Recording, Sample, Video, Aura: Walter Benjamin, Joni Mitchell, Mark Romanek, and Janet Jackson
simply for fun (and since us lucky ones seem to have more time nowadays), sharing here a final essay i wrote in my undergraduate days for a course on critical theory. it was 9+ years ago, so things have changed, obviously, but the essay is about the hauntology between walter benjamin's essay “the work of art in the age of its technological reproducibility” (1938–40); joni mitchell's song "big yellow taxi" (1970); and janet jackson's song – featuring q-tip and joni mitchell – and mark romanek-directed music-video, "got 'til it's gone" (both 1997).
this is still the school essay i'm proudest of, and i ended up getting an A for the course, though i'm pretty sure the lecturer never even read it, heh. anyway, i still think the "got 'til it's gone" song – but especially its music-video – are probably one of the most life-affirming artworks around: they are paeans to black love, black resilience, and black joy and celebration, under (continued) repression plus discrimination and (virtual) apartheid. plus also, the eternal vision of alek wek (FB note cover image)... here's to outsiders, everywhere, always:
Question 5. Take any writer on the course and show how your understanding of their theory can be applied to a text or texts of your choice.
"lemme just fuck wit it for a minute, what?" – Q-Tip
“Let no one imagine that in owning a recording he has the music,” John Cage sounds off in Silence, “The very practice of music…is a celebration that we own nothing” (128). More than ever, Cage’s Zen-like warning note rings true in today’s simulated, and, some would say, increasingly artificial aural world. For with the advent of digital technology, we have long moved beyond the illusion of even physically possessing music, to a world where music is now “a radically virtual medium, an art without a face” (Ross 94).
Another sense of loss is conveyed by “Big Yellow Taxi,” Joni Mitchell’s seminal song of urbanisation and its deleterious effects on the environment. This most playful ditty about heart-rending ends is notable for sparking off both instantaneous and long-lived reproductions. As critic William Ruhl notes, “Big Yellow Taxi” quickly became a standard when artists like Bob Dylan, the Neighborhood and Percy Faith covered it, and found greater success with it than Mitchell herself (“Big Yellow Taxi”). The song’s long afterlife was given a further boost in 1997, when Janet Jackson sampled it in “Got ‘Til It’s Gone.” This had the effect of re-appropriating Mitchell’s conservationist context to a more personal one: love found and lost. In its music video, directed by Mark Romanek, the song’s shifting frame of reference is given one final twist: he sets it in post-apartheid Africa, evoking a nostalgically alternative picture of modern black culture.
To Mitchell’s original paean to nature, Walter Benjamin, in “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility,” responds with his own version of ‘paradise.’ He exalts how we were once able to “follow with the eye—while resting on a summer afternoon—a mountain range on the horizon or a brand that casts its shadow on the beholder” (255). While he stops short of singing that ‘they put up a parking lot,’ Benjamin does mourn, “what withers in the age of the technological reproducibility of the work of art is the latter’s aura” (254). He claims that, primarily because of photography and film, art today has been irrevocably divorced from its original context, the “here and now,” and in so doing, is susceptible to political manipulation unless its illusion is exposed (ibid.).
But I would argue that Benjamin gives short shrift to the negative capabilities of both post-modern art and its viewers. Of course, Benjamin is responding to the very real “fascist restoration[s] of myth through mass spectacles and newsreels” of his time, and does admit the revolutionary potential and democratic appeal of reproduced art (Hansen 255). However, he did not foresee that one impact of his work was to make art respond to, and largely nullify his critique. In Mitchell’s song, Jackson’s sampling, and Romanek’s music video, we see signs of art—in both medium and message—adopting a self-reflexive stance and progressive ideology. “Big Yellow Taxi”’s very status as a sound recording meant a loss in communality, but increased its accessibility and longevity. “Got ‘Til It’s Gone” prominently highlights its sampling of Mitchell, pointing us back to its origin. Similarly, Romanek’s music video brings us back to the beginnings, except that in this most important case, it is the roots of the African-American culture. The aura of the artwork then, is very much alive—in our awareness of its signalled absence.
