The Riff - June 2010

The FCC Plays Media Monopoly

| Mon Jun. 21, 2010 3:57 PM PDT

The FCC is in the midst of its quadrennial review of media ownership rules, the AP reported yesterday. Some media companies are lobbying the FCC to lift the "cross-ownership" ban, enacted in 1975, that prohibits ownership of both a broadcast station and a newspaper in the same market. Companies like Tribune Co. and Media General argue that with newspaper, radio, and television industries struggling to weather audiences' migration to the internet, they have to consolidate to survive.

But that could mean losing diversity and key local coverage. Back in 2002, under Republican chairman Michael Powell, the FCC voted to ease cross-ownership restrictions, but was challenged in the Third Court of Appeals by Prometheus Radio Project and other public interest groups. The court told the FCC to rewrite the rules, and in 2008 Powell's successor, Kevin Martin, tried again to relax the ban. In March 2009, after attempts by public interest groups to stall the decision, the court green-lighted a revamped Newspaper-Broadcast Cross-Ownership rule—described by the FCC as "modest"—which opened the door to "certain newspaper-broadcast station combinations in the largest 20 markets." Last month, the Media Access Project filed an appeal challenging the rule's legality.

Meanwhile, today several organizations including Bloomberg News wrote to the FCC chairman protesting the proposed merger of Comcast and NBC Universal. " . . . [T]he merged entity," they wrote, "will exert a degree of market power unrivaled in our nation's media history." Concerns over media monopolies on content extend beyond the news: last year, the Future of Music Coalition published "Same Old Song: An Analysis of Radio Playlists in a Post-FCC Content Decree World." The study found "almost no measurable change in station playlist composition over the past four years," and suggested the radio industry refocus on localism and expand the number of broadcasters nationwide.

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Deconstructing Lady Gaga's "Alejandro" Video

| Mon Jun. 21, 2010 11:53 AM PDT

Lady Gaga's new video for "Alejandro"—which invokes a combination of religious, militaristic, and sadomasochistic imagery—has been called everything from unnecessarily blasphemous and racy to straight-up "lazy trash." Bill Donohue of the Catholic League called Gaga a "Madonna wanabee," referring to the conservative outcry that followed Madonna's "Like a Prayer" video in 1986. But beyond reiterating the images and general themes in Gaga's nearly 10-minute video, which came out on June 7, few critics have reflected on its deeper message, whichin my view is a critique of repressed sexuality—not "blasphemy as entertainment."

In it, Gaga portrays herself first as a queen and then as a nun. Her cadre of male dancers appear as soldiers and then as pseudo-drag queens wearing fishnets and high heels. Is it a coincidence that Queen Elizabeth I of England was revered for her virginity, that Catholic nuns take vows of celibacy, and that US soldiers are still being told to lie about their sexuality because of Don't Ask, Don't Tell?

I think not. It took a few viewings and discussions with groups of friends to try and figure out what Gaga meant with all of these conflicting images, but I think her underlying message is a commentary against sexual conformity.

Fact-checking the Life and Death of Bluesman Robert Johnson

| Mon Jun. 21, 2010 4:00 AM PDT

As a fact-checker, there's nothing more frightening than writing about Robert Johnson, the great delta-blues musician responsible for "Me and the Devil Blues," "Sweet Home Chicago," and "Crossroad." That's because confirming almost any detail from his life is an impossible task. Except for some scratchy photographs and a handful of recordings, we know next to nothing for certain about the man.

Take the story of how he got so good at the guitar: It is said that he sold his soul to the devil at a crossroads in Mississippi. I tried to confirm this, but the Devil hasn't returned my phone calls—and frankly, I don't think his secretary is even giving him my messages anymore. As Martin Scorsese once put it, "he was pure legend." Luckily, there is at least one man who can still tell us a thing or two about Johnson. That would be David Honeyboy Edwards, a friend of Johnson’s, and one of the last living connections to the man. Barely. He turns 95 next Monday.

