Exploring issues of sustainability in the arts.
–by Scott Pinkmountain
Production Fatigue Part III
Embracing Non-Commercial Values
In the last couple of columns I’ve bemoaned the intensifying slickiness of our collective cultural landscape. To my eyes and ears, the heightened production values that filter from commercial advertising and entertainment through to independent arts are reducing the handmade element of the work and our capacity for authentic expression and thus meaningful communication. I’m aware that “authentic” is a contentious word. I use it here simply to reference work made with things other than commercial competition or social gain as its primary motivations.
It is impossible to separate out my ideological stance from my personal taste, as is usually the case. Store-bought electronics lazily dialed to factory-programmed, “out of the box” settings and beats are a direct performance of unexamined, passive consumerism. Replication of short attention span, info-snack, click-baiting in literature or visual art further perpetuates our collectively compromised intellectual processes. Re-enactment of high-gloss, surface-centric celebrity idolation among subculturally-identified individuals, even in ironic form, embodies the values of objectifying patriarchy. I am ideologically opposed to passive consumerism, compromised intellectual processes and objectifying patriarchy, so when I encounter these things in any form (political, social, musical, literary, in my own work), I think they suck.
I’d love to see a widespread rejection of the polished, streamlined, middle of the road, highly-produced aesthetic among independent artists. I also think it’s our responsibility to reject these values. When we attempt to make a statement in the public forum, even if we consider it entertainment, we’re engaging in the manufacturing of the political and social paradigm. We either present a view in concordance and acceptance of dominant values or we resist them through the representation of alternate values. Fortunately for us, it’s easy to be revolutionaries in the context of our Capitalist (waning) Democracy. Any presence of motivations unrelated to commercial gain and you’re verging on being viewed as an enemy of the state.
But rationalization aside, I just miss scraggle. I hear an album by some little rock band out of Michigan and it’s “flawless,” sounding as though all of the human divergence (aka “personality”) has been hoovered out. I read some of the big literary novels of the year and they feel like HBO dramas; whipsmart, tightly-paced, digression-free, all philosophic existentialism ironicized and dismissed, trial-tested percentages of quirk, narrative engine, dramatic torque and sex injected in time-released doses. Some poetry is trending toward stand-up comedy, which is trending toward Twitter smart-ass quippage, which is trending toward comment-post self-righteous homily and/or troll hate-spume. The homily trend culminates at “Tuesdays With Morrie” via Oprah and the hate-spume leads to bad pornography, but of which are cultural, moral and spirutual dead ends.
I miss hearing mistakes. They serve the critical functions of mirroring actual existence, acquainting us with humility and binding us in our shared mortality. I harbor the theory that the reason Bob Dylan made the below-average Self Portrait, sandwiched between the masterpieces of Nashville Skyline and New Morning, was as a gift to his listeners. He was saying, “As thee are mere flawed mortals, so too am I.”
I miss the no-net high dive that should be a pre-requisite of merit for any creative endeavor. I am trying to actively re-incorporate it into my work, because it’s been so easy to be swayed by the attainable “perfection” hardwired as standard options on our all-in-one technological “solutions.” The long-term conforming and sterilizing effects of grammar-checking and auto-correcting software that is more trouble to disrupt and retrain than simply accept, has yet to be fully understood. The acceptably mediocre results of drag and drop convenience and (often commercially-driven) predictive search yield offerings could have a broad and deeply penetrating ripple effect on the designs and cognitive patterns of future generations. When we’re using these technologies, it can sometimes be harder to resist some for-profit company’s definition of “correctness” (as determined by computer programmers in conversation with corporate executives, board members and stock price fluxuations, not philosophers, artists, scientists, sociologists) than it is to submit.
I notice it most in the digital recording process, which has come to feel narrowing in its infinite promise. The limitless tracks, the (illusion of ) full-spectrum reproduction, the linear visualization of sound and the risk-free non-destructive editing are having standardizing effects on music even without squishing things into the pre-fit boxes of quantifying tools or auto-tuning. These digital technologies foster a situation where we go ahead and put things into little boxes on our own simply because we can. Every guitar solo has the potential to reach its ideal guitar-solo Ur-state, and so every fucking guitar solo does. Same for every high vocal note, bass thump and snare crack. So even if the results technically “sound” varied, they’re all allegiant to the same ideological DNA.
There’s a fantastic essay called, Shitty is Pretty by Gabriel Roth, the founder of Daptone Records. The essay pretty much says what you think it will say, but Roth has the reputation and outstanding discography of his label to back up his argument; that by allowing what feels good to be your guiding light, scrappy, fucked up, accident-riddled fun will win out over “correctness” any day.
A producer, an engineer and I were working together on an album I made a few years back. We tried to implement what we could from Roth’s article. It forced us into some uncomfortable and risky situations that we might have easily avoided with technology available to us. But I was happier with the results of that album than I’ve been with any project in a long time, precisely because of the edge and live intensity those “shittier” techniques captured. For my next album, I chose to record by myself, at home on cassette four-track using only two inexpensive microphones, even though I own much “better” gear. I’ve become so divested from the “commercial” value of the work I make that I decided to exclusively give away that album. It just felt better that way.
More recently, I played a show for a podcast. It was a live performance for a small audience which the producers of the podcast then edit and prepare for digital release. It was me with two horn players. We all made some pretty obvious mistakes in the performance, but the energy was great and the people in the room were tangibly attentive and responded well. It felt good even though it wasn’t “correct.” So we hit some clams that would probably be a lot more noticeable on the recording without the distracting, engaging presence of live performers. I used to get upset about this kind of thing. We should have been tighter. I should have rehearsed the horns more. But now I just feel like we transmitted good energy and the live audience received it well.
As the audience was filing out, the producer of the show politely asked if we’d like to re-take anything. He heard the clammed notes and was generously offering me a do-over. I maybe could have coerced my horn section to give up even more of their Friday night than they already had, shame them into tightening up their parts and gotten a better, though faked, “live” performance. That didn’t feel “correct” to me.
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.