ArtSunday: Microsoft and the end of culture

Verily, we have arrived at the end of all culture. Perhaps predictably, the culprit is technology. Or, to be a bit more specific, the culprit is Microsoft, which has now infused the art of songwriting with the same kind of magic and warmth you’ve come to expect from Excel.

Microsoft is pitching software designed for you, no musical training required. You sing the words as best you can, and its Songsmith software supplies computer-matched musical accompaniment.

Words … fail. Fortunately, Microsoft has produced a commercial that tells us everything we could ever want to know. Really, it tells us a lot more than they wanted to tell us. And no, this isn’t a parody put together by Cupertino cultist types with too much spare time on their hands. This is an actual Microsoft production. Before watching, go ahead and swallow anything you don’t want to come come shooting out your nose.

Never mind that Microsoft was aiming for “over-the-top comic irony” – you can only ask so much of self-effacing humor.

Fortunately, the Internets are full of smart-asses. So let’s consider the implications of the Songsmithization of our culture.

Oh, here’s another:

Still with me?

Our popular culture has been dealing with the specter of “autonomous technology” run amok since Frankenstein, and in my cyberculture classes a few years back I had my students pondering the relationship between humanity, technology and actualization. Of interest was that third leg – where technology and actualization meet, where machines become self-aware and strive toward a higher ideal of self. That I called the “posthumanities,” and that’s where conversations about artificial life and artificial intelligence get interesting for me.

Those of you who have nightmares about Tron can rest a little easier tonight. If this is the best technology can do in the way of creating art, humans are okay for a couple more years, at least.

Still – imagine how scary Frankenstein would have been if Victor had owned Songsmith….

Thanks to Dr. Greg Stene for calling this travesty to my attention.


  • Too much…too much. Though i can picture Diamond Dave singing Running with the Devil like that on his own time.

    As wrong as this will sound, i want it. Songsmith is probably my best chance to realize my dream of rearranging old school gangsta into Broadway musical form.

  • Sam,

    I’m as much of a fan of good music as anyone. This Microsoft Music Bot is wrong, and is not for me. However, if it makes some people have a little fun, gives them some enjoyment, what’s the harm.

    I’ve been guilty of being a terrible music snob pretty much all my life, but I’ll have to say that Microsoft invention is probably a good thing. You’ve shown the worse case scenario’s in those clips…I wonder what an accomplished musician could do with that thing…Think about those guys who draw the Mona Lisa on an Etch a Sketch….maybe we’ll see some interersting results.

    Perhaps the best thing is to let the marketplace decide on the merits of this program.


    • Perhaps the best thing is to let the marketplace decide on the merits of this program.

      Yes, that’s how all great art gets validate – the marketplace. This is how we know that Britney Spears is the greatest musical artist alive.

  • Two questions:

    1) Why do all the songs in the Microsoft promo sound like contemporary Christian tunes? And with that same canned music that evangelical churches in the sticks order from Nashville when they do “musicals” or “cantatas”? Is it because this is the “cool new thing”?

    2) How is this different from those Eminee (?) organs lots of people bought in the 60’s that had the color coded keyboards and songbooks? Or is it that the psyche of the populace has changed and they’ve come to believe that with technology they can overcome any limitation – such as lack of musical (or any other) talent?

  • It’s somehow appropriate that the original commercial was about an ad agency.

  • Sam,

    The marketplace did validate the Beatles.

    This program is not art, any more than a particular brand of paint brush would be considered to be art. And, the marketplace has caused several brands of art supplies to go away. This program is a tool for creating art, just like a paint brush…..good or bad is still determined by the talent of the individual.

    As for Spears, many 12 year old girls would humbly disagree with you.


    • The marketplace did validate the Beatles.

      You know a lot about business, but I think we’ve found a particular industry where your knowledge is … less. Put simply, things have changed since 1965. If they were a young band today they would stand zero chance at hitting it big. And I mean that literally – ZERO. There are many reasons why this is so, but a humongous one – really, maybe the biggest of all – has to do with how regulations have changed in the music industry. Mainly, Reagan killed radio duopoly rules and what has emerged is the monolithic Clear Channelization of music.

      Now, if you’re arguing that what we need to do is re-regulate the industry and perhaps bring back the public interest standard, then maybe we agree on something.

      As for Spears, many 12 year old girls would humbly disagree with you.