“‘Big Yellow Taxi’ is one of Joni Mitchell's best-known songs, though it is atypical of her work in general, both in terms of music and subject matter,” Ruhl notes (“Big Yellow Taxi”). At least in her folk incarnation, Mitchell’s repertoire consisted mostly of solemn, Blue songs documenting personal upheavals. This only makes “Big Yellow Taxi” all the more striking in its uniqueness. In it, Mitchell depicts a world gone out of sorts, a picture made more acute in its contrast with a jaunty, airy beat. The primary sense of “Big Yellow Taxi” is a favouring of the natural over the man-made and artificial.
In the first verse, Mitchell encompasses the onslaught of man in its totality. The replacement of ‘paradise’ with a ‘parking lot’ is supplemented by facilities that constitute every aspect of a commercial, vapid culture, from day to night: ‘a boutique’ to shop, ‘a swinging hot spot’ to party, and a ‘pink hotel’ to stay in before starting the cycle again. In the next verse, Mitchell highlights the natural cost of man’s frivolity, in all its ludicrous shame. She presents the absurd situation of how ‘They took all the trees / Put ‘em in a tree museum.’ This human impulse to conserve through ersatz preservation undergoes further skewering with Mitchell’s pointing out the root cause of capitalism: ‘they charged the people / A dollar and half just to see ‘em.’ The third verse addresses a more specific case study of nature in trouble. Mitchell rails against ‘DDT,’ a pesticide that affects the reproductive capabilities of birds. Mitchell expands on these negative effects, pleading for the ‘farmer’ to ‘Give me spots on my apples / But leave me the birds and the bees / Please!’ This makes “Big Yellow Taxi” not only a protest against an era-specific chemical (now banned), but a rallying cry for the natural—be it in the environment (the literal ‘birds and the bees’) or in man (the sexual connotation implied).
This enlargement of Mitchell’s target to the universal finds its apotheosis in the final verse, where Mitchell reverts to a personal tone. She relates how ‘Late last night,’ the titular ‘big yellow taxi / Took away my old man.’ She links the personal to the ecological in order to show the personal cost of this new world order. In her rendering, then, the ‘big yellow taxi’ stands as a symbol of the commercial, transitory life that is destroying both nature and man. Not to mention its environmental impact, the ‘big yellow taxi’ aids in her loss of her ‘old man’—be it her lover or father—and establishes the capitalist way of life that brings along with it other symbols like the ‘parking lot’ and ‘pink hotel.’ Ultimately, however, Mitchell casts a resigned and partly sanguine look at this collective lost. Both personal loss of meaning and environmental damage are framed in an evitable manner. This is summed up by the chorus’s cliché, that ‘Don’t it always seem to go / That you don’t know what you’ve got / Till it’s gone.’ Yet, amidst this sad acceptance of loss is a hope that renewal will emerge amidst it. For to Mitchell, it is only through loss that recognition and hopefully gratitude can come about. She highlights valuable disappearances in order to bring about a renewal of meaning—in making us realise what has gone, she points us forward to what still can be saved.
Mitchell’s valuing of the natural over the man-made is also given expression stylistically. In the recording of “Big Yellow Taxi,” Mitchell adheres to the folk tradition of spontaneous, simple, and earthy sounds. Over ringing acoustic guitars, Mitchell sings accompanied by hand-played bongo drums and an eschewal of most studio wizardry, save backing vocals (which are her own). This naturalistic style reaches its fullest height at the song’s conclusion, when Mitchell playfully sings one line of the chorus in a soprano register, before singing the next in a bass tone. She then gleefully laughs, and the sound of her laughter leads us out of the song.
But this seeming one-take quality to the recording is undermined by Benjamin’s reminder that technology, no matter how unpremeditated the burst of expression captured is, introduces an inhuman, if convenient quality to art. I first encountered “Big Yellow Taxi” on LP, but even this arguably does not make up for its loss in aura. As Benjamin gravely posits, technology has made art more accessible to the masses, “[but] it enables the original to meet the recipient halfway, whether in the form of a photograph or in that of a gramophone record…the choral work performed in an auditorium or in the open air is enjoyed in a private room” (254). He points to this original context of music—as a live performance—in order to highlight its irrevocable loss of aura. With the rise of musical technology like LPs and home-theatre systems, then, we have apparently fulfilled Paul Valéry’s ominous warning that “[j]ust as water, gas, and electricity are brought into our houses from far off to satisfy our needs with minimal effort, so we shall be supplied with visual or auditory images, which will appear and disappear at a simple movement of the hand, hardly more than a sign” (qtd. in Benjamin 253)—music has been reduced to the level of another banal, basic necessity.
