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Cucumber-Scum Tapeloop

My four favorite instruments featured on Back to the Mono Kero!, Japanese lady trio eX-Girl’s fourth album: digital president, asshole box, slide geisha, and scum tape from garbage. OK, maybe that last one isn’t actually an instrument. In fact, the whole list might be a joke. But Hoppy Kamikaya, who produced the album and cowrote every track except the cover of M’s “Pop Muzik,” supposedly makes music with this exotica. Could “digital president” refer to behind-the-boards expertise? “Asshole box” to studio direction? “Scum tape from garbage” to salvaging botched recordings? “Slide geisha” to . . . well, you get the idea.

Anyway, who knows. I don’t understand my VCR manual either. Point is, Back to the Mono Kero! rates with the best excrements of dog, marshmallow stuck to the sole of red shoe, high-purity heroin, and atom-heart mother ever kicked in my ear. (Lyrics from “Waving Scientist @ Frog King,” by the way.) Even the eX-Girls themselves (Chihiro, Kirilo, and Fuzuki, on guitar and sitar, bass and Casiotone, and drums, respectively—all sing) wonder what the Pink Floyd one means, but the other three signify: Heroin suggests their reverence for rock tradition (in contrast to “Miss E” Elliot), excrement means they’re the shit, and marshmallow equals bubblegum.

Convenient, then, that I just received Bubblegum Music Is the Naked Truth, a long book about short songs, in the mail. “Group Sounds and Japanese Pop,” an essay by Glenn Sadin contained therein, recounts late-’70s J-poppers Pink Lady creating a “sensation” by “shaking their things,” not sneering, “God save the queen (emperor, whatever)”. In the mid ’80s, the song-and-dance TV show Meow at Dusk—which starred average, untrained high school girls—began airing in Japan. This gender-specific cross between The Mickey Mouse Club and Bands on the Run constituted the country’s Our Band Could Be Your Life myth.

Or so I fantasize. eX-Girl do that to a boy, what with their alternately effervescent and operatic triple harmonizing, tremendous, bounding drums, alternately squirty and heavy riffs, and obscure sass (“Before you slice him up and make a meal/Stroke your cucumber/Let him know how you feel”). Reminiscent of Shonen Knife, you say? Who the hell are they? Oh, right. Well, Bis crossed with the Need comes closer, as long as you remember to add foreign-country grammar. But where Bis and the Need tend to simply revel in sound, Back to the Mono Kero! is song driven. Their “Pop Muzik” is instantly recognizable, but somehow simultaneously beefed up, cut apart, and sweetened. Ad jingles, not seven-inch singles, seem to inspire Hoppy Kamikaya.

Like Daft Punk’s “One More Time,” OOIOO’s “Be Sure to Loop” takes “Pop Muzik” one step further via glorious regression, skimming on a self-reflexive phrase coupled with a broken-record beat’n’riff combo. It should be their theme song. Ostensibly artier than eX-Girl, since they play longer and slower tunes, OOIOO loop more than they wander on Feather Float, and that’s why it’s their best album to date. Kill Rock Stars put out the uneven OOIOO in ’98, the same year Feather Float—only just released in the U.S.—was recorded. Cut last year, the finely textured but overall all-too-even Gold and Green is for now available only as an import.

Yoshimi P-We, drummer for the always noisy and recently beautiful Boredoms, produced Feather Float and gets credit for singing and playing guitar, Casiotone, and about a half dozen other instruments. But despite their artistic command and hipster cachet, OOIOO still started out as a “band” assembled for a fashion photo shoot. (The Ex Models—not to be confused with eX-Girl, the Ex, or either L.A. or Australia’s X—must be feeling pretty inauthentic right now.)

Easy on the eyes or not, Yoshimi, Kyoko (guitar and vocals), Maki (bass), and Yoshiko (drums) won’t let up on your ears. Reclaiming the Slits and Kleenex for post-Bikini Kill grrrls who believe femme art rock begins and ends with Sleater-Kinney, OOIOO sound like sirens tripping in the rainforest, mostly thanks to swooning chants and the occasional jambe, bongo, or talking drum. Editing psychedelic swirls and droning beats is tricky, of course, and some tracks—especially those off Green and Gold—could use an asshole box.

