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12 Feb 98

A review of Negativland's DISPEPSI

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A review of Negativland's DISPEPSI (alternatively DISEIPSD, or IDEPPISS, or PIEDPISS)

How can 42 minutes and 53 seconds of anti-music, noise, collage samples, and idiotic, Casiotone-style rhythms be so soothing?

Negativland, a band of Californian political pranksters, make albums by re-forming huge chunks of found song and speech into stratified audio collages. The group popped out of obscurity in 1992, in a litigous mess with Island Records over sampling from U2 songs. After turning the legal process into a giant art piece, they left the courtroom and returned to obscurity in order to make an album entirely about Pepsi.

This, their most recent project, is "Dispepsi." (To respect trademark law, the title is usually anagrammatized, as in "Diseipsd.") The album jumps directly into the corporate maelstrom of ad culture and comes out completely covered in sticky brown fluid.

In a promotion-saturated, corporate world, Negativland volunteers as the court jester. They coined the term "Culture Jamming" in 1984, during a live cut-and-paste remix of Reagan's second inaguaral address. Holding up a sonic mirror to their subjects, they brutalize bullshit artists and butcher celebrity ego. On this last album, sources range from Michael Jackson, to David Ogilvy, to someone singing "I like Pepsi after I've been drinking beer/I like Pepsi when I'm beating up some queers." One track, "The Greatest Taste Around," connects Pepsi with things it wouldn't want to be associated with, simultaneously sampling different Pepsi commercials for the song:

The Greatest Taste Around


I got fired by my boss,
Pepsi!


I nailed Jesus to the cross,
Pepsi!


Powdered mashed pototoes in the cupboard for three years,
Alcoholic husbands driving frantic wives to tears,
Poor old widow's house burnt down,
Pepsi!


Tractors plowing down the hills,
Pepsi!


Ghastly stench of puppy mills,
Pepsi!


Sheets with stinking urine,
Bloody shards of glass,
Mud flaps burnt by hot exhaust,
Drunkards passing gas,
Children dying of disease,
Pepsi!


Leading helpless teens astray,
Pepsi!


I can't find the strength to say,
Pepsi!


Medicated ointment being spread on painful rash,
Old outdated software being thrown into the trash,
Everything still tastes the same,
Pepsi!

(Reproduced without permission.)


I nailed Jesus to the cross,
Pepsi!


Powdered mashed pototoes in the cupboard for three years,
Alcoholic husbands driving frantic wives to tears,
Poor old widow's house burnt down,
Pepsi!


Tractors plowing down the hills,
Pepsi!


Ghastly stench of puppy mills,
Pepsi!


Sheets with stinking urine,
Bloody shards of glass,
Mud flaps burnt by hot exhaust,
Drunkards passing gas,
Children dying of disease,
Pepsi!


Leading helpless teens astray,
Pepsi!


I can't find the strength to say,
Pepsi!


Medicated ointment being spread on painful rash,
Old outdated software being thrown into the trash,
Everything still tastes the same,
Pepsi!

(Reproduced without permission.)

Unlike most culture jammers, Negativland displays genuine affection for the terrain through which they stomp. When they cut and manipulate a radio commentator's voice, as he proclaims "Changing Coke is like God making the grass purple, or putting toes on our ears, or teeth on our knees," they laugh at the announcer, but they don't raise themselves above him. Rather than processing his voice to make it serve a pile of rhythms, they work the sounds around the samples. They respect their sources, as silly as they may be.

It's a different kind of borrowing than David Byrne in "My Life in the Bush of Ghosts," or The Dead Milkmen, robbing a radio preacher's voice in "You'll Dance to Anything." These musicians place their samples in a musical petri dishes and slice them up like a high-school frog. Negativland doesn't hide behind the empty title of "artist." Nor do they disassociate themselves from what they manipulate, Negativland enters into a vague, goofy, symbiotic relationship with what they borrow.

This helps them make their point. By standing within the mess they create, the band adds weight to their arguments, whether on fair use, the pervasiveness of advertising, or the mythical time-control experiments of C. Elliot Friday. By risking litigation with each album, they manufacture an immersive, audio bibliography. Each sample becomes an evocative reference point, especially if you recognize the source. To hear the voices of Ricardo Montelban, Michael J. Fox, David Ogilvy, and Michael Jackson (who talks about his buttocks) within the space of 20 seconds, you begin to drown in a media soup, and that's the point.

Negativland obviously wants you to question the pervasiveness of all advertising, but they made a wise narrative choise, limiting their choice of topic to one soft drink manufacturer. The band's shaky relationship with the cola unravels through the album, beginning with the hiss of a can opening, and ending with crumpling aluminum. While being immersed in Pepsi for 43 minutes is a purposefully discordant experience, the overall product is quite listenable, and almost comforting. It's a familiar sound, because it captures advertising, and its contiguous stream of pressurized selling. Dispepsi proves that we live first in a culture of promotion, and that marketing is a perpetual, formative influence in our lives.


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