Calling The Flaming Lips' album Zaireeka unique is an understatement. Released in 1997, it consists of four CDs, each with eight tracks, meant to be synchronized together on up to four CD players. The corresponding tracks on each CD contain parts of a whole song. One CD may have the drums and bass, another guitars, another vocals, etc.
The idea is to assemble at least four interested people and four CD players arranged around some physical space to play the album. Generally someone leads a countdown and each person attempts to start their CD player at the same time. Each track begins with a voice announcing the track number (then the CD numbers, each staggered) so the participants can easily tell if the CDs are synchronized.
The idea came from a series of "parking lot experiments" the band executed, where dozens of participants in cars were given cassette tapes with different arrangements of music or sounds on them. The band would conduct the various sections to create a seemingly random, yet strangely coherent composition. Wayne Coyne, The Flaming Lips lead singer, saw that "...the audience liked the idea of participating in their own entertainment..." He envisioned all the participants as creators of the music claiming, "...the musicians are just tape decks."
The band decided to come up with a version of the experiments that could be played at home, eventually creating Zaireeka, described by Coyne as "...a kind of anarchy meets inspiration, or maybe a mess with a purpose..."
In today's digital world the concept is often difficult to grasp. Why wouldn't you just use widely available software to rip the CDs onto a computer and mix them together? When I got the album (about 5 years ago) that's the first thing I did, which essentially makes it like any other CD or digital download. But that misses the point.
The appeal to actually setting up the four CD players (which are amazingly hard to find today) is that listeners are surrounded by sound coming from eight different channels in different locations -- as opposed to two on a regular stereo. More importantly, even if you sync the tracks perfectly at the begining, each CD player (no matter how high end) runs at a different speed. The result of venue choice, the user's ability to sync the tracks and quality of CD player is that you can never hear the same version of the song twice. That's exactly what Coyne had in mind, "I wanted to make songs that were different every time you played them." The album format enables any regular fan to create a "live" performance that will never be replicated. However, despite the difference in each play, the general concept of the song is still present. Even if certain audio parts arrive early or late, the song itself remains as a coherent composition.
Mark Richardson, managing editor of Pitchfork and author of Flaming Lips' Zaireeka (33 1/3), describes the album as "...the anti-headphone and the anti-mp3" (22). It's a piece of music that takes effort to enjoy as intended. You can't listen to it on an iPod or in a car. You can't even listen to it alone. And because of the work required to perform it, the format makes you more focused on the music than you would be with headphones or in a car. It's a situation that is rarer and rarer in a digital world -- listening to music as a primary activity as opposed to a background soundtrack to driving, working, walking, etc.
The album, released in 1997, finds itself on the cusp of the move to digital music as the dominant format. At the time commercially available CD-R, audio editing software and online file sharing began their ascent to near ubiquity. Perhaps fittingly, it contains some aspects of the new media developing at the time (and today) as it is both collaborative/participatory and remixable. However, it accomplishes these properties in vastly different ways than digitally based media.
Burgess and Green discuss participatory culture (using YouTube as an example) as a "...link between more accessible digital technologies, user-created content, and some kind of shift in the power relations between media industries and their consumers" (10). Jenkins similarly defines participatory culture as "fans and other consumers are invited to actively participate in the creation and circulation of new content" (290). Burgess and Green trace the shift from passive media consumption to participatory culture to the 90s where certain fan communities created content related to their commercial media of choice "...in a symbiotic (and at times uneasy) relationship with the 'big media,' who saw themselves as the originating authors of the texts, characters, and fictional worlds that fans 'made over' for their own purposes" (11).
In the case of Zaireeka, The Flaming Lips took this concept a step further by requiring fan participation in the composition of the album. Without at least four participants, the album couldn't exist. However, because of the technology used, this participatory community necessarily exists offline. In fact, the digital technology that allows participatory culture in the online world destroys the offline participatory culture created by Zaireeka. As mentioned earlier, mixing the album into conventional tracks can be easily accomplished today, but removes the collaborative aspect and creates a predictable, uniform digital file. Even using four computers to play the tracks destroys the experience as the fact that CD players don't play at the same speed makes it impossible to create the same song twice -- one of the aims of the album.
Playing the tracks together to form a whole song could be considered an early form of remix or mashup, but again outside of the digital environment with which those genres have become synonymous. The user has the freedom to start the tracks when they choose and even use less than the suggested four CDs to create different versions of the song. In this way, the album exists as a live remix or mashup, destroyed by a move to the digital environment. Choi describes the characteristics of digital files as "...indestructibility, transmutability (easy to modify), and reproducibility" (69). He says some non-digital media share these characteristics, but not to the "degree of perfection" that digital files do. Zaireeka's nature runs completely contrary to this definition. It is surely not indestructible as it is on a physical CD. It can be modified -- starting tracks at different times, using different equipment etc. -- but not in the way implied by the definition. And by its nature it is impossible to reproduce.
With these ideas in mind, I felt the best way to explain the album, allow those without the ability or desire to experience it first hand and place it within the context of current digital media technology was to create a video experience similar to the audio experience Zaireeka allows. It is an attempt to digitize the idea of the experience in a visual format without destroying it or its unique participatory and remixable nature. Additionally, it allows an individual to enjoy the experience without the need for more than one finger.
The result is four videos embedded in a single web page. When played together, each video makes up one quadrant of a larger video that explains the concept of the Zaireeka album. Additionally each video contains audio from one of the four Zaireeka CDs for the first track on the album, "Okay I'll Admit That I Really Don't Understand." The audio approximation of the experience is admittedly poor, because of the myriad of reasons discussed previously. It's just impossible to replicate the audio experience without eight channels of sound and CD players in a physical space. However, the user still comes away with a different audio track each time they play the videos.
The video portion is much closer to the original experience. On screen instructions and visualizations allow the user to not only start the videos alone (adding some convenience factor), but to approximate how closely they've synchronized the videos -- much like the audio indicators at the beginning of each track of Zaireeka. And like Zaireeka, it's impossible to replicate the same video twice. Depending on equipment, Internet connection and the ability to synchronize well, the video will playback in a different form each time. However, even if the videos are not synchronized, the general concepts in the video are still presented holistically, much like the audio of Zaireeka.
The video experiment allows the user to participate in the creation of the media as intended in the original album. It also keeps intact remixability as conceptually applied to the Zaireeka album and, because the videos are digital, as more traditionally defined in the digital world (meaning someone could conceivably download these videos and remix them).
Burgess, Jean, Joshua Green, Henry Jenkins, and John Hartley. YouTube: Online Video and Participatory Culture. Cambridge: Polity, 2009. Print.
Choi, Soon-Yong B., Dale O. Stahl, and Andrew B. Whinston. The Economics of Electronic Commerce. Indianapolis, IN.: Macmillan Technical Pub., 1997. Print.
Coyne, Wayne (1997). "What is Zaireeka?". Zaireeka (pp. 2-8) [CD booklet]. Burbank, CA: Warner Bros. Records Inc.
Richardson, Mark. Flaming Lips' Zaireeka. 68th ed. New York: Continuum, 2010. Print. 33 1/3.