Edwards' own career is reason enough to celebrate his birthday. He has played with nearly every blues great from Howlin' Wolf to Lighnin' Hopkins to Muddy Waters. He is a blues great. And over the next week, you should be sure to check out some of his music to prepare yourself. But—again from a fact-checker's perspective—he is almost certainly the only surviving eyewitness to one of the most enduring stories of Johnson: that of his death.

Google's Newspass: Will News Orgs Live to Fight Another Day?

| Fri Jun. 18, 2010 5:03 PM PDT

The media revels in pondering over its woes—let's call it journalism-ism. And while fingers point and doomsayers predict the apocolypse, some organizations are working toward viable solutions. Surprisingly, one of the most proactive is a company largely blamed for catalyzing the problem to begin with: Google.

Google News, a content aggregator that pools articles from over 25,000 publications around the world, has come under heavy criticism from news orgs over its 8-year history for stealing content. Recognizing the importance of creating symbiotic relationships with news establishments rather than working at odds with them, Google is brainstorming a wide range of models that just might save the industry. In a widely-read piece in the June 2010 issue of the Atlantic, James Fallows outlined many of them, including the use of paywalls to charge readers online, though details by and large remained under wrap...until now!

Italian newspaper La Repubblica published a piece yesterday discussing Newspass, Google's much-anticipated (yet highly secretive) meta-paywall model for online news content, cites PaidContent.org:

  La Repubblica says that, with Newspass, people will be able to log-in to the sites of participating news publishers using a single login. Publishers will be able to designate what type of payment they want to accept, including subscriptions and micropayments. People who find content from participating publishers in Google search will see a paywall icon next to that content and be able to purchase access directly from there using Checkout.

So the details have only been partially unwrapped. But if what La Repubblica says is true, then it seems that Google is developing real solutions to the problem of monetizing online news content (though this magazine proudly offers its content online free of charge). The implications of such a model remain to be seen (if only some sites join on board with Newspass, will readers tend toward sites offering free content? Can paywalls recoup the cost lost to decreased advertising in print?). But reporters need to believe that a successful business model for media orgs will soon be developed. As goes the old adage of academia: Publish, or perish.

Can Techies Muzzle the Vuvuzela?

| Wed Jun. 16, 2010 11:36 AM PDT

When vuvuzelas, those slender, ubiquitous, South African plastic trumpets took over the airwaves last week with the kickoff of the World Cup they quite literally began to annoy an entire planet. Luckily we humans are an industrious lot: When the world complains, entrepreneurs listen. Now broadcasters can buy, for example, buzz-cancelling technology from Tennessee, "a combination of dynamic broadband noise suppression and notch filtering are utilized to create the Vuvuzela noise reduction processing chain," for $2,900. This type of filtering basically works to remove the low frequency drone, (they buzz in B-flat, apparently) from the broadcast. And, for the fans, there's the "anti-vuvuzela filter" for roundabout $5 per half of play. The filter is the brainchild of 29-year-old Clemence Schlieweis, a German engineer with time and sound-mixing apparati on his hands. Using a different method, the filter creates an "inverse" sound wave with the same amplitude as the vuvuzela sound, but with the peaks and troughs of the wave reversed. Take a mountain, add a valley, create a level pitch.

In theory these techy methods work, so long as the vuvuzelas are uniform in sound and pitch, but with hundreds of thousands blaring at once the cacophony might be hard to match in real time. A professor of acoustics tells the UK Telegraph: "My advice is to football fans is to be Zen about it; accept vuvuzelas as part of the World Cup soundscape and pour another beer."

Still, if you want to try a free app and you have a Mac check out VuvuX, and you can follow the latest in filtering apps at vuvuzelafiltering.com.

