Exploring issues of sustainability in the arts.
-by Scott Pinkmountain
Production Fatigue Part II: Risk and Relevance Vs. Auto-Tuning
A couple months ago I got to see the Pixies play for my first time. It was an outdoor show for a few hundred people – a relatively intimate concert for them. The set was a mix of old and new songs, all of which they played tightly. The sound at the venue was clear and balanced, the crowd was amped and singing along with the older tunes. There was even the occasional intimation of slam-dancing. I should have loved this show.
And yet, it kind of left me flat. It was so solid, so well-executed, so seamless, even the distorted feedback solos sounded clean and under control. The band was using expensive in-ear monitors, there were guitar techs and everyone was playing pricey gear. No one onstage moved more than a foot or two out of their designated spot. There was little-to-no banter or visible communication between band members. It felt safe.
This is what I would expect from the average “professional” touring band, but I guess I still thought of the Pixies as a punk band from the late-80s; as having an edge or an aura of danger or unpredictability. While I stood in that mostly tame crowd and listened to the band I realized that an element of risk was distinctly absent from the experience. All the variables had been predetermined, factored and controlled. The band didn’t reach for anything remotely challenging to them. Everything was executed according to plan without deviation.
What makes a live show memorable for me is if something happens that feels convincingly unique and specific to that night. That uniqueness can come in a thousand different forms, but it has to feel unscripted and authentic. It’s great if it’s rooted in the music; a song is tried out for the first time, an improvisation goes exceptionally well, the band takes requests directly from the audience all night, or some unexpected local guest appears for a once-in-a-lifetime collaboration. Hell, it’s even memorable and exciting if the band totally derails and wrecks. It’s probably not what anyone wants to happen, but you won’t forget it. You’ll have been present the infamous night of maybe their worst concert ever.
It can also be just as memorable if there’s some kind of extra-musical spontaneous element like if the band keeps asking the crowd for updates on the World Series game being played at that moment, or the guitar player is so caught up in dancing and playing that she falls off the stage and is caught by the crowd, or the bass player gets fired mid-set, or the banter and communication from the band feels sincere, in genuine dialogue and response to the actual moment.
At the same time that I was going to small punk shows in the late-80s where the chaos and risk were tangible both onstage and in the audience, I was also seeing the Grateful Dead. Those were big arena shows with extravagant production values and highly controlled conditions for the band. The musicians barely moved an inch and almost never spoke to the crowd. If Garcia (Who am I kidding? if Jerry) kicked out his foot a few inches during a solo, the crowd would go ballistic. But musically, there were a ton of variables left open; spontaneous decisions about tempo, intensity, set list, song length, endings, improvisation. Performance quality varied substantially, and on any given night there was the chance that they’d unearth a crowd favorite that had fallen decades out of circulation, unveil something new, or play the best show of the tour, maybe even their best show ever. It was unlikely, but it was possible because they had actively built risk-taking into their creative concept.
Without some kind of risk factor, a live performance can feel like it has been imported from elsewhere and super-imposed on the moment and location of the event. We, the audience, could be anybody anywhere and we’d get the same “experiential product.” Yes, the likelihood of being disappointed by a bad show decreases, but the specialness, the potential for that “I was there when…” magical memory disappears altogether.
I fear that this direction of excessively controlled production and diminished variability is where our culture in general is trending. There’s a generic, slick professionalism that feels pervasive and growing across the First World cultural spectrum. It’s easy to talk about in music because this development is so clear. In recent years, Pop music has become significantly more polished and mechanized, and its influence has filtered down into what used to be called Independent music.
As far as I can tell, what’s happening is that Pop music, through its near omnipresence (on the radio, on television, in shops and restaurants, at the dentist, on the phone when we’re put on hold) is training our ears. Just like easy access to cheap, fast food can train our palettes to expect or even crave high fat, high salt, huge flavor bursts delivered now, regardless of the fact that it’s low in nutritional value, bad for our bodies, destructive to the environment, and comes at the cost of unfair economic employment conditions, Pop music can train our ears and brains to expect and crave digitally standardized tempos, auto-tuned singing, variation-less instrumental and vocal performances, pyrotechnical execution in place of subtle human expression, generic lyrical content and Hallmark sentimentality.
Maybe you and I float above the effects of this mainstream cultural programming (maybe we don’t) but young people raised on the stuff have a much greater chance of hearing un-pitch-corrected vocals and thinking that the slight microtonal inflections which used to scan as emotion and expressivity now just sound weird. Or that human-played drums (with their natural variability and drift) sound out of time or just don’t feel “right” as compared to the click tracks and drum machines they’re used to. It’s my personal belief that rhythm and pulse in music evolved from observing and listening to the natural world – imprecisely repeated patterns like the human heartbeat, with its accelerations and decelerations, its constant variability, occupying the center of that rhythmic universe. What then, if because of training through ubiquitous Pop music, that heartbeat pulse sounds “wrong” or “bad” to the ears of future generations?
This is not the fault of young listeners, this is simply how the growing brain works. The only reason equal temperament (the Western musical 12-note scale) sounds “right” to us is because we’ve heard it since roughly the day we were born. It’s not “natural.” It doesn’t follow vibrational patterns found in the physical world like other tuning systems do. It was controversial when it was introduced and implemented as a standard. People were concerned that humanity and expressive capacity would be drained out of music. It used to be that musical keys each sounded differently – for instance, D Minor was notorious for being able to wrench the soul – but the appeal of convenience and reliable reproduction were too strong and now D Minor effectively sounds the same as D# Minor. Convenience won out then, and it’ll likely win out now.
Convenience is maybe going to viewed as the crux issue of our era; What were we willing to trade for convenience? Musical expressivity, a dynamic and highly variable creative culture, telephonic quality, sound and image quality, the joy of un-manipulated discovery, avoidance of advertisements, down time, personal data, privacy, Democracy, freedom (whatever the fuck that means)?
Maybe I’m overreaching here, maybe the Pixies just played an okay show and I should leave it at that. But as with so many things, art and artists are the signifiers of much greater cultural shifts. The term, “canaries in the coal mine” is getting batted around a lot in reference to artists and I tend to agree that you can look to what’s happening with a society’s cultural life and take the temperature of that society. So how do we interpret the canary who calls himself “Independent,” plays along to a click track, aspires to have his song licensed for commercial use, spends more time updating his Twitter feed than writing music and allows himself to be styled for a photo shoot?
Scott Pinkmountain is a writer and musician living in Pioneertown, CA. His writing has appeared on This American Life, in The Rumpus, A Public Space, HTMLGIANT, and other publications, and he hosts the Make/Work podcast for The Rumpus. He has also released dozens of albums of both instrumental music and songs. He works as a music analyst for Pandora Radio. He can be found at www.scottpinkmountain.com and @spinkmountain.