That said, Feather Float has some great non-jingles: The roboto-guitar riff, plinking keys, and driving—as opposed to droning—beat of “Jackson’s Club ‘Sunspot’ ” make me shake my thing; two minutes later, the supa-deep booty bass of “Asozan” vibrates both my thing and, from the sound of it, drinking glasses at the studio. But Yoshimi peppering the track with “Ow!” and “Shew!” shows me she’s working her thing, too. More proof that even bubblegum comes from the atom-heart mother.


eX-Girl play the Knitting Factory September 14.

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Fantasia 2000

A bundle of animated shorts set to famous classical music pieces, Fantasia hitched a supposedly lowborn art form to a high-hat soundtrack; Mickey Mouse shaking hands with Leopold Stokowski on the podium is a statement of intent. Uncle Walt’s pricey experiment flopped upon release in 1940, but started turning a profit by the mid ’50s; its stream-of-consciousness imagery and tone-poem rhythms also helped it join 2001 and Yellow Submarine in that rarefied realm of Great Films to Watch While You’re Baked.

Budding young stoners have to hoof it to an Imax theater for the rehauled Fantasia 2000, which sports seven new shorts, keeping only “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” from the first version. The second new installment is the best: Mystic and austere, “Pines of Rome” lets Respighi’s music color in the somber blues and grays of a young arctic whale’s journey upwards through the icy surface to join his parents in some starry-skied cetacean Valhalla. The effect is hypnotic, oddly mournful, and vaguely unsettling, like a too-vivid dream. The rest is just a snooze: Al Hirschfeld’s antiquated Gothamites shuttle about to the strains of “Rhapsody in Blue,” emanating a musty whiff of Upper East Side gentility; a fretsome Donald Duck as Noah on the ark during “Pomp and Circumstance” is an unfunny bit of Disney nostalgia. Arriving just after the best year for animated film in recent memory, Fantasia 2000 doesn’t play like a celebration. In its sentimental yearning for a golden age when another one’s upon us, it feels a little like a rebuke.


A Disney release. Directed by Hendel Butoy. Now playing.

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Taking Cues from the Past

A bundle of animated shorts set to famous classical music pieces, Fantasia hitched a supposedly lowborn art form to a high-hat soundtrack; Mickey Mouse shaking hands with Leopold Stokowski on the podium is a statement of intent. Uncle Walt’s pricey experiment flopped upon release in 1940, but started turning a profit by the mid ’50s; its stream-of-consciousness imagery and tone-poem rhythms also helped it join 2001 and Yellow Submarine in that rarefied realm of Great Films to Watch While You’re Baked.

Budding young stoners have to hoof it to an Imax theater for the rehauled Fantasia 2000, which sports seven new shorts, keeping only “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” from the first version. The second new installment is the best: Mystic and austere, “Pines of Rome” lets Respighi’s music color in the somber blues and grays of a young arctic whale’s journey upwards through the icy surface to join his parents in some starry-skied cetacean Valhalla. The effect is hypnotic, oddly mournful, and vaguely unsettling, like a too-vivid dream. The rest is just a snooze: Al Hirschfeld’s antiquated Gothamites shuttle about to the strains of “Rhapsody in Blue,” emanating a musty whiff of Upper East Side gentility; a fretsome Donald Duck as Noah on the ark during “Pomp and Circumstance” is an unfunny bit of Disney nostalgia. Arriving just after the best year for animated film in recent memory, Fantasia 2000 doesn’t play like a celebration. In its sentimental yearning for a golden age when another one’s upon us, it feels a little like a rebuke.

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Ex Machina

The last good game I played was at the old Playland in Times Square a few
years back. Every afternoon, the arC would fill with businessmen on their lunch breaks, random passersby, and scores of high school kids who cut class to spill guts and gobble points on the video screen. For me, it was the only real way to play video games. Playland was encrusted with decades of
dirt and laid out much like the New York City grid— cramped, dark, and electric. I walked in looking for the latest game. At the time, it was Mortal Kombat— one of the first photographically enhanced kung fu fighting games where you play best two out of three bouts.

