Meet the godfather of electronic dance music: Giorgio Moroder’s spectacular return to the spotlight
In the ’70s and ’80s, Giorgio Moroder — the Italian-born, L.A.-based godfather of electronic dance music — reeled in three Oscars (for scoring “Midnight Express” and for songs from “Flashdance” and “Top Gun”) and three Grammys. He produced the likes of Blondie and David Bowie, and pushed dance music into the synthesizer era alongside Donna Summer on “I Feel Love.” Now, at 74, he’s first starting a career as a DJ, spinning his tracks for fans who weren’t born when he originally recorded them.
Moroder credits Daft Punk for rebooting his music in the popular consciousness with last year’s track “Giorgio by Moroder,” but today’s Electronic Dance Music scene owes a huge amount to his work.
The day after playing a set at London’s Wireless Festival this month, a dapper, youthful Moroder – his moustache downsized and whiter than in its handlebar heyday, but still presiding over a mischievous smile – sat down with a fizzy water in a hotel bar to discuss the evolution of dance music, the trials involved in working with stars in 2014 and why he has only now started to visit nightclubs.
Considering that Daft Punk’s “Giorgio by Moroder” sets an interview about your life to new music, is it weird to have been thrust back into the spotlight by your own history?
Yeah, well I was quite emotional when I heard it. The guys told me a year before in Paris to tell my story, and I was just blabbering and blabbering for two hours, and I didn’t have any idea what they’d do with it. I thought maybe they’d cut up some words and make some effects. When they played it to me, I loved it. It was emotional because the music too is like the transition from disco into all the different styles [I’ve done].
As I understand, before this, you had been playing a lot of golf –
Was it that no one had approached you to do music?
First of all, six or seven years ago, DJ-ing was not a great job to do, so I thought to myself, “No no, I’m a composer; I’m a producer. I’m not the guy who puts the records on.” But then, Kim Jones, the designer, wanted me to write 12 minutes [to soundtrack a Louis Vuitton fashion show]. I said, “This is quite easy, actually. I just play my songs!” And then I did a little bit of a DJ [set], which was a bit of a mess, in Cannes for Elton John. Then the Red Bull Academy asked if I could talk to the students about music and said, “How about if we do a disco evening?” And I said, “Great!” That was the same day when Daft Punk came out – the 21st of May last year, and from there I went to Japan, Sweden, Mexico, around the world.
People know me a little bit, and the young kids go on the Internet, listen to the songs. They want to hear “What is the guy doing?” Sometimes I have three generations: young guys, 18-20, then the 40-year-olds, then the older ones who grew up with my music. Yesterday we had only young kids, and some knew every word of the hits like “Hot Stuff,” “Take My Breath Away.”
Are you playing updated versions of your hits?
Yeah, I have a good remix of a song which I kind of forgot, Japan’s “Life in Tokyo.” I have a remix of “I Feel Love,” ’cause the original is by far too slow today. The remix I did is not 128 [beats per minute], but it’s still faster.
Do you have a sense of why dance music is faster now?
Well, I could ask, why are the movies now so fast-paced? And the videos are incredible – they got faster and faster, so I guess attention spans are getting shorter. Steven Spielberg has a formula which says, every seven minutes, something big has to happen. And Adrian Lyne came in with “Flashdance,” and he cut it almost like a video. The songs I write are always the same: You cannot really cut a song too much, but now for the DJ-ing, I just do two and a half minutes of songs, because I think, “People want to hear the next one.” That’s one of the reasons why EDM works so well. Dr. Luke, I think, said that he wants a change of sound or tracks every eight bars, while the traditional way is to have an intro, like, eight bars, and then a verse, 16, and then the chorus, and that’s 32 — but with EDM, you have all that very staccato stuff.
You’ve mentioned before that you find some EDM disjointed. Is that what you’re referring to?
If you talk musically in the bigger sense, [EDM songs] are not that great. I can tell you a very good example: I recorded a song about a month ago with a relatively famous act, so I gave her the tracks, and so she said, “OK, give me the first eight bars,” which was kind of the verse, so she sang it, then she said, “OK, now give me the 16 bars or whatever of the chorus,” so she learned it and sang it. She did it piece by piece – in her mind, I don’t know if she really heard the verse going into the chorus. She would end the verse up there [Moroder sings a note], and then start the chorus at the same level. I know I can – I don’t say the word “repair,” but that one’s relatively easy because I just add a harmony on top, so instead of continuing flat, the background goes up.
The way the guys in EDM compose is totally different from the traditional way. Now they have three studios ready – three producers, three composers, and it’s almost a selection: You give me three mixes, and I say, “OK, I want this part, which is great, and this, and this.” That’s why some EDM songs are so catchy, because there are no rules. Every section is a little bit of a hit, although it’s not really joined that well, but it sounds good. I think that the tendency now is going more to the analog way, where you have songs with verse, chorus, bridge …
Nowadays when you work with artists, do they say, “I want this to sound like such-and-such a song you’ve already done?”
I don’t really know exactly what they want because most of the time it’s their manager who talks to my manager. Right now, to have direct contact with an act is almost impossible. Every act is so protected . … Maybe they want a little disco influence. The great thing was that Daft Punk really revived disco with “Get Lucky,” where they have electric drums with bass and real drums – that’s what people want, and that’s what I do.
Trent Reznor asked you to remix a Nine Inch Nails song …
He asked me about six months [ago] if I wanted to do a remix, but then I was listening to the song, and I said, “It’s so well done – what would I add?” Trent is a genius; he doesn’t need me to improve his stuff, and to be honest, I was a little scared. If the original is so good, the guy who does the remix has to be a genius to make it better.
A lot of people would say that you’re a genius.
Oh yeah, that’s true! [laughs]. But I would really have to work hard even to change [the song] – and then with him you would never know how much can you change or how much he wants the original. With Coldplay [on a remix of “Midnight”], I had one version which was good but they said, “No, we need a little more Moroder,” whatever that is, so I went back in the studio and they loved it. For the first time, they said, all four guys even listened to a remix. Because those big groups, they couldn’t care less about remixes.
And adding the strings and all those layers – it’s almost a trademark. Your productions sound really expensive. You also helped design a sports car and a cognac bottle – is that the Moroder brand, to make something luxurious?
With computers today [laughs] … This would be absolutely expensive if I had used real strings! I noticed lately the luxury sound doesn’t work in the discotheques as a DJ, because you have to have great drums, great bass, and the voice, of course, and the rest is not that important. For example the “Midnight” remix doesn’t sound really good [in a club] because everything is so loud, and when the strings come in, you lose the bass and you lose the drums – you lose a little bit of that tempo feel. If I’m thinking to play that song more often, I would do a remix of my remix.
As far as your own work goes, it’s been reported that you’re going to be working with Lana Del Rey.
I don’t know. She is such a lovely girl, and first of all, I think she works like crazy. She’s on tour now in Europe somewhere. If there’s a chance to meet in the same city one day, we’ll do something. I love what she’s doing. She has her style, which is so unique. I think she’s darker than me in terms of lyrics – I don’t understand them, but I’ve read that her lyrics are really down, right? Whatever lyrics are good, I like, but the sounds – I don’t think they are that dark. Obviously she has a lot of strings, and a lot of delay and echoes … I don’t have a clue what I would do, but I don’t know if it’s going to happen; if it is, I’m going to be happy.
I understand you’ve been recording with Kelis?
Am I? There are so many rumors out – oh God! I’m supposed to do Madonna. I don’t have a clue who came up with that! And unfortunately nobody has [put out] a rumor of Rihanna, which I really would like, but it’s still all the names you hear or read – some may have a little bit of truth; some have nothing at all, so it’s all in the air. But from what I sense [my new album] is going to be good. Ideally it would have one or two big names, then maybe three or four good but not “top,” then some young, new guys – even groups of people who don’t sell a record but who are really into the new music, new – not experimental but unusual new stuff.
In the meantime, you’re out on the road. There was so much hedonism in the disco lifestyle back in the ’70s; do you find a big difference in atmosphere between dance clubs then and now?