Shining a Light on Guantanamo's Torturers

| Tue Jun. 15, 2010 9:29 AM PDT

Using torture for interrogation isn't new to the military. But the practices at the Guantanamo Bay detention camp, argues journalist Justine Sharrock, signal a shift in how that torture is being carried out and who's doing the dirty work. During its interrogation of detainees at Guantanamo, the military often relied on inexperienced soldiers from lower ranks to implement torture tactics. In a conversation with The Rumpus about her book Tortured: When Good Soldiers Do Bad Things, Sharrock explains:

They've used no-touch torture before, but it was CIA agents who were more trained and more prepared to do this, whereas the low-ranking soldiers had no idea that this is what they were going to get into. So I think it had more of a profound effect on them, but I also think it's an interesting way to look at how the torture regime has affected all of us as Americans.

Tortured examines three soldiers who realized that many of the orders they were carrying out—from waking up detainees constantly to "check for weapons," to making them stand for hours on end—were forms of torture meant to hack away at prisoners' minds. Not surprisingly, engaging in torture, even unknowingly, left devastating psychological scars on the soldiers. Says Sharrock:

One problem with working in the prisons is that you are face to face with the person you are breaking down over a long period of time. Whereas if you are sniper, you're shooting at someone who's really far away and who you only see for a second. No one has done any studies about how PTSD has affected soldiers who work in prisons as opposed to those out in the streets.

Read the full interview on The Rumpus and check out Sharrock's book, Tortured: When Good Soldiers Do Bad Things, released in hardback today.

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Do White Rappers Try To 'Act Black?'

| Mon Jun. 7, 2010 4:30 AM PDT

"I forgot I was white," explains free-style rapper Automattic during a hip-hop Battle on the Indiana University campus. He says this after his lame competitor rhymes that the white and pretty clean-cut Automattic can’t be an emcee because he's white and so he should "stop acting like he's black"—as though busting out some free-associative poetry is all it takes to be a black person, or that good rhythm is exclusively a black thing.

This is just one of the scenes in the new educational doc Blacking Up: Hip Hop's Remix of Race and Identity, which tries to figure out what attracts white rappers to hip-hop: admiration or something uglier? The answer, it turns out, depends on the person.

In the nearly hourlong film, director Robert Clift has hip-hop heavyweights like Public Enemy's Chuck D, Aesop Rock, Sage Francis, M1 from Dead Prez, Power from Wu-Tang Clan—along with some of Indiana’s white hip-hop performers—weigh in on the motives behind the white appropriation of black culture, labels like "wiggers," and charges of minstrelsy. Clift, who is white and a big hip-hop fan, is on a quest to discover whether white rappers "are transcending race" or just mimicking "a degrading idea of what it means to be black" in the same vein as the minstrel scenes of Al Jolson’s day.

Songs You Should Listen To Right Now

| Mon Jun. 7, 2010 4:00 AM PDT

May/June 2010 Issue

Track 6, "My Shepherd"
from the New Pornographers' Together (Matador)

Liner Notes: Alt-country siren Neko Case calms the band's jittery pop vibe on this gorgeous track.

Behind the Music: A.C. Newman's collective works as both a standalone band and a side project. Like Case, Newman records solo albums, while Dan Bejar also records with his group, Destroyer.

Check it out if you like: Arcade Fire, Broken Social Scene, and other brainy yet accessible Canadians.

Track 12, "Coma Chameleon"
from Jamie Lidell's Compass (Warp)

Liner Notes: Reflecting Lidell's roots in the British techno duo Super_Collider, this track is a masterpiece of controlled tension, pitting his wailing R&B voice against an exhilarating groove.

Behind the Music: Featuring appearances by Beck, Feist, and members of Wilco and Grizzly Bear, Lidell's fourth solo album feels like a calculated bid for stardom, but it's still great.

Check it out if you like: John Legend, modern soul men who don't wallow in nostalgia.

Track 3, "Tootsie 1"
from Kevin Dunn's No Great Lost: Songs, 1979-1985 (Casa Nueva)

Liner Notes: An art rocker with a sly sense of humor, Dunn combines wry lyrics ("You're never too old to mope and pine") and guitar flash on this sardonic love lament.

