the back of the head for the show. He’s the star. He’s the one people tune in to see. There are other stars, there are other reasons for watching but he IS the star.

Last year they tried something different with the judges, starting with a new judge every time instead of starting with Randy and ending with Simon. Simon delivered the punchline and instead of isolating that punchline at the end they decided to place it at the beginning or the middle and most often it didn’t work. If Simon got off that great one-liner it made the judge’s comments that followed his completely irrelevant. And if he didn’t get off that one liner (and he doesn’t all the time) then the viewer felt an emotional let down that made the other comments that followed his also completely irrelevant.

Rick Dodge is partially based on Simon Cowell, specifically the constant black shirt and the constant smirking snark, so I’m sad to see him go from Idol (though it does give me an idea as to who could be the new snarky judge on Idol next season….) but I look forward to his new show next year and I hope it does well enough that I can continue to steal jokes… wait.

 Be inspired by, yeah, that’s better, be inspired by Simon Cowell.

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Copyright or Copy, right?

There’s been a lot of talk lately about copyrights and how extensive they can be. That they restrict ‘New Media’ artists from expressing themselves and I have a strong, blunt opinion on this subject.

But I don’t know what it is.

Let me explain: By and large I tend to dismiss a lot of New Media artists on the basis that learning to do a lot of artistic things like writing, playing an instrument, or drawing, is not difficult, it just takes time and work. You too can learn to draw as poorly as me if you put as much time in as I have. Though if you have more talent (or hell any talent let’s face it) you’ll probably end up better than me. Same with writing, making music, dancing, cooking, however you want to express yourself. The more you work, the more you study, the more you practice and the better you will be. And I’m not particularly willing to ‘Open up my mind’ to those who aren’t willing to do that work. It takes time and effort but anyone can master the basics of nearly any craft.

With that said I must point out that very few have genius. Very few have innate talent wherein a given skill comes easily. And I often think people want it to come easily. And the worst part is some who want it to come easily might have that innate talent. That innate genius. Might be the above and the beyond.

But before now to become proficient at any single discipline required the work. And the work comes before the genius. Very few talented musicians began by playing well. They began by playing poorly and gradually getting better until such point that their talent exploded from them and became obvious. It wasn’t enough to have potential, to have a good ear for music, you had to put the work in to develop that potential, to point that ear.

How does that tie in with copyright and the struggle to open it up? A worry on my part that those burgeoning geniuses (Genii? Huh) will never have their talent explode out in waves. They might never learn the basics and always struggle to master them, and often not even bother because someone else has already done that work. You need a great guitar solo? You could spend twenty years mastering the guitar and accessing the electrical talent deep within you and get a great guitar solo. Or you can press a button and take someone else’s. And I’m not arguing the morality of that action, I’m saying I worry we might lose that genius. That talent. That something new and different.

Influenced by the past, educated by the past, but special to that person.

However, on the other side are those who want to copyright everything. The ones who want even little pieces of a major work to be owned. As in someone once used a phrase and now owns that phrase. Or someone drummed a certain way and now you cannot drum like that. A certain way to hold your pencil. A certain way to sing. A chorus that sounds similar to another chorus. Some of these people want to grant ownership and it’s as ridiculous as Paris Hilton trying to copyright the phrase; “That’s Hot.’ as if it was her invention. Her creation. A common phrase made more famous.

Which reminds me, I’ve been saying ‘Cool’ for years. You all owe me money.

So what kind of solution do I see for this conflict?

Cage match.

Or some reasonable, and clear legislation that states exactly what can and cannot be owned in terms of intellectual property, with input from all sides and an acknowledgement from all sides that the current system does need some tweaking.

But I’d prefer a cage match.

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