I think the main thing is the DJ. I was at Studio 54 only once or twice, and the DJ would just play his songs. Now if you go to a club, the DJ is up there building up the audience, and especially at festivals, the DJ is an act. I saw Mixmaster Mike – that guy was mixing from one track to the other in a matter of seconds, and I thought, “a genius!” Then after, I said, “How on Earth do you remember the probably 2000 pieces you did in an hour and a half?” He said, “I have a memory like a computer. You play me two bars of a song and I tell you.” That’s an art. I think the difference is now that the DJ is the animator of the evening instead of just putting records on.
It sounds like the disco era was fun in a different way.
Yeah, although don’t ask me because I never went to discos anyway.
No, in Munich [where Moroder lived for most of the 1970s] I went from time to time – whenever I had a new song, I would give it to a friend of mine who was a DJ, and he would play it and I would see the reaction. If everybody would leave the dance floor, that was a sign that I should throw it away. There’s a club now called Giorgio’s in Los Angeles; we go because it’s [run by] a friend of ours; I stay 10 minutes and [my wife] dances all through the night.
So basically you manage to make records that thousands of people would dance to without going to dance clubs at all.
Yeah, because I cannot dance. That’s why I don’t go to discos, because I’m embarrassed! The so-called disco king comes in and doesn’t know – [laughs] So I cannot tell you what happened – I know from reading what’s going on. But it’s quite different from what I remember. Now you have the DJ who is really in charge.
Update: A YouPorn.com spokesperson said that the website was “completely unaware that AddThis contained a tracking software that had the potential to jeopardize the privacy of our users.” After this article was published, YouPorn removed AddThis technology from its website.
This story was co-published with Mashable.
A new, extremely persistent type of online tracking is shadowing visitors to thousands of top websites, from WhiteHouse.gov to YouPorn.com.
First documented in a forthcoming paper by researchers at Princeton University and KU Leuven University in Belgium, this type of tracking, called canvas fingerprinting, works by instructing the visitor’s Web browser to draw a hidden image. Because each computer draws the image slightly differently, the images can be used to assign each user’s device a number that uniquely identifies it.
Canvas Fingerprinting in Action
Watch your browser generate a unique fingerprint image. This is for informational purposes only and no fingerprint information is sent to ProPublica. (Mike Tigas, ProPublica)
Like other tracking tools, canvas fingerprints are used to build profiles of users based on the websites they visit — profiles that shape which ads, news articles, or other types of content are displayed to them.
But fingerprints are unusually hard to block: They can’t be prevented by using standard Web browser privacy settings or using anti-tracking tools such as AdBlock Plus.
The researchers found canvas fingerprinting computer code, primarily written by a company called AddThis, on 5 percent of the top 100,000 websites. Most of the code was on websites that use AddThis’ social media sharing tools. Other fingerprinters include the German digital marketer Ligatus and the Canadian dating site Plentyoffish. (A list of all the websites on which researchers found the code is here).
Rich Harris, chief executive of AddThis, said that the company began testing canvas fingerprinting earlier this year as a possible way to replace “cookies,” the traditional way that users are tracked, via text files installed on their computers.
“We’re looking for a cookie alternative,” Harris said in an interview.
Harris said the company considered the privacy implications of canvas fingerprinting before launching the test, but decided “this is well within the rules and regulations and laws and policies that we have.”
He added that the company has only used the data collected from canvas fingerprints for internal research and development. The company won’t use the data for ad targeting or personalization if users install the AddThis opt-out cookie on their computers, he said.
Arvind Narayanan, the computer science professor who led the Princeton research team, countered that forcing users to take AddThis at its word about how their data will be used, is “not the best privacy assurance.”
Device fingerprints rely on the fact that every computer is slightly different: Each contains different fonts, different software, different clock settings and other distinctive features. Computers automatically broadcast some of their attributes when they connect to another computer over the Internet.
Tracking companies have long sought to use those differences to uniquely identify devices for online advertising purposes, particularly as Web users are increasingly using ad-blocking software and deleting cookies.
In May 2012, researchers at the University of California, San Diego, noticed that a Web programming feature called “canvas” could allow for a new type of fingerprint — by pulling in different attributes than a typical device fingerprint.
How You Can Try to Thwart Canvas Fingerprinting
- Use the Tor browser (Warning: can be slow)
- Try the experimental browser extension Chameleon that is designed to block fingerprinting (Warning: only recommended for tech-savvy users at this point)
- Install opt-out cookies from known fingerprinters such as AddThis (Warning: fingerprint will likely still be collected, companies simply pledge not to use the data for ad targeting or personalization)
In June, the Tor Project added a feature to its privacy-protecting Web browser to notify users when a website attempts to use the canvas feature and sends a blank canvas image. But other Web browsers did not add notifications for canvas fingerprinting.
A year later, Russian programmer Valentin Vasilyev noticed the study and added a canvas feature to freely available fingerprint code that he had posted on the Internet. The code was immediately popular.
But Vasilyev said that the company he was working for at the time decided against using the fingerprint technology. “We collected several million fingerprints but we decided against using them because accuracy was 90 percent,” he said, “and many of our customers were on mobile and the fingerprinting doesn’t work well on mobile.”
Vasilyev added that he wasn’t worried about the privacy concerns of fingerprinting. “The fingerprint itself is a number which in no way is related to a personality,” he said.
AddThis improved upon Vasilyev’s code by adding new tests and using the canvas to draw a pangram “Cwm fjordbank glyphs vext quiz” — a sentence that uses every letter of the alphabet at least once. This allows the company to capture slight variations in how each letter is displayed.
AddThis said it rolled out the feature to a small portion of the 13 million websites on which its technology appears, but is considering ending its test soon. “It’s not uniquely identifying enough,” Harris said.
AddThis did not notify the websites on which the code was placed because “we conduct R&D projects in live environments to get the best results from testing,” according to a spokeswoman.
She added that the company does not use any of the data it collects — whether from canvas fingerprints or traditional cookie-based tracking — from government websites including WhiteHouse.gov for ad targeting or personalization.
The company offered no such assurances about data it routinely collects from visitors to other sites, such as YouPorn.com. YouPorn.com did not respond to inquiries from ProPublica about whether it was aware of AddThis’ test of canvas fingerprinting on its website.
It’s not just David Byrne and Radiohead: Spotify, Pandora and how streaming music kills jazz and classical
After years in which tech-company hype has drowned out most other voices, the frustration of musicians with the digital music world has begun to get a hearing. We know now that many rockers don’t like it. Less discussed so far is the trouble jazz and classical musicians — and their fans — have with music streaming, which is being hailed as the “savior” of the music business.
But between low royalties, opaque payout rates, declining record sales and suspicion that the major labels have cut deals with the streamers that leave musicians out of the equation, anger from the music business’s artier edges is slowing growing. It’s further proof of the lie of the “long tail.” The shift to digital is also helping to isolate these already marginalized genres: It has a decisive effect on what listeners can find, and on whether or not an artist can earn a living from his work. (Music streaming, in all genres, is up 42 percent for the first half of this year, according to Nielsen SoundScan, against the first half of 2013. Over the same period, CD sales fell 19.6 percent, and downloads, the industry’s previous savior, were down 11.6 percent.)
Only a very few classical artists have been outspoken on the issue so far: San-Francisco-based Zoe Keating — a tech-savvy, DIY, Amanda Palmer of the cello — has blown the whistle on the tiny amounts the streaming services pay musicians. Though she’s exactly the kind of artist who should be cashing in on streaming, since she releases her own music, tours relentlessly, and has developed a strong following since her days with rock band Rasputina, only 8 percent of her last year’s earnings from recorded music came from streaming. The iTunes store, which pays out in small amounts since most purchases are for 99 cent songs, paid her about six times what she earned from streaming. (More than 400,000 Spotify streams earned her $1,764; almost 2 million YouTube views generated $1,248.)
For jazz and classical players without Keating’s entrepreneurial energy or larger cult following, the numbers are even bleaker. “It feels awful,” says Christina Courtin, a Julliard-trained violinist who plays in classical groups and has put out albums on the Nonesuch and Hundred Pockets labels. “I don’t count on that as a way to make money — I don’t see how it makes sense for a musician. It’s pretty dark — no one’s selling as much as they were even five years ago.”
Some artists remember a very different world. “I used to sell CDs of my music,” says Richard Danielpour, a celebrated American composer who has written an opera with Toni Morrison and once had an exclusive recording contract with Sony Classical. “And now we get nothing.”
