Wednesday, April 4, 2007

Karen in Space

The first time I saw The Carpenters’ “Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft” video, I was performing at Club Lower Links, an early ‘90s hub of Chicago performance art and music that nurtured the likes of David Sedaris. Steve Lafreniere, a curator who’d also turned my undergrad self on to Bongwater and Scott Walker, saw me gazing in amazement, slack-jawed, at the sight of jumpsuit-clad Karen floating among galaxies singing of telepathing to aliens, and sighed in his usual deadpan, “Oh yeah, isn’t it great?”

Calling Occupants...” begins with a radio DJ receiving a call-in from aliens. Media historian Jeffrey Sconce has written on the connection, since the early days of radio, between the medium and aliens. In the transition of radio from a two-way, amateur, individual medium to one that was one-way, commercial, and broadcast, popular imaginations of benevolent extraterrestrial listeners of our radio waves become malevolent a la the War of the Worlds radio broadcast. You can smell this connection in the film Contact, the use of music transmissions in Close Encounters, M.A.R.R.S.’ “Pump Up the Volume,” and the SETI project.

The song was originally released in 1976 by Klaatu, a 70s canadian rock band named after the lead alien in the 1950s sci-fi classic, The Day the Earth Stood Still (narrated by a radio announcer in this trailer). The song was “The Recognized Anthem of World Contact Day,” a 1953 experiment in worldwide extraterrestrial telepathic communication. Klaatu recorded the song presumably in hopes of a repeated attempt. Mostly forgotten today, it was one of Carpenters’s last hits, off their 1977 Passage album, going top ten in several countries and top 20 in the U.S., earning the duo a Grammy nomination in 1978.

The song crystallizes the tension so integral to the Carpenters’ appeal, which superficially appears to be one merely of gay-male camp identification with a tragic female singer, in the vein of Judy et al. “Occupants” and its video push the camp limit with the tacky radio DJ intro (new to the Carpenters’ version), singing-alien solo, bizarre bridge, and heartfelt sincerity with which Karen pleads for us to focus our mental energies to collectively send a telepathic message to interstellar policemen. It’s not quite “Rainy Days and Mondays” -- if anything, it’s more than that, an expression of the tension in the Carpenters’ music between Richard’s sappy overproduction and arrangements, combined with often banal lyrics, and the technical proficiency and emotional force of Karen’s voice and singing. When listening to the Carpenters, really listening, you start out laughing ... and then you stop. Nowhere is this more evident than in “Occupants” because you start out laughing so hard.

Contributed by
D. Travers Scott, a graduate student at the USC Annenberg School for Communication in Los Angeles. His research interests include technological culture, masculinity and sexuality, with a current focus on the history of perceptions of disease related to emergent communications media.

City of Angels: A Special Evening with Ozomatli

The launch of the PMP this semester started with a pair of promising warning shots: Gayle Wald shaking up the rock and race canons with her crucial biography of Sister Rosetta Tharpe just weeks before the New York Times took some notice of its own, and our first listening lunch for LA music-talkers culled from faculty, grad students, and invited guests (including a handful of top-notch music journalists). Fred Moten played Merle Haggard's “More Than My Old Guitar" and before we knew it we were deep into a 2-hour conversation that ran the gamut from Latin American liberation theology to the performative authenticity of living rooms to the Bakersfield rockabilly scene.

These were warm-ups for the official PMP debut, the City of Angels evening with local audio-activist icons Ozomatli. I was thrilled to be able to have a public conversation with the band about how their city impacts their sound and how they negotiate a commitment to social justice and oppositional politics with record sales and State department invitations to act as cultural ambassadors in India, Nepal, and this coming summer, numerous countries in the Middle East.

One topic we didn’t get to though was the issue that opened the night: the band’s video contest. Ozo made student-shot live footage available to their fans through their website and invited anyone with an idea and the most rudimentary of editing software to download their song “City of Angels” and mash it up any which way: cutting up the live footage, splicing it into other found images, remixing the song itself. Ozo has always billed itself as delivering a sort of new school “people’s music” and have long treated their fans as part of an extended community, a wider Ozo family (their pre- and post-show samba drum lines as only the most obvious way they break down traditional divides between artist and fan). The video contest was as close as they’ve come to translating those ideas into the idioms of free culture, open source creativity, file sharing, and creative commons. There has been much discussion on the USC campus these past weeks about the possibilities and power of free culture (not to mention the ever-developing DRM stories between Apple, EMI, and other media giants) and I’d like to think that the Ozo event threw some live, head-nodding fuel on those fires. What does free culture look and sound like in the moment of performance, in the heat of what Philip Auslander calls “liveness”? How can creative commons conversations be carried out at the interface of online and off-line community, of webpage and concert stage? How does the drum-line move on-line? One next step: convincing video contest winner Matt Johnston to post his stellar video on the band’s site and then letting fans take a swipe at it. As the virtualists and social networkers know all too well, community isn’t just about bodies in a room, but interests and aesthetics shared across disparate spaces that might never have been otherwise possible.

Contributed by Josh Kun, director of Popular Music Project.

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket