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“I still think it would be fun to talk to a robot,” a disembodied female voice bleats as a series of drone strikes hammer the earth in a spectacular display of yellow flame and thick, caustic smoke. “He can help you find the right product, or show you the way into the hospital,” a male voice chimes in, with the self-assured air of a practiced salesman. It’s the parting sentiment in Negativland’s latest music video, “Don’t Don’t Get Freaked Out,” at once a deliciously cruel joke and measured critique of both the wonders and horrors of technological advancement.
Negativland is a chronic cultural carnivore. Since 1980, the experimental sound collage group — which was founded in Concord and still has a couple of Bay Area-based members — has been sampling offal from the corporate culture machine and repackaging it with subversive hilarity. Their latest album, “The World Will Decide,” was released on Nov. 13.
“Although entirely finished before disinfecting your groceries became a perfectly normal thing to do, ‘The World Will Decide’ depicts a world where the technologies we use to live our lives have become difficult to tell apart from those things we recognize as being alive,” announced the Negativland website.
Today, the group consists of Mark Hosler, David Wills (a.k.a. “The Weatherman”), Jon Leidecker (a.k.a. “Wobbly”), and Peter Conheim. However, Hosler insists that Negativland members who have passed away — including Don Joyce, Richard Lyons, and Ian Allen — are also represented on the album, reanimated beyond the grave.
“Because of the nature of how we collage, we’re using hundreds of bits of samples from the three people connected to the group who died for these interconnected records, ‘True False’ and ‘The World Will Decide.’ Their presence is just about as much there as it would be if they were still alive,” Hosler says.
Whether their subject of critique is the omnipresence of corporate advertising or the reign of technocracy, Negativland has proven audio collage to be a wickedly effective means of exposing cultural hypocrisy. “The band has always been about metamedia — artworks that draw attention to their own frame,” Leidecker explains. “Recursive collage is a natural way to portray the hopes and fears we all feel about our relationship with technology, as the safe distance between our tools and ourselves collapse.”
Hosler agrees, “Paradoxically, it can feel like trying to talk about our world by using bits and pieces from our culture actually feels more honest than trying to write song lyrics about it.”
What Negativland has accomplished here is an uproarious feat of détournement. The group has swiped content from the same companies who regularly swipe data from their consumers (e.g. Google, Amazon, and Facebook), sounding the alarm on their invasive business models. Each track on “The World Will Decide” highlights an alarming aspect of technological advancement. In “Before I Ask,” Negativland samples the eerily soothing voice of Apple’s “virtual assistant,” Siri, as well as Alexa, the “voice-controlled intelligent personal assistant service” embedded in Amazon Echo speakers.
“Hello, Weatherman,” Alexa purrs. “Turning your entire home into a microphone isn’t just for people with baby-room monitors anymore.” “Attractive Target” features a litany of faceless marketers that tout the ability to target specific consumer audiences, followed by the repeated reassurance that “this is completely ethical.” “Never forget the fact that we are all just content,” a matter-of-fact male voice reminds us on a track titled “Content.”
It’s clear that technological manipulation is a major theme here, which, Hosler explains, directly negates the original vision for the internet, and its liberating potential. “If you look at the ideas about the internet in the ’90s, it’s a very utopian vision. I hadn’t ever guessed just how incredibly undemocratic the algorithms on these social media platforms can end up becoming, so you just disappear up your own b——-. You only hear from people who agree with what you think, so you have this incredibly skewed perspective of what’s going on. It’s pretty dark.”
A track titled “Anything Else” laments a number of significant cultural losses that have transpired since the rise of computer technology. Intimacy, anonymity, and physical wisdom are among the losses mourned on this track.
“There are incredible things you can do with these tools, but there’s also something about the way they’ve affected how our brains work, our attention spans,” Hosler muses. “It feels like they help us know more and more people, less and less well.”
Leidecker expresses a similar sentiment. “So much of this tech claims to have the goal of connecting people, but in practice, it runs the risk of replacing them.”
In spite of the heavier content, however, listening to a Negativland album is never a gloomy affair. “This new record isn’t supposed to be scary or hopeless,” Leidecker adds. “We worked hard to make sure all the music sounded like a particularly happening party.”
“The World Will Decide” is the “mirror image sequel” to “True False,” an album Negativland released in October 2019. While “True False” offers commentary on a reality in which it’s increasingly difficult to discern between objective truth and narrative bent by bias, “The World Will Decide” skewers the platforms and algorithms that propagate these uncertainties.
“We knew it’d be a loop,” Hosler notes. “If you listen to both records a lot, you’ll find that there are words, phrases, and concepts on both albums that speak to each other literally, and by implication.”
In this way, Negativland’s music demands active listening. “I think there’s a lot of entertainment that doesn’t ask you to be engaged, that’s about shutting your brain off,” he says. “I’m not interested in making art that does that.”
Negativland is not yet done with you, either. Rest assured that as long as the culture machine continues to churn out content, Negativland will continue to pilfer it. “There’s more to come in 2021,” Hosler promises. “There’s still more to be said.”