Category Archives: Technology

Notable Noise column: BurnLounge, SXSW 2006 (Orlando Weekly)

I’ve never been to an Amway meeting, but now I think I know what one must be like. I was invited to a “VIP event” for an online venture called BurnLounge, and though the invitation was in the most flattering terms – “We’d love to have someone of your stature in the local music scene introduce BurnLounge to Orlando” – I was nonetheless hesitant to attend. Mainly because this event was being held on the day after I returned from South By Southwest in Austin, but also because the aforementioned flattery led up to an “invitation” to become a BurnLounge investor.

Roping in new investors seems to be what BurnLounge is all about. It’s a music-download service that works much like those “storefront” online operations: You pay some money, pick some titles and bust your ass to get people to start spending money at “your” store, for which you’re rewarded with a percentage of the profits. If you get more people to sign up (hence the reason for this VIP event), you get a cut of their profits too!

Oh yeah, music downloaded from Burn-Lounge can’t be played on iPods. To me, a business model that excludes the single most popular music-playing device on the market is probably flawed. Just saying.

The event at Tabu was attended by hundreds of people, and I’d wager that less than 10 percent of them own iPods and even fewer than that are computer literate. No, these folks were lured by potentially easy money, encouraged by tempting buzzwords that invoked the twin sucker bets of “the music business” and “technology.”

Unsurprisingly, these folks were actually motivated by a many-feet-tall guy in a cowboy hat talking about people making “$10,000 a week.” Hearing him say “This is about money” made me sad. Hearing him say “If I could be a plumber and make $10,000 a week, I’d be plumbing” made me leave.

This crass cynicism was the last thing I needed after spending a week at South By Southwest. Thankfully, people in the “biz” tend to actually like music. That’s why we’d queue up with our badges and party invites to see bands. That’s why we’d kill our feet and livers pounding the pavement and the bars, trying to make it from show to show. It was because we wanted to see music.

Some SXSW superlatives:
Best Orlando band: New Mexican Disaster Squad. Opening the Jade Tree showcase at Emo’s, the boys were on fire, captivating the attention of the 100 or so people in attendance with their provocative, propulsive hardcore. Band Marino did well at their sparsely attended showcase, but NMDS did better.

Best story: Aaron Abraham from Whole Wheat Bread stepping up to Dashboard Confessional’s Chris Carrabba – at Carrabba’s own party – and asking him: “You’re in that pussy band, aren’t you?”

Second best story: It involves a hotel room and a publicist who was terrified that her washed-up, on-the-verge-of-revival clients would have their coked-up, degenerate condition revealed to the world. As if that would be a bad thing.

Best oasis: The “Japan Traditional Nite” showcase, which featured a more pensive and folky brand of Japanese music than the freaks over at my regularly attended “Japan Nite.” I could actually sit and listen to the music, rather than deal with crowds. What a concept.

Best surprise: Debris Inc. turning out to be St. Vitus. When they played “Born Too Late,” my head nearly exploded.

Best surprise that wasn’t, but then was: The unannounced Flaming Lips show. Everyone was talking about the covers of “Bohemian Rhapsody” and “War Pigs.” Me? I was more tickled by “Love Yer Brain,” a song originally recorded by a great noise-rock band from Oklahoma.

Best band I missed: Witch, repeatedly. They were always playing – whether a scheduled showcase, a “special guest” slot or at a party – right after I left. But that did mean I hung around J Mascis a lot.

Best party: The Arthur magazine party, held on the verdant grounds of a museum. The bands were good, especially the swirling dreampop of Philly’s Mazarin, but lounging around on the grass drinking one-buck PBR’s was gooder.

Best intro: Afrirampo’s “flamingo pee-pee on the rainbow” chant.

Best show with surprisingly poor attendance: Th’ Faith Healers.

Best blush: Me, when Amos Lee introduced me to one of his band members as “this is the guy I was telling you about.” And he meant it in a good way.

Best comedy: Eugene Mirman.

Best unintentional comedy: Morningwood’s entire set at some party.

Second best unintentional comedy: The excellent Band of Horses making their way through a slew of technical difficulties at the Sub Pop party.

Best quote: “If this band were any good, they would be great.” (OK, I said it.)

