Jonny C. is most certainly in trouble – Jonathan Coulton vs. Glee

I must admit, I wasn’t expecting one of my first posts to be about this sort of thing. But something has taken my interest and needs addressing.

Many of you will be aware of the American TV programme Glee. I, myself, am a long-time viewer and enjoy the performances and slightly tongue-in-cheek moral messages that the earlier shows portrayed. I do feel that more recently they’ve lost some of the irony that made the original concept appealing, but that’s by-the-by. What cannot be denied about Glee is how lucrative it is as a product. Without fail, Glee versions of songs do extremely well in the pop charts – songs that are essentially covers performed by cast members of a teen sitcom. This is an unprecedented phenomenon. And, also, it’s a phenomenon that doesn’t seem to be hurting anyone directly.

Until now.

Some of you may be aware of the musician Jonathan Coulton. His most famous song, ‘Still Alive’, is the witty and poignant ending to Valve’s masterpiece video game ‘Portal’. Because of this he has a significant “nerd following”, and is something of an Internet hero. He also did a cover of ‘Baby Got Back’ by Sir Mix-A-Lot, with a sort of Country vibe. Have a listen:

The cast of Glee have done a version of ‘Baby Got Back’ as well, soon to be shown in an upcoming episode. It’s a strangely familiar version.

Yeah – pretty much exactly the same. It’s important to note that Jonathan Coulton claims to have not been told about his version being used by Glee, until a few days before the video came out, and that no money has changed hands. Some are claiming that even the backing is the same and that the cast of Glee have just dubbed vocals over the top. What’s most hilarious is that at 2:16 they keep in the line ‘Jonny C.’s in trouble’, a line entirely distinctive to Coulton’s original, in the fact that it refers directly to him. And there’s no Glee character to whom that could possibly refer. It seems that Glee’s plagiarism is unashamed and bare-faced.

One of the main problems is that Glee have not directly broken any laws doing this. Coulton licences all his work under Creative Commons, which means that his own work can’t be used for commercial gain, but can be for non-commercial projects. However, this doesn’t include covers. Coulton is arguing that he wrote a melody for Sir Mix-A-Lot’s rap and, therefore, the lines are blurred as to how much of a cover it is, and how much is his own work. The point is, he’s the little guy and Glee is the corporation-backed big bully.

But what does this say about the Internet and intellectual property? Creative Commons is a great system for ordinary people to keep hold of what they’ve made, but it seems that once big business gets involved most of those agreements are thrown out of the window. One of the greatest things about the age of the Internet is how much it has boosted creativity and the sharing of original content: literally anyone can post a song to YouTube. Not that everyone should, but the point still stands. The Internet can be a huge leveller. A video by an unknown unsigned artists can get the same amount of views as one by a record-company backed artist. It might not necessarily (because marketing pushes etc. provide a lot of the view count for mainstream videos) but the potential for them to is there. In that environment, the big business artists have less clout – it’s user-moderated, and power is in the hands of the individual. We decide who should be put on pedestals, not corporations.
That’s what we like to tell ourselves. The fact is, power still very much lies in the hands of those with the capital. Lady Gaga would never have turned in to what she is without investment, neither would Justin Bieber (a YouTube sensation), and neither would PSY, of ‘Gangnam Style’ fame. Sure, a ‘Like’ or a retweet or whatever can really help small-time artists, but it’s still up to the mogul talent scouts to realise that all those collected ‘Likes’ are worthy of investment.

So, back to Jonathan Coulton. His work is proudly underground and left-of-centre; his appeal is limited and, like much of “nerd culture”, that limitation is something that is revelled in. Copyright law aside, one can’t help but think that an invasion in to this culture by big business and the pop mainstream is one of the major reasons for upset. Glee is touchstone for what is popular. They often record the most popular songs in hiatus so that they can have the most appeal, and sell the most tracks (a good example being their version of Gotye‘s ‘Somebody That I Used To Know’). With Glee deciding that Jonathan Coulton is “in”, a lot of people will be upset by that. It smacks a little of ‘I liked it before it was cool’ (a viewpoint I’ll be discussing later).

