Experimental music and art collective
In response to an age of information overload, a self-professed group of musical/cultural terrorists known as Negativland employed the art form of collage—mixing sounds from eclectic sources—to its fullest extent, pushing the limits of popular music to expose the contradictions inherent to mainstream cultural consumption. Although the concept sounds a bit serious, Negativland are actually both humorous and thought-provoking. For over two decades, the “culture jamming” collective has exposed the effects of media, specifically radio and television advertising and the music industry, on consumerism, manipulating sounds and images with a joking irreverence. According to the Negativland website, the group “covets insightful wackiness from anywhere, low-tech approaches whenever possible, telling humor, and vital social targets of any kind. Without ideological preaching, Negativland often becomes a subliminal culture sampling service concerned with making art about everything we aren’t supposed to notice.”
Not surprisingly, Negativland are avid defenders of fans’ rights, fair use, and freedom of expression. “Negativland believes that collage has a well-established artistic license to work in mass media or anywhere else free of charge and free of [legal] charges,” said the band, as quoted by Fredrick L. McKissack, Jr., in the Progressive. This belief, however, led to fleeting but disabling celebrity in 1991 when Island Records sued Negativland for creating an artistic joke with a record by the popular Irish rock band U2. Negativland’s former label, SST, also sued the group for damages. In the end, Island dropped the suit on the condition that thousands of copies of Negativland’s U2 EP, which contained a parody of the song “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” be recalled and destroyed. After the incident, Negativland began releasing subsequent material on their own Seeland label.
Interestingly, much of their appeal derives from the group’s own nostalgic attraction to the advertising and popular music of their youth, the same media forms they spent their adult lives ripping apart. According to Spin magazine’s D. Strauss, Negativland’s dirty secret “is that they love the media more than Joanie loves Chachi,” proving that advertising does, indeed, actually work. Formed in 1979 near San Francisco in Berkeley, California, by Mark Hosier, David Wills, and Richard Lyons, Negativland started out using tape loops to create rather formless cut and paste exercises. They released their first album, Negativland, in 1980, followed by Points in 1981.
Also in 1981, the trio began hosting and producing the ongoing program Over the Edge, a weekly, three-hour long live radio show featuring a chaotic mix of skits, music, phone-ins, and sampling. Not long after debuting the show, they were joined by tape manipulator Don Joyce of the KPFA Berkeley community radio station, and the group’s mission become more clear. He provided the group with a catalogue of radio sound effects and jingles that complemented the existing trio’s irreverent take on media manipulation.
Drawing their influence primarily from the output of the music industry, while also incorporating radio and television samples, Negativland developed an approach they called “culture jamming.” Since then, critics have adopted the term not only to describe the work of Negativland, but in reference to the work of other media artists and activists as well. The first example of Negativland’s mix-and-match noise/idea sculptures on compact disc arrived in 1983 with A Big 10-8 Place. In 1984, Negativland released the first volume of the Over the Edge compilations, edited versions of the foursome’s radio show comprising looped noise, pranks, puns, tape manipulation, evidence of copyright infringement, and other media mischief.
Much of Negativland’s output thereafter would similarly result in comic sequences and sketches rather than “music” per se. Nevertheless, they soon amassed a sizable following among the rock counterculture. Pockets within the mainstream, too, took notice. Pop star Marky Mark, also known as actor Mark Wahlberg, even used a sample from Escape from Noise, Negativland’s next album, on his debut. Released in 1987, Escape from Noise featured “Christianity Is Stupid,” the song central to a prank that gave Negativland their first instance of widespread attention. After reading a news story about a teenager who murdered his parents with an axe, the group issued a phony press release stating
Members include Mark Hosier, Don Joyce (joined band c. 1981), Richard Lyons, David Wills
Formed in 1979 near San Francisco in Berkeley, CA; began hosting and producing the ongoing program Over the Edge, a weekly, three-hour long live radio show featuring a chaotic mix of skits, music, phone-ins, and sampling, 1981; coined the term “culture jamming,” 1984; released Escape from Noise, 1987; released Helter Stupid, a funny yet troubling commentary about the state of the media; released U2 EP, 1991; published book/CD called Fair Use: The Story of the Letter U and the Numeral 2, compiling legal documents, press releases, correspondence, and articles relating to the legal battle between over the U2 EP, 1995; released Dispepsi, 1997; embarked on True/False 2000 Tour, released book/CD project Death Sentences of the Polished and Structurally Weak, 2000.
Addresses: Mail order and information —Negativland, 1920 Monument Blvd., MF-1, Concord, CA 94520, phone: (510) 466-5253, fax: (510) 420-0469. Website —NegativWorldWide Webland : http://www.negativland.com.
that Negativland’s song had instigated the killing. The press took the statement seriously, causing the story to escalate out of control.
