For the music geek who has everything and the high-quality MP3 download codes to go with it, here’s something this z-mas: a 1.75-inch button that houses an MP3 player. The MP3 player has one album on it. The album has one track on it. There exist only a hundred of them, and they’re all gone. In honor of the season, I give you the first from your gift guide to shit-that’s-sold-out.
When you plug your headphones into the button, you are assaulted with a shriek of electronic noise from a remixed “Gentleman Amateur,” a track off ZS’ New Slaves LP from last year. Later, a live improvisation emerges from this feedback: a melody formed by backwards-looped electronic noise and a metallic guitar that strums slowly as gunshot snares snap. About 10 minutes in, a live set circa 2010 surfaces out of the noise, a sparse, skeletal composition through which the group’s ambient production touches add color and dimension, as Ben Greenberg and Sam Hillmer take turns delivering solos. The set, alternately driving and drifting, is riveting. There’s good music here.
But you’ll probably never hear it. This is an unusual position for the music reviewer. It is the opposite of the usual situation in the era of high-speed internet, when a reader could just as easily listen to the music being discussed as read the critic’s analysis of it. (Both these situations raise the same question: What is a review for? For another time, maybe.) The music on this button is nowhere on the internet. When away at a conference and lacking the USB cable the button comes with for charging, I did a search for an MP3 of the recording and found there isn’t one online. The regular apparatus of disseminating musical information as ones and zeros has been disrupted by this little button. As far as I can tell, the thing would have to be dismantled or reprogrammed for the music to be ripped to iTunes. A more canny reviewer might take the button to be a thesis on a consumer model that resists pirating, a button that, much as your Amoeba Music shoppers’ yellow bags heavy with LPs, is an ethical marker as much as a brand of coolness, an “I Voted” sticker for the children of Napster.
The straight-up Marxist line of this button would be that it returns the aura of the commodity to the MP3, turning it into an item of conspicuous consumption. The analysis would be that listeners can’t stand to have people not know what is playing in your earphones when they are out in public. In this case, people can literally follow a line from your ears to the album cover on your jacket. But this button is no luxury good. The button is ungainly, odd-looking — too big and heavy, both too thick and larger in diameter than the smaller one-inch button pins that have for many years been cooler than the larger ones, those that remind one of bygone presidential campaigns and 70s smiley faces. It hangs off your body in an odd way, definitely differently than a simple band button does. What am I saying when I walk around with this button pinned to my coat? In a way, everything that we wear, everything that we buy speaks, sings, dances (as Marx puts it) for us, for themselves; in a famous passage from Das Kapital, a table is more than wood and labor when a price becomes attached to it: “As soon as it emerges as a commodity, it changes into a thing which transcends sensuousness. It not only stands with its feet on the ground, but, in relation to all other commodities, it stands on its head, and evolves out of its wooden brain grotesque ideas, far more wonderful than if it were to begin dancing of its own free will.” This product will be a living body. This body will be a corpse.
In this form of a commodity that has come to life in a very literal sense, it is noteworthy that ZS have put a live recording — lived, bodily communication in real time — onto an accessory. The product enacts in miniature the effects of capitalism; the whole experience of going to an experimental music concert has been shattered and one of the fragments pressed into plastic. The world has been taken away, and what we’ve gotten back is a meager fragment we can take with us to work, working to buy back pieces of that lost unity. What is real, listening to this button, is the relationship of consumer to commodity, of listener to product. The way I ended up listening to the button was when everyday social interaction ceased, because the single-track, 75-minute recording didn’t pause reliably. I had to start over every time that social life, real life, intruded. What’s more, you can only play the album all the way through, which is a more restricted listening experience even than the LP era. You cannot fast forward. What you can do, frustratingly, is go back to the start without meaning to. You have to listen to the whole thing to get to the end, which makes it so interesting and possibly ironic that ZS have programmed a live recording into their release titled This Body Will Be A Corpse. Appropriately for an album with such an existential title, I was never so aware of the time it actually takes to get through an album.
In his influential Noise: The Political Economy of Music, Jacques Attali reflects on the relationship between music, capitalism, and lived time. He writes that recording of sound allowed for consumers to begin “stockpiling” time. Unlike perhaps any other art form of the time except cinema, music requires a set duration of time for a composition to unfold, a duration that cannot be sped up. When recordings became available, however, people could buy records to listen to at some future moment: “People must devote their time to producing the means to buy recordings of other people’s time, losing in the process not only the use of their own time, but also the time required to use other people’s time. Stockpiling then becomes a substitute, not a preliminary condition, for use. People buy more records than they can listen to. They stockpile what they want to find the time to hear.” With the digitization of music and music becoming basically free, the condition Attali presciently described has massively accelerated. There are nowhere near enough minutes of free listening time left in our lives to give our devoted attention to all the unlistened music available to us. Instead, the economy of time and living bodies demands that music must be integrated into our lives, soundtracking our commutes, our work, and, now, our outfits. We try to work it into lives and, now, onto bodies, but in vain. As Attali realizes later in the chapter, “The stockpiling of use-time in the commodity object is fundamentally a herald of death.” This body will be a corpse.
But which body is “this body”? Semantically, “this body” is a statement that requires someone to be wearing the button for it to have a referent. Otherwise, “This body will be a corpse” is a statement that refers to all bodies, so it is the same as saying all bodies will be corpses. And yet, it doesn’t say “all bodies,” it says “this body.” Why does that matter? What if we don’t look at the owner of “this body” as you, the listener, the owner of the button, but as your body becoming an extension of the album artwork? It then becomes important that it is an individual body attached to the pin. A body wearing clothes — because, after all, the pin is affixed to the clothes, not the actual body. The artwork is embodying the listener’s clothes and the identity expressed through the clothes, and distinguishing them from the listener, stressing that the body will be a corpse, not “this person” or “I.” All bodies, all mere buttons, will be corpses. This body will be a corpse, the information contained on the button will become inaccessible, only obsolete technology. But not yet. Pinned to a real corpse, the button becomes a sad irony. Pinned to a man or woman, dying, as we all are, it becomes a memento mori, an existential call to arms. As a commodity, it calls on us to put it on. As a piece of art, it calls on us to turn it off.