It’s not just streaming, but the larger digital era that’s burying record stores, radio and recordings – and it’s hitting jazz and classical musicians especially hard. For some young musicians launching their careers, the “exposure” they get on Pandora or YouTube brings them employment or a fan base somewhere down the line. But many wait in vain. And like their counterparts in the pop world, musicians typically cannot opt out of streaming and the rest of the new world.
“One of the big reasons musicians kept control of their publishing was for the possibility that at least we would be paid when those songs were played in media outlets,” says jazz pianist Jason Moran, currently the jazz advisor for the Kennedy Center. “Back in the day, Fats Waller, and tons of other artists were robbed of their publishing. This is the new version of it, but on a much more wider scale.”
In some ways, the trouble in these genres resembles the problems experienced by any non-superstar musicians. Royalties on steaming services, for instance, are notoriously low. “All of my colleagues — composers and arrangers — are seeing huge cuts in their earnings,” says Paul Chihara, a veteran composer who until recently headed UCLA’s film-music program. “In effect, we’re not getting royalties. It’s almost amusing some of the royalty checks I get.” One of the last checks he got was for $29. “And it bounced.”
The pain is especially acute for indie musicians. While some jazz and classical labels are owned by one of the three majors — Blue Note and Deutsche Grammophon, for example, are now part of the Universal Music Group — the vast majority of musicians record for independent labels. And the indies have been largely left out of the sweet deals struck with the streamers. Most of those deals are opaque; the informed speculation says that these arrangement are not good for musicians, especially those not on the few remaining majors.
“Musicians in niche categories need to be fearful of the agreements that labels are signing with streaming services,” says music historian Ted Gioia, who has also recorded as a jazz pianist. Some of these deals, he suspects, allow the steamers to pay nothing at all to some artists, including most who record jazz and classical music. “The record labels could make a case that they don’t need to share royalties with artists whose sales don’t cross a certain threshold. If you’re Lady Gaga or Justin Bieber, you have no problem. But otherwise, you would get no royalties. The nature of these deals are that the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.”
Labels that own substantial back catalog — old Pink Floyd and Eagles albums, and earlier music that no longer require royalty payments to musicians — have likely cut much better deals than labels that primarily put out new music, especially those in non-pop genres. Says Gioia: “I suspect we’d find agreements where the labels say, [to the streamers], ‘You can have our whole catalog for $5 million, plus you pay us a fraction of a penny for any song that streams more than a million times.’” You don’t have to be a conspiracy theorist to think this way: The major labels have a number of weaselly little tricks like this one, sometimes called a “digital breakage,” in which musicians get nothing.
Moran compares the appearance of Spotify on the scene to the arrival of Wal-Mart to an American small-town: The new model undercuts the existing ones, and helps put smaller, independent stores out of business.
Indie labels are equally vulnerable. Pi Recordings is a jazz label that puts out recordings by the cream of the avant-garde, including Henry Threadgill, Marc Ribot and Rudresh Mahanthappa. It’s been described as one of the rare success stories in a dark time. But Yulun Wang, who co-runs the label, is not sure how they can stand up against the streaming onslaught.
“You have the guy who buys 20 jazz records a year — $300 a year,” Wang says. “He might buy one or two of our albums. If I convert that guy to Spotify – he’s now getting all-you-can-eat for $120. And the proportion that comes to me is literally pennies. That’s when it over. That’s will force labels like ours to either change the way we do things significantly.”
The digital enthusiasts say that labels need to “adjust” to the new world – by taking a piece of musicians’ touring, or cutting “360 deals” in which they get part of every strand of an artist’s revenue stream. But for jazz artists, touring outside New York and a few other cities does not yield much. “If I take 15 percent of someone making $30,000, it’s just less money in their pocket.” At a certain point, the artist can no longer pay the rent. “That’s when it’s game over.”
But it’s not just a problem of scale. There are distinctive qualities to jazz and classical music that make it a difficult fit to the digital world as it now exists, and that punish musicians and curious fans alike. To Jean Cook, a new-music violinist, onetime Mekon, and director of programs for the Future Musical Coalition, it further marginalizes these already peripheral styles, creating what she calls “invisible genres.”
It doesn’t matter if it’s Spotify, Pandora, iTunes, or Beats Music, she says. “Any music service that’s serving pop and classical music will not serve classical music well.” The problem is the nature of classical music, and jazz as well, and the way they differ from pop music. They all make different use of metadata – a term most people associate with Edward Snowden’s NSA revelations, but which have a profound importance to streaming services. Put most simply: Classical music and jazz are such a mismatch for existing streaming services, it’s almost impossible to find stuff. Cook realized this when she got a recommendation from a music lover, and found herself falling down an online labyrinth trying to find it.
Here’s a good place to start: Say you’re looking for a bedrock recording, the Beethoven Piano Concertos, with titan Maurizio Pollini on piano. Who is the “artist” for this one? Is it the Berlin Philharmonic, or Claudio Abbado, who conducts them? Is it Pollini? Or is it Beethoven himself? If you can see the entire record jacket, you can see who the recording includes. Otherwise, you could find yourself guessing.
Or, if you want music written the Russian late romantic, do you want Rachmaninoff, or Rachmaninoff? Chances are, your service will have one but not the other. And what do you call the movements of a symphony or chamber piece? By their Roman numeral? Or by names like andante or scherzo?
“These services are built to serve the largest segments of the marketplace — pop, country and hip hop,” says Cook. None of these have this kind of complicated structure.
Jazz offers similar difficulties, she says. Say you want to find recordings by pianist Bill Evans. You can find a bunch of them — but nothing linking him to “Kind of Blue,” perhaps the most important (and, in vinyl and CD form, certainly the bestselling) recording he was ever a part of. Evans shaped that album profoundly. You won’t find John Coltrane — another key voice on that session — there either, since it’s a Miles Davis record.
“Listing sidemen is something that is just not built into the architecture,” says Cook. It’s not a small problem. “I can’t think of a single example of a jazz musician who was not a sideman at one point in their career. We’re talking about a significant portion of jazz history that can’t get out.” It also makes you wonder — what are the chances that sidemen, or their heirs, get paid when things are streamed? And what do potential music consumers do when they can’t find what they’re looking for?
There used to be a solution to this. “Go back to the days of record stores,” says Gioia, “and customers could learn a lot from browsing the racks, or asking the serious music fans who worked there.” (Classical record stores, then and now, tended to have their recordings organized by composer rather than group.) The algorithms for specialized genres — classical, reggae, acoustic blues, Brazilian music —are hopeless, he says.
“These days, you have to know exactly what you’re looking for. If you want something by Beyonce or Miley Cyrus, it’s not hard. If you’re interested in niche music, you can be in the position of not knowing what’s out there. I still find myself missing important releases by musicians I care about. Streaming provides access to millions of hours of music, but it’s easy to get lost in it.”
If dedicated fans like Cook and Gioia have these problems, what will happen to the casual or new fans that every genre needs in order to stay alive? They’ll simply drift away to the stuff that’s being beamed at them by advertisers around the clock.
Even some of those frightened and demoralized by the digital transition think things can be improved for jazz and classical music.
So far, Wang’s solution has been to drop out. It’s nearly impossible for artists to withdraw, but as a label head, he can pull all of Pi’s music off Spotify. After three or four months on the service, two years back, he received a royalty statement of about $25 for all of it, and decided it just wasn’t worth it.
“What we found when we got out of Spotify — after these dire warnings — was that our sales went up; they absolutely jumped.”
He’s very familiar with the pressure to give art away. “We were always told you need to get as many audiences as possible … With the exposure argument, you’re told, ‘You could become the next Lady Gaga!’ It’s like playing Lotto — buy dollar tickets, and you could hit it big. In jazz, keep buying dollar tickets so you can win a dollar fifty.”
Cook sees the poor fit of these genres to streaming services as part of a larger phenomenon: Their radio playlists don’t show up in Billboard, their ticket receipts and album sales are often not reported to SoundScan and PollStar, and their awards on the Grammys are rarely televised. “This affects the visibility of jazz and classical music, and the way they are viewed by the rest of the industry.”