But what should really be taken from this is the potential exploitation of little-known artists who, perhaps, don’t have strong legal backing. YouTube, and much of the internet, demands trust for information to be shared and if that trust is lost much of the artistic output we’ve witnessed in the early years of the Internet will be quashed. Decisions by big businesses, like the ripping off of Jonathan Coulton’s song by Glee, have the potential to break this trust and, perhaps, discourage musicians from sharing their work. This, indeed, would be a sad state of affairs.

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‘You’ve Probably Never Heard of It’ – an Introduction

Hi, hello, and welcome to Shuffle Critic. My name is Ed and I’ll be your guide through the world of albums, artists and genres, some of which you will know and others which you may very well not have heard of. Before we get going with all that, I’d like to just say “Hi” (already ticked off the list) and also tell you a little bit about my musical history and dissect this contentious sentence: “you’ve probably never heard of it”.

This phrase is thrown around a bit on the Internet as a sort of catch-all signpost for all aspects of “hipsterdom”. I suppose it infuriates so many people because of it’s implied exclusivity and assumed ignorance of the audience – “You’ve probably never heard of it, you in your stupid mainstream, boring, vanilla, pedestrian life; how could you have possibly encountered something as interesting and obscure as I have, in my infinite wisdom and cultural awareness? I bet you read The Daily Telegraph as well, don’t you? I knew it!” It creates a partisan attitude, an us-and-them effect, between “The Mainstream” and “The Underground”. As I’ll argue in a later post, “The Mainstream” as we’ve understood it for most of the 20th Century doesn’t really exist anymore, and “The Underground” even less so, what with the advent of music downloading, forums, blogs, social networking and a whole other host of means and methods to access music that the 21st Century has given us. Because of this, the phrase “you’ve probably never heard of it” is even less relevant and useful than it was 20 years ago. Oh, I’ve not heard of this or that artist? Well, let me just access iTunes on my phone and download their entire back catalogue. In the days of crate-diving, of poring through boxes and boxes of vinyls just to find a selection of previously unreleased B-Sides by The Smiths, interest in music required effort – one’s nerdy knowledge, and therefore assumed superiority, was far more earned. Nowadays, one can read a blog, download everything an artist has ever done, and then claim to be an expert in everything obscure. Not that I am averse to this accessibility – quite the opposite. I think our increased interconnectivity is a welcome marvel and what this means for musicians, particularly unsigned musicians, is unprecedentedly fantastic. What it does mean, however, is that music nerds/aficionados/hipsters are far less deserved of that title, and, as such, the phrase “you’ve probably never heard of it” is even more inexcusable as it ever was. If you do want to tell a friend about music, say “check these guys out…”, “have you heard of…?”, “I think you might like…”, or, even better, post a YouTube video link on their Facebook. Don’t blurt out a bullshit phrase that makes you sound like a stuck-up and irritating turd. And if the only reason you’re talking to someone about an artist they might not know is to show off your knowledge in a vain attempt to appear superior, then you probably shouldn’t open your mouth. Or talk to anyone. Ever.
My vitriol on this subject (and, I promise, most of my posts won’t be overtly angry) comes from personal experience. For most of my teenage years I was just the sort of stuck-up and irritating turd that I now can’t abide. To tell you how I became like that, and also how I managed to purge myself of this condemnable attitude, let me give you a small biography.