      A culture that entrusts the canonization of art based on the taste of 12 year-old girls deserves what happens to it.

  • Heh, lack of talent hasn’t stopped me yet…and it ain’t gonna either.

    I hope that contemporary Christian isn’t the “hot new thing”, or i’m glad that i’m completely out of touch with popular culture.

  • I think we should put 12 year olds in charge of the Guggenheim.

  • In 1964, the older generation thought a little less of the Beatles and Elvis than we did, yet they became icons. Every generation from the time of Aristotle has lamented the fate of the younger generation.

    You make good points about the Beatles not making it today. However, we’re getting a little off topic, as I believe we were discussing the aspects of the Microsoft product. We all tend to become a bit snobbish about music and art tastes(I’ve noticed a bit of that on this blog), and that’s an area I personally need to work on, especially in the works done on canvas and paper. Perhaps a good litmus test for art is that if you like it and it makes you feel good, then it’s good for you. It might not be good for someone else, but then again, one man’s wine is another’s poison.

    As for the canonization and culture, one could easily extend that to other areas of life.

    You know, we’re starting to sound like a bunch of old fogeys.


    • In 1964, the older generation thought a little less of the Beatles and Elvis than we did, yet they became icons. Every generation from the time of Aristotle has lamented the fate of the younger generation.

      This is both true and irrelevant to the discussion at hand.

      Perhaps a good litmus test for art is that if you like it and it makes you feel good, then it’s good for you. It might not be good for someone else, but then again, one man’s wine is another’s poison.

      So the opinion of the most intelligent, insightful, well-educated and astute art expert on the planet is of precisely the same value as a 12 year-old girl who never heard of Michaelangelo? Please, tell me more.

      You know, we’re starting to sound like a bunch of old fogeys.

      I can’t say what we’re sounding like, but I’ve worked my ass off my whole life to learn more so that I can do a little bit toward moving things forward. When smart people abdicate in the face of brain-dead radical relativisms that are designed for no purpose other than to glorify stupidity and ignorance, we’re making the world a worse place.

      I can say pretty conclusively that for S&R, this is off-brand.

  • Sam, As a serious collector of art (and I will say thgat I’ve assembled a decent art collection over the past 30 years) I run into a lot of experts all the time. Sometimes the 12 year old girls make more sense.

    I’ve also worked my ass off myself over my lifetime, but my old fashioned work ethic lacks the nobility expressed in this venue.

    Interesting how an innocent comment about having fun with a program can morph into discussion of brain dead radical relativisms. I find acrimony even when I agree with the posters. Argument for the sake of argument and no tolerence of ideas you don’t agree with…..reminds me of those all night college bull sessions that didn’t accomplish anything.

    People need to lighten up as life’s too short to have their undies in a bunch all the time.

    Besides, your guy won and it’s going to be rainbows, lollipops and unicorns real soon.


    • Jeff,

      Conversations “morph” for reasons. If you’d like to avoid comments about brain-dead relativisms, a good way to do it would be to avoid suggesting that the taste of 12 year-old girls is somehow a valid yardstick of the value of a work of art.

      As for acrimony, I’m sure you believe that it has nothing at all to do with things you’ve said and continue to say. And where tolerance of ideas that you don’t agree with is concerned, all I can say is bring me the URL of the blogs that are better on that score than we are.

      I do wonder, though. You remind us how terrible we are every couple of days, and I’ve certainly seen the martyr act you’ve trotted out over on your site, where you lead people to believe that we treat you the way George Bush treated the Constitution. If it’s really that awful, why do you stick around? Are you masochistic? Bored? Do you think you can somehow improve us by sticking around? I really am curious.

      Finally, “my guy” wasn’t even in the race. But if Obama fails, we’ll know for sure that it was all his fault and had nothing to do with GOP obstructionism or the fact that he’s trying to climb us out of a hole that’s been 30 years in the digging.

  • Jeff,

    I can almost see using this sort of thing with 12 year olds as an introduction to music. To get them excited about music. Particularly as funding for art in elementary schools seems to be going away. However, there has to be a teacher there that knows music and exposes these 12 year olds to something less…generic.

    I think the point that Slammy is trying to make is this. 12 year olds like Brittney because they don’t know any better and they haven’t really been exposed to other music. The “clear channelization” of music has ensured that what’s being played on the radio or MTV is what’s easily controlled by the music industry, not what’s actually good.

