I downloaded a long clip, over a minute, of Ann Coulter on Hannity and Colmes, arguing that it was "factually correct" that Clinton "was a scumbag." What was immediately fascinating was the "cross talk" on the sample, where multiple pundits were speaking at the same time. It seems like some pundit shows are nothing but cross talk. Cross talk is information overload. It is impossible to pay attention to two or three people talking at the same time. In the effort for everyone to be heard, nobody is heard. Cross talking pundits give the impression of communicating information while actually communicating nothing at all. I tried overlapping the sample, creating artificial cross talk into a dense texture. I like this idea, but haven't yet used it in a piece.
Instead, I started thinking about pundits and meaning, specifically, the difference between Limbaugh and Coulter. Ann Coulter speaks in sound bites. Everything she says is designed for maximum punch in as few seconds as possible. And the punch she packs is astounding. What rational person would argue that it was "factually correct" that anyone was a scumbag? Yet she said this about Clinton. And then she goes on to say that anyone who criticizes our current president is a traitor. In one clip that I use, she attacks the very notion of polls when they show low points for Bush but then, without pausing, attacks Kerry for polling low. Her positions are, self-contradictory, indefensible and astounding, but when she's asked to defend them, she does, again in little sound bites. She's impossible to argue with. It seems like any show she was on would dissolve into meaningless name-calling or cross talk. And indeed, most of what she says is meaningless.
Ann Coulter gives the impression of communicating ideas without actually doing so. Her books, comments, punditry and columns essentially say nothing but Republicans are right and Democrats are wrong, over and over again with no backing, no real evidence, nothing but puzzling and meaningless sound-bites and name calling. She is incredibly talented at weaving nothing into the appearance of something.
I wrote a program that looked for pauses in her phrases and created long "grains" based on her phrasing. I then played out the grains in random order. I tested this using my original crosstalk laden sample. It was amazing how little the sample changed. The pretense of meaning was obscured, but the pretense was so thin to start out with that it was as if nothing had been lost. When I played the original clip (without video) for some of my comrades, they found the unprocessed version nearly as incomprehensible as the re-ordered version. Then, I tried creating artificial cross talk by sometimes slightly overlapping phrases. It was exactly as if I had punditry on a Television in the background and wasn't paying attention to it.
I downloaded as many other files of Coulter as I could. I discovered that her voice only has a few tones. She is either sarcastic and snippy, sarcastic and smirking, shrill or defensive. I could put together phrases from any of her Hannity and Colmes appearances and, because the micing was always the same, it would sound like it all came from the same appearance. The little artificially constructed speeches produced by my process almost made sense. Her lack of timbral variation was as interesting and useful as Bush's rich tones. Which is not to say that she doesn’t have timbral variation, just that it is much more subtle and she doesn't have much emotional range.
Like with Bush, I became fascinated by her voice. I created an 11-minute piece. The first 5 minutes start with her unaltered quote calling Clinton a scumbag, which is then followed with re-ordered phrases from her many media appearances. I got the audio clips from mediamatters.org, guaranteeing that I had her most offensive comments from any of her appearances. (Also, I was unable to persuade anyone to Tivo her for me, alas.) Then, luckily, in the first week of October, her new book came out, thus greatly increasing the amount of source material. It was like heaven, except that my original fascination for her was beginning to turn into hate.
The second part of the piece takes a snapshot of the last pass of word reordering. It then broke that snapshot in grains all of equal size. The number of grains was equal to 4 times the number of clips in the re-ordering section. The play back algorithm plays back the grains in a moving window, like a cloud algorithm. On the second pass, the grains are four times smaller and the window is five times bigger. This goes on in a loop of decreasing grains and increasing window for about six minutes.
The first part of this piece is inspired by countless speech remixes that are common in politically themed popular music. These remixes are a problematic way to approach discourse. 91Angels points out, “[The] challenge seems to be to reveal underlying [inconsistencies] and contradictions in the source material, as opposed to just twisting someone's words around or trying to demonize your subject ad hominem . . .. Anyone can edit words into their mouths and make them say silly things or take them completely out of context, that proves nothing and is only good for some cheap laughs.” (http://www.livejournal.com/users/celestehblog/66886.html?thread=15686#t15686) I have tried to avoid this trap by having my program make all decisions about phrase order. Also, my point is not “Look, I can make Coulter say something pointless and stupid,” but rather, “listen to how little this changes if you randomize it.” The listener can draw her own conclusions on whether this communicates anything about the value of television punditry.
The second part of the piece reminds me of the movies and TV shows about Max Headroom. The movie concerns a television journalist who died but then is replaced by a computer-generated talking head who can do nothing but stutter catch phrases. In the movie, the talking head is deemed an inadequate replacement for journalism. The computer stuttering sound used by the fictional program was extremely popular among children. My friends and I would try to imitate it. This effect became somewhat overused in the 1980s because of Max Headroom, but I liked it anyway as a degenerative process. In the second part of the piece any plausibility of meaning and content is destroyed. So the piece begins with a clip which purports to communicate, is followed by a few minutes of remixed clips which sound like they may purport to communicate, but do not, followed then finally by increasingly small and scrambled grains which contain the timbres and pitches of speech, but none of the word content.
I first played in September of 2004 at Open Mic Night at It’s Only Natural. Unfortunately, this time the people present were not "friendly" experiencers. They quickly became annoyed, possibly by the lack of pitch material. It was almost the exact same people as were in the audience for my piece with Bush and digital peaking, however they were hostile to this one. Several people got up and left during it. One person afterwards was explaining to me about how when he was in music school, he'd learn to craft pieces that went somewhere and had been cautioned against distorting recorded voice.