A huddle of high school kids were guarding the machine. I looked over and laid my quarters on the console (the way to get in line for the game). They all turned quickly to see who it was and a few began eyeing me. Who does he think he is? He thinks he can just come up to this machine and play? He better be good.

To play the latest, hottest game wasn’t an easy task. Sure, you could go to your local game store, buy the game (for fifty bucks), and play it in the privacy of your own home— but then there’d be no audience. (Friends and family don’t count.) You always had to break through a wall to get to the game; endure stares and taunts; stare back and put up your quarters. It somehow lent more meaning to the gameplay. It became a sporting event where you were both fan and player.

My turn. I take a quick peek at the competition— a tall, scrawny kid who couldn’t be more than 15. He has these long, gangly fingers that appear to melt into the console when he plays. Man has become machine. He’s beaten the last three players. Yeah, my kung fu’s better, he’s thinking. Come on old man! (I’m barely 20 at the time.) Let’s play! I drop my change, look at the screen, and choose my player.

I lose the first round quick. He’s got the combinations down already and this game is only a few days old. I only get a few hits in. He turns to me and grins. It’s part of the spoils, a temporary crown. Or the yellow jersey in the Tour de France. His friends are jumping up and down, laughing. Not over his win, but his grin. A dis all real game players love to pull.

In the next round, I manage to get the special moves down (keyed combinations that produce fireballs and general bad-assed fighting moves). The crowd behind me starts yelling things like “Oh shit! He’s got the moves!”

My competition has fallen into an obvious pattern where he attacks on the retreat. A good pattern, but I’ve easily spotted a hole. I throw a few fireballs on his retreat and hit him before he can throw out his attack. I do it over and over. This round, mine. And yeah, I grin back. But the kids don’t laugh this time. He’s their player. I’m the outsider. They’re still loyal to him.

Last round. He knows I’ve figured out his pattern and changes course. Neither of us wants to lay out an attack for fear the other will discover his tactics. A twitch play ensues, each trying to get the other to commit. The crowd of kids is barely audible. After a close round, I win. “Oh shit!” someone yells. My competition turns to me and reaches out his hand. We shake. Game over.

The game was never as good after this. Technology has advanced, but the players have not. That Playland, in fact, is now extinct. The newer “arcades” in Times Square sport a wide array of VR-type games, a clean, well-lit space, and a staff that wears logo’d polos. Families and tourists come to play. I swear I’ve seen Mickey Mouse there.

Game consoles have been around almost as long as the arcade, and they have inspired a new generation— “forged a new market” in biz-speak— of players, but they have also inspired a certain kind of regression. The console is a solipsistic affair. There is no audience.

Video games have become so popular because they have mastered a deception. They make you think you’ve won (or lost) the game— that you’ve racked up points and powers and kills. Thing is, you don’t actually get to take home the points when the game’s over. The kill is unreal. There’s nothing to display over your mantel after defeating the monster. There’s no real-world effect. But in the arcade, the points, the kills didn’t matter. The audience was your record. The grin. The stares. The adulation. These were your trophies and marks of defeat.

After the handshake and even more stares, the group of kids walks away. They’re out of quarters. The tall kid looks back at me like
he’s saying, Next time, I’ll get you. But for the
moment, I’m left to just play the machine.

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Steal This Idea

They came so close to setting Mickey Mouse free. Until a few months ago when congressional passage of the Sonny Bono Act extended the term of all corporate copyrights by 20 years, the rights to Mickey’s first cartoon were due to expire in 2002. Just three more years, and the century’s top-grossing commodified signifier (possibly outranked only by the Coca-Cola logo) would have taken his first, tentative steps into the light of the public domain. Weightier things have happened in the history of Western civilization, to be sure, but given the hyperreality of the age, there’s no telling what cultural shock waves the unshackling of Mickey might have set rolling. With the right spin, the event could have joined the fall of the Berlin Wall among postmodernity’s great moments of iconic liberation.