Part of a solution involves getting the data straight. “There is no database that tells you who played on what recording, and who wrote each song. ASCAP has one piece of the puzzle; iTunes has another. If you’ve got a music service, you need this, because you need to know who to pay. You need to tell listeners who they’re listening too. And if it’s not consistent, it’s not searchable.”
She wonders how it happens, though, even with open-source software that makes it easier. “The classical community needs to say, ‘This is a good index, instead of the crap the record labels are sending you. It requires a coordinated effort by a lot of different parties.”
Composer Danielpour says that classical people should not give up on recording work and trying to get on the radio. “Even though radio is a mid-20th century medium, for classical music it’s still a powerful source of revenue,” especially in Europe, where royalties are typically better. He recently returned from a trip to St. Petersburg, Russia. “For European and Russian audiences, classical music is religion. For us in America, it’s entertainment.”
Gioia, a former businessman, is pragmatic and forward looking. “My view is that the only solution for this, that is equitable for everyone, is for the music labels, in partnership with the artists, to control their own streaming,” says Gioia. “They need to bypass Silicon Valley.
“They need to work together with a new model, to control distribution and not rely on Apple, Amazon and everyone else. The music industry has always hated technology — they hated radio when it came out — and have always dragged their feet. They need to embrace technology and do it better.”
Scott Timberg, a longtime arts reporter in Los Angeles who has contributed to the New York Times, runs the blog Culture Crash. His book, “Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class” comes out in January. Follow him on Twitter at @TheMisreadCity
by Maria Popova
“The cutting of the gem has to be finished before you can see whether it shines.”
Canadian singer-songwriter, poet, and novelist Leonard Cohen (b. September 21, 1934) is among the most exhilarating creative spirits of the past century. Recipient of the prestigious Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award and countless other accolades, and an ordained Rinzai Buddhist monk, his music has extended popular song into the realm of poetry, even philosophy. By the time Bob Dylan rose to fame, Cohen already had several volumes of poetry and two novels under his belt, including the critically acclaimed Beautiful Losers, which famously led Allen Ginsberg to remark that “Dylan blew everybody’s mind, except Leonard’s.” Once he turned to songwriting in the late 1960s, the world of music was forever changed.
From Paul Zollo’s impressive interview compendium Songwriters on Songwriting (public library) — which also gave us Pete Seeger on originality, Bob Dylan on sacrifice and the unconscious mind, and Carole King on perspiration vs. inspiration — comes a spectacular and wide-ranging 1992 conversation with Cohen, who begins by considering the purpose of music in human life:
There are always meaningful songs for somebody. People are doing their courting, people are finding their wives, people are making babies, people are washing their dishes, people are getting through the day, with songs that we may find insignificant. But their significance is affirmed by others. There’s always someone affirming the significance of a song by taking a woman into his arms or by getting through the night. That’s what dignifies the song. Songs don’t dignify human activity. Human activity dignifies the song.
Cohen approaches his work with extraordinary doggedness reflecting the notion that work ethic supersedes what we call “inspiration” — something articulated by such acclaimed and diverse creators as the celebrated composer Tchaikovsky (“A self-respecting artist must not fold his hands on the pretext that he is not in the mood.”), novelist Isabel Allende (“Show up, show up, show up, and after a while the muse shows up, too.”), painter Chuck Close (Inspiration is for amateurs — the rest of us just show up and get to work.”), beloved author E.B. White (“A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper.”), Victorian novelist Anthony Trollope (“My belief of book writing is much the same as my belief as to shoemaking. The man who will work the hardest at it, and will work with the most honest purpose, will work the best.”), and designer Massimo Vignelli (“There is no design without discipline.”). Cohen tells Zollo:
I’m writing all the time. And as the songs begin to coalesce, I’m not doing anything else but writing. I wish I were one of those people who wrote songs quickly. But I’m not. So it takes me a great deal of time to find out what the song is. So I’m working most of the time.
To find a song that I can sing, to engage my interest, to penetrate my boredom with myself and my disinterest in my own opinions, to penetrate those barriers, the song has to speak to me with a certain urgency.
To be able to find that song that I can be interested in takes many versions and it takes a lot of uncovering.
My immediate realm of thought is bureaucratic and like a traffic jam. My ordinary state of mind is very much like the waiting room at the DMV… So to penetrate this chattering and this meaningless debate that is occupying most of my attention, I have to come up with something that really speaks to my deepest interests. Otherwise I nod off in one way or another. So to find that song, that urgent song, takes a lot of versions and a lot of work and a lot of sweat.
But why shouldn’t my work be hard? Almost everybody’s work is hard. One is distracted by this notion that there is such a thing as inspiration, that it comes fast and easy. And some people are graced by that style. I’m not. So I have to work as hard as any stiff, to come up with my payload.
He later adds:
Freedom and restriction are just luxurious terms to one who is locked in a dungeon in the tower of song. These are just … ideas. I don’t have the sense of restriction or freedom. I just have the sense of work. I have the sense of hard labor.
It has a certain nourishment. The mental physique is muscular. That gives you a certain stride as you walk along the dismal landscape of your inner thoughts. You have a certain kind of tone to your activity. But most of the time it doesn’t help. It’s just hard work.
But I think unemployment is the great affliction of man. Even people with jobs are unemployed. In fact, most people with jobs are unemployed. I can say, happily and gratefully, that I am fully employed. Maybe all hard work means is fully employed.
Cohen further illustrates the point that ideas don’t simply appear to him with a charming anecdote, citing a writer friend of his who once said that Cohen’s mind “is unpolluted by a single idea,” which he took as a great compliment. Instead, he stresses the value of iteration and notes that his work consists of “just versions.” When Zollo asks whether each song begins with a lyrical idea, Cohen answers with lyrical defiance:
[Writing] begins with an appetite to discover my self-respect. To redeem the day. So the day does not go down in debt. It begins with that kind of appetite.
Cohen addresses the question of where good ideas come from with charming irreverence, producing the now-legendary line that Paul Holdengräber quoted in his conversation with David Lynch on creativity. Cohen echoes T.S. Eliot’s thoughts on the mystical quality of creativity and tells Zollo:
If I knew where the good songs came from, I’d go there more often. It’s a mysterious condition. It’s much like the life of a Catholic nun. You’re married to a mystery.
But Cohen’s most moving insights on songwriting transcend the specificity of the craft and extend to the universals of life. Addressing Zollo’s astonishment at the fact that Cohen has discarded entire finished song verses, he reflects on the necessary stick-to-itiveness of the creative process — this notion that before we quit, we have to have invested all of ourselves in order for the full picture to reveal itself and justify the quitting, which applies equally to everything from work to love:
Before I can discard the verse, I have to write it… I can’t discard a verse before it is written because it is the writing of the verse that produces whatever delights or interests or facets that are going to catch the light. The cutting of the gem has to be finished before you can see whether it shines.
Cohen returns to the notion of hard work almost as an existential imperative:
I always used to work hard. But I had no idea what hard work was until something changed in my mind… I don’t really know what it was. Maybe some sense that this whole enterprise is limited, that there was an end in sight… That you were really truly mortal.
Considering his ongoing interest in the process itself rather than the outcome, Cohen makes a beautiful case for the art of self-renewal by exploring the deeper rewards and gratifications that have kept him going for half a century:
It [has] to do with two things. One is economic urgency. I just never made enough money to say, “Oh, man, I think I’m gonna get a yacht now and scuba-dive.” I never had those kinds of funds available to me to make radical decisions about what I might do in life. Besides that, I was trained in what later became known as the Montreal School of Poetry. Before there were prizes, before there were grants, before there were even girls who cared about what I did. We would meet, a loosely defined group of people. There were no prizes, as I said, no rewards other than the work itself. We would read each other poems. We were passionately involved with poems and our lives were involved with this occupation…
We had in our minds the examples of poets who continued to work their whole lives. There was never any sense of a raid on the marketplace, that you should come up with a hit and get out. That kind of sensibility simply did not take root in my mind until very recently…
So I always had the sense of being in this for keeps, if your health lasts you. And you’re fortunate enough to have the days at your disposal so you can keep on doing this. I never had the sense that there was an end. That there was a retirement or that there was a jackpot.
Songwriters on Songwriting is a treasure trove of wisdom from cover to cover, featuring Zollo’s conversations with such icons as Suzanne Vega, k.d. lang, David Byrne, and Neil Young.
