PopOff! Commentary: He’s Not Heavy, He’s My A.I.

We start with one of my favorite songs and one of my favorite renditions of the song for a number or reasons; the performers, the audience, the song itself, and of course the metaphor of the weight.

AI feels like the end but maybe it is kick in the ass we’ve needed for sometime. I don’t see it as a new beginning but as a return to our roots. Our grass roots.

I remember when people like TuPac and Whitney and even Roy Orbison got holograms and were going on tour. The reviews were not pretty. But who knew not that many years later iconic mega band ABBA would go onto record an entire virtual live concert that was largely met with rave reviews.

So what of music (and the arts in general) going forward when capitalism just wants more money than last quarter, cutting costs at the cost of a well lived life?

Since 2007 Hatsune Miku a completely virtual Japanese idol star has been making hits. Well somebody in the office has been making her hits but they don’t need an actual human idol that has to go to the bathroom and sleep and be paid for her work. So the virtual artist is already here. But Hatsune is an anomaly outside Japan and it’s idol culture it seems.

As a side note, since Hatsune is a virtual creation she is sixteen, and will be sixteen forever. There will be no “growth” as an artist. Also this means as taste change Hatsune can stay sixteen but meet the trends of the next batch of teenagers. Thus killing the need to find a new teen pop star that hasn’t quite finished puberty yet.

Here “she” is “performing live” with, surprisingly, a live band.

But there can be no improvisation at a Hatsune show. There can be no looking back to the band and saying, “Hey why don’t we do that one song off the first album we never play?”

She has limits to her performance capabilities. And most importantly everyone knows she is not real and is a studio creation like The Simpsons or Bugs Bunny or any number of League of Legends characters.

However, recently I was reading comments regarding the leaks of what may or may not be audio snippets new Taylor Swift songs from her Tortured Poets album. The snippets get posted and taken down and re-posted and people are asking for links and shamed for sharing them. Swifties are having a real mass debate about them.

Some comments below:

“I hope this song is not AI or a Troll because it is so good I need the full song!”

“I need this song to be real so bad. I hope it’s not AI but it doesn’t sound quite right.”

“If this is a troll I will stop being a swiftie because I swore only Taylor could write lyrics like this.”

Whether these “leaks” are actual Swift snippets or not- if swifties (the most dedicated fandom in music) can’t tell- What are we doing here?

Many site that Swift will be fine. Of course she will. But isn’t the worry over the small fish in the big music sea, not the mega sharks eating up all the real estate on the charts?

Well this is where I feel foolishly optimistic! And this is where “we the people” enter to save the day! Though, I don’t think most of our efforts will be conscious and it will be gradual over time.

See, that musical ocean… it is actually a vast series of lakes, marshes, rivers… maybe even a grand waterfall or a secluded beach. Because if you haven’t noticed most humans do not live on the ocean. That is to say we as music fans need to stop thinking of music (and other arts) in the grand scope of a sea/ocean that anyone with enough money can sail.

That is the image of the music world that MTV did so well to sell us in the 80s and 90s.

We music fans need to scale back our expectations of what the music scene is and means to us and look at what is right in our own neighborhoods.

At Soundwaves we focus on the local Bay Area music scene but every place I browse on Bandcamp or visit in person has a thriving local music scene at least equal to what we have going on here. Proportional to the town’s size of course. Hell, I just had a fantastic time in Willits, CA seeing, two man band The Ferocious Few at the Shanachie Pub, which could not have been much bigger than my own tiny studio apartment. But it was raw and live and filled with locals having a great Saturday night. The kind of night where maybe somebody buys you a drink or accidentally spills one on you. And AI cannot replace that total package. And while we prefer one of those things at a bar over the other I find both are equal in terms of having a real moment with weight.

AI no matter how good it gets has no weight in a literal sense. When you see a Pixar film or a superhero movie no matter how good the CGI, those images have no real physical weight. And people subconsciously can feel that it is off or know that it is off depending on presentation.

And that is fine for some fun films in doses.

But if the major studios replace actors or environments with digital copies and try to present them as “reality” to save money for the corporate greed, it will feel off and inauthentic and yes, cheap.

To quote my hero Roger Ebert, “CGI looks real but feels fake. Models look fake but feel real.”

This is because as I said, they have weight.

Also as a fun aside: I’d like to the see the West End or Broadway try this AI thing with musical theater and see how long that lasts. Actors Equity would start a war I imagine.

So no matter how good the ABBA show is that is not ABBA up there.  There is no weight when those fingers touch the keys or the ladies grab a microphone or put an arm over a shoulder. And the WOW factor may WOW a first but something will ultimately feel off in the long run because it will be the EXACT same show every time.

What it does have going for it though are the songs created by real people and ABBA did do the motion capture so some real effort was put into the show to not have it feel like a cheap knock of like, say, the Paris Casino is Las Vegas. But even so it will never be quite right because the uncanny valley is not a real valley.

