During winter break, with idle hands I posted this ridiculous photo on my instagram and it got more likes than any prior post I’d made. It launched me into a three month undertaking that ended up being the longest single line of thought project and excavation into my own intuition and curiosities that I’ve really worked on outside of school thus far. The following post will dwell somewhere between an explanation for your sake and analysis for my own sake. Bear with me, and if I am overstepping my aims and appear to be trying to justify this work with depth beyond its content, please forgive me.
Before we go any further, to listen to the fruits of my odd labor, here is the link to the released “mixtape”.
A quick skim of the album will reveal that, indeed, these are not sounds that are meant to be enjoyed. The origins of this project were in some sound manipulation and distortion things I’d done last year in AFO, in which I found how pleasantly difficult it is to listen to certain types of sound. Visual art may be ugly or offensive, but there are some sounds that just make your spine tingle and your shoulders seize up in a way that visual art cannot do. I was interested in this effect, and used computer generated speech at first before switching to popular music for no reason in particular at first.
Towards the end of last semester I got more interested in the idea of making noise music, and initially had the idea to make music using only the sounds out of one song. I can’t remember what initially prompted me to Mr. Brightside, but after doing a few samples and receiving laughs and minor encouragement from even a couple friends, I decided it was worth continuing in that vein. However, as the project went on a few weeks and I actually had to start explaining it even a little bit seriously, I realized there was at least some substance to my song choice.
Mr. Brightside was released in 2004 and became massively popular. It’s a song that many, many people (especially in my generation) are almost innately familiar with how it’s supposed to sound, making it ripe to manipulate and undermine that expectation. Additionally, it’s one of those songs that’re so saccharine and non-offensive that it was fun for me to try to own that and override it so fully into something that made people’s skin crawl just to listen to.
As far as analyzing work goes, though, I basically feel like this is “step one” analysis. If step 0 is simply describing what is in front of you, then step 1 is trying to figure out the intellectual connection between the parts. step 2 is figuring out a motivation of the artist for making those connections, and step 3 is figuring out what this reveals about the artist, what deeply held feeling or thought or belief the artist is trying to give material form to.
For me, it often seems that when I pull back the layers far enough, much of the work I’m making is in objection to myself, or at least, what I try to be. Or in other words, in creating something, I’m oftentimes not exploring the questions at the outer limit of what I understand to be True and Good, but rather making work trying to hide from and deflect attention away from my own vulnerabilities and insecurities. This isn’t an activity exclusive to art-making, but I at least feel well equipped to deal with the meaning behind actions as a result of studying symbolic communication.
Allow me to try to take you down the rabbit hole of this project and reveal to you my own insecurities, not for the sake of trying to say “look how brilliant I am for making this artwork” but rather for the sake of undermining my own arrogance asserted in this project. Because in some ways, this project was just masked whining, and actually making and then thinking about it allowed me to sort out some of the issues therein. I think a rigorous biographer or curator or historian after an artist has made a large body of work may be able to get at some accurate “step 3” analysis of an artist, but being privileged to live in the mind of the artist that made this piece and feeling the things felt that gave rise to this project, I think with a bit of honesty and self-reflection it’s possible to figure out a bit of what the deeper meaning of a project is, and what’s even better, as the artist, I might learn and grow from it! Sweet!
So to be brutally honest with myself, let’s start with someone else entirely. Brandon Flowers, the lead singer and driving force behind The Killers.
I really hated art and analysis focused on celebrities until my textual analysis professor, in justifying the course theme of “celebrity”, described analysis of the concept of celebrity in terms of what our fixation on them reveals about ourselves and the fiber of our culture. So it’s worth trying to suss out my own issues in light of my fixation with this man and how I used his image and personality in promoting this ridiculous piece of experimental-type noise-type music-type thing.
Almost all of the visual art I made to help promote this project was fixated on the image of Brandon Flowers, including the penname I released this project under, “Yung Flowers”. Most of the art was distorting his image, often presented in stills from videos or from various glamorizing portraits of him from public events or publicity photos. This is a man whose image is held in high esteem, and from interviews with him, we find that he has a very single minded drive to perform on a world stage and be held in esteem.