Photo Credit: The Real News Network
NOAM CHOMSKY, LINGUIST AND POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, I think we can draw many very good lessons from the early period of the Industrial Revolution. It was, of course, earlier in England, but let’s take here in the United States. The Industrial Revolution took off right around here, eastern Massachusetts, mid 19th century. This was a period when independent farmers were being driven into the industrial system–men and women, incidentally, women from the farms, so-called factory girls–and they bitterly resented it. It was a period of a very free press, the most in the history of the country. There was a wide variety of journals, ethnic, labor, or others. And when you read them, they’re pretty fascinating.
The people driven into the industrial system regarded it as an attack on their personal dignity, on their rights as human beings. They were free human beings who were being forced into what they called wage slavery, which they regarded as not very different from chattel slavery. In fact, this was such a popular view that it was actually a slogan of the Republican Party, that the only difference between working for a wage and being a slave is that working for a wage is supposedly temporary–pretty soon you’ll be free. Other than that, they’re not different.
And they bitterly resented the fact that the industrial system was even taking away their rich cultural life. And the cultural life was rich. You know, there are by now studies of the British working class and the American working class, and they were part of high culture of the day. Actually, I remembered this as late as the 1930s with my own family, you know, sort of unemployed working-class, and they said, this is being taken away from us, we’re being forced to be something like slaves. They argued that if you’re, say, a journeyman, a craftsman, and you sell your product, you’re selling what you produced. If you’re a wage earner, you’re selling yourself, which is deeply offensive. They condemned what they called the new spirit of the age: gain wealth, forgetting all but self. Sounds familiar.
And it was extremely radical. It was combined with the most radical democratic movement in American history, the early populist movement–radical farmers. It began in Texas, spread into the Midwest–enormous movement of farmers who wanted to free themselves from the domination by the Northeastern bankers and capitalists, guys that ran the markets, you know, sort of forced them to sell what they produced on credit and squeeze them with credit and so on. They went on to develop their own banks, their own cooperatives. They started to link up with the Knights of Labor–major labor movement which held that, as they put it, those who work in the mills ought to own them, that it should be a free, democratic society.
These were very powerful movements. By the 1890s, you know, workers were taking over towns and running them in Western Pennsylvania. Homestead was a famous case. Well, they were crushed by force. It took some time. Sort of the final blow was Woodrow Wilson’s red scare right after the First World War, which virtually crushed the labor movement.
At the same time, in the early 19th century, the business world recognized, both in England and the United States, that sufficient freedom had been won so that they could no longer control people just by violence. They had to turn to new means of control. The obvious ones were control of opinions and attitudes. That’s the origins of the massive public relations industry, which is explicitly dedicated to controlling minds and attitudes.
The first–it partly was government. The first government commission was the British Ministry of Information. This is long before Orwell–he didn’t have to invent it. So the Ministry of Information had as its goal to control the minds of the people of the world, but particularly the minds of American intellectuals, for a very good reason: they knew that if they can delude American intellectuals into supporting British policy, they could be very effective in imposing that on the population of the United States. The British, of course, were desperate to get the Americans into the war with a pacifist population. Woodrow Wilson won the 1916 election with the slogan “Peace without Victory”. And they had to drive a pacifist population into a population that bitterly hated all things German, wanted to tear the Germans apart. The Boston Symphony Orchestra couldn’t play Beethoven. You know. And they succeeded.
Wilson set up a counterpart to the Ministry of Information called the Committee on Public Information. You know, again, you can guess what it was. And they’ve at least felt, probably correctly, that they had succeeded in carrying out this massive change of opinion on the part of the population and driving the pacifist population into, you know, warmongering fanatics.
And the people on the commission learned a lesson. One of them was Edward Bernays, who went on to found–the main guru of the public relations industry. Another one was Walter Lippman, who was the leading progressive intellectual of the 20th century. And they both drew the same lessons, and said so.
The lessons were that we have what Lippmann called a “new art” in democracy, “manufacturing consent”. That’s where Ed Herman and I took the phrase from. For Bernays it was “engineering of consent”. The conception was that the intelligent minority, who of course is us, have to make sure that we can run the affairs of public affairs, affairs of state, the economy, and so on. We’re the only ones capable of doing it, of course. And we have to be–I’m quoting–”free of the trampling and the roar of the bewildered herd”, the “ignorant and meddlesome outsiders”–the general public. They have a role. Their role is to be “spectators”, not participants. And every couple of years they’re permitted to choose among one of the “responsible men”, us.
And the John Dewey circle took the same view. Dewey changed his mind a couple of years later, to his credit, but at that time, Dewey and his circle were writing that–speaking of the First World War, that this was the first war in history that was not organized and manipulated by the military and the political figures and so on, but rather it was carefully planned by rational calculation of “the intelligent men of the community”, namely us, and we thought it through carefully and decided that this is the reasonable thing to do, for all kind of benevolent reasons.
And they were very proud of themselves.
There were people who disagreed. Like, Randolph Bourne disagreed. He was kicked out. He couldn’t write in the Deweyite journals. He wasn’t killed, you know, but he was just excluded.
And if you take a look around the world, it was pretty much the same. The intellectuals on all sides were passionately dedicated to the national cause–all sides, Germans, British, everywhere.
There were a few, a fringe of dissenters, like Bertrand Russell, who was in jail; Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg, in jail; Randolph Bourne, marginalized; Eugene Debs, in jail for daring to question the magnificence of the war. In fact, Wilson hated him with such passion that when he finally declared an amnesty, Debs was left out, you know, had to wait for Warren Harding to release him. And he was the leading labor figure in the country. He was a candidate for president, Socialist Party, and so on.
But the lesson that came out is we believe you can and of course ought to control the public, and if we can’t do it by force, we’ll do it by manufacturing consent, by engineering of consent. Out of that comes the huge public relations industry, massive industry dedicated to this.
Incidentally, it’s also dedicated to undermining markets, a fact that’s rarely noticed but is quite obvious. Business hates markets. They don’t want to–and you can see it very clearly. Markets, if you take an economics course, are based on rational, informed consumers making rational choices. Turn on the television set and look at the first ad you see. It’s trying to create uninformed consumers making irrational choices. That’s the whole point of the huge advertising industry. But also to try to control and manipulate thought. And it takes various forms in different institutions. The media do it one way, the academic institutions do it another way, and the educational system is a crucial part of it.
This is not a new observation. There’s actually an interesting essay by–Orwell’s, which is not very well known because it wasn’t published. It’s the introduction to Animal Farm. In the introduction, he addresses himself to the people of England and he says, you shouldn’t feel too self-righteous reading this satire of the totalitarian enemy, because in free England, ideas can be suppressed without the use of force. And he doesn’t say much about it. He actually has two sentences. He says one reason is the press “is owned by wealthy men” who have every reason not to want certain ideas to be expressed.
But the second reason, and the more important one in my view, is a good education, so that if you’ve gone to all the good schools, you know, Oxford, Cambridge, and so on, you have instilled into you the understanding that there are certain things it wouldn’t do to say–and I don’t think he went far enough: wouldn’t do to think. And that’s very broad among the educated classes. That’s why overwhelmingly they tend to support state power and state violence, and maybe with some qualifications, like, say, Obama is regarded as a critic of the invasion of Iraq. Why? Because he thought it was a strategic blunder. That puts him on the same moral level as some Nazi general who thought that the second front was a strategic blunder–you should knock off England first. That’s called criticism.
And sometimes it’s kind of outlandish. For example, there was just a review in The New York Times Book Review of Glenn Greenwald’s new book by Michael Kinsley, and which bitterly condemned him as–mostly character assassination. Didn’t say anything substantive. But Kinsley did say that it’s ridiculous to think that there’s any repression in the media in the United States, ’cause we can write quite clearly and criticize anything. And he can, but then you have to look at what he says, and it’s quite interesting.
In the 1980s, when the major local news story was the massive U.S. atrocities in Central America–they were horrendous; I mean, it wasn’t presented that way, but that’s what was happening–Kinsley was the voice of the left on television. And there were interesting incidents. At one point, the U.S. Southern Command, which ran–you know, it was the overseer of these actions–gave instructions to the terrorist force that they were running in Nicaragua, called the Contras–and they were a terrorist force–they gave them orders to–they said “not to (…) duke it out with the Sandinistas”, meaning avoid the Nicaraguan army, and attack undefended targets like agricultural cooperatives and, you know, health clinics and so on. And they could do it, because they were the first guerrillas in history to have high-level communications equipment, you know, computers and so on. The U.S., the CIA, just controlled the air totally, so they could send instructions to the terrorist forces telling them how to avoid the Nicaraguan army detachments and attack undefended civilian targets.
