Beppe Colli:
The Covid Papers, pt.1

By Beppe Colli
Sept. 29, 2020

It was early February, the first week or so, when early in the morning I happened to notice some alarming news appearing on the New York Times website (I'm a subscriber): There were some fresh news coming from some faraway place whose name I'd never heard before, Wuhan, in China, about the appearance of a mysterious virus, with consequences quite difficult to foresee yet, but that were already provoking great alarm.

For a whole lot of reasons that it would take me too long to enumerate here, my mind went back to the SARS epidemic from about twenty years earlier, when - having bought my first computer not too long before, with a "fast" dial-up Internet connection as part of the package - I had spent many tense mornings reading the news on the website of an English-language Canadian newspaper.

It had all made for uncomfortable reading, learning about those dramatic symptoms and the number of doctors and nurses (about twenty!) that were needed in order to take care of a single patient; not to mention those highly sophisticated, advanced systems needed for treating the air in the hospital wards. And what about those "expedition to Mars"-style uniforms?

Maybe, I told myself, those harsh cuts to my country's health care system - with those small hospitals located far from the big cities being shut down, and large health conglomerates built in large cities being regarded as the "perfect efficient answer" for treating patients - could appear in a different light one day, were such a dramatically contagious virus to appear on these shores.

(Sometimes, when thinking about Covid, I wonder about what "the people" and politicians would have clamored for if Covid had presented itself carrying the same "visible" symptoms as those of SARS and Ebola - or, maybe, those "shakes" shown in Steven Soderbergh's movie, Contagion, with people falling down foaming at the mouth. I mean, a more "eye-catching" illness, quite far from the quiet silence of an intensive care unit, where we all become "invisible" to the outside world.

We know what happened later. I mean, we're still dealing with it.

As a New York Times subscriber I also read with great interest those articles penned by Rome bureau chief Jason Horowitz, going up and down the Italian Peninsula - he even had to quarantine in Rome - as he brilliantly described the complex matters at hand. And even if this is not the most appropriate moment to discuss these issues, I have to say that I often wondered about the real usefulness for Italian newspapers of having people corresponding from, say, New York, given the fact that their main source of information is a computer screen. Would it be so different for them to work while sitting inside a camper on the Raccordo Anulare?

It was time for me to get an haircut. And since my hairdresser had never heard about the mysterious virus from Wuhan, I tried to determine if it could get here. By sheer luck, we had managed to avoid SARS, but since that time the globalization process had moved forward, both in the close integration of different steps of manufacturing, also when it comes to the sphere of "leisure", with "cheap mass tourism" having huge crowds moving all over the world. I heard myself say: "Make 'em short, please."

One month later, consequences for the world of music were already quite clearly visible, with many new releases being cancelled, and intense doubts about the way album X - conceived and recorded at a time so close, yet now appearing so distant - would sound at moment Y, whose "mood" was of course totally impossible to predict. For what we know, both Dua Lipa's decision to release her new album, and Steven Wilson's decision to reschedule (and then reschedule again) his own album could prove to be "wrong".

(On a personal note, the only album I'm sorry I won't listen to - the group was about to enter the recording studio when all hell broke loose - is the third album by Wolf Alice, a "rock group with guitars" whose (past) concerts one can watch and listen online anyway, their "dry" live dimension being my favourite in the case of a quartet that doesn't necessarily sound any better in the studio, 124 tracks and mixing "in the box" included.)

It appears we better forget the "live" dimension, at least for a while - it was with great amazement that I noticed that a few people didn't seem to grasp this a bit faster. Starting from March, a lot of tours - from Joe Satriani to King Crimson to others I've forgotten - were "rescheduled" (and assumed to start on the very same month, next year). The first tour being cancelled that I read about - it was already playing to "respectable crowds" - was the one by Devin Townsend, whose music - let's call it "operatic metal conceived by a Russian" - and live show I consider one of the ugliest I've listened to in the last few decades. I was only halfway sorry for the "Zappa Group" that was supposed to open for King Crimson on their summer tour, this time without the much-hated hologram of the deceased Maestro.

In May there were still those who regarded - how naļve of them! - large Festivals as a real possibility. It goes without saying that from a legal-insurance point of view to cancel a three-day Festival is not the same as cancelling a restaurant reservation. Promoters who want to cancel without having to pay exorbitant fees need the local government first to declare a "state of  emergency" status due to a pandemic to give them cover. So, in this respect, there was sometimes a "lag" in the decision process that some people mistook for being back to "business as usual".

