And the public gets what the public wants
But I want nothing this society’s got
I’m going underground
– Going Underground, The Jam
With those words, Paul Weller perfectly encapsulated so much. It was a worldview that once guided my generation, tiny as it is in comparison to the one before it or those that have come after. Yes, we had our sheep, as every group will, we called them “posers.” The difference was that even the posers tended to at least pretend that they had the attitude expressed so very well above.
We used to mock musicians who allowed their music to be used to flog products. That derision was well deserved. These days, if you want to hear anything new and decent, commercials are one of the few avenues available to young artists with any integrity, How seriously fucked up is that? It’s certainly not going underground.
Singers who can’t sing, music without musicians, all foisted on us by Disney and some Fox TV show, are what the public gets now. What the fuck do either of those massive corporations know about art? Not a goddamn thing, but the public gets what it wants. Mr. Weller got that right, didn’t he?
We hold monthly wine tastings on the first Friday of every month. I usually create a playlist of music that covers a broad spectrum of genres that I hope will appeal to most attendees. It usually has a lot of stuff from Motown, funk classics, pop stuff from the 60’s, 70’s and the 80’s, plus singer/songwriters like Warren Zevon and Leonard Cohen. At some point late in the evening a few people, led by my wife, decide that there isn’t enough dance stuff in the mix and the music gets hijacked. This leads to the same 10 or 12 disco/funk songs being played right before the party breaks up for the night. No real harm done, and I like “Flashlight” and “Play That Funky Music” as much as the next guy. But then a crime gets committed.
There are some of the folks at the gathering who think it’s funny to assail my ears , nay my very soul, with Justin Timberlake. They think my explosive reaction is some goof. Well, to paraphrase yet another Punk classic, my rage is no goof. I have a visceral reaction to garbage like that. My stomach clenches like a fist, and vomiting seems to be a real possibility. The muscles in my forehead and jaw tighten like a vice. It hurts. In fact, it hurts in a way that makes me want to break things or hit someone. There is absolutely no humor in it for me and I struggle to keep control.
Music is that important to me.
Justin Timberlake isn’t the only talent-less hack out there whose music causes that reaction, but he is the one that I get forced to listen to. See, I do mainly go underground. I try very hard to not put myself in situations where I have to hear that kind of excrement. I can mute the TV or change the channel if it comes on, and I do. I listen to my own music in my car, at home, and while I’m working. But once a month…
To those of you out there thinking, “WTF? Justin Timberlake isn’t that bad, especially when compared to some other stuff;” I will explain instead of heaping on the derision you deserve for even thinking such a thing. First of all, I don’t grade on a curve. It doesn’t work that way. Secondly, yes, he really is that bad. He’s a no talent ex-member of a no talent boy band. Even if he had talent, being in that group means that he has already committed a mortal sin that can never be forgiven. If the lead guitarist of a group as great as Humble Pie can be banished forever for appearing in that godawful Beatles movie with the Bee Gees, then why would Timberlake get a second chance?
But forget how butt-clenchingly terrible a single artist or song may be, it is a pervasive thing in our society to just accept what is truly awful. Music may be my metaphor, but this is true in too many areas of our lives. But back to the music so that perhaps we may get to the wine at some point.
Recent studies have shown that the rhythmic deviations that even the best drummers all make, mistakes if you must, are actually a subconsciously created algorithm that can be found repeated in the rhythms of nature. Heartbeats, waves and all of the countless things that produce the timing of our universe have this deviation. In music, drumming in particular, these deviations combine with time to let songs swing, drive, breathe or drag. They affect the mood of the music and therefore that of the listener.
A lot of music of the recent past has foregone using real drummers in favor of machines to provide the rhythm tracks. This is what it is, and I’m not going to rail against drum machines here; they have their uses. But here’s the thing, we naturally love rhythm because it is natural for us to love it. It’s part of us, mistakes and all, except the machines don’t make those mistakes. Unless programmed to do so, the machines create rhythms that can make us feel ill at ease.
John Bonham once said that he never played faster than a heartbeat. It’s hard to imagine that the drummer for Led Zeppelin could make such a claim, but it was true. If a song has a beat faster than a heartbeat it is exceptionally hard to make it feel natural.
Think about some of the beats you hear in music today. They are programmed by guys who call themselves producers and DJs who have not ever picked up a pair of sticks. They show no signs of understanding “feel.” I truly don’t know how people listen to them. They cause me to experience high levels of anxiety. Truly, they do.
Then there are the vocals. The hideous, unnatural, bland, uninspired, bile-flavored confections that float over the aforementioned beats. For those who are unaware of it, these vocals are produced using something called Pro Tools. What it does, at the most basic level, is to take a tone and slide it to the closest actual note. That not only means that someone who cannot sing can be made to sound like they can, it means that if you actually hit a note, there is little that the software can do to your voice. Think about that. Really consider what it means.
