Music and the Post-Parenthetical Era

There have been several times in my life where I had an idea. Perhaps it was an invention, the beginning of a song, a movie plot. I can distinctly remembering moments thinking something along the lines of, “well, there’s so many people in the world, and so many of them smarter than me that it’s probably already been created by someone else.” And I never carried out the idea after that initial thought.

In the digital age that we find ourselves in, we see content every day, and for me it can be discouraging. To see so many other people innovating, succeeding, I start to think that every niche is filled, and that there is no place for me to create something new because of the millions of others doing the same thing.

Here comes in the remix–in our day, with our technology, ideas and motifs can be taken from previously created and previously popular material without much effort. Before the invention of the Gutenberg Press, the phonograph, and the television, media could not be easily recorded or re-created. Now that nearly all media created since the 1930’s is available in print, audio, and video form, we can take the work of earlier generations, combine it with our own ideas, and create something new.

Thomas Pettitt’s Gutenberg Parenthesis contains this idea in what he calls the Post-Parenthetical Era. We see his philosophy in music as many popular songs share the same form and chords, or even sample straight from songs other songs of the last 100 years or so. We see this in TV shows like “Stranger Things” that are made to model after the TV shows of the 80’s, or movies such as “The Artist” that are made as a re-vitalization of the silent films of the early 20th century. We see it in memes whose content primarily comes from shows and songs from decades past, like “The Simpsons” and Rick Astley’s hit, “Never Gonna Give You up.”

This idea of post-parenthetical re-mixing is evident in the music video of “Careless Whisper,” as performed by the group Postmodern Jukebox.

“Careless Whisper” – Cover by Postmodern Jukebox featuring Robyn Adele Anderson and Dave Koz

In this YouTube video, Postmodern Jukebox takes a song released in the 1980’s, plays it in the vintage jazz style of the 1930’s and reaches nearly 27 million views after posting in in 2014.

As a fun snippet, not only does this video display the convergence of music from 3 different decades, but Scott Bradlee and his band throw in a sample from the infamous “Take Five” as recorded by the Dave Brubeck quartet in the late 1950’s (seen at 2:13 in the video).

It’s not difficult to see that this video was created and reached success by taking previously popular material, re-contextualizing it and posting as a new creation for our society to enjoy. And it worked!

Scott Bradlee, creator of Postmodern Jukebox, framed his remixing in this way, “As a musician living in New York City, I formed Postmodern Jukebox as way to bring the classic sounds I loved back into the mainstream,” (postmodernjukebox.com). How does he bring “class sounds…back into the mainstream” in this video?

First, he picked a well-recognized and loved song. For reasons unknown to me, the saxophone line in “Careless Whisper” is well-known to people of seemingly all generations. Then, he set the popular tune to the classic sounds of the 1930’s that Bradlee grew to love himself. He combined these in an entertaining way, even including humorous visuals, like the bass player being surprised at 0:49 in the video.

As I viewed this video in the context of the Gutenberg Parenthesis, it reaffirmed my view that we truly are in the post-parenthetical era described by Thomas Pettitt. But it also proved to me that that doesn’t have to be a bad thing. Although we are in a digitally-driven era, we are still in an era of creativity, and high culture media creation. It might be harder to find it, but it is there. Today, we have the technological ability to readily use remixing, borrowing, appropriating, sampling to create new and beautiful content that simply couldn’t be made before the inventions that overcame time and space. And that means that although there are millions of others coming up with thoughts and ideas every day, I can use the creativity and talents of others before and combine it with my own personality to create something that has never been seen, heard, or experienced before.

“All People Are Tax People”

“All People Are Tax People” TurboTax 2020

The 2020 TurboTax commercial, “All People Are Tax People,” features a narrator empathizing with the audience over the difficulty of taxes, and then helping viewers see that just as they succeed in other realms, they can also succeed in paying taxes. This is a well put-together advertisement, which is adapted to its audience and leaves them feeling more confident, but the company behind it may be covering up some unethical behavior.

On my first view, I loved this commercial. Everyone has challenges that they face in life, so opening the commercial with the line, “Being a person is complicated,” starts it off in a way that most everyone can respond to. I feel like at this point, it would be easy for them to say something along the lines of, “that’s why we’re here to help you.” It would be a simple commercial stating a common problem (our stressful lives), then offering their services to help us out. But instead, they compliment humankind, and the viewer, on their ability to conquer challenges. This changed the tone from a salesman voice which we may be used to, to a simple and friendly voice that eases the viewer and frames taxes as another test they can beat. Rather than a, “you need our services” commercial, it was a “you’re awesome and you can do hard things” commercial, centered on taxes. Since it was presented by TurboTax, their website is the natural place to go and act on the newfound confidence that came from viewing the advertisement. I found it humorous, personable, attention-grabbing, and relevant.

But then I decided to stretch my personal media literacy and look deeper into TurboTax, and who they represent. Why did they put out this advertisement in the first place? What are their specific services?

Upon further investigation, I discovered what might be questionable ethics underlying this well-put-together advertisement from TurboTax.

The company that runs TurboTax is called Intuit, and they run several financial services including TurboTax, QuickBooks, Mint, and ProConnect. According to ProPublica—a newsroom publishing investigative journalism—Intuit has lobbied millions of dollars into legislation that makes it more difficult for the public to do their own taxes. Intuit’s main business comes from helping clients perform financial tasks, so if the IRS were to create easier and free ways for people to file their own taxes (like other developed nations reportedly have), Intuit could go out of business. Commercials like the one above advertise services that in reality should be free and government-supplied, and would be if not for companies like Intuit.

However, Intuit hasn’t totally bullied the government and the public out of their money. Under current law, Intuit and other tax service companies are required to offer free services to people whose gross income is less than $69,000 a year(irs.gov) and they do. They offer these free services, but what I found is that they are often hidden. The free tax services advertised on the TurboTax website are very limited, and finding the government-mandated and fully functioning free tax services is more work than most consumers will put in.

That goes a little beyond analyzing the 60-second commercial that we began with, but it’s important. Behind the humorous and persuasive media that we’re hit with each day, are corporations that exercise their power freely because their consumers aren’t media-literate enough to question their motives and behaviors.

“All People Are Tax People” is a creative and fun advertisement, but the unethical behaviors behind it are difficult to ignore. Without questioning it, the commercial is innocent, fun, and pride-boosting, but beneath it is a company that may be doing more harm than good. This exercise in media literacy opened my eyes to the importance of understanding why media outlets of any kind do what they do. As we seek to understand why they present their ideas or services, we can filter what media can be used for our long-term benefit, and what media sources will only use and abuse us and our precious resources.

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