Taylor Swift, Johnny Cash and AI Art
Context matters more than content in the age of AI-generated audio, images and videos.
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Today, we are talking about new viral generative AI tools and what the making of Johnny Cash’s “Hurt” can teach us about them.
Charlie Munger’s wisdom
Mark Cuban sells Dallas Mavericks for $3.5B
…and them fire memes (including Spotify Wrapped)
Over the past year, I have become pretty desensitized to viral AI-generated images, videos and songs.
But some recent ones were so impressive that I feel compelled to write about them:
Pika raised $55M for a tool that creates animated videos from text (think ChatGPT for video).
Runway created a “motion brush” that turns any static image into a video with a single swipe.
An anonymous account created Anna Indiana, an animated musical artist who sings AI-generated songs (every single input is AI).
First, these are all examples of the continued — and inevitable — democratization of what used to be advanced audio and video tools. Second, the reactions to these drops reminded me a lot of the reactions to previous generative AI art that went viral (e.g. Pope Coat, Drake & The Weeknd song).
The “WTF is this AI sorcery” reaction process typically goes through 8 stages:
Wait, this is AI?
Wow, that was cool.
What are the inputs that trained this model?
Are the original artists getting compensated?
Upon the 35th viewing, I don’t know if this is even art?
Is it supposed to be art?
Eh, whatever, technology is going to technology.
This is kind of a gimmick and we’ll forget about it next week.
If you listen to the song by Anna Indiana, it is very roast-able. The visual also falls into the uncanny valley (which is the idea that an object becomes more unsettling the closer it resembles a human but is not quite human).
However, AI creations like Anna Indiana will only improve on the visual and audio fronts. This means we will see a flood of AI-generated video and audio content in 2024 and beyond.
It is already happening in text.
Sports Illustrated — the once legendary magazine — was recently busted for using profiles of AI-generated “authors” to write AI-generated articles. Other legacy publications have also been caught in similar situations as their business models are being squeezed. This is on top of the cheap overseas content mills that have existed since the early-2000s.
So, what are we supposed to do about the coming deluge of AI-generated content?
My friend Adam Singer wrote an article on the topic titled “Fighting AI and Remix Culture is a Losing Battle”. In it, he says that the internet has always been “a copy-paste machine”, even before generative AI. He offers advice on creating meaningful work online including this nugget:
It’s not really about your content as much as it is about the context. That’s why I think people are more interesting than brands of media here, especially as many larger institutions become empty shells of themselves. I’m less interested in where that content is published and more interested in who created it.
I fully agree with this take and will explain why by using another recent viral example of generative AI art.
A month ago, an audio clip of AI-generated Johnny Cash performing a rendition of Taylor Swift's "Blank Space" popped off.
It was created by Dustin Ballard, who — during COVID — started remixing famous songs under the brand of There I Ruined It. Ballard's earliest work mashed tracks together but now he integrates AI-generated voices. The mission of his site reads, “lovingly destroying your favorite songs”.
The Johnny Cash version of “Blank Space” is quite good but one of the most-liked comments of the clip on X went kind of hard (in the negative sense):
Nothing I’m about to write is a criticism of There I Ruined It. Ballard is putting in real work to make seamless remixes and the overall project — in which he has “ruined” over 100 songs — is gold (so gold, that a bunch of record labels asked YouTube to remove his videos even though they fall under fair use).
But this line from the X comment (“it is a gift from no one…an empty magic trick”) makes a larger point about AI-powered art: as AI tools make remixing easier, a lot of AI-generated content will just come off as gimmicks.
Why? There is no related back story or creative struggle.
For a lot of generative art, the context will matter more than the content.
Let’s contrast Johnny’s “Blank Space” with the actual Johnny Cash’s most famous cover song ever: “Hurt” (a 2011 fan poll voted Cash’s cover of the 1994 Nine Inch Nails song as the 2nd best cover ever, behind only Jimi Hendrix’s iconic cover of Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower").
