How Long Must We Sing This Song?: Your Technology Is Destroying My Music

Writing for The A.V. Club in late March 2012, Scott Plagenhoef considered the potentially destructive effects of Tumblr on the creation and distribution of contemporary music. “Is Internet culture turning musicians into content-producers?” his subtitle asks.

The article was interesting enough, but it left me unsettled for a few reasons, not the least of which was the question of when, exactly, musicians haven’t been “content-producers” in some shape or form. However, what I found most troublesome about the post was the rather hackneyed claim that, yet again, the Internet has changed music forever.

Really, do we need another article posted on the Internet that ponders the paradigm-shifting possibilities posed by that very same Internet? Right now, I’m just not sure that we do.

To substantiate that claim, I will not directly direct you to Eric Harvey’s column “The Social History of the MP3”, which made the claim, in 2009, that the Internet has changed music forever. (Interestingly enough, the content of Harvey’s article was produced when Plagenhoef was the Editor-in-Chief of Pitchfork.) Likewise, I will not directly direct you any of the articles that comprise the tiresome vortex that is coverage of Lana Del Rey, one of the indiesphere’s more recent online cases study in how the Internet has changed music forever.

Rather, I’ll direct you to a source well outside of music journalism: Leo Marx’s The Machine in the Garden: Technology and the Pastoral Ideal in America (Amazon, Powell’s). Though Marx takes the United States as his focus, The Machine in the Garden is a must-read for anyone interested in the history of industrial development and the varied public reactions to that development. Central to Marx’s work is an attempt to theorize what is colloquially understood to be technology. Throughout the book, Marx makes a point of deconstructing the term technology and, in doing so, points out that some of the most basic and utilitarian tools of everyday life—pens and paper, farming tools, automobiles, etc.—are all inherently technological. In other words, backlit fruit icons aren’t the only indicators of what counts as “technology”.

In one of the book’s more humorous asides, contained in the chapter titled “The Machine”, Marx cites a statement made by Thomas Ewbank, the United States Commissioner of Patents from 1849-1852. Here’s Marx’s passage:

Indeed, nothing sums up the metaphysic of industrialism so well as a statement of [Ewbank’s], quoted in this instance under the heading “Civilization, Inventors, Invention and the Arts”: “His works proclaim his preference for the useful to the merely imaginative, and in truth it is in such, that the truly beautiful or sublime is to be found. A steamer is a mightier epic than the Iliad—and Whitney, Jacquard, and Blanchard might laugh even Virgil, Milton, and Tasso to scorn.”

The precise reference point for the term “steamer” is a bit unclear. The remainder of Marx’s chapter largely discusses the way that steam engine technology—in all of its forms—allowed people to move through space much more quickly than ever before, locomotives and steamboats serving as his primary examples. Therefore, it is reasonable to assume that Ewbank was referring to the steam engine.

Regardless, what is most amusing here is Ewbank’s sincere belief that steamers represent greater epics than some of the greatest poems in the canon of Western literature. To boot, Ewbank believes that steamers might cause the inventors, and the public by extension, to scorn these works of literature. The claim that remains implicit in Marx’s discussion of these statements is that uncritical enthusiasts, like Ewbank, honestly imagined that steam technology might cause people never to read again. Faced with the prospect of traversing an entire country in about a week, the logic goes, Americans just would not have the leisure time necessary to devote to reading and the contemplative life, what with things moving so fast in those days.

Clearly, Ewbank never browsed an airport or train station bookshop—stores that sell books for the precise purpose of traveling. Likewise, he probably never talked to a few high school students, people who still read (often with scorn, I’ll grant Ewbank that), Virgil, Milton, Plato, etc.

My purpose in taking us on this tiny, simplified historical excursion is simply to point out that public personalities have been thinking about the negative effects of technology on arts culture since at least as far back as the time when technology, in any tangible form, allowed for that kind of commentary. And even before that, I’ve heard tales of historians digging into mythology and oral tradition to draw out commentaries about the negative effects of technology on culture.

More significantly, it’s quite stunning to examine the dovetail between Ewbank’s zealousness about the way steam speed will sap the arts of their intrigue and Plagenhoef’s concern about how Tumblr’s e-speed “drive-by social-media bulletin board” interface has made musicians less interested in creating lasting art: “[Chillwave and seapunk] both gravitate toward the cheap-sounding as well as the cheaply made, seemingly suspicious of durable musical values like competence, fidelity, and, perhaps most importantly, shelf life.”

Kids these days . . . they don’t know what it was like back when I was young . . . when musicians like Lou Barlow took their time to write impeccably produced, long lasting tunes . . .

Though the Internet has been seen by many as more revolutionary than the steam engine—can you believe it?—it truly doesn’t necessitate the perpetual handwringing about how it is forever liberating/destroying music. Has the Internet markedly changed the music industry? Of course it has. And believe me, I don’t begrudge anyone the opportunity to talk about those changes in nuanced articles that take specific features of the Internet as their focus. However, I do think that all the rhetoric about how the Internet has changed absolutely every facet of the way that listeners experience music, and about how URLs are causing the psychological distinctions between interiority and exteriority to crumble (tumble?)—stop me if you’ve heard this one before—is entirely overblown. Hyperbolic to the point of irrational. And, read through Marx, dated—literally by several centuries. Besides, the last time I checked, music was still comprised of organized intervals of sound and silence that are felt physically as a series of vibrations. The Internet hasn’t changed that fact.

All of which brings us, rather herkily-jerkily, back to Tumblr. Whether Tumblr represents a forward step, a backward step, or a misstep on the journey toward music distribution utopia, I can’t honestly say. However, I can honestly say that whatever else it is, or isn’t, it is at least the next step for many musicians. And that sort of makes it something like the eight-track to the record, or the cassette to the eight-track, or the CD to the cassette—which, once again, means that we’ve had this conversation before, as Harvey makes clear.

So while I do welcome discussion about the utility of Tumblr across all kinds of media, I think we can stop short of wondering whether or not it is turning musicians into anything other than musicians.

Likewise, it’s time to stop pointing to musicians like Grimes and Lana Del Rey as symptoms of an industry that is supposedly wrongly (I can never really tell) embracing viral distribution via the Internet. There’s something insidiously sexist about positioning these artists, whether implicitly or explicitly, as silly girls who just play with their identities through gossipy social media, while simultaneously championing the “serious” male artists who are busy covering “My Sharona” for an hour.

Regrettably, those kinds of statements are pretty old, too. What’s even more regrettable is that they also continue to be made.