Tech journalist Seth Shulman’s Owning the Future, a brief but sweeping report on the malignant growth of intellectual-property claims in the last two decades, has matters more substantive than cartoons to dwell on— technological innovation strangled by the proliferation of software patents, for instance; medical breakthroughs stymied by corporate knowledge hoarding; age-old farming cultures threatened by the wholesale commodification of crop DNA. But in the end, his argument tells us basically the same thing Disney Inc.’s anxious lobbying on behalf of the Bono Act already did: that nothing haunts the information-age corporation so profoundly as the specter of unchained information, and that corporate efforts to keep the chains on are getting weirder and fiercer all the time.

Shulman’s crisp analysis tells us plenty, though, about the social conditions that frame those efforts. The standard Tofflerian version of 20th-century economic history, plausible enough in its bare outlines, gets a brisk retelling here: sometime between the saving of Private Ryan and the launching of Sputnik, we are reminded, the old “Second Wave” industrial economy, in which tangible products were central, gave way to the Third Wave, “a new historical era in which knowledge assets play a driving role in economic growth.” Mercifully, however, Shulman turns the blithe free-market boosting of Toffler and his disciples on its head. Against the “triumphalist” vision of cyberguru Esther Dyson, for instance, who sees only desperate late­Second Wave resistance in the furious intellectual landgrabbing now under way, Shulman insists on the obvious: that the landgrabbing is in fact a “symptom” of the new dispensation, in which corporations live and die by whatever chunks of information they can stake their claims to.

Shulman’s dispatches from the high-tech turf wars document recent patents on, among other eyebrow-raising examples, two very large prime numbers, a plant used by South American shamans to concoct the hallucinogen ayahuasca, the sexing of unborn infants by “looking at their genitals” in ultrasound images, approximately one-third of the known human genome, and, believe it or not, in a claim granted to a Connecticut inventor only a year ago— the wheel.

As this brief list suggests, Shulman’s book is entertaining, and a selective reader could easily skim for the pure thrill of outrage, skipping from one mind-boggling case of info-profiteering to another. But Shulman himself is careful never to stray too far from the larger and subtler social consequences: the stifling of scientific and technological evolution, the removal of fateful decisions about human and other gene pools from the realm of democratic choice, the exacerbation of inequalities and conflicts between rich and poor nations, and, ultimately, the prospect of “an ominous descent into a new Dark Age.”

Only in the last few pages of Owning the Future, however, does Shulman seek to map out a coherent strategy for averting these bummers— and it’s here you finally sense something missing from his argument. Not that his suggestions don’t sound eminently sensible. He simply proposes, after all, to reinvigorate the much diminished notion of the public domain, and he proposes to do so by updating certain tried-and-true legal and political approaches to managing more conventional forms of property. Declare the human genome a natural sanctuary, for instance, just like Teddy Roosevelt did with Yellowstone. Make health-related patent holders license their knowledge to all comers— the same way cities and states use zoning laws to regulate some private properties in the public interest. Nothing too radical there.

But that’s just the problem: Shulman spends much of his book arguing persuasively that there is something radically different about intellectual property, and that notions of property derived from the logic of tangible goods can’t adequately be applied to the “unreal estate” of the conceptual. It’s disconcerting, then, to find him in the end trying to do just that.

Indeed, it makes you wish that maybe Shulman had made a little room in his analysis for Mickey Mouse— or for that matter any other products of the culture industry. Because although the solid objects of industrial production might not offer adequate precedent for the cutting-edge, info-intensive technologies that fascinate Shulman, the soft, subtle objects of which culture has always been made are another story. Computer programming and genetic engineering are in fact suffused with the logics of cultural production— of language, writing, and symbol. That’s the very thing that makes them radically different, in the end. And had Shulman chosen to pursue that difference to the end, it might have been interesting to see what sort of policy proposals he came up with. No doubt they would be soft and subtle indeed, perhaps too much so to even count as policy at all. But as the bulk of Shulman’s book makes plain, the current crisis of our intellectual-property regime is a radical one, and nothing short of a radical rethinking is likely to see us clear of it.