Consolation in Money and Money in Consolation

Earlier this month, the musician Brian Eno set up the following theory in an interview with the German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung: “In every art form, the first generation is absurdly overpaid. Pop musicians of the 60″s, 70″s, 80″s earned ridiculous amounts of money – Much more than we would have deserved, given our contribution to society.”  What is most exciting about this statement is the fact that Brian Eno is a musician and not an economist. Just imagine that exact same statement about the incomes of pop musicians made by a Wall Street investment banker in defense of the huge government-backed bonus that he just had pocketed. Most certainly the poor big business representative would be flooded with nasty comments about just how much he and his lot have lost touch with reality – by opting to evaluate something as sacred as culture in nothing more than cold-hearted monetary terms. (However, if Eno”s theorem really holds true, then the overpayment of first-generation investment bankers would disappear by itself for all upcoming generations)

Brian Eno”s knowledgeability in the financial assessment of contributions to society perhaps stems from the Microsoft Corporation, for whom he composed a six-second startup sound for their 1995 operating system.

The Windows 95 Startup Sound:

In ancient times, many works of art such as Greek theatre pieces, the Bible, Indian Vedas, etc. aimed at the betterment and self-reflection of their recipients and thus at the way people lived in the reality outside of the piece of art itself. Pop music however, aimed at improving the moods of its listeners within a closed world of consumption – fans were supposed to admire the perfection of the art as well as the perfection of the artists and pay money for albums and concerts. Of course pop also wanted to change the world and especially society, but its attempts at transforming the means of pop music consumption itself were rather half-hearted. Pop music did not attempt to direct its adherents away from their consumption of pop music, for example by encouraging them to employ their skills to help Africa instead of indulging in hedonistic pop consumption all day and night long. Instead, pop even tied in outer causes into its own world via charity concerts such as Live Aid, where people were told that visiting pop concerts not only was fun, but also helped Africa.

That in 2010 pop music really seems to have opened up towards offering non-commercial, non-consumerist advice to its listeners can be seen in the following piece by Yael Naïm in which she repeatedly and intensely insinuates her listeners to “Go to the River!”:

Thus, pop nobly progressed from its corporate-driven roots by admirably embracing the thoroughly non-commercial idea that rivers were a catch-all remedy to absolutely all problems of the troubled listener. Finally, this was a song that did not imply that simply listening to the very song itself would sooth your battered soul, but instead urged you to go the next water stream available for consolation. So all-encompassing is Naïm”s concept that no differentiation is made between the eco-paradises of rivers flowing through protected nature preserves and, say the black, bad-smelling rivers flowing through the slums of India. No matter where you live – your local river has the answer.

Just as I was contemplating about the historical significance of this song to pop music written by the French-Israeli singer of Tunisian descent Yael Naïm, my French Middle-East-and-Maghreb specialist office colleague remarked that the song sounded like it would fit in TV commercials for internet providers. I was rather dismayed at this unexpected intrusion of commercialism into the pure, untouched liaison of nature and culture that I had just discovered. Yet, of course it didn”t take long to find out that indeed it had been corporate guru Steve Jobs himself, who had propelled Yael Naïm to stardom by hand-picking her previous song “New Soul” in order to highlight the new thin soul of the MacBook Air in 2009:

Alas, with a heavy heart I had to realize that Naim was only able to sing so delightfully unmarred by the pressures of capitalism because she had already sold her new soul to Apple. I was rather sad. Mercedes Benz at least hat to wait until Janis Joplin died before purchasing the song rights from Joplin”s sister to cynically use her anti-materialistic lyrics in TV ads from 1995 onwards:

Janis Joplin – “Mercedes Benz” (1970):

So was “Go to the River” not as innocent has I presumed it to be after all? Wasn”t it just too easy to interpret “rivers” as an analogy of the ever-flowing digital streams of the internet, so that Naim”s “go to the river” seemed to be just waiting to be purchased by he highest-bidding internet provider in need of a catchy tune to accompany its next commercial?

Just as I was about to despair, I noticed: it didn”t really matter. For the commercial transaction value of anything (or its usability in commercials) indeed does not carry any information about its “contribution to society” – neither for the “first generation” nor for any subsequent generations. You neither have to be an economist  nor do you have to be Brian Eno to know that – you can just quickly try it out on yourself: Remind yourself of how much money you earn per month. Then estimate the monetary value of your “contribution to society” in that time span and compare the two figures. Rest assured that the two numbers will never ever match up. If you”re still not convinced, just follow Yael Naim”s advice – no matter where you heard it, be it the radio, youtube or perhaps in an upcoming quirky TV ad: The river will know.

Don”t be cynical this week (and don”t forget to go to the river!),