Other goodness: Astronautilus, Burning Brides, Jean Grae, Hologram, Kalas, Midlake, Voxtrot.

First appeared March 23, 2006 in Orlando Weekly.

Notable Noise column: Orlando metal, Rev. Charlie Jackson, Elton Dean and Ali Farka Toure R.I.P, composersworks.com, Last.fm (Orlando Weekly)

There was a lot of e-mail directed toward me after my Feb. 23 column proclaimed that there was no true metal in Orlando. Quite a few were exhaustive lists of bands like Nailshitter, Crotchduster, Gore Head, Infant Slaughter and other bands that sound absolutely nothing like the kind of metal I am missing. (Allow me to repeat: Nailshitter.) These are death metal and grindcore bands, and I don’t deny that they’re loud and fast and appropriately morbid, but they aren’t true metal. In fact, they are the exact opposite of the metal I was talking about.

To generalize, the Florida metal scene largely comprises bands that prize speed and aggression over skullfucking heavy riffage that sounds like Tony Iommi having a bad day. Cookie Monster vocals, crush-the-system/dice-the-corpse lyrics, blast beats and lightning-fast solos are cool and all, but how about some variety? As I said: a little less Metallica (or Slayer or Deicide) and a little more Blue Cheer (or Mastodon or Sleep or Boris or High on Fire or The Sword). I want music that’s heavy, but that also rocks.

Beyond those e-mails were a large number of missives that were clearly the result of a coordinated effort on behalf of local band Persona. Each and every one of them (including some from band members) was exceedingly polite and seemed to understand what I was looking for in a local metal band. So I decided to check the band out. Sadly, they weren’t quite it. Thankfully, they were not a post-grunge band, nor were they metalcore or grindcore or death metal. No, they were in the Iron Maiden/Fates Warning/Dream Theater school of proggy power metal. Long songs, complex instrumental breakdowns and a reach-for-the-sky vocalist … let’s just say I’m still looking.

DEAD PEOPLE

Underappreciated blues artists dropping off the planet are a sadly common occurrence these days, but the passing of a force of nature like the Rev. Charlie Jackson deserves notice. His gritty guitar work and deeply emotional spirituality were hard to forget. He had been sick for the past year and died in his sleep at a Louisiana nursing home in mid-February.

A week earlier, saxophonist Elton Dean died at the depressingly young age of 60, apparently from heart and liver problems. Dean, who supplied Reginald Dwight with the first half of his stage name and helped turn Soft Machine from a progressive pop band into a progressive jazz-rock band, was a renowned improviser and the kind of nutty, try-anything-once type of musician that used to define Britain’s post-psychedelic and jazz scenes.

More recently – and with somewhat more attention from the media – Malian musical giant Ali Farka Toure died last week of bone cancer. His raw style and unending dedication to the beauty of his country’s musical traditions made him a hero to musicians around the world.

DOWNLOAD THIS

Hey, composers: Tired of having your highly unmarketable works controlled by a publishing agency that doesn’t know what to do with ’em, and when they do finally sell your work, you only wind up with a measly cut? Well, do it yourself … at least some of it. A new website – http://www.composersworks.com – was recently set up as a way for composers to publish their works themselves and for potential customers to easily download and print the compositions. The composer maintains all rights, and Composers Works only keeps 25 percent of each sale. Right now, the number of composers is limited largely to some Z-list jazz musicians from New York, Brazil and Croatia, but it still looks like a workable opportunity.

DOWNLOAD THESE

So, I signed up on http://www.last.fm because they finally built an Audioscrobbler plug-in that works with my iPod and my Mac. Don’t know what I’m talking about? Well, it’s totally old news, but it’s also the best thing in the world: a web service that builds communities based on shared musical affinities. You play your stuff on your iPod or in iTunes (or Winamp or whatever) and the info is uploaded to a central server that collates it and hooks you up with recommendations and like-minded listeners. My “group list” is awfully bizarre, and I’ve already gotten some interesting recommendations, but I find it equally interesting to look at what I’ve been listening to, as the site creates “charts” on a regular basis. Here are the last 10 songs I played:
Sam Cooke: “Win Your Love (For Me)”
The Drifters: “There Goes My Baby”
Hassan Hakmoun: “Lala Aisha”
Talvin Singh: “Vikram the Vampire (Heavy Rotation Refixx)”
Bee Gees: “Horizontal”
Bar-Kays: “Give Everybody Some”
Pixies: “Levitate Me”
Minutemen: “Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Love”
Sonic Youth: “100%”
The Damned: “See Her Tonite”

First appeared March 16, 2006 in Orlando Weekly.