The best way to tell if a musician has put in the time and effort to be really good is to listen to how precisely they play. Do they slide into chords, or do they very confidently hit them? Does a singer hit each note, or flail around and slide into it when found?
Now the general music listening public doesn’t listen for these things, but they know it nonetheless. When you go see a band and they just generally don’t do anything for you, despite playing songs you like, there is a very good chance that they are playing tentatively and you sense that. Go see them play in another 6 months if they are still together and there should be major improvement.
Conversely, why do bands like The Ramones play so simply, yet sound so great? It’s because they precisely attack every part of the song like it stole their mama’s rent money. Love them or hate them, they were never tentative.
So, Pro Tools allows the corporations that control what we hear to finally do what they have always wanted to do; reduce music and musicians to nothing but a disposable commodity. No more having to put up with some fat guy having the best pipes around creating a nightmare for the marketing department. No more bands hitting that magic third album that allows them to actually make money. Some artist gets “uppity,” fire them and shout, “NEXT!” Get another pretty face, put them in front of a microphone, and you have your next superstar. The worse they sing, the more Pro Tools has to work with.
The really insidious thing, however, is what Pro Tools does with someone who can sing, and who hits the notes. I know that I said that it can’t do much in this case, but think of every negative way that the word “homogenized” can be used. The singer’s voice won’t slide into the notes to get that odd sound popular today, but imagine Etta James or Janis Joplin with all the grit, pain, and character removed from their voices. Imagine Bruce Springsteen sounding as smooth as Perry Como. Sad, truly sad.
Which brings us to that point in my ramblings where I typically realize that you’re yelling at your screens, “WTF are you talking about? How does this have anything at all to do with wine???”
Well, now that you mention it, I may have a point in all of that. It might even be about wine. I’ll blather on and see what happens.
There has been a trend of late where wineries are being bought up by large corporations. Some of the larger wineries are already pretty large entities themselves. While that isn’t inherently a bad thing, it leads to the same thing that has happened in the music industry as more and more competition is removed. None of these companies are setting out to make bad wine. That would be stupid.
They hire very skilled winemakers, in most cases. They can afford to get very good fruit. In fact, they tend to make wine that ranges from decent to pretty damn good. So, what’s the problem?
Corporations have stockholders. Stockholders want profits. They demand profits. Next year they will demand bigger profits. Artistry costs money. Costs eat into profits. Costs must be cut. Eventually you get to Justin Timberlake, not as something for teenage girls to scream over until they grow up, but for all of us. A grown-up with tastes that discriminate even a tiny bit should know better than to want Justin Timberlake. A real, serious music lover shouldn’t be able to stand that he exists. A Velvet Underground fan just wants you all dead.
Many of you have read the shills hired by these corporations ask, “Why can’t large wineries make quality wine? We know that just being a small winery doesn’t guarantee that you make good wine, so why do we insist that the inverse is true?” Sounds so logical, doesn’t it? But is it?
“Why do music snobs insist that Toto was a horrible band? They were amazing musicians who played on 100’s of top sessions. Who says that their music was awful?” If you don’t understand or disagree with that as an analogy, please stop reading anything I write about anything. My stuff is not for you. Really. Just go away. Don’t look back, it’s better this way.
Here is the deal. As long as the small wineries keep doing what they’ve always done, and their product is available, everything remains copacetic as all fuck. Wine is not beer. This year’s should not taste like last year’s did. Next year we should see differences. That’s something that happens with fine wine for more reasons than will fit in this article. But, if you want to build a brand, and you want to be that bottle that people reach for time after time in the grocery store, chances are you have to provide extraordinary levels of consistency. That isn’t something that happens with fine wine. That’s wine as product.
As I said, some of that product is quite good. I can think of a few that are among my go-to wines. But the corners are smoothed off to ensure this consistency. The rough, interesting edges are filed off. I always know what I’m going to get, and what I won’t be getting with these wines. I’m ok with that, and actually appreciate it in many cases. But I don’t ever get surprised by them, and that’s really their strong suit. But don’t real wine lovers live for the surprises? The comparisons? The vintages? Those things won’t come out of a bottle of wine produced by a winemaker who prizes consistency and profit above all else.
In musical terms, at some point we got from the Beatles and Black Sabbath to Boston. That sucked, a lot, but you still had tons and tons of other choices. Boston wasn’t all that was played, despite it seeming that way. Later Boston wasn’t homogenized enough, and we got Huey Lewis and the News. Each and every time this happened, however, Newton was proven to be correct yet again. Then someone found a way to remove the equal and opposite part of the equation and we, each and every one of us, are stuck with Justin motherfucking Timberlake.
I don’t want to hear that shit, and I don’t want to drink it’s equivalent.