Wednesday, February 14, 1996


To promote its latest cross media synergetic megahype (that is to say rock and roll tour) MTV has created a short ad featuring rock singer Lenny Kravitz as some cosmic music maker in the sky. Not the sort of thing to spark much interest in general, but there is something different about Lenny this time. He wants something indeed, he wants a great number of things.

"Gimme 20 sets of .011's, two full stacks, one envelope filter lemme get an Octavier, two Cry Babies, a Fuzz Face, two Stratocasters and a Flying "V"," he says to the irrefutably white guy behind the counter. This white guy looks dumb, but he has all the smarts required for the job. He looks like he might be a ex semi pro surfer, reduced to working in a convenience store by a serious groin strain. He tosses Lenny a conspiratorial glance, before offering his obviously admiring assessment of the shopping list "That's a lot of stuff"

As Lenny's commercial suggests, "stuff is of paramount importance in psychedelic rock and roll. But the word also sees daily service in many other language zones, from cognitive therapy's "you've just got to let go a that stuff" or the global trance scene's "They really have got some great stuff in" or the surly slacker's Don't mess with my stuff, man."

The Greek stupho, meaning to pull together, suggested a compression which was subsequently used to denote scrunched up flax. More recently the word was used to refer to material, substance or things of uncertain kind". Increasingly, however, "stuff" has come to mean things of a very certain kind: high tech consumables.

This tread perhaps started with Apple Computers who popularised a soft spoken, self deprecating way of talking about technology in general, and computers in particular. Early sets of Mac set up disks, for example, included one called "tidbits", which roughly translated into loose little pieces of small, non essential but complex software.

Consumers wised up to this tidbits ruse, this blatant bit of pseudo folksiness, with unexpected speed. The response from funky computer firms was to adopt the word "stuff. The Zip Drive, a paradigm shifting data storage product released last year, for example, bore the brassy slogan "Organise, move backup your stuff" to represent multimedia compression and archiving.

The more we use the word to represent what we consume in terms of electronics, the more it recalls another, earlier use of the word. Who could watch blonde dread locked virtual reality rent a quote Jason Larnier slip on his VR headset and explain that "this stuff is going to help bridge the interpersonal gap..." so that "we can have a sort dream" without thinking that these machines might resolve one celebrated piece of archaic grammar, and indeed be "such stuff as dreams are made on".

Sniffing this trend in 1971, J.G. Ballard was certain that any such digital opting out was going to be a very bad thing. "Reality is no longer going to be the stuff inside your head," he cried in the wilderness of the printed page. "It's going to be commercial and nasty at the same time."


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