Notable Noise column: Hair metal, Tunecore (Orlando Weekly)

For reasons I can’t go into right now (besides complete embarrassment), I’ve been listening to a lot of ’80s hard rock and metal lately. I wish I could say that it’s been a steady diet of the “good” and “credible” stuff, but in addition to my Slayer and Metallica, I’ve been indulging in Skid Row, Shotgun Messiah, Yngwie Malmsteen, Dokken and the like. (I even had a flashback to an adolescent mix tape that included a White Lion song. Now it’s official: I have no secrets.) This stuff was kind of uncool when I was a teenager, unless you were a complete hesher, and time has made it little more than a punchline.

But in my Aqua Net flashback, I came to a few realizations. The first is that Pyromania is the apotheosis of analog production techniques for rock records. Even as a 160 kbps MP3, this album sounds like the ultimate rock & roll audio experience. It’s epic and shiny but, unlike today’s Pro Tools perfection, this sonic excellence was the result of mixing-board manipulations and endlessly edited tape reels. It’s calculated, but it oozes with the warmth of a rock band, albeit one with the luxury of overdubs and multitracked vocals.

The second realization was that this stuff was great. Not “not so bad” great, but “I see why all those chicks were into it” great. We all know that Real Metal never lost its cachet, but these “poseurs” never had any. And I don’t understand why not. These bands were less metal-lite than they were a combination of ’70s glam like The Sweet and party rock like Van Halen. Plus, they were just dudes who wanted to dress up in women’s clothes, get wasted and craft mildly raunchy rock songs weighted down with stadium-sized choruses and pop hooks as infectious as the clap they spread to groupies.

As with any genre, the second-, third- and fourth-generation copies paled in comparison and were worthy of all the mockery heaped upon Jackyl and their ilk. But the best of the bunch were responsible for some of the last fun music heard on rock radio. After this, it was grunge, then nü-metal and, what, My Chemical Romance? Depressed, dour and introverted all. Wouldn’t it be great if rock radio were fun again? (Edit: Wouldn’t it be great if rock radio existed again?)

DOWNLOAD THIS

With the whole wide world of downloads providing revenue streams for labels everywhere, the notion that’s being touted is the “discovery of new music.” Thing is, it’s been proven that it’s rather difficult for new, unsigned artists to get their music into places like the iTunes Music Store. It’s possible, through various electronic distribution deals, many of which wind up being financially untenable and rights-restrictive. Despite that, many artists sacrifice their potential income (and more importantly, their rights) in order to get their music heard.

Up until now, the best way for a band to get their music online was through a plan offered by the fine, upstanding folks at CD Baby (www.cdbaby.com). Their plan is exclusive (meaning you couldn’t use any other digital distribution service) but exceedingly artist-friendly: CD Baby lets the artists retain all rights, cancel with 30 days notice and most importantly, they only take a 9 percent cut of sales – quite nice and very fair.

The recently launched Tunecore (www.tunecore.com) looks to be even better. Artists only pay a one-time “delivery charge” of 99 cents per song, which gets it uploaded to the U.S. version of the iTunes Music Store. For an additional 99 cents per song/per store, it gets uploaded to international versions of iTMS and Rhapsody (www.real.com/rhapsody). There’s a yearly maintenance fee of $7.98 per album; you define your “album.” The deal is nonexclusive and artist-friendly, as far as rights go.

Tunecore may not be sweet enough to get those currently on CD Baby to switch, but if you’re stuck with one of the many exploitative services that are out there (and you can get out of your restrictive contract) or are preparing to dip into the digital distribution pool for the first time, Tunecore might be the one to go with.

