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So far as we know, Eddie Vedder has never darkened anyones doorstep and demanded they give back their copy of Pearl Jams debut album Ten so he could continue tinkering with it.
When Rob Harvilla, music critic and host of the podcast 60 Songs That Explain the 90s, recently pictured that exact scenario, he couldnt help but laugh. Its just wild to me to try to wrap my head around the idea of Pearl Jam bursting into my bedroom and being like, Give me that. Were taking Jeremy off the record, he said.
But in a way, he added, the digital equivalent of it is already happening as streaming services become our dominant means of listening to music and watching TV and movies.
Beyoncé made two changes to her long-anticipated album Renaissance after it was released on July 29: She removed a sample of Milkshake from Energy, after Kelis called the use of her song theft; Beyoncé also agreed to remove the word spaz from Heated, after fan outcry accused her of using ableist language. A few weeks earlier, Lizzo had responded to online protest and removed the same word from her song Grrrls this too came after it was released.
Review: Beyoncés Renaissance was made to last forever
Warner Bros. Discovery, meanwhile, spiked Batgirl a movie already in postproduction, sending creatives into an existential panic as the studio also removed at least six movies it was exclusively streaming on HBO Max, including Seth Rogens An American Pickle.
The Batgirl/HBO Max situation is why I spent my last day on set of Dickinson calling an exec at apple and *begging* for a physical recording of my show they actually gave me one, I have the ONLY copy, tweeted Alena Smith, the creator of Dickinson, an Apple TV Plus period dramedy. People said I was crazy but dude, thats ten years of my life.
If all content is digital, then it is subject to being edited or even erased at the whim of anyone with controlling access to it. We live in an age of revision, in which art is impermanent, ever shifting, always on the precipice of being fixed or updated. The motivations for such changes can vary: online pressure from fans, or the perfectionist tendencies of an anxious artist, or a potential legal issue. It can all send creators and producers back to the originals to correct a perceived wrong. A network or studio or record label can update or delete its library to avoid offending consumers. The reasons are potentially unlimited. No art is ever considered final in the digital age.
I always tell my students, if you really love something, buy it in hard copy, own it, have a DVD of it, a Blu-ray or a CD of it, said Paul Booth, the associate dean of DePaul Universitys College of Communication who has extensively studied fandom. Because if you only have a digital version, you dont have a finite finished product. Youre renting a product from whatever service that you have.
Art has long been subject to alteration for endless reasons. In the 16th century, the Catholic Church began addingfig leaves on the genitalia of statues to avoid inciting lust in the masses. Four hundred years later, give or take, George Lucas infamously angered fans by continuously rereleasing both the original Star Wars trilogy and its prequels with significant changes, such as the addition of new characters and dialogue simply because he wanted to and leaving an endlessly and contentiously unsettled debate about whether Han Solo or Greedo shot first.
Similarly, Steven Spielberg digitally altered E.T. for its 20th anniversary to replace the FBI agents guns with walkie-talkies, a decision hes since said hes lived to regret. It was OK for a while, but I realized what I had done was I had robbed people who loved E.T. of their memories of E.T. he said of the change. He restored the guns for the 30th-anniversary cut.
Lizzo and Beyoncé both re-recorded songs after fans called attention an ableist slur in each of their lyrics. The Post’s Travis Andrews analyzes the trend. (Video: Allie Caren/The Washington Post)
The list goes on. When Disney rereleased the original animated version of The Lion King in IMAX eight years after the films original release, it replaced some scenes and reanimated others. Disney Plus has routinely edited shows and films on its service. Sometimes, its (ostensibly) accidental, such as when Netflix unknowingly streamed a non-U.S. version of Back to the Future Part II that edited out the cover of a skin mag discovered by Marty McFly, according to screenwriter Bob Gale.
Plus, its only getting easier as deepfake technology grows more powerful. What was previously used to make fake but shockingly believable videos of celebrities like Tom Cruise is now being employed by major movie studios. Rather than reshoot the movie, Lionsgate recently hired an artificial intelligence company to remove the f-words out of its new action-thriller Fall to avoid an R rating.
Brent Cowley, a University of Oregon PhD candidate in media studies who focuses on media manipulation, said that editing media, particularly movies, is nothing new, pointing to sanitized versions made for airlines and network TV. Theyve always manipulated language and so forth, but it was obvious, he said.
Whats changing now is the use of digital alterations where people would not know that anything had been changed, Cowley added. The cats out of the bag. It is cheaper to do it than ever before, and on top of that, its more accepted than ever before. People know what deepfake technology is. Theyre kind of used to it.
Fans told Lizzo a word in her song was offensive. She changed the lyrics.
As news of Beyoncé and Lizzo changing their songs circulated, another story was unfolding: Stranger Things co-creators Matt and Ross Duffer claimed in a June interview with Variety to have edited earlier episodes of the Netflix sci-fi drama. We have George Lucas-ed things, also, that people dont know about, Matt Duffer said. But itd be hard for anyone to figure it out.
You do have the physical copies, though. The Blu-rays and stuff. Youd have to compare, but the beauty of Netflix is we can just drop [it in], his brother Ross added. Maybe I shouldnt be saying this, but if you watched Season 4 the night it came out versus if you watched it one day later, Friday, its different. Some of the visual effects.
The shows writers later issued a denial, tweeting, PSA: no scenes from previous seasons have ever been cut or reedited. And they never will be.
So did they actually edit the show or not? Netflix has done it before, removing a graphic suicide scene from the teen drama 13 Reasons Why in response to backlash. But in this case, nobody knows, and thats the key. Its not only easy to make changes to art in the digital age, it can be done without anyone noticing and perhaps with no definitive record of what originally existed. As Ross Duffer himself said, I do like that we can just sneak stuff in.
