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2010: The Year John Cage Broke

Amateur producers and unexpected music

The week before Christmas, the number 21 spot on the British pop charts was held by a supergroup called Cage Against the Machine, a gang of pop stars who had gathered to record John Cage's 1952 composition "4' 33"." They had hoped to take the track to number one, thus denying the Christmas top spot to any alumnus of The X Factor, an American Idol-style show that the Cage crew despised. They failed at that, but it's still impressive that they made it halfway up the top 40, considering the track they chose to record.

"4' 33"" sounds like a joke the first time you hear it described: The musicians sit onstage doing nothing for four minutes and 33 seconds. The piece is sometimes described as four minutes and 33 seconds "of silence," but that isn't really right: The music consists of all the ambient noises in the concert hall that we usually filter out. Cage believed that every sound is musical. As he put it, "Music is everywhere, you just have to have the ears to hear it."

In 2010, that sounds less like a philosophical statement and more like a matter-of-fact description of one of the paths popular music has been taking. It's appropriate for Cage to enter the top 40 at the end of a year that saw a hit fashioned from a TV news report.

"The Bed Intruder Song," which crept into the Billboard Hot 100 in August and made it to number 3 on the iTunes R&B chart, was born when an Alabama man chased a would-be rapist out of his sister's room one night. Interviewed afterward by WAFF-TV, Antoine Dodson was still angry. "Well, obviously, we have a rapist in Lincoln Park," he exclaimed. "He's climbing in your windows, he's snatching your people up, trying to rape 'em, so you all need to hide your kids, hide your wife, and hide your husband 'cause they're raping everybody out here." His rant became a hit in that great repository of found footage, YouTube. And then the Gregory Brothers, the comedians behind the Auto-Tune the News series, remixed it into a song, with Dodson's monologue auto-tuned into lyrics. The Gregorys had been doing this to news reports and other footage since April 2009 and had gathered a substantial cult following, but this recording was their breakthrough into the mainstream.

Music is everywhere, you just have to have the ears to hear it. And if you don't have the ears to hear it, don't fret: Let a couple of comics add some auto-tune and an electronic beat, and you'll get there. Hard-core Cageans may call it a crutch, but the results are too fun for me to start complaining.

Not that many years ago, it was a cliché to accuse auto-tune of subverting good music by making everyone sound the same. Every variation from perfect pitch was being sanded away, the complaint went, all in the interest of creating conformist and predictable pop hits. Since then, though, it's become common to use auto-tune the opposite way: to distort voices rather than homogenizing them, to create new effects rather than replicating old ones. And what has happened to Antoine Dodson and the other stars of Auto-Tune the News undermines those old complaints even more thoroughly. Thanks to sampling, it was already possible to turn any sound in the world into a part of a song, from a dripping faucet to an air raid siren. Now, with auto-tune, anything anyone says can be turned into a lyrical performance. Cagean purists can quietly contemplate the music of rustling leaves and car alarms and the teenager across the street screaming at her parents; pop Cageans can feed those sounds into a computer and dance to the results.

And anyone with a laptop and the appropriate plug-ins can do this. That too marks a change. Producers used to be the shadowy illuminati of the music world. With occasional exceptions—Phil Spector, George Martin, Rick Rubin—they were nearly anonymous. Producers avoided the limelight while the musicians they worked with basked in stardom, even when the producer clearly bore more responsibility for a hit song's sound than the artist credited on the sleeve. In the disco era, an anonymous producer might hire anonymous session musicians and then release the results under the name of an entirely fictitious "group." In a culture fixated on "authenticity," that helped disco acquire its plastic reputation, though in retrospect the practice was no more inauthentic—and possibly more honest—than the customs of the rock world.

Now that the producer's tools are as widely distributed as electric guitars and drum kits, the picture looks a little different. The Gregory Brothers have split the profits from "The Bed Intruder Song" with Antoine Dodson, explaining that "He wrote the lyrics, he’s the one who put it out there." That's very decent of them, and I in no way want to argue against their decision to do it. But as a simple matter of public perception, it's the Gregory Brothers, not Dodson, who are seen as the artists behind the song. (It helps that they inserted themselves into the recording, as they usually do—though if you ask me, their clips would be better if they left themselves out.) In the mash-up era, anyone on the Internet can be conscripted into a band; if you wanted to turn Dodson, the "Dude, You Have No Koran" guy, and the world leader of your choice into a viral-video supergroup, you could mash them up in your basement in an afternoon or two and then release the results online without the bandmates ever learning that they participated. Even if the song becomes a hit, they might not find out that they were a part of it.

