Who (or what) killed rock and roll?

In culture, movie, music industry, npr by Michael Tiemann

Like the old man in Bring Out Your Dead scene in Monty Python’s Holy Grail, rock and roll continues to protest that it’s not dead yet.  But the number of ingrates willing to club it on the head, toss it on the cart, and wheel it out of town is mind-boggling.  There are so many villains to this story, but I’m going to focus on those that appear in two story lines from last week.

The first story line comes from Carrie Brownstein’s Monitor Mix, in a posting titled The Death of Mistakes Means the Death of Rock, an audaciously existential claim.  She begins:

Want to hear a really sloppy record? It’s a good song, but the recording’s a mess. The drums consistently drag the rhythm; the bass player isn’t quite sure how his part is supposed to go. If you listen carefully to the end of the second verse (around the 48-second mark in this video), the whole band gets lost for a moment and ends up adding an extra beat by accident.

The performance in question?  Ringo Starr playing Rain by the Beatles.  She argues that mistakes are the essense of art, but I’m not quite with her on that.  I side with James Joyce who says “A man of genius makes no mistakes; his errors are volitional and are the portals of discovery.”  Thus the real problem of modern music production has little to do with how many “mistakes” a given artist inserts into the work, but how much genius is removed by lesser-minded individuals trying to justify their hourly rate. Those who cannot recognize genius should not under any circumstances be the artists gatekeepers.  Yet that is what monopoly control of an artist by a label necessarily leads to, which is a shame.

A more salient problem she identifies, and one which I agree is completely destructive to the art, are the loudness wars.  She explains (as many other have explained for years):

If a piece of music can be compressed to a very narrow dynamic range — a minimal distance between its quietest parts and its loudest parts — then that means the whole thing can be really, really loud. It sounds bold and forceful when you put on a CD or play an MP3 file; it’s clearer and less likely to flicker out when it’s played on the radio. If you listen to a super-compressed, very loud recording next to an uncompressed version of the same thing with a wider dynamic range, the louder one is going to seem much more immediate and consistent. It’s also going to be harder to listen to at length, because the natural dynamics of rock groups — not just the difference between quiet parts and loud parts of a song, but also the accidental fluctuation from one moment to the next — suffocate when they’re squashed.

Again, I think she’s far too focused on the path of the accidental and not enough on the intentional, but the effect is the same: the mechanical steamrolling process of overcompression levels everything indiscriminately, whether accidental or not.  And most commentators on her blog posting seem to agree with me.  But regardless whether she has the precise root cause (not enough mistakes and accidents vs. too much editing and too much compression), the overall effect is indistinguishable: listening to rock-and-roll is no longer an invigorating, inspiring, and sometimes daring excursion.  It combines musical banality with psycoacoustic stress, and though I can hear my own parents questioning my own intelligence as I began to listen to Jimi Hendrix, The Who, and Deep Purple (before coming around to John McLaughlin, Joni Mitchell, and Pat Metheny), I have to say that I seriously question the intelligence of anybody who is willing to tolerate the abuse that the music industry is handing out today.  (And for good measure I should add that the over-amplification characteristic of live music venues is also a form of abuse that’s driving fans away.  Acoustic amplification levels have become like high-fructose corn syrup in processed food, dulling our senses and making us unhealty, albeit deaf instead of fat.)

An alternative narrative appears in the movie Pirate Radio (a fictitious story which has a true story background).  In that story, rock and roll does not die, but triumphs against all manner of ham-fisted attempts by the UK government to shut it down.  Without giving anything away, the movie begins (literally) by presenting as fact that in 1966, when the Beatles, the Stones, the Who, and so many others were producing some of the finest Rock and Roll music ever, the monopoly BBC limited their play of such music to less than one hour per day. Yet 25 million people–half the population of Great Britain would tune into Pirate Radio stations to get what the monopoly and the government would not allow.  That is the kind of market enthusiasm we do not see today, and thus we see the death of rock and roll by comparison.  How did this happen?

Many people today blame the Internet, file-sharing, iPods, and the devastatingly poor default iPod earbuds, which, in addition to doing damage to musical reproduction, seem to cause no end of damage to the hearing of their users.  But does that really stand up when we look at the historical comparison?

The “pirates” of Radio Rock situated themselves in international waters–outside the reach of the law–and provided rock and roll 24×7 to an insatiable audience. Needless to say, most people listening to Radio Rock did so surreptitiously, with poor quality receivers, worse-quality speakers, and certainly sub-par monitoring environments. Rock and roll was totally underground–not formally accepted by the mainstream–and yet it proved to be enormously popular, and ultimately profitable.  Thus, the history of Radio Rock (the name of the pirate radio station featured in the movie) in some ways has many of the elements of today’s dynamic, with lossy mp3 encoding, earbuds, and god-knows-what for a listening environment. Moreover, the designation of “pirate” for the radio station is very much akin to what the folks who started Pirate Bay were all about–a subversive act of liberation. But not everything is at parity: the Internet is not radio (not even Pirate Radio), filesharing is not Pirate Radio (per se), and Mick Jagger is no longer young enough to legally attend his own concerts (search for Rolling Stones in the article, or visit the actual news story from the BBC if you don’t care about context). The implications of those details can be debated, but the movie makes it quite clear what’s missing today: the self-sustaining cycle of

  • great music that
  • stirs up passion stronger than anything else in the world, even life itself
  • such that one is compelled to broadcast and stir up that passion in the world, which encourages (nay, demands) more great music

I don’t think it matters which of these three fell apart first, or second, or third. But I do want to say that Pirate Radio makes the compelling case that the ecosystem that existed in 1966, which included great music, great DJs, social disorder, pirate radio, and young people everywhere all combined to create a great decade of culture, even if the hairstyles were a bit sloppy.

Today the elements exist for another revolution, but so many parties have either failed themselves or prohibited others (comprehensively) from configuring those pieces to do anything more than the pathos we observe today: the internet is like a thousand unmanned pirate radios broadcasting nonsense to anyone and everyone. Liability laws and DMCA take-downs have succeeded in preventing new pirate DJs from making sense of music, leaving audiences adrift among 150,000 album releases per year. And of course the music–what has happened to the quality of music!?

To make music meaningful we need the three elements that make things work so well in 1966: we need great music, we need great DJs, and we need a broadcast platform that can run for long enough to get half the population engaged and excited about music as a cultural phenomenon, not a disposable consumer product. If only there was the concept of “international waters” when it came to the internet and music…and a few producers willing to let genius speak without interruption or corruption.