Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, Ph.D.

I study people, technology, and the worlds they make

Tag: music

Music, materiality, and memory

Music writer and candy fanatic Steve Almond (one of my wife's college classmates, interestingly) has a nice piece in the Boston Globe about music, materiality, and memory:

I start browsing the discs, and inevitably find one I haven’t heard in years and slip it onto the crappy boom-box I keep down there and pretty soon the record has transported me back to the exact time and place where I first fell in love with it. The physical object, in other words, becomes a time machine. And who in their right mind would throw away a time machine?

The younger generation has no romantic attachments to records as physical objects. To them, music exists as a kind of omnipresent atmospheric resource.

And it’s not that I begrudge them their online treasure troves or bite-size iPods. But I still miss the way it used to be, in the old days, when fans had to invest serious time and money to track down the album or song they wanted.

What I’m getting at here is a deeper irony: technology has made the pursuit of our pleasures much easier. But in so doing, I often wonder if it has made them less sacred. My children will grow up in a world that makes every song they might desire instantly available to them. And yet I sort of pity them that they will never know the kind of yearning I did.

As a young kid, before I could even afford records, I listened to the radio. I waited, sometimes hours, for the DJ to play one of the idiotic pop songs with which I’d (idiotically) fallen in love. And yet I can still remember the irrational glee I felt when the DJ finally did play "Undercover Angel" or "The Things We Do for Love."

Almond and I are the same age, and I completely get where he's coming from: I can still remember the pleasure of my favorite song finally coming on the radio, and rediscovering old music can sometimes be a Proustian experience.

But I don't feel like something is really lost by moving from one playback medium to another. Or rather, I understand why Almond feels that way, but it's not a universal for our generation.

Why do I think this? Maybe it's because, despite the audiophile's fetishization of the LP, I grew up in a pretty technologically heterogeneous musical environment: I had LPs, 45s, cassette tapes, a few 8-tracks, and of course the radio (AM and FM). The vinyl LP is the first edition book of the music world, the technological object that comes to stand for an era or cultural moment, and in so doing obscures all the other kinds of printed matter that surrounded us way back before personal computers but didn't have much cultural significance (who has mourned the decline of the Sears catalog in the age of the Web?). So when CDs came along, it was kind of just one more thing.

I also think Almond somewhat overplays the idea that for kids, "music exists as a kind of omnipresent atmospheric resource," as if it didn't for us. How many times did our parents say, "Turn that music down!" How many times did we choose a particular restaurant, or go to the pool, or hang out somewhere, partly because of the music? I don't remember music being a rare commodity when I was a kid. It might have been harder to make it completely private– to go out in public plugged into your own audio universe, the way my kids do with their iPods– but the music was definitely there.

Another reason my experience differs is that I don't have a gigantic record collection that I've built up over decades. I once had a lot of LPs. Then I replaced them with a lot of CDs. Then all my CDs got stolen (I love Berkeley!). Then I rebuilt my collection, and again have a lot of CDs.

So iTunes– and more recently things like Concert Vault– allowed me to rediscover a lot of music that I hadn't heard in decades. In other words, Almond and I have the same experience, only he has in his basement, and I have mine online. (There are virtues in deleting and forgetting, but on the whole I prefer rediscovery. Though you can't have the last without one of the first two, I suppose.)

But there's one other thing: as I discovered when I first upgraded to OS X and started dropping money into iTunes, finding an old song usually doesn't involve getting back in touch with something I hadn't heard in a long time. Just as often it's about rediscovering the music. As I discovered about five years ago,

When I was young, I always had pretty lousy stereo equipment– often just a portable AM/FM radio, or a $39 stereo from K-Mart– and it turns out that, even though I heard some of these songs a thousand times, there was a lot of detail I missed. Now I hear it. Twenty years later.

Though it won't be long before we start fondly remembering CDs or the early days of music on the Web…. Actually, MIT professor Henry Jenkins has already gotten nostalgic: years ago he compared Napster and iTunes, and argued that for his generation, the former was far superior. "iTunes is about music as commodity," he wrote. "Napster was about music as mutual experience. iTunes is about cheap downloads; Napster was about file sharing– with sharing the key word."

For me, the process of rediscovering music is more like the experience of reconnecting with people on Facebook than being transported back in time: yes, they have the same names as they did when they were in college (well, some of them have the same names), but they're not the same people– and neither are you. But it's still nice to hear from– or just hear– them.

[To the tune of Greg Lake, "In the Court of the Crimson King," from the album Live at the Hammersmith Odeon, London (November 5 1981) (I give it 3 stars).]

Listening to ABBA

When someone who has really interesting taste tells me I’m wrong in an artistic judgment, I’ve found, it’s smart to listen to them. So when a friend argued that ABBA’s work is much better than I credited, I thought… well, actually I thought “That’s nuts, but she was right about the whole Sagmeister thing, so let’s give this a try anyway.” So I loaded it only my iPhone, and switched it on while working on a report on technology use and distractibility (appropriately enough).

