Let me come right out and say it. I am a sarcastic man. Very. This is a side I try to hide, but I am seldom successful. This blog was started a number of times, and each time it came out sounding like a list of what I do and do not like. There was no passion in my words. Who wants to read that! I don’t even want to write it! I have to cut loose! Wow, three exclamation marks in a row. With that thought out of the way, I admit that I hate most types of new music being pumped over the airwaves. When I hear that the most memorable thing Lady Gaga has done is to wear a meat hat to the Grammy’s, all I can say is what a waste of good dog food. Can I add anything? I have to. Because it all just drives me nuts. And, these things have to be said.
Imagine me at the gym a few weeks back going through various actions which involved picking things up and putting them right back where they were. The radio in the gym was tuned to WZPL, a local station, and all I could distinguish from the music was this constant drivelly nasally singer droning over and over. The song ended and the same canned electronic drumbeat picked up, and another widely successful nasally drivelly singer came on. I swear, I keep hearing singers who have a vocal range of about five notes, and it is only that much because they all use electronic pitch correction. “What the hell happened?” I scream silently in my head because while I am acerbic I am quiet about it, and I wish not to disturb the man who is trying to impress everyone with his plyometrics by grunting with every maneuver. “Grr!” clank, “Ugh!” clank, “Arg!” clank, go drink water and show off your sweat production. Now clamp your sinuses closed, play your cell phone ringer 500 times all while saying in a monotone, “ooo baby, I want you stuff, can’t get enough, of your stuff, you like mine, I like yers, ya know it, ya know it.” I wish I were paraphrasing, but that really is enough for a complete song.
Maybe this is a form of reverse evolution, kind of like Planet of the Apes, and proof that we are leaking intelligence as time moves on. Music composed hundreds of years ago has great complexity in harmonics and dynamics. While I primarily listen to Rock music and I will admit that much of it is very simplistic, still, the purveyors of the Rock genre who have proven successful possess at least an inkling of musical knowledge. The best of them are quite skilled. Listen to a good Van Helen song, and though structurally simple, there are sonic and tonal dynamics that work together. There are places in the same song that are quiet and others that are crushing, not to mention Mr. Eddie’s incredible guitar work. This took some thought and hard work to make it sound like a coherent piece of music. I fear we are in great danger as a species if we clamor to hear the underwear challenged Britney Spears work her five notes for all they are worth. Ask yourself, will she produce anything that thirty, forty, fifty years from now people will be singing in their cars? Usher vs. James Brown, get the point?
“What happened?” I think I have a clue. A few weeks before my gym experience, I hooked our laptop to the stereo and played the Boston album over a streaming feed. Keep in mind that I am very cheap and as a result my stereo does not have the best fidelity. I started it up, cranked the volume and immediately knew I was hearing a different sound compared to radio broadcasts and albums I had heard in the past. The sound quality was dead. It was two dimensional, completely lacking of the characteristic that makes the walls of the room drop away and the sound take on spatiality. This prompted me to go to the Boston website, where I found an interview with Tom Sholz. To summarize the interview, I was hearing the digitization of an analog sound. Our ears and brains are analog (again, that evolution thing) and digital sounds do a poor job of replicating the analog world. For example, our brains are wired to sense the time difference between sounds that hit our two ears. This helps determine the direction the sound came from, adding the depth I was missing on the internet download. The digital signals have to be compressed for transmission and use on MP3, and in doing so something has to go. To answer my question “what the hell happened?” I believe that over the past ten or fifteen years, with music becoming so digital and transported to tiny speakers stuffed into our ear canals, we have forgotten what a rich musical sound is. We have been programmed (conspiracy theorist are you listening?) to think that dimensionless, monotone and boring is what music is supposed to sound like. A few days after my laptop to stereo experiment, I went out and bought the remastered Boston CD. Presto, all the sound quality was there even over my moderate stereo.
All this digital overload was inevitable because, let’s face it, using digital techniques to produce music is easier and far less expensive than analog recording. Hiring a ten piece brass section costs way more than two guys playing with a bunch of knobs and buttons. We all know that if guys are left to play with their knobs nothing good can come of it. That sounds odd, but there are numerous truisms in that remark. We are being programmed, actually dumbed down, to think that this cheap music is good music with the reliance on repeating drum machines and well timed squeaks. The vocal timbre is zeroed right in on a pitch and comes out metallic removing any kind of human quality. Listen to a talented vocalist and notice how they work the pitch to best effect rather than sit right on the note. Missing as well is tonal and dynamic range. There are no dynamics to speak of, and it makes me wonder if the people writing and producing this even know the difference between piano, forte or anything in between. Or, as is often the case, the music is so mashed together the individual instruments cannot be heard. I have long prescribed to the notion that poor musicians cover their mis-queues by playing very loud AND making the bass sounds like the drum sounds like the guitars and so on. After all, a crappy singer who sings loud is only a loud crappy singer. You say, “yes but Dave, what about Rap music, isn’t that pushing the boundaries?” Rap as music is a dead end. There is no music to start with. However, while I have never liked Rap, I do recognize that at one time much of Rap had a profound message. Now it seems to be about large cars, naked women and the manipulation of body parts. Even today’s church music pales in comparison to the classic hymns. The next time you are in church and are lucky enough to listen to a skilled performance of an old hymn compare this with the hypnotically sequenced Christian praise music. The first example is lifting and affirming; the second one is a Wal-Mart grade musical jelly doughnut. All this makes me ask another question, where is the virtuosity?
The answer to that one is that it is out there. I absolutely believe this. I could sit here at my computer and go blah blame the music industry, blah blame THE MAN, but when it comes right down to it we have a choice of listening to better music and driving the industry. After all, like television, the producers only make what they can sell. Sure, marketing works, but in any business if an item does not sell it will no longer be produced. This is especially true with entertainment. If a television show or movie is not watched it disappears. So where is this going, you might and probably are asking. Go listen to Ray Charles, Elvis or Frank Zappa and compare this with the four or so minute moan of a Coldplay or any of their imitators. Then I encourage you to go look around because there are good talented musicians out there making great music. They are proficient at writing and performing. I recently heard a band called Snarky Puppy that I really liked and I have always enjoyed String Cheese Incident and Derek Trucks. They can be found with very little effort. What are you waiting for? Change the world, or at least the part that sounds bad. Work on the stinky parts as well while you are at it. I feel better now.