Tag Archives: music

Is music dead? (more evidence)

Here is Rich Cohen on Charlie Rose last night discussing his new book The Sun and the Moon and The Rolling Stones (with Jeff Glor sitting in for Mr. Rose.)

I quote Mr. Cohen as a follow up to the post I did on Medium called Is Music Dead? in which I asked whether music as a cultural force and an “identity forge” was in decline.

Here’s the way Mr. Cohen sees this development.

“I have a 12 year old son and I was driving with him listening to his music.

And it suddenly occurred to me, this music sucks.

That’s honestly what I thought.

And then I thought, ‘Wait a second, this is probably because I’m old. I’m an old guy.’

Let me do some research and see if I’m right.

And I realized it does kind of suck. That’s the way I thought about it.

And I thought about the way we thought about rock and roll when I was a kid, you would wait for the next record the way the way people now wait for the iPhone.

If it was the right record with the right songs, you had a good chance at having a pretty great summer.

The right record could change your life.

And at some point, that energy, not just of a great band here and there but of a whole movement that was heading somewhere, ended. It died.

And to me personally it ended when Kurt Cobain died.  I was working at Rolling Stone and it felt like the air went out of the balloon.

And I thought this thing that was so important, that was to us like a religion, it kinda died. And nobody has stepped back and told the whole story.”

Post script: Thanks to Charlie Rose for the interview portion excerpted here. This remains the intellectual property of Charlie Rose Inc. and is protected by copyright law.


American Music. Listening with numbers

‎arxiv.org:pdf:1502.05417v1.pdfThanks to Thomas Ball, I am looking at a wonderful article that uses big data to examine American music over 50 years.

Here are a couple of excerpts.  See the entire paper here.

Title: The Evolution of Popular Music: USA 1960-2010

Authors: Matthias MauchRobert M. MacCallumMark LevyArmand M. Leroi

[E]xamines US Billboard Hot 100 between 1960 and 2010, [u]sing Music Information Retrieval (MIR) and text-mining tools [to] analyse the musical properties of ~17,000 recordings, [aka] “the fossil record of American popular music”

[findings, proposals and, for some theorists, inconvenient truths, follow]

Some have argued that oligopoly in the media industries has caused a relentless decline in cultural diversity of new music, while others suggest that such homogenizing trends are periodically interrupted by small competitors offering novel and varied content resulting in “cycles of symbol production”. For want of data there have been few tests of either theory.

Contrary to current theories of musical evolution, then, we find no evidence for the progressive homogenisation of music in the charts and little sign of diversity cycles within the 50 year time frame of our study. Instead, the evolution of chart diversity is dominated by historically unique events: the rise and fall of particular ways of making music.

[A]lthough pop music has evolved continuously, it did so with particular rapidity during three stylistic “revolutions” around 1964, 1983 and 1991.

Pop music’s dark passenger

I was listening to Justin Timberland’s Mirrors the other day and at the 2:03 mark, something weird happens. It’s as if the song suffers a sudden loss of blood pressure.

The tempo so far has been driven by a calm but persistent momentum. A horse traveling at a canter, leisurely but insistent, the base line supplied by instruments and voices.

And then the momentum suddenly glides! The baseline stops. At 2:03 strings come in and fall away. And you think they are going to keep falling until strings come in again at 2:04. Between 2:03 and 2:04, there’s free fall.

It feels like the song is over. Then those second strings come in, just in time, to catch the song and prepare for a return to canter.

Not quite a resurrection. More like a save (in the baseball sense of the miraculous catch).

It’s hard to see what this intrusion means for Mirrors. The first time I heard it, it seemed to me that the song was wheeling (as trains do) and now moving off in a new direction. But Mirrors comes out of this swoon the song it was going in. Nothing has changed. (Unless I’m missing something. You can tell that I don’t know anything about music. So something might have changed and I can’t see it.)

I might have ignored this aspect of Mirrors, except that it reminded me of the music that accompanies a recent Microsoft ad. This is Labrinth’s Express Yourself. This is a good natured, peppy, confessional little song that comes with an admonishing chorus: Express yourself!

No sooner has this chorus started than (at 0:54) it sounds like a Paris ambulance has decided to take a short cut through our “listening experience.” Klaxon blaring! Get out of the way! This is an emergency!

It’s glorious, great confusion, as the song has suffered a blowout, lost its stability and fights now to get things back under control. Express Yourself on two wheels! Look out!