When applied to folk music like Mitchell’s, this sense of loss is especially acute. For folk music stresses a sense of communality, and a shared union, whatever its imperfections—as Mitchell herself requests the audience on her live album, Miles of Aisles, “Let’s sing this song together, OK? This song doesn’t sound good with one lonely voice, it sounds good with the more on voices on it the better, and the more out of tune voices on it the better.” While recordings were purportedly meant to supplement live performances, they have now clearly replaced it (Ross 94). The implications of Benjamin’s argument are multifarious. As Jody Berland argues, “music no longer depends on a shared social space. Now it can be heard anywhere, in any context, drawn into any kind of discourse” (35). While Benjamin warns of its vulnerability to political manipulation, or the “aestheticizing of politics,” I would argue that in this case, technology has rendered “Big Yellow Taxi” susceptible to being used against its very cause (270). As previously mentioned, the song enjoys a long after-life in covers, which only points towards one thing—its commercial viability. While Mitchell may have been originally protesting against commercial expansion, “Big Yellow Taxi” has long been incorporated into the commercial canon, thanks to its exposure via technological reproducibility. In 1995, a “Traffic Jam” remix of the song was included in the Friends TV show soundtrack—a very sign of the "yuppie" syndrome of shopping and partying that Mitchell was originally objecting to.
A more positive re-appropriation of “Big Yellow Taxi” occurs with Janet Jackson’s “Got ‘Til It’s Gone.” The song samples the chorus refrain of ‘Don’t it always seem to go / That you don’t know what you got till it’s gone’ and remodels it into a context of love found and loss. In so doing, Jackson seemingly expands on the last, personal verse of Mitchell’s and brings it to its full, logical and modern conclusion. In “Got ‘Til It’s Gone,” Jackson and the rapper Q-Tip play the parts of bickering lovers. Jackson adopts the wistful, loved role, while Q-Tip fills in the unsentimental, lover role. In her breathy whisper, Jackson pines, ‘If I could turn back the hands of time / Make you fall in love / In love with me again,’ to which Q-Tip retorts in a taunting rap, ‘Now you realisin’ when them nights go long, right? / Campaign for me to stay when you know that I’m gone, right?’ But even amidst this seemingly hopelessly lost cause (‘love…impeached’) comes a tenuous recognition—in the same way that Mitchell’s original brought about an awareness of loss, and possibility for future change. Q-Tip concludes his rap, which lists the faults of his lover (meddling friends, believing the bullshit gossip) with the question ‘Now why you wanna go and do that / Love, huh?’ repeated eight times. With each forceful repetition, it becomes clearer that it is not only Jackson who is yearning, ‘wishin’ / Thinkin’, dreamin’ about you.’ The song ends with a single word, ‘Dust,’ but through the glorious manoueuvrings the lovers have enacted, the possibility that they are mutually dusting the dirt off their relationship, rather than letting it settle to dust, emerges.
The greater significance of this gracefully slight song lies in its status as an electronically created reality. More so than Mitchell’s studio created “Big Yellow Taxi,” “Got ‘Til It’s Gone” precludes the possibility of replicating the song live without the aid of machines. The song’s sampling of Mitchell’s refrain relates with Benjamin’s concern that art is now increasingly being created for re-appropriation: “To an ever-increasing degree,” he writes, “the work reproduced becomes the reproduction of a work designed for reproducibility” (256). This sentiment may not apply to Mitchell, but it does apply to Jackson. The song’s sampling a standard signals that all in the past is fair game for re-appropriation, and by implication, once the present becomes the past, it too can and should be re-adapted. In other words, the artwork’s “exhibition value” has long since displaced its “cult value,” and in terms of modern pop music, increased exposure is deemed to be nothing but positive (257).