So I started sending messages to those musicians I usually correspond with. As it was to be expected, those who had cancelled a tour already in motion or was about to start were not in the best of moods. Filled by their typically Pragmatic Spirit, Americans tried their best to contain the damage (let's not forget those fires that up to just a few days ago were still raging in California - "The big fire is just three miles from my house", "The situation here is not too bad, but this morning I went out for a walk and after ten minutes I could barely breath due to the smoke").

Then I had a great idea. What about a "Covid diary"? So I sent a message to those I know the best and trust the most, without fully revealing my intentions. Then I cancelled my plan. Those who were in a difficult financial situation were quite busy. While those who weren't, appeared not terribly interested in the whole picture. Reading an article based on a similar idea, one month later, in the US weekly The New Yorker, told me that my original idea was not that great. "Live and learn".

The dramatic aspects of the ongoing epidemic obscured from my view what after all was a very banal conclusion: the caravan had reached its destination. Or, if we so prefer, the story had come to an end. A conclusion I reached after spending many hours watching the wallpaper in front of me when I sit at my "meditation table" (readers are invited not to repeat my experiment, so full of potential risks).

Three years ago I had closed the last chapter with my favourite musicians in a great state of distress. Ethan Iverson's blog, Do The Math, could only count on voluntary work given out of love. I always thought about what my trusted computer technician had told me a long time before: "One day everything will go inside that box". And yes indeed, here we are.

We all recall the old days - the days of Napster - when it was said that music had to be free. Musicians could still tour, and sell T-shirts. I had declared my dislike for this, loud and clear, many times, not in much company; but now twenty years have passed, the situation being what it is.

"But what about an unforeseen event that would make concerts impossible?" is a question nobody had thought to ask, but which is now reality.

Unfortunately, "musicians making difficult music" is a category bursting with people, while their audience is thinning with every passing day. Everybody tries to get by asking for their fans' money. But music fans usually have more than a few "favourite artists", and so they have to choose which one to help. So? Alas!, I see quite a few artists, who had never deigned to use Facebook and Twitter before, making themselves ridiculous posting embarrassing messages, with the "oily" attitude of a used car salesman. And what about those smiles? Faking a smile is a difficult art to master, especially if one is not so young anymore.

It goes without saying that the meagre amount of subsidies has to be split among too many artists. And let's not forget that in the modern world is the market that validates the "Academia".

Meanwhile, the "all you can eat" pattern has prevailed at last, with record companies now turning a respectable profit and mega-artists getting their "fair share", one way or another. For the others, there are still concerts to be played and T-shirts to be sold... whenever possible.

If for a moment I'm allowed not to take the "megastars" into consideration, the only name that comes to mind when talking about "getting money from the Web" is Pomplamoose (readers will remember that the male half of the duo, Jack Conte, is also the founder of the highly celebrated crowd-funding entity called Patreon). But for a whole decade Pomplamoose have worked "inside" YouTube, concentrating on the "virtual" sphere while regarding the group's "live" dimension as an afterthought. As we all know, what we call "popular" - which doesn't necessarily imply being "poor-quality", and doesn't necessarily negate the possibility of something possessing a specific kind of beauty - is based on numbers that are in the high region, or at least semi-high. And it goes without saying that trying to establish one's daily consensus implies being the object of an ongoing, nerve-wrecking referendum whose outcome is always uncertain - and something many artists are not naturally inclined to.

What about the filter? If it's paper we are talking about, I'd say that today's Mojo - a monthly magazine Made in U.K. - is the only one trying to make the impossible happen, Covid and Brexit notwithstanding.

But I'd call paper - here meaning: the music magazines that were once rated as serving a "specialized" taste - destined to sink, for "structural" reasons. Let's have a look.

An old album by the Rolling Stones, Goats Head Soup, was recently re-released, for the umpteenth time. The main selling point of this new edition being the re-mix work of Giles Martin, son of illustrious George, and The Beatles' "official remixer". (Today, Giles Martin is a jack of at least two trades in the Universal universe.) Besides the re-mixed version, there are also various "surround" editions, plus a few "unreleased" tracks, variously augmented.