If you listened to "4' 33"" on Christmas, anyone in earshot was unwittingly a part of a top 40 hit: your aunt banging around in the kitchen, your son playing a game in the living room, your dad washing his hands in the bathroom. The BBC refused to play "4' 33"" when it charted, on the grounds that "the majority of BBC Radio 1's listeners" would not be interested. But you don't need to rely on any DJ to hear Cage on the BBC, or on any other station in the world. Just turn the volume down as far as it will go, and listen intently for four minutes and 33 seconds.

Managing Editor Jesse Walker is the author of Rebels on the Air: An Alternative History of Radio in America (NYU Press).

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  • ||

    This should be fun...

  • ||

    So... Best hip-hop of the year: The Bed Intruder Song or Kanye's My Beautiful, Dark, Twisted Fantasy? Discuss.

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    [...]

  • ||

    + 4m 33s

  • ||

    At least it wasn't a remake of "That's What Friends Are For"

  • ||

  • ||

    Bed Intruder Song, obviously.

    "Hide your kids, hide your wife,
    and hide your husband 'cause they're rapin' everybody up in here"

  • ||

    Chiddy Bang's Dancing With the DJ Remix. Or Opposite of Adults. They are students at Drexel and Xaphoon Jones, the DJ of the two, is the best producer around today. Of course, they are blowing up underground without major label support. Just two college kids getting drunk, smoking some weed, and making great music.

  • ||

    Admittedly, I only took PHI 102 and it was 10 years ago, but if everything is music, then everything is also art, which means nothing is music and nothing is art.

    Shitty music is still music. Ambient sound is just ambient sound. 4'33" may have a claim to art status, but music?

  • ||

    Greatest joke on art of all time, babe, if you don't count abstract expressionism.

  • ||

    So Dadaism gets no love...

  • ||

    This is a good point. Think of a Venn Diagram. If "all sound" and "music" are the same circles, then "music" as a designation needn't exist.

  • ||

    What you just did there is "music."

  • Slut Bunwalla||

    Cage Against the Machine, a gang of pop stars who had gathered to record John Cage's 1952 composition "4' 33" get paid and feel smug about recording nothing for four and a half minutes. FTFY

  • ||

    Technically speaking, the money all went to charity. As somebody who was friends with a lot of music majors in college but never really embraced the avant garde myself, I'm sympathetic to both Cage's admirers and detractors. Regardless of one's take on Cage, though, you have to admire their attempt to stick it to that X-Factor pop crap.

  • Slut Bunwalla||

    Charity, or their own wallets, whatever. Look, 4'33 was a clever idea, I'll give it that. But it's been over 50 years and it's still around. It's no longer clever or amusing. It isn't even a piece, it's a smug postmodern joke whose time passed about 4 minutes and 33 seconds after it was first "performed".

  • ||

    I'm reminded of a song by some new age fucker I heard about 25 years ago entitled Peace. It seemed to be nothing more than a 10-minute intro that went nowhere.

  • ||

    Fuck you, douche!

  • dhex||

    smug postmodern joke

    i don't think you're quite getting the point, broham. the point may be quite obvious these days...or maybe not, considering the number of kids busting their eardrums to earlier levels of damage in an attempt to drown out that point.

  • Slut Bunwalla||

    I get the point, thanks. I still think it's stupid and pretentious.

  • dhex||

    what's pretentious about exploring the relationship of the environment in which music is listened to?

  • Slut Bunwalla||

    But there's no music being played or listened to.

    There's a Brian Eno album called Discreet Music. It's more-or-less a classical piece. It's meant to be listened to at a very, very low volume so that the ambient noises around you become part of the music itself. This is a much better experiment because there's actually music involved. It's actually creative. There's something to it. It's not just four and a half minutes of nothing.

  • dhex||

    and who do you think was an influence on eno in that regard?

    http://musicthoughts.com/t/60

  • Slut Bunwalla||

    This does not invalidate my point.

  • dhex||

    without 4'33 you don't get eno, though. it's like being mad at black and white cinema for not having color in it.

  • dhex||

    without 4'33 you don't get eno, though. it's like being mad at black and white cinema for not having color in it.

