Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Goodbye, Musicland... I'm Glad You're Dead

Found online, in the comments section at

"[The mid-to-late '90s] must have been the absolute worst time for music. Pre-internet downloading, post-alterative radio and MTV. You just had to buy a CD from FYE for $18.99 and hope it didn't suck.

Fortunately, another decade's gone by, and hipsters have it made now. We all have instant access to entire worlds of alternative music. If you told me to listen to a CD by the Residents in 1999, I would have drove around town all day and not found it. Now I can get Eskimo from Amazon for $8. If you told me to listen to an unsigned band from Terre Haute, Indiana, I can find their music. It's a music lover's wet dream."

-commenter "Raymond Luxury-Yacht"

An interesting point. It sort of runs parallel to something David Thomas of Pere Ubu said a few years back in an issue of The Big Takeover, about the digital era de-valuing music. Back in the day, when I plunked down that $18 at Musicland for who-knows-what, I STUDIED it, I pored over the liner notes. I memorized lyrics. If the artist thanked a band and I liked the album, I'd work to track down something by the thanked bands (sometimes that worked, sometimes it didn't). Now, with a terabyte of music and Wikipedia at my fingertips, so much of it seems so... ephemeral. I find myself less deeply invested in the art of obsession as I grow older because suddenly, I don't have to drop 40% of my weekly busboy income on a couple of new albums. It costs me little-to-nothing to take a risk and check out music I've never heard. Back then, when it took all of my resources, it was a different story... having to cast your lot and stick with it. Food for thought.

It's reminiscing about that period that made me realize why I'm not following the lead of many other bloggers and posting YouTube links and embedded MP3s in my writing. While I work in a multimedia format (the internet), I'm a writer a heart. And the inspriration to become a writer stems from the years of having to hunt for any information on an artist to better understand their art... wading through and filing away articles and books with dizzying written descriptions of music. It's like word jazz, improvising over a theme inspired by the subject. Capturing the tenor of what you're describing, assimilating it, and then adding your own fingerprint is the game. Greil Marcus, Simon Reynolds, Lester Bangs, David Fricke, Clinton Heylin, Marcus Gray, Everett True... all of them have, at one time or another, written pieces that serve as an "artist cover" in another format. And all of them have inspired me to go buy an album without hearing a note by the band in question. Some of them seem to aim for a piece of writing that echoes the subject's own creative achievements. They're not reprinting lyrics, or following musical notes on a staff. But they, through their own language, capture the communicative esssence of the subject so beautifully, that there's not only no need for an acutal audio soundtrack, but if you DON'T know the record, you can roughly conjure it up in your head. I knew what to expect from Pere Ubu a few years before hearing them. Not what they sounded like, but how they sounded. A shaky, high voice desperately yelping postmodernist nightmare poetry over a fractured slashing of antonal guitar despair and jagged synthesizer stabs? Sure, you might have the notes wrong, you might not know the lyrics -- but you can get the spirit. It's almost too easy to point to Lester Bangs (eternally over- and underrated), but his pieces on Miles Davis and The Stooges have a tactile quality that take it above strightforward music criticism in the "news reporter" sense. You could smell the electric heat of the amplifiers and feel the battered black Tolex hanging from a used Fender guitar amp. It's writers like Bangs that made writing about music an interesting art form in itself. Some writers fall more on the academic end of things (Reynolds, Marcus, Savage), while some (Bangs, True, et al.) are more visceral and immediate... almost free-associative at times.

In that $18-an-album world, I would have to have faith that when Jon Savage raved about the fizzing raw nerves and beauty of the Buzzcocks, that his description would carry over to me, communicate to me the essence of the music, and if I decided to muster up the courage to take a gamble, it was an educated risk of my hard-earned pennies. And if the writer was good, it often paid some wild dividends. That's why I don't tend to post a bunch of links to live videos, etc, very often. I'd like to see if the writing can stand on it's own as a creative force. Why gussie it up with digital bells and whistles when it's the prose that's the point?

1 comment:

  1. This is an excellent commentary, and I want to thank you for offering it.

    I started to realize we'd lost something as music fans when, after trolling through used record stores for several years trying to find the elusive first Let's Active CD, I noticed it was popping up on this newfangled online auction site called eBay. At that moment, it seemed to me, this wonderful album (and so many like it) was reduced from artifact to commodity, one that could be had for a few mouse clicks and whatever inflated price the new, global market was attempting to justify.

    What had we lost? The passion of pursuit, the thrill of the quest. I absolutely loved hunting for that CD, can remember many Saturday afternoons spent going from used bin to used bin in its pursuit -- and bumping into countless other treasures along the way.

    And, to your point, it was the rock writers and music critics whose work I -- we -- admired in the glossy magazines and local weeklies, who provided the signposts to those serendipitous discoveries.

    It's too easy these days to be a music "fan"; because it requires no patience, it requires no passion. So I applaud you for challenging your readers to slow down and follow your words into chance and discovery.