I read the following review on Rdio, the streaming service I use, for Battle Born,The Killers’ most recent album:
“The great open secret about the Killers is that they only make sense when they operate on a grand scale. Everything they do is outsized; their anthems are created for fathomless stadiums, a character quirk they’ve grown into over the years as they’ve gone from scrappy wannabes fighting their way out of Las Vegas to the international superstars they’ve longed to be.”
-Stephen Thomas Erlewine
This was such a penetratingly awesome criticism, and it did actually help me understand The Killers, it helped frame a quote like this:
“Brandon Flowers says that the Killers may not have the drive to become a major, world-spanning stadium band. Blaming timing – as well as his three bandmates – for the group’s uneven growth, the singer concedes that the Killers may never become the next U2.”
There was an embarrassingly long period of smugness in which I thought how much of a prick Brandon Flowers was for having this single minded ambition for success and fame at the cost of not owning his circumstances and blaming lack of overwhelming success on those around him. I thought about how even from The Killers’ beginnings with Hot Fuss, they didn’t seem to be presenting anything new. There was no self discovery, simply just an attempt to discover the newest variables to plug into the well established equation of pop music such that the output was money and fame. I thought about how virtuous U2 seemed for actually going through a period of trial and error before arriving at this “world stage” sound, and it seemed that Brandon Flowers, backed by The Killers, seemed only to be trying to grab at that sound without owning the process of arriving at it on his own terms.
So initially, Brandon Flowers’ image was synonymous with the sound of the song Mr. Brightside: It was sickeningly polished, smoothed over, it seemed too perfect and too fake and was simply easy to see as so wonderful and without blemish that even before I knew why I was doing it I felt the need to distort, manipulate, and co-opt it into something that I owned, something that I felt was so abrasive and difficult to enjoy that I would be the only person it made sense to.
If you haven’t seen the devastatingly ironic punchline coming yet, allow me to state it in plain terms: I was, in so so many ways, doing exactly what Brandon Flowers was doing, and this project unequivocally, almost has to come from a place of self loathing of this aspiration to be famous, to be renowned.
The project could’ve been completed without anyone’s input, but it wasn’t. I could’ve just not told anyone about this, worked on it in private and released it without circumstance, and maybe if I’d done that, the meaning would’ve stopped at that purely interesting effect of using music that’s innately familiar to create something very foreign and strange sounding.
But I didn’t do that. This project from the very beginning was fueled by external validation, fueled by “likes” on Facebook every time I put up a new image, every time someone laughed when I mentioned that I would be releasing a mixtape. I thrived off of the feeling that I was being mysterious, being funny, and not so deep down I hoped that when this was released it would catch its own momentum and end up in the annals of internet history, end up being one of those things that people sent to their friends saying things like “what the hell is this?”, “why would someone make this”, “this makes like… a weird sort of sense.”
In hindsight, the most insightful and staggering critique I got was from a good friend of mine whom I’ll call John (because that’s his name), who told me at one point, after the mixtape was still unreleased more than a month after I said it would be finished “you know, I’m actually starting to think that this project is about the hype you’re creating and there’s never going to be a released thing.” He even made this little bit, and I’d be hard pressed to overstate how funny it was and is to me:
He was somewhat right. While the project wasn’t solely about generating validation, that was such an intrinsic part of it that it wouldn’t have been done without it. But that’s not quite where it stops, because there are plenty of projects fueled by this desire to be well known, even if not globally recognized. However, there’s something even more sobering for me when I consider just how nasty this is to listen to.
