The Stubborn Speed of Sound Advice

There’s this music review guy Anthony Fantano who runs a surround-sound sweatshop called The Needle Drop. His byline is ‘Home of the Internet’s Busiest Music Nerd’ and man does the Busiest business seem to be booming. The industry boasts copious product alright (and we’ve barely dropped the needle on desktop Audacity warriors and basement Reverbnation wannabes). Yes, the air is abuzz with the sounds of anything but silence. Anthony meets the commercial end of this onslaught head-on, though hardly note for note, popping out sometimes three review videos a day, all available on YouTube. Even then, he’s barely scraping the surface of orchestrated sound wave.

As some radio promoter explained to me a lifetime ago in the ’90s, the average station received 100 unsolicited CDs daily. Assuming an average CD length of 40 minutes, each listening day (without bathroom breaks) would need to pack in 67 hours of cocked ear. Hmm, no wonder Fantano’s so busy. (In an earlier PopMatters article, I examined how YouTube long ago shattered all earthly notions of viewer attendance records.)

Enter the radio promoter. Applying a critical filter to a torrent of tunes, he put a human face to a widget in hand, schmoozing the station manager: ‘Bob, you should really take a listen to this one.’ Even in the best filtration systems, to quote Hunter S. Thompson, scum also rises. Before you could say badda-bing, payola was born. The greased palm minted more ‘legendary acts’ than anyone will ever admit to. Then there’s the shocking malleability of the average bear to consider. I hate to burst our affinities, but we don’t listen to what we like so much as we form likes for what we are made to listen to with numbing regularity. Nickelback is the sonic analog of the Chinese water torture. Oh the horror. Some seedy guy in a backroom is often the Prime Mover of what really moves us. There’s no use washing your ears out with soap. They’ll still feel dirty.

Anthony Fantano is an earnest drum major amidst the cacophony, by parts funny, clever enough, but mostly frenetic. He’s that head-down guy on the assembly line in Modern Times to the left of the Tramp and the burly fellow. Having internalized the tempo, he’s getting the job done. The foreman can expect no trouble from Anthony. He’s a diligent worker, keeps to himself, and handles the product efficiently. Without useful soldiers like him in the supply chain, the product would just stack up.

Still, I often wonder how Fantano listens to music. Does he savor it… perhaps even steal a second listen after a long hard day at the factory? Fantano works hand-in-glove with market forces. Where’s the soul in that? He is not so much a critic as a Consumer Reports appendage to the buying impulse. He chews through music like half-chewed gum. In his videos, he’s also a fan of the Godard jump-cut. Everything about Fantano screams hurry . In his haste he imparts the sense that all that preoccupies his ears is an incidental consumable. He’s shopping for socks and underwear but with and for his ears. He tramples art to elevate commoditized sound. Hear today, gone tomorrow. Hey, rapid fire delivery is a valid niche and Fantano does it well. It’s okay to enjoy a quick snack before the main snack. But when does dinner arrive? Give me something that sticks to my ribs or you can have my iPod and the Nickelback it rode in on.

The world runs on uncomplaining cogs in company wheels. Then there’s the contrarian fly that must dive-bomb the ointment just to discover what Eliot’s still-point is all about. Essayist Andrew Grossman is one of the better-kept secrets in writing today because he makes no secret of thinking out loud with his prose. A more than ten-year veteran of the respected Bright Lights Film Journal and with a host of film anthology appearances to his name, Grossman avoids film school language like the plague. Theory is so dreary. Tell us how you really feel. Better yet, tell us how you really think. We’ll divvy up bumper stickers later.

No great friend of Orwell’s brevity, efficiency for efficiency’s sake or getting to the point like some cud-chewing, cogitative machine, this guy chooses instead to really write and that’s not always the shortest way home. Thus, if you don’t have the time or one of your other eight multitasked screens is clamoring for your divided, depreciated attention, he may not be the writer for you. Don’t read him by all means. But don’t blame him for your not reading him. It would be the worst kind of transference to make Andrew the scapegoat for our indolence. When will the slothful claim the low arc of their derelictions? Must television do everything?

But that’s Andrew too, forever ending paragraphs with rhetorical questions, a technique that politely guides the reader from one corollary-insight to the next. There must always be a breadcrumb trail. Even as the crows obliterate the narrative thread by dusk, the writer pretends a way through. In the hands of a less erudite scribe, this Socratic technique would immediately be sanctioned as patronizing, coyly polemical and fraught with sandal burn. But Andrew is too smart and too wise to machinate narrow polemics. Without great fanfare, he assumes the lead. Readers will acquiesce to being led once the writer has demonstrated intellectual forthrightness. Grossman has proven himself to be an honest broker. Reader suspicions are wisely suspended.

