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Sunday, December 9, 2012

The Worst Question To Ask A Music Nerd

I wrote this 12-page response to my professors simple question, "What's your taste in music?" 

Probably the worst question you can ask a music enthusiast is “What kind of music do you like?” That question inspires an immediate revulsion, followed by a swift racking of the brain for acceptable parameters to define “like” and “good”, abstract terms we use colloquially all the time, but often resist defining. What does that simple question mean? Does it mean what music are you currently listening to most frequently? Does it mean what music has had the biggest impact on your life? Does it mean what new music are you most excited about? Does it mean what music are you listening to now that you could also enjoy 20 years from now? Could you answer it with a list of artists? Could you answer it with a list of genres? Or, would you need a descriptive paragraph or two to really capture your tastes? Along those lines, will you care if people judge your tastes based on your answer? 

The notion of “like”, “good”, “quality”, and “taste” in terms of music are hard to define. We feel free to critique and review music with impunity regardless of expertise. Music bloggers with thousands of followers make and break artists all the time by distilling the qualities of an album or song into a rating and 500-word review, and no one ever inquires as to their credentials. Rather a critical mass of readers seems to decide that a particular music blogger has “taste” that is “good” enough to warrant consideration. No qualifications are needed, neither relevant work history, nor a clear declaration of what music that blogger “likes”. There are many opinions we do not trust unless we understand the person making them to have authority on the subject. This is not true of music reviews. 


Why are we so hesitant to define our tastes? Is it because the popular trends in music shift so quickly? Is it because our tastes change so readily? Or, is it because it has become acceptable to judge culture on an infinite number of scales, and at the very least whatever artifact is examined might have ironic value in the right context? Or perhaps, we are particularly resistant to defining musical tastes, because musical appreciation takes time. You can take as little as 1 second to review a physical work of art, like a photograph, or a painting, or a handbag, but you cannot examine a song in any less time than its length, which takes anywhere from 2 minutes to half an hour. There is a commitment to music consumption that so often inspires cultivation that it has created a long standing subculture of music appreciation. Whether you spend hours digging through crates of vinyl, or hours reading music blogs, there is a dedicated, lengthy process to discovering new music, forming an opinion on it, and deciding what’s worth more of your time. 


Though not a product of academia, “The Psychic Soviet”, a collection of essays by Ian Svenonius published in 2006 by Drag City offers some illuminating pontification on the historical and cultural value of music, as well as its relationship to time and industrialization. It is important to note that Svenonius himself is a prolific musician, and Drag City is first and foremost a record label. Svenonius argues that music is time, and then aligns this idea with the adage that “time is money”. This is an important connection that explains how the industrial era established the value of music in popular culture. Music is valuable, because it takes up time, and any time you dedicate solely to music appreciation is time you are not spending as a productive worker. Thus, music becomes essential to all cultural movements, especially counter cultural movements, from the industrial revolution through to present day. One of the essays in “The Psychic Soviet” is a scathing critique of the 1960s folk revival movement, and its politics.


It is extremely useful to consider the industrial revolution when considering music. When people lament that the music industry is dying, what they really mean is that the record industry is dying. The record industry can be understood on a basic level as the process of making money by selling mass produced recordings to the masses. This industry is in jeopardy because the sale of physical albums is declining, not because people no longer listen to music. Should it really be a lamentable surprise that the record industry is dying? The record industry is a fairly new experiment in the grand scheme of things, a little over 100 years old, and inexorably tied to the values and systems of the industrial era. There are plenty of other business processes that generate money from music that are either far older and reliable, touring and patronage for example, or emerging processes that are attempting to adapt to the new values and systems of the digital era, such as online music streaming services. It would seem that the adage of the digital era is access over ownership. Though they are older forms of music business, touring and patronage fit the value system of the digital era by providing fans access to musicians. So even if the record industry is in its twilight years, other businesses of music may survive or even flourish. After all, human appreciation of music is apparent across all cultures and eras, making it arguably inherent to our primal nature as a species. If human desire for music is that ubiquitous, the ability to monetize music should not be too elusive. 


Walter Benjamin mentions the phonograph record in his seminal 1936 essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”, which addresses the uses of art in the industrial revolution. By Benjamin’s reasoning recorded music is separated from authenticity or aura of the original performance, and recontextualized to different times and places. Your favorite song is no longer tied to watching a band play it for an audience, but instead could be the personal soundtrack for your first road trip. Benjamin argues that the process of reproduction changes the function of art from ritualistic to political. Recorded music can be the theme song for a political campaign, or the anthem of protest in ways that performed music cannot, because it focuses on the aura of the performer rather than the political messages of the context. Of course, many music enthusiasts would argue that a key drawback to mass production is the loss of aura. Consequently, music marketers spend much time and money promoting the authenticity of artists. They are trying to artificially recreate what is lost in the reproduction of the art to make it more appealing to those music consumers that are concerned with such qualities.


