The littleness of music

Cody Barstow has been listening to Ziggy Stardust and “Tiny Dancer,” and he’s wondering:

Why is the same exponential leap in music and understanding not happening these days?

So, I’ve noticed something. Once upon a time music was mythology, it was grandeur, it was big. Big bands, big stardom, big music. Album releases were a big deal. Big stereos with an emphasis on fidelity. High fidelity. When I was in college, your status was partially a function of how big your stereo was. Will Bower was god in our suite freshman year at Wake because he had a set of speakers you could hear all the way to the library, which was two buildings and 150 yards away.

Now music is micro, and so is its place in the culture. mp3s are lo-rez and lossy and computer speakers are pissant little things compared to a big honking Klipsch that’s about two watts from being a WMD. iPods – gloriously small, with the corresponding effect of making music smaller in our social sphere.

Music – little. An accessory. Like an earring. A tag-along, not something to be worshipped.

In Almost Famous, Sapphire says this: “They don’t even know what it is to be a fan. Y’know? To truly love some silly little piece of music, or some band, so much that it hurts.” I don’t know where to draw the line age-wise. 30? Beats me, but there’s an age in America right now, and nobody below it has any idea what Sapphire is talking about. Love music so much it hurts? Ummm, whatever.

When I go to a show these days I can barely enjoy it at all. The music is fine, but I find myself wanting to machine-gun the crowd. There have been times where it was all I could do not to walk up to somebody and just backhand the shizzle out of them. Why? Because they’re standing ten feet from the stage, oblivious to the performers, oblivious to the idea that anybody else could be at a show to, you know, hear the band, oblivious to everything except their own self-indulgent, vapid, pathological need to yarp like a Yorkie on crack. I went to see Jeff Foster’s CD relase show not too long ago, and it was maddening. There’s a lot of quieter, meditative beauty to this most recent song cycle, but could you hear any of it? No. Anytime he did anything other than the louder rock numbers, all I could hear was crowd. Noise, not signal. (Don’t believe me? Pick up his live disc, The Leaves Turn Upside Down, and tell me what you hear.) And you know what – when Jeff is doing “Summer of the Son of Sam” live, I don’t care who you are, you need to shut up. Unless the building is on fire, you do not have anything to say that anybody should hear instead of that song.

(One day I’ll snap. I’ll walk up to somebody and scream in their damned face. Shut up you narcissistic jackass! Nobody paid to hear you! This is why I couldn’t be a club owner. I’d have security removing loudmouths to the back room. And that would put me out of business in about three days.)

How very postmodern this all is. And why not. We’ve been trying to kill off art once and for all ever since social theorists got their goddamned hands on Levi-Strauss. It’s fascist to suggest that the artist even exists, you know. (If I might digress, what a wonderful little bit of irony, from an academic/post-structuralist perspective, that the thing finally driving the stake through the heart of the rock musician artist is…no, not leftist social theory, but a consumerist gadget produced by a large technology corporation. For this realization I spent six years getting a PhD in mass coomunication…)

So now we have little white boxes to worship. The iPod frees us from the immobility of the big music experience. When I was younger, you had to sit in front of the stereo and listen. Which meant that the music was at the center of the moment. Now tech has allowed us to turn music into so much background noise. Portable, disposable – which is perfect, because how uncool would it be if we had to accommodate anything besides our own shallowness and vanity? Duh.

It’s like replacing a sit-down prime rib from the Denver Chop House with a Big Mac from the drive-through. Fine, you’re in a hurry. But when you start to tell me that the Big Mac is as good – nay, better than the steak dinner, fuck you. You’re too damned stupid to live, and all I can wish for you is the eternal emptiness of soul you so desperately crave.

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4 comments

  1. Sounds like someone’s getting old!
    As far as technology: It’s funny that 5 years ago Music Industry people were talking about how the “consumer” wants hi quality products, both sonically and musically. They predicted that DVD audio would replace Lo-Res CD’s. They also predicted the resurgence of “album” musicians. Guess they never saw the Mp3 coming.
    Of course these are the same douche bags who thought it would be cool to mix music in 5.1 surround sound. Guess they never heard of Pink Floyds experiment with Quad.

  2. What frustrates me is that when I tell people the smaller the medium, the worse the sound, they ask, “Really?” They’ve never sat and listened to an album on vinyl and appreciated all the little nuances that you can hear. Zeppelin III on vinyl is the most AMAZING experience EVER!
    Instead, people focus on downloading all kinds of individual songs rather than buying the entire album and listening to it as a whole. The music industry has gone this way, too. So many bands and artists put out one, two or three song EPs just to get it out and get on some college radio stations. REAL albums are very rare.
    As far as the show experience–yeah, totally agree with you on that one. I don’t get why people pay to go to shows and then don’t even pay attention. With the smoking ban in Minneapolis, many people choose cigarettes over the show they paid for. Tsk, tsk.

  3. (reposted after I realized I used the wrong icon)
    When I question how anyone can hear music from an iPod (versus any “component” system like I’ve used for the past 30-35 years) and believe they are “experiencing” the music in some meaningful way, I stop and think back to the days before my first real sound “system” remembering that at one time all I had was a Panasonic 9-volt, handheld w/wrist strap AM ‘transistor’ radio to hear CCR, Three Dog Night, The Guess Who, Supremes, Tommy James….etc., thinking at the time I had it made at. (my argument dead ends there)
    iPod like devices have removed the randomness of not knowing which ‘Top 40’ playlist tune was going to be up next. (shuffling your own music isn’t quite the same) Instead of music forming a backdrop to the times we all live in and experience as a group, anyone can now become their own DJ and program their private soundtrack.
    My wife taped and saved several hours of off the air recordings from an Orlando top 40 station back in the mid-60’s(reel-to-reel so the quality is pretty good). Listening to them now is surreal.

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