Given the "fragile" nature of digital data, it's highly improbable that those who work for a paper magazine will get the file that would make them able to do a good job one or two months before the magazine goes to press. While those who work for a Web magazine - this is exactly what happened with folklore, Taylor Swift's "surprise album" I'll talk about in a very short while - can get the file just a few hours before the album's scheduled release, work all night, and come out with flying colours. (Reading ten different reviews of said album will make it immediately clear how differently gifted those critics are.)

Not long ago I happened to read a review of the new edition of The Stones' Goats Head Soup, penned by a certified moron somebody whose work I don't hold in high esteem, the result being what was to be expected: "this is a fine album", with no discussion of the remixing work, and all the rest.

And if we examine the case of the new Flaming Lips album, American Head, the result is the same: for the same reasons, the great majority of the in-depth reviews are to be found on the Web.

"Death to paper, up with the Web", then? Unfortunately, things are not so simple. If in the not-too-distant past readers bought the "whole" magazine, today clicks, ads, and purchases can all pertain to a single object. And somebody has to send that file. Hence, the complete disappearing of the "pan". Even of the mild, lukewarm verdict. "Enthusiasm needed!"

Which presents us with a beautiful paradox: That while the average degree of online competence has gone up - with a lot of "name critics" desperately looking for work, many of those stupid reviews of yesteryear have disappeared - this new-found competence proves for the most part to be at the service of an enthusiastic and laudatory spirit.

There's more. "General interest" magazines have always talked about music, but today's featured artists are not necessarily those making music that's more "user-friendly" or "stupid". Now it's the eye that indicates priorities. And when the magazine's staff lacks the necessary expertise - and when it's preferable for the interviewer to be a "name" writer - it just takes a little more effort.

(To give this point some background, it was recently Cardi B that interviewed Joe Biden.)

Do "Covid albums" exist? Putting aside the most recent album by Fiona Apple, which I'll talk about in a short while, there were cases where two things were put side-by-side in a spirit of "consonance". A good for instance being Petals For Armor, the first solo album by Paramore singer Hayley Williams, released three years after After Laughter. Petals For Armor was released in different "installments" - with chapter I appearing in February, chapter II in April, with the album as a whole being released in May. But the album's tensions are no more than a mere coincidence, just like the "sombre & meditative" mood of the aforementioned Flaming Lips album.

"Covid-album" is a tag one could rightly apply when talking about How I'm Feeling Now, written and recorded  in six weeks by Charli XCX during her (totally unexpected) lockdown, along with videos, daily chats with fans, talks about music, lyrics, and stuff, with a release date on May, 15th.

As we all know by now, Taylor Swift announced the release of her "surprise-album", folklore, just 24 hours before the official release date, July 24th. The album was conceived and recorded in complete secrecy while the artist was in isolation. Critically acclaimed, folklore sold two million copies in the first week, with one million and three hundred thousand copies sold on the first day. (Let's not forget that in recent times that US charts have seen some albums go to #1 with just 7.000 units sold.) When it comes to streaming, folklore broke the record for first-day streams for a female artist on Spotify, with more than eighty million streams.

Let's talk about Fiona Apple, one of my favourite artists since the day I discovered, totally by chance, her debut album, just released.

Fiona Apple is a great artist, and just like many great artists she's not necessarily destined to become a household name. One could say that in a different world Fiona Apple would be a household name.

Just like many great artists, Fiona Apple follows her own peculiar logic, which doesn't necessarily coincide with the one adopted by those who are supposed to help her attain the big break. Take somebody like, say, Pat Leonard: just perfect for Madonna, but for Fiona Apple...?

Funny thing, last year I started noticing Fiona Apple's name appearing here and there, mentioned like an "influence on" or "a great artist, not sufficiently appreciated". I rightly assumed - the horror! - that somebody up there had thought to sell her as a "catalogue artist". It seems Epic had thought about an October release for her new album, hoping the pandemic to be somewhat subsumed by then, with the artist pushing for a digital release on April 17th (as a fan, I assume that the impossibility to do any significant promotion work during the pandemic must have been a deciding factor in her decision).

"Fiona Apple's Art Of Radical Sensitivity" is the title of an article (or a mini-book: 10.000 words) by Emily Nussbaum which appeared in the New Yorker on March 16. (Skin In The Game is the title for the print edition.) While she's totally unknown to me, it appears that in 2016 Nussbaum won the Pulitzer Prize for criticism, as a "TV critic".