  • Slut Bunwalla||

    I doubt that that's true, but whatever.

  • ||

    The joke is actually more than 100 years old. Alphonse Allais wrote a similar work in 1897 entitled "Funeral March for the Obsequies of a Deaf Man." Of course, Allais wrote his work in jest. For the moderns, stupidity is a creed - Credo quia absurdum.

  • ||

    Aw crap, music reviews now? Where's Realist?

    just playin...relax

  • ||

    Goddamit, what the fuck with reason now, music reviews? shit. fuck.

  • ||

    Technology -- and recording technology -- is not reflexively and inherently good. We have live music for a reason.

    As for Cage, with this handle, I feel like I'd better honor him, but 4'33" is pure theory over aesthetics, and I've been unimpressed. There's only so much theory to stomach when the resulting sensory stimulus is shite, and this is shite. Smug, too.

    And it is theory, as he explained it as a Buddhist experiment in minimalist space. Like Andy Kaufmann in Man on the Moon, only less effective.

  • ||

    sensory stimulus

    This. Music is not the sound it is composed of, it is the stimulus reaction it causes in people. Just as a wave is not the water: the water is only a medium through which the wave propagates.

  • ||

    WHOA (Ted "Theodore" Logan style)

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    WHOA
    (Joey Lawrence style)

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    My love is like...

  • ||

    Bill & Ted > Joey Lawrence

  • ||

    x > Joey Lawrence where x = anything other than Joey Lawrence

  • ||

    WHOA (Joey Lawrence style)

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    I just made music!

  • ||

    Ok, lemme try again: if I pluck a sting, the wave is the string? The string is the wave?

  • ||

    We are one, wylie.

  • ||

    Better than being alone, I guess. *sigh*

  • ||

    Oh, I indeed saw Buwalla's "smug." Sorry. I'm still sticking with his description of all of it. I watched that video the other night, and all those artists were really, really...smug.

    Smug. Smug. Smug.

  • ||

    That comment should have gone up there

  • Slut Bunwalla||

    It is the very definition of smug.

  • ||

    You should watch the video...ugh. They are so. beamingly. proud. of. silence.

  • Slut Bunwalla||

    Ha, the best part is how not one of them seems in the least to think that what they're doing is absurd.

  • ||

    I worked in the music business for a time (in addition to my other trades). It has really gone downhill since I left.

  • ||

    So the decline of music is one thing we don't have to blame on Bush. DAMN YOU BRIAN! *tiny shaken fist*

  • ||

    So the decline of music is one thing we don't have to blame on Bush.

    Gavin Rossdale certainly hasn't contributed anything worthwhile to music.

  • ||

    Music reviews! Well fuck my fat ass!!!!

  • ||

    If ambiant noise is music, then everything you see is a painting, and every three dimensional object is a sculpture. The phone book is literature. etc.

    Words should possess meaning. If words mean nothing, (or whatever you want them to mean, which amounts to the same thing), the communication of ideas becomes impossible. So, for that matter, does having coherent ideas in the first place.

  • ||

    Words should possess meaning.

    What are you, some kind of Objectivist?

  • ||

    Or a Wittgenstinian. Or someone who used to write for a living. Or a guy educated by Jesuits who would smack him for using words imprecisely. (Say what you mean, and mean what you say, boy! Whack!)
    Or some combination of all of those.

    I did think of going all Rand with the argument and demonstrating that 4'33" is genuinely evil and will result in the destruction of the human spirit and the collapse of the last rail bridge over the Mississippi. But that would have been too easy.

  • ||

    Objective reality is so 20th century.

  • ||

    This is long, but the 9th Circuit agrees with you!

    "Trident points out, however, that California does not follow the traditional rule. Two decades ago the California Supreme Court in Pacific Gas & Electric Co. v. G.W. Thomas Drayage & Rigging Co., 69 Cal.2d 33, 442 P.2d 641, 69 Cal.Rptr. 561 (1968), turned its back on the notion that a contract can ever have a plain meaning discernible by a court without resort to extrinsic evidence. The court reasoned that contractual obligations flow not from the words of the contract, but from the 569*569 intention of the parties. "Accordingly," the court stated, "the exclusion of relevant, extrinsic, evidence to explain the meaning of a written instrument could be justified only if it were feasible to determine the meaning the parties gave to the words from the instrument alone." 69 Cal.2d at 38, 442 P.2d 641, 69 Cal.Rptr. 561. This, the California Supreme Court concluded, is impossible: "If words had absolute and constant referents, it might be possible to discover contractual intention in the words themselves and in the manner in which they were arranged. Words, however, do not have absolute and constant referents." Id. In the same vein, the court noted that "[t]he exclusion of testimony that might contradict the linguistic background of the judge reflects a judicial belief in the possibility of perfect verbal expression. This belief is a remnant of a primitive faith in the inherent potency and inherent meaning of words." Id. at 37, 442 P.2d 641, 69 Cal.Rptr. 561 (citation and footnotes omitted).[5]"