Cash’s version of “Hurt” was released in 2002 but the story behind the song begins a decade earlier.
At the time, Cash was decades removed from the height of his country music fame. Born in 1933, his timeless banger “I Walk the Line” came out in 1956. Then after dropping hit after hit, he famously performed at Folsom Prison in 1968 and then San Quentin Prison in 1969.
Columbia Records was one of the biggest beneficiaries of Cash’s country music hit machine but — after 26 years together — the label dropped him in 1986 as country consumers gravitated to new sounds (less folksy).
A new sound was also bubbling up in another corner of the music industry: hip-hop.
One of the biggest names in that genre was Rick Rubin, co-founder of Def Jam records and producer for major hip-hop acts including Run DMC, LL Cool, Beastie Boys, Public Enemy and more (Rubin has since worked with artists across all genres: Adele, Eminem, Jay-Z, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Ed Sheeran).
In 1992, a 29-year old Rick Rubin went to watch Bob Dylan at Madison Square Garden. Rubin also saw a 59-year old Cash perform at the concert and believed that the country legend still had more music in front of him.
Rubin reached out to Cash’s manager Lou Robin, who invited the hip-hop producer to a live Cash concert in Los Angeles.
[Lou said] “There’s a man here named Rick Rubin. He said he would like to meet you. He has a record company and he would like to record you.”
And I said, “I don’t want to meet him.
[Lou] said “I think you might like him.”
I said “Why?”
[Lou] said, “he’s different.”
I said “bring him back to the dressing room” and immediately I liked him.
Rubin — who had left Def Jam and was working under his own label American Recordings — had a simple pitch: “What I would do is let you sit down before a microphone with your guitar and sing any song you want to record.”
Take a look at this photo of the pair. You would be hard-pressed to find an odder music couple. A hip-hop super-producer with a glorious beard entering his 30s and the iconic “Man in Black” country legend entering his 60s.
But the optics did not matter.
Rubin became Cash’s late-career partner and — over the next decade — they recorded 7 albums together with many tracks still unreleased. Rubin spent countless sessions crashing at Cash’s home in Nashville.
In an incredible piece from Vanity Fair ("American Communion") discussing their relationship, David Kamp writes:
For Rubin, the personal experience of getting to know Cash was even more edifying than the satisfaction he took in reconnecting the old-timer with his muse.
The two men wound up enveloped in something more intense than a friendship, a deep kindredness that greatly moved Cash’s family and friends, and, frankly, kind of freaked them out.
“You could see that their connection went back into the mists of time somewhere,” says [Johnny’s eldest child] Rosanne. “Like these guys didn’t just meet 11 years ago.”
Now, let’s talk about “Hurt”.
When Rubin first pitched the Nine Inch Nails song to Cash, the music legend balked.
“I can’t do that song,” said Cash. “It’s not my style.”
By 2002, though, Rubin and Cash had made 3 critically-acclaimed “American Recordings” albums and were working on a 4th.
On the music annotation website Genius, Rubin explained their process:
“There were a lot of songs that he needed to be convincing about. Eventually, he trusted me enough that if I felt strongly about something, he’d do it. I would send him compilations of CDs of songs to listen to, and I remember that on several compilations in a row, “Hurt” was the first song. There’s just something about it. I imagined him saying those words being very powerful.”
When Rubin told Trent Reznor — his friend and Nine Inch Nails lead singer — about the cover idea, Reznor was “flattered” but felt it was “a bit gimmicky”.
Everything changed after Reznor saw Cash’s iconic “Hurt” music video.
Director Mark Romanek had wanted to film Cash in Los Angeles but Cash’s health was failing. They ended up filming in Nashville, which worked out for two reasons:
Johnny Cash has a museum dedicated to his music (but it had gone into disrepair over the prior 15 years and the dilapidated setting perfectly matched the tone of “Hurt”).