My story, weirdly, begins with Marilyn Manson. In 1999 (when I was at the age of 9), The Matrix came out. I can’t remember how, but I managed to see it. I loved it. My brother bought me the soundtrack. And on there was the Manson song ‘Rock is Dead’. If you really want to remind yourself, here’s a video:

Something about that raw, violent, anti-authoritative Industrial Rock appealed to my 10-year-old brain. At the time I was interested in the macabre and the occult, in a sort of pre-teen, annoying way, and now with my new-found interest in Marilyn Manson I was getting really dark. I bought a black hoodie. I was Goth. I mean, I obviously wasn’t, but in my eyes I was and, to me, Goths were the coolest people ever.
Move on about a year or so. An older cousin (who would have been in his late teens at the time) asked me what sort of music I was into. “Marilyn Manson,” came my reply. Understandably, he was concerned. I should also point out that when I said I liked Marilyn Manson, I only liked that one song on The Matrix soundtrack. I was hardly a dyed-in-the-wool fan.
At the time, I had also just started learning the guitar and, as such, was listening to a lot of Jimi Hendrix. Particularly, I enjoyed Hendrix’s live version of ‘The Star Spangled Banner’ – it had that same raw, anti-authoritative, and destructive quality that drew me so much to Manson. What I really liked was the feedback, the noise. I said as much to my cousin.
Next time I saw him he presented a mixtape to me entitled, brilliantly, Monsta Feedback Classics. It was an excellent collection. While it did have some great, feedback-heavy tracks, including a live version of ‘Voodoo Chile (Slight Return)’, it was also full of seminal artists, most of whom I would only get to know in later life: The Stone Roses, Booker T. & The M.G.’s, Shuggie Otis, DJ Shadow. For me, however, one track stood out – the first one. It was a song called ‘Smile’ by the early-’90s Shoegaze band Ride, which I have later discovered is actually from a previously unreleased 4-track demo. 11-year-old Ed didn’t really care about that. What he did care about was the destruction, noise, and angry attitude the song had. Have a listen to it:

At about 3 minutes in, nearly at the end of the track, you can distinctly hear an amp explode. 11-year-old Ed loved this. This was even better than Marilyn Manson, who seemed silly and tame in comparison. He didn’t blow up his equipment just by playing it! I listened to that track over and over again, and, sadly, neglected the rest of the tape despite its abundance of great music.
Now, it’s important to note that the obscurity of Ride or (to a lesser extent) Marilyn Manson, had nothing to do with why I liked them. It was purely their aggression and noisiness that drew me to them. The reason I tell you, initially, about this experience is because of what it shows about my attitude with new music. I’m a skimmer. I listen to one, maybe two tracks, and then claim to be obsessed or an expert. At least, that was what I used to do. Now that I have (hopefully) matured, I have worked my way out of that. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Next, I should introduce an important character – Dan. A friend since early childhood, we began playing and listening to music together at the age of about 12. Both of us, at the time, were into classic teenage fare, and for me, specifically, I loved Nirvana. Now, they weren’t especially obscure, sure, but what they represented for me was an alternative to mainstream music, something that in my burgeoning pubescence I associated with friends, and therefore school, and therefore the notion of authority. Marilyn Manson’s “fuck you” attitude prevailed in me there, at least. I also learnt a lot of Nirvana’s back catalogue on the guitar, particularly Nevermind; it was via learning songs that many of my music tastes expanded. This is where Led Zeppelin comes in, and the world of Folk Music.

I started learning ‘Stairway to Heaven’, a rite of passage for many guitar players, and, as such, listened to it a lot. Something about the serenity of it, the fantastical poetry, the sound of the acoustic guitar going in to the clean strummed electric in to that exemplary Classic Rock guitar solo, was so different from what I was listening to – angry, dirty, monosyllabic Grunge. I suppose my tastes were maturing. At the time I was also getting in to the fantasy genre in a big way – books, video games, and, with The Lord of the Rings, films. Essentially, I was going from Goth to Hippie, and was playing a lot more acoustic guitar than electric (a fact that pleased my parents, undoubtedly). I tried other Led Zep songs, but it was really the quiet acoustic ones that appealed to me the most – ‘Bron-Yr-Aur’, ‘Going to California’, ‘Black Mountain Side’, and ‘Babe I’m Gonna Leave You’ in particular – with the heavier Classic Rock songs not really sitting right. Imagine my delight, therefore, when I discovered there was a genre where all the songs on an album were like ‘Stairway’! In steps Folk Rock.
Now, my Dad has been a long-time Folk fan, with the family often going to Folk festivals, most specifically Sidmouth in Devon. In many ways, I had shunned Folk music in my early teen as a rebellion against my parents, so it was via Led Zep that I, independently, rediscovered the genre. My Dad had many records, all of which I listened to and loved. To my surprise, I discovered many of the Led Zep songs I had liked were actually Folk songs, and, also, that Sandy Denny, lead singer of Fairport Convention, had appeared on the track ‘The Battle for Evermore’ on Led Zep’s album “Four Symbols” (or whatever you want to call it). So, I listened to Fairport, which moved me on to Fotheringay, and from there I went to Steeleye Span which lead me to the more Traditional work of Maddy Prior and Martin Carthy. Through Dad’s records I also listened to a lot of American stuff: Simon & Garfunkel particularly, (who’s version of ‘Angie’ lead me to it’s composer, British guitarist Davey Graham), and, of course, Bob Dylan, in whom I found a new idol.

