ghost in the machine with my heart on my sleeve
on the Age of Average, AI songwriters, and the consent of art
One night, a misanthropic Brooklyn blog boy walks home from the bar after drinking too many PBRs and turns down the wrong alley. He is white, of course, and scrawny and wears glasses with clear frames and an obscure indie rock band T-shirt with tight black jeans. Suddenly, his balance eludes him and he needs a place to rest. Dumb, drunk luck strikes and he discovers an old phone booth, clean and well lit. Inside, there is no phone, but numerous dials and levers. A note is taped to the glass wall.
This is a time machine, the note reads. If you have found this note, it means I have traveled into the past with no method to return. I am trapped in the Mesozoic era. Send help.
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The note then details the exact date the time traveler is stuck and how to set the dials and levers to teleport to him. The blog boy understands the procedure. It isn't rock science, just time travel. The blog boy fiddles with the buttons and sets course to blast into the past.
But his destination is not the Mesozoic era to save the time traveler. The blog boy is much too myopic to shoulder such a responsibility. I need saving, he thinks, from this miserable dumpster fire present where technology ruins everything. From such a thought, you can tell our friend spends too much of his life online.
In any case, he time travels to 1920s Paris, thinking he is Owen Wilson in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, a movie the blog boy privately adores and publicly condemns. He isn't very smart but he at least knows what opinions will win him favor online, like denouncing the art because of the artist.
It is early evening in Paris when he arrives through the space-time continuum and he stumbles to Les Deux Magots, where he finds Pablo Picasso, Ernest Hemingway, and Jean-Paul Sartre sipping glasses of grappa. He pulls up a chair and, like a crazy person, announces, I am from the future and need your help.
Okayyyyy, Sartre says, this is a bit absurd, even for me. But go on.
I am a ghost in the machine, the blog boy says. I was fired today and replaced by ChatGPT. Corporate identity and thought corrupts all writing and art. Money is the only motivation anymore.
You need a drink, Hemingway says. A stiff drink, a strong drink, a drink that makes a man --
Hem, we get it, Sartre says and signals the waiter. The waiter hurries over, a bit too solicitous to perform his duty. Sartre sighs and says to the blog boy, You live in bad faith, like him.
As Sartre orders another round of grappas for the table, Picasso addresses the blog boy.
Your problem, Picasso says, is you are a common writer. A common writer is a person who writes what he can sell. A good writer is a person who sells what he writes.
Yeah, the blog boy says, well you're a narcissistic misogynist who gaslights and lovebombs women and I don't have the capacity to invest --
Wow, Sartre interrupts, someone's been to therapy. Got Freud's drawers in his mouth, too?
Hemingway then puts his arm around the blog boy and says, Take this time to live, my boy. In order to write about life first you must put down the typewriter and go live. After that it's simple. Sit down and bleed on the page.
How did you know I own a typewriter? because I'm a writer in Brooklyn? the blog boy asks. Oh, it's no use. Why did I think some old, dead white men had anything to teach me about how to survive the times? You, too, would fall victim to the power structures of today. It's all over. Art is dead. The people are lost and conditioned to conformity. Now, I must act as if everyone is watching my every move. If I perform badly, I am ostracized. There is no escape from this, the Matrix is forever.
After this little speech, Sartre smashes his glass on the forehead of the blog boy, who falls unconscious to the floor. Hemingway farts on the blog boy's head and the cafe patrons have a good laugh. Later, Picasso will conjure this scene during his Surrealist Period and paint a minor masterpiece. In the next century, a tech billionaire will buy the painting and hide it away in a temperature-controlled storage facility in the Seychelles for tax evasion purposes.
No one saves the time traveler. For several years, he lives among a tribe of brontosaurus dinosaurs on a plant-based diet in a state of complete awe and wonder. Over time, he loses his interest in technology or ever returning home. Then, one day without warning, he is chased down and eaten by a velociraptor.
Strange times. Being online, once a great escape from the absurdity of humanity and reality, only deepens the feeling of being a stranger in a strange land these days. Once in a while, though, something comes along that clarifies the current moment, that demonstrates, almost by accident, where all this is headed.
That's how I felt, at least, about the latest pearl-clutching over artificial intelligence. On social media the past few weeks, audio clips have surfaced of famous (and sometimes dead) musicians like Ariana Grande or Michael Jackson “singing” songs they never actually sung, such as Rihanna singing “Kill Bill” or Kanye covering “Mr. Brightside.” These songs are the result of a free, open-source artificial intelligence software called SoftVC VITS Singing Voice Conversion. By uploading about 20 to 30 minutes of high-quality a capella audio of an artist, you can create an AI version of that artist in about half a day then manipulate them to your heart’s content (although the less said about Kanye AI covering “99 Luftballoons,” the better).
It was mostly a novelty act until a track credited to Drake and The Weeknd appeared called “Heart on My Sleeve.” The song, a basic trap banger, was uploaded to online platforms and blew up. Briefly, it appeared on the top of streaming charts. But the song was fake, generated by AI and written by a producer who goes by Ghostwriter977 on TikTok. Quickly, and most revealing, the song was taken down by Universal Music Group, the label behind both Drake and The Weeknd, over copyright claims.
