"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 11 July 2000. Updated every WEEKDAY.

Prank and File



Last May, as digital music hall monitor Lars Ulrich did his best Kenneth Starr impression outside Napster's headquarters, a crowd of braying MP3 freeloaders were sure the pampered heavy-metal technophobe just didn't get it. After all, Ulrich openly admitted he hadn't even mastered the intricacies of logging on to AOL yet. And all that talk about artistic control and the rights of musicians — it was just a bunch of corporate rockstar double-speak...

Right? Well, as it turns out, Ulrich was actually fairly prescient. Because while Napster may not be a very good piracy tool, it is an excellent saboteur's tool. With a few keystrokes, even the worst anti-corporate troubadours can suddenly torture thousands of 'N Sync fans with their own compositions; this is because all Napster uses to identify a given song is its filename. If the filename suggests that the song is, say, Christina Aguilera's "I Turn to You," then Napster simply assumes that, yup, the associated file is indeed the genuine article.



For bands without much talent, Napster is obviously a great tool, as it's a lot easier to mislabel an MP3 file than it is to produce a song so good that people actually want to listen to it. On the other hand, for bands that have proven the ability to create songs that lots of people enjoy, Napster is, like the cartoon says, bad.

And it's getting worse all the time, as saboteurs graduate from simple filename trickery to more elaborate forms of subversion. Indeed, when you download an MP3 file that you think is the latest Jessica Simpson single but it turns out to be three minutes of insurrectionary belching, it's relatively obvious that you've been duped. But consider the song entitled "American Skin (Uncensored Version)" that can usually be found on Napster. "41 shots/41 shots/Kill the fuckin' cops/Kill the fuckin' cops," the Boss sings in a well-recorded, authentic-sounding live performance. Is it real? Is it fake? Well, most likely the latter, but it's definitely good enough to fool a cop who can't tell a gun from a wallet.

Obviously, Napster isn't the only tool it takes to commit such sabotage. And the practice of parodying popular songs for comic effect, or otherwise changing their content, isn't anything new either. But musical parodies have never had many avenues for regular, widespread distribution. There's Dr. Demento and Howard Stern, and unless you're Weird Al Yankovic and it's a very, very slow day at MTV, that's pretty much it. But Napster changes all that. Suddenly, there's a way to distribute parodies to a worldwide audience — easily, cheaply, anonymously, and you don't have to learn to play the accordian or sport a zany mustache either.



Which of course means a boom in musical parodies. Sign on to Napster and you'll see what we mean. Sisqo's "Thong Song" becomes the "Bong Song." 'N Sync's "Bye Bye Bye" outs itself and becomes "Bi Bi Bi." Britney Spears' "Hit Me Baby One More Time," blossoms into "Make My Boobies One More Size."

While many of these songs follow the typical blueprint for musical parody (keep the tune, change the words), other forms are growing increasingly popular on Napster as well. For example, you can find a version of Eminem's "The Real Slim Shady" that uses the music from Britney Spears' "Oops, I Did It Again" instead of the beats that Dr. Dre produced. It's a nice joke, of course, suggesting that for all Eminem's efforts to remain hardcore and on the down lo, he still remains inexorably in sync with the TRL crowd.

But again, such sonic pranks aren't particularly new. Lots of DJs and producers synthesize seemingly unrelated samples for comic as well as aesthetic effect, and groups like Negativland engage in similar tactics under the less rhythmic banner of cultural criticism. What is new, however, and what Napster facilitates, is the potential for passing off these "collaborations" and other sonic alterations as the actual work of the artist whose work serves as the basis for these efforts. The Eminem/Britney Spears track isn't always explicitly listed as parody, and its creators aren't identified in any of the copies that we've seen on Napster. Somewhere out there, there is probably at least one very rabid, very dumb Eminem fan who is extremely disappointed in his idol.



In other words, with nothing to distinguish one MP3 file from the next except their easy-to-edit filenames (and in some cases, their relatively-easy-to-edit ID3 tags), how do you determine what's authentic and what isn't? So far, most fakes have been fairly easy to identify. The emphatically centrist Springsteen would never write a lyric as polarizing as "Kill the fuckin' cops," and one imagines that the only collaboration Eminem might willingly sanction between himself and Britney Spears would involve her, uh, lip-synching skills rather than her music.

But what happens when the fakes reach the skill level of the fake celebrity nude genre? It's easy to imagine the possibilities. Critics of Eminem's chronic homophobia could lace his songs with enthusiastically gay-positive rhymes. Critics of Kid Rock's chronic bad rapping could lace his songs with lyrics that don't sound as if they were written by a middle-aged ad agency copywriter trying to "bring a real hip-hop feel" to a Trix cereal commercial. Especially skilled imposters could release entirely new compositions under the guise of popular artists just to confuse fans.

After all, a scrappy start-up with no revenue model can dream, can't it? Indeed, the idea that Napster should pay the record industry some sort of fee to ensure its continued existence has it exactly backwards. Ultimately, we expect that the record industry will end up paying Napster a fee. Because eventually, you're going to get tired of monitoring rec.music.newage for days on end just to figure out if that new collection of Fatboy Slim John Tesh remixes is real or fake. In other words, every mislabeled, sabotaged, or completely counterfeit song that Napster helps circulate creates a real demand for distributors which can reliably aggregate and disseminate content.

And, yes, while you could just go directly to a band's official site, who goes to a different record store every time they buy a CD? So, ultimately, Lars Ulrich was right — the issue is artistic control. But the braying MP3 freeloaders were right too, because without artistic control, you can't have financial control either. Which is just how the labels like it, of course. In fact, it's a tune they never get tired of singing.

courtesy of St. Huck
picturesTerry Colon

St. Huck