Sunday, December 16, 2007

Computers & culture

Since the beginning of recorded music, the sound of human song has changed with each new generation of people. There's no confusing a 1930s song with a 1940s song, or a 1950s song with a 1960s song. The pattern sticks until roughly the end of the 1980s. It's not easy to tell whether a song came from 1990 or 2000.

This might sound like an extraordinary claim, but you can test it yourself. Listen to random clips from the many sources of songs available on the Internet and don't peek at the year they were produced. You'll discover that it's harder to date songs from the last two decades than songs from previous decades...

If you accept that there has been a recent decrease in stylistic variety in human song, the next question is "Why?" There are plenty of possibilities: Maybe the Internet makes too much information available, so everyone has the same influences to absorb—and songs lose flavor and take on a generic quality. To be more cynical, it could be a sign of cultural decline.

Another explanation, which is the one I suspect, is that the change since the mid-1980s corresponds with the appearance of digital editing tools for music.

Reading an article by Jaron Lanier in which he mentioned that each decade has turned out a distinctive music up until the 1990s / 2000s, when popular music started to become indistinguishable, it occurred to me that while I couldn't disagree with this, I doubted the cause to which he ascribed it, probably that computer based production tools are enforcing a particular sound, particularly in the accuracy of sticking to the beat. Computers have pervaded all cultural fields, not just music, yet there seems to be quite the opposite happening elsewhere. For example, photoshop has opened up vast new possibilities with say, photographic montage, and has by no means rigidified uses. His other suggested cause, that the internet has exposed everyone to the same influences doesn't hit home for me either, that would if anything, widen an individual's input stream.

I think it's more what's happened to popular music within our society. It's long been, as part of the teenager marketing phenomonen, a means to fame and fortune for the record companies and their insiders. The distinctive musical forms of the last century have largely happened outside the industry, later to be adopted by it. Think blues, hippy, punk or techno. It's an industry now on the defensive and at the same time youth culture has become consumerist and money_worshipping. The creativity's dead.

The revolution starts tomorrow: until then you're stuck with the back-catalogue.



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