Benjamin also argues that mass production has facilitated mass consumption, which has changed how the audience participates with art: “the distracted mass absorbs the work of art”. This process of mass appropriation is achieved through use and perception, according to Benjamin. The application of this theory to analyzing the role of recorded music is straightforward in terms of mass appropriation via use. Recorded music is passively used by the masses and received by the masses almost continuously in contemporary culture, so that silence has become shocking for its rarity. Every restaurant, shopping mall, and doctor’s office is playing subtle music, and the people present are passively listening to music whether or not they know or care. We listen in our cars, on headphones from our computers at the office, and we bring music players to beaches and parks. The mass production of music allows it be ubiquitously and innocuously consumed, defining space and time at any point in our lives. However, the theory of mass appropriation via perception is harder to apply to music reproduction, especially now that physical album sales have declined in cultural relevance. In the strictest sense, one cannot see music. Physical recordings allowed the masses some appropriation via perception, hence the importance of album art and press photos. However, music in the age of digital reproduction is no longer physical, and therefore less visual in character. If this shift has reduced the masses ability to appropriate music, then this could also explain changes in music consumption. This key difference between music and other mass reproduced art forms warrants further consideration.
 

American ethnomusicologist, Dr. Steve Waksman has written extensively about the politics of noise. In his essay “Kick Out the Jams!”, he details a memorable MC5 performance where the band refused to turn down the volume, so the venue shut off the power. The band nearly incited a riot by provoking the audience with the cry for “POWER!” Eventually, the venue was forced to comply. As Waksman points out this moment was about far more than kids wanting their rock music. Rather it was a chance for MC5 to articulate their personal politics and values to a massive audience in opposition to conventional society. That is the power of music in an age of reproduction. Though that particular moment was filled with aura and therefore nonreplicable, the fans present were already familiar with the band’s music and message through recorded music, and could relive that moment any time afterward simply by playing a MC5 album. Could such a moment happen today? Perhaps not. The age of arena rock is over, and loud, dissonant guitars have lost some of their subversive nature. However, computers have facilitated the development of new controversial noises, and music can still be political. The noise of dub step has certainly caused considerable controversy, vehement critique, and ecstatic praise in recent years. And, noise and the right to make noise have been essential to the Occupy movement. 

When we consider what kind of music we like, we must also consider what constitutes music. What sounds do we like? What noises count as music? What noises do not count as music? Traditional music notation can seem restrictive to nonwestern cultures, or given recent developments in audio sampling. Some of the first critics of rap argued that it wasn’t musical enough to be considered music, and now rap is an established genre of music. Given technological developments and cultural relativity, it would seem a broad definition of music is in order. Famed rock critic, Lester Bangs, wrote this about noise in his seminal work “Psychotic Reaction and Carburetor Dung”: “properly conceived and handled noise is not noise at all, but music whose textures just happen to be a little thicker and more involved than usual.” On what would appear to be the far opposite end of musical enthusiasm, consider the lyrics that Oscar Hammerstein wrote for the chorus of “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’” from the musical “Oklahoma”: “All the sounds of the earth are like music.” Perhaps then the best working definition of music for this essay is orchestrated sound over time. 


So with all the above cultural theory in mind, what kind of orchestrated sound over time do I like? Well, I’m generally a sucker for any song that incorporates the following sounds: hand claps, vocal harmonies, witty lyrics, scratchy acoustic guitars, 90s R&B beats, bird calls, double bass, at least a minute of opening buildup, fuzz, gang shouts, unusual instruments, sexy bass lines, jazz flute, samples of sermons, lo-fi production, and DIY aesthetic. But, can my musical tastes really be gauged from such a varied and abstract collection of noises? Founder of the influential music blog, Drowned In Sound, Sean Adams said this in an interview with Evolver.fm earlier this year, “Time is our greatest commodity, so why read a review when you can just check the score and press play? There’s a reason our year-end lists are so much more popular than anything else we do all year: Most people just want everything we know reduced down into one handy list.” Luckily, for the last several years I too have compiled a list of the top 20 albums released that year. Here are some handy charts.




