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Negativland spill the Pepsi

By Mark Woodlie

OCTOBER 13, 1997:  What's a bunch of audio terrorists and culture critics to do when they've been attacked by the Man? Negativland's response gets summed up in the title of the final track of their new Dispepsi (Seeland): "Bite Back." As they explain in the disc's liner notes, "All of the cola commercials that were appropriated, transformed and re-used in this recording attempted to assault us in our homes without our permission." But as the global economy and consumer culture keep repackaging life for the approaching millennium, there's a more important question: can Negativland's bite (or ours) ever be worse than the barking voices emanating from our television sets?

You might remember Negativland from their crash-and-burn experiment with U2. Whereas it was easy enough for Leeds roughnecks the Mekons to mock Bono on 1989's "Blow Your Tuneless Trumpet," sardonically calling him "the Dublin messiah," Negativland's much more clever and vicious appropriationist parody of U2's "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" saddled the California-based group with legal hassles they barely survived. (For complete details, see Fair Use, a 270-page book and CD Negativland published in 1995.) So Negativland have been craftier with Dispepsi. Unwilling (probably on advice of pro, uh, bono counsel) to use the trademark Pepsi in their new disc's title, the group have employed a number of acronyms -- Diespisp, Eispspid, and my favorite, Pissdepi -- and set up a "Word of Mouth Line" phone number you can call to learn the "correct spelling and pronunciation of the title of this CD." (The final product doesn't feature any clearly printed title.)

Negativland are decidedly less subtle when it comes to the collage-like tracks of samples, mock jingles, and occasional hip-hop beats they've created on the CD. From its first sound (a can of soda being cracked open) to its last (a can being tossed away), Dispepsi reaffirms how disposable our consumer culture is. "The Greatest Taste Around" swirls grotesque and surreal images around a chirpy mock Pepsi ad. "Drink It Up" offers a string of amusing product puns -- "My Crystal Light has just burned out/And Canada's gone Dry/My Yoohoo will not call to me/I am a loyal endorsee of Pepsi." A dizzying collage of recontextualized celebrity voices (including Michael J. Fox, Barbara Eden, Marion Ross, and Ricardo Montalban) creates a hysterical criticism of advertising on "A Most Successful Formula." And "Bite Back" is a classic Negativland dirge packed with spliced-together bits appropriated from advertisements, talk radio, and other media channels, including advice from a talk-show caller: "We can control the corporations, all we have to do is stop buying what it is they're selling."

The corporate behemoth has not yet responded -- perhaps PepsiCo has a sense of humor. Or is the corporation, which also owns Kentucky Fried Chicken, Taco Bell, and Pizza Hut, simply too entrenched in our fast-food culture to be worried over a recording that uses its trademark as a symbol of media oversaturation and global economic onslaught? Maybe the CEOs are just flattered.

Actually Pepsi's not concerned for several reasons. Unlike U2, Pepsi is not a musical entity. What's more, the cover art for Negativland's U2 was designed to create confusion among the Dublin band's audience (U2's name was printed in 10-inch type on the '91 single, whereas Negativland was in smaller letters at the bottom of the cover), thus incurring the wrath of Island Records, which claimed that unwary U2 fans might be duped into buying the Negativland product. And in the end, a multinational corporation like Pepsi has little to fear from a mildly revolutionary group of culture critics like Negativland. The recuperative powers of the global economy are stronger than ever.

In her 1994 book The Sponsored Life: Ads, TV, and American Culture, cultural critic Leslie Savan writes, "There is no human emotion or concern -- love, lust, war, childhood innocence, social rebellion, spiritual enlightenment, even disgust with advertising -- that cannot be worked into a sales pitch." Negativland's message to consumers (that's us) is that we must remain vigilant and active as we face the ongoing homogenization of culture. We can, and should, bite back. Our response might start with a better understanding of how advertising represents us at the height of the information age. As Savan explains in her book, which describes how commercial culture sells our own experiences back to us, "To lead the sponsored life you really don't have to do anything." We can laugh at (and with) Negativland's wild, inspired rants and critiques. But we have to do something.


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