Steve (Porcupine Tree) Wilson has been writing a bunch lately about ‘the evils of compression in music listening.’ I’ve certainly done my share of ranting on this topic. The thing I rail about now is, to use that oft quoted Marshall McLuhan phrase… “The medium is the message.”
Listening to current music is about as satisfying to me as listening to shopping music back when I was a kid. There are no chord changes. No changes at all. The music -itself- has become compressed. I have heard this referred to this phenomenon as ‘old-fartitis.’ It afflicted my parents when Elvis came out. It afflicted my grandparents when Glenn Miller came out. Every generation loses the previous one due to fundamental changes in music that strike their elders as not a good thing. There’s no bridging the gap simply because the old guard doesn’t agree with the change; not just because they don’t get it.
Listen to most pop music today. Exhibit ‘A’ is Lady Gaga’s Poker Face. Let’s ignore the whole prurient subject matter which makes me cringe when I see twelve year olds rapping to it. (Whoops, slipped into old fartitis mode there. Sorry.) The thing I do want to focus on is that the song Poker Face, is pretty average in many ways. It’s just two chords over and over. There’s really not much change between chorus and verse, other than an increase or decrease in backgrounds. To me this is spillover from rap and dance—their simplistic forms have become normative. Not being judgmental; just tellin’ it like it is.
Now here’s my contention: music has changed in the above ways. But not just because of some zeitgeist of taste, but just as much because simple musical structures sound way better over a crappy MP3 player. In other words, Poker Face sounds great on an iPod. And most people have decided that convenience (portable music, computer speakers) are more important than quality listening, so producers are inclined to create sounds that track well with those transducers.
Because the corollary is that music with lots of subtlety sounds worse over cheap transducers. I mean, ever try listening to real jazz or classical or whatever on an iPod? Yuk. I live for bebop and Beethoven and I can’t stomach it for very long. If that’s the case, I can’t imagine drawing too many young ‘uns to serious music if it can’t be heard well through a one cm earbud.
What’s one of the, if not the most popular vocal technique of the past decade? Auto-Tune. Forget T-Pain. I hear it in country, pop, everywhere. Why? I would contend not that it’s a novel, sound so much but because it reduces the vocal down to it’s most basic components. There’s no bits wasted on nuances which cannot be appreciated on cheap speakers. It not only makes crap vocalists sound good, but it makes everyone fit ‘better’ within a more digital (simplistic) mix.
In short, music today is what it is because anything more complicated is simply wasted bits when yer listening on an iPod. So, why not simply pound out that mad bass, baby.
As I’ve been realising lately with my forays into disco madness (I’ve been playing bass in a disco group on the side), there have always been ‘one chord wonders’ like Cameo’s ‘Word Up!’ and so on. But I submit that these used to be novelties. What made them interesting was that not every song was like them. Sure there were a number of songs like that, but it was understood that they were a bit out there.
Now? Tunes like ‘Word Up’ are the standard (Way to go, Larry!) And again, I say it’s because they sound better on a crappy MP3 when yer in traffic than something with lots of nuance.
I believe Mcluhan was prescient, but even more than he realised because his observations carried over with a vengeance into popular music. If we ask, “Is the crappy (overly simple) medium creating the crappy (overly simple) music? Or vice versa?” The answer to both sides of the argument is definitely ‘yes’.