Top 20 Albums of 2009
Album
Artist
Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix
Phoenix
Daisy
Brand New
Time To Die
The Dodos
Old/New Baby
Luke Winslow-King
Zephyr
Basement Jaxx
Waking Heat
Tempo No Tempo
Post-Nothing
Japandroids
Tell ‘Em What Your Name Is
Black Joe Lewis & The Honeybears
Up From Below
Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros
Phrazes For The Young
Julian Casablancas
North Hills
Dawes
The Ruminant Band
The Fruit Bats
Logos
Atlas Sound
Merriweather Post Pavillion
Animal Collective
Manners
Passion Pit
I And Love And You
The Avett Brothers
Why There Are Mountains
Cymbals Eat Guitars
Middle Cyclone
Neko Case
Why You Runnin’
Lissie
Dark Was The Night
Various Artists


Top 20 Albums of 2010
Album
Artist
Big Echo
The Morning Benders
This Is Happening
LCD Soundsystem
Cerulean
Baths
I’m New Here
Gil Scott-Heron
Subiza
Delorean
The Way Out
The Books
Swim
Caribou
The Wild Hunt
The Tallest Man On Earth
There Is Love In You
Four Tet
No Ghost
The Acorn
Root For Ruin
Les Savy Fav
Sisterworld
Liars
The Monitor
Titus Andronicus
We All Grow
S. Carey
Made The Harbor
Mountain Man
Everything In Between
No Age
Tourist History
Two Door Cinema Club
Illumination
Miami Horror
Brothers
The Black Keys
Preservation
Preservation Hall Jazz Band


Top 20 Albums of 2011
Album
Artist
Bon Iver
Bon Iver
The Year Of Hibernation
Youth Lagoon
Replica
Oneohtrix Point Never
No Color
The Dodos
Hurry Up We’re Dreaming
M83
Black Water
Apparat
A Different Kind Of Fix
Bombay Bicycle Club
Lenses Alien
Cymbals Eat Guitars
Helplessness Blues
Fleet Foxes
The Whole Love
Wilco
Zonoscope
Cut Copy
Unknown Mortal Orchestra
Unknown Mortal Orchestra
Within and Without
Washed Out
Apocalypse
Bill Callahan
Gangs
And So I Watch You From Afar
James Blake
James Blake
Departing
The Rural Alberta Advantage
Mind Bokeh
Bibio
King of Limbs
Radiohead
Cloud Nothings
Cloud Nothings



So, what can we extrapolate about my musical tastes from these lists? The Dodos and Cymbals Eat Guitars are listed twice, and they are both American post-rock bands with experimental leanings. However, The Dodos prefer acoustic instruments, and Cymbals Eat Guitars rely on a significant amount of electronic processing. S. Carey is the drummer for Bon Iver, so that’s another example of overlap. Experimental electronica and artists with folk roots are also heavily represented. I hate to pigeonhole artists in to genres. It feels crass to label and categorize art, and a few of the artists represented here have had genre-spanning careers. Moreover, it is a favorite pastime of music critics to debate the parameters of various genres, and invent new genre names to describe whatever artist has caught their fancy recently.  However, if I was to look at these specific albums and paint with a broad brush, here’s how they would breakdown.




Indie Dance/ Electronica
Experimental Ambient
Folk
Indie
Rock/ Post-Punk
Other
Julian Casablancas
Animal Collective
Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros
Tempo No Tempo
Titus Andronicus
Black Joe Lewis & The Honeybears (R&B)

LCD Soundsystem
Oneohtrix Point Never
The Avett Brothers
Bombay Bicycle Club
And So I Watch You From Afar

Gil Scott-Heron (Spoken word)
Two Door Cinema Club
The Books
The Rural Alberta Advantage
Cymbals Eat Guitars
Liars
Preservation Hall Jazz Band (Jazz)

Passion Pit
Baths
The Tallest Man On Earth
The Morning Benders
Brand New

James Blake (Electronic/ Soul Producer)

Basement Jaxx
Caribou
Luke Winslow-King

Unknown Mortal Orchestra
Cloud Nothings

Delorean
Four Tet
Neko Case
The Dodos

Japandriods

Cut Copy
Atlas Sound
Mountain Man
The Acorn
No Age


M83
Apparat
Bill Callahan
Les Savy Fav



Phoenix
Bibio
Fleet Foxes
Wilco



Miami Horror
Washed Out
Dawes

The Black Keys



Radiohead
Lissie

The Fruit Bats





Bon Iver






S. Carey






Youth Lagoon







Laid out like this, it’s a little easier to identify general trends in my recent music taste. I prefer artists signed to independent record labels. I prefer bands and individual electronic artists, though a few singer/songwriters are represented. The electronic music I listen too falls into two categories electronic artists with experimental or chillwave aesthetics, or indie bands that heavily rely on electronic affects to make their music more danceable. I like both bands and individual artists participating in the new folk revival. Almost all the indie bands I like are from America with the exception of Bombay Bicycle Club (England), and The Acorn (Canada). Which brings up another interesting point, all of these album are in English. Though, the primary language of Delorean is Spanish, the primary language of Apparat is German, and the primary language of The Tallest Man On Earth is Swedish.