This is where Dan comes back in. Dan’s collection of music is huge and the only thing bigger is his collected knowledge on each of the artists. With the development of .mp3 files and external hard-drives, he gave me a lot of music very quickly, and I asked for, of course, Folk. He gave me the entire recorded works of Woody Guthrie, obscure Folk Rock bands like Trees who only released one album, live versions, B-sides, demos, recordings Dylan had made in the womb – anything I wanted, he pretty much had it. I was swamped. And, remember, I’m a skimmer. And I very much skimmed most of what he gave me.
This, dear readers, is where the demon of “you’ve probably never heard of it” rears its ugly head. I did love Folk Music on an aesthetic level, certainly, but what gave it a further thrill was that friends at school, that “authority” that I had rebelled against with Nirvana, had never heard of what I was listening to. I was an island – the safe, dry land of obscurity, while all around everyone drowned in the mainstream. What’s worse is I revelled in their so-called “drowning”. I pushed them back in and held them under. Now, this metaphor, of course, is incorrect (and perhaps overwrought) – obscurity is not a safe island and the mainstream is not an ocean: neither is any better than the other. But, at that age, to me they were, and the obscure was so much better. I delighted in the identity it gave me, something I had desperately been searching for every since listening to ‘Rock is Dead’ and deciding I was a Goth. Soon, obscurity, and the flaunting of it, began to define me.
I would ask Dan for music suggestions and, as such, he got me in to a wide variety of artists and genres, most of which are excellent and critically-renowned, but I wouldn’t listen to them for their musical excellence; I would listen to them just to say I did. Case in point: Bossa Nova. While certainly a recognisable genre, with songs like ‘The Girl from Ipanema’ being widely known, I was pretty certain school friends wouldn’t listen to it on purpose. The perfect candidate, therefore, for lauding my superior tastes over them. “Oh, yeah, I have one hundred and fifty Bossa Nova songs!” I would say to people. How many had I actually listened to? Probably about ten. And did people care I listened to Bossa Nova (or at least claimed to)? Of course not. Was I telling people about my collection so that they might want to listen to it as well? No. I simply had one hundred and fifty files of music that I didn’t listen to, simply so I could feel culturally superior to my school contemporaries.
Certainly, there were artists that Dan gave to me that I did listen to a lot of; Radiohead and Sigur Rós, for example, I loved (clearly I had entered my moody phase). And even though a lot of the music that Dan gave me I skimmed over, some of it stuck with me and I devoured. Without realising, I was becoming more knowledgable – just not as knowledgable as I claimed. I suppose it’s around this time, at the age of about 15 and 16, that I realised how much I love music. Not only that, I love talking to people about music. Admittedly, my motivation for starting discussions at that time was an excuse to make myself seem superior and more interesting than my school contemporaries, but the bug of music collection and discussion had grabbed me.

