Negativland’s satirical wonderland
Adrian Mark Lore | Thursday, November 3, 2016
The plunderphonics group Negativland is not known for producing great music. Their albums are not sophisticated, their tracks are not enjoyable and their themes are just plain strange. Yet to grade their highly experimental recordings using the same rubric of traditional “music” would be mistaken. Theirs is not great music — it’s great anti-music.
Their satirical prowess is unmatched by any group with their level of technical dexterity. Their breakthrough record “Escape From Noise” (1987) was a comical expose of traditional suburban values. By featuring intact clips of rock-fearing middle-class mothers and the pseudo-religious proselytizing of paranoid anti-communists, the group sticks out its tongue at these individuals in manifestly Dadaist fashion. At the same time, by juxtaposing an eclectic variety of skillfully “chopped and screwed” sounds with these ostensibly ludicrous sentiments, Negativland injects substance into the satire. Similarly, the group pokes fun at soft drink corporations on their unsubtle “Dispepsi” (1997) through the manipulation of prime-time advertisements, tribal music rituals, court testimonies and other mass media snippets.
The group’s latest release is much different from these past recordings, however. It is the ninth installment of a series of mock radio broadcasts, collectively named “Over the Edge,” whose most recent issue was released well over two decades prior. While the release is divided into many discrete tracks, the entire record flows seamlessly like a podcast. Yet it is not simply the opinionated chatter of self-centered individuals; it is a mashup of disjointed yet memorable stories that swell into a mercilessly satirical cultural statement.
The setting is Sausalito, California, the headquarters of a fictional shopping program – The Chopping Channel – that seems extracted from a dystopian film. Your host is Bud Choke, a consummate sycophant who gathers a colorful cast of fictional characters to comment on various issues and sell their bizarre products on the airwaves, telling their stories amid a gaudily arranged salad of sounds that ingeniously drive the entire narrative forward. The project sounds insufferable on paper, but in practice the record is quite innovative and comical, mirroring the humor of satirical media like The Onion.
The guests on the show are its most memorable features. First, Raymond Bien joins to testify about the state of his shady institution, General Injectables and Signals Incorporated, which has “the modest goal of translating the world’s various governments, religions and ethical belief systems into various kinds of money.” The character is a clear stab at the faceless figures who manipulate the world around them for their own profit, and perhaps at the failures of globalization and capitalism altogether.
Then comes Man of the World, an individual of ambiguous identity who evasively claims to be from “all over the world.” Choke is unsatisfied by this introduction, later asking, “But what country are you really from?” When Man of the World repeats his usual answer, Choke retorts, “Are we bombing your country yet? I certainly hope so, because I don’t know why we’re putting up with this.” It is horribly poignant — and relevant — how sincerely Choke appears to suggest that the United States ought to be bombing “all over the world.” This is one of the more piercing moments of the record.
There are other characters and topics, too, like the middle-aged Velma who seems to know very little about anything at all, yet insists on making ignorant comments about race. Not long after, a nameless salesperson spews: “Now, if you’re white, why wouldn’t you want to go native with one of our world-brand ethnic prosthetics?” These moments come across as jabbing indictments of cultural appropriation in Western society.
On “Over the Edge Vol 9: The Chopping Channel,” Negativland delivers their most pointed statements since the years of “Escape From Noise” and “Dispepsi,” with powerful commentary on a variety of subjects from cannibalism to spirit animals to human trafficking. Overall, the mock podcast is an intelligent and genuinely humorous statement against the ubiquitous assumptions of Western supremacy that pervade mass media and consumerist culture.
Album: “Negativland Presents Over the Edge Vol. 9: The Chopping Channel”
Label: Seeland Records
Favorite Track: “Food and Water”
If you like: The Onion, John Oswald, Steven Colbert