Friday, March 30, 2012

Madonna's MDNA Marks the End of an Era

"Oh my god, I'm heartly sorry for having offending thee, and I detest all my sins," begins Madonna's 2012 album, MDNA. She may not sound like a 53 year old singing, but she most definitely doesn't sound like any spring chicken, either. In a succession of dance tunes, Madonna offers up cliché after cliché like an epilogue of the most recent synthpop explosion.

The recording quality is excellent, but the content isn't fresh. The album opens with second single "Girl Gone Wild," a phrase that began exiting the public lexicon about a half a decade ago, hinting that Madonna just got the memo that this might be a cute phrase to use. And it's all downhill from there.

The album immediately takes a turn for the cringe-inducing worse on "Gang Bang." (The double entendre is obvious, though the lyrics directly reference a gun violence interpretation.) Just when you think the song couldn't possibly continue, she wails, "I wanna see him die over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over—now die, bitch!"

Madonna has a habit of popping up right in the middle a dance revival. 1989's Like a Prayer was a cornerstone of the early 90s dance craze. Ray of Light came out of nowhere in 1998, hitting at exactly the right moment for a comeback. Unfortunately, MDNA feels more like the end of an era.

Aside from the tired clichés employed on the first two tracks and the TR-909 drum samples, the dated production and subject matter continue as Mrs. Ciccone tells us all about what she is. "I'm Addicted" sounds like a rejected KMFDM B-side. "I'm a Sinner" could easily have been released by Boss Hogg ten years ago.

But the album also serves as a summary of all the gimmicks of the scene from the past couple years. "Girl Gone Wild" features overcompressed bass hits that temporarily mute the treble à la Deadmau5. "Gang Bang" has a surprise and obligatory dubstep bridge. Tracks like "Love Spent" feature over-processed and distant autotuned vocals. She even jumps on the party rock bandwagon with a remix featuring LMFAO on the Deluxe edition's second disc.

And on the lead single, "Give Me All Your Luvin'," featured guest Nicki Minaj—no matter how irritating—is such an abrupt and fresh stylistic diversion that her verse leaves us wishing we weren't listening to a dinosaur singing like a teenager. MIA seals the deal, and we're sold.

"Every record sounds the same," she admits during the chorus. Synthpop just lapsed into a coma, ready to be awakened in nine or so years.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Color Reinvents Itself, Attempting to Stay Alive

It's been a year since mobile phone photo-sharing app Color made waves in the news with an astounding round of venture capital investment. The $41 million figure thrown at the company left many skeptical, including myself. After all, how could they expect to pay back all those investors?

The idea behind the app was simple and somewhat interesting, but would require widespread adoption by mobile phone users to be effective. The idea was that any photos snapped using the program would be immediately shared by anyone else within 150 feet running the app. A whole house full of partygoers would share photos with each other automatically. A crowd of people at the zoo would collect and share any photo they'd taken of silly orangutans. Sports fans would gather and broadcast shots of the game. But they'd all have to not only have the app, they'd need to be using it.

Why would this program cost $41 million to develop? My guess was that the money wasn't so much to feed the programmers as it was to advertise and bring public awareness to the system. If lots of people were convinced to use it and it took off, then the money could start to be made back, but a massive amount of people would need to get involved.

So what happened? Over the past year, I never once heard anyone speak about it out loud. It seems any buzz about the program remained on the Internet for critics to pan or praise. It never took off.

I decided to check in and see what ever came of the little photo app that sputtered out.

Visiting, the expensive domain secured by the company as part of its marketing strategy, I initially thought I was looking at an entirely different program. Nothing looked the same. Was this even the same company? All I could see was a collection of silent 30 second films and copy encouraging me to broadcast live from my phone to Facebook.

Turns out Color jumped ship on the old buggy app and started over from scratch, no doubt turning the investors' hair grey in the process, and reinventing itself as a live video update for Facebook. Now the app is used to announce that a broadcast is about to happen, let your followers and friends prepare to tune in, and then watch 30 seconds of whatever is happening in front of your phone. The proximity aspect is gone, supposedly reducing the need for mass adoption.

But what good is it? Does anyone use it? The examples on the home page didn't change over the course of a month. The top video, posted by Jimmy Kuch (same last name as one of the company's founders), featured 30 seconds of a deer standing nearby and then an obligatory pan to the photographer's face. Jimmy's other videos were choppy, grainy, and featured mundane subject matter—wholly unwatchable and uninteresting.

Kuch's use is probably typical of most Color users. At first, he was posting as many as ten videos a day; by the end of the month, an average of one every 1–2 days. Less than two months after beginning to use the service, he had abandoned it altogether—about three months before this article was written.

Why Color's New App is Again Doomed to Fail

  1. Cell phone video quality is still terrible. The choppy, grainy, blurry videos can't keep up with our expectations for remotely decent content in a 1080p world. Unfortunately, Color probably relies on this low quality to be able to "live stream."
  2. Silence, in this case, is not golden. Color intentionally doesn't record audio because beta testing found it to be too "distracting." In reality, it may have had more to do with the extra data and processing involved.
  3. No one is going to line up for live broadcasts. After being conditioned to the first few disappointing live videos from Facebook friends, people are going to ignore them (especially knowing they can just watch them later, which translates into never).
  4. Superior systems for putting videos on the web for everyone to see already exist. YouTube, Vimeo, Twitvid, SmugMug, etc. have all done this for years, but without restricting the audio, allowing for a wide variety of resolutions, and displaying your content in a far better interface.
Color is a perfect example of what happens when an industry thinks way, way too hard. A bandwagon of investment gathered via what was no doubt an especially excellent PowerPoint presentation put unreasonable expectations on something that was expected to change the world. They bought an expensive domain for their pretentious company name. They spent several weeks around the launch of the product doing press everywhere they could.

And in the end, it was less useful than Foursquare. No doubt history will show that Color is the Segway of the mobile app world.