Benjamin’s concern with music created quite specifically for public display—“although a Mass may have been may have been no less suited to public presentation than a symphony, the symphony came into being at a time when the possibility of such presentation promised to be greater”—is that this new exhibitionistic work, “a construct [Gebilde],” has “quite new functions. Among these, the one we are conscious of—the artistic function—may subsequently be seen as incidental” (ibid.). Benjamin is here referring to political functions, but it is curious how his reservations about art serving other potentially negative purposes because of its increasing divorce from reality was shared by hip-hop. As the music critic Alex Ross recounts, “serious young d.j.s like Chuck D, on Long Island, laughed when a resourceful record company put out a rap novelty single called “Rapper’s Delight.” How could a single record do justice to those endless parties in the Bronx where, in a multimedia rage of beats, tunes, raps, dances, and spray-painted images, kids managed to forget for a while that their neighborhood had become a smoldering ruin?” (99). Of course, the record companies not only managed to simulate these spontaneous expressions, but also spawned hip-hop into a veritable industry. Benjamin’s anxiety then, was well-founded: while, it is, of course, less serious than fascism, the new hyper-commerciality of hip-hop and R&B (of which “Got ‘Til It’s Gone” can be said to fall under) not only withers music’s aura, but uses it serve the decidedly non-artistic ends of commerce. Sampling is now another way of selling out, and cashing in.
At the same time, “Got ‘Til It’s Gone” stands as an artistic exception to this commercial order. Its sampling of “Big Yellow Taxi” is especially reverent towards the original, signalling back to it through various means. The title of the song itself constitutes of Mitchell’s words, Q-Tip appends the sample with ‘Joni Mitchell never lied,’ the word ‘gone’ in ‘That you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone’ is self-consciously erased with record-scratching (by then a passé technique, surely), and throughout, the crackle and pop of vinyl can be heard. These overt techniques highlight the song’s indebtedness to the pass for two reasons. Firstly, it tallies with “Got ‘Til It’s Gone”’s theme—a desire to return to the past. Secondly, it romanticises the bygone days of music, framing it as a golden era upon which Jackson and Q-Tip are beholden to. These undisguised signposts point even the casual listener back to rediscover its historical source, even when R&B is not intuitively connected to folk. Through this musical mélange of genres and time periods, “Got ‘Til It’s Gone” stands as a repudiation of Benjamin’s assertion that the age of reproducibility brings about “the liquidation of the value of tradition in the cultural heritage” (254). While Benjamin is speaking of film, music’s signalling back to its past can also be said to be productive. And at least in this case, technology—in both sampling and recording (which extends a song’s longevity)—can be said to allow us to re-discover history on our own terms. In fact, Jackson re-creates even Mitchell’s concluding laugh, and its sense of spontaneity and celebration has not aged a day. If anything, it is more direct and democratic—in Benjamin’s words themselves, “At any moment, the reader is ready to become a writer…The progressive reaction is characterized by an immediate, intimate fusion of pleasure” (262-4).
“Big Yellow Taxi” undergoes a final, even more authentic twist with Romanek’s music video for “Got ‘Til It’s Gone.” His modus operandi is one of inversion: sideline the predominant tropes of hip-hop music videos, and prominently feature progressive images of black culture that it ignores. In an interview about the video’s beginnings, Romanek states, “I said I would like to make a video that depicted black culture that wasn’t so obsessed, as a lot of the hip-hop videos were at that period and still are, with materialism and sexism” (“Got ‘Til It’s Gone”). This statement of purpose bears out in the video, which features the broad spectrum of black culture. Romanek portrays the marginalised sectors of the community—homosexuals, albinos, little people, the deformed—alongside their mainstream counterparts, positing an alternative but equally legitimate form of beauty. Moreover, the video gains a forward-thinking air because of its setting in post-apartheid South Africa. This is signalled by the “Slegs Blankes (European Only)” sign on the building, which is joyfully contradicted by the exclusively black party-goers inside, in addition to the bottle that smashes against it. Romanek, then, captures the post-apartheid euphoria that enveloped South Africa’s black community, in all its variety, in order to remind us of its painful roots that makes today’s selective representation of black culture all the more tragic.
Michael Chion posits that “[c]inephiles especially attack music videos as eye-assaulting; they dislike the stroboscopic effect of the rapid editing” (166). This disrepute surrounding the music video finds a parallel in Benjamin’s critique of film’s purportedly immobilising quality, which makes it ideal for propaganda. He calls film-watching “[r]eception in distraction” (269), contrasting it with painting—“The painting invites the view to contemplation; before it, he can give himself up to his train of associations. Before a film image, he cannot do so. No sooner has he seen it than it has already changed. It cannot be fixed on” (267). As Miriam Hansen frames Benjamin’s argument, “film rehearses in the realm of reception what the conveyor belt imposes upon human beings in the realm of production” (257).
