Taste Makers and the Soul of Rock N Roll: Parsing the Ether


Taste Makers and the Soul of Rock N Roll: Parsing the Ether

Does Rock n Roll exist anymore? Probably not in the way it was once conceptualized by the masses. Here is why. From my previous post
I expounded liberally on the useless distinction for Indie Rock and really most of the sub genres now I will school you on what has happened, like you don’t already know, which I am sure you do.
We have to go all the way back to 1950 something. Elvis, Carl Perkins, and Johnny Cash were recording rockabilly history at Sun studio in Memphis, Ray Charles was making awesomeness at Atlantic in New York, and Muddy Waters and Howling Wolf were blazing blues standards at Chess in Chicago. Tons of others were also doing the same in their own way. They were feeding the information pipeline of the day: the record store and the radio and then television to some extent and the trade print that their art received. That was just about the whole shooting match. But guaranteed elsewhere there were people all over the place making music in bars, restaurants, garages, basements, street corners, swap meets, basements, and solitary rooms which will never be heard again. Was most of it passable? This depends on the context of the listener and its maker. If the goal was to bring joy and joy was brought then most assuredly it passed muster. Was it worthy of archiving? Most likely it was not. Sure Jimmy Dale sitting in his bedroom off of Union Ave. in Memphis, a few blocks from Sun, probably thought he did a mean Blue Moon of Kentucky but it was probably not worth the tape it would have taken to record it. (Jimmy Dale is a totally made up character but I would bet good money that someone similar, or hundreds of someone similar, abounded.)This leads to the next point.
Fast forward or skip scenes to now. The Jimmy Dale of 2012 has not only the ability to record his Blue Moon of Kentucky, but on better equipment than Sam Phillips ever thought about or dreamt. Sir George Martin would have killed to have recorded the Beatles on this type of technology which can be had for a few hundred bucks. Not only that but the Jimmy Dale can pump his Blue Moon of Kentucky out to the entire planet, forget the local Poplar Tunes record store or Wal-Mart but the ENTIRE PLANET! Someone in Bahrain can get online and hear him, seconds after he hits the enter button on his keyboard. What does this give us? A world cluttered with music which, most of the time, no one really wants to hear. Why? Because it is unoriginal, or not well performed, or boring, or stale, or all the above and just hard to listen to and no one has the ability to start cutting through layer after layer or shovel dirt pan after dirt pan to reach the gems. Why? There is too much digging involved. We don’t have all day to dig and after a bit of it you just become frustrated and go back to listening to the things you used to or the bands new tracks that you already know about and hope at some point something will cross your fancy.
We have entered a conundrum which is so meaty. When the audience first got all access, via Napster and other P2P, they really did not search out new bands as much as steal from the ones they already loved or knew about. The new ones they checked out they were learning about from the traditional routes they always had. At the same time digital recording was really coming into its own and more and more people were flooding the internet with music and anyone that studied on it long enough could figure out how to get their music on all the .mp3 sites. All of sudden there was bombastic overload and the lingering question of “what to do about it?”
This only became a preponderating situation once people could stream music and basically flood the entire internet with their own masterpieces. Music is literally everywhere out there. Good, bad, mediocre, middling, and some absolutely fantastic. But where does that leave the normal passive listener?
People on one hand were clamoring “we want our freedom to listen to all the music we can and don’t you try to stop us” and others “hey I do not know what to listen to because there is too much to listen to.” This is where the record company suits should be provided a time machine, be allowed to go back, exit the time machine, find themselves and kick themselves for being so stupid and not jumping on this in some way, because they really did nothing proactive, on a large-scale, that I can see. Because whether the average Joe wants to admit it or not he wants people to tell him what to like, at least the generations brought up on bland radio and record stores. The record companies did provide a filter they were the last one. After an artist had made it through some touring, put out some things, worked through all the agents, club owners, and manager types and still had enough left in the proverbial bank to cut it the label would release something and most of the time it was passable if not downright great. They took chances on people who need chances taken on them and many of our musical tastes are much better for it. They are no longer serving in that capacity because the big timers are after the big buck and the smaller labels who used to take more chances cannot afford it or are not even in existence any longer.
Enter the taste maker. A taste maker is similar to a music critic but then again they serve the role, in a way, record companies used to serve. Apparently when these cats heard or read the quote “everyone’s a critic” they took it to heart and did something about it. They are parsing the ether to pull out the gems for you. Many people like this because, frankly, they like to be told what is cool because they want to seem cool themselves, they do not have time, they want to out hip their friends, or they simply trust the guidance of the taste maker and go with it because they just want to hear some rocking music prêt-à-porter.
A caveat to all my friends who are critics: you are still critics and I am not belittling your trade in the slightest, especially if you have been a critic of music for over 10 years. Critics have always been taste makers. But due to the large volume of music out there people are screaming to give them guidance and there is really a demand because supply side is through the roof. They want the freedom of mass content but do not have the ability, time, or patience to do the parsing themselves. Kind of like a kid given free rein at a toy store for 30 minutes, where to start?
The taste maker websites will continue to thrive and people will latch on to them, no matter how cool they think they are, because they are incapable of choosing their own music, even the hipsters who were not smart enough to start their own taste making website. The ones that did have to turn in your hipster badge because you are part of the machine! (I Kidding)

