22 July 2009

Closer To The Stars Than Ever

Share photos on twitter with TwitpicThat's right; you're looking at a picture of MC Hammer and Jewel. Can you imagine what that duet would sound like? Seriously, one of the most energetic dancers of my generation (second only to the late Michael Jackson, for my money) and the poster girl of the singer/songwriter-coffee house era. And yet, there they stand flashing their million dollar smiles and radiating the friendliness and warmth that has drawn me to each over the years. This picture was uploaded by both artists on Twitter (via Twitpic) within the last few hours, taken after a concert of hers.

Unless you've managed to deliberately stay ignorant of the situation, the music industry is in a state of what sociologists call "anomie," which is where all the norms are suspended because no one knows what to do. Some label executives still fear the digital business model; some are hoping that Guitar Hero and Rock Band hold the key to the industry's future. Are digital EPs and singles the way to go, or should albums still be pushed? Lavish stage shows are cost prohibitive, yet fans will not pay upwards of $50 and content themselves that their ticket money merely paid to get the artist to the venue. Is American Idol helping the music industry nearly as much as it's helped FOX on TV? These are but a sample of issues facing the music industry at this stage of its evolution.

One thing that is undeniable, though, is that technology is both part of the problem as well as the solution. So far, most of the debate has focused on the negative sales impact of digital piracy on the industry but the discussion does not end there. MC Hammer, whose first four years as a recording artist for Capitol Records (1988-1991) were commercially astounding, has recently resurrected his public presence in large part thanks to the A&E reality series spotlighting his family, Hammertime. Having adapted with the times, MC Hammer's online presence is easily one of the most developed of any recording artist. Visit most artists' websites and you'll get a generic bio, tour dates and links to buy merchandise. Hammer, however, updates his page with video (much of it shot himself) and micro-blog statements several times daily.

Jewel likewise has taken a very hands-on approach to her online presence. She has recently begun recording demo versions of songs she is considering for her next album and even posted a video of a solo acoustic performance of one such song on her website. I cannot recall an artist offering such an intimate glimpse at the creative process in real time like this. Sure, I've seen footage of artists in the studio before, but I've never seen an artist record and post a performance of a song during the consideration phase of an album! Imagine Michelangelo circulating sketches of what he planned to paint on the Sistine Chapel, or Shakespeare publishing "Romeo & Juliet" an act at a time.

Will it shape how I hear Jewel's next album to have read, directly from her, that she broke her toe leaving a yacht on which she and husband Ty Murray were vacationing in the Bahamas? No, but having watched her play "Where We Started From" on her guitar will certainly ensure that I feel connected to that song (provided it makes the final album). After all, I'll be able to recall seeing a link posted by Jewel herself on Twitter that took me directly to the YouTube clip of her performance of the song during this demo stage.

What technology has allowed, then, is for artists to exert an unprecendented level of control over their public persona. Previously, artists were at the mercy of entertainment journalists for exposure and had to hope that their message survived to reach an audience. Along the way, image consultants emerged to take charge and ensure that the artist did not say or do the wrong thing. It may have curbed some embarrassing behavior over the years, but it also sterilized our entertainers.

The danger in all this, of course, is that our already celebrity-obsessed culture will further escalate its idolatry of our entertainers. I view these shared, personal anecdotes and thoughts as a way of contextualizing the art being developed by these artists. I feel like I have an understanding of what state of mind MC Hammer was in as he worked to bring "I Got Gigs" to the 2009 club scene, and I feel as though I was there in the hospital as Jewel gave birth to "Where We Started From" on 22 June. Neither is currently available to purchase commercially, though I can honestly say that I have every intention of adding each song to my library the moment they go on sale.

Then again, this is MC Hammer and Jewel we're talking about. They had to do something like this, I suppose. After all, I don't expect we'll be playing "U Can't Touch This" or "Foolish Games" on Guitar Hero any time soon.

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