Because of how overstuffed my email inbox got while I was away for half of August, I spent the better part of September sorting through it all and therefore only recently noticed an email containing clips from Sharon Van Etten’s Labor Day weekend performance on the Jimmy Kimmel show. I have an unabashed soft spot for Ms. Van Etten, so on went the video. As the song, “Tarifa,” was playing, I began to scroll through the comments. There were only 14 of them, and as dedicated a comment-avoider as I try to be, it seems only human nature to be curious about what other people are saying about something or someone you like. Especially something as theoretically non-controversial as a late-night musical performance.

I should have known better. Down near the bottom I came across a comment that made me gasp, not out of surprise (alas, nothing really surprises me when it comes to barbaric comments on YouTube) but out of feeling viscerally attacked myself by these savage words. I am pasting the comment in here not to be sensational (I warn you it’s not pretty) but to stare it down with stouthearted determination. We have too easily learned to ignore this kind of thing, which is its own kind of awful. This is a brutish verbal attack on an unsuspecting human being, based largely, it seems, on her being a woman. And it just sits there like another part of a normal conversation:

SVE screen shot 9-24

On the one hand this is just a passing, all-too-common moment on YouTube. On the other hand, how on earth did we get here? How did we get to a place where we accept this level of vicious, assaultive ignorance staring at us, day after day, even on media outlets from large and respectable companies? The Jimmy Kimmel Live show posted the Sharon Van Etten clip on its official YouTube page, which is where this comment was posted and where, more than one month later, it remains.

It doesn’t have to be like this

I am well aware people have been complaining about comments on the web for as long as there have been comments on the web. By 2014, the more enlightened web denizens do their best not to read comments at all. But here’s the thing. It doesn’t have to be like this. There is no law of nature or country requiring web sites to allow people who cannot be civil to participate. With any will at all, any web site could be operated in such a way as to prevent first and foremost the lllSparta x’s of the world from sullying public discourse with words as hateful, violent, and insanely stupid as those he posted under the SVE video. But web comments could also be far more generally open-minded and supportive and interested in informed oppositional views than they commonly tend to be. That we have somehow accepted the guiding principle of belligerence and obnoxiousness is a failure of will on our part, not the way it has to be.

This is not a “freedom of speech” issue, but boy does this get confused pretty much all the time. No one is restraining lllSparta x from saying whatever pops in his head either to any friends he may have (?) or on a web site of his own construction. Neither is anyone preventing all the needlessly hostile other folks who clog up comment boards everywhere from being as hostile as they want, somewhere of their own making. That’s all free speech really means, you see—that our government can’t take action to prohibit people from expressing themselves. Collective entities of all kinds, whether corporations or sports teams or non-profits or what have you, remain empowered to decide that they don’t like what you’ve said and to create consequences for you—anything from removing what you’ve said from a web site to terminating any economic relationship they might have with you (see Schneider, Rob). The point being that neither YouTube nor Jimmy Kimmel is required by the Constitution to allow the likes of lllSparta x to speak his mind on their watch.

What it comes down is this: do we want to be civilized together or not? And if so, we might surely decide that repulsive, inappropriate, and/or disrespectful remarks need not be tolerated in a public forum.

So this is not a free speech issue but I am sorry to report that it is a free market issue, in that the reason that companies running web sites routinely do not police their comment sections has little to do with misguided application of the First Amendment and a whole lot to do with the fact that an unfettered comment section is a sure-fire way to drive page views up. First of all, goes the theory, people love to be able to leave comments, so allowing unhindered comments is a traffic booster. With web sites only ever concerned about quantity, anything that might reduce participation—such as requiring people to use their real names, or alerting people that all comments will require approval before being posted—is a negative thing. Because page views.

Second of all, continues the theory, rude or controversial or hostile comments, while not actively encouraged, are seen not merely as a necessary, traffic-boosting evil but maybe even as a valued if rowdy part of the web site’s operational center. It’s like a car wreck on the highway: people can’t help but stop and look. And perhaps engage in their own reaction to it. Because page views.