These are strange and intense times. It almost seems the very soul of Rock N Roll and music for that matter depends on this. It was just that no one knew it was so big.

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Mr. Oyola responds on my bit on Auto-Tune


I guess you are shooting some BB’s into the boxcars when you critique another writer’s blog but to get the author of a particular blog to respond well that says something and I commend Mr. Oyola for responding:

“Hey! Thanks for the link. Just to clarify, “Sounding Out!” is not *my* blog, but just a blog on which I am a regular contributor – there are a diverse number of both regular contributors and guest bloggers who write on a variety of subjects relating to sound to I encourage you to come back and see what other people have to say.

I think its great you took the time to respond to my post at length, but I think where your response falters is in its assumptions about my experience with music both as a listener and practitioner. I guess I could try to counter your characterization of my musical knowledge, but there doesn’t seem to be much point – it would be my word against yours, and maybe what I have experienced and heard and done would not measure up to your standards. And yet it is exactly those standards, or rather how the supposedly commonly held standards of musicality and authenticity are constructed that interests me when I write about topics like autotune or “soul” (you should check out my post from November of last year on the latter subject). The problem with the idea of authenticity is that it seeks to cut itself free from the historically contingent social contexts in which particular notions of how to measure or identify authenticity are based. The multiplicitous and often contradictory ways that authenticity is defined speaks to its positional nature – in other words, “authentic” depends a great deal upon where you are standing and from which direction you are looking and the information at your disposal. For example, at one time Alan Lomax traveled around with Leadbelly, displaying him as an example of “authentic negro music” – Now I like Leadbelly just fine, but at the time the musical establishment wanted to define the authenticity of black music based on its notions of primitivism, ignoring the fact that Black Americans were making a great deal of complex music at the same time that this was happening. And yet to this day, people still think of Leadbelly in the way the narrative of his experience was recorded by Lomax.

Anyway, this has already gone on longer than I wanted, but you get the idea. . . Thanks for listening.”

And thank you Mr. Oyola.
And I am glad you chose to use Alan Lomax as an example or rather you meant to say his father John Lomax. John Lomax is more to credit for the “displaying” of Huddie Ledbetter, though the 18 year old Alan did play a part in the original recordings. It was the intervention of John Lomax that set the stage for Leadbelly to rise, eventually, into an independent performer and noted contributor to the American Song. The myth that Lomax “traveled around” with him for a long period of time is one many fall into and to understand that time period of American music is a deceptive task at best. But Leadbelly was one of many artists heralded as “authentic.” You have to remember that “race records” were a separate genre altogether. You also have to consider the artists that predate Leadbelly (Tommy Johnson, Sleepy Johns Estes, and Blind Lemon Jefferson.) These are only three out of many who were very active before Leadbelly. And if you have ever listened to the intricacies of Tommy Johnson’s guitar work you know that others were well aware of the depth of African American music or they would not have taken the time to record them, sound recording being an arduous task in John Lomax’s time, and even more so in the years before when these other artists were recorded.
One man’s authenticity perhaps may be another man’s “pat hand.” But citing Leadybelly, or any artists from that time period only proves my point against the overuse of Auto-Tune. Their performances were being captured by equipment that was archaic by our standards today and yet the music, the artist’s authenticity, stands the test of time. If this was not the case we would be listening to the other thousands of artists recorded in the same time period. Art, or rather great art, is sticky.
I become confused by assertions like yours about Auto-Tune when genuine music is made light of and authenticity questioned. I do not argue that it does not have its place. But an effect only goes so far.

William Shakespeare wrote a bunch of words, I think we can agree on this. Others wrote many other words in the same time frame, Christopher Marlowe for example. Why do his stand the test of time? Because of their authentic, intrinsic beauty. We still listen to Robert Johnson, Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, Elvis, Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday, and many, many others because they “authentically” contributed to the American Song before we knew what even a digital signal was or what binary code could actually do. These were humans reflecting the human spirit within us or at least doing a great job faking it with the aid of very limited technology. In the end, as always, it was the art that shown through and still does so.

Thank you for taking the time for an open exchange of ideas. This is how we get somewhere. By all means!