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Tuesday, Jun 13, 2006

There’s an almost heartwarming story at the end of an otherwise alarming Economist story about “music intelligence”—the use of computers to analyze music and determine what people will find appealing and program tunes accordingly (much like Orwell’s “versificator” in 1984 that spewed out songs to mollify the masses). Apparently, according to the article, Frederic Monneron, who lives in a small French village and publishes equestrian books, composed an album of ballads after “a setback in his love life” and submitted it to a song-analyzing company. With computer-driven analysis, the company determined that his songs would be big, and he went from an anoymous unknown to having 200,000 copies of his record pressed in no time, with the benefit of no agents, no network, no insiders to get him signed. It seems like a meritocratic triumph, bringing talent (if making music that has scientifically certified universal appeal counts as talent) to the fore while minimizing the slogging and socializing and “dues paying” that are usually required. It replaces the inefficient filter of one’s willingness to struggle that much, sacrifice enough to the process, with a filter that obviates all the human qualities of the musicians altogether. The Economist argues that Monerron proves that music intelligence won’t stifle human creativity but enhance its distribution. But it seems that Monneron may merely be a transitional artist, taking advantage of a new cultural-production system before it perfects itself and eliminates the need for human musicians altogether, just as Reason and such software has removed the need for instruments.

Labels are already using music intelligence to pick singles from established artists’ records, sequence an album’s songs into a “flow”,  and generate tweaks that will enhance sales—the article names 50 Cent’s “Candy Shop” and James Blunt’s “You’re Beautiful” as two examples of computer-selected hits. And ringtones are being made with the help of machines. The computers apparently take sales data from past records and associate them with 30 different aspects of the sound itself (pitch, timbre, melody, etc.) and produce mathematical equations that can generate new songs with similar parameters that can be expected to have the same success. (This is probably similar to the technology that powers, a website that tries to recommend music to you based on what bands you tell it that you already like. In a previous post I wondered if this destroys the serendipity that often makes music personally meaningful or if it just gives you more meaningful music. Meaning from culture product—especially pop songs—seems to depend so much on context: a song that played when she broke my heart, the song that played right before I started puking outside the bar, etc.) Essentially it codifies and perfects the instincts of bubblegum-music producers, whose transcendent faith in the formulas they’ve stumbled on have kept the charts populated for the past few decades, if not since the advent of recorded music.

Ultimately this mechanization of pop formula will widen the divide that already exists between artisanal music made for live performance (various forms of “roots” music) and for those nostalgic about human craftsmanship, and pop music made for mass consumption and quick disposability. The artisinal kind of music seems more and more like sepia-toned nostalgia (unless it’s me who is trying to play it in the privacy of a basement somewhere). Pop music seems much more pleasant to consume because it’s easy and immediate and requires no great understanding to appreciate. It’s quick to bring a sense that your culture understands you, no matter what emotional upset you may be feeling—in part because it allows you to shape such upset in a preconditioned package that comes equipped with soothing simple answers and platitudinous remedies. “True love will win in the end” “Time heals all” “Tonight is a great night to have fun.” “This time it will really be a good time.” Separating the creation of music from the celebrities recruited to sell it makes more gains in efficiency too, I’m sure. Obviously talent is no longer an alibi for celebrity. With better technology, no more mismatch between appearance and talent (the Jessica Simpson conundrum?)—the computer will supply the talent and the star just needs to live the preselected image (which perhaps computers will generate as well). 

I guess this all appeals to me because it foregrounds the fact that pop is product and encourages us all to accept it as such instead of succumbing to marketing illusions that the songs have something unique and important to say, that they might help us discover something true about ourselves. When pop music is demystified, we can turn our self-producing energies elsewhere, perhaps use them to make things rather than consume them. That’s the theory anyway. Another way of saying it: the more ephemeral our pop pleasures are, the more energy we have left to bring to other things. But what are those other things?

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Monday, Jun 12, 2006
by PopMatters Staff

Art Brut
“Good Weekend” [windows]
PopMatters review: Bang Bang Rock and Roll

Art Brut - “Moving to LA” [video]

Rachid Taha
“Rock El Casbah” [MP3]
PopMatters review: Tékitoi

Khaled, Rachid Taha, Faudel - “Abdelkader” (live) [video]

The Living Blue
“Tell Me Leza” [MP3]

“Grow Tree Sound” [MP3]

Mojave 3
“Breaking the Ice” [MP3]

“Je Ne Te Connais Pas” [MP3]

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Monday, Jun 12, 2006

Since its completion, the Golden Gate Bridge has been a strange kind of killing machine, with a few people jumping off it every month, on average. Part of the reason is its lack of a barrier: You can hop over the short rail, and you’re off. But part of it too must be the momentum of notoriety; the more it is known for suicide, the more seductive it becomes as a suicide destination. One’s self-destruction takes on the grim glamour of the bridge’s entire history, which is as outsized and romanticized as a suicidal person’s perceptions of his own condition often are.

This reputation seems like it can only grow. Recently a documentary was made about the suicides, featuring some jump footage surreptitiously captured for the express purpose of the film. (Jason Kottke has a rundown of the controversy this aroused here.) The upshot—if you were filming someone jumping off a bridge, aren’t you morally obliged to stop filming and go and prevent their death? And if that attempt fails, shouldn’t you destroy the footage out of repesct for the family? (You could then style yourself like Werner Herzog in Grizzly Man filming himself listening to tapes of a man’s death that he then deems unfit for the rest of the world to hear.) As fascinating as I find the subject, I couldn’t watch this film, I don’t think. Am I being unnecessary squeamish? What fascinates me about the subject is the close connection between the sublime perspectives the bridge creates and the urge to end it all—the idea that certain forms of beauty can be annihilating. But then again I am also fascinated by people who throw themselves in front of moving trains (another under-reported but all too common occurance), which seems somehow more grisly and desperate. In both cases, death becomes a peculiar public performance—what David Blaine toys with in his deprivation stunts. In a culture that sometimes fetishizes the appearance of authenticity, these performances (unlike Blaine’s) are the ultimate. It makes me wonder if the concern with authenticity ultmately dignifies suicide, makes it seem a noble option, a dignified refusal to compromise rather than a tragic waste.

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Monday, Jun 12, 2006

After tear shedding over declining ticket sales and revenue, Ticketmaster has a new idea.  Instead of making tickets cheaper so that they’re more affordable and will attract more people (which they tried), you’ll now need to mortage your house or sell your car for a seat: Letting the Net do their bidding.

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Sunday, Jun 11, 2006

Former RIAA mouthpiece Hilary Rosen is starting to get wise and practical. Maybe it’s because she’s lost her job as a corporate tool and cut her umbilical chord from the majors. In a 2004 Wired article, she admitted that she’d been wrong about copyright laws and now she’s admitting that the RIAA lawsuits may not be a good idea. Easy for her to say now that she’s not with the org anyway but give credit where credit is due. Studies are showing that despites the lawsuits, free downloading is probably INCREASING now.

She even goes as far to say that DRM is a bad idea that’s driving consumers away too. You can take that a step further and add that having proprietary software that’s not friendly to other systems or a download scheme that only lets you make a handful of copies isn’t exactly appearing to consumers. All the lawsuits in the world ain’t gonna change that. Hopefully, the present RIAA dupes will realize that before they leave office.

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