And we’ve been hear before honestly, this AMAZING still life by Clara Peeters, Still Life With Silver-Gilt Tazza looks photo-realistic and has the weight of the canvas and paint but it is not real flower and fruits and breads.  It’s slightly “off”.

And while that style of painting was popular for a time people got bored with it and “evolved” to different styles or art even with just still life. A.I. as is stands cannot evolve because, it has to feed information to create it cannot build on what came before with somebody telling it what to do. It has no free will to say I don’t want to paint like Clara Peters I want to paint like Wayne Theibaud did for his work Dessert Tray.

But as another example of the importance of physical things in a physical space… all those 80s actions films I love were clearly fantasy but they had weight because that was a real car being blown up at best or a model at worst. And yes the film is the same every time but there are countless stupid action films to choose from with cars getting blown up. And the setting in which a particular film is viewed changes every time because of the physical space and people around or not.

And by the 90s when CGI became more prominent, the best filmmakers like Spielberg, James Cameron, and Peter Jackson new to use it sparingly.  Not because the technology wasn’t that great then because the film would then have less weight and therefore be a lesser film.

Imagine if this scene from Blue Brothers had been all CGI. It would not have carried any of the same weight at all.

Knowing those are real cop cars getting trashed adds to the joy of it all and, “sticking it to the man”.

So when the news and all the arts from film to music and poetry have been co-opted by corporate use of AI or trolls looking merely for attention or too disrupt the system- That is when I think main street folks like you will rather quickly feel something is off or grow flat out tired of it. In the case of music specifically, you will have the sense that no physical piano or cello was played (again the weight of a real person and instrument) and you may not know why you feel it is off but you will know it is. It the same way I can’t exactly say what makes a song a country song but I know one when I hear one.

Or more importantly know when a song isn’t country music at all.

And so I predict when that swarm of AI grows to epic proportions, people will turn towards their local communities for connection and authenticity and lean less on social media and the “big guns” for music/movies/news/culture.

They will want things they can see and touch and hear with their own physical body to know they are not being fleeced or duped or tricked and most importantly reassure themselves that they are in fact real and alive and having a real experience.  That their money is going to real people not just making the wealthy wealthier who are not paying their fifteen year old nephew to type in a few keywords to create the “wild west”.

Because in the case of the Swift leaks, Swift will be financially fine as we all know. And sure she could go to court if she wants too, if they are in fact fake song snippets. We’ll know soon enough. But how often will she do that when you have MILLIONS of people creating fake Swift songs and selling them as secret songs or vault tracks? Will it force artists like Swift or the Prince estate to list every single work they ever created just to fight the onslaught of fakes.

What if a mainstream artist hears a “fake song” of theirs and decides it is so good they claim it as their own leaving the original creator with no recourse to make money from “their work”. Saying that using their name as a keyword infringes on copyright.

And what happens when some of the “fakes” are actually good songs and maybe better than Swift’s own material in the mind’s of some fans…

What would we need Swift for? Or Beyonce or Coldplay or BTS? We can potentially create our own idols exactly as we want and save the money and further live in our tiny bubble or “perfection”.

Could those fake songs fall under, “fan art” much like all the superhero art for sale on etsy that the majors don’t go after because it would be a bad look attacking broke artists. Or is it similar to the knock off tour shirts sold cheaper outside the concert stadium?

Again, I believe that kind of creation will be the equivalent of empty calories/junk food. Where too much junk food is bad for the body health too much AI art will become bad for the mental/emotional health. And most people will be craving more nutrient rich “organic” art.

Even a cheesy song like, “Who Let The Dogs Out” has better calories than AI created music IMO because it was live humans collaborating not just some buzzwords entered into a math program.

AI may do it faster and it may even do something better technically (even if a fake the guitar string breaking or the drummer being slightly off beat is added in). But for me it will be devoid of all the hours in the trenches and trashy bars people like Sunny Sweeney and Ashley McBryde have worked to get their music out there. Lived experience is something the virtual Hatsune above will never have (at least not anytime soon). The kind of work that allows one to earn the title chef or journeyman or master. Without lived experience there can be no physical blood, sweat, and tears that go into the creation off the best music and other arts we have loved for song long.

So I foolishly believe when A.I. comes to dominate the mainstream, we will deliberately and passionately double and triple down on seeking out physical authenticity, connection, creation and thankfully it will be waiting for us right there in our own backyards.

PS: I will end with something that while, not A.I. is an example of something people might argue tows the same line of, “fakery”. I do not. Because all that goes into this performance required WAY more than some buzzwords, a laptop.

So does that mean art is less because it was easier to create… No. But I assure you when you watch this, like song at the top of the post, you will understand that this performance too, has the weight.

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