There is a lot of diversity in the Rock/Post-Punk category. Three of the bands could generally be considered post-punk, Titus Andronicus, Cloud Nothings, and Japandriods, a genre I used to listen to a lot more prior to 2009. No Age is lo-fi. And So I Watch You From Afar is metal. Liars and Brand New have had genre spanning careers. Liars began as dance punk band, but the album in question, “Sisterworld”, has many experimental noise elements. Brand New began as a pop punk band, but by their fourth full-length, “Daisy”, they were sampling opera and old radio sermons. I kept both Liars and Brand New the Rock/Post-Punk category, because they are still guitar-driven bands that rely on loudness as a musical technique. 


The handful of artists that did not fit in a category were either genre revivalists or generally genre defying. Black Joe Lewis & The Honeybears made an effort towards modernizing 1960s soul and R&B. The Preservation Hall Jazz Band was founded with the express purpose of promoting and preserving New Orleans style jazz. Gil Scott-Heron is an iconoclast and essentially a genre within himself. His style of speaking poetry over jazz music was innovative enough to gain him the nickname “the godfather of rap”. His 2010 album, “I’m New Here”, was his first full-length in 16 years, and the last before his death the following year. James Blake is primarily a producer, and I decided that approach to music was different enough to exempt him from experimental electronica associations. Additionally, his vocal approach is reminiscent of soul and blues.

So, why does my taste in music matter enough to warrant an essay of this depth? Because, I have a music radio show on my college’s student radio station. This is significant because it means that rather than something simply personal, my music tastes are broadcasted over a public medium. Though my listenership at an online college radio station is small, the act of mediating my taste adds extra dimensions to my musical preferences. I used to write 800-word album reviews on my blog, which was a useful writing exercise and motivation for tracking new album releases. My blog also had a limited readership, so that factor remains constant on some level. However, by joining the radio station, I joined a media organization, which gives a completely different context to the sharing of my musical tastes as compared to my independent blog. There is more legitimacy to my radio show because it is part of an organization. Through an internship and training process I had to prove my credentials, and meet the standards of this media organization in order to have access to their broadcast equipment. By association with the greater legitimacy of the radio station, my music tastes are far more likely to be heard by strangers than on my blog, which was more personal and primarily read by personal acquaintances. 


Additionally, I’ll claim very little originality. The various roles of media gatekeeper and cultural curator have professional standards, societal norms and audience expectations associated with them. I used to perform the role of music blogger. Now, I perform the role of DJ and radio host. Without sacrificing my personality, I adapt to these roles, because I emulate gatekeepers that I admire, and I aspire to their careers. There are key differences between music bloggers and radio hosts, though both are music enthusiasts, because one produces text and one produces audio. The process of curating music with text is almost counterintuitive. How can I ever accurately describe a sound with writing? Perhaps this is why music writers so often invent new genre names, or describe sounds by comparing them to feelings or visuals. Conversely, the process of curating music with audio is more natural. After all, you are actually playing the curated song for the consideration of your listeners. The gatekeepers taste is shared through selection rather than description. However, radio hosts then must find other ways to offer additional information, like relevant music news. Furthermore, radio hosts rely on vocal style rather writing style to establish personality. Finally, a music review can be skim read in a few seconds, and the reader can generally get an idea of whether or not the reviewer likes the music. If the review includes a rating, the reader can absorb the contents in less than a second. However, listening to radio takes time. If music is orchestrated sound over time, than radio is the curation of orchestrated sound over time. That is the value of understanding musical tastes while studying radio.



Works Referenced
  
Bangs, L., & Marcus, G. (1987). Psychotic reactions and carburetor dung. New York: Knopf.

Benjamin, W., & Underwood, J. A. (2008). The work of art in the age of mechanical     reproduction. London: Penguin.

Swiss, T., Sloop, J. M., & Herman, A. (1998). Mapping the beat: Popular music and     contemporary theory. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers.

Svenonius, I. F., Gill, G., & Soles, G. (2006). The Psychic Soviet: And other works. Chicago, IL: Drag City.

Van Buskirk, E. (2012, April). Drowned In Sound’s Sean Adams on Hype, ‘Best of’ Lists, and Why He’s Not Making a Spotify App. Evolver.fm. Retrieved from     http://evolver.fm/2012/04/09/drowned-in-sounds-sean-adams-on-hype-best-of-lists-and-    why-hes-not-making-a-spotify-app/

3 comments:

  1. Experimental/Ambient: Radiohead

    ok...

    ReplyDelete
  2. You actually a good point here.I totally agree with you on this one too. But really great job on this article and your site is looking really great by the way.

    ReplyDelete