Certain words have the unfortunate fate of symbolizing all that is evil in the world. Words such as “communist,” “cholesterol,” and “crack” have all had their day as lingual marks of the beast. But a new word has stolen the spotlight. Unlike the aforementioned, this word can rally mild-mannered folk into hysteria, can cause them to duke it out with hapless police officers, can inspire them to exaggerated acts of vandalism, can discourage that great modern-day pursuit: consumption. The word is “corporate,” and it is sometimes saddled with the word “fascist,” just to lend it some invidious credibility.
To many, “corporate” is simply anathema to their constitutions. It describes soulless, ravenous predators, they tell you, looking for anything pure and good to exploit for profit, like untamable, indestructible bullies competing for the world's resources just to accrue as much power as heinous military governments so they can bathe in baby blood.
But for the piece of the population pie that feels this way, I'm here to tell you this: Dude, it's cool.
Let's take the case of the prospective merger of Time Warner and EMI. As many of you know, the AOL Time Warner merger is quickly turning from a sparkling emblem of the New Economy into a big blimp on fire (as of last week the company's new name is just “Time Warner”). Faced with huge, crippling debt — no doubt incurred from making and distributing all those annoying AOL software updates you get in the mail — the megagiant has been forced to liquidate its assets: It's pawned off half of its stake in Comedy Central, sports teams like the Atlanta Hawks and the Atlanta Thrashers, and its CD and DVD manufacturing business, all in an effort to return its bankers' cheese. Now, with its music division struggling, Time Warner has returned to the negotiating table to discuss a merger with Music Humongous EMI, talks it initiated back in 2000. Many decry this move of media consolidation, but hey, is it really that bad?
I have this friend who thinks we are a few years from an era when mainstream music consists of just one record company, one band, one song. The EMI-Time Warner merger brings us a few steps closer to this scenario, which he calls the “Unified Feel Theory.” According to Unified Feel, the music of the future will be dispensed like frozen yogurt out of one of those oversize contraptions. You'll eat it and you'll like it.
The theory is already unfolding through the trick of pairing two unlikely acts to do a song together, otherwise known as the odd-couple collaboration. While Run-D.M.C. and Aerosmith started it in the '80s, it was Puff Daddy who galvanized it in the late '90s when he made hits with Sting and Jimmy Page. Then came Elton John and Eminem. Now there's Britney and Madonna, Queen Latifah and Rod Stewart.
The mechanics of this idea involve the exchange of two elements instrumental to the Unified Feel: popularity and perceived credibility. An older artist with the street cred and a loyal, though waning, fan base is obliged to rehash an old hit alongside a new douche act that does 20,000 copies a week. This street runs both ways, however. After Time Warner's Madonna smeared herself in Che Guevara's blood for a recent album cover and slung feces at the world with that “I'm not a Christian, I'm not a Jew” rap she did, she was about to be recalled. Her album sales were resuscitated the only way possible, through the well-publicized tonguing of her protégé, Britney Spears. This sent the Scary Larries of the world scurrying en masse to be part of the “Madonna for a New Millennium” experience. The two then cut a song together, “Me Against the Music,” sure to be on next year's odd-couple collaborations compilation.
As these collaborations are the only thing that can get everyone excited about the mainstream party, the marriage of the EMI and Time Warner artist rosters will present many opportunities. Observe: Time Warner artist Michael Stipe's bald head would look great with a red do-rag for a few joints with EMI cash cow Chingy. The two are sure to have a hit with a couple of R.E.M. remixes: “What's the Freak-quency Kenneth?” and “It's the End of the Wurrld as We Know It and I Feel High as a Muthafucker.” Or how about coupling EMI subsidiary Matador Records' indie darlings Yo La Tengo with Time Warner's rasta-metal mutation Sean Paul? Surely Yo La Tengo lyrics like “I'm willing to hold your hand when you're lost, when you're so full of doubt” would sound better coming out of Paul's raspy mush-mouth. Too much of a stretch? Try a double album with EMI's Coldplay and Time Warner's Red Hot Chili Peppers. The two might cancel each other out to sound just like Matchbox 20. Now that's what I call music.
Then there is the inverse collaboration, aka the versus record. An EMI-Time Warner marriage would yield a field rich for harvesting brand-name artists trading dis after juicy dis with one another. Why not a Janet Jackson vs. Madonna full-length? Madonna could rap about her notorious love stints with Kool Moe Dee and Warren Beatty in a spicy cover of Janet's “Nasty Boys.” Jackson could fire back by letting us know what's really going on with Madonna's reputed abdominal implants in “Material Girl.” The versus product line could also bring unity to the streets by resolving the little-known beef between Seal and Snoop Dogg stemming from the maudlin crooner's feckless frontin' up in the gangsta rapper's face at the 1998 Source Awards.
Once the music world looks like one big happy profitable family, the Unified Feel Theory will coalesce into its end game: the infusion of all popular styles into a single being. Code name: Project Proteus. A Project Proteus prototype would be part slutty young diva à la Christina Aguilera, part hardened criminal-millionaire like 50 Cent, part “Budweiser True Music” pawns Creed, etc. Project Proteus would make history as the only act you could simultaneously see on MTV, BET, and VH1 and hear on the Bone, KMEL, and Live 105. Picture it: muscular arms, throwin' up gang signs, connected to a bullet-riddled, tattooed chest sandwiched between a blond diva's fake, gyrating ass and a dour, angst-ridden face crooning about driving your truck for Jesus in God's America. The notion of Project Proteus might cause you to scoff, but remember, people scoffed at the idea of a flying aero-plane 100 years ago.
See, corporate endeavor isn't so bad. It is the custodian of innovation, and innovation is what makes this country and its cycle of consumption so great, something for the whole world to see and hear. Hysteria over corporate hegemony is nothing more than hysteria over changing times. Mergers and acquisitions are immutable meta-currents in the grand scheme of things, EMI-Time Warner just a footnote. If anything, these processes are evolutionary, commerce and art intertwining like DNA molecules to replicate profits and expression, each generation of business plans and artists forging ahead to converge like railroad tracks in the distance.