However, a news furor was just what Negativland wanted. For their next album, 1989’s Helter Stupid, a funny yet troubling commentary about the state of the media, the group widely sampled takes from the frenzy. In 1991, following the release of the EP U2, Negativland again found themselves at the center of media attention. Containing parodic versions of the U2 song “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” and out-takes from Casey Kasem’s American Top 40 radio show, the record angered both Kasem and U2’s label, Island Records. Consequently, U2 and their label and music publisher, as well as Kasem, sued Negativland for copyright and trademark infringement, leading to the near collapse of SST Records.
Throughout the ordeal, Negativland garnered a groundswell of public sympathy, and articles in support of the group ran in Rolling Stone, Wired, and Creem, among others. Many rock fans chastised U2 for their passive role in attacking artistic expression, criticisms that peaked with U2’s Zooropa tour, for which they used cut and paste exercises similar to the previous work of Negativland. At one point, fair-use fans took to wearing “Kill Bono” T-shirts. Negativland later documented the incident by publishing a 270-page book in 1995 called Fair Use: The Story of the Letter U and the Numeral 2, compiling legal documents, press releases, correspondence, and articles relating to the legal battle between Negativland and Island, SST, Kasem, and other parties. Packaged with a CD that deliberately used samples drawn from several high-profile musicians, the book was an expanded version of Negativland’s CD/magazine package The Letter U and the Numeral 2, which was released in 1992.
However, the encounter did little to curb Negativland’s appetite for exercising their freedom of expression and fighting for fair use. According to the band, copyright laws should distinguish incidents of bootlegging or piracy from collage. Since the U2 ordeal, the group continued to release material from their Over the Edge show, trample over the existing copyright laws, and expose media hypocrisy. In 1997, Negativland released a full-length ode to a soft drink entitled Dispepsi, hoping to enlighten listeners about how advertising intrudes on their lives.
“What we’re talking about is the presence of advertising in our brains and in our lives,” Hosier told McKissack. “What’s happening to our public lives? You can get away from some advertising by not watching television. Fine. But what about when you’re walking down the street? And I ask, ‘What gives you the right to enter my head?’” But in an ironic twist, the album actually helped rather than hurt the corporate cola giant. Apparently, the band began hearing reports that some people, after seeing a Pepsi can, began to say to friends,” Hey, have you heard the new Negativland CD?” In response to such reports, Hosier gleefully replied,” That is so cool.”
In addition to releasing 18 CDs, including the EPs Happy Heroes in 1998 and The ABCs of Anarchy in 1999, a collaboration with British pop stars Chumbawamba, Negativland were the subjects of the 1995 feature film Sonic Outlaws by Craig Baldwin and composed the soundtrack for a 1997 documentary about advertising entitled The Ad and the Ego. In the spring of 2000, the group embarked on their first tour in seven years, the epic True/False 2000 Tour, complete with advertising and instructional films, slides, tape collages, and some “straight” songs. Not conceived to promote any particular release, most of the show’s material had never been heard before. Negativland released a new book/CD project, Death Sentences of the Polished and Structurally Weak, later that year.
Negativland, 1980; reissued, Seeland, 1993.
Points, 1981; reissued, Seeland, 1992.
A Big 10-8 Place, 1983; reissued, Seeland, 1993.
Over the Edge Volume 1: Jamcon ’84, SST, 1984; reissued Seeland, 1994.
Escape from Noise, SST, 1987; reissued, Seeland, 1999.
Helter Stupid, SST, 1989.
U2, (EP), SST, 1991.
Guns (EP), Seeland, 1992.
The Letter U and the Numeral 2 (magazine/CD), Seeland, 1992.
Free, Seeland, 1993.
Over the Edge Volume 5: Crosley Bendix, Seeland, 1993.
Over the Edge Volume 6: The Willsaphone Stupid Show, Seeland, 1994.
Over the Edge Volume 7: Time Zones Exchange Project, Seeland, 1994.
Fair Use: The Story of the Letter U and the Numeral 2, (book/CD), Seeland, 1995.
Over the Edge Volume 8: Sex Dirt, Seeland, 1995.
Dispepsi, Seeland, 1997.
Happy Heroes (EP), Seeland, 1998.
The ABCs of Anarchy (EP), Seeland, 1999.
Death Sentences of the Polished and Structurally Weak (book/CD), Seeland, 2000.
No Other Possibility, Seeland, 1989.
Buckley, Jonathan and others, editors, Rock: The Rough Guide, Rough Guides Ltd., 1999.
Los Angeles Times, June 4, 1999.
Progressive, November 1997.
Spin, July 2000, p. 68.
DIW Magazine, http://www.diwmagazine.com(August 11, 2000).
NegativWorldWideWebland, http://www.negativland.com (August 11, 2000).
Wired News, http://www.wired.com/news/(August 11, 2000).
Yahoo! Music, http://www.musicfinder.yahoo.com (August 11, 2000).
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