Music Reviews
2:37 pm
Tue March 20, 2012

'The Medium Is The Massage': A Kitchen Sink Of Sound

Few 20th century thinkers predicted the 21st century era of social media and the Internet better than Marshall McLuhan. Beginning in the 1960s, the Toronto-based philosopher and scholar began to theorize about how television and radio were changing society, creating what he termed the "global village."

One of McLuhan's other famous phrases was "The medium is the message" — in other words, how we consume information influences what we learn from it. As if to prove the point, in 1967, McLuhan's book The Medium Is the Massage was transformed into an album by the same name.

The album version of The Medium Is the Massage is often described as the first "mix tape," and there's no question that creative director Jerome Agel and producer John Simon got the "mix" part down right with their sonic collages.

However, unlike today's mix tapes, which could probably be edited on a smartphone, Agel and Simon had to build their proverbial kitchen sink of sound with literal razor blades, magnetic tape and reel-to-reel machines. The Medium Is the Massage album overdubs these snippets atop and across one another, and within that cacophony, you can pluck out everything from a reading of Homer's The Iliad to snatches of jazz and broken pottery to outtakes of McLuhan reading from his book.

McLuhan reportedly recorded his parts first but had no idea what the producers would eventually create. That process actually seems to honor the theorist's ideas; McLuhan was always interested in the participatory potential of emergent media forms. If nothing else, Agel and Simon put their spin on the book's own cut-and-paste aesthetic with their proto-mashup styles.

While the title, The Medium Is the Massage, nods to the ways media can soothe or lull consumers into complacency, the album's noisy fractures and flips seem more designed to mirror the uneasy chaos created from constant media distractions. This was, remember, some 40 years before YouTube and Twitter, yet The Medium Is the Massage feels positively prescient in predicting the sound of our contemporary information age. Now, as it was then, the jump into the electronic whirlpool can be exhilarating and disorienting, somehow making those brief moments of silence seem all the louder.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And, finally, we have another story about a major figure of the 20th century. Beginning in the 1960s, Marshall McLuhan began to theorize about how television and radio were changing society. One of his most famous phrases was, the medium is the message. And one of his best known books is called "The Medium is the Massage."

Well, in the late '60s, McLuhan's ideas were transformed into a different medium, a vinyl LP with the same name. That album has just been reissued and reviewer Oliver Wang says it reminds us how relevant McLuhan's theories remain today.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN 1: The medium is the massage. The medium is the massage.

(SOUNDBITE OF WHISTLE)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN 1: Marshall McLuhan, Marshall McLuhan.

(SOUNDBITE OF WHISTLE)

MARSHAL MCLUHAN: How about that?

OLIVER WANG, BYLINE: The album version of "The Medium is the Massage" is often described as the first mix tape and there's no question that creative director Jerome Agel, co-writer Quentin Fiore and producer John Simon got the mix part down right, especially with their sonic collage.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN 2: It is the business of the future to be dangerous.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WANG: However, unlike today's mix tapes, which could likely be edited on a SmartPhone, Agel and Simon had to build their proverbial kitchen sink of sound with razor blades, magnetic tape and reel-to-reel machines. "The Medium is the Massage" album overdubs these snippets atop and across one another and, within that cacophony, you can pluck out everything from a reading of the Iliad...

(SOUNDBITE OF VARIOUS PHRASES SPOKEN)

WANG: ...snatches of jazz and broken pottery...

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Everything we do is music.

(SOUNDBITE OF DISHES CLATTERING)

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WANG: ...to outtakes of McLuhan himself reading from his book.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MCLUHAN: Writing does not merely record life, which was a totally new medium of expression and communications which the spoken word (unintelligible). Writing encouraged an analytical mode of thinking with emphasis upon (unintelligible).

UNIDENTIFIED MAN 3: Once more, please.

MCLUHAN: The trouble is I keep thinking of improvements on these passages all the time.

WANG: McLuhan reportedly recorded his parts first, but had no idea what the producers would eventually create. The process seems to honor the theorist's ideas. McLuhan was always interested in the participatory potential of emergent media forms. If nothing else, Agel and Simon certainly put their spin on the book's own cut and paste aesthetic with their proto-mash-up style.

MCLUHAN: As we move into the world of integral computerized knowledge...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN 4: On your right, (unintelligible) grounds where (unintelligible).

MCLUHAN: Mere classification becomes secondary and inadequate.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WANG: While the title, "The Medium is the Massage," nods to how media can sooth or lull consumers into complacency, the album's noisy fractures and flips seem more designed to mirror the uneasy chaos created from constant media distractions.

This was, remember, some 40 years before YouTube and Twitter, yet "The Medium is the Massage" feels positively prescient in predicting the sound of our contemporary information age. Now, as it was then, the jump into the electronic whirlpool can be exhilarating and disorienting, somehow making those brief moments of silence seem all the louder.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN 5: (Unintelligible).

MCLUHAN: Innumerable confusion and a profound feeling of despair invariably emerge in periods of great technological and cultural traditions such as our own. Our age of anxiety is, in great part, the result of trying to do today's job with yesterday's tools, with yesterday's concepts, with yesterday's ideals.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIEGEL: The album is called "The Medium is the Massage." Oliver Wang writes the audio blog, SoulSides.com. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.

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