So how did I lose this reprovable attitude of self-gratification by flaunting phoney and flimsy knowledge? Well, it happened because of two events.
Firstly, I started listening to Hip Hop. I had often shunned Hip Hop, thinking it unintelligent, aggressive and, ultimately, pointless. That’s what I said in public, at least. What I really meant was “Everybody else listens to it” and Heaven forbid I should have anything in common with anybody else! So, I hit 17. What’s next? said my musical brain. What don’t people expect? Hip-Hop was the obvious choice. I was calling their bluffs.
“I thought you didn’t like Hip-Hop, Ed,” they would say.
“A-ha!” came my riposte, “Think again! I defy expectations! You think I go one way, I go another! You can never catch me!” And off I would skip, laughing merrily.
What I was not expecting was that I would turn out to adore Hip Hop. I had recaptured that love of a new genre that I hadn’t experienced since discovering Folk three or four years earlier. At first I started with Public Enemy (by recommendation from Dan), and then went on to loads of classic Golden Age Hip Hop: N.W.A, Cypress Hill, Wu-Tang Clan, Big Daddy Kane, Eric B. & Rakim – the list goes on and on. And I wasn’t skimming! I listened to whole albums! Honestly, I surprised myself. This is a genre I had never really liked, or just assumed I didn’t, and here I was finding it to be the best thing I had heard for years. Coupled with this, because Hip Hop was so ubiquitous with school friends as a genre, telling people about it didn’t give me that same sense of cultural superiority. Slowly, and without really knowing it, I was beginning my ascent out of turd-dom.
Secondly, and more importantly, I had a genuine revelation about what a tit I had been for about five years. I had left school, and was staying with my new girlfriend in her university halls. It being the first year of university there had been a substantial amount of drinking and with that came, in my opinion then, a torrent of terrible music. So, we were in the kitchen alone, and I decided to put on something relaxing, normal, and good. I chose Thomas Tallis. Three minutes in to some Kyrie setting or something, one of my girlfriend’s housemates came in and said, justifiably (and not accusatorially at all): “What’s this?”, to which I replied, “It’s what we call music!”
Yeah.
Pretty rude.
I realised almost instantly what a self-congratulatory arsehole I sounded and the looks for my girlfriend and her housemate would have told me if I hadn’t worked it out by myself. Subconsciously, at that point, I made a decision to be more tolerant of other people’s tastes. I also made a choice not to disregard something purely because it’s mainstream (something I had been doing previously). Both these decisions dramatically changed me and my musical outlook.
I must admit that it’s been a bit of struggle, shifting the annoying habit of talking about music simply as an attempt to show off. At university, many of my friends would tell you, I have a nasty habit of putting on music at parties that, honestly, is inappropriate. While The Temptations are great, sure, most people want to listen David Guetta, or someone similar, and that is an opinion that, honestly, it took me time to accept. Nowadays, if I am in control of party music, I try and put on something that I like, but also has mass appeal. Mash-ups I find are good (as they appeal to my nerdy, crate-diving attitude), as well as some Dubstep (a genre I can’t help but enjoy).

I have worked and worked at being more open-minded and, as such, have found interest in a much wider range of music. What I have realised, however, is that many of the artists that Dan gave to me in the middle of my teens I still haven’t listened to. So, in an effort to expand my knowledge further and actually buckle down and listen properly to all the music I own, I have decided to start this blog.

Shuffle Critic will be a mixture of album reviews, artist retrospectives, genre discussions, and then pretty much any thoughts I have about music in general. I hope through it you will discover some new artists and, perhaps, reconsider artists you’ve encountered before.
Ultimately, my goal is to not be a snob. My mantra now, after so many years of faux superiority, is “understand something in its own terms”. I try to welcome everything with open arms, from chart-topping pop hits to 15-minute Russian Avant-Folk songs. Yes certainly, some things are better than other things, that is undeniable. But equally, some things are just not comparable with other things. For example, you would never compare One Direction with Mozart, because what would be the point?
I can’t promise I won’t judge music that you like in an unfavourable light, but I can promise that I will justify why and welcome argument, because that’s the only way we broaden our horizons.

I hope you enjoy the blog, and to play us out here is a little taster for the first review: Joanna Newsom‘s ”81’.