That would have been much harder in a world ruled by physical media. Sure, DVDs of Stranger Things exist, but they certainly arent the prominent format. And without physical media, the past can easily be rewritten or forgotten. Famously, for example, in 1971 the BBC planned to erase all the original tapes of Monty Pythons Flying Circus to reuse them as a cost-saving measure. The only reason we have the show today is because Terry Gilliam bought them all.
So, will a physical copy of the original recording of Renaissance exist in five years? Or will Beyoncé’s new version be all there is? Technology allows you to do the Men in Black memory wipe thing, like the old version never existed, music critic and author Steven Hyden said.
Fans also play a complicated role in all this. Theyve always been a key part of artistic and commercial success (even in simpler times, when Stan was just the name of some guy), but social media has equipped them with a powerful and unified say in the product.
Before the social media age, fans didnt necessarily have a way to reach out to other fans who might be in other countries, but now you can, said Booth, the DePaul professor. So youve seen fans be able to mobilize the same way weve seen political groups mobilize. Its not that fans didnt want to change things, didnt want to adjust things, didnt want to have things different. There just wasnt a mechanism for making those claims or those desires known.
There were exceptions, he added. In the late 1960s, fans launched a successful letter-writing campaign to save Star Trek from cancellation. But, he said, Its not like the fans were asking for content changes. They were just asking for more.
Creators are needing to become more aware that fans investment in their work goes beyond just buying and enjoying their music or art. They may feel they have a greater say in the ultimate outcome, the ultimate creation, what it looks like and how it sounds, said Seth Lewis, director of the journalism program at the University of Oregon.
Consider the infamous saga of Snakes on a Plane, the 2006 Samuel L. Jackson B-movie about, well, you know. New Line Cinema originally planned a PG-13 cut of the action thriller, but, thanks to that title, fanfare for the movie exploded long before it was set to hit theaters. Fans had one particular request: Have Jackson yell a certain explicit catchphrase in a very certain way. In what was then a fairly shocking move, the studio spent five days shooting new scenes after principal photography wrapped to accommodate the fans with a hard-R flick. When the movie finally came out, it felt like it had been crowdsourced by the internet, Harvilla said.
Snakes on a Plane: The movie that was a meme before we knew what memes were.
Its not difficult to imagine how this might play out in 2022: A PG-13 version is released on a streaming service. Quickly, fans wishing for a more explicit movie flood Twitter, and soon the studio kowtows to them, uploading a racier version and deleting the previous one.
The future is likely to include more impermanence, not less. The work is out there, but its never fully formed or finished because it could always be edited with some degree of ease, if it only exists in some digital form, Lewis said, adding that the initial release of a piece of art might become more like the beta test of a piece of software. Not only can it be updated, it very likely will be.
Booth envisions a world in which companies hire fans to consult. Perhaps Marvel grabs 35 fans at Comic-Con and asks them to take a look at the script for its next superhero movie. I see that happening at the creation stage, almost like a focus group, rather than once the text has been finished, because its also expensive to change all of these things, he said.
When you can consistently edit art, where is the endpoint? Its a question people have been asking since February 2016, when Kanye West released his album The Life of Pablo onto streaming music services with the strange suggestion that it wasnt actually finished. And it wasnt. In the ensuing months, he repeatedly updated the record, swapping out different versions of songs and changing the track list prompting a mixture of awe and anger from fans and critics.
At what point is a record over, and who gets to make the call? Kanye West is seeing how far he can stretch the point right now, in a way no pop star has ever quite tried: in real-time, critic Jayson Greene wrote in Pitchfork at the time, adding, West is testing the shifting state of the album cycle to see if he can break it entirely, making his album like another piece of software on your phone that sends you push updates.
I think that was the moment that planted this idea in everyones head that this specific record is a living, breathing, mutating document, said Harvilla, the 60 Songs podcast host. That really did change something fundamentally about the way people thought about and listened to music. Now I think we are grasping more fully the reality that there is no stopping this from happening. Theres no stopping anyone from doing this.
The idea of art changing in real time excites Harvilla: The idea that the ground is shifting under your feet can be thrilling as a consumer. On the other hand, he said, Its a paradigm shift thats genuinely hard to wrap your mind around. And there are ugly, unpleasant applications of it.
As with any emerging technology, the ability to easily revisit art and erase blemishes, sand out the edges to fix it can be something of a Pandoras box. After Beyoncé agreed to edit Heated, Monica Lewinsky suggested via tweet that the singer should also edit the 2013 song Partition, which uses Lewinskys name to describe a sexual act.
The whole saga raises a key question: Should there be a statute of limitations on what an artist can edit? Beyoncé isnt flawless. She makes mistakes, and we should be reminded of that, Hyden said.
What if Eminem had a change of heart and was like, I want to take out all of the anti-gay language I used in my early records? You can look at that as a positive thing, because he was using homophobic slurs. Whos gonna defend that? Hyden added. On the other hand, that was part of the package who made him who he was in the moment, good or bad. So yeah, youre taking out offensive language, but youre also rewriting history. It would feel like sanitizing history.
He suggested its worthwhile to be able to revisit an album filled with offensive content, such as Eminems The Marshall Mathers LP and use that record as a prism to understand why this record was so popular in 2000. What was it about it that [the culture] embraced it so much? You need the vile stuff in there to help understand that.
Then again, he added, If youve grown up in a world where its always been digital, maybe this conversation doesnt really make sense. Maybe this is an analog perspective, because thats something I was raised with.