Cash’s wife June was able to make a cameo.
Filmed in February 2003, the video cuts footage of Cash at the rundown museum along with archival footage — from the museum’s collection — of a younger Cash with a full life ahead of him.
In one frame, June watches over her husband. The image really take on another meaning when you consider the context: they both passed away within 7 months (June in May and a heartbroken Johnny in September).
The lyrics also take on extra weight when you consider the context of Cash at the end of his life:
What have I become?
My sweetest friend
Everyone I know goes away
In the end
It is impossible to watch the video and not get goosebumps.
Here is Reznor’s emotional reaction to seeing the video:
“A CD shows up with the track…the song in particular is straight from the soul…it was a good version and surely wasn’t cringey or anything. But it felt like I was watching my girlfriend kiss somebody else. […]
A few weeks later, a video tape shows up with Mark Romanek’s [music] video on it…I pop the video in and wow…tears welling, silence, goosebumps. Wow, I just lost my girlfriend because that’s not my song anymore.
Then it all made sense to me. It made me really think about how powerful music is as a medium and an art form.
I wrote some words and music in my bedroom as a way of staying sane…Some-f**king-how that winds up reinterpreted by a music legend from a wildly different era/genre but still retains sincerity and…every bit as pure.
So, that is the “Hurt” story.
It is obviously unfair to compare a 47-second AI-remixed clip of Johnny Cash singing “Blank Space” to one of the greatest cover songs ever.
But the comparison reveals why context matters in art.
Cash’s “Hurt” gives us goosebumps because we know his life story and everything that builds up to his version of the song.
This isn’t a commentary on just AI-generated art. So much of of the existing music, film and TV culture — using 20th century technology — is cookie cutter, lifeless and uninspiring.
The democratization of the AI tools means even more people can pump out content, so context will matter more than ever in order to give meaning to the work.
How to harness the technology?
Legendary music producer Brian Eno has a great take on technology and art.
He has used music software tools for decades but isn’t overly dependent on them.
Here are 3 important reasons:
1. Technology takes away creative constraints
“The problem with software-based work is that…you can never exhaust what it does. So you can always cover the fact that you haven't got an idea by trying another option. If you have a lot of options, you don't usually have a lot of rapport with the instrument [whether that’s a drum or guitar]. If you have a few options, your rapport keeps increasing because you understand the options better and better. And this is why people still make good music with crude instruments and simple instruments. Because they understand them better than our software.”
2. Premature sheen
“You can make anything look really good really quickly if you've got the right [software tools]. Suddenly, you think ‘wow I've got something here.’ But you've gotten away from the actual original soul and purpose of [the work]. It's now very easy in [music] studios to get premature sheen and it makes you think ‘wow, look it's nearly done’ [but it’s actually a long way from being done].”
3. The appeal of new and different works
“[On one end, you have] auto-tune that perfectly puts music into tune…which is sort of flawless and faultless. [In contrast, the other side] is clumsy, awkward, crude and unfinished things that we all actually like in the right context.
The reason we like the Velvet Underground is not for their gloss. It's for their roughness. For the feeling we have that this was…just breaking out and they didn't know how to make it better. Because when something is new, you don't know how to make it better. In fact, you don't even consider that you could make it better.
You just think, ‘Jesus, this is amazing.’
I think the newness is such a big thrill that you don't care about [a polished product].”
On this last point, the AI art that has most stood out is not remixes on existing content (eg. “make an iPhone in the style of Picasso”) but the creation of images, sounds and videos that are truly unique to AI.
The art that feels “new”.
I’ll give you two examples from the generative AI image world.
First is a recent trend called “make it more”. Basically, you generate an image of something (like Ramen) and keep prompting the model to make it “more” (spicy) and each subsequent photo gets wilder.
Another example — and one that Res Obscura thinks we will remember as one of the main AI “aesthetic” from 2020s — is the “spiral town” trend.
