The Infinite Jukebox and the Endless Internet

“Immortality: A toy which people cry for, And on their knees apply for, Dispute, contend and lie for, And if allowed Would be right proud Eternally to die for.” -Ambrose Bierce

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Song analysis on The Infinite Jukebox

Paul Lamere’s Infinite Jukebox, the product of a recent music-focused hackathon at M.I.T., is a lightweight tool which analyzes a song’s beat signature (and other components too musicologically or mathematically beyond me) and replicates patterns in its structure ad nauseum. Presto! A never-ending pop song.

Certain songs work better than others, of course. Users have uploaded the usual suspects from the Top 40 — Adele, Carly Rae Jepsen, Psy. Other songs function as a commentary on the tool itself. Gorillaz’s “Feel Good, Inc.” in its original duration is a tropical pop confection. In the Infinite Jukebox it becomes a manic assertion of positivity with a growing subtext of desperation, a soundtrack for two cocaine addicts’ 3am bickering. Less dark, and with more of a wink, is Radiohead’s “15 Step.” There’s humor in listening to a song about finality and sequencing this way: “First you reel me out and then you cut the string,” “Facts for whatever / Fifteen steps / Then a sheer drop,” and, in a coup de grâce, “Et cetera, et cetera…”

While this tool is good news for high school prom DJs, who can now deliver a 60min loop of “Call Me Maybe,” the Infinite Jukebox raises interesting questions about its distributive mechanism and place of birth: the internet.

The Infinite Jukebox doesn’t merely repeat the song once it ends, but rearranges the orchestration’s complementary components into a roughly seamless stream. If you know the song well, you’ll spot easily the verses and lines identified as outliers and promptly subtracted; similarly, there’s great fun in hearing the logic at work, laser-cutting puzzle pieces to fit. This works primarily because pop music follows the same pattern laid down by the Beatles and the Beach Boys. (I wouldn’t recommend listening to “Bohemian Rhapsody” this way.)

I know what you’re thinking. Is this nothing more than a new way to ruin your favorite song? A song without end is no longer really a song, it’s atmosphere, it’s mood, and, given enough time, it’s torture. Songwriters and composers create work knowing the piece will end. (A few John Cage pieces being the exception.) After all, the work must end, it’s an unquestioned prerequisite and defining characteristic. How do you emphasize a refrain if it’s but one of ten, twenty, or two hundred?

This is not dissimilar from the philosophical conundrum of immortality, in which life’s end reflexively gives meaning to all that precedes it. I’ve often wondered why vampires in literature even bother befriending mortals, since a 25yr old would appear painfully immature to a someone who’s been reading books and having adventures since the Renaissance. I imagine it’s like debating Kurosawa with a toddler.

While the Infinite Jukebox is a something of a lark and probably not worth too much bloggy exegesis–I’m joking, everything online is worthy of bloggy exegesis–there are other digital projects which similarly favor never-ending narrativity.

The Twitter Fiction Festival, which ran from Nov. 28th to Dec. 2nd, highlighted experimentation on the platform with 29 “showcase” stories. These greatly benefitted from that crucial five-day window within which authors could tell their stories, setting down the rules of the game for readers.

For example, Scott Hutchins‘ “The Nanny” is a noir tweeted in 60min. episodes  once a day for five days. Someone following along can measure the suspense by how close to the ending they might be. While the festival has been successful, generating a bit of coverage and innovative uses of the platform, it also highlights how difficult it is to write fiction on Twitter. There are popular historical accounts told in real-time, such as @JFK1962 and @RealTimeWWII. These work because the creator and audience both know the story will end. (What’s more, they of course know the ending already. This doesn’t preclude enjoyment.)

Elsewhere, experiments in narrativity operate under a conceptual framework that succeed individually — see @TejuCole‘s Fénéon-esque “Small Fates” — but their success in aggregate is impossible to determine, since there are no milemarkers to aid in such aggregation.

I fear these projects are like a Broadway show in never-ending previews: How do you review something that’s never “done”? We might look to the literary criticism of cobbled-together posthumous novels like The Pale King or The Original of Laura, in which the product’s incompleteness is understood as a precondition for enjoyment. I can see a literary landscape five or ten years from now where this kind of artwork becomes the norm, where endings are considered an outmoded device.

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