Random thoughts about watching, working and living in the arts, from HMS co-founder and executive producer Scott Silberstein. "In The Moment" offers a quick 60-second read about new ideas, events, shows and productions in the HMS world, and "Adventures In Yes" takes a deeper dive into how art and media reflect, define and inspire our world. Enjoy!

November 4, 2014

ADVENTURES IN YES: "The Internet Moves In Mysterious Ways"

Sometimes I'm baffled by what enrages people. U2?

U2 are big boys. They’ve done brilliant work for years, and they’ve accomplished more musically (and Bono has accomplished more politically) than most musicians (or citizens in general) ever dream of doing. They don’t need me to defend them, certainly not for the way they contracted with Apple to release their new album Songs of Innocence to half a billion iTunes users around the globe, at substantial cost to Apple but at none to the listener.

I’m an unabashed, unapologetic U2 fan. I like every album they’ve ever made and love most of them. After The Beatles, they’re the band I listen to the most. I love the way they manage to be deeply intimate and enormously spiritual at the same time, no easy feat in any art form, let alone rock. And when they venture into the world of bombast, it’s my kind of bombast: huge, Shakespearean, Verdian, Aaron Sorkian bursts of romance and altruism.

U2 has its detractors of course, as do all huge stars who demonstrate audacity, intellectualism, altruism, spirituality and political savvy (and, heaven forbid, know it). To their credit, when U2 missteps, and they have, they are as aware of it as anyone else, and they always respond thoughtfully.

In a world that could benefit from more beauty, artistic and otherwise, why is it so easy and fashionable to criticize artists – the U2’s of the world, and the George Clooney’s, and the Angelina Jolie’s, the Paul McCartney’s and the Bruce Springsteen’s – for poking their artsy little heads into the real worlds of politics, science and commerce and trying to make the globe a better, smarter, more beautiful place to live? Or even, on a more mundane level, simply trying to find a new way to get their TV shows and movies seen or their music heard? The musical marketplace in particular is increasingly cluttered and confused, and more than a little challenging for all, even for established and beloved rock stars like McCartney and Springsteen, whose albums New and High Hopes came and went in the blink of an eye, a real shame because they’re terrific examples of mature artists in full command of their artistic powers. And this to say nothing of the tens of thousands of worthy and less known artists who are also trying to get their music heard.

So U2 and Apple tried something new, and audacious. This thrilled a lot of us. 34 million people had listened within the first few days of release, and according to Rolling Stone more 50 million more have heard it by now. Not bad.

But there was also an unprecedented amount of Internet chatter, filled with the kind of righteous indignation usually saved for war criminals and serial killers. We started seeing tweets like, “Apple's free U2 album is the equivalent to your cat leaving a mouse carcass in your kitchen as a gift.” Celebrities like Sharon Osbourne took to social media, Ozzy’s wife ranting via Twitter, “U2 you are business moguls not musicians anymore, no wonder you have to give your mediocre music away for free cause no one wants to buy it,” words I’ll be sure to remember every time I read about the Osbourne’s reality show, or Sharon’s infomercials, or Ozzy’s musical track record, one which in relation to U2’s pales by comparison both critically and commercially. (But hey, it got people talking about Sharon Osbourne for a hot second, didn’t it, which was probably the point. Nothing like a good self-righteous piggyback ride.)

It didn’t stop there. Salon ran an article called “How U2 Become The Most Hated Band In The World” (one might argue that’s a hard feat to accomplish without also being the most loved band in the world, but that’s another conversation). The New Yorker’s music critic, Sasha Frere-Jones, suggested that the “forced” download of what he feels is a forgettable album from a decades old rock band in fact damaged U2’s chances of success and reinforced the nation that no one has cared about the band for years (this on the heels of U2 having sold 5 millions copies of its last album and producing a tour that was the most attended and most profitable in the history of rock). And, with touching restraint and perspective, influential music industry analyst Bob Lefsetz compared the release to “a rape or a murder, but with even less legs.” While I’m not entirely sure that even means, I think it’s safe to say that actual rape survivors and the families of murder victims might not have appreciated that nasty little bon mot.

Again, I’m not defending U2. I’m just saying that this is the kind of over the top vitriol usually reserved for election season. In fact, to these eyes and ears, that’s exactly what these so-called criticisms and observations resemble: dirty campaign ads. About a rock group? Putting out an album? Really? This is a bigger problem than, say, income inequality? (Of course it isn’t. But it sure is easier to write and think about.)

It’s Election Day here in the US, so this is worth pondering for a moment.

First, let’s get some perspective on the global significance of what U2 and Apple did, compared to, say, broad sweeping economic policies, declarations of war and the response to global climate change. Was it a little bold, borderline presumptuous, to assume that iTunes’ half a billion users around the world would be as excited as I (and around 50 million others) that they were getting a new U2 album delivered to them? Maybe, but how is the idea to arrange for someone else to pay for an album so the band could share it with the public at no cost to them in any way in any like rape or murder? Or even a dead mouse?