Well, this was mentioned; you know, it wasn’t publicized, but it was mentioned. And Americas Watch, which later became part of Human Rights Watch, made some protests. And Michael Kinsley responded. He condemned Americas Watch for their emotionalism. He said, we have to recognize that we have to accept a pragmatic criterion. We have to ask–something like this–he said, we have to compare the amount of blood and misery poured in with the success of the outcome in producing democracy–what we’ll call democracy. And if it meets the pragmatic criterion, then terrorist attacks against civilian targets are perfectly legitimate–which is not a surprising view in his case. He’s the editor of The New Republic. The New Republic, supposedly a liberal journal, was arguing that we should support Latin American fascists because there are more important things than human rights in El Salvador, where they were murdering tens of thousands of people.
That’s the liberals. And, yeah, they can get in the media no problem. And they’re praised for it, regarded with praise. All of this is part of the massive system of–you know, it’s not that anybody sits at the top and plans at all; it’s just exactly as Orwell said: it’s instilled into you. It’s part of a deep indoctrination system which leads to a certain way of looking at the world and looking at authority, which says, yes, we have to be subordinate to authority, we have to believe we’re very independent and free and proud of it. As long as we keep within the limits, we are. Try to go beyond those limits, you’re out.
HEDGES: But that system, of course, is constant. But what’s changed is that we don’t produce anything anymore. So what we define as our working class is a service sector class working in places like Walmart. And the effective forms of resistance–the sitdown strikes, you know, going back even further in the middle of the 19th century with the women in Lowell–I think that was–the Wobblies were behind those textile strikes. What are the mechanisms now? And I know you have written, as many anarchists have done, about the importance of the working class controlling the means of production, taking control, and you have a great quote about how, you know, Lenin and the Bolsheviks are right-wing deviants, I think, was the–which is, of course, exactly right, because it was centralized control, destroying the Soviets. Given the fact that production has moved to places like Bangladesh or southern China, what is going to be the paradigm now? And given, as you point out, the powerful forces of propaganda–and you touched upon now the security and surveillance state. We are the most monitored, watched, photographed, eavesdropped population in human history. And you cannot even use the world liberty when you eviscerate privacy. That’s what totalitarian is. What is the road we take now, given the paradigm that we have, which is somewhat different from, you know, what this country was, certainly, in the first half of the 20th century?
NOAM CHOMSKY, LINGUIST AND POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: I think it’s pretty much the same, frankly. The idea still should be that of the Knights of Labor: those who work in the mills should own them. And there’s plenty of manufacturing going on in the country, and probably there will be more, for unpleasant reasons. One thing that’s happening right now which is quite interesting is that energy prices are going down in the United States because of the massive exploitation of fossil fuels, which is going to destroy our grandchildren, but under the, you know, capitalist morality, the calculus is that profits tomorrow outweigh the existence of your grandchildren. It’s institutionally-based, so, yes, we’re getting lower energy prices. And if you look at the business press, they’re, you know, very enthusiastic about the fact that we can undercut manufacturing in Europe because we’ll have lower energy prices, and therefore manufacturing will come back here, and we can even undermine European efforts at developing sustainable energy because we’ll have this advantage.
Britain is saying the same thing. I was just in England recently. As I left the airport, I read The Daily Telegraph, you know, I mean, newspaper. Big headline: England is going to begin fracking all of the country, even fracking under people’s homes without their permission. And that’ll allow us to destroy the environment even more quickly and will bring manufacturing back here.
The same is true with Asia. Manufacturing is moving back, to an extent, to Mexico, and even here, as wages increase in China, partly because of labor struggles. There’s massive labor struggles in China, huge, all over the place, and since we’re integrated with them, we can be supportive of them.
But manufacturing is coming back here. And both manufacturing and the service industries can move towards having those who do the work take over the management and ownership and control. In fact, it’s happening. In the old Rust Belt–you know, Indiana, Ohio, and so on–there’s a significant–not huge, but significant growth of worker-owned enterprises. They’re not huge, but they’re substantial around Cleveland and other places.
The background is interesting. In 1977, U.S. Steel, the, you know, multinational, decided to close down their mills in Youngstown, Ohio. Youngstown is a steel town, sort of built by the steelworkers, one of the main steel-producing areas. Well, the union tried to buy the plants from U.S. Steel. They objected–in my view, mostly on class lines. They might have even profited from it. But the idea of worker-owned industry doesn’t have much appeal to corporate leaders, which means bankers and so on. It went to the courts. Finally, the union lost in the courts. But with enough popular support, they could have won.
Well, the working class and the community did not give up. They couldn’t get the steel mills, but they began to develop small worker-owned enterprises. They’ve now spread throughout the region. They’re substantial. And it can happen more and more.
And the same thing happened in Walmarts. I mean, there’s massive efforts right now, significant ones, to organize the service workers–what they call associates–in the service industries. And these industries, remember, depend very heavily on taxpayer largess in all kinds of ways. I mean, for example, let’s take, say, Walmarts. They import goods produced in China, which are brought here on container ships which were designed and developed by the U.S. Navy. And point after point where you look, you find that the way the system–the system that we now have is one which is radically anticapitalist, radically so.
I mean, I mentioned one thing, the powerful effort to try to undermine markets for consumers, but there’s something much more striking. I mean, in a capitalist system, the basic principle is that, say, if you invest in something and, say, it’s a risky investment, so you put money into it for a long time, maybe decades, and finally after a long time something comes out that’s marketable for a profit, it’s supposed to go back to you. That’s not the way it works here. Take, say, computers, internet, lasers, microelectronics, containers, GPS, in fact the whole IT revolution. There was taxpayer investment in that for decades, literally decades, doing all the hard, creative, risky work. Does the taxpayer get any of the profit? None, because that’s not the way our system works. It’s radically anti-capitalist, just as it’s radically anti-democratic, opposed to markets, in favor of concentrating wealth and power.
But that doesn’t have to be accepted by the population. These are–all kinds of forms of resistance to this can be developed if people become aware of it.
HEDGES: Well, you could argue that in the election of 2008, Obama wasn’t accepted by the population. But what we see repeatedly is that once elected officials achieve power through, of course, corporate financing, the consent of the governed is a kind of cruel joke. It doesn’t, poll after poll. I mean, I sued Obama over the National Defense Authorization Act, in which you were coplaintiff, and the polling was 97 percent against this section of the NDAA. And yet the courts, which have become wholly owned subsidiaries of the corporate state, the elected officials, the executive branch, and the press, which largely ignored it–the only organ that responsibly covered the case was, ironically, The New York Times. We don’t have–it doesn’t matter what we want. It doesn’t–I mean, and I think, you know, that’s the question: how do we effect change when we have reached a point where we can no longer appeal to the traditional liberal institutions that, as Karl Popper said once, made incremental or piecemeal reform possible, to adjust the system–of course, to save capitalism? But now it can’t even adjust the system. You know, we see cutting welfare.
CHOMSKY: Yeah. I mean, it’s perfectly true that the population is mostly disenfranchised. In fact, that’s a leading theme even of academic political science. You take a look at the mainstream political science, so, for example, a recent paper that was just published out of Princeton by Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page, two of the leading analysts of these topics, what they point out is they went through a couple of thousand policy decisions and found what has long been known, that there was almost no–that the public attitudes had almost no effect. Public organizations that are–nonprofit organizations that are publicly based, no effect. The outcomes were determined by concentrated private power.
There’s a long record of that going way back. Thomas Ferguson, a political scientist near here, has shown very convincingly that something as simple as campaign spending is a very good predictor of policy. That goes back into the late 19th century, right through the New Deal, you know, right up till the present. And that’s only one element of it. And you take a look at the literature, about 70 percent of the population, what they believe has no effect on policy at all. You get a little more influence as you go up. When you get to the top, which is probably, like, a tenth of one percent, they basically write the legislation.
