Thursday, July 21, 2011

Sundry music-related matters (29 May 2009)

I just crashed through two weeks of blog posts on my RSS reader and my brain has become a bit scrambled. I feel I must now blog about just about everything in the world in one comprehensive post and find some way to tie the 30 or 40 posts I starred together into one master narrative, one grand theory of everything (and that's not even considering all the HRO Exegesis posts I need to write). Maybe I should put another pot of coffee on.

One thing I discovered was that Richard Florida's newish blog at the Atlantic has been consistently compelling over the past few weeks. He has had a series of posts about evolution in the music industry, positing the theory that the music business is a media-industry canary in the post-internet coalmine. In this post, he notes that in some ways the industry is retreating from forms that had become technologically necessary -- the album, thanks to vinyl, the 74 minute CD, etc. -- to the forms that may arguably be more "natural" to pop music:
But the enormity of the creative destruction sweeping the industry goes far beyond the iPod killing off the CD. The Gang of Four's Dave Allen argues that we are seeing the "end of the album" - a construct initially created by the limitation of vinyl technology in 1930 - as the organizing principle of musical production. He sees this as potentially liberating for musicians - or those musicians that can adapt. Industry veteran Bob Lefsetz predicts a return to the pre-LP era, when artists constantly pumped out singles and toured. He even draws a comparison to the way that Toyota has succeeded by building a reputation for reliability gradually through word of mouth.

These ideas tie in to this related lament, from Rob Cox at the Big Money, for the now moribund live album. After valiantly trying to explain the success of Frampton Comes Alive! he argues that the live album was spawned by a specific and now vanished nexus of record-label needs for product and the corporate rock artist's need to produce that product in the absence of inspiration. Now anyone with a phone can bootleg shows, and the labels are more or less finished, so the live album has no purpose. I always thought the function of the live album was to provoke a more-complete fantasy in pre-teens (mostly) of participating in an impossibly awesome concert experience, back when big bands and tours were relatively rare. I can remember staring at the back cover of Kiss Alive! and wishing I could be one of those burned-out kids holding up that sad homemade banner.

But then at some point, live albums became souvenirs of the show you were presumed to have already seen, rather than a hyperidealized presentation of the experience. (Think of the Stones' 14 live albums since 1990.) Cox suggests that YouTube now fulfills that function of making the effort to go to rock concerts seem worth the trouble.

Elsewhere, Florida revisits, via the excellent Carl Wilson, the findings that popular songs are somewhat paradoxically popular because they are popular. Wilson believes this tends to highlight the power of the music editor, or the critic -- the filtering types who are in a position to establish the pop-culture discussion: Of the investment in liking a particular song or other, he writes, "What’s more the ensuing exchange of information and opinion is the primary way that these choices become meaningful." I've long argued that pop music has little to do with the intrinsic music quality but with being able to consume the zeitgeist through an emotionally immediate artifact. I was thinking about this a lot on my recent road trip, during which I listened to hours and hours of radio. I heard plenty of oldies and that sort of thing, far too many songs by Boston. The two songs that really stood out to me, that made me feel aware of being alive specifically in 2009, were "Blame It on the Alcohol" by T-Pain and some song whose chorus runs: "I'm so 3008, you're so two thousand and late." That these songs are ridiculous and totally dated right from the get-go is pretty much the point of them. No one would argue that these are "good" songs, but whenever the station-scan stopped on either of them, we didn't change it. (I guess I would have to lump another ludicrous song in with those two, one that goes "You'r hot then you're cold, you're on then you're off," etc., etc.) The fact that these songs of all things out there had made it onto the radio in South Jersey and South Dakota seemed to warrant some kind of response, seemed to demand that we pay attention, that we ignore them at the peril of making ourselves irrelevant. Much as HRO is a blog worth blogging about, I suppose, these were songs worth talking about, if not all that great to listen to in the abstract. But there are no abstract listening conditions; there is always context, and the context is everything, is the whole of the moon.

Wilson (also via Florida) has a good comment about hipsters/hipster bashing -- it involves "bogus ethnography" (sadly one of my specialties) and speaks to a kind of craving for a real leader to come along and put an end to status anxiety once and for all:
There’s also a self-serving decadence narrative where the hipster serves as the negative exaggeration of one’s own apathy, helping to exonerate it. The hipster serves as a locus for fears of lost control, of social disconnection. Yet it’s a hysteria to focus that anxiety on these kids personally rather than on, say, the system of cool and cultural capital, and what’s more the genuine lack of control you have over hypercapitalism, of which their look uncomfortably reminds you. The hipster-monster is the face of a cultural death wish, along the vector of a snarling circle jerk hurtling towards social atomization and collapse.
Analysis along these lines reminds me of Eric Hoffer's The True Believer, which was his attempt to figure out what made people embrace authoritarian leaders. Here's what I wrote about Hoffer before:
Hoffer regards the rise of mass movements as the almost inevitable consequence of widespread mediocrity coupled with the unreasonable expectations that democracy generates for the common person. “Unless a man has the talents to make something of himself, freedom is an irksome burden. We join a mass movement to escape individual responsibility, or, in the words of one ardent young Nazi, ‘to be free from freedom.’ “ Democratic ideology leaves the impression that all men are equal, whereas it has the effect of making one’s place in the irrepressible hierarchies in society seem entirely the individual’s fault. Thus the frustrated people in a capitalist democracy “want to eliminate free competition and the ruthless testing to which the individual is continually subjected in a free society.”
If I am reading Wilson right, he's suggesting that the hipster bogeyman stands in as a symbol of how freedom can weigh as a burden, or rather how consumerism can reduce freedom to a burden of perpetual self-redefinition along aesthetic lines that seem like someone else's whimsy. But the symbol shouldn't be mistaken for the person behind that facade, who is most likely feeling the same way. Wilson puts this elegantly: "There are no hipsters, only anti-hipsters - or at least the ratio is approximately the same as that of actually existing Satanists to anti-Satanists during the heavy-metal and Goth panics of the 1980s and 1990s.The question is what in turn the hipster allows the anti-hipster to deny, and what’s being lost in that continuing deferral."

What I found especially interesting, though, was this: "Flamboyant aesthetic display...still makes a lot of people uncomfortable and resentful in itself. At its best the hipster is the new Dandy, the semi-subversive who overloads the system by over-subscribing to it (conspicuously consuming) and yet undermines it by seeming as if the real source of their cooperation is that they can’t take the system seriously enough to bother to oppose it. Sites like 'Look at this Fucking Hipster' reek of a paranoid craving for a restoration of social order." I have written my share of reactionary screeds about hipsters and must acknowledge that some of my anger had stemmed from this anguished sense that they still have youth to squander that I don't. Some of the anger came from the larger structural issue, of how evolutions of youth culture are used commercially and how those standards are seemingly foisted on adults with more efficacy now. I suppose there's enough evidence of past generations heaping contempt on youth style to question whether there is really anything new in this, but it seems that an equal amount of evidence can be marshalled to show how the concept of "adult" has rapidly eroded in recent decades.

I also must admit that "flamboyant aesthetic display" has always offended my sense of propriety, my futile adherence to the anonymity ideal. A certain species of ersatz egalitarianism will always yearn to obviate the superficial distinctions of such display in favor of something "deeper" and more intrinsic to uniquely human capabilities -- it's just not clear whether that is an even more dangerous fantasy. Feel depressed now. Maybe need to start wearing a wig.

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