What You Can Learn About Music—And Humanity—From the YouTube Comments on Bob Seger’s “Night Moves.”

Television in the digital age.
Nov. 26 2013 11:41 AM

“Got Me Knocked Up in ’ 84”

What you can learn about music—and humanity—from the YouTube comments on Bob Seger’s “Night Moves.”

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Like Sad YouTube, Night Moves includes many personal recollections, though given the niche and subject matter of the song—boomer rock about teenagers making out in the back of a 1960 Chevy in “the trusty woods”— they tend to be about partying and lust, often with heavy winks from middle-aged posters: “It was a ’79 Plymouth, but yes yes yes. This song always transports me back to Harrah, Oklahoma, the late 1980s, and Jerry Sinor’s night moves. More than 20 years later, nobody has ever kissed me like that.” Or more succinctly: “Got me knocked up in 84.”

But Barber’s montage of murmuring, blurting, and kvetching voices also includes YouTube staples such as shout-outs to whatever movie or TV program “brought you here”—“Night Moves” has been featured on How I Met Your Mother, That ’70s Show, and Top Gear (and, in the months since Barber’s book came out, in Grand Theft Auto V, as you’ll quickly learn if you visit the video’s page today)— followed by debates about whether it is cool or the downfall of civilization that kids today might learn about Bob Seger from a sitcom, then people popping up periodically to quote Liz Lemon’s one-line parody from 30 Rock, “Workin’ on my night cheese …”

Given that this is a classic-rock song, it also occasions repeated fights about whether music today has gone all to hell, some fairly thoughtful and some more on the level of, “You truly are a dick head and that this song goes right over your head is not surprising, you stick with ga ga..”. This leads to another YouTube standard (which Slutsky’s also noted): a poster saying that he or she is a teenager and yet loves this song and hates rap and/or Justin Bieber.

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It’s in these alternations between poignancy and repugnance, the tender and the foul-mouthed, the clichés and the arresting confessions, separated by bubbles of white space, that Barber discovers the poetry of the comment section. Her gesture here goes back, of course, to Marcel Duchamp and all the conceptual art since that has been produced by putting a frame around a found object. (She often collages found images into her video work as well.) In literature, there is still resistance to the practice, out of a more old-fashioned attachment to the notion of the author that seems unlikely to survive many more years of the Internet. Night Moves comes with a blurb from Kenneth Goldsmith, the most prominent advocate of what he calls conceptual writing (or sometimes “uncreative writing”)—he has put the entire text of one day’s New York Times between covers as a book called Day, and transcribed a season of weather reports (The Weather) and every word he spoke for a week (Soliloquy).

But where Goldsmith’s works are more to be browsed and contemplated than read, Night Moves is surprisingly a page-turner. It’s the sexuality and the fractiousness and the melancholy about aging (poster after poster cites Seger’s line about “autumn closing in”), but it’s also the way the specter of the song creates a soundtrack, pulsing through the pages, punctuating the lines, rehearsing its macho erotic moves.

This is the insight that both Slutsky and Barber have flashed on intuitively, I think, in choosing the comments on songs (out of all the YouTube offerings): that music, because it can be background and foreground, because it is about sculpting time, often insinuates itself into our lives more in the way that people and events do than in the manner of a movie or a painting. It’s a medium of echoes, inherently conversational. The way that we address it, whether coherently or inchoately, is in turn musical.

So when a new form of talking about music comes into being, it is a bit like a new genre of music being born. That’s especially true of YouTube, where the comments accumulate in a process that mimics “real time,” sprawling out potentially forever (or at least until the copyright holder yanks the video, in which case we can bitch about that). They can be written and read while the song itself plays on, and while untold quantities of people are sharing and exchanging the link on Facebook or Twitter, saying “remember?” or “check it out” or “this is who I am” and “this is who I’m not,” as if we’re all sitting on the carpet of a multidimensional rec room and putting on tunes, then cutting them off in favor of something newer or older, hotter or colder.

No artifact of culture can be stripped of its context, whether collective or personal, and anything that lasts is constantly acquiring associations. But music is particularly social that way, at once as perishable as slang and as renewable as a forest. A song is a story but a sound is a sensation, and all our efforts to criticize it, to stake out a claim, are questionable translations or incomplete harmonies.

The old saw is that writing about music is like dancing about architecture, but writing about music on YouTube is like clambering up on the architecture, hanging banners and family photos on the window ledges, or tossing garbage from the gables. Its anonymity makes it all the more like a group portrait, hauling us into visibility in all our bedraggled need. It’s not that you can’t or shouldn’t formally analyze or evaluate a song, but YouTube’s intimate entanglements make it plainer that doing so is no more the end of the process than gossiping about your family, even to your therapist, is a resolution to the relationship.

It’s the burden of the artist to find the exact place to put a bracket around such segments of reality and the imagination, one that might alter perspectives, and skew our sense of the borders between “virtue” and “evil.” Before following on Slutsky’s and Barber’s excursions, the territories below the videos on YouTube looked to me mostly like benighted wastelands. Thanks to their attention to the novel tones of the moment, though, I can join Bob Seger in singing, “Ain’t it funny how the night moves/ When you just don’t seem to have as much to lose?” Yes, and how the dawn comes on, when you spot new roads to move along.

Carl Wilson is Slates music critic. 

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