Jay-Z and Kanye West’s Watch the Throne had the entirely unfortunate luck to come out at the worst possible moment to release an album with a faux-gold-leaf cover: four days after the U.S.’s credit rating was dropped from AAA to AA, in the midst of a moment that felt like any illusions of stability we’d built up over the past three years were being gleefully and systematically shattered by forces beyond our control.
Not surprisingly, this anxiety pervaded early reviews, and the album got knocked for its rampant luxury talk of watches, cars, and clothing (which, like other rap albums, it did have a lot of), as well as the money pumped into its production and promotion (which, like other albums by major pop figures, it did have a lot of). The implicit subtext of all this criticism was that Jay and Kanye were being greedy, expending huge sums to prevent the album from leaking. During the recording sessions, the album’s engineers employed a “nuclear football” system by which all files were kept on a single hard drive, locked in a briefcase, and carried wherever Jay and Kanye went—an almost unprecedented step in an era where music is thought to live nowhere but in the cloud.
The crazy thing is that it worked. Unlike other major albums in recent memory, Watch the Throne didn’t leak ahead of its release. Someone buying the album at midnight on August 8 was hearing songs like “Gotta Have It” and “No Church in the Wild” at exactly the same time as someone downloading the first available illegal copy of the album—which itself appeared to be just retagged versions of MP3s bought legally from the iTunes store. If that was the goal, the expense had been worth it.
Surely (went the thinking), the purpose of the leak-prevention must have been to ensure the greatest number of physical sales. According to a spokesperson, though, the idea was less to secure the rap giants’ fortunes and more to provide listeners with a particular kind of experience. “It was really important to [Jay] that people experienced this album in its entirety when they first listened to it,” an anonymous label exec said to Billboard‘s Steven J. Horowitz. “That was really the driving force of it, to create that nostalgic moment of unwrapping the CD and listening to it for the first time.”
That’s a weird way of putting it. Any listener truly interested in hearing an album fresh can just avoid downloading the leak before purchasing the CD. The experience Jay was really interested in providing—the thing it has been almost impossible to do in the digital era no matter how determined each individual listener was—was the experience of hearing the album at the same time as everyone else.
After all, the fun of release day is not so much novelty as the sense of being part of a shared, giant conversation, of having a collective experience while alone with headphones. The Web erases that possibility. An album that emerges via leak is consumed immediately by a small group of hardcore fans, then a few days later by the more generally knowledgeable, gradually up to release date by those who catch wind of it, and finally by the general public upon release. The release-day experience of years past gets diffused into a series of smaller, seemingly less-consequential conversations. The release of a pop album becomes not an event, but a series of individual experiences scattered over weeks or months. So while the money spent on Watch the Throne can be viewed as a let-them-eat-cake gesture of disconnection, it can also be seen as Jay and Kanye solving the coordination problem for monadic listeners, using their admittedly (and self-admittedly) elitist power to create an experience that the public is incapable of arranging on its own.
The need for such an effort is unexpected. Pre-Internet broadcast married speed with simultaneity; instead of news being disseminated by mail, reaching New Yorkers at a different time than it reached Iowans, news could be disseminated by wire or broadcast and reach even those people geographically far apart at the same time. The Internet, though, showed that the relationship was more of a bell curve: Now that mass amounts of people can know about events not as they are reported but as they actually happen, as with Osama bin Laden’s death, the experience of learning about news is fractured.
None of this is to say that the old feeling of having a collective experience was accurate: The much-lamented monoculture always excluded vast swaths of the population. But the illusion of the monoculture had a real effect on culture’s relationship with popular art. Pop culture is a realm void of originality, but though each product of it is a copy (of a copy [of a copy]), the experience of consuming your copy simultaneously with (seemingly) everyone else made the experience itself feel unique and entirely unlike anything anyone else had experienced before. Simultaneity conjured something that, in retrospect, felt much like the “aura” Walter Benjamin ascribed to a singular, un-reproduced work of art.
The Web has made that aura increasingly difficult to summon, as the ever-increasing penetration of the Internet has systematically revealed both how few truly unique experiences exist and how different those events that are supposedly shared are. (“Who is Arcade Fire?”) But there seems to be a feeling that finding a way to evoke these feelings of connection—despite their evident unreality—is absolutely necessary, whether to sustain the value of art as a sacred realm or to nurture a shared sense of collective societal purpose. (“We are the 99 percent.”) What Watch the Throne‘s ultimate success suggests is that, even in the current environment of bottom-up creation, the experience of culture—the thing that creates its meaning—is something that can be most successful when coordinated from the throne on down.