NO, DOWNLOAD THESE

This week’s make-your-own teenage-hesher podcast:
Def Leppard: “Billy’s Got a Gun”
Whitesnake: “Slow an’ Easy”
Cinderella: “Shake Me”
Michael Schenker Group: “Rock My Nights Away”
Black Sabbath: “Trashed”
Yngwie Malmsteen: “Liar”
Ozzy Osbourne: “Spiders in the Night”
Twisted Sister: “Like a Knife in the Back”
Shotgun Messiah: “Dirt Talk”
Manowar: “Violence and Bloodshed”
Skid Row: “Sweet Little Sister”
Def Leppard: “Die Hard the Hunter”

First appeared Feb. 9, 2006 in Orlando Weekly.

Notable Noise column: UMG digital reissues, satellite radio face-off (Orlando Weekly)

I rant a lot about how publicly owned companies are destroying our creative culture by placing short-term stockholder value over the long-term “greater good.” Usually these rants involve some sort of invective about slow decision-making, out-of-touch technophobes and lack of vision/loyalty/free thought. That said, I think that Universal Music Group could be exempt from damnation. For a label group that totally dominates U.S. market share via an unending stream of pop garbage, they still nurture and encourage new acts with the money that pop garbage makes them. And they don’t use Copy Protection on their CDs. Equally important, they do a decent job of respecting their vast catalog. From “deluxe editions” of classic albums to a clutch of smart people harvesting the vaults at Motown, Verve and various other labels under the corporate umbrella, UMG still looks, acts and smells like a record label. My point? UMG recently announced that February will mark the launch of an international, online-only reissue program of (wait for it) 100,000 deleted European titles. Like, holy Aphrodite’s Child reissues, Batman! At least one corporation has figured out the best way to keep customers happy isn’t to sue them but to give them what they want.

ALSO ONLINE

Did anyone else know that UCF had two radio stations? I didn’t. I knew they had WUCF-FM (the very dull, not-student-run, semi-public-radio-semi-jazz station broadcasting at 89.9), but I didn’t know they had WGKN. It seems that some students finally grew tired of not having their voices heard on the school’s radio station and took matters into their own hands. OK, WGKN doesn’t broadcast in the traditional sense; it’s a live web stream (www.wgkn.com) that can also be heard on Bright House channel 21 in near-campus housing. Hey, it’s a start. To hear students playing contemporary music is incredibly refreshing from UCF, even if they do like James Blunt too much for my taste. Maybe some decision-makers over there will get it through their heads that a college station is for students to learn broadcasting and teach other students about new music, not for professors to catch up on their NPR.

SPEAKING OF RADIO

Wandering around Circuit City the other day, I took my revenge on XM for canceling my world-music channels by picking up an open-box Sirius unit for my car. “Ha. That’ll show ’em,” I thought. Hustling out to the parking lot to do a quick-and-dirty install, I was mortified to discover that Sirius has pre-empted their world music channel (one, not two) for Rolling Stones Radio. I’ve been told that The Globe will be back after this year’s Super Bowl, which is good, because Rolling Stones Radio is the height of redundancy. Flipping channels the other day, I cruised past Rolling Stones songs being played on four different stations … not counting Rolling Stones Radio. Ouch.

Still, I must admit that Sirius’ programming has vastly improved since I last tested the system out. Their “nostalgia” channels for new wave, classic rock and ’80s hair metal blow away XM’s, as Sirius tends toward familiarity which, after all, is what you want from a nostalgia channel. Conversely, Sirius’ new-music stations are getting less cautious. XM is still the place to be if you like to be surprised by what comes up next, but Sirius has definitely closed a gap that was previously all too apparent. But I also have to ask: Whose dumb-ass idea was it not to air replays of the Stern show? Another point (of many) for Opie & Anthony on XM.

OFF THE SUBJECT

My four favorite nonfamily things in the world are music, gadgets (see above), words and travel. Combining any of these makes me exceedingly happy. To be able to listen to music on a cool gadget while writing about traveling? Heaven. Travel books are something of a fetish of mine. I’ll pick up a Pico Iyer book and, duly inspired, plan a full trip to somewhere I’ll never go, simply for the joy of poring through a Bradt guide and pretending American Express just announced payback amnesty.

