a note of despair

1. glee rex omnis

In the category of computer-aided statistics micronews*, the Official Charts Company (which sounds like a fake name) has stated that the Glee cast has broken Elvis Presley’s record for fastest act to score 20 top 40 hits. That particular “record” may or may not mean anything to you, but it’s undeniable that Glee singles are, to use Joe Biden’s charming turn of phrase, a big fucking deal. After all, look who (with the Glee cast and Elvis) rounds out the top 10 list of most entries in the top 40 charts: James Brown, Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, The Beatles, Fats Domino, Elton John, Stevie Wonder, and FRANK MOTHERFUCKIN’ SINATRA**.
I think Glee is pretty mediocre as a television show, but that it’s popular doesn’t make me depressed about the future of television. In fact, it even works for me on occasion, like when it nods to the past by recreating a famous TV moment, or when it tweaks conventional gender roles, or when the combination of music and choreography is so well executed you can’t help but be entertained. But Glee‘s supremacy on the pop charts deeply depresses me, and to understand why, we have to take a detour through some pop music theory.
*It’s kind of like sports: if you have enough statistics kept over a long enough period of time, you’re likely to find two or three “records” being broken in any given game, which is why it’s sometimes hard not to laugh at the bullshit the commentators are slinging.
**Although the piano is usually peripheral to pop music, it’s interesting to see how many keyboardists are on this list. Ray Charles, Fats Domino, Elton John and Stevie Wonder often use piano as their primary instruments, everybody knows that Paul McCartney loves his ebony and ivory, and not as many people know that Aretha Franklin is a wonderful gospel pianist.

2. painting with sound

In 1979, Brian Eno gave a lecture titled “The Studio As Compositional Tool” at a conference sponsored by the New Music America Festival, which was subsequently published in Downbeat. In it, he addresses the musical implications of multitrack recording, a technology that was relatively new (Earlier music studios were limited to 4- or 8-track recording. Eno is talking about 32 & 64 track machines; the virtually unlimited tracks that come with today’s computer technology was a couple decades in the future.) Eno:

The move to tape was very important, because as soon as something’s on tape, it becomes a substance which is malleable and mutable and cuttable and reversible in ways that discs aren’t. It’s hard to do anything very interesting with a disc – all you can do is play it at a different speed, probably; you can’t actually cut a groove out and make a little loop of it. The effect of tape was that it really put music in a spatial dimension, making it possible to squeeze the music, or expand it.

In a compositional sense this takes the making of music away from any traditional way that composers worked, as far as I’m concerned, and one becomes empirical in a way that the classical composer never was. You’re working directly with sound, and there’s no transmission loss between you and the sound – you handle it. It puts the composer in the identical position of the painter – he’s working directly with a material, working directly onto a substance, and he always retains the options to chop and change, to paint a bit out, add a piece, etc.

Eno makes many points in this lecture, but what I want to focus on is the idea that pop music has a specificity that’s different from classical music, or from folk music. Every musical tradition has a loose set of values that define what music is*. For classical music, you might say that the music is defined by the written score, or the composers intention. The defining characteristic for a folk song might be anything from a set of chords to the words of a refrain.
One of the strengths of recorded pop music** is that it is so sonically specific–the sounds that make it on the record define the song. Minute adjustments to the tone of individual instruments, carefully tailored studio effects, all of these details make up the identity of the song.
*Keep in mind that I definitely don’t want to say that these values are universally accepted, or that there aren’t exceptions.
**To distinguish from live music, which is a whole different beast. If it weren’t then there would never be any bands who are great live but have shitty albums, or vice versa.

3. a case study

The very first time I remember becoming completely enchanted with a detail in a pop song was listening to Tommy James and the Shondells’ “Crimson and Clover.”
Many of my early music memories consist of listening to KRTH 101.1, the oldies station, in my mother’s car. There’s a moment—right after a climax of guitar, backing vocals, and noise—where the music simplifies to a guitar arpeggio over a relaxed percussion groove, and this voice, this voice, enters (4:28 in the video above*). The story I’ve heard is that Tommy James was just fucking around in the studio and wanted to hear what it sounded like if he plugged his mic into a guitar amp with the tremolo effect on. That effect blew my mind.
This song has been covered many times before, and it was probably played many different times live, but that effect is inseparable from the song’s identity. Any music fan can point out those things that, taken together, make up the music that they love.
*The best comment on that video: “I remember riding in the car and listening to this song on the radio and asking my dad why the singers voice gets all weird. He replied, “That’s for people who are fucked up on drugs and listening to the song”, then he turned it up.”
4. bringing it all together
Which is why Glee‘s dominance of the music charts deeply depresses me. The show’s production strategy is always to dull any edges, to plane any uneven surface. Just listen to that Jason Mraz song at the top of the post, a song that’s insipid to begin with. It doesn’t just change the details I was talking about–it obliterates them. Glee never met a guitar solo it couldn’t castrate. All the Glee voices are competent and pleasant but processed beyond belief, as far away from real singing as Oscar Meyer wieners are from beef. Somehow every song manages to sound like a commercial jingle (from back when, you know, they made those).
I think it encourages listeners not to care. There are many forces, from the increase in ambient music in public places to the sheer amount of music available in the internet, that discourage real listening. And I cannot accept that if people are really listening, and caring about what they’re listening to, they will choose the Glee version of a song, rather than the real thing.

One response to “a note of despair”

  1. […] In the category of computer-aided statistics micronews*, the Official Charts Company (which sounds like a fake name) has stated that the Glee cast has broken Elvis Presley’s record for fastest act to score 20 top 40 hits. That particular “record” may or may not mean anything to you, but it’s undeniable that Glee singles are, to use Joe Biden’s charming turn … Read More […]

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