Going by this reasoning, the music video should stand as an even more dangerous medium of transmission. But its reputation for inducing mechanical viewing finds Romanek’s “Got ‘Til It’s Gone” at variance. Romanek employs self-referential techniques, in the same way that Jackson’s re-appropriation does, that points us back, critically, to its source inspiration. The video, from the outset, highlights one of its settings—the photo studio, at which a large crowd is assembled, staring at the camera. Throughout, Romanek sets up montages of different personalities getting their photograph taken—a man in a fez, a boxer, an underwear-clad man. So it is no wonder to discover that Romanek’s primary inspiration was photography, in particular, the works of Malian photographers Seydou Keïta and Malick Sidibé, Nigerian Samuel Fosso, and South Africa’s own Drum magazine. He invites us to return to these sources by virtually re-creating and gesturing to them. For example, Romanek’s photography studio uses as a background a colourful bedspread, which was Keïta’s practice, and Romanek also has a man prominently read Drum magazine. This stands as a contradiction to Benjamin’s sentiments because we as viewers are forced to dig deeper into our associations with the images. Finally, then, this video displays a potential for a more positive, post-modern reception of the music video: its “decentering process may release the viewer from the conventional codes of the dominant culture. This disorienting experience liberates the viewer” (Banks 7).
With all this being said, Benjamin himself does admit that the reproduced artwork has potential for creating beneficial change. He writes, “We do not deny that in some cases today’s films can also foster revolutionary criticism of social conditions, even of property relations” (262). Nevertheless, it must be said that regardless of how close technological reproducibility comes close to re-creating or re-appropriating the artwork’s aura for positive ends, there is still something crucial that will forever be missing. As Ross puts it, “The paradox of recording is that it can preserve forever those disappearing moments of sound but never the spark of humanity that generates them. This is a paradox common to technological existence: everything gets a little easier and a little less real” (100). In the case of “Big Yellow Taxi” and its many lives, then, it can be said that we can only truly appreciate the human touch, fellow feeling, and perhaps even art's inexplicable aura once they are absent—alas, we always, only know what we’ve got, it seems, ’til it’s gone.
Banks, Jack. “Constructing Video Dreams: Music Video in a Commercial Culture.” Monopoly Television: MTV’s Quest to Control the Music. Colorado: Westview Press, 1996. 1-19. Text.
Benjamin, Walter. “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility.” Selected Writings Volume 4 1938-1940. Trans. Edmund Jephcott et al. Eds. Howard Eiland and Michael W. Jennings. Cambridge: Belknap Press, 2003. 251-83. Text.
Berland, Jody. “Sound, Image and Social Space: Music Video and Media Reconstruction.” Sound and Vision: The Music Video Reader. Eds. Simon Frith, Andrew Goodwin and Lawrence Grossberg. London: Routledge, 1993. 25-43. Text.
Cage, John. Silence: Lectures and Writings. Middleton: Wesleyan University Press, 1961. Text.
Chion, Michael. “Television, Video Art, Music Video.” Audio-Vision: Sound on Screen. Ed. and Trans. Claudia Gorbman. New York: Columbia University Press, 1994. 157-68. Text.
Diawara, Manthia. “The 1960s in Bamako: Malick Sidibé and James Brown.” Everything But the Burden: What White People are Taking From Black Culture. Ed. Greg Tate. New York: Harlem Books, 2003. 164-90. Text.
Hansen, Miriam. “Benjamin, Cinema and Experience: ‘The Blue Flower in the Land of Technology’.” Walter Benjamin: Critical Evolutions in Cultural Theory, Vol. II: Modernity. Ed. Peter Osborne. London: Routledge, 2005. 253-83. Text.
Jackson, Janet. “Got ‘Til It’s Gone.” The Velvet Rope. Feat. Q-Tip. Virgin, 1997. CD.
Keïta, Seydou. Seydou Keïta. Ed. André Magnin. Zurich: Scalo, 1997. Text.
Mitchell, Joni. “Big Yellow Taxi.” Ladies of the Canyon. Reprise, 1970. LP.
Romanek, Mark, dir. “Got ‘Til It’s Gone.” Director’s Series Vol. 4: The Work of Director Mark Romanek. Palm Pictures, 2005. DVD.
Ross, Alex. “The Record Effect.” The New Yorker 6 Jun. 2005: 94-100. Print.
Ruhlmann, William. “Big Yellow Taxi.” All Music Guide. Song Review. 21 Apr. 2011. Web.