But when I ran across this new travel book listing on Amazon, I have to admit to a sputtering double take. In May. photographer Ellen Jong releases Pees on Earth: A Pissin’ Mission. It’s a collection of photos that Jong took of herself peeing all over the world. Asia, Central America, the U.S. … Jong’s peed in lots of places. It’s a different way to see the world, and while she ties it all up with a philosophical ribbon of “territorial markings,” it may be the first book ever published that makes me want to avoid some very specific parts of the world. (Oh, Jong is interviewed in the book by – who else? – Annie Sprinkle.)

First appeared in the Jan. 26, 2006 issue of Orlando Weekly.

Notable Noise column: Digital piracy, XM radio, more (Orlando Weekly)

Say what you will about the French – because, Lord knows, they’ve got plenty to say about us – but their stylish, socialist state has actually figured out that the people who vote for you, rather than the people who finance your campaigns, are the important ones. According to an AP story, during a recent legislative “crackdown on digital piracy,” France’s National Assembly (the lower house of the French parliament) decided that, instead of imposing fines equivalent to hundreds of thousands of dollars against “illegal” file-sharers, a more prudent course of action would be to allow downloaders to pay a monthly royalty (about nine bucks) that would allow them to participate in all the file-trading they want. Artists get paid, music-lovers get to keep discovering new music and the record business gets back to putting out records, rather than litigating against its customers. Très bien.

Canada, on the other hand, seems to be lurching in the opposite direction, perhaps inspired by its financially debauched neighbors to the south. A member of the Canadian Parliament named Sam Bulte – who was responsible for helping to draft a highly restrictive copyright law that has yet to be approved – got caught with her hand in the cookie jar, so to speak. Bulte’s vision of copyright law is pro-DRM, pro-limited use, pro-music business and includes lots of ways to prevent music buyers from fully utilizing their purchased music. Unsurpris-ingly, Bulte has been the recipient of campaign cash from the corporations who stand to gain the most from narrowly defining what rights consumers have when it comes to music, books and movies. And that, less than her draconian stand on copyright, is what has so many people disturbed. When legislation is so clearly driven by corporate donations, that’s when you realize that your elected representatives hold you in precisely as much disdain as the corporations to whom they’re beholden.

SPEAKING OF CANADA

Last week’s column about local radio may have left you with two not-quite-accurate impressions. First, by no means was I saying that Orlando radio is good. I was simply saying that in the sea of corporate awfulness, occasional goodness can be found. Second: Some readers thought I was some kind of XM apostle. And perhaps I am, or was. XM reminds me every day how good radio can be, and when I hear people in terrestrial radio talk about new ideas like HD Radio and “Jack” formats, I roll my eyes in disbelief that these folks just don’t get why satellite radio is so amazing. That said, a recent development at the company has pissed me off: XM’s expansion into Canada. No, I don’t mind that Canucks are (legally) listening to XM. What I do mind are numbskull “Canadian Content” laws that mean XM had to replace two of my favorite channels (the “world music” and African music channels) with lame-ass French Canadian pop music. Between that and the ditching of XM’s “Liquid Metal” channel, I might give Sirius’ tight and uninspired playlists another try.

TV PARTY

The new season of Band Patrol kicks off Friday Jan. 13 at 11 p.m. on Bright House channel 10. You know, the “leased access” channel? It’s something of a pity that a local music show – even one conceptualized as a contest – has to be relegated to a channel seemingly devoted to infomercials and two-year-old parades. No, scratch that. It’s embarrassing. Still, it’s good that the show’s producers are offering up television time to the likes of The Courtneys, Early Next Year and other bands.

DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTIONS

Thanks to Jim Abbott over at the Sentinel for putting Juanes in his year-in-review piece. I don’t know how, but somehow I managed to leave him (Juanes, not Jim Abbott) off my list. Maybe it was because Juanes was so omnipresent for me in 2005 – I interviewed him, wrote about him, saw him in concert four times, heard his music in a tapas bar in India and still didn’t mind when my wife played Mi Sangre for the eight millionth time – that I just didn’t think of him. See? That’s why end-of-the-year lists are dumb. You always forget something.

First appeared in the Jan. 12, 2006 issue of Orlando Weekly.