Clearly, AI art can be “new” and not just derivative. But I would say that these viral trends kind of prove the larger point of this article: context matters more than content.
Once one person unveils a new AI art style, every subsequent person is able to copy it with a few keystrokes. This points to a future in which individuals and brands that already have large followings in 2023 will be able to swallow up any AI art trend with a few clicks.
So, the most defensible move for any creator is to bring the context of their work to the forefront.
What does that actually mean?
The best way I've articulated the idea is based on something I wrote in January from an article titled, “The Camera, Van Gogh and The Starry Night”.
The piece details how historians drew a straight line from the invention of the camera to Van Gogh's painting of “The Starry Night”, the 3rd most-visited art work in the world.
Here is the TLDR: When cameras became widespread in the mid-1800s, painters were no longer needed to produce photorealistic images (one of their main responsibilities in preceding centuries). This led to the emergence of new artistic styles, with painters like Monet and Manet transitioning from realism to impressionism.
“The Starry Night” was a post-impressionist painting and the scene is not meant to be objective reality. Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson has a beautiful explanation as to why Van Gogh’s masterpiece has resonated for over a century.
“You know what I like about The Starry Night?
It’s not what Van Gogh saw that night, it’s what he felt.
[The painting] is not a representation of reality and anything that deviates from is reality that has filtered through your senses. And I think art at its highest is exactly that.
If this was an exact depiction of reality, it would be a photograph and I don’t need an artist.”
I haven’t been able to stop thinking of the line, “It’s not what Van Gogh saw that night, it’s what he felt.”
In the face of ever-improving generative AI tools, you have to translate your own life context — experiences, rawness, quirks, humor (eg. my affinity for awful dad puns) — into the creative work. Because if you are only expressing what can be “seen”, technology has it covered. But what can be “felt”? That is still uniquely ours.
Van Gogh was a tortured soul who only ever sold one painting in his life. But the way he saw the world was awe-inspiring. That’s the context.
Cash’s “Hurt” is so much greater than any cover that AI can ever make with his voice because we know the stage of his life when he made it. That’s the context.
On that note, let me share you one last remix from Ballard: a mash-up of Johnny Cash’s “Hurt” with The Beach Boys. You may not get goosebumps from listening. But the song will give you a laugh because — for context — no one does funny song remixes better than There I Ruined It.
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Links and Memes
RIP Charlie Munger: The vice-chairman of Berkshire Hathaway and Warren Buffett’s investing partner for over 50 years died at the age of 99. Berkshire Hathaway is now worth $780B. Buffett is worth ~$100B while Munger’s wealth was ~$3B.
Don’t let that wealth discrepancy fool you: Buffett credits Munger — a former lawyer and real estate investor — as the architect for Berkshire’s investing framework of buying quality companies and letting the investments compound over decades.
His now-famous phrase is "It's far better to buy a wonderful company at a fair price than a fair company at a wonderful price."
Prior to Munger, Buffett invested in companies that were cheap — regardless of the quality — and hoped that they would rise again (aka “cigar butts that still had a few puffs in them”).
In a 2018 interview with CNBC, Buffett and Munger reflected on their friendship. Buffett said “We never had an argument in the entire time we’ve known each other, which is almost 60 years now…Charlie has given me the ultimate gift that a person can give to somebody else. He’s made me a better person than I would have otherwise been. ... He’s given me a lot of good advice over time. ... I’ve lived a better life because of Charlie.”
Munger — who is really really funny — said Buffett changed his life by convincing him to leave a legal career and apply his giga-brain to investing. Munger said he agreed because he wanted wealth as a means to live an independent life.
I’ve applied exactly zero of Munger’s investing lessons to my own portfolio…and it shows. But his love of reading and commitment to self-improvement has greatly influenced me.
“Develop into a lifelong self-learner through voracious reading,” Munger said. “Cultivate curiosity and strive to become a little wiser every day.”
