Music Feature: The new corporate culture

Silicon Valley's 'techie trendsetters' are making the office party the coolest event on your social calendar -- sort of.


Tom Frost
October 14, 1998 9:10PM (UTC)

The concrete floors at the second-ever Silicon Planet Experience
sparkled with glitter. Stage lighting and giant video screens bathed the sprawling warehouse space, a converted military factory in
San Jose, with a false theatrical glow. Between the two rooms there
were corporate banners everywhere. Microsoft. Skyy Vodka. Or Synopsys,
whose slogan read, "Everywhere There's Silicon."

The event, the baby of Silicon Planet, "a new Web community designed
for the Internet Generation," was supposed to be several things at once:
a rave without ecstasy; a non-threatening rock concert; a social mixer
for white people and Asians; a trade show of slick electronics; a
spectacle of the information age; a fund-raiser for two AIDS
organizations, which would receive an unspecified "part of ticket
proceeds." (One ticket cost $100, but every attendant had to be invited.
Yet I talked to more than a dozen random people, and not one had
actually paid for a ticket -- most had obtained them from event
sponsors.) Event organizers announced that Silicon Planet would "blend
performance and technology into an immersive evening of entertainment
and networking for techie trendsetters." They should have said "trendy
techies."

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Between the two main rooms there were too many bars to count, their
lines swollen with people wearing blazers and little black dresses who'd
ostensibly paid $100 waiting for free drinks. There were also two large
stages for Beck, Devo, television actor David Spade and a ragtag group
of graying Silicon Valley executives calling themselves the Flying Other
Brothers. Another stage at the back of the larger room provided a space
for a few people dressed something like Balinese Nutcrackers to dance.
There were also two bandstand boxing rings with ropes wrapped in Mylar;
San Francisco DJ Polywog spun records from a booth atop one of them.
Attendants passed out frou-frou munchies and large bowls of fortune
cookies. I cracked one that read, "Wise people buy low and sell high.
Luckily you have options." The actual experience of the event was far more reductive than the
organizers promised. It seemed created for the express purpose of
selling sponsorships, which it certainly accomplished. Applied
Materials, Microsoft, Synopsys and Yahoo were major contributors. Two dozen more
-- among them NASDAQ and Maytag -- chipped in their brand icons for the
four-color semi-gloss program. The underlying message? That the mega-corporations of Silicon Valley are creating culture. (Step 1: Insert
Bill Gates' money. Step 2: Add slick new electronic products and some
music acts that the kids are talking about. Step 3: Toss off a
couple of catch phrases -- "The next big thing!" or "It's a killer app!" --
and watch culture happen.)

There is no codified behavior for a rave-rock concert/electronics
store trade show. Some people played video games. Others bought $30"lunar clogs" at the "SiliconPlanet.StoreTM" or thick stogies at the
"Lava LoungeTM," where "a Silicon Valley 'martini bar' meets a 21st
century cigar bar." Some danced, badly, to the Flying Other Brothers'
version of "Brown Eyed Girl," or laughed, hesitantly, at their Viagra
jokes. Others drank too much Skyy Vodka and fell down.

The smarmy and cautiously cynical Spade told jokes that the
crowd could appreciate. After standard routines about college, dating,
airplanes and bad drivers, he made fun of people who work at McDonald's
and laughed about the criminals on "Cops," shirtless men who wear socks
and flip-flops. I couldn't tell what was inherently funny about either,
but then I realized that wasn't the point, anyway. What mattered was
that neither was likely to be represented here, behind the walls of
Silicon Planet's "cyber community."

Spade's best transition between jokes: "So then there's that."

Devo ran through a greatest hits set wearing yellow jumpsuits and
those red hats. At their prime, Devo were one of those bands that really
were smarter and more intellectually stimulating than the sum of their
gimmicks. Unfortunately the act has aged as well as the Apple II C, and
now they're just five pudgy guys who look like city councilmembers from
Ohio. "Whip It" only soothes a 20-something's desire for irony and
nostalgia; "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction," once a brilliant
deconstruction -- or "de-evolution" in Devospeak -- of a classic rock
song, seemed tired in the post
Puff-Daddy era.

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Beck gave the night a center, which says nothing about the event and
everything about his polished showmanship, his broad appeal to suburban
teens, cranky music critics and, sure, Silicon Valley geeks. Several
weeks before the show, the music news Web site Addicted to Noise reported that Beck was
unhappy with certain terms of the concert, including the $100 ticket
price. Silicon Planet made some concessions and he kept the date. I half
expected six songs and a quick exit. Instead, the pastiche artist played
an hour-and-a-half set peppered with new songs and danced like a
body-popping Mick Jagger (Beck has that sneer down cold).

But if Beck was so terrific, why was the event a complete bust?
Maybe it was because some of the invitees secretly wished they could
have traded in their ticket for an invitation to last year's
double-Dylan performance (Jakob and Bob played the San Jose Arena
last year for a corporate event). Or maybe it was because video screens
around the warehouse relentlessly mixed live performance camera work
with the worst of wow-cool video editing. More likely it was because
when you replace art with slogans, substitute purchasing power for
creativity, hammer out any critical response with never-ending
diversions, the result is clever marketing, not living, breathing
culture. Rock, now an almost charmingly singular artistic experience,
still has some gasping breaths of relevancy, but Silicon Planet did
everything it could to suffocate it.


Tom Frost

Tom Frost is a contributor to Salon's "TV Diary."

MORE FROM Tom Frost

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