  • ubertramp,

    I agree with you about the “Clear Channelization” of music. That being said, there’s a lot of good music out there right now, it’s just harder to find.

    I mourn the fact that Classical Music has lost it’s luster among the self-described intellectuals and most everyone else for that matter. Now, that was good music.


  • Sam,

    I don’t know why I stick around. Perhaps because y’all make me think, perhaps I get a lot of entertainment from the sophomoric ideas presented, perhaps it’s a combination of things. One thing I will have to say is that this site does present some great fading opportunities.

    As for reminding about how terrible things are, on a regular basis on this blog, conservatism is reviled and we are subject to horrible treatment. The martyr act on my site is a figment of your imagination. My readers are an honorable group of businessmen, speculators, and traders who find the discussions over here very amusing and entertaining. Go over to my site and comment on something you disagree with. Your ideas and dissentions will be heard, and you won’t be treated with invective and will be given a forum. My readers are a very civil bunch and will treast you with respect in the spirit of Franklin. No shrillness, sky is falling, despair over on my site.

  • Jeff,

    I don’t think anyone here would disagree that there is good music out there. Look at Slammy’s best of list, for instance. Granted, his list is limited to a subset of genre’s, but that’s where his interests lie. If he liked jazz, maybe you’d find Diana Krall or Joshua Redman or Wynton/Branford Marsalis.

    Classical music hasn’t lost it’s luster. If it did, movies wouldn’t keep using it. John Williams wouldn’t keep writing scores. The soundtrack for The Lord of the Rings would have been trance. I think the fact that fewer people listen to it now outside of movie scores is probably due to what I mentioned in my previous post, the lack of funding for art education. As it is now, the audience for classical music does tend to be a bit pompous in a lot of ways. I’m not sure if it’s because great orchestral works require a lot of money to present or because the lack of education has ensured that only the older crowd still thinks it’s “cool.”

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  • That’s not martyrdom, just the facts.

    Another thing, Sam, lose a wife and see how sane you are.


  • Jeff,

    I ssem to be on your side of the argument a lot of the time despite being friends with a couple of S&R writers. Especially when it has to do with economics. But what does losing a wife have to do with the presnt argument? Its sad, I agree. But, if anything, that comment pretty much proves Slammys point.

  • Sorry for the typos. I responded using my cell phone. 🙂

  • Whatever. Being called a martyr is rather dramatic. Rersponding to this, since I’ve lost my wife, I’ve become a bit more argumentative, that’s a fact. I haven’t taken it to the mats like some around here have have, and have tried to remain civil. However, when someone accidently makes it personal(I’m sure it was not intended) and is a compassionate liberal, I was merely appealing to Sam’s strong sense of humanity…he does have one doesn’t he. Or is hiis sense of humanity only for progressives and the rest of us be damned? Still, II lost my lovely wife and was back in business in six weeks, and kept part of my sanity. If that makes me lose a debate in your eyes, so be it.

    Ubertramp, If you agreed with me on many economic issues, I didn’t notice you spring to my defense.



  • Jeff,

    I didn’t jump all over you, either, did I? And, if you recall, tried to tone down the last debate so that it got back to economics. Besides, I am a scientist, not an economist. I don’t know enough about econ to jump to your defense. I don’t even like writing the budgets for my grant proposals. All I can go on in that area is my gut. And even though my gut instinct is correct more often than not, I think, given the level of the argument, I would have been more a liability than an asset. So, I kept my trap shut.

    Don’t automatically assume we’re all out to get you. Some of us may be, but not ALL. Not by a long shot.

    And yes, Sam has a strong sense of humanity. If he didn’t, he wouldn’t bother with contributing and co-running this site. He may be a hard ass at times, I agree. And a bit stubborn. But the SOB is smart as hell, too. As are all the writers on S&R. I suspect you know this, or you wouldn’t keep coming back.

  • And Ann, yes, it looks like we’re threadfucked again. Too bad you don’t have a threadfuck file where you could transfer all the off topic strings…

  • Michael, you can call them from now on. They make my stomach hurt.

  • Ann, I think it was actually that last diamond dave video that made yer stomach ache, but I could be wrong.

  • Could be. And I took your advice – check the Urban Dictionary.

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