The next performance was in Oakland, CA at the club 21 Grand. For that second performance, I used greater diversity of source material. Coulter's book came out in the meantime, giving her many press appearances and thus more material for me to choose from. Instead of making the piece longer, more samples were added in at a faster rate to cause the content to change more quickly. Coulter's book hyping created a plethora of material. I also added in a short clip of Hannity lying about Kerry to increase the non-Coulter voices and make it sound more like a pundit discussion. Since almost all the samples come form Hannity and Colmes, his voice was already in the piece.
This time, the friendly experiencers were entirely people from my mailing list and the other performers playing that evening. They had entirely different expectations than did the open mic attendees at ION. Also, it may have been helpful to play George Bush’s Voice first, thus creating a bridge between tonal content and tweaked word content. Fortunately, those listeners liked the piece.
I played the same version of the piece at a House Concert at India House for a mostly grad student audience. Jascha Narveson heard it and invited me to submit it to the Red Festival in Toronto where it was part of a “sound bar” where friendly experiencers listened tape pieces through headphones. I submitted almost the same version as the Oakland performance, except that some amplitude inconsistencies were altered with selective normalizations.
This piece was designed to change over time and it did for several months. I wanted the source sounds to change as new material became available. In this way, I hoped to extend the shelf life of the piece and be able to keep it current as events warrant. I began to tire of Coulter, however, and have quit adding new material and end up abandoning a proposed third section of the piece.
Further Coulter Ideas
Coulter’s style of speaking tends to lead to cross talk, as she attempts to shout down her foes with her insane sound bites about liberals and Clinton. Most of the Coulter-containing samples I downloaded from Media Matters were from Fox News, especially Hannity and Colmes. This was useful because they seem to mic everyone the same way every time. They set levels to reflect their ideology. Hannity, the conservative, has the loudest levels. The conservative guest, in these cases Coulter, has the second loudest micing. Next is Colmes, the show’s “liberal.” His voice is not powerful. His arguments are not powerful. His micing is low. If he were better at representing a center-right or left position, he would be fired. Al Franken found that in one representative show, Hannity spoke 2,086 words and Colmes a mere 1,261. (P 84) “Sean Hannity is the alpha male to Alan Colmes’s zeta male.” (P 84), Franken noted. But Colmes is not the lowliest player on the show. The lowest level of micing usually goes to the liberal guest, usually someone of no significance or occasionally someone who is actually not liberal at all.
At some point, Coulter realized that she was turned up louder than everyone else. Her voice is very powerful and she can be loud, so she had the power to dominate the entire show. I downloaded a clip of her intentionally speaking over everyone else, saying “And I’m not going to let you talk . . .. They’re not going to cut my mic!” (In later appearances, her level was turned down.) This seemed like a good sample to explore cross talk, as it mostly contained that. However, during the time I was working on Coulter Shock, my fascination with her was turning to hate. While I was assembling it, I listened to her over and over again making baseless accusations, contradicting herself and saying whatever obnoxious thing popped into her head. The cross talk sample was her at her worst. I can feel my blood pressure rise when I listen to it.
Al Franken spends many pages in Lies and the Lying Lairs Who Tell Them on the problem of “What is wrong with Ann Coulter?” (P 50) He explains, “Coulter for those of you lucky enough to not have been exposed to her, is the reigning diva of the hysterical right. Or rather, the hysterical diva of the reigning right.” (P 5) His chapter titles express his frustration with her: “Ann Coulter: Nutcase” and “You Know Who I Don’t Like? Ann Coulter.” She drives liberals crazy. Her book Slander starts with a complaint that political discourse “resembles professional wrestling.” (Coulter quoted by Franken p 9) However, Franken notes, “[In] the entire 206 pages, she never actually makes a case for any conservative issue . . .. The entire book is filled with distortions, factual errors, and vicious invective . . . bolstered by [shoddy] research . . .” (P 9) Franken explains, “What Coulter writes is political pornography. She aims directly at her readers’ basest instincts.” (P 19) Which makes conservatives love her and tremendously frustrates liberals.
Her lying and unrestrained exuberance made her seem charming at first, but, like Franken, I found myself pondering what exactly is wrong with Ann Coulter and then I discovered that I didn’t care. Buffalobeast.com published an article, The Beast 50 Most Loathsome People in America, 2004, in which they listed her as number 50. Their entry exactly reflected how my feelings towards her had changed.
50. Ann Coulter
Crimes: Coulter plummets down the list as she slips into irrelevance. As her columns degenerate further into absurd, incoherent attacks against her own personal paranoid fantasy of fanged, drooling, Saddam-loving liberals who hate America and childish France-bashing, we find our outrage slowly giving way to a baffled “I can’t believe I used to go out with you” feeling. Her arguments are ridiculous, her vitriol forced, her hatchet face even harder to look at. Still, she insulted a one-armed war veteran, called reports of the hundreds of tons of missing munitions in Iraq false, claimed Wesley Clark was pro-infanticide, and blamed Abu Ghraib on the presence of women in the armed forces—they’re not all like you, Ann—and on and on. It’s just not worth debunking someone who has no credibility in the first place.
Smoking Gun: Has credibility in the minds of more people than we can stomach acknowledging.
Punishment: Skull crushed with rock.
I quit downloading samples of her and went back to look at some samples of Rush Limbaugh that I had lying around from earlier.
This post is not Creative Commons. It is Copyright 2005 Celeste Hutchins. Al Rights Reserved.
Tag: Ann Coulter