  • ||

    Actually, the Ninth Circuit is merely pointing out that California agrees with Sarcasmo.

  • ||

    Ah, not sure of the nesting or intent. It's Kozinski making fun of Traynor's precedent by explicitly and painstakingly explaining Traynor's holding and how that affects evidence admissibility in contracts cases, I believe.

  • ||

    And I think Sarcasmo is being, well...
    sarcastic.

  • Slut Bunwalla||

    I'm going to start coming to work and doing absolutely nothing every day and then claim that everything happening around me was my job being done.

    Eventually I'll just stop going to work at all. "The productivity and arrivals that happen in my absence themselves constitute my presence and work," I'll say.

  • ||

    You're hired!

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    You'll be paid in the same manner.

  • ||

    "Practice not-doing,
    and everything will fall into place."

    http://acc6.its.brooklyn.cuny......te-v3.html

  • ||

    So THAT'S where the Meat Puppets got their rule of not practicing.

  • ||

  • ||

    So, you want to work for the government?

  • Slut Bunwalla||

    I already do, actually. So doing what I mentioned above wouldn't change a whole lot, sadly.

  • publius||

    The day does not pass when I don't have an opportunity to marvel at the vast musical ignorance of most people.

    Which would be understandable, and even forgivable, were it not for the fact that these same people talk as if they actually know something about music.

    Autotune the news is faux-serious audio entertainment for people who are too ignorant to see that these 'songs' are simple collections of completely predictable and well-worn cliches with some sampled words stuck on top of them.

    Silence, or ambient noise, presented as art might be pretentious, but it is much closer to being music than Autotune the News.

  • Slut Bunwalla||

    How interesting that you're the only person here who's mentioned Autotune the News and using it to deride everyone else here.

  • Slut Bunwalla||

    *and yet you're using it to

  • Slut Bunwalla||

    Shit, I forgot I hadn't read the article. Never mind, ignore me. In this instance.

  • ||

    just post comments as if you had.

  • ||

    I commented on recording technology in a broad sense, with autotune specifically in mind.

    I have no formal training in music, true, but listening intently for thirty-plus years makes one at least qualified for music appreciation and low-level criticism.

    Um, are you the guy that pops in and craps on pop music every so often? Because, like someone else said, you *are* fun at parties, aren't you?

  • ||

    No, that's me. And I am fun at parties. Even though I listen to Hummel and Bortkiewicz, I also bring coke and whores.

  • ||

    Fair enough. If I had to do it over again, I would have played instruments, learned to read music, and concentrated on it. As for the party, I'll defer to your own esteem on that one. Sounds fun to me.

  • Jesse Walker||

    Autotune the news is faux-serious audio entertainment

    They're comedians. How is it "faux-serious"?

  • ||

    Perhaps he is using "faux-serious" in the same sense that some people describe The Daily Show as being faux-serious, or faux-news, or something. But I think it's probably just a misdirected, elitist rant against lowbrow humor, made worse by too much alcohol.

  • ||

    Yeah, hello - Pootie Tang did this in 2001, and totally went to #1 with it.

    Way to copy Pootie Tang, Cage Against the Machine.

  • ||

    And no alt text for the photo - I see what you did there...

  • Not A Jerk||

    Obviously we found people with too much time on their hands.

    If you want to complain about Trolls ...there you go.

  • Not A Jerk||

    http://www.cultofthedeadcow.com/

    If it isn't obvious ... this is what I'm talking about.

  • ||

    Music vs noise... I would posit that music is tonal rather than atonal (not in the sense of failing to cleave to a fixed scale, but of being dissonant).

    Sound, like light and thoughts, are best served coherent.

  • ||

    I beg to differ.

  • ||

    The 4'33'' autotune re-mix:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kEtcHc8rJQQ

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