There is so much going on in this introductory paragraph (from ‘When the World Was Wide(r): A Requiem for PBS’): New Left-Marcusian wariness, deceptive depths, broadening shallows, insensate waders, poisoned waters, misread tides, unquenched thirsts, thirsts hell-bent on cessation, honest skepticism over silly notions of a priori purity. The ambitions are Nietzschean, a geometric starburst as opposed to the neat, linear bullet-fodder routinely found on corporate Powerpoint presentations. We should expect much more from our culture thinkers than we do our marketing managers. And shouldn’t some realms be preserved from the ordering protocols of commercial speech? The antithesis of Fantano, Grossman writes againstthe efficiency curve. We are rewarded with fruitful difficulty. This paragraph is a quantum exercise in breaking out all over:

“The exponential explosion of television channels is yet the most logical manner in which a capitalist multiplicity attempts to mask comprehensive banality and degradation. The cruel volume of channels begs to be read as a liberation, yet the ocean shallows as it broadens, revealing a barren bedrock on which we stand dumb and erect, only wishing the waters were deep enough to drown. The image of Tantalus is inverted — we wish not to quench our thirst but kill it, for the stream runs thick with poison. But when were the waters pure? Contrary to McLuhan, did the toxins, in fact, precede the stream?” — from “When the World Was Wide(r): A Requiem for PBS

Speaking of sound, why does it stalk our movies like a valid contributor? In “False Consonance and False Consciousness: Contrarian Notes on the Ideology of Film Music“, Grossman begins with a resonant quote from silent movie veteran Mary Pickford: “It would have been more logical if silent pictures had grown out of the talkie instead of the other way around.” He goes on to show how the pandering intermediation of the movie score acts as a seeing-eye dog for the spiritually myopic. In an era when artists are busy paring away the extraneous and ornamental, film is effacing its impact with too-helpful musical cues. The silent communion between viewer and image is formulaically shattered by the ‘braying trombones’ that must attend every gangland killing. Soundtrack music is histrionic overreach. Impact trumps aesthetic effect: “To watch The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) with a score of Gregorian chants, religious hymns, or even choral works by Ligeti may be effective — but to watch it in silence is truthful.

Andrew’s writing is easily convicted for its unapologetic ‘density’. He doesn’t just get to the point like a two-minute egg-timer or a six-minute manager. This audacious sense of intellectual circumspection works against the savage tempo of the present age. What is really meant by the charge of density (in this blog-clogged age) is tightly compressed intellectual rigor. Just as modern man cherishes his blissful state of unthinkingness and the attendant easy reads such sleepwalk rewards, Grossman is not for the lazy reader. Nor is it Andrew’s fault the mere commission of challenging prose today (and here I pointedly exclude its turgid cousins: academic pedantry, film criticism that invokes mis en scene and other related obscurantisms) almost by itself is construed as an audacious political statement. To all this, Adorno, enemy of war and no friend of Joan Baez, would offer a pained grimace of recognition.

As for Orwell, Asimov pegged him for missing the trajectory of our dystopic future by a mile. I’m similarly leery of the former’s quest for written ‘clarity’ as it sounds too much like the guiding principle for an Ikea coffee table’s assembly instructions. The marketplace assails us with commercial platitudes and idiot-proof prescriptions. After all, the salesman tells us just enough to consummate a sale. Indeed one of the great marketing maxims is to stop talking when the sale seems assured. In a sense, we seek in higher writing a partial respite from the market’s received form of violent simplicity. Don’t drive me to your point. Let us fashion it together.

Grossman’s writing exhibits equal parts thinking and writing. Frankly, we should have more thinking in our writing, even if it slows the normal process of reading to a useful crawl. Re-reading and lingering over the occasion paragraph is not a crime, or not yet anyway. (Though, eyes that loiter on the written page will soon spark inquiries from HSA retinal scanners.) Certain powers-that-be wish death on those messengers who tamper with today’s blistering public tempo as the former are suspected of making thinking possible . So be it. Intellectual death has already claimed the distracted reader. May vital writers and their dwindling audiences always remain one paragraph ahead of the goon squad.

Power encourages the glossed read. Pamphlets and Twitter deny subversive thinking an appropriate venue for taking root. How many revolutionary manifestos can be summed-up in 140 characters? Media truncation is a reactionary tool. We face (nay, embrace) an insidiously consensual form of creeping authoritarianism that Orwell’s blunt-force rendition failed to imagine. Incommunicado is built into the frame. Jackboots need not kick in the door. Salinger’s subversive text is no longer behind it. Readers are no longer behind it.

But we’re back to politics, power and control, if we ever left it. Grossman is a thorn in the side of our culture’s cliff note sensibility. Most readers have been ankle-deep in Andrew’s 500-channel toxic pool for so long they lack the eyes and ears for his bedrock ruminations. Therein lies the saddest paradox of all: Just as the slow-boiling frog remains oblivious to his continuate peril, Grossman’s safety-rope will never be grasped by those of blithely shallow breath up to their necks in shallow waters. A pity really as Andrew might represent one of our last, best friends, invoking more fulsome locales where the prospect of thinking remains both a tantalizing possibility and a potential world-changer. Now if you’ll excuse me I’ve got some tunage to chew.