Work in Progress: Viral Music
|Craig Eley||Jul 24, 2020|
Earlier in the quarantine, I had a chance to talk to three really interesting music scholars on the relationship between music and viruses, ranging from playful tunes that go viral, like “Baby Shark,” to serious music about viruses, like Bob Ostertag’s piece about AIDS, “All the Rage.” As Paula Harper told me, “There are some ways in which familiarity with the viral circuitry of our contemporary digital lives might help people take things seriously when it comes to the virus operating in our current moment, across the world.”
This is shaping up to be podcast episode number two, which I hope to have out in a few weeks, maybe sooner. Thanks for your patience and support. You can click subscribe right now in your app of choice to be sure you get it right when it drops.
And you can listen to a four-minute preview right now by pushing the play button at the top of this email.
90s Nostalgia: Belly
Speaking of music, my favorite 90s rock band is Belly. They were grungy, poppy, and wonderful, and they only put out two full length albums: 1993’s Star, a certified goddamn masterpiece, and 1995’s King, which is very good. They had two hits off of Star, one of which was the undeniably catchy “Gepetto”:
I also like a Belly song called “Thief,” which was on the soundtrack to the movie Tank Girl. And that, I thought, was that: two albums and this other song.
So, this week I was listening to “Thief” and thinking, “this song is just too good to have only been released on the Tank Girl soundtrack. A quick Google search—like, this took me two seconds, I can’t believe I never did it earlier—took me to the Discogs page of the Now They’ll Sleep EP , which has not only “Thief,” but also two other songs I hadn’t heard before.
This sent me spiraling. It turns out that Belly, in true pre-Napster glory, released a ridiculous number of EPs, CD Maxi Singles, and “remix” records, almost all of which contain at least one original song that didn’t make the cut for one of their albums. What makes all of this even more personally frustrating is that many of these songs were collected for their 2002 greatest hits album, which is structured more like an odds ’n’ends collection than a true “greatest hits.” In other words, I have been alive for way too long without knowing about these songs. So, some weird part of my brain took over and I made this spreadsheet of what I think is every song Belly released between 1991 and 1996. Please, PLEASE, let me know if I am missing something. Something like “Spaceman,” from the Seal My Fate EP:
Now, it’s hard to imagine a band low-key releasing a dozen non-album tracks like this in the streaming era, where every song is playlisted and monetized and YouTubed and where “secret albums” have become the norm. The act of going to a record store to collect every bit of a band’s recorded ephemera seems downright quaint, even romantic, but of course, that too was motivated by sales. One-off releases often had “special” and/or “bonus” tracks as a way to make repackaged material more appealing to consumers. This includes putting new songs on greatest hits records—has there ever been a “new” greatest hits song as popular as “Mary Jane's Last Dance”?—to songs that are exclusive to specific formats, like vinyl-only tracks. As I discovered, the reason my vinyl copy of Counting Crows’ This Desert Life is worth so much is because it has “Baby, I’m a Big Star Now” as a bonus track, a song that to this day has never been released in the US on any other format.
So, while it was fun to revisit this kind of 90s nostalgia, I’m still sort of glad to be alive right now, as I was able to, um, “acquire” all of these Belly songs thanks to the good people of the internet.
Noise in the News
Researchers in Singapore have developed a window unit that acts like “noise cancelling headphones for your entire apartment.” Right now it is unwieldy at best—24 speakers!—but it sort of gets the job done. Here is the NYT summary and the original paper. It reminds me a little of a project in “destructive interference” that General Electric did with a bell in Myanmar, a project that was inspired by a UW–Madison student:
On the other hand, if you want to listen to the sound coming in from windows, then click over to WindowSwap, which is a completely G-rated (promise!) experience of looking out of other people’s windows from all over the world. I’ve spent some time in India, France, and the UK just this morning. These are video recordings, not real-time streams, and not all of them have sound, but the majority do. In “these times,” as we must dutifully say, I actually find it a really a wonderful and evocative experience. Thanks to Marcia Epstein for bringing this to my attention.
I was excited by this headline, which I thought promised some cool inter-cellular sound-making: “This Ancient Sea Creature Builds Its Body With a Whisper, Not a Scream.” Turns out those were simply sonic metaphors for cell signaling, a visual process that is studied under a microscope. However, it got me to google “biological sonification” or something like that, and I found a professor turning DNA sequences into very awkward musical phrases. Here is “An auditory display tool for DNA sequence analysis 03”:
It’s a Date
Not sure if you noticed, but this is the fourth Field Noise newsletter you’ve gotten this month, and the last three have been on Fridays. If you did notice, congrats—you have indeed deciphered my publication schedule. For the near future, expect a mix like what you’ve gotten this month: music and podcast recommendations, short essays / think pieces, links to audio work in progress, etc. The next step is to also get the podcast up and running again on a more regular schedule.
Once that happens, my plan is to turn on the paid subscription options for this newsletter, which means some posts will be for “subscribers only” while the majority will stay free. The goal is to generate some revenue to keep these projects afloat—and I’d like to try to make that happen here on Substack as opposed to Patreon, because I’m enjoying writing and am optimistic that we could build a little community here. Please feel free to share this newsletter with others who might be interested.
Nothing is changing in the short term, though. I will give you plenty of notice and deliver a lot more free content before I ask you for money. Thanks for reading and listening—and remember you can always hit reply to leave a comment or drop me a line.