Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Tracy Chapman and Some Thoughts On Music Making

Originally posted on December 9, 2008

My brother no longer has any CDs (or cassettes or vinyl). All his music is on a dedicated hard drive. I went to a holiday party Sunday where music came from a laptop hooked up to amp and speakers. I talked to the guy (actually my brother-in-law) and he too said he now had all his music on his hard drive. I can understand there is a convenience and non-clutter factor for these people. Still, given that a hard drive has an average life of three years (according to an IT guy I used to work with), and that they probably have not backed up these files, they will lose their entire music collection when the drive wipes out, and fairly soon at that.

Along with their way of music listening is that of the ipod folks. Either way the music itself becomes decommodified and deobjectified—there are no pictures, no liner notes, no “thingness” to the music, and usually the album as a unit is diminished or non-existent, as sometimes is also the case with the musical artist involved. The music becomes a temporary ephemeral phenomena, one would think not especially important. It recedes to be replaced by the importance of the player—what kind of ipod or phone-pod or laptop, what color is it, etc. And it seems that the money is with the player device too right now. (At least the way advertising fills the airways for musical phones and things like that.)

But there is much else to consider today. That ringtones have become a big aspect of "music" is all too telling, so far as a diminishing presence of music-as-music goes.

Since I was a kid music on one level was that stuff that people asked you to turn down. Some people like music to be at sufficiently low levels so that it can be ignored. It just functions as a kind of wallpaper, like the TV in the background while other, more important things happen. In that situation it has already become an undifferentiated lump of sound with no identity and little real significance. It's sound emptied of its meaning.

That wasn’t always the case. When local teenagers traded in their Champ amps for Marshalls, and music got ever louder, the amount of social space (and social identity/meaning) taken up with the stuff increased dramatically. For example I lived in a valley as a kid. One weekend night there came an overwhelmingly loud wave of rock music from the adjacent hill some three miles away. It seems that someone’s parents had gone away and the kids decided to have a party, get a band to jam in the back yard outside. Of course I found my way there and heard some music before inevitably the police arrived and put a stop to the whole thing. It was an extreme homemade example of projecting a social identity by a mass invasion of aural space. Today for better or worse that projection of identity gets less and less as music becomes more and more private along with the privately watched DVDs and other non-communal things. That is how it is.

Music has always been a projection of who you are as a human being. I listen to x kind of music. That defines me as x kind of person. When transistor radios were huge, the tinny music projecting out of those radios was pretty generic AM, limited by the choices, and usually was confined to the top 40 hits. Like the ipod the projection of that music into social space was limited. Of course the ipod gives you almost unlimited choice for what music you define yourself by. But as the physical animals that we are, we experience a virtualization of the material properties of the music that we associate with our identity.

As humans, we see what we believe and we make our beliefs visible by things we choose to populate our world. In a cave a rock was a rock. If you painted it, it became a projection of who you were. Or even if you didn’t paint it, it had something to do with the space you inhabited, so was a part of your identity. The color of your ipod, its model type and such now becomes the main identity marker. The music less so because it is a private experience. There is no projection into social space. If the trend continues toward nameless temporary conglomerations of sound, the identity of artists, musics and genres will become more and more blurred and ephemeral. Along with this people often download free music and perhaps because it is free have a much more casual attitude toward that music. It’s just this undefined “stuff” you fill your machine with—like Coke syrup for the old soda fountain, only it’s all mixed up with other kinds of soda types, and just becomes an undifferentiated blob. What does that all mean?

One might have become alarmist about transistor radios back in 1960 along similar lines. I just don’t know about that. It seems to me that music makers begin to become more anonymous, their music interchangeable or replaced with whatever is new. And if music people aren’t paid for their efforts, they may well disappear sooner or later, to be replaced by a couple of button pushing businessmen in a marginalized operation that brings in less and less money. That’s a vision I don’t care to participate in. But the future really cannot be predicted. Still it disturbs me and the implications are only just scratched upon in these lines. An issue mixed in there of course is the unauthorized free downloads many people get involved with. It’s cool right now to be down on the music business, and certainly some of the contracts musicians sign are not especially good for them. But if you illegally download something legitimately issued by a music concern--and it’s available and you do this instead of buying it, you are taking food out of the mouth of the artist. Remember that. If they are doing something in the Creative Commons category and they want you to have that music, that’s another thing. It’s a complex world but that part of it all is pretty simple.

On to today’s CD. Tracy Chapman put out her first album in 1988 and hit the public nerve for the way some people saw their lives in the song “Fast Car.” People were stuck in a world that offered them a small escape route to the “good life” and that car symbolized a desperate attempt to get on the road out of the trap they were in. The melody was a distinctive one, the lyrics artistically melded, and her voice was quite engaging. Oh, and her acoustic guitar was a big part of it all, not unskillfully played. She has had her commercial ups and downs over the years. In 2008 she put out her seventh (I think) album with Our Bright Future (Elektra). It may not be selling hugely, as far as I know, but the magic of her art remains in great evidence. There are some religious songs here and there now. If you like that or you don’t like that, it’s a part of what she is and expresses and you must either embrace it or leave it alone. There is a glimmer of hope in her music, just as there always has been. “Spring,” the last song, urges you to live life like every day was the first day of that season. Good if you can. Especially right now. The acoustic is still strapped over her shoulders, and that voice still has great appeal. All that is enough to make me happy I have had the chance to hear what she is doing today. That music is now part of my identity when I play it.

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