At first, in trying to put the Apple distribution deal in perspective, I limited my comparisons and metaphors to the worlds of entertainment and pop criticism. Why in this case was it so impossible for so many critics to distinguish Songs of Innocence from the way it was distributed? Christopher Nolan’s new film Interstellar is going to open on a couple thousand movie screens this Friday, effectively making it harder for me to find a theater where I can finally see Birdman, but I’m not sure what that has to do with the quality of either film (both of which, I hear, are terrific, and both of which I’ll see; and whatever I think of them, neither film nor its creative teams will make me want to invoke images of mutilated rodents or violent crime).

It took only a few seconds for me to realize that finding a parallel in the entertainment world was not especially helpful, since U2’s Apple deal is unprecedented and I’ll never find a good comparison to it, including the one above. And, ultimately, it’s not the thing that actually baffles me.

All those who were ranting and raving via their tablets and phones and laptops about U2’s supposed massive invasion of privacy (and perpetration of something analogous to crimes that result in the death penalty) were in fact sharing all kinds of new information about themselves, quite likely unknowingly or unthinkingly, with tech companies, marketing firms and ad agencies – what kind of music they listened to, what kind of mp3 player and phone they owned, what brand of computer they preferred, what kind of rodent-eating pets they owned –information that will surely result in far more insidious (and, doubtless effective) invasions of their privacy than a free download of a U2 album will ever do.

This is an era where not just website visits and keywords, but also keystrokes on computers and phones and TV remotes, are tracked, collated and used at best for marketing and advertising purposes and at worst for surveillance (and oh how I wish I were an Orwellian paranoid when writing a sentence like that, but sadly we’ve all learned differently). In that context, the idea that U2 releasing a collection of songs about growing up in Ireland, and setting up a deal where anyone who wants it can have it for free and anyone who doesn’t can just hit delete, is somehow the worst thing to happen in the history of the digital age while literally billions around the world offer up their privacy every time they visit a website, make an online transaction, make a Facebook entry, tweet, or send an email – well that just strikes me as bizarre.

And of all the ways a person might think they’re making a difference in the world, when there are so many other ways one actually can. Of all the things to be upset about. And during an election season, no less.

In the end, it doesn’t matter whether or not you like Songs of Innocence, U2 or Apple. (Or, come to think of it, me.) We all have our preferences, and whatever yours are, I respect that you have them and only ask that you respect that I have mine. In the same way, I am less interested in whether you’re a liberal or a conservative, a Democrat or a Republican, an independent, a libertarian, what have you, than in all of us bringing our most thoughtful and respectful A-game to the proceedings. What does matter to me, and what I believe should matter to all of us, is both what matters, and on what scale it matters. And what we choose to do in response.

The release of Songs of Innocence is, in the grand scheme of things, an interesting blip in the history of pop culture. The outraged rants it inspired are even less significant. What is significant, certainly today in America, is that every couple of years we get to express, out loud and in full view of the public, our feelings and ideas about who are determining the course of our lives. Maddening as the results of our First Amendment can be, they do provide opportunities for us to find out how people with power are exercising that power.

The concern that not enough of us are engaging in public discourse and participating in that most simple and fundamental act of casting a vote is borne out by how low turn-out tends to be in US, especially during “midterm” elections like the one we have today. It’s amazing to me by how many more people have problems with Apple and Songs of Innocence than they do with the way so many of our national (and especially state and local) governments are run.

Imagine if everyone who took the time to express outrage over a collection of pop songs took that same amount of time to read The Week (the terrific non-partisan digest of national and worldwide press which offers a thoughtful compendium of perspectives across the ideological spectrum), or listen to Matt Miller’s excellent radio show and podcast Left Right & Center, which does the same thing via thoughtful (and, interestingly, entertaining) conversation. Imagine if they channeled their reactive energy into a vote.

I’m not suggesting that art, or even the commerce surrounding art, shouldn’t elicit strong reactions and conversation. Of course they should. But context and perspective really do matter. I can be as bummed as I want to be that as I write this, I’m down with a mini-flu that’s stopping me from going to a James Taylor show tonight; but I’ve lost nine friends and colleagues to illness and injury in the last two months, and one of my favorite people on the planet is home right now battling (and, I’m sure, beating) cancer. All I’m saying is, let’s understand the difference between the mini-flus and the cancers of the world, literally and metaphorically, and focus our energies not just on what occurs to us but what really matters to us, and matters to the world around us.

One way to do that today is to vote. It’s easy – and cynical – to rationalize that it doesn’t matter. It does. These local and state elections in particular will have enormous impact on how we all live in the coming years, and even in a district that might appear to be going overwhelmingly one way, you just never know.

So VOTE. Or forever hold your peace.

Somehow it seems fitting that an essay that started out about U2 should end on a note of political activism. In that way, the Apple release of Songs of Innocence has to be considered a fascinating and successful experiment – better yet, a piece of music-meets-commerce performance art, in the service of the public good.

(PS. Not for nothin’... but I love Songs of Innocence.)

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