UMG’s statement on the matter was pretty amusing. The music label believes this moment of AI-generated music…
...begs the question as to which side of history all stakeholders in the music ecosystem want to be on: the side of artists, fans and human creative expression, or on the side of deep fakes, fraud and denying artists their due compensation.
The music industry criticizing others for denying artists their due compensation? Now that’s good. That’s rich. I may be foolish, but I ain’t stupid.
Reams of media coverage unspooled about the stakes of AI art, the fragility of many creative economies, and our growing inability to discern what is real or fake online. I kept looking for someone to express what I thought was most obviously the issue with this song but never did. In my mind, the problem with “Heart on My Sleeve” is pretty simple. It’s aggressively mid, hopelessly disposable, overall mediocre. Why did so many people love it?
In the 1990s, the cheeky Russian pop artists Vitaly Komar and Alex Melamid wanted to know what regular normie Americans desired from a work of art. The Russian artists partnered with research firm Marttila & Kiley, Inc., who asked 1,001 U.S. citizens around 100 questions about their preferences in a painting: color, content, size, brushstrokes, style. Did they like a painting with nude or fully clothed figures? Should the scene be indoors or outdoors? What landscape?
After the results were in, Komar and Melamid painted a piece that reflected the collective taste of the country. This process was then repeated in 14 other countries: Russia, China, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Iceland, Italy, Kenya, Netherlands, Portugal, Russia, Turkey, and Ukraine. The series was titled “People's Choice,” and aimed to showcase the unique taste of each culture. It was also a provocation from Komar and Melamid: Against the backdrop of elitist galleries and institutions with gatekeepers and fussy tastes, what even is a democratic and populist painting?
Turns out, it’s pretty bland. As Grayson Perry recounts in Playing to the Gallery:
In nearly every country all people really wanted was a landscape with a few figures around, animals in the foreground, mainly blue.
Here’s the paintings.
Komar later commented:
We have been travelling to different countries, engaging in dull negotiations with representatives of polling companies, raising money for further polls, receiving more or less the same results, and painting more or less the same blue landscapes. Looking for freedom, we found slavery.
This series of paintings, writes the strategist Alex Murrell, who first alerted me to the “People's Choice,” predicted our current Age of Average. He argues, that “from film to fashion and architecture to advertising, creative fields have become dominated and defined by convention and cliché. Distinctiveness has died. In every field we look at, we find that everything looks the same.”
We live in generic steel and glass cities ...
reside in the same blocky apartment buildings...
and drive identical, perfectly aerodynamic cars.
Same but different. Or is it different but same? Whatever, same difference. And apparently that's how the people like it.
I feel for the blog boy in our story above. What does our culture want from artists anymore? What the past decade has shown us is that the collective public wants more of the same over and over again. It’s why we have 500 Marvel movies and 7,000 reboots and remakes and sequels. But is that what our culture needs?
I mean, why even have artists? I’m not asking the question rhetorically or facetiously. I want to understand. Because when I see these AI-generated songs, and realize that people actually want this garbage, I recognize an impulse that goes far beyond remix culture or allusion.
Yes, all great artists steal, but in a manner that combines the old with the new in service of a fresh aesthetic, an original lens, an evolution of human thought and perception. AI art, all of it, breaks the cardinal sin that every honest artist (should) fear: It’s repeating itself. It keeps us stuck in the past.
What causes me dread, however, is this seemingly eerie desire to control artists, to literally own them and manipulate them like puppets. Dance monkey, sing me a song. As Lane Brown disturbingly writes in Vulture, “[AI vocal tools] might especially appeal to the estates of dead artists who can’t make their own albums anymore (or living ones like Frank Ocean, Rihanna, and Radiohead, who just can’t be bothered).”
What an embarrassing sentiment to write. I mean, what gall. How is that any different from deepfake pornography? Where is the consent? My body, my choice, right? What about my voice, my choice? Isn't your voice, like your body, one of those precious entities that make you uniquely who you are? And now, without any regard, without any compensation, someone can just take that from you? Then, on top of that, create a bland, mediocre product of you? What a goddamn Orwellian nightmare.
My suspicion is that a new counterculture will form out of this. Trust will erode of digital spaces and expression. Instead, an emphasis on tangible and physical media will re-emerge. People will want to gather in large in-person gatherings and experience a cultural moment together. Counterfeiting and fake news will become a new type of witch trials, as it once was in Europe.
In some respect, we already see some of this happening. Kendrick Lamar just completed his Big Steppers Tour, for his album Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers. Upon release, the album was picked apart online by critics for its denouncement of cancel culture, among other controversial topics. But the Big Steppers Tour is now the highest-grossing rap concert series of all time. By its end, Taylor Swift’s Eras Tour will become the highest-grossing tour by a female pop act of all time. The demand was so historic it crashed the Ticketmaster site.
So there’s hope. We just have to let time take its course. In the meantime, it is up to artists to create these physical events and objects where they can interact and convene with the audience. Artists must take this responsibility seriously and not take the needs of the audience for granted (looking at you, Frank Ocean). A business sense is required now to be a successful artist; it’s no accident that Kendrick and Taylor are two of the most business savvy artists around.
As Picasso once said (I twisted the quote above for satirical purposes), “An artist is a person who paints what you can sell. A good artist is a person who sells what he paints.”
As much as things change they stay the same. Just not in the ways we always assume.
P.S. Thanks for reading. If you like this note, pass it along to other creative types who’d get just as much out of it.
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