That Time Negativland Trolled U2 Into Suing Them

Trawling YouTube is a weekly look at one interesting story or oddity from YouTube. You ever go down a YouTube rabbit hole and suddenly you’ve wasted five hours watching every Madonna video? This is about those rabbit holes, but the comedy-related ones.

“Corporations have this new idea about intellectual property: they want to own this stuff, they want to privatize it. They’re saying sure, you can have this stuff, we’ll sell it to you. But don’t ever think of changing it because it’s our property. But what I’m kind of saying is, well no, it’s not just your property because it’s inside my head.”

-Mark Hosler of Negativland, on Techstuff podcast

Hey remember how Scott Aukerman and Adam Scott did that podcast about U2? Yeah it was pretty cool and really totally silly. There was, however, also another recording project that took U2 as its subject that was a little more adversarial.

In 1991 San Francisco sound collage/art collective/intellectual property law activists Negativland released an EP called U2, consisting largely of samples of Casey Kasem getting mad in radio outtakes:

As the title of that video suggests, the concept behind the title U2 was that they would put “U2” in huge letters on the album cover, and then “Negativland” in much smaller letters, implying that it was a U2 album called “Negativland.” Then, for plausible deniability and I guess maybe just because they look cool, they put a picture of the U-2 airplane on there too.

I like to think this is comparable to a lot of Scott and Scott’s big conceptual “so stupid but how funny would it be if we actually did it!!!” jokes. They put this U-2 plane on there and kind of trolled U2 into suing them, which U2 did. Think about what that means. Bono and the Edge and the other ones own the concept of that plane now. Negativland is invoking that same image and concept, just like U2 did, but now they can’t because U2 did it. I mean even now when you watch some area 51 show and it mentions the U-2 bomber (which for you millennials was some kind of high tech spy plane invented during the Cold War to spy on Russia), you think of Bono and the lads from Liverpool.

Of course, the songs on the album also sampled heavily from U2 songs and parodied them and made fun of them, but anyways, U2 did end up suing them. And then Negativland wrote a book (and short album) about the whole experience called The Letter U and the Numeral 2.

So these guys, Mark Hosler, Peter Conheim, and David “The Weatherman” Wills, were really into protecting individuals’ rights to remix and manipulate copyrighted works, and in particular in the context of artists sampling songs/concepts. Coincidentally, or perhaps not, 1991 was also the year an NY District Court heard Grand Upright Music, Ltd. V. Warner Bros. Records Inc., in which the plaintiff, the publishing company of Gilbert O’Sullivan’s song “Alone Again (Naturally)”, claimed Biz Markee violated that copyright by sampling that song in Markee’s own song “Alone Again.” That was a big landmark case in copyright because the court held that musicians sampling a song under these certain conditions would have to pay, in addition to licensing fees, publishing fees and mechanical fees, which of course cost a shitload of money and nobody can afford them.

Interestingly, Louis CK has had some run-ins with this law in his show Louie: the scene where he sings The Who’s “Who Are You?” to his daughter, they had to pay all of those fees because the joke relied on the actual, Who recording of the song in its entirety on the radio. In some interview, CK explains that when he had the idea for that scene, he immediately called the record label and tried to work out some kind of deal (the label was asking something like $500,000 to use the song) and eventually someone at the label (or a band member?) was sympathetic and let them use it for way less.

And there is also a cool story behind the theme song of that show. It is a song called “Brother Louie,” originally written and performed by Hot Chocolate and covered in the form you hear on the show by another band called The Stories.

CK wanted to use that song, but didn’t want to pay the steep licensing fees to use the original (cover) studio recording, so he tracked down the singer of The Stories, Ian Lloyd, whose distinct voice was the whole appeal in the first place. CK ended up paying the publishing fee for the song, and then just paying Lloyd a $5,000 day rate to record the song again (changing the lyric “Louie Louie, you’re gonna cry” to “Louie Louie, you’re gonna die”). Much cheaper.

But anyways, back to Negativland. The U2 album and ensuing controversy is their big thing, the 1st autofill when you type their band name into Google, but for my money their most trenchant and prescient project was 1997’s Dispepsi, a pretty heavy handed critique of advertising culture. This gets to the heart of the above quote about intellectual property being inserted into your head by corporations.

As you can see, they have kept with the theme of trying to get sued by corporations over their album art, this time targeting Pepsi. And of course all the songs are about the big 90s thing of Coke vs. Pepsi, “the taste of a new generation,” etc. But not like this silly thing where you make fun of how dumb it is. It’s mostly just samples of recordings in which advertising professionals talk bluntly about the nuts and bolts of advertising. Like the “one foot rule” – a concept where companies spend millions of collars researching how to manipulate into, when you are one foot away from a product, choosing to buy it rather than to not buy it. This is apparently the most emotional moment in the buying process, and so ads purposely manipulate your emotions to, as they say, separate you from your money.

Or a lecture where some advertising executive talks about targeting the black community by thinking in terms of “the black character archetypes” that people love so much. Well of course there’s the star athlete, the gangster rapper, and that’s about it! That should be the starting point for any successful ad campaign!

And there is more good news: advertising has gotten, necessarily, even more manipulative and soulless. Take for example this extremely cool commercial where Taco Bell has created this scenario meant to tap into some of the deepest and most foundational emotions, about a “first kiss” and conveniently glued the Taco Bell brand to it. Extremely cool, and good as well…

Fuck this commercial. Also the tons of other ones that you see all the time but I don’t have time to look up right now. Advertising is inherently manipulative and weirdly those kind of messages don’t get on MTV and Comedy Central too often??

So my point here is that it’s really cool to do fun absurd silly conceptual comedy, and it’s also true that sometimes…you gotta be kind of an asshole about it.

That Time Negativland Trolled U2 Into Suing Them