Further arguments are often made that excuse uncivilized web comments on the grounds that it would be too labor-intensive, and therefore too expensive, to expect huge companies with tons of online content to be able to effectively police all the comments being made minute to minute and hour to hour. To which I say: if it’s too expensive to police, then the only responsible answer is to remove the comment section entirely. Otherwise it’s like saying well, it’s too expensive to make sure our toys are safe, so we’ll just manufacture them without designing them or testing them properly. The fact that we collectively have allowed unmonitored comments to poison our online public spaces for the better part of the last 20 years is no excuse. This is all still early in the life of this new technology. We simply made a mistake in our first approach. We are entitled to correct it.

The limits of self-policing

I understand that we live in a world in which a certain benighted percentage of the human population is going to think thoughts like what lllSparta x posted on the Jimmy Kimmel YouTube page and will no doubt say things like this to their similarly debilitated buddies, and that’s the way the world has always been and alas may always be. But what far-fetched societal logic accepts sociopathic declarations as some kind of new public-behavior norm? How is it that lllSparta x could not only write what he wrote on a Google-owned, ABC-sanctioned web page but that the comment remains there, week after week after week?

And yes any YouTube user could “report” the comment as “spam or abuse” and maybe it would be taken down, at some point. Or maybe not. While repugnant, this comment might not, after all, be deemed literally “abusive.” But anyway: is being “spam” or being “abuse” the only two categories a comment can fall into to merit removal, or even consideration for removal?

And more to the point: why is it up to the people who visit YouTube to monitor such things? To assume a community of millions can self-police is disingenuous at best; the act of policing each other becomes just as liable to be abused as the original area being policed.

What the situation reveals is the lie at the heart of the democratization myth that has marred digital-based culture since the birth of the web itself. And the lie is this: that interactions involving millions of strangers can somehow mimic the interactions of small groups of known friends and acquaintances—that, in other words, the rules that govern the latter can in any effective way be employed to inform the former.

As it turns out, how people behave among friends cannot be scaled up to multiple thousands of strangers.

This is why, as one example, the personal act of letting a friend borrow and rip a CD is not in any way related to the impersonal act of uploading a CD so millions of strangers can download it. More to the point at hand, this is why three friends living together will easily enough make arrangements to keep their common living room acceptably clean but why three million people visiting a web site have no mutual understanding about keeping their common digital space acceptably clean, and should not be expected to.

Supervision and long-term self-interest

Yes, digital technology has widened the scope of our personal lives, giving us the capacity to interact with a wider and more far-ranging flock of contacts than was possible in our analog past. But there remains a relatively low threshold beyond which some (many? most?) individuals quite literally cannot extend their direct empathy, and therefore beyond which we collectively cannot be relied upon to be good to one another.

Once the number of people are gathered in a place, digital or otherwise, exceeds the possibility of personal relationships between all who are gathered, their interactions can no longer be left to operate without clear and present guidance. The loudest voices, expressing the most disheartening sentiments, are rarely if ever representative of the majority, but left to romp in digital space without supervision these are the voices that often appear to dominate and, over time, will ruin whatever the reasonable majority might otherwise be hoping to create together.

What may be most disheartening of all in this mess is that we have arrived at a stage of capitalism in which short-term self-interest has blinded the ability of all but the most enlightened of business leaders to understand that long-term consequences are by far more important. The fact that unsupervised public spaces online are destined to be destroyed from within seems both tragically irrelevant to managers who care only about quantitative metrics and sadly par for the course in our corporation-guided 21st-century culture. (In much the same way our human environment is being destroyed from within while corporations refuse to consider this long-term truth in pursuit of their short-term profits, but never mind.)

If the only people in a position to supervise refuse to do so, what then? Do we sit back and take it? Do we convince ourselves that this is an unavoidable by-product of our technology, which of course we can’t ever fiddle with because we might “break the internet”?

Or do we rouse ourselves out of our technophilia to begin to understand that if we can’t, after all, get civilized together, we may at some point find ourselves without much of a civilization?

