A New American Piece of Writing (Dub Version)

Jackson Siegal, October 2015

I didn’t know what book to discuss in this piece of writing. I will explain why you will be reading what you will read after this sentence ends. I have a cute little photo book collection beneath my cute little twin bed in my dorm room. I thought it would be too obvious and arbitrary to write about something I sleep above. I thought of writing about Doug Rickard’s A New American Picture, a book Stephen Shore told me to look at after hearing my project proposal for his view camera class that involved Google street view images. I’ve looked through the book, I figured I would write about it, but it is just a book. It does not make a comment on or question what a book is. It is a collection of images spread out across pages with an introduction and some brief passages. My obnoxious self didn’t want to write about a book. I wanted to and want to write about something that is not a book in the physical sense. Next to my bed on top of a dresser lives a collection of a few dozen cassette tapes and CD’s, all of which I barely ever play. They are really there as unneeded conversation-starters. My favorite item in the collection is a Madonna CD I bought at a Goodwill in Kingston, NY. It is the 1987 release You Can Dance, a remixed compilation of some hits and album cuts from Madonna’s first chapter as a musical artist.

You Can Dance is composed of 4 items: a plastic jewel case, an album booklet, a CD, and a back cover sheet. Together, these items make the whole. They are packaging, advertising, and product, all in one, like a book on a store shelf. Like a book, there is a front and back cover. The case opens like the pages of a book. With the case open, and the object resting exposed, I see the deconstruction of a photo book. There is a booklet on the left, and a CD on the right. The booklet contains an introduction to the product, lyrics to songs, and two images of Madonna. The booklet functions as the introduction to the artistic work. Like an essay written by a third party to introduce Doug Rickard’s work in his book, within the booklet, there is a short text by someone named Brian Chin meant to introduce the album’s purpose, goal, context, and meaning. He begins by writing; “Ever since her first single…Madonna has always been able to bridge the dance underground and the mass pop audience, turning the magnetism of a groove into outward allure and inner liberation of dancing.” His enthusiastic and somewhat overworked introduction to “You Can Dance” also serves as the credits for the various producers and musicians who helped to master and remix the tracks for the album. Weaving song titles with credits and Madonna-worshiping sentiments with promotional gibberish, he sets the stage for the unapologetically lighthearted party album. 

To the right of the booklet lies the CD. I won’t bother talking about the aesthetics of this object for more than one sentence. It is grey with black block lettering, simple. If the booklet is the You Can Dance equivalent to the introduction for a photo book, the physical CD and the information embedded within it is the photographs and the paper on which they are printed in a photo book. A photo book functions as a vehicle to consume image. A CD functions as a vehicle to consume sound. While the sounds of You Can Dance cannot be seen, they are data in a way that a collection of photographs are as well. A photographic histogram, which displays the range of tones captured in an image, looks awfully similar to the visual representation of sound waves. One could convert sound into a visual image as one could convert an image into a sound. In terms of data, it can all be broken down to the most simplistic units. As a result, I don’t view the fact that You Can Dance is not a photo book, or a book for that matter, as a reason why I cannot discuss it in relation to the photo book. While I won’t be talking about the music in great detail, I wouldn’t necessarily talk about a specific image in Rickard’s book in great detail in a paper. I would mention bits and pieces of description and summary and interpreted meaning of different images as I could do the same for different songs. However, that is not the point of this piece of writing. The point of this piece of writing is to explore the photo book as a symbol for a defined, individual product of media, whether it is artistic or commercial. In Madonna’s case, You Can Dance is a commercial product, as well as an artistic one. The edition of A New American Picture I viewed was only printed in 200 copies. I would not say the intention of its publication was a commercial one, however, it was not meant to be a precious art artifact. It was meant to be a way for people to view Rickard’s work. The photos in the book were part of his first widely exhibited project as a visual artist. The edition of the book I viewed was most likely meant to spread awareness of Rickard’s work. Regardless, for a photographic artist, a book is most often more of a commercial endeavor than a single print. While a book can aid in the conceptual or aesthetic intentions of a photographer, it is inherently more commercial and easily consumed. Consumption is its reason for being. A New American Picture and You Can Dance both exist for consumption.

Madonna’s album is structured like a club set. The songs transition into one another seamlessly and the music never stops until the album finishes. If the music of You Can Dance were to be represented in a book, it would most likely have to be an accordion fold. If the songs had defined beginnings and ends, then one could plot each song on its own page. Like the images in Rickard’s book, the songs of You Can Dance are all fairly uniform. There is a thumping beat, energetic synth effects, and a confident and happy Madonna singing about being a star, dancing all night, partying, and coming together united by music, dance, and celebration. In Rickard’s book, the consistency in presentation and sentiment in Madonna’s songs translates into the same visual aesthetic and symbolic content in each image. Every image shares the same look of a 21st century Hopper painting. Colors and tones bleed into each other, and the low-res aesthetic of the street view images bind the content of a crumbling American landscape filled with anonymous, blurry-faced characters standing small amidst their banal street scenes. Sorry for talking about substance for that brief moment. The last piece of You Can Dance is the back cover. It lists the songs on the album, and those involved in their production. Next to the track listing is a shorthaired Madonna in a black and red matador outfit. She stares out intensely and stands as if ready to face of against a bull, or some stranger on the dance floor. The final expression in the sequence of the You Can Dance package is the same as the first. It is a flashy portrait of Madonna in her matador outfit. The product starts and ends where it began. The uniformity of You Can Dance, in its bright, energetic visual and sounds is matched by the consistency in aesthetic and content in Rickard’s book. In both cases, the product serves as a platform on which to build a repetitive and ceaseless statement. Contained within a jewel case, and within the binding of a book, is an experience; a sequence that can involve objects, visuals, sounds, and data of all kinds. A book is an object that contains data, an object that contains something. An empty book is a book, but A New American Picture is A New American Picture. A jewel case, a CD, a booklet, and a back cover sheet are just that, but You Can Dance is the imprinting of data on those objects to create an experience within the confines of the product.

So, is a book a book without data or expression contained within it? Sure it is in the literal sense, but it’s a fucking boring book. What makes something worth consuming is substance and information. When a book is closed, you cannot see what is contained inside. You can assume, based on the cover and packaging, but you really only find out when you open it. In opening it, you allow yourself to absorb previously invisible information. In opening a CD case, and playing the music, you hear something, and your mind reacts to it. In turning from page to page, one takes in new sights and content. In listening to a song, and another, and another, one takes in new sounds and content. Whatever the vehicle for consumption, it is the act of experiencing a creative product, whether it is in the form of an album or book that matters.