Saturday, February 18, 2023

Disco Doesn’t Suck – And Neither Does AI Art

I’ve been thinking about experimenting with resurrecting this blog so I can Rant About Issues and hopefully attract clicks that will result in book sales or other engagement. Fine. It’s 2023, I know how these things work. Also I recently joined SFWA, after achieving (modest) sales of science fiction sufficient to meet their (recently lowered) threshold and one of their challenges had to do with arguments regarding AI. I did a Facebook post about the same thing that was enjoyed by some of my friends and misunderstood by others, so I’ve got an opinion or two on the subject. 

My next book is going to have an AI Art cover. AI Art is controversial right now, which makes it a good issue to rant about. In the past I’ve paid actual people – extremely talented professional artists, in fact – to do the art for my prior covers. However, my sales aren’t developing as well as I’d projected, for lots of reasons (not all of which relate to laziness), so I’ve decided to do my own covers – and editing – until the numbers look better.

My own visual art skills are crude at best. I enjoy decorative needlework and coloring other peoples’ designs, but I’m terrible at things like shading and proportion. I could come up with stick figures and crude scribbles, or do interesting things with Photoshop and stock images instead of using an AI, but my inner art director thinks that looks cringey (at least when I do it). 

It could work with the right sort of book, but my upcoming is a short, pulp-ish, space alien romance with plenty of sex and violence. Cutesy homemade graphics won’t work. What I’m contemplating looks more like a stock romance cover – a couple kissing, with some kind of background imagery indicating the setting. I want to mash it together with a sixties-style colorful surrealist paperback sci fi cover concept. Being able to pick my own cover art is one of the things I like most about being self-pubbed, and I’ve always wanted my name on a surreal sixties-style paperback.

One possible way I could achieve this would be to load a bunch of classic sci fi covers into the AI and order it to produce something similar, except different. This is the use that’s causing a lot of people to cry foul. Let’s pretend, briefly, that I’m a visual artist with a distinctive style, like Peter Max, or Margaret Keane. Every knock-off produced by some hack using AI art represents a sale I could have made.

What’s that, you say? Sites like RedBubble and Etsy, not to mention the parking lot of your favorite swap meet, are full of unauthorized IP? That’s true. A digital vendor might get a DMCA and a shipment of illegal cartoon character t-shirts might get confiscated and destroyed, but there are plenty of small timers popping up to supply the demand, drawing their own version and selling it where they can. Look up the story of Robert Crumb and all those Keep On Trucking t-shirts sometime.

I have a lawful alignment though. I’m not going to go around swiping other people's IP for my book cover. Some of those classic cover artists are in fact still alive, and I’ve met them at conventions.

You know who’s not going to object to me playing fast and loose with their artistic style? Vincent Van Gogh. I just asked the AI to draw me an exploding spaceship in the style of Van Gogh and it came up with some beauts.

So now the plan is to super-impose a smooching couple (drawn in the style of some other dead guy who probably won’t sue me from beyond the grave), ‘pshop them together (thus making it an original art piece created by me amalgamating stuff as opposed to pure AI output), slap some titles on, and call it a day. No artists are harmed. There are loads of artists, in fact, doing their own interpretation of Van Gogh’s Starry Night incorporating everything from cats to SpongeBob. Go look in the gift shop at your nearest tourist trap if you don’t believe me.

I’m taking some inspiration from Terry Gilliam, who used to do mashups of public domain art in Monty Python. Robert Mapplethorpe started doing a similar collage style using photographs. This style of repurposed art caught on big time, and there were a few years where it was ubiquitous with punks and everyone who wanted to emulate them. The Sex Pistols’ logo was steeped in it, each letter cut from a separate typeface, like a ransom note. 

And now that I’ve veered off into punk, I think there’s an important point to be made with regard to the mortal enemy of punk: disco. Which is very pertinent to the issue of AI art. Music went through its own battle with robot musicians a few years ago. 

