Sunday, December 18, 2011

Reflections On The State Of Music In 2011

or Why I Cannot Learn To Stop Worrying and Love Spotify

"It takes effort and most things, the more it hurts, the more it means…"
Frank Chimero commenting on The Tree Of Life

As true rock journalism has been replaced by blog/internet culture (which explains the ascendancy of the shoddy, short-sighted, pot-shot criticism of Pitchfork and their ilk) that seems to exist without correlation to rock history or lineage, it is as if many of the current rock “journalists” are so consumed with the post-modern tendency to simply link references rather than analyze with intelligence. It seems they cannot, or will not invest in the process of thoughtfully considering the work they are attempting to criticize beyond the most superficial of connective elements (again I’m looking at you Pitchfork).

Perhaps this tendency to connect rather than analyze is due in part to the entire catalogue of recorded music literally becoming available at your fingertips. This unprecedented access brings with it a wholly modern problem – access without filter; without a way to navigate this bottomless pit of history the rock journalist of today can merely attempt to connect like-objects in an attempt to plot a course in the wake of the collapse of the music industry. This is why I cannot learn to stop worrying and love Spotify—the discrepancy between access and education, breakneck opportunity and analytic understanding is staggering.

Yes, it is a dream to be able to access anything in the realm of music, but what are we losing? Unfettered musical access at the speed of light often causes surface dismissal, on-to-the-next-thing, shallow interaction (the topic of recent book TheShallows: What The Internet Is Doing To Our Brains). Rock criticism has now become similar to Tumblr, but for music—a rapid succession of images that “look” significant or rather become symbols for significance rather than doors to deeper, more meaningful interaction. In short, many members of youthful audiences can discern what significance “looks like”, but cannot elucidate why those images/peoples/texts/musics are actually significant. Imagine if you applied this method of criticism to other forms of art: if art history courses were only constructed as Tumblr-style image sequences without discourse and crucial support/contextual information; that the annals of film were only a series of YouTube clips; that the vast history of literature were only brief sentence summaries or worse, context-free quotations (this already is the only way that most young people interact with the classics—through Tumblr-loaded quotes or Disney-fied movie versions).

This lack of context positions all works of art to be of equal value as seen through the lens of an endless succession of quickly viewed/listened to works; the truly substantial and the commonly mediocre become indiscernible in the anonymous rush of material hissing past at hurried speeds. We are at the top of the ladder in our ability to access, but without means of navigation, we are kicking out the rungs beneath us. This can only end in a culture of art that is repetitive, unoriginal, and worst of all, cliché.

It is this superficial contact that I am attempting to make a plea against—in every area of art, be it literature, painting, film, design, or music. If venues like Spotify or Rdio are used in the right way—as modern conduits to connect us to the art we listen to, to contemplate, to investigate, to discuss—then they are certainly a positive. This screed may come across as the ranting of an old-timer, claiming that things were better “back then”. To be clear, I am no luddite; I am an avid user of Twitter, Tumblr, Blogger, etc. But I fear that for those listeners who are at the outset of their formative listening experiences and critical listening development will not gain the ability to analyze, but rather to only be able to at best connect-the-dots, and at worst—never develop the ability to “listen” at all. 

SIDENOTE: I just want to publicly request that David Bowie shake free of his early retirement and get back into the ring this year. This is my biggest hope for the new year—Bowie, come back—we need you now more than ever.