In middle school and early high school I made no attempt to mask my disdain of popular things that seemed to have no substance to them, and I’m sure The Killers incited my groaning and moaning about how awful contemporary music is and how awesome my taste in music is. However, looking back on my iPod playlist of that period, I was listening to the same bland music as everyone else, maybe not the top 40 of that year (well, at least not all of the top 40), but there was classic rock and some rap music and other music which was, by all means, quite popular. But I had no issue in deriding people for their taste in music. Though less vocal about it now, there’s still judgement calls I make on people based on the kind of artwork they say they like. Regardless of any of the externalities of what music it is, what art it is, or who the person is, I was and still am doing the shitty thing of forming a negative opinion of someone based on what they like.
But not only did I look down on people for something so stupid as what they enjoy, I always held my own tastes in higher regard, even when if I looked in on my tastes from the outside I’d probably look down on myself. It became a matter of, not only should you not like what you already like, you should like what I like because I just have a better sense of what’s good and what’s not.
So to recap, Mr. Brightside was a popular thing and I really don’t like popular things. It was made by an artist that, in trying to appear overridingly determined, was judged by me to be creating baseless, shitty music. This music got extremely successful. I want to be extremely successful but am upset that what I deem is bad work becomes successful, and and my apparently amazing work hasn’t. I directly source this popular sound and popular image to try to create something so nasty sounding that I’m the only person that will like it, yet simultaneously try to create such popularity around it that it becomes ironically successful despite its terrible sound. In doing so, I do not go through any difficult self reflection, only try to imitate (via marketing) and appropriate (the source material) things that have come before me.
If that is step 2, figuring out why the artist did all these things, then step 3, figuring out what this reveals about the artist, is roughly as follows. It should be said, though, that this is reflection gained from trying to take stock of my life over the past couple months, and is as much derived from this project as it is applied back onto this project because this is what I was going through at the time, which also requires some stepping back from this exact moment.
For most of my life I’ve held in high regard various virtues and beliefs, having grown up around some very virtuous and admirable people. Additionally, in my childhood and adolescence I feel that I was talented at some things without much effort, but also discovered the good feeling of being even better at something after hard work. This has led to the most difficult sins I cope with being a sense of pride, boastfulness, self-aggrandization. Unfortunately, too, I seemed to learn to emulate the previously stated virtue without going through the trials necessary to fully own these beliefs and the actions that flow from them.
Many actions and thoughts and things I’ve done to others have been generally pretty shitty things, and in seeking external validation for the things that I feel I’m good at, I generally outweighed the negative things I’ve done and thought with the perceived goodness of who I was. I was just a good person, I earned this, so on and so forth. I was mistaking imitating virtue for having it.
In short terms, I idealized beliefs that I did not own, and used charisma and external validation to reinforce this idea that I was somehow just a better person than some people.
Even in writing this I want to validate myself by tagging that with “…I don’t think I’m the only person that struggles with this…” it does not matter the shortcomings of others, because by comparing my sins to others is just another layer of self validation: “at least I’m not as bad as this person.”
The mixtape was in many ways an extended process of self justification of my own insecurities.
This is the cover of the final version, and wasn’t the first image I’d created for this project based around apologizing. In one way it’s just apologizing that the songs within this thing are so unpleasant to listen to, but in another way it’s simply coming to the end of all of this and just beginning to peel back these layers of self justification, self worship, just plain and vile selfishness. It may seem trite and oversimplifying to say that this album is as ugly as I feel when I really start to pull that scab back, and it (mostly) is, but not entirely. Just writing this sort of confessional, trying to own my own shittiness, that doesn’t make me a good person, it just means I’m trying to be honest about being a bad person, which is a step, but it doesn’t create virtue. Being honest about being a bad, sinful person and feeling that in your life does not redeem you of it, it only makes it possible to start to change, which becomes only more difficult.
I’m not writing this for sympathy, I guess if anything it’s an apology for this project that was sort of a bubbling up of my own shitty nature. Moving on from this is the even harder process of actually trying to orient myself to what is Right and Good and True, and there are plenty more blunders and missteps and sins that will happen along the way, but in the paraphrased words of C.S. Lewis, if you’re walking down what turns out to be a bad road, it isn’t progressive to forge ahead boldly into all that the road entails, you just simply have to turn around and walk out.