Some credit Maurice Gibb, bass player of the Bee Gees with inventing percussion loops on “You Should Be Dancing.” I think producers Alby Galuten and Ahmet Ertegan were there too, as well as Dennis Byron, the drummer whose rhythm was sampled for “Staying Alive,” resulting in a beat so steady you can perform CPR to it. As a young music fan growing up in the seventies, I definitely noticed this nascent technology. It was all over the radio. Blasting out of the 8-track players in passing muscle cars. 

Percussion loops led to drum machines, and the disco genre of music (as opposed to discotheques, which started up in Europe in the swinging sixties). Disco became a hugely successful fad, and suddenly clubs that had once employed full rock bands – with drummers – were saving big bucks by hiring soloists with drum machines, and DJs. 

The drums are the most expensive part of a rock and roll band. You need a certain amount of privilege to be a drummer – not only to pay for the drums, but for the vehicle to haul them around in, and the rehearsal space. You can’t just snag a cheap instrument at the local pawn shop and plug it into a practice amp while you’re learning, like a guitarist. 

Having a robot drummer meant you could start a band for less overhead. A lot of people did that, particularly poorer people who did not have soundproofed practice rooms in their suburban homes, and vans for transporting drums. 

Clubs were no longer willing to pay a pack of guitar dudes to cover “Love Hurts” and “Proud Mary” when they could get one or two musicians and a robo-drummer. Plus girls were now expecting personal grooming, foppish fashions, and dance skills. Manly he-men could not tolerate this, and they responded with the Disco Sucks movement. A movement that ostensibly hated disco because (a) robot drummer bands were putting traditional rock bands out of work; (b) it was popular with the people tradition-minded rockers saw as undesirables (BIPOC, queer, feminine, etc.); and (c) it involved fake manufactured machines (as opposed to pure, organic electric guitars), thus piggybacking on leftover outrage from the prior decade over Dylan going electric. 

At its peak, the Disco Sucks movement had a get-together at a stadium where they planned to demolish a great many disco records at half time. They got so overwhelmed with rage that they destroyed the field so the game had to be suspended. 

The schism between electronic and analog rhythms became more pronounced over the eighties and nineties, as hip hop took off with rapping, sampling, and all kinds of wonderful electronic techniques. The future the disco haters feared had come true. Drummerless bands were everywhere. A lot of bands didn’t even come out of the studio anymore, promoting their sound through music videos and working harder on their aesthetic presentation than their guitar noodling. 

Hard music, meanwhile, became even harder – fans of punk and heavy metal cheered on self-harming musicians while slamming and stomping each other in the mosh pit in front of the stage. Both genres developed a substantial following among supremacists and fascists, determined to keep their aesthetic grounded in rage (and European-influenced) – and their drummers feral (like the beloved Muppet drummer Animal). 

The schism still exists, and is far more pronounced. And it has a definite color line, just like it did when it was more about Led Zeppelin fans raging about how much Disco Sucks. Black musicians (and more recently, Asian musicians heavily influenced by Black music) have overwhelmingly headed toward electronic rhythms. The cost of suburban homes with soundproofed drum rehearsal rooms may have something to do with this. 

Electronic music doesn’t demand years of focused study, which is something that requires a privileged lifestyle. It doesn’t force you through countless expensive music theory hoops before allowing you to conduct an orchestra. It allows you to compete with the professionals as far as audio quality and distribution. It democratizes music in a way that punk promised (by eliminating arbitrary qualities like music theory) and failed to deliver. 

I still know old fans of punk and metal who will angrily tell me about how diverse and accepting their preferred musical genre is, even despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Perhaps their memories involve their own small scene, the garage bands who played at their high school parties. I’m not going to contradict those kinds of subjective recollections. 

Nor am I going to contradict the angry older person who predictably pops up to inform me that “rap isn’t actual music” or “those kids just sample and autotune, they don’t even know how to sing.” Even though I disagree. Music is a very personal subject, and we’re all passionate about the kinds we enjoy and dislike. 

