June 20, 2024
From Ye's 'Vultures' to 'True Detective,' AI infiltrates pop culture

More than a year after it first broke through to the mainstream with ChatGPT, generative AI remains a controversial technology among many artists — just see all the attention around Nightshade and its peers, tools designed to help artists resist AI companies scraping and training image and video generation models on their work.

But that isn’t stopping some of the biggest names in pop culture from embracing AI tech. Just this week, the showrunner and writer of the new True Detective: Night Country, the latest installment of the creepy murder mystery anthology series on HBO, and Ye, the artist formerly known as Kanye West, released new material powered by the burgeoning technology.

‘True Detective’: an AI mystery?

In the case of True Detective: Night Country, the new season helmed by Mexican director Issa López, eagle eyed viewers noticed a scene in the second episode from Sunday, January 21, featuring what appeared to be low-quality AI generated posters on the wall of a character’s bedroom.

The posters show a girl group and a rock band, respectively. They look obviously AI-generated once focused upon, with the latter poster headlined by the text “Metal U.S. Tour,” a generic name for a metal band if I’ve heard one, as well as a strange bulky “A” in the logo that doesn’t look quite intentional.

In addition, viewers zoomed in on the tag lines in the bottom of the poster which include the text “2st LIVE,” a hilarious fusion of “1st” and “2nd” that is also in keeping with the kind of errors generative AI art tools tend to make.

I’ve been watching this season of True Detective (and enjoying it) and I’ll be honest, I doubt I would have noticed anything off about these posters had it not been pointed out to me by critical eyes on X (the social network formerly known as Twitter). But once you see them, they’re hard to miss, and they do lend a certain air of cheapness to the scene and the production.

That being said, this scene was not at all a hugely important or dramatic one for the episode, and the character whose room the posters were located in was not one of the leads or even secondary characters — at least not so far. They seemed to be there mainly to advance the plot.

Still, some viewers found this piece of set dressing to be grating and off-putting, especially given that the show became a smash hit on the backs of a fan base that analyzed minute details to help unravel the mysteries of its plots.

Taking her to X account, showrunner López sought to explain and defend her production’s use of AI not as a cost-cutting measure, nor even as a test of a new, cutting-edge visual production tool.

Instead, she stated that the posters were intended to look “sad,” emphasizing the remote and desolate scenery of the show’s rural Arctic setting.

In that sense, the inclusion of these AI posters could be read as a critique of the tech. Later, she told another viewer on X that “Chat GPT came as we were shooting. So, we were feeling not kind towards AI.”

Yet López also reshared an AI generated image by a fan of a vehicle from the show’s fictional “TSALAL Arctic Research Station,” tweaked to make it “TSAILAL.”

Regardless of whether López or her colleagues on the series intended the inclusion of AI generated posters in this episode to be critical of the tech, simply using it at all, as well as resharing fan-made AI generated imagery, shows that this Hollywood creator is not opposed to using it to make a point.

And, at the end of the day, the more people use and are exposed to AI, the more uptake the tech has, and the more acceptable it will become, even in the face of the landmark contract agreements between writers, actors and studios last year empowering the former two groups to control how AI is used in film and TV.

Ye and Ty Dolla $ign’s Vultures trailer appears to be made with AI video generation tech

Unless you have been mercifully unaware of the pop culture sagas of the last few years, you’ll likely know that Ye, the artist formerly known as Kanye West, has arguably never had a worse reputation than he does now.

There have many articles written on his anti-semitic comments and offensive remarks about slavery, the former of which cost him a multi-billion dollar shoe deal with Adidas, not to mention his public struggles with mental health and his high-profile divorce from fellow celebrity Kim Kardashian, the mother of his children. His support of then-president Donald Trump also rubbed some fans and even colleagues such as rapper Jay-Z the wrong way.

All of which have overshadowed his music in recent years — and that too, seems to have suffered in the popular sphere at least, with his last few albums performing worse in sales than his earlier smash hits.

So, there is a lot riding on Ye’s upcoming album, Vultures, a collaboration with the rapper Ty Dolla $ign, due out in early February 2024, with subsequent volumes to follow in March and April.

Yet Ye has been no stranger to controversy his entire career — in fact, he has courted it from his early days (who can forget him publicly accosting and interrupting Taylor Swift during her award acceptance speech at the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards, or his 2005 live TV admonition of then-President George W. Bush‘s response to Hurricane Katrina?)

Therefore, it is perhaps unsurprising to see him using AI to promote his new Vultures album with Ty Dolla $ign: both rappers posted an audiovisual “trailer” for their collaboration on their Instagram accounts on Tuesday, crediting the Canadian visual artist Jon Rafman.