The way Munger applied knowledge to his life was by collecting as many “mental models” as possible across a wide array of topics (biology, physics, psychology, history etc.)
Every time I’m knee-deep in a book and not doing chores around the house, my wife yells at me and I tell her that Munger once said:
“In my whole life, I have known no wise people — over a broad subject matter area — who didn’t read all the time. None. Zero. You’d be amazed at how much Warren reads and how much I read. My children laugh at me. They think I’m a book with a couple of legs sticking out.”
My wife says “you’re not Charlie Munger, just do the dishes". Touche. So, I do the dishes before getting back to the book (I wrote an article about how reading is the ultimate unlock for investors and entrepreneurs here).
Another important lesson from Munger is resilience: he was broke at 31 years old following a divorce and his 9-year old son died from leukemia. Year later, he lost his left eye after an operation went bad. As Joshua Kennon writes, Munger — despite the gut-wrenching setbacks — started over and kept moving forward:
By the time he was 69 years old, he had become one of the richest 400 people in the world, been married to his second wife for 35+ years, had eight wonderful children, countless grandchildren, and become one of the most respected business thinkers in history. He eventually achieved his dream of having a lot of money, a house full of books, and a huge family.
Here are some of Munger’s best nuggets of widsom:
"The big money is not in the buying and selling, but in the waiting."
“Show me the incentive and I'll show you the outcome”
“[Success] is so simple. You spend less than you earn. Invest shrewdly, and avoid toxic people and toxic activities, and try and keep learning all your life etc. And do a lot of deferred gratification because you prefer life that way. And if you do all those things you are almost certain to succeed. And if you don't, you're gonna need a lot of luck."
"The best thing a human being can do is to help another human being know more."
"The world is not driven by greed. It's driven by envy. I have conquered envy in my own life. I don't envy anybody. I don't give a damn what someone else has. But other people are driven crazy by it."
RIP to a true legend and here is a 5-minute YouTube of his best one liners.
Some other baller links for you:
Two of the best books on the creative process are “The Creative Act” (Rick Rubin) and “The War of Art” (Steven Pressfield). As fate would have it, Rubin just hosted Pressfield on his podcast and the convo is incredible.
Mark Cuban sells Dallas Mavericks for $3.5B: He bought the team for $285m in 2000. Cuban is also stepping down from Shark Tank, which lead some to think he's running for US President. Joe Pompliano writes that the more likely reason — especially with Cuban still running Mavericks basketball operations — is that the sale is part of a larger move to get a gaming-resort complex in Dallas. The buyer is Dr. Miriam Adelson (Sheldon Adelson's widow), who has a $30B+ fortune from the Las Vegas Sands Casino empire.
New Chinese App hits top of app charts: It is called ReelShort and offers bite-sized English scripted video content. Like Quibi but with a catch: instead of Hollywood hitters, it is cheesy D-grade soap operas adapted from Chinese romance dramas. I explain more on X and link to the first two episodes (1.5 minutes each) of a show called “The Double Life of My Billionaire Husband”. I watched it and now you have to.
AirPods vs. Counterfeit AirPods: Fake AirPods look convincing on the outside but the insides are a different story. Lumafield uses CT scans to show how tightly-packed real AirPods are with custom circuity, sensors and mics (fakes have much fewer of these components because they can’t fit off-the-shelf parts together).
…and here them fire posts:
Tesla officially started selling the Cybertruck. The big marketing reveal was that the truck beat a Porsche 911 in a dragrace...while it was towing another Porsche 911. I think the truck will sell well based on how different it looks (there's a 2m backorder). And one of those differences was pointed in this post.
Finally, you probably heard that Elon went to the DealBook Summit and told advertisers that don't want to advertise on X that they should "Go F Yourself" and specifically called out Disney CEO Bob Iger. Well, someone turned that into a wild Who Wants To Be A Millionaire meme that went very very viral.