I mean, you see this all over. I mean, take these huge so-called trade agreements that are being negotiated, Trans-Pacific and Transatlantic–enormous agreements, kind of NAFTA-style agreements. They’re secret–almost. They’re not secret from the hundreds of corporate lawyers and lobbyists who are writing them. They know about it, which means that their bosses know about it. And the Obama administration and the press says, look, this has to be secret, otherwise we can’t defend our interests. Yeah, our interests means the interests of the corporate lawyers and lobbyists who are writing the legislation. Take the few pieces that have been leaked and you see that’s exactly what it is. Same with the others.
But it doesn’t mean you have to accept it. And there have been changes. So take, say–in the 1920s, the labor movement had been practically destroyed. There’s a famous book. One of the leading labor historians, David Montgomery, has a major book called something like The Fall of the House of Labor. He’s talking about the 1920s. It was done. There had been a very militant labor movement, very effective, farmers movement as well. Crushed in the 1920s. Almost nothing left. Well, in the 1930s it changed, and it changed because of popular activism.
HEDGES: But it also changed because of the breakdown of capitalism.
CHOMSKY: There was a circumstance that led to the opportunity to do something, but we’re living with that constantly. I mean, take the last 30 years. For the majority of the population it’s been stagnation or worse. That’s–it’s not exactly the deep Depression, but it’s kind of a permanent semi-depression for most of the population. That’s–there’s plenty of kindling out there which can be lighted.
And what happened in the ’30s is primarily CIO organizing, the militant actions like sit-down strikes. A sit-down strike’s very frightening. It’s a step before taking over the institution and saying, we don’t need the bosses. And that–there was a cooperative administration, Roosevelt administration, so there was some interaction. And significant legislation was passed–not radical, but significant, underestimated. And it happened again in the ’60s. It can happen again today. So I don’t think that one should abandon hope in chipping away at the more oppressive aspects of the society within the electoral system. But it’s only going to happen if there’s massive popular organization, which doesn’t have to stop at that. It can also be building the institutions of the future within the present society.
HEDGES: Would you say that the–you spoke about propaganda earlier and the Creel Commission and the rise of the public relations industry. The capacity to disseminate propaganda is something that now you virtually can’t escape it. I mean, it’s there in some electronic form, even in a hand-held device. Does that make that propaganda more effective?
CHOMSKY: Well, and it’s kind of an interesting question. Like a lot of people, I’ve written a lot about media and intellectual propaganda, but there’s another question which isn’t studied much: how effective is it? And that’s–when you brought up the polls, it’s a striking illustration. The propaganda is–you can see from the poll results that the propaganda has only limited effectiveness. I mean, it can drive a population into terror and fear and war hysteria, like before the Iraq invasion or 1917 and so on, but over time, public attitudes remain quite different. In fact, studies even of what’s called the right-wing, you know, people who say, get the government off my back, that kind of sector, they turn out to be kind of social democratic. They want more spending on health, more spending on education, more spending on, say, women with dependent children, but not welfare, no spending on welfare, because Reagan, who was an extreme racist, succeeded in demonizing the notion of welfare. So in people’s minds welfare means a rich black woman driving in her limousine to the welfare office to steal your money. Well, nobody wants that. But they want what welfare does.
Foreign aid is an interesting case. There’s an enormous propaganda against foreign aid, ’cause we’re giving everything to the undeserving people out there. You take a look at public attitudes. A lot of opposition to foreign aid. Very high. On the other hand, when you ask people, how much do we give in foreign aid? Way beyond what we give. When you ask what we should give in foreign aid, far above what we give.
And this runs across the board. Take, say taxes. There’ve been studies of attitudes towards taxes for 40 years. Overwhelmingly the population says taxes are much too low for the rich and the corporate sector. You’ve got to raise it. What happens? Well, the opposite.
It’s just exactly as Orwell said: it’s instilled into you. It’s part of a deep indoctrination system which leads to a certain way of looking at the world and looking at authority, which says, yes, we have to be subordinate to authority, we have to believe we’re very independent and free and proud of it. As long as we keep within the limits, we are. Try to go beyond those limits, you’re out.
HEDGES: Well, what was fascinating about–I mean, the point, just to buttress this point: when you took the major issues of the Occupy movement, they were a majoritarian movement. When you look back on the Occupy movement, what do you think its failings were, its importance were?
CHOMSKY: Well, I think it’s a little misleading to call it a movement. Occupy was a tactic, in fact a brilliant tactic. I mean, if I’d been asked a couple of months earlier whether they should take over public places, I would have said it’s crazy. But it worked extremely well, and it lit a spark which went all over the place. Hundreds and hundreds of places in the country, there were Occupy events. It was all over the world. I mean, I gave talks in Sydney, Australia, to the Occupy movement there. But it was a tactic, a very effective tactic. Changed public discourse, not policy. It brought issues to the forefront.
I think my own feeling is its most important contribution was just to break through the atomization of the society. I mean, it’s a very atomized society. There’s all sorts of efforts to separate people from one another, as if the ideal social unit is, you know, you and your TV set.
HEDGES: You know, Hannah Arendt raises atomization as one of the key components of totalitarianism.
CHOMSKY: Exactly. And the Occupy actions broke that down for a large part of the population. People could recognize that we can get together and do things for ourselves, we can have a common kitchen, we can have a place for public discourse, we can form our ideas and do something. Now, that’s an important attack on the core of the means by which the public is controlled. So you’re not just an individual trying to maximize your consumption, but there are other concerns in life, and you can do something about them. If those attitudes and associations and bonds can be sustained and move in other directions, that’ll be important.
But going back to Occupy, it’s a tactic. Tactics have a kind of a half-life. You can’t keep doing them, and certainly you can’t keep occupying public places for very long. And was very successful, but it was not in itself a movement. The question is: what happens to the people who were involved in it? Do they go on and develop, do they move into communities, pick up community issues? Do they organize?
Take, say, this business of, say, worker-owned industry. Right here in Massachusetts, not far from here, there was something similar. One of the multinationals decided to close down a fairly profitable small plant, which was producing aerospace equipment. High-skilled workers and so on, but it wasn’t profitable enough, so they were going to close it down. The union wanted to buy it. Company refused–usual class reasons, I think. If the Occupy efforts had been available at the time, they could have provided the public support for it.
This happened when Obama virtually nationalized the auto industry. There were choices. One choice was what he took, of course, was to rescue it, return it to essentially the same owners–different faces, but the same class basis–and send them back to doing what they had been doing in the past–producing automobiles. There were other choices, and if something like the Occupy movement had been around and sufficient, it could have driven the government into other choices, like, for example, turning the auto plants over to the working class and have them produce what the country needs.
I mean, we don’t need more cars. We need mass public transportation. The United States is an absolute scandal in this regard. I just came back from Europe–so you can see it dramatically. You get on a European train, you can go where you want to go in no time. Well, the train from Boston to New York, it may be, I don’t know, 20 minutes faster than when I took it 60 years ago. You go along the Connecticut Turnpike and the trucks are going faster than the train. Recently Japan offered the United States a low-interest loan to build high-speed rail from Washington to New York. It was turned down, of course. But what they were offering was to build the kind of train that I took in Japan 50 years ago. And this was a scandal all over the country.
Well, you know, a reconstituted auto industry could have turned in that direction under worker and community control. I don’t think these things are out of sight. And, incidentally, they even have so-called conservative support, because they’re within a broader what’s called capitalist framework (it’s not really capitalist). And those are directions that should be pressed.
Right now, for example, the Steelworkers union is trying to establish some kind of relations with Mondragon, the huge worker-owned conglomerate in the Basque country in Spain, which is very successful, in fact, and includes industry, manufacturing, banks, hospitals, living quarters. It’s very broad. It’s not impossible that that can be brought here, and it’s potentially radical. It’s creating the basis for quite a different society.
And I think with things like, say, Occupy, the timing wasn’t quite right. But if the timing had been a little better (and this goes on all the time, so it’s always possible), it could have provided a kind of an impetus to move significant parts of the socioeconomic system in a different direction. And once those things begin to take off and people can see the advantages of them, it can become quite significant.