The Tins

“Let It Go” – The Tins

An offbeat blend of the quirky and the anthemic, “Let It Go” has a stop-starty vibe that fidgets against its 4/4 time signature in an appealing way. Add some tasty suspended chords into the framework, augment with synth sounds hijacked from the ’80s, and finish off with an impossible-to-resist shouty group-singing chorus and the song sends me into a very happy place. Whatever musical amalgam this is, whatever sub-sub-genre it falls into, I like rock’n’roll that sounds like this and am grateful there are still bands out there doing whatever this happens to be.

Above and beyond the general coolness of the song, allow me to draw your attention to the instrumental break that begins at 2:02. On top of a chugging bass line we first hear a rather homely synthesizer sketching out a pleasant, alternative melody over a minimized background in a one-finger-plunking kind of way. The way the interval-happy melody perseveres through eight measures, and nearly 20 seconds, is almost notable by itself but check out what happens next: the melody repeats with a fuller, more driven accompaniment and with the synth line fleshed out with two hands. The melody is transformed from pleasant to essential, and the song is given an unexpected, interstitial-based climax. Leading into one more chorus, this moment is then bookended by another unforeseen move as the song withdraws in size and volume, fading out with a delightful lesson in the value of less over more.

“Let It Go” is from Young Blame, an EP the Tins released in July. The Buffalo-based trio has one full-length and another EP previously to their name. You can listen to and purchase the EP
via Bandcamp. MP3 via Magnet Magazine.

Dive Index

“Pattern Pieces” – Dive Index

Music that combines the acoustic and the electronic offers a lot of potential enticements (as well as some potential pitfalls) but one of the nice things it can do is create a sonic environment at once gentle and assertive. Which is hard for either the purely acoustic or the purely electronic to do on their own, and which is pretty much what “Pattern Pieces” has going here, aided handsomely by singer Simone White’s intimate whisper of a voice and some breezy finger picking.

But the big “acoustic” secret here—acoustic in quotes because I may not even be right about this—is the central role played by percussion that sounds very organic and natural. Lord knows that technology has long since transcended my capacity to tease apart electronic from three-dimensional beats, but the larger point is the nature of the sound achieved. Central to the percussive heartbeat in “Pattern Pieces” are sounds that feel very close to the ear and belly in the way that drumming in actual physical space feels.

The other thing this song does is cycle us adroitly through a series of shifting electronic sounds. Towards the beginning, with the organic (maybe) drumming and natural vocals, the electronics we hear are generally subtle background gestures, the type of which come a bit more to the fore in the instrumental break at 1:00. Note how these are quickly followed by the entrance of a pure acoustic guitar, to keep the electro-acoustic balance flowing. A similar break at 1:50, meanwhile, leads to a more diffuse vocal section than previously which in turn migrates us to a new sonic palette (beginning at 2:30) featuring heavier electronic sounds and processed vocals. This heavier section registers as both a definitive shift and a natural-seeming progression, especially given how easily, a minute later, we are delivered back to the earlier vibe.

The Los Angeles-based Dive Index is less a band than a self-described “collaborative project”; the mastermind is songwriter/producer Will Thomas, who earlier in the millennium was recording electronic music as Plumbline. The first Dive Index album emerged in 2007. “Pattern Pieces” is from Lost in the Pressure, the third Dive Index release, out this week on Neutral Music.

(If you go to the SoundCloud page you can download this file in higher-quality .wav format.)


“Acid Boys” – Susto

Walking the fine and often unwarranted line separating Americana from country rock, “Acid Boys,” with its sure backbeat and rugged tunefulness, reveals the perennial power of solid songwriting and straightforward instrumentation. History will have the last word, of course, but I can’t believe that computer technology is so consequential that it eliminates the human appetite for accessible melody and music played in physical space. Sure, let’s celebrate and explore the sounds our devices can make. Just don’t throw out the guitars, okay? Or the rough-hewn voices either, for that matter.

