The Auditory Differential

[A repost of an entry from 2012, before I lost years of blog posts due to a internet “hiccough”. I hope to restore some of these over time.]

The arc of the history of pop music may be described as an inevitable convergence to homogeneity: songs tend to sound more and more the same. Not surprisingly, the ultimate force driving this trend is money. When a hit hits the charts, music companies and their producers naturally try to reproduce whatever has already succeeded. The same green fuse that generates copycat TV shows and endless movie sequels and Broadway revivals drives the heart of the music industry. If they bought that, they’ll surely buy this since it looks and sounds like that. Nothing breeds fear of the New as much as does success of the Old. That’s what happens when creativity becomes an industry.

So modern pop music all sounds the same. That statement reminds me of the same old complaint old curmudgeons have made for generations. I imagine my children would vehemently argue that I am simply too old and jaded to distinguish the nuances that differentiate modern pop music. But not so quick. I am not saying that all music today sounds the same. O, contraire. A plethora of relatively inexpensive digital devices now exist that allow 1000’s of artists to experiment with whatever musical notions their Muse has provided, creating top-quality recordings that can rival the best studio recordings of a few years ago. Furthermore, the Internet exists as a conduit allowing them to distribute their creations to anyone who wants to hear them, and have an immediacy of contact with fans and followers never dreamed possible by the album stars of yesteryear. This combination has made the eclectic a viable music alternative, and neither artists nor listeners are constrained by what a few old men at the major record labels think is “hot”. The world has never been as accommodating to such an incredibly rich smorgasbord of musical choices as it is today.

But pop music, radio music, Top 40 music, that’s a totally different proposition. There sameness is the rule. Distinguishing an artist or a style or lyrical notions is only possible at about the fifth decimal place. Success in the mass market is, contrasted to the situation in the Internet Free-For-All, more rigid and constrained than it’s ever been. The broad genres (Pop, Country, etc) are certainly different, but the individual offerings within any of the big phyla all blend together into a mushy swamp.

And it’s not just copycat producers creating this indistinguishable sea. Technology and recording techniques have all become increasingly refined and finally they’ve converged. And all these tools, used by all the producers, tend to produce sameness, so that the machines themselves begin to dictate the final result. Audio tracks are cleaned, adjusted, reharmonized, compressed and packaged into final mixes that have the instruments and voices all arranged perfectly. Smoothly. Evenly. Mechanically. The software has settings so that engineers can preselect almost any existing “sound” and obtain that instantaneously, tweaking perhaps to add a bit of nuance. And, yes, the emphasis is on existing sound.

It’s probably a natural human condition to imbue the music one heard during their teen, formative years with a special aura, a quality that makes those musical memories shine. The world was still unfolding then, hormones were chaotic, emotions were extreme, and all sensory impressions were deeper and somehow more “meaningful”. As the Animals sang, “When I was young it was more important/ Pain more painful and laughter much louder, yeah”. So naturally, I have heightened impressions of the music of the mid- to late-60’s. But even accounting for my rose-colored ears, it seems pretty clear to me that songs on the radio in that period covered a much wider range of styles and lyricism than they do now. Consider the aforementioned Animals. Contrast Eric Burdon to, say, Glen Campbell singing a Jimmy Webb lyric. Juxtaposed against any Beatles tune. Compared to the Jefferson Airplane. The Four Tops. Bob Dylan. Dusty Springfield. Simon & Garfunkel. The Supremes. Lou Christie. Donovan. The Righteous Brothers. Neil Diamond. Buffalo Springfield. The Beach Boys. And this only scratches the surface of the range of styles “popular” then. Yes, there was crap on the airwaves as well. “96 Tears” as well as pretty much anything by Bobby Goldsboro. But think about: even crap could get on the radio then. No, there was no Internet, and yes, there was only AM radio and your record player. But there was much less filtration going on. Even the music moguls were ready to try anything, because somewhere along the line, the Expectation Mold had broken, and no one really knew what “worked” anymore. So they tried anything. And everything.

I think that period was somewhat akin to the so-called Cambrian explosion, when there occurred on this planet a rapid diversity of species unlike anything that had happened before or since. What caused this wild pastiche of musical experiments? Maybe it was the drugs. Maybe it was the social upheaval that was the backdrop to the era. The blending of black and white music. The Vietnam War. The British Invasion. Whatever the causes, that decade still reverberates in our musical consciousness, and the musical possibilities seemed endless.

But uniformity wins in the end, at least on the large scale. In the mass market, you won’t go wrong if you expect sameness compounded by more sameness. Individually, however, there will always be nooks and crannies and hideaways where the eclectic and the special and the unusual and the idiosyncratic will thrive. Search them out. Listen for the odd musical or lyrical phrase that touches you, moves you, speaks to you. And claim it for your own ears.

© 2012 Chuck Puckett