‘Bytes & Backbeats’ Author Confronts Egan’s ‘Goon Squad’

by Shaun Manning on November 7, 2011

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Guest blogger Steve Savage, whose Bytes & Backbeats: Repurposing Music in the Digital Age is available now from the University of Michigan Press, examines the factors that influence the sound of contemporary popular music–and how these factors are perceived.

Sometimes the greatest reinforcement for ones academic work comes in popular literature.  Such occurred for me as I was reading Jennifer Egan’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel, A Visit from the Goon Squad.  With research on very contemporary issues there’s always the fear that the cultural issues your book engages will have dissipated by the time the book is available to the public.  This fear was quickly allayed for me by the following quote that sums up widespread attitudes toward the type of digital work that I address in my book.  In the brief space of one character’s dramatic inner dialog Egan sums up attitudes toward digitization, confirms the absolute commodification of popular music, and taints most contemporary media.  The speaker is a middle-aged record executive, reflecting on the current status of his record company and the music that it is releasing:

Driving to pick up his son, Bennie alternated between the Sleepers and the Dead Kennedys, San Francisco bands he’d grown up with.  He listened for muddiness, the sense of actual musicians playing actual instruments in an actual room.  Nowadays that quality (if it existed at all) was usually an effect of analogue signaling rather than bona fide tape—everything was an effect in the bloodless constructions Bennie and his peers were churning out.  He worked tirelessly, feverishly, to get things right, stay on top, make songs that people would love and buy and download as ring tones (and steal, of course)—above all, to satisfy the multinational crude-oil extractors he’d sold his label to five years ago.  But Bennie knew that what he was bringing into the world was shit.  Too clear, too clean.  The problem was precision, perfection; the problem was digitization, which sucked the life out of everything that got smeared through its microscopic mesh.  Film, photography, music: dead.  An aesthetic holocaust!  Bennie knew better than to say this stuff aloud (Egan, 23).

This expression of technological determinism amplifies the negative effects of digital technologies without acknowledging their creative potentials, misdirecting the speaker’s rage.  While there certainly may be problems in the brave new world of popular music, there is also much to celebrate regarding the enormous creative gifts that digital audio workstations (DAWs) have provided us in the realm of music production.  The ability to revise, recompose, reinvent, rearrange, reuse, reimagine, reimprovise—in short, the ability to repurpose audio has revolutionized the production of musical recordings.  At the same time the basic creative impulses and processes that have always been at the center of music production remain central to this new “constructionist” model of songwriting and composition. 

Notwithstanding Bennie’s tirade above—he’s right, popular music today may well be “too clear, too clean”—the heart of the problem is not to be laid at the feet of digitization.  The real demon that Bennie identifies in his tirade is manifested by his attempts “to satisfy the multinational crude-oil extractors he’d sold his label to five years ago.”  Commodification is the primary force that squeezes the life out of music, not the details of the production techniques being used.  Francis Bacon said “There is no excellent beauty, that hath not some strangeness in the proportion.”  It’s the notion that the marketplace will not tolerate strangeness that is at the heart of Bennie’s aesthetic holocaust. 

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