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From Fair Game to Fair Use

A Review of Negativland's performance at the FilmBar in Phoenix, AZ on May 6, 2016.

PC: Cosmic-A Photos; Monica Demattei

Somewhere between abstract poetry, avant-garde visual art, electronic sound generation, social and political commentary, musique concrète, and Fred Norris’ sound drops, you can find the Negativland. Named after the title of a percussive song written by the early ‘70s German Progressive group Neu!, Negativland weighs in on mass media culture with equal portions of contempt and artfulness.

Negativland has always regarded consumerism and pop culture as fair game for parody and ridicule. Their greatest weapon is “fair use”—a doctrine in U.S. copyright law that exempts people from restrictions if limited portions of otherwise copyrighted material is used for research, satire, education, or for other similar purposes. Negativland’s albums are filled with sound clips from a wide variety of time periods and sources, all with the expressed purpose of mocking their chosen target.

U2 is certainly their most notorious album. One of the tracks relates the U2 song “I Still Haven’t Found What I am Looking For” to the sweet strains of kazoos and synthesizers and peppers it with vulgar CB conversations and Casey Kasem outtakes. The band U2 thought that Negativland went beyond the realm of fair use with this album and sued them for copyright infringement. As a result of the lawsuit, this album can no longer be found for sale anywhere, but the tracks are still available from a wide variety of internet sources (including the Negativland website).

Negativland - The Letter U and the numeral 2 | YouTube - Soraj Music

Going to see the Negativland performance live at the FilmBar added the new dimension of video to the listening experience. The band members all sat behind a long table with a blue and red banner emblazoned with the word “CONTENT”. Behind them was a large film screen. While the band played, various video clips with sound (related or unrelated to the song topic) appeared on the screen, often repetitively. “Do you know how many time zones there are in the Soviet Union?” was heard more times than I could count, and every time I heard it, I laughed harder.

Guns being shot by elderly women in wheelchairs was another main theme of the evening, as well as was a man losing his orgasm on the Playboy Channel. All of the pieces played were from Negativland’s various albums. I was hoping very much to hear the infamous U2 track, but that was unfortunately not on their set list.

Later, only after the show was over, did I finally get a chance to look at the band’s electronic instrumentation. The featured instrument was a seeming tangle of cables, effect boxes, switches and dials. I swear that it resembled some kind of alien, living creature. When a keyboard key or "Booper" was pressed, there was no way to predict what kind of sound would come out of the speakers. The band put this feature to good use. Just as any free or progressive jazz musician knows, if you play something exactly as you plan it, it’s good; but if you play something wrong or unexpected, that’s when things can get really interesting and creative. Negativland’s sounds that evening were VERY “interesting” and the audience, unlike U2, certainly found what it was looking for.

PC: Cosmic-A Photos; Monica Demattei

Exiting the theater space at the FilmBar, I threw myself at the merch table to buy some of the albums that I didn’t already have. One of the albums that I picked up was It’s All in Your Head (King James Version), a double CD packed in a leatherette Bible cover. The processing of the covers was actually going on at the venue itself, where Bible leaves were being ripped and thrown in the garbage can to make space for the discs.

So, why? What would motivate these men to exploit fair use and rip on pop culture and mass media so savagely since 1979? It’s because Negativland isn’t just satire—it’s also research and education, as I mentioned above. As one clip from the album Dispepsi went, “Can they really get inside my head? As long as you keep an open mind.” Every Negativland album is a study on the corporate consumerism and sensationalism that is relentless in working to get us to part with our money to buy worthless products or “content”. They are trying to educate us on just how easily manipulated and controlled we are. I acutely felt the irony of this before the show, as I sat there drinking my Pepsi, waiting for the performance to begin. As I thought about it, I almost started chuckling after every sip. Negativland keeps doing what it does because maybe, at some point, a few more of us will take a “red pill” and actually start listening to what they are saying.

PC: Cosmic-A Photos; Monica Demattei

Fair Use Content - Negativland "The letter U and the number 2"

To learn more about Negativland, visit

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