The trailer, embedded just below this paragraph and set to the album’s title track, is an eerie mashup of leather bondage and gimp imagery, burning structures, owls, wolves, clowns, and dark silhouettes, all warping and bleeding into one another, deforming in a surreal style shared by other early AI video artists who post work to such forums as the r/aivideo subreddit (full disclosure, I too have posted my creations there).

It’s very much in keeping with Rafman’s work to date, which focuses on unsettling imagery found within online platforms, such as strange photos captured by Google’s Street View cars and on him performing tours of the virtual online world Second Life as the Kool-Aid Man.

Rafman was recently interviewed by dirtbag left-turned-new-right darling Dasha Nekrasova of the Red Scare podcast for Interview magazine, in which he shared that he thought AI has “completely changed the way I make art on so many levels…AI in art focuses on the final product, not how you get there,” and likened it to the Industrial Revolution. Here’s the relevant section from that article:

NEKRASOVA: You’re very young in spirit. How are you feeling about the influence of A.I. in your art? I think, as you said, it’s accelerating the collapse of consensus reality, which I actually feel optimistic about.

RAFMAN: A.I. art is polarizing, though, especially among artists. Ninety-nine point nine percent of A.I. art is shit, but that’s probably true for all art produced. I don’t buy into the notion that handcrafted works that have taken a long time to make are somehow more “authentic” or valuable. A.I. art is going through the same thing that happened to film and photography. At first, they weren’t seen as true art forms, just novelties. I see A.I. as an artistic tool like the camera or whatever. It has completely changed the way I make art on so many levels, and eliminated so many time-consuming menial tasks, giving me more time to focus on the things that matter, like the actual stories I want to tell. Why avoid that? Pierre-Auguste Renoir said, “Photography freed painting from a lot of tiresome chores, starting with family portraits.” A.I. does something similar. It can handle the mundane, repetitive stuff, ideally freeing us up to do more meaningful work. Just like Kafka’s writings show how these kinds of tasks can crush human potential, A.I. in art focuses on the final product, not how you get there. And I think it forces artists to be more precise in defining what art is, and it challenges a lot of preconceptions of what creative expression is.

NEKRASOVA: I have some innate hostilities and fears about A.I. that are basically irrational.

RAFMAN: I don’t think that’s irrational. A.I. is terrifying. Algorithms can profoundly manipulate our behaviors, often understanding our patterns better than we do.

NEKRASOVA: I think the cold hard truth, the thing that’s super unpleasant for people, is that A.I. will replace them. If you already write like an A.I., then maybe you don’t need to write.


NEKRASOVA: The thing that A.I. can’t do, truly, is improvise. A.I. will never have subconsciousness, and in that way can’t be truly creative. Creativity ultimately springs from human drives, and that’ll be the last thing that differentiates us from machines.

RAFMAN: Luddites would go out and smash machines in an attempt to stop the Industrial Revolution, but it was futile. For better or worse, technological progress is inevitable. I don’t think you can stop the A.I. revolution, you can only adapt to it.

So far, the initial reaction to the “Vultures” trailer seems largely positive from fans. Perhaps Ye’s remaining fanbase doesn’t really have objections to him using a divisive new technology, or perhaps his earlier controversies so overshadowed and besmirched his reputation that anyone still following him is inclined to give this a pass as tamer in comparison to those earlier offenses.

But Rafman, Ye and the creator of True Detective: Night Country, are far from the only big name artists to deploy AI in service of new projects.

After all, Ye protege and rapper Nicki Minaj got into it with fans on X earlier this month after they noticed some of the artwork promoting her latest album, “Pink Friday 2,” seemed to have been generated by AI tools and included glitches such as an extra finger on a human hand as a result:

The real bellwether for all this in my mind was Secret Invasion, a poorly-reviewed Marvel TV series that debuted in the summer of 2023 and was resoundingly criticized by some on X over its use of the AI art generator Midjourney to create its opening sequence title card imagery. Defending it then, the creators said the AI art and its resulting oddness or deformities was designed to represent the otherworldliness of the alien Skrull invader characters depicted in he series.

The show has been largely forgotten since then, as has the controversy around its opening tiles, but clearly, some audiences are still resistant to the noticeable use of AI in their mainstream entertainment.

Yet as the quality of AI image and video generators improves, it may be more and more difficult for even discerning audience members to detect. Will they object quite so strongly if it is later revealed that some scenes in their popular or beloved entertainment used AI?

More notable, in my mind, is the fact that bigger and bigger artists and creators are plowing ahead and embracing AI on larger and larger stages, despite loud dissent of their colleagues — including legends within their disciplines.

To Rafman’s points quoted above, I can’t help but believe that the train has left the proverbial station. People have access to generative AI, it keeps getting better, and as long as those two facts remain true, I doubt we will see the usage of it in popular entertainment slow down anytime soon. Especially if giants are using it.

Artists and the companies that support them would do well to take notice of this trend when planning their upcoming work — and preparing for a range of responses from audiences to the use of AI itself.

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