Having read the whole thing twice, I think the artist doesn't come out that favourably. In spite of itself, the article's intentions being openly celebrative, the artist appears as a sort of uber-Syd Barrett whose main goal in life appears to make those pharmacies and pushers in her neighborhood quite happy. A weird caricature of a nut case that not even for a moment makes one see the depths and the beauty of her music.

Not really knowing what "angle" to use, promotion chose the card titled: "Fiona Apple: recluse".

In a piece titled The Homemade Insight Of Fiona Apple's Fetch The Bolt Cutters, which appeared on April 18 in the New Yorker, Carrie Battan opens the curtain with a clamorous passage: "Fiona Apple is a longtime practitioner of social distancing. For nearly two decades, she has seldom left her home in Venice Beach, except to walk her dog, Mercy. She has no social media. She tends to avoid the press, and she rarely listens to new music, owing to some combination of disinterest and an aversion to be influenced. These qualities lend her work a kind of feral authenticity, with no trend lines to be traced between its emotional eruptions and the music of her peers". And on and on (and on), for one thousand words more, and more.

The New York Times had a round-table titled Fiona Apple Is Back And Unbound: Let's Discuss, which offers some stimulating points. Not those presented by Lindsay Zoladz, though, who as per her usual, one more time, uses the typical self-referential framework of somebody who has not gone out of her milieu in a long, long while:

"There's been a lovely feeling of communal excitement around this record's release. Maybe I'm biased toward knowing more Fiona Apple fans than the average person, but it certainly feels much of the music world is attuned to her frequency right now - as I write this, my downstairs neighbor is blasting the entire album. It's a bit counterintuitive, since there wasn't a single or much traditional promo surrounding this record, but it seems to me like the first big musical monocultural event to unite us all in our self-isolation (...)".

But if one can possibly talk like that about an album that sold about seventy thousand copies, what one could say about as "big musical monocultural event" as Taylor Swift's new album, which sold in the millions? Maybe is there something I'm not properly getting here?

What is gonna happen now is anybody's guess, as the song used to say. We are all used by now to reading those figures - both local and global - that keep us company every day.

Talking about music, the framework is obviously inflationary: people like Nick Cave and Laura Marling have started doing ticketed livestreams, while others play online for free.

Meanwhile, I thought about a fine article penned by Matt Zoller Seitz, titled What's Next: Avengers, MCU, Game Of Thrones, And The Content Endgame, which appeared on April 29, 2019 on the website

In a nutshell - the article is very long and quite complex, but also interesting and freely accessible (at the time of this writing) - one could say that Matt Zoller Seitz argues about the movies' chances of surviving outside the framework of "serialization" of TV origin that permeates today's cinema. A distinction between different art forms so dear to Steven Spielberg, who's explicitly mentioned, with the preservation of the theatrical experience.

Matt Zoller Seitz also mentions two essays written twenty years ago by Godfrey Cheshire: The Death Of Film and The Decay of Cinema. Among Cheshire's predictions is the idea that "movies after the 20th century will have neither the esthetic singularity nor the cultural centrality that they presently enjoy".

According to Matt Zoller Seitz, today's dimension favours "an ongoing discourse" that takes place on the Web which incorporates serial works and collective viewing; compared to those, "the excitement of seeing a different kind of blockbuster" - and please notice it's blockbusters we are talking about, not "art movies" - "can't help but seem small in comparison, because once you've experienced the thing, there's no more thing to experience." (...) "All you have to look forward to after you've seen it are your own thoughts, and perhaps discussions with people who also watched it. I mean really watched it. Not half watched it while checking Instagram". (...) "Is there still a place in mass culture for that kind of entertainment?".

Today's conditions push everything deep into the Web, with an increasing velocity that's obviously impossible to control, being largely determined by outside factors, such as a virus that's still largely unknown to us.

"Hoarders" and "flippers" aside, some people still appear to like boxsets by "classic" artists such as Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, John Lennon, the Rolling Stones, Elton John, David Bowie, the Doors and Pink Floyd.

But today's "giants" largely feed on "social life", not just music, feeding a type of conversation - one taking place online that's deeply intertwined with the "product" - the music alone appears not to be able to sustain anymore.

© Beppe Colli 2020 | Sept. 29, 2020