There are kind of islands like that around the country. So take Chattanooga, Tennessee. It happens to have a publicly organized internet system. It’s by far the best in the country. Rapid internet access for broad parts of the population. I suspect the roots of it probably go back to the TVA and the New Deal initiatives. Well, if that can spread throughout the country (why not? it’s very efficient, very cheap, works very well), it could undermine the telecommunications industry and its oligopoly, which would be a very good thing. There are lots of possibilities like this.
HEDGES: I want to ask just two last questions. First, the fact that we have become a militarized society, something all of the predictions of the Anti-Imperialist League at the end of the 19th century, including Carnegie and Jane Addams–hard to think of them both in the same room. But you go back and read what they wrote, and they were right how militarized society has deformed us economically–Seymour Melman wrote about this quite well–and politically. And that is a hurdle that as we attempt to reform or reconfigure our society we have to cope with. And I wondered if you could address this military monstrosity that you have written about quite a bit.
CHOMSKY: Well, for one thing, the public doesn’t like it. What’s called isolationism or one or another bad word, as, you know, pacifism was, is just the public recognition that there’s something deeply wrong with our dedication to military force all over the world.
Now, of course, at the same time, the public is frightened into believing that we have to defend ourselves. And it’s not entirely false. Part of the military system is generating forces which will be harmful to us, say, Obama’s terrorist campaign, drone campaign, the biggest terrorist campaign in history. It’s generating potential terrorists faster than it’s killing suspects.
You can see it. It’s very striking what’s happening right now in Iraq. And the truth of the matter is very evident. Go back to the Nuremberg judgments. I’m not telling you anything you don’t know, but in Nuremberg aggression was defined as “the supreme international crime,” differing from other war crimes in that it includes, it encompasses all of the evil that follows. Well, the U.S.-British invasion of Iraq is a textbook case of aggression. By the standards of Nuremberg, they’d all be hanged. And one of the things it did, one of the crimes was to ignite a Sunni-Shiite conflict which hadn’t been going on. I mean, there was, you know, various kinds of tensions, but Iraqis didn’t believe there could ever be a conflict. They were intermarried, they lived in the same places, and so on. But the invasion set it off. Took off on its own. By now it’s inflaming the whole region. Now we’re at the point where Sunni jihadi forces are actually marching on Baghdad.
HEDGES: And the Iraqi army is collapsing.
CHOMSKY: The Iraqi army’s just giving away their arms. There obviously is a lot of collaboration going on.
And all of this is a U.S. crime if we believe in the validity of the judgments against the Nazis.
And it’s kind of interesting. Robert Jackson, the chief prosecutor, a U.S. justice, at the tribunal, addressed the tribunal, and he pointed out, as he put it, that we’re giving these defendants a “poisoned chalice”, and if we ever sip from it, we have to be treated the same way, or else the whole thing is a farce and we should recognize this as just victor’s justice.
HEDGES: But it’s not accidental that our security and surveillance apparatus is militarized. And you’re right, of course, that there is no broad popular support for this expanding military adventurism. And yet the question is if there is a serious effort to curtail their power and their budgets. They have mechanisms. And we even heard Nancy Pelosi echo this in terms of how they play dirty. I mean, they are monitoring all the elected officials as well.
CHOMSKY: Monitoring. But despite everything, it’s still a pretty free society, and the recognition by U.S. and British business back 100 years ago that they can no longer control the population by violence is correct. And control of attitude and opinion is pretty fragile, as is surveillance. It’s very different than sending in the storm troopers. You know, so there’s a lot of latitude, for people of relative privilege, at least, to do all sorts of things. I mean, it’s different if you’re a black kid in the ghetto. Yeah, then you’re subjected to state violence. But for a large part of the population, there’s plenty of opportunities which have not been available in the past.
HEDGES: But those people are essentially passive, virtually.
CHOMSKY: But they don’t have to be.
HEDGES: They don’t have to be, but Hannah Arendt, when she writes about the omnipotent policing were directed against the stateless, including ourself and France, said the problem of building omnipotent policing, which we have done in our marginal neighborhoods in targeting people of color–we can have their doors kicked in and stopped at random and thrown in jail for decades for crimes they didn’t commit–is that when you have a societal upheaval, you already have both a legal and a physical mechanism by which that omnipotent policing can be quickly inflicted.
CHOMSKY: I don’t think that’s true here. I think the time has passed when that can be done for increasing parts of the population, those who have almost any degree of privilege. The state may want to do it, but they don’t have the power to do it. They can carry out extensive surveillance, monitoring, they can be violent against parts of the population that can’t defend themselves–undocumented immigrants, black kids in the ghetto, and so on–but even that can be undercut. For example, one of the major scandals in the United States since Reagan is the huge incarceration program, which is a weapon against–it’s a race war. But it’s based on drugs. And there is finally cutting away at the source of this and the criminalization and the radical distortion of the way criminalization of drug use has worked. That can have an effect.
I mean, I think–look, there’s no doubt that the population is passive. There are lots of ways of keeping them passive. There’s lots of ways of marginalizing and atomizing them. But that’s different from storm troopers. It’s quite different. And it can be overcome, has been overcome in the past. And I think there are lots of initiatives, some of them being undertaken, others developing, which can be used to break down this system. I think it’s a very fragile system, including the militarism.
HEDGES: Let’s just close with climate change. Like, I read climate change reports, which–.
CHOMSKY: Well, unfortunately, that’s–may doom us all, and not in the long-distance future. That just overwhelms everything. It is the first time in human history when we not only–we have the capacity to destroy the conditions for a decent survival. And it’s already happening. I mean, just take a look at species destruction. Species destruction now is estimated to be at about the level of 65 million years ago when an asteroid hit the earth and ended the period of the dinosaurs, wiped out huge numbers of species. Same level today, and we’re the asteroid. And you take a look at what’s happening in the world, I mean, anybody looking at this from outer space would be astonished.
I mean, there are sectors of the global population that are trying to impede the catastrophe. There are other sectors that are trying to accelerate it. And you take a look at who they are. Those who are trying to impede it are the ones we call backward: indigenous populations, the First Nations in Canada, you know, aboriginals from Australia, the tribal people in India, you know, all over the world, are trying to impede it. Who’s accelerating it? The most privileged, advanced–so-called advanced–educated populations in the world, U.S. and Canada right in the lead. And we know why.
There are also–. Here’s an interesting case of manufacture of consent and does it work? You take a look at international polls on global warming, Americans, who are the most propagandized on this–I mean, there’s huge propaganda efforts to make it believe it’s not happening–they’re a little below the norm, so there’s some effect of the propaganda. It’s stratified. If you take a look at Republicans, they’re way below the norm. But what’s happening in the Republican Party all across the spectrum is a very striking. So, for example, about two-thirds of Republicans believe that there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and all sorts of other things. You know. So it’s stratified. But there’s some impact of the propaganda, but not overwhelming. Most of the population still regards it as a serious problem.
There’s actually an interesting article about this in the Columbia Journalism Review which just appeared, current issue, the lead critical review of journalism. They attribute this to what they call the doctrine of fairness in the media. Doctrine of fairness says that if you have an opinion piece by 95, 97 percent of the scientists, you have to pair it with an opinion piece by the energy corporations, ’cause that’d be fair and balanced. There isn’t any such doctrine. Like, if you have an opinion piece denouncing Putin as the new Hitler for annexing Crimea, you don’t have to balance it with an opinion piece saying that 100 years ago the United States took over southeastern Cuba at the point of a gun and is still holding it, though it has absolutely no justification other than to try to undermine Cuban development, whereas in contrast, whatever you think of Putin, there’s reasons. You don’t have to have that. And you have to have fair and balanced when it affects the concerns of private power, period. But try to get an article in the Columbia Journalism Review pointing that out, although it’s transparent.
So all those things are there, but they can be overcome, and they’d better be. This isn’t–you know, unless there’s a sharp reversal in policy, unless we here in the so-called advanced societies can gain the consciousness of the indigenous people of the world, we’re in deep trouble. Our grandchildren are going to suffer from it.
HEDGES: And I think you would agree that’s not going to come from the power elite.
CHOMSKY: It’s certainly not.
HEDGES: It’s up to us.
CHOMSKY: Absolutely. And it’s urgent.
HEDGES: It is. Thank you very much.
Chris Hedges, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter, writes a regular column for Truthdig every Monday. Hedges’ most recent book is “Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle.”