Notable Noise column: XM satellite radio, Clear Channel (Orlando Weekly)

Radio, as we all know, sucks. Right? Even in a midmarket city like Orlando that’s blessed with an astonishing number of stations, sometimes it’s hard to remember exactly which of those numerous stations you’re tuned into. The utter banality and redundancy of what gets played – when music manages to surface through the muck of commercials – is just consistently unremarkable.

Wow, wasn’t that the least original paragraph about radio ever written? It’s the distillation of an opinion that’s common around here and certainly understandable. We live in a city dominated by three corporate radio conglomerates (Clear Channel Communications, Infinity Broadcasting and Cox Communications). And the independent options vary from low-signal unpredictability (91.5, WPRK-FM’s smorgasbord of styles) and better-signal predictability (89.9, WUCF-FM’s straight-down-the-middle jazz) to high-watt snooze (90.7, WMFE-FM) and the ubiquitous music that’s “safe for the little ears” (88.3, WPOZ-FM). No wonder it’s kind of hard to get excited about terrestrial radio. And that’s exactly why I’ve been an XM subscriber for more than two years now.

But just because everyone’s complaining about something doesn’t make it true. Yes, the nonstop ad bludgeoning undertaken by the corporate stations can make you queasy. Yes, those stations’ playlists can often be numbingly restricted. But people, I’m here to tell you, there are some small slivers of salvation out there. And I’m not talking about talk radio.

I occasionally am asked to be a guest on local radio shows (by occasionally, I mean three times in the last three years), and I recently was asked by a friend who hosts a show on WTKS-FM (104.1) to come in and offer some thoughts on the best music of 2005. It’s not much of a secret that when the talk shows aren’t yapping away on ‘TKS (that is, the weekends), there’s some decent music playing. I’ve long maintained that the sound of the WTKS weekend shows – heavy on alternative hits and a smattering of cool new music – would be a perfect 24/7 addition to this city’s airwaves.

There’s a sense that what the weekend DJs select is music that means something to someone at the station, rather than the corporate playlist vibe that dominates other local rock outlets. Maybe it’s because Erik Dennison (host of the excellent alt-legacy show Sunday Night Vinyl) has a better record collection than I do. Maybe it’s because it’s primarily a talk station, and they don’t have anything to lose on the weekends. Who knows? But my contention is that weekends are the best thing about WTKS. (Except for the recently revitalized Shannon Burke Show; the dynamic between a blowhard like Burke, a hilarious shit-talker like SBK and a diva like Savannah who doesn’t just sit there and agree with everyone is surprisingly terrific.)

Needless to say, any corporate radio show that would invite me on to testify about my musical tastes is not one in a prime time slot. This particular show aired midnight to 2 a.m. on New Year’s Eve (it usually runs from 10 p.m. to midnight) and is called The Final Hours. This long-running production might be the best hope for radio in this city. And I’m not saying that because I was on it. I’m saying it because I got to play stuff like M.I.A. and Open Hand and Jello Biafra and Inkwell. And because stuff like Be Your Own Pet and Clap Your Hands Say Yeah normally gets played.

While those artists may be well-known to WPRK listeners, it’s far more rewarding for me to think about some second-shift Monsters of the Morning fan hearing those bands by accident and maybe, just maybe, getting turned on to some new music.

Still, some people might contest the notion that radio is there for anything other than playing the crap people know and can sing along to. After all, how else other than rote familiarity can you get people to pay attention to the ads that make your stockholders happy? But listening to the WTKS weekend lineup, you can’t help but notice that there are some people in corporate radio land who champion the cultivation of smart and loyal listeners by combining songs you know with songs you don’t know played by people you trust. (A novel concept, if you don’t count the first 30 years of rock & roll radio.)

Oh, like I said, the host of The Final Hours is a friend of mine. Want to know what I got him for Christmas? An XM receiver.

First appeared in the Jan. 5, 2006 issue of Orlando Weekly.

‘Synthetic Pleasures’ movie review (Alternative Press)

Synthetic Pleasures AP 96

This modern world is, in all facets, shaped by technology. However, the society affected by all this technology is the same one creating it. Therefore, the role of digitalia is one yet to be established by contemporary civilizations: How does one control that by which one is controlled? It’s an interesting conundrum and, with the advent of both Internet culture and hi-tech, fastpaced digital technology, ours is a culture that is continually blurring the line between Virtual Reality and Reality Reality.

