Sunday, October 9, 2011

Second hand music part 2: Negativland - Helter Stupid

Over the years, the risk in playing the pop agent provocateur has shifted more from scandal to boredom. You could say we live in a Meat Dress World where, for example, wearing half an uncured cow to an awards ceremony seems less about scandalizing the bourgeoisie, less about surrealism, feminism, any-ism, and more about desperately trying to hold the media's attention.

I'm interested as to whether Gaga's reluctance to give a coherent explanation of her costume choice is a genuine reluctance to shut down possible meanings, or just that she didn't have one to offer.

"It [the dress] has many interpretations but for me this evening. If we don't stand up for what we believe in and if we don't fight for our rights, pretty soon we're going to have as much rights as the meat on our own bones. And, I am not a piece of meat."

Gaga stands up for non-specific freedom in essentially empty gesture! Yay!

All this is by way of an introduction to this week's other Second Hand Music post, a band which really did yank the tail of the media donkey with a purpose in mind, even if it did come back to bite them.

Here's Californian sample-punks Negativland with 1989's Helter Stupid, courtesy of You Tube

Helter Stupid Part 1

Helter Stupid Part 2

So, remember news stories linking heavy metal with murder and suicide? Recall the recurring moral panic - probably in the Daily Mail - about what teenagers are listening to? The disregard for basic causation? The lazy journalism which implies people do whatever music tells them?

Back in 1988, In a moment which walked a fine line between Dada prankster genius and self-immolation, Negativland tried to bring down a media witch hunt of this kind on their own heads to demonstrate how ridiculous and poorly researched they usually were.

The band put out a press release suggesting that they had been banned by federal authorities from touring pending an investigation into a tragic Midwest family killing, in which they denied that their music (specifically the song Christianity Is Stupid) was involved.

None of this was true (except the murder case itself) but most news outlets who picked up on the story followed the 'no smoke without fire' principle and assumed that there was a link. End result: a sh*tstorm of negative Negativ' reporting, and both the music papers and the mainstream media ultimately left with egg on their faces.

Now that's a scandal.

Though I'm ambivalent about the stunt itself - part of me feels it's in poor taste - what cannot be denied is that in licking their wounds Negativland made a powerful, important record in Helter Stupid.

Manipulated voices, including news reports from the case, horror movies, priests, John Lennon and an Indian woman demanding ever 'more data', plus characters played by the band themselves, rest on a backdrop of samples and house beats. It puts pretty much everything I've heard to shame for sheer density.

I wonder if Dr Alex Paterson was listening, as what the collage of Helter Stupid most reminds me of is The Orb at their most un-dubbed.

Funny, head-spinning, non-didactic, transgressive, ferociously imaginative, it turns Negativland's point about the gullibility of the media and the fall-out from their escapades unexpectedly into some of the best political music ever.

McLuhan and Kurt Schwitters to a disco beat? If you like, Neil.

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