Music is full of artifice and approximation. Something that sounds natural and organic to your ear (for instance, the percussion in a seventies era Fleetwood Mac track) might actually have enough technology in it for a moon launch, and result from hours of painstaking work. 

Music is also a copycat art form. Just like AI bots, human musicians learn music by reproducing it. There are a lot of hit songs that were composed by musicians trying, and failing, to copy other hit songs – and realizing the error version has a nice groove. While some kids learn to play music in a classroom setting, a lot more of them learn from other kids, and from how-to-play videos. 

Music can be a highly competitive art form too, and all the ideological purity in the world isn’t going to stop an ambitious musician from sneaking digital enhancements into their authentically acoustic sound. Taylor Swift’s music is an example of something highly engineered, extremely processed, and still somehow sounding basically authentic. 

Lately I’m a big fan of a bluegrass player known as Billy Strings, who bypasses the whole drum debate by not even having a drummer. He does have a pickup on his acoustic guitar, so that he can start a song as old-timey roots music and then flip a switch and start wailing away on some pedal-heavy jam band noodling full of special effects and distortion. 

The copyright lawyers of America have been flexing their muscles on permissible use and samples for years, determining exactly how much of someone else's tune you can yoink before becoming a thief. I think AI art is going to head in the same direction. Artists who can substantiate a claim their visual style was co-opted will win in court, discouraging those who sample too much. 

There will be a rift between the organic purists and the technology embracers, and it may expand to include other socioeconomic rifts. Newcomers with artistic vision and fewer bad habits to unlearn will embrace AI art, creating graphic novels and wearables and industrial design and more. Just like the rock versus disco debate, and the mods versus rockers debate that went on before it, the initial reaction will give away to grudging coexistence. People will still commission art – or more likely, companies will, since they’re the main ones who can afford it, for book covers and corporate lobbies. There will still be artists with boutiquey retro skills to supply them. 

At the moment, Chat AIs are getting a lot of attention too. For one thing, a science fiction magazine has reported a ridiculous flood of new submissions that were clearly written by bots. People are getting Chat AIs to write things like blog posts. I’ve been pecking at this one all day in between games of Hearthstone Battlegrounds and my ongoing attempt to watch all the best-picture nominees before they hand out Oscars (today was The Fabelmans, a very nice movie but I still prefer Elvis, with Banshees of Insherin in second place). Maybe someday an AI will write a best picture script based on sampling all the other best picture scripts.

I’m not really afraid of Chat AIs because my own fiction is both quirky and unsuccessful. If they pirate my old stuff they’re welcome to do the labor of making it popular, and if they want to try to imitate my ongoing stuff, there’s not much incentive. I'm not sure anyone will want to read formulaic machine-written stories, but if there's a demand, I have no problem with supplying it. 

Come to think of it, I wasn’t that terrified of drum machines either. Most of my favorite bands either used them or assisted in their development. The end result has only been more music, much of it enjoyable. I’m pretty sure the latest generation AIs will result in more pictures and stories in the world, and I’m in favor of that too, even if lots of them aren’t very good. 

EDIT: After messing around further, educating myself more about AI art and spending approximately 20 hours on this project, I came up with a final cover design.

#RantingAbout Issues


James A. Ritchie said...

Creative anything done by AI not only sucks, except to those incapable of being creative themselves, it is THE most dangerous threat humanity has ever faced, and that is NOT hyperbole. And, yes, disco sucks, too.

James A. Ritchie said...

<aybe there's a better way of putting this. The absolutely terrifying thing about AI, the thing that may well doom humanity, is simply that AI creativity DOESN'T suck. It's already better than most people can do and will only improve. Combine this with the work AI will take over both manual and scientific, and before long the only thing humanity will have left to do is take drugs and have sex. As great as that sounds, it means certain extinction.

Charon Dunn said...

Hi geezer. Here’s the science behind why people like you can’t get into new music; I’m thanking my lucky stars I managed to avoid falling prey to this kind of thinking. Further, I shrug at your blanket dismissal of kids-these-days music and offer condolence with regard to your techno-angst.