The Music Club

Is the Internet Making Us Love Insular Music?

Dear like-minded strivers,

I awakened this morning to Jody’s poetical musings on recorded sound as a vault of indrawn breaths—beautiful image. That gives me an in to comment quickly on Auto-Tune: As I elaborated in my review of 808s and Heartbreak, I think Auto-Tune fascinates both artists and listeners now, not only because it’s novel and easy to use, but because its robotic qualities make it ideal for negotiating our brave new world of avatars, Botoxed beauties, Facebook love affairs, and other elements of quasi-real humanity. (Props to Sasha F-J over at The New Yorker for writing the most lucid piece explaining the phenomenon, by the way.)

808s was strongly inspired by the loss of West’s mother to the pursuit of plastic feminine ideals—she died after going under a liposucker’s knife. Kanye himself is in constant fruitful crisis over what’s “real,” caught like the continuum-bending Hiro in Heroes between hip-hop and indie pop, high fashion and the street, machismo and dandyism, a comic-book persona and an authentic voice.

What’s real? Now, that’s an old wad to chew on when it comes to pop. Bob, you note that “authenticity is usually a red herring”; and, Jody, you remind us that every recording is just a slice of time, and as the Buddha might say, life is change, so therefore frozen time must be fake. All recorded music, all amplified music, distorts and deceives. Let’s enjoy that!

Still, we seek, in music, something tangible—that is, “discernible by touch.” Music has always been made on machines or, if you’d rather, tools—ever since an animal skin was stretched across a wooden hoop to form a drum. Even singing involves the manipulation of the strings and woodwindlike passages within one’s throat. It’s a poignant testament to the egocentricity of our species that we listeners (especially critics, who are often not musicians) put so much more value on the trace of human sweat on a guitar string than on the properties of the string itself. During an era of foregrounded machine tinkering, we’ve simply become more interested in the sweat on the laptop keyboard or the synthesizer knob.

In-your-face Auto-Tune doesn’t erase human frailty—it attributes that very quality to a computer program. I think it’s irresistible now, because we’re logging too many hours on the computer, only to break and take a walk on a treadmill set to a carefully calibrated “alpine trek” program before popping our organic frozen lunch into the microwave and checking our Twitter tweets. We’re desperate to add human value to the mechanical, the synthesized, and the virtual. That’s one reason voices such as Santogold’s, so bratty and vulnerable, sound great in settings dominated by samples and blips.

Of course, the kids are both leading this movement and rebelling against it. One of the impressive things about Jody’s favorite, Girl Talk, is just how slapdash Gillis’ mashups can feel—he’s a pro, but he’s excellent at portraying amateurishness (never so much as when he’s dancing in his underwear during a show, surrounded by starlets). On the other hand, the post-collegiate hippie thing really peaked this year. Since we last exchanged missives, the indie-über-influential Pitchfork chose Fleet Foxes as its No. 1 album of the year. Others prefer Wisconsin cabin boy Bon Iver to Robin Pecknold and his fellow suburban Seattle flannel-wearers. The attraction is the same in both cases—a return to pastoralism and self-reliance and a sound so free of shiny urban gimmicks that you can almost hear the chickens clucking in the background.

I use the word urban deliberately. As my hippie-hating hubby was quick to point out the first time he heard Bon Iver’s For Emma, Forever Ago, these neo-pastoralists are about as white as musicians get in an art-pop world increasingly ruled by proud mongrels like M.I.A. and multiracial coalitions like TV on the Radio. Bon Iver’s album was even recorded in the snow! On that level, Iver and Fleet Foxes really bum me out, especially because their immediate elders in freak folk—with Devendra Banhart and Joanna Newsom leading the way—are bent on exploring multiracial influences and affects, however awkwardly they do so.

On the other hand, I understand how the internal clamoring for some kind of pure space beyond the din of hyperaccelerated information can lead a listener to reach out to music that’s stubbornly insular.

After repeated listenings, I’m still not really getting Bon Iver’s mournful gurgling. But Fleet Foxes intrigued me from the first listen; as I walked around the Rose Bowl back in June with the band’s monklike harmonies echoing in my headphones, I wondered: Is this absolutely the worst album I’ve heard this year—or one of the best?

A few weeks later, seeing the band silence the drunk and giddy crowd at the Sub Pop Records anniversary party in Seattle’s Marymoor Park, I was—not converted, exactly, but persuaded that people still need those pockets of stillness in which to step back and remember themselves; and for a certain niche audience, these skilled artisans are now best at carving them out. David Crosby and Graham Nash can still top their harmonies, though.

Overvaluing your niche is part-and-parcel of loving pop to distraction. This study, out today, suggests any fretting we’ve done about the monoculture is just silly—it states that 85 percent of the 1.23 million albums available digitally last year didn’t move even one copy.

That’s a lot of unheard music! I’m not sure whether I should feel validated by this study, and continue to enjoy my perch as a reader of the tea leaves spilled by mainstream pop artists, or whether it should motivate me, in my increasingly rare position as a pop critic at a major daily newspaper, to work much harder in 2009 to bring attention to more obscure artists. My immediate reaction was to wonder whether there’s some relation between this vast, dark sea of unheard sounds and the sense (my own personal sense, admittedly) that even those bubbling up a bit just aren’t having as much impact—or are having a different, harder to quantify impact—than they did in years past.

I want to conclude on this point without edging into despair or even hinting that “things were better then,” whatever my or your “then” might be. Instead, I hope that in 2009 those of us still privileged to have a forum in which to write about pop music could consider how our practice might adapt to music’s changing place in everyday life.

If the monoculture still rules but it’s harder to feel its impact on the polis … if subcultures (aka “niches”) still arise but trade in passionate self-assertion for self-preserving retreat … if the sacrifices frugal consumers make include concert tickets and, consequently, the experience of sharing transformative sounds with strangers … if pop’s own history continues to surface constantly in new “product” without being properly considered … if cultural journalists and music-industry tastemakers, justifiably concerned about their own livelihoods as the media world transforms, lose their grip on what’s positive about those transformations … how do we speak truth in the midst of these shifts?

I don’t have the answers. Right now, I’m finding myself drawn to music that hits me powerfully and directly, though I wouldn’t call it simple. This time next year, I don’t know whether anyone will be talking about the strong shot of bourbon that is the new Heartless Bastards album The Mountain, out in February on Fat Possum Records, or the magical sunshower created by Malawian emigrant DJ Esau Mwamawaya and Radioclit, available now, for free, on his MySpace page. I hope so. But, then, we have a whole long turn of the Earth to find out what will hit us next.

Love you guys. Thanks for talking,