About one week after the World Trade Organization shuffled off from Seattle, Jeff Leisawitz of Electron Love Theory interviewed three people, all in their mid-20s, whose lives were affected by the WTO protests, and more specifically, by the actions of overzealous, out-of-control law enforcement. He wound up with a few hours of tape, which he later edited down to a few minutes of sound bites. Using a desktop computer and some high-end software, Leisawitz recorded a dance track that integrated the interview material into the music. The end result was a single called "Power of the People" -- what one visitor to the www.lovetheory.com message board described as "a musical look back at one of the most horrific displays of outright police brutality I've ever seen in this country." And it's also turned out to be quite an insidious reminder of corporate media's deft pimping skills, which, ironically, are partly what the WTO protests were about.
The song is a pastiche of sound bites, synthesizer, drum machine, and bass. The beats are simple; there's a forgettable melody; and the "vocals," though they never gel with the music, are what keep the song afloat. They're like something you might hear in a Volkswagen commercial.
"Power of the People" was released in early January, and the attention came quickly. After a copy was delivered to KNDD 107.7 The End, it received air play within hours. A reporter from KING 5 News heard the song and contacted Leisawitz for a story. USA Today then linked www.lovetheory.com as a "Hotsite" on its web page, and Real.com listed the MP3 file as a featured download, alongside Whitney Houston and Scream 3. The frantic pace at which the press had come knocking had not escaped Leisawitz: "All we did was give it to basically one person and it was like dominoes."
In trying to understand his intentions for the project, which I suspect may not have been thoroughly fleshed out in time to prepare for the media onslaught, I spoke to Leisawitz. Instead of sharp political rhetoric, my questions are met with a haze of murky, sentimental togetherness. Predictably, he has a high regard for personal empowerment: "People are getting fucked everywhere, in a thousand different ways, and this song, hopefully, can turn people on and empower them to stand up to their boss who's being an asshole, or get the workers together, or any of a million injustices in the world." With a soft focus and lack of burdensome specifics, it's no wonder USA Today was first in line to promote this story.
Who is Electron Love Theory trying to reach? The answer, according to Leisawitz, is everyone! He says, "If you've got the ravers who dig the beats, I'm totally psyched with that. If you've got the Ph.D. student who's into political science, awesome. The common person who was nowhere near this thing and kind of turns on to it, that's cool. And the guy who was in jail and got the shit kicked out of him who takes this as his call to justice, or whatever, that's awesome, too." Adds Leisawitz, "It's all awesome."
And for him, it is, but what I find to be truly awesome are the few qualms Real.com seemed to have about heralding quasi-populist dance music as "the first pro-democracy song of the millennium." Similarly, the USA Today website spouted, "This is what digital democracy looks like." The luster quickly fades after you realize that it is possible to count on one hand the number of songs that could actually be considered "anti-democracy." Rather than dig any deeper than was necessary, both sites were quick to draw the line connecting the song to the high holy democratizing powers of the Internet. Its already-fragile message appropriated, "Power of the People" was given zippy tag lines and an international audience.
Electron Love Theory, whether it meant to or not and despite all claims of art for art's sake, has taken on quite a large responsibility in loosing its "intelligent, progressive electronic music that makes you think." What, specifically, am I made to think about? The intricacies of global trade and civil rights that were at the heart of the demonstrations against the WTO?
Well, four minutes isn't as long a time as you might think. Instead, amid looped dance beats, the listener is left to consider disembodied anti-WTO sound bites reduced to platitudes such as "We are going to change the world," and "This is what democracy looks like." Leisawitz, eager to point out that he doesn't want to dictate what anybody should be thinking -- just that they should be thinking -- claims "that's the whole point." Well-intentioned as this may be, there are definitely appropriate times to tell people what they should be thinking, say, when those Volkswagen executives decide this would really resonate with the 2001 Beetle's demographic. However, there apparently won't be any ELT colognes or Franklin Mint collector's plates anytime soon, as the mention of licensing prompts Leisawitz to bristle, "We're selling the truth, we're selling ideas... that's free!" What can you say to that?
As ELT sought to capitalize on its buzz in hopes of spreading its tale of "democracy and justice and empowerment," the warping began at precisely the moment the message was entrusted to the people whose poor coverage of the WTO conference inspired the project in the first place. From KING 5, the network that brought you hours of sensationalist live broadcasts from the WTO "riots," suddenly comes fair and accurate reporting on grassroots activism? In my estimation, it took approximately five seconds of KING 5's evening news coverage to completely sterilize the story: "A new CD single about the now-notorious event is being released," Jean Enersen cheerily announced.
"And it is bouncing through Western Washington airwaves like a rubber bullet." The smirk on anchor Mark Mullen's face barely hid his satisfaction with the zinger. As further indication of their depth of commitment to this issue, KING 5's coverage of the ELT single managed to both misspell Leisawitz's name and incorrectly report the title of the song.
What spells doom for Electron Love Theory's campaign is that in its attempt to step away from local grassroots support in search of a larger audience via corporate media outlets, it welcomes exactly this type of trivial representation. If ELT is concerned about preserving the focus of an already hazy message, serious consideration needs to be given to who can be trusted with the task. For Leisawitz, the issue is simple. KING 5 and its ilk generate huge exposure; therefore, the tradeoff between being widely heard and being assimilated is justified. The bottom line remains that the message, regardless of the messenger, is out there. The irony of a song championing anti-WTO activism being promoted by the website of USA Today, whose vending units were specifically toppled and set ablaze in the streets of Seattle, however, escapes Leisawitz amid delusions of subversion. He sees it this way: "By utilizing those [outlets], you can take this little kernel of punk rock, 'fuck you' sort of attitude that maybe we've got going here and put it on USA Today.... They're interested in making money.... We just want to get it out there, so we use them; they don't even know it." While it is highly unlikely that USA Today isn't aware of exactly the type of content it deems suitable for reporting, it is more likely the case that USA Today thought the material was sufficiently current, as well as inoffensive and easily digestible--not "punk rock."
Who is using whom? The media descended like vultures on a story that could yield one more empty WTO headline, and Electron Love Theory did little to spoil the fun. And at the end of the day, maybe that's no big deal. After all, the only losers in this situation are the people who like their social protest in the form of dance music and those unfortunate souls who are stuck dancing with them.