From the musically underrated city of Charleston, South Carolina, Susto is a full-fledged six-piece band, and it is the spacious, intentional interplay of a half-dozen genuine musicians that fuels this song’s confident momentum. For example, when there is a dedicated keyboard player, the keyboard parts are inherently more thoughtful and engaging, or at least should be. Here, I like the rinky-tink piano we hear at the outside but even more I like the classic rock organ that oozes into background as the song unfolds. Likewise, a band with a lead guitarist and a rhythm guitarist can, ideally, create richer textures—sounds that you don’t always hear specifically but that add deeply to the ear’s sense of completion and certainty.

Susto has its roots in front man Justin Osborne’s trip to Cuba last year. Previously lead singer in the band Sequoyah Prep School, Osborne ended up back in Charleston to flesh out music that originated during his Cuban sojourn, first hooking up with his friend Johnny Delaware and soon adding four others to create the six-piece Susto. (Fingertips followers may remember Delaware from his most excellent song “Primitive Style,” which was featured here last year and later landed at number four in the year’s top 10 favorite list.) “Acid Boys” can be found on Susto’s debut, self-titled album, which was released in April. You can listen to the whole thing and purchase it directly from the band’s web site.

photo credit: Paul Andrew Dunker

Eclectic Playlist Vol. 9

We begin with an idiosyncratic ode to meditation from the outset of the so-called “Me Decade” and we finish with a beautifully bombastic, regret-saturated song that inadvertently celebrates the over-the-top violence that laces 21st-century entertainment without much second thought. Are we civilized or are we falling down or are we just plain crazy? And why does love got to be so sad? Full of hope and wretchedness we are, we humans, with our electric friends and persistent enemies, with pistols in our suitcases and our eyes forever on the TV. And yet as long as some of us can write these achingly gorgeous melodies—Jenny Lewis can sing “Late Bloomer” to me all day long and I will just about burst with pleasure—we are somehow okay. We sit. The sky falls. Life goes on.

As noted the last couple of times, Mixcloud no longer gives you a song list on its site, but as if by magic, here it is just below the widget:

Somewhere not too far from here (Eclectic Playlist Series, Vol. 9 by Fingertipsmusic on Mixcloud

“Sitting” – Cat Stevens (Catch Bull at Four, 1972)
“Come Monday Night” – God Help the Girl (God Help the Girl, 2009)
“Thieves in the Temple” – Prince (Graffiti Bridge, 1990)
“Why Does Love Got To Be So Sad?” – Derek and the Dominos (Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs, 1970)
“Late Bloomer” – Jenny Lewis (The Voyager, 2014)
“Times Square” – Marianne Faithfull (A Child’s Adventure, 1983)
“Elouise” – Maps (We Can Create, 2007)
“You Showed Me” – The Turtles (The Turtles Present the Battle of the Bands, 1968)
“Are ‘Friends’ Electric?” – Gary Numan and Tubeway Army (Replicas, 1979)
“Enemy” – Kacey Johnansing (Grand Ghosts, 2013)
“Falling Down” – Tears for Fears (Raoul and the Kings of Spain, 1995)
“You Didn’t Say a Word” – Yvonne Baker (single, 1966)
“Crazy” – Pylon (single, 1981; Chomp, 1983)
“Spin-O-Rama” – The Primitives (Spin-O-Rama, 2014)
“Cold Cold Ground” – Tom Waits (Frank’s Wild Years, 1987)
“By Your Side” – Sade (Lovers Rock, 2000)
“Living in the Past” – Jethro Tull (single, 1969; Living in the Past, 1972)
“Get Civilised” – Fingerprintz (Beat Noir, 1981)
“Freereggaehibop” – James Carter (Conversin’ With the Elders, 1996)
“Skyfall” – Adele (single, 2012)

As for crazy old Spotify, this time I really thought I was going to have an error-free list, having entered the first 19 songs without anything missing in action. But then, go figure, Spotify doesn’t have “Skyfall.” The good thing is that missing the last song doesn’t create an awkward segue, but I will note that those who must for whatever reason listen via Spotify will be denied the rather awesome segue between the Carter instrumental and the Bond theme. Come to think of it, Spotify listeners are denied all actual segues, since over there you can’t hear the often cool radio-style blends that I get to construct on Mixcloud. But, as previously noted, life will go on.