In 1987 a teenager in Minnesota murdered his family. Negativland, a band of tape manipulators from San Francisco that had just come out with a record on SST, decided it would be a good idea to distribute a fake press release hinting that the murder had occurred after an argument that the teen had with his parents about a track of theirs entitled “Christianity Is Stupid.” They then used the resulting media frenzy for material for their ensuing album, 1989’s Helter Stupid.
It is exploits like this, however ethically questionable, that have made Negativland one of the most provocative and subversive acts of the last twenty years. They are perhaps best known for the legal battle that erupted upon release of their 1991 EP, U2, which sampled its namesake’s hit “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” along with a bootleg rant by America’s Top Forty DJ Casey Kasem. After successfully calling into question the practices of the news media and the artistic boundaries created by copyright laws, they went after the corporate world on their 1997 release, Dispepsi, a satirical attack on the marketing practices of Pepsi and multinational companies in general.
With the burgeoning anticorporate sentiment created by Naomi Klein’s No Logo and the debates over copyright law in a post-Girl Talk world, surely the stage has been set for more of Negativland’s political pranks, right?
Apparently not. At just the moment that their previous political ideas seem to be gaining ground, the members of Negativland have taken an unaccountable left turn and put out their first pop album, Thigmotactic. This album does feature the collage technique and circuit-bending that Negativland is known for, but it depends predominantly on the lyrics and vocals of founding member Mark Hosler. Unfortunately, Hosler’s vocals aren’t strong enough to carry a song, and his lyrics are mostly absurd (and not in a good way). Take, for instance, the outro to “Steak on a Whim”: “The world is like a big fat man about to split his pants/ Pants, pants, pants, pants, pants…”
Perhaps some political satire can be squeezed out of this nonsense. Maybe this song is a derisive account of America’s obsession with the obesity epidemic? Maybe “By Truck” (example lyric: “America’s milk supply moves to you by truck/ By truck, by truck, by truck”) is a take on the shipping industry’s dependence on oil?
Nope. Such interpretations are just as absurd as the songs themselves.
Thigmotactic is strongest when it reveals glimpses of the unquestionably political. Opener “Richard Nixon Died Today” samples Nixon’s famous “I am not a crook” speech, overlaid by Hosler’s wry commentary: “Richard Nixon died today/ I saw it on the news, they said/ ‘Oh, I guess he was okay.’ ” And on the second track, “Lying on the Grass,” there is the startling line, “I wish someone would send a bomb to every advertising executive’s home.”
But such moments are rare, and their impact is negated by the unapologetically silly content that surrounds them. Negativland is, at heart, a sound-collage group and, perhaps even more fundamentally, a political group. I can’t fathom why pushed both of these aspects into the background, but I hope it was just an experimental detour on the route to future media-baiting satire.