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The irrepressible melancholy of year-end best-of-music lists

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Friday, Dec 21, 2007

The music industry is alleged to be dying, but a look at the scads of best-of lists makes it seem as though there is more good music than ever. The erosion of the big labels control over what we hear has been mirrored by an explosion of journalistic opportunities on the internet for people to espouse their idiosyncratic tastes. What emerges has less of a cram-down, lockstep feel to it than lists in the past would have, but it can still be bewildering and overwhelming if you fall like I do into the fantasy/trap of wanting to be aware of everything people thing is worth hearing. Just have a glance at Slate’s year-end critics roundtable series of posts. Intentionally or not, these critics make appreciating pop music—pop music, mind you—seem like a full-time job. No dilettantes allowed in the world of pop music.


And this is despite the writers’ palpable urge to relate to what ordinary people get out of music—it’s almost a desperate plea really (their irritating populist proclamations aside; these seem like overcompensation for being anything but an ordinary music fan) because thinking as much as they do about music is a sure way to forever alienate yourself from the natural, routine relationship with music, the one that is straightforward and brings those lucky enough to preserve it an uncomplicated joy. It’s enough to wonder whether pop music gets too much coverage, which threatens to suffocate all the pleasure out of it. More likely though is that I am too often in front of a computer with nothing better to do than read about music.


But it seems everyone now agrees that the music industry will no longer exist in the terms we know it, and this will inevitably change how both musicians and fans go about their business. David Byrne’s article for Wired about how musicians can adapt to changes in the entertainment industry is fairly comprehensive and surprisingly businesslike (it has infographics and numbered lists, in accordance with the assumption that businesspeople can’t process information presented in paragraphs or complete sentences). It’s extremely informative without being overly dogmatic, and It’s full of eminently sensible and realistic advice that doesn’t presume a draconian intellectual-property regime to protect intellectual property from technological despoilment. He highlights that the overhead labels used to cover is no longer an issue, and now all they have to offer bands is up-front money, which amounts to a life of indentured servitude as the bands give up control over what they create as they try to pay the money back.


Much of his argument has its roots in an idealistic definition of what music is, an inalienable experience that defies commodification and is essentially social.


In the past, music was something you heard and experienced — it was as much a social event as a purely musical one. Before recording technology existed, you could not separate music from its social context. Epic songs and ballads, troubadours, courtly entertainments, church music, shamanic chants, pub sing-alongs, ceremonial music, military music, dance music — it was pretty much all tied to specific social functions. It was communal and often utilitarian. You couldn’t take it home, copy it, sell it as a commodity (except as sheet music, but that’s not music), or even hear it again. Music was an experience, intimately married to your life. You could pay to hear music, but after you did, it was over, gone — a memory.
Technology changed all that in the 20th century. Music — or its recorded artifact, at least — became a product, a thing that could be bought, sold, traded, and replayed endlessly in any context. This upended the economics of music, but our human instincts remained intact.


That’s well-put, and in more philosophical moments, I tend to think of “real” music as being that pure. But I’m less optimistic that my “human instincts” are so intact. I sometimes fear that music is something I’ve never quite experienced because it is so foreign to the consumer culture that is all I have ever known. I feel I’ve had glimpses of music qua music—in impromptu jam sessions in a friend’s barn, or working on recording music on a four-track, or at a really inspired show when the band seems to be doing it for love. Reading old novels has given me intimations of this too, of women needing “finishing” so that they could supply music in the country houses that the characters in bourgeois novels tend to inhabit, of country fairs and balls being a much bigger deal to characters because of the occasions for music they presented. I would think about how much we take recorded music for granted and how it has robbed music of much of its enchantment. That you had to buy music, making it somewhat scarce, give it some ersatz magic, but it wasn’t like (so I imagined) when you had to know someone who could play or sing in order to hear it, when almost all music a person would hear in ordinary life was what we know would regard as amateur. And when you heard music, it was compelling; you’d never think to regard it as aural wallpaper. (Classical music, the product of this era, still demands that level of attention. Who has the time?)


Romanticizing garage bands and local scenes is part of pining for the “authentic: music of the days before music as product. Sometimes I fall for this notion, that before there were so many records and so many radio stations, local bands served a real function of supplying music where there was none, and their incompetence was lamentable but tolerated, rather than being kitschy or a perverse and deliberate badge of honor. One didn’t have to evolve contrarian tastes to prove one’s devotion to music, I imagine, one just had to show up at the high school gymnasium or the VFW or the church social, hear the covers of songs on the radio and maybe some songs that were new—to you at least, if not altogether original to the band—and be grateful that there was music at all.


The simplicity of musical taste is what seems so seductive to me, what makes the early 1960s seem a golden age. It’s easy to imagine that in the golden age, before the deluge, music appreciation was free of the posturing and calculation that is so palpable in, say, any publication’s best music of 2007 list. Making these lists forces on us a mentality where we’re listening to rate songs and rule music out and exclude things rather than embrace music and make taste inclusive. The selections on such lists are in earnest, for sure, but still they have a groomed, fussed-over quality. But these lists are so discouraging; the music alone ends up seeming insufficient. It feels obligatory to continue to discover new things, to broaden horizons, to incorporate more and more knowledge of what’s available. A list of good music seems like it should come across as a service rather than a challenge, but it always feels like homework when I read one. It’s no way to discover music; the best ways seem lost to the past—those days when your local scene and radio station dictated what you heard, and then all these surprises were still hidden out there in the world, things someone could bring back for you. Obscurantist MP3 blogs are probably motivated by the wish to bring that feeling of special discovery to people, but the instantaneous availability of everything tends to undermine it.


Part of this is the paradox of choice in action: because there is so much music, so cheaply available, I have a hard time growing too attached to any of it without feeling I’m missing out on something somewhere else. Plus, hearing so much music makes more and more of it seem similar and mediocre. When you have only 25 albums in your world, you can forgive a lot of flaws; but the more reference points one has, the more listening becomes a game of comparison and categorization. It’s the nature of collecting music; when it becomes a product, one starts to taxonomize it. It becomes information to be comprehended and organized, rather than a sensation to experience.


Ordinarily I try to reject this sort of dichotomy between intellectualization and spontaneous authenticity, between thought and feeling. If authenticity is going to be assigned to any kind of aesthetic experience, it should be to those which fuse thought and feeling and make them seem synonymous. It’s hard to explain what that even means, but I think of it as the feeling that comes when a new level to something becomes comprehensible, when a hidden order reveals itself. When I realize some innocuous line in a song refers to much more than it initially seems, and the broader implications are suddenly dazzling or devastating or overwhelming—understanding more and then at once understanding that you hardly understanding anything, that the work you are contemplating is inexhaustible. 


The assumption that thought ruins real experience is usually urged by those who profit by our impulsiveness, marketers and proselytizers of various stripes. And it’s not thinking (mischaracterized as a hyperrational urge to demystify everything) that reifies experience. But the illusion that we can have a shortcut to mastering the experiences that life has to offer by turning them into data to be processed and filed is one of consumerism’s more seductive lures. The promise is always the same and always a false one: that there can be pleasure without effort, that convenience is for its own sake. In this way catalogable information is the enemy of thought; it refuses to let thought become feeling.


Still, it’s impossible to imagine life without recorded music or to pretend that recorded music isn’t our primary experience with it. The “economics of music” that Byrne sets against human instincts can’t be ignored or separated from the experience of enjoying music. We can’t return to an innocent stage where we listen to music instead of consume it.



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