___With the Lilly Allen “Hard Out Here” video blowing up teh interwebs this week, I wanted to briefly revisit and expand on my earlier piece on “trolling as the new Love & Theft.” You can read it here. In particular, I want to expand my argument there in the direction of a conversation Nathan and I were having Tuesday over Twitter. We were talking about the idea of “coincidental consumption.” There Nathan defined it as a “passive byproduct of the sharing economy.” I don’t think it’s entirely passive..or active–it’s a both/neither case, as I see it. Coincidental consumption requires activity, input, and attention; it’s just that all these are indirect, or, if direct, momentary digressions. It’s a co-incidental consumption: it happens together with the primary mode of attention and address, but as a secondary or tertiary (and so on) concern.
There’s a case to be made that these coincidental modes of attention are necessary features of social media labor qua sharing. For example, one might share an article without really reading it. However, there still has to be content there, somewhere, both as the thing that’s shared, and as a thing that’s distinct enough from other things to warrant sharing. So coincidentally-attended-to content matters, even though the demands of the sharing economy focus our attention on other things and thus prevents us from seeing content as anything but a blur. I think the effect of this is that content has to be ‘loud’ or distinct enough to make an impact even when it’s blurry and out of focus.
This brings me back to the Lilly Allen video. It’s such a hot topic because it has ignited a debate between white feminist apologists and black/women-of-color/intersectional feminist critics. (Just to be clear, I’m using ‘white’ and ‘black’ to define types of feminist theorizing, not necessarily or only the identities of the feminist theorists.) Is the video a feminist anthem about overcoming the male gaze and the culture industry’s objectification of women, or is the video a racist work blames black culture for mainstream pop culture’s misogyny, and that frames black women as incapable of overcoming this misogyny like Allen’s narrator claims to do? I’m not going to address these questions here. That’s a topic for Its Her Factory (which I may get to someday); however, if you want to know my thoughts, @bat020 storified them here (thanks!!).
What I want to think about is the coincidental role of music in the contemporary music industry. It seems like music videos and/or performances are increasingly common fodder for so-called “thinkpieces” (and if anyone has any research on where this term comes from or how/when/why it was popularized, I would LOVE to know!). There’s Allen, Miley’s VMA performance, Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines,” Lorde’s “Royals,” Macklemore’s “Same Love,” and on and on and on. But what’s interesting to me is that most of these thinkpieces discuss the social and political implications of these pieces without talking about the actual music–as though the music was somehow separable from the social and political work these songs and videos accomplish. We need to think very carefully about what gets lost, what’s obscured, when we focus exclusively on the visual and lyrical content of these music videos/performances.
Has music become a means of producing social capital? Is music just a coincidental product in the means of social media production? Or, if music is to be profitable these days, it has to be relegated to ‘coincidental’ status? Record companies aren’t selling music so much as platforms for generating social/social media capital? Surplus value doesn’t come from selling records (commodifying the labor of the performers), but from social media labor (i.e., from the labor of fans) or the speculation on the stock price of, say, Twitter. Maybe coincidental consumption is a definitive feature of contemporary/late-capitalist labor? Classically, labor involves directly consuming a raw material in a way that transforms it: butter, sugar, flour, eggs, and chocolate plus mixing and heat become cookies. Social media labor coincidentally consumes some or all of what it shares and/or comments on. I suspect that coincidental consumption can also be found in more classical forms of labor and political economy; late capitalist social media labor and the sharing economy make it particularly prominent.
So, here is a demand for material about which to write thinkpieces. Maybe one function of the contemporary pop star is to supply this material? Music is part of the social media supply chain?
And there’s a distinction, I think, btw Gaga-style shock and the “trolling” I identified in my previous post. Gaga courts fame by performing excess–weirdness, disgust, avant-garde fashion, etc. But trolling isn’t about excess or vanguardism. In fact, these troll-gaze (can I coin that as a genre, lol?) songs are more ambiguous than avant-garde. To crib a bit from Le Tigre, troll-gaze songs have to straddle the “What’s your take on XYZ? Misogynist? Genius?” line. There have to be at least two irreducible, individually defensible positions or sides. That allows there to be ongoing back-and-forth debate. These songs court that debate.
Trollgaze songs are just one example of a broader meme-ification of pop music. There are some songs, like Katy Perry’s recent single “Roar,” that seem custom-designed for lip-dub videos; “Roar” was often promoted through lip-dub contests, e.g., on Good Morning America. These songs are crafted so that people will prosume them–use them as the basis for their own reworking or remix. I think this type of prosumption is different than coincidental consumption because it involves the more classic type of labor-as-transformation rather than just or solely labor-as-sharing. Thinkpieces are also this type of labor-as-transformation–authors transform media objects into their own arguments, ideas, etc.
I’ve identified, so far, two types of coincidental consumption: first, when all content is coincidental to sharing (e.g., sharing an article without really reading it); second, when some aspects of the content are coincidental to others (e.g., the song is coincidental to the video). I’ve also argued that coincidental consumption/sharing labor is different from prosumer labor-as-transformation. Though, at a certain level, I just wish music was more central and less coincidental to our consumption and our thinkpieces.
Robin is on twitter as @doctaj.