Once you kind of listen past the disco motifs– which make it easy to dismiss what can be some great music, as I discovered a few years ago when I rediscovered the Bee Gees– I started hearing some good stuff. This pretty much goes without saying, but if you wanted one really brilliant example of Europop, this would be it: the way they melded stylistic elements from across the Continent is actually pretty impressive. You might argue that this kind of mixing is inauthentic, but I’m hardly one to defend purity, cultural or otherwise: the world belongs to us hybrids, and perfect examples of cultural forms are only to be found in museums or under the microscope of dissertations. Vibrant culture doesn’t work that way, and there’s no reason balalaikas or pan pipes can’t get along with Moog synthesizers and Stratocasters. (Though it’s interesting that there’s lots of Latin elements, but virtually nothing Celtic, which is now the great World Music Signifier Du Jour. I guess Ireland wasn’t on the musical map in the 1970s the way it is now.)

More surprising to me is that some of the songs are better-written than I remembered. “One of Us” is very nice (I could imagine someone like Charlotte Martin doing a good cover of it, though of course she’d make it sound like Kate Bush had done it first), and “Dancing Queen,” for all its apparent lightness, has a nice build to the chorus, and the lyrics are a bit more provocative than you might expect in a song whose chorus rhymes “seventeen” and “tambourine.” None of it is music that I’d insist on turning off or forwarding through.

On the downside, I think the singing is not very strong at all: neither Agnetha Fältskog nor Anni-Frid Lyngstad had a great range, nor were they especially passionate performers, compared to, say, Christine McVie and Stevie Nicks (to say nothing of the Dixie Chicks). Listening to “S.O.S.” or “The Name of the Game,” I don’t really get a sense of them pouring much of themselves into the song. On the other hand, this may be a misunderstanding on my part: maybe they weren’t ever trying to be Kate Bush or Tori Amos or Amy Winehouse (each of whom in their own way is absolutely distinctive, technically accomplished, and exudes a kind of take-no-prisoners attitude to their work), but succeeded brilliantly at being something else– accessible and well-tuned to each other’s sound. (It also turns out they didn’t hate each other.) We can’t all be Aretha Franklin. Maybe it was amazingly shrewd to not even try.

“Thank You for the Music” suggested something else to me: maybe I shouldn’t listen to ABBA as disco or rock, but something more like theatre music. You’d have a hard time making a Broadway musical using Radiohead, but the way ABBA crafted its songs reminds me more of Les Miserables (or maybe some of the music in Cirque de Soleil, which I hold in pretty high regard) than anything. “Money, Money, Money” might as well have been written for the stage. (No wonder “Mamma Mia” is popular: for a song like “Dancing Queen,” it’s a very short distance from disco to stage– where it always belonged in the first place.

The challenge is that this is music that’s easy to dismiss today, but it doesn’t deserve to be forgotten, any more than 19th century architecture deserved the fate it suffered at the hands of modern critics. In some ways, ABBA may be a bit like Mies van der Rohe’s work or Eisenstein’s “Battleship Potemkin:” well-done, but easy to copy very badly, and tarnished by time and poor imitation. (The distance from “Fernando” to those pan pipe guys whose work was advertised on UHF television stations is not great, but it’s not necessarily ABBA’s fault.) More generally, underneath the disco beats and big hair there was some serious music in that period, and particularly for those of us who grew up with it, it takes some effort to see what was good in it, rather than just what now seems ridiculous. For me, Duran Duran’s best work is still irreplaceable: I defy anyone to listen to “Ordinary World” and not think it’s sublime. The Bee Gees were brilliant songwriters, and their best songs– I think of “Nights on Broadway,” “Fanny Be Tender,” “Run to Me”– are beautifully crafted, passionate, and unforgettable. (The problem is that their sound was SO phenomenally distinctive, it made it hard for them to be copied: the whole falsetto thing was really easy to parody, and easier to ignore. If ABBA was the Mies of 1970s pop, the Bee Gees are Eero Saarinen.)

As someone said, you should never be too cool for your own past— if only because your past, or pieces from it, may turn out to be cooler and more worthwhile than you remember. So the ABBA goes on the kids iPods. And it’ll stay on mine.

Great literal moments in music video

My friend Jess made this “Great Moments in Literal Video,” but will probably be too modest to talk it up (even though she’s The Onion Girl and one of the geniuses behind Sad Guys on Trading Floors).

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I’m especially gratified to see lots of bands that I recognize from my youth– Tears for Fears, Billy Idol, a-ha. It warms my heart.

Though I have to confess it was only with the end of the Creed video, and the line “I need Bruce Willis” that I began to suspect it was a joke. Once we got to the Beatles I was clear, but it just goes to show how little I’ve listened to rock on the radio in the last, oh, fifteen or so years.

Charlotte Martin

Whatever you’re doing, stop it, and go listen to this Internet Archive concert by singer Charlotte Martin. Her version of the Rolling Stones’ “Wild Horses” (mp3) is extraordinary.

Many of her other songs sound (in a good way) like Kate Bush or Tori Amos, but her straightforward delivery makes “Wild Horses” her own. As unexpected as Dar Williams’ blow-off-the-doors version of “Comfortably Numb.”

“Four Walls” is really terrific, too.

© 2017 Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, Ph.D.

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