Popular music has often cultivated this conceit, that it is a lord of misrule capable of summoning terrible confusions and disorders. In fact, “Look out!” is exactly what guitarist sometimes mutter at the beginning of a solo, as if chaos were now to be unleashed. I am not always buying it, but I am usually charmed. “A” for effort and grandiosity.

Again, it’s not clear what the Paris ambulance adds to the song. It sounds out of place. Not quite in error. Not entirely apt.

And this reminded me of that moment in Beyonce’s Single Ladies (Put a ring on it) where we get (at 0:52) what struck on first hearing as “dread chords.” They come in like a low pressure zone, dark, menacing, and if this weren’t a pop song, majestic.

These three things are anthropologically obvious…or at least probable.

1) That music is one of the most cultural of cultural artifacts. What works in one culture is strange and unpleasant in another. We are extremely particular about what we like and what we don’t.

2) That music is rule bound. The rules specify, among other things, how sounds should be chosen and combined. Some selections and combinations are so conventionalized, they become genres. But what confines some artists frees other, and part of the fun of musical creativity is seeing what an artist can make these rules do, by stretching them to the breaking point and in some cases deliberately violating them. This is what keeps music “fresh.”

3) Some of the rules of music call for “harmony.” Some sounds go together, some do not. It’s a largely arbitrary arrangement. It varies between communities and it changes over time. But at any given time for any given group, the rules say some sounds go together more surely than others.

And what we are looking at in the case of Timberlake, Labrinth and Beyonce are sounds that so clearly don’t go with the surrounding sounds that they seem to qualify as intruders. They remain separate and different. They are passengers. Stowaways even.

The simplest explanation for these dark passengers is that they are post hoc efforts to give the song additional depth and credibility. The artist says, “oh, God, we’ve gone too far. This is bubble gum. Do something!” And faithfully, the tune smith or the producer comes up with a sound that “runs against type” as we used to say of casting Broadway or Hollywood actors.

But I think there’s another explanation. Or, better, I wonder whether we should search for the explanation elsewhere. I wonder if culture, and in this case pop culture, is changing. Changing so much that unitness is breaking down. Cultural rules once said what a unit was and how to constitute it, not least how to specify what goes in a song and what does not. This is what gave a song its “thingness.” This is what allowed the artist and the listener to agree that, yes, this is a song.

If its possible now to smuggle music into a song that doesn’t quite go, well, that would be interesting. After all popular culture has been ruthlessly crafted. Artists are controlled by conventions and producers who are controlled by genres and labels who are controlled by sales numbers. Even in an era of indie and alt musical producers, music is crafted quite carefully. Rules are honored. Conventions play out.

But if an artist/producer/label can now allow dark passengers, musical moments that are not just cast against type, but markedly different in tone and character, then what we call a “song” is changing. And if that’s changing, well, think what else must be changing.

Post script:

On changing in music and the music biz, see the remarkable work being done by Leora Kornfeld over at Demassed.

Is music getting crispier?

Flying home from Indianapolis yesterday, I was listening to music on my iphone. I forget which track. But I remember the genre: funk.

And all of a sudden, I heard myself wonder “Is music getting crispier?”

This is one of those very uncrisp problems, fraught with problems of definition and analysis. But it isn’t, I don’t think, unthinkable.

We could ask, at a minimum, do songs, and parts within songs, start more precisely and end more precisely? And are the pieces in between better defined.?  Ok, so the definitional problems are formidable.

Even if the answer is “yes,” this may be prove a trivial finding. After all, digital technology makes precision easier. And this technology may encourage precision in other ways.This is another fantastically difficult calculation. But let’s say we remove the digital effect (somehow). Is there a crispiness still in place?

There is where we need a problem solving superhero to swoop in and my superhero of choice is Steve Crandall (pictured). Steve, what say you?

Is this a manageable problem?  (Assuming of course lots of analytical risk taking.)  Is it an interesting problem?  

If we get a positive result here, the cultural implications are pretty fantastic.  But let’s wait to hear from Steve.  

Music and Culture Now (Oh, and voices, too)

Please come have a look at my latest post at the Harvard Business Review Blog, The Conversation.  Click here.  

I am trying to think through the argument made by Simon Reynolds in his new book Retromania.  

Here’s the graphic I used.  

Also please come have a look at the post I put up yesterday on Psychology Today.  It’s about an anthropological oddity, that we should buff and polish every aspect of the social self except the voice.  

Considering how much time and money we spend on hair, skin, teeth, clothing, scent, fitness, we ought to be working our voices like topiary.  

Please click here.