Behind the Music: Dunn was originally a member of influential Atlanta indie band the Fans and coproduced early singles by the B-52's and Pylon, helping jump-start the Athens, Georgia, scene that spawned R.E.M.

Check it out if you like: Brian Eno's pop albums, Sparks, early Robyn Hitchcock.

Track 7, "March 11, 1962"
from Mary Gauthier's The Foundling (Razor & Tie)

Liner Notes: The New Orleans-born roots singer's seventh album chronicles her search for the woman who abandoned her at birth. This heartbreaking song recounts how Gauthier's mother refused to meet with her after they'd finally made contact.

Behind the Music: Gauthier's previous albums have sometimes suffered from self-conscious attempts to create a woozy Tom Waits vibe. Here, producer and Cowboy Junkie Michael Timmins keeps her excesses in check.

Check it out if you like: Confessional country-folk with the unsparing honesty of a Steve Earle or Johnny Cash.

"Chick Cars" Don't, in Fact, Castrate Men

| Thu Jun. 3, 2010 1:18 PM PDT

Today, in press-releases-that-make-me-feel-stabby, LeaseTrader.com (whatever the hell that is) sent me this new “research” on the top 10 “chick cars” that shrink men’s testicles or something. On top of that, they also included the seven worst places to get caught driving said “chick cars,” which include sacred dude activities like hitting the gym, drinking at a sports bar, and participating in their weekly circle jerk.

From the release:

“Every guy should know there are just some cars he should never, under any circumstances, sit behind and drive. This goes for most cars made by Toyota or Volkswagen (cars that give off estrogen vibes) and driven by a guy, should get ready to be horribly ridiculed by his buddies.”

Dude bro! I thought we talked about the whole my-car-is-not-my-penis thing. Maybe you were too distracted by my estrogen vibe to pay attention.

I suppose it’s not that surprising that the idea of a gendered car exists or that certain members of the doucheoisie wouldn’t be caught dead in a Mini Cooper. After all, driving is fraught with gender stereotypes and assumptions, which, judging by this Freakonomics series, hasn’t really changed much despite other social and cultural victories women have won in the last hundred years. We can vote! And wear pants! We’re earning more degrees and have lower insurance rates. But God forbid we try to parallel park.  

If you care, here’s LeaseTrader’s list of cars that will castrate you:

Rand Paul Clashes With Rush Over "Spirit of The Radio"

| Thu Jun. 3, 2010 1:09 PM PDT

Kentucky senate candidate Rand Paul, the libertarian tea party fave, appears to be a Rush fanatic. His speeches sometimes quote a stanza  from the Canadian rock band's "Spirit of the Radio"--"Gilttering prizes and endless compromises/ Shatter the illusion of integrity"--a line that he believes illustrates the GOP's drift from its core values. He played the song at his May 17th primary election victory party and used another Rush song in a recent fundraising video. According to Robert Farmer, an attorney for Rush, Paul's former campaign manager told him on May 25th that "he and the campaign were big Rush fans."

The love doesn't appear to be mutual. Farmer has asked the Paul campaign to stop using Rush's songs. The campaign wouldn't agree to the demand, even after Farmer sent Paul a formal demand letter (PDF).  So yesterday Farmer took the dispute public with the Louiville-Courier Journal, which was also unable to get Paul to say whether he'd stop using the song. Perhaps Paul is concerned that if he compromises, it will shatter the illusion of his integrity.

When I reached Farmer at his Toronto office today, he told me that Rush's beef with Paul is "completely a copyright issue" and has nothing to do with Paul's or Rush's political views. Though Rush is often considered to be a "libertarian" band, Farmer declined to elaborate on the political meaning behind the band's songs. "People listen to songs and they get different impressions about different things," he said. He laughed and went on: "Look, we're Canadians, this is a copyright issue; we don't want to affect any politics in the United States."

"What I find surprising about this, though, is that we still haven't had a response from Rand Paul or his campaign," he added.