Those issues of control, as well as that ever-blurring line, are the subject of director lara Lee’s new film Synthetic Pleasures: A Sci-Fi Documentary About Our Hi-Tech World. Less a traditional
documentary than it is a philosophical travelogue through the assets and absurdities of the Information Age, the film examines how modern culture is detaching itself from traditional, “real” life experiences in favor of controlled environments and existence.

The role of “hi-tech” is but a subtext to the picture’s larger message, and Lee demonstrates that humans – whether online or in Las Vegas – seem to be always searching for ways to manipulate their lives in finite,
manageable ways and that controlled, “synthetic pleasures” are slowly but surely replacing the long accepted randomness of life on earth.

“I think that as soon as you’re born, you know you’re going to die, and that thought is always very strong in our mind, and we have no control, no matter what we do, to prevent that from happening,” says Lee via telephone from her New York office (ironically, we attempted an email interview, but she couldn’t get online). “I think that now, technology allows us to control our fantasies somewhat, but the ultimate goal is to control life and to be able to reach immortality.

“But, the question is, is that really the point? Should we just accept nature as it is, or should we feel entitled to manipulate it? Should we go skiing in the summertime? Should we, if we’re born a boy, become a girl?”

Accepting nature as it is seems to be the last thing on anyone’s mind in Synthetic Pleasures. Indoor Japanese golf courses, the ritzy plastique of Las Vegas, body sculptress Orlan, mood-altering and “smart” drug use, gender manipulation, and the potential for true artificial life – is there anything left in the world that is truly real? The most telling example of how this tendency to control reality is more a human trait than a byproduct of technology is the contrast Lee paints between Seagaia (an enormous, hi-tech, enclosed “beach environment” that, though complete with tides and sand, is completely impervious to weather from the “real” world) and a shot of a Japanese fishing shack in which patrons gather in a dingy, cluttered building to catch fish from a regularly stocked tank no bigger than a small car.

“That’s my favorite shot,” laughs Lee of the people fishing, “because it’s so low-tech. It’s the ultimate absurdity. It’s like, I understand you want guaranteed pleasure, so you’ll spend billions of dollars to create this dome where everything’s perfect, but really, what’s the point of going to this shabby place where you go fishing in a tank? If you’ve got your pleasure guaranteed, then how do you get your pleasure out of it? You wind up fooling yourself. Humans desire predictable adventures.”

And, though Synthetic Pleasures is about much more than simply computers and technology, those very things play quite an important role in the film. Interviews with R.U. Sirius (Mondo
2000 co-founder), Lisa Palac (Future Sex founding editor), John Barlow (Electronic Frontier Foundation) and the ubiquitous Timothy Leary are
interspersed with dazzling (though sometimes overbearing) computer graphics and a stellar soundtrack (featuring Young American Primitive,
Banco De Gaia, Single Cell Orchestra, Tranquility Bass, Terre Thaemlitz and others).

The way Lee seamlessly moves through a wide variety of topics makes Synthetic Pleasures a highly engaging-and alternately terrifying and hilarious film. However, Lee is quick to point out that the movie is far from a complete synopsis of life in the computer age; rather, it’s simply her way of posing a few of the many questions that are bound to come up as we move into an age where telephones and televisions will soon seem as anachronistic as telegraphs and handcranked phonographs.
“[The moviej is more about how people interact with the machinery,” says Lee. “I didn’t want to make a movie about who makes the best VR machine, I wanted to look at how people deal with VR machines. It’s about how people deal with – and need – this power that they’ve given themselves.

“It’s true that we really are leaving the Industrial Age and moving into the Information Age and it’s a really big transition. But it’s very exciting because there are no rules or regulations and everything, pretty much, is up for grabs. Therefore, you’re shaping a whole new world and writing the constitution of the future.”

Synthetic Pleasures is scheduled for release this summer. The soundtrack is available on Moonshine. For current information and screening dates near you, set your Web browser to http://web.emedia.net/sp.

First appeared in the June 1996 issue of Alternative Press.