How We Listen
From the very beginning, I wanted to avoid Miley Cyrus and her twerking stunt. I promise. Why validate her antics with any more attention? Yet she has so effectively invaded my news feed that I’d like to pause and consider this moment in pop culture. When a performer can twerk at the MTV Video Music Awards and garner top news coverage, we ought to accept that something is broken. Pop music is, for the most part, dead. Random movie cameos, hosting Saturday Night Live, singing with Jimmy Fallon, unfortunate Twitter pics of a skimpy Halloween costume, and then the recent appearance at the MTV Europe Music Awards where she twerked with a dwarf and then lit a joint when accepting her award—these things should inspire us to go home and listen to music, and bask in its warm glow. We can thank her for that.
Miley Cyrus’s initial burlesque routine is something of a scandal, yet the more revealing tragedy is that so much of our culture is more interested in these shenanigans than in music. This is what makes me cranky: Miley may be talented but apparently not talented enough. She has captured our attention not by the quality of her music but by successfully promoting herself as a commercial good. She’s Hannah Montana gone wild, marketing her coming-of-age in the public eye by throwing her emerging sexuality at us. The twerk is the signature of her particular brand, distinguishing her from the likes of Rihanna, Katy Perry, and Ke$ha. Like Pepsi and Coke and their respective beverage lines, each of these performers is a slightly different combination of the same ingredients. Soda comes in various flavors of carbonated sugar-water, but 99 percent of it is just sugar. Likewise, these pop performers come in various flavors of aggressive sexuality but are really just a kind of sugary, unsatisfying ear candy.
While Lady Gaga is calculated, Miley comes off as desperate. Yet Miley is only doing what she was groomed to do. No doubt she has studied Lady Gaga and Madonna, but she learned more from her father’s 1991 hit “Achy Breaky Heart.” Both father and daughter have capitalized on a trendy dance move to make their mark. Her twerking was his line dancing. So this is the family entertainment business, not the family music business.
The trouble is not with entertainment itself. Entertainment merely holds our attention. The question is what kind of entertainment is holding our attention and does it deserve our attention. Here it gets personal, and it should get very personal, because the quality of our private tastes says something about how we value our own selves. Substantial pieces of music and art not only hold our attention, they call our attention back again and again. They form an enduring relationship with us. This is a precious and vitally human exchange. In comparison, empty pop music and culture are disposable. There is a reason why we still listen to the Beach Boy’s Pet Sounds, and there is a reason why we won’t be listening to Miley’s Bangerz in fifty years.
So what is it that makes music endure? What is the music that deserves our attention? Why do we continue to return to certain albums throughout our lives and forget others? I have been trying to answer this question for and with my students for several years. At the risk of being pretentious, I have played the role of the older brother or quirky uncle as I point them toward certain artists and bands. Each of my graduates leaves with a personalized, required-listening CD with a mix of songs that I hope they will enjoy and also be stretched by. It is my last chance to sabotage their listening tastes, and it is a final way for me to share something significant with them. If I am not sharing with them the commercialized pop songs of the radio—Thom York of Radiohead calls it “refrigerator buzz”—then what?
An easy way to subvert the hype of the Miley Cyruses on the radio is to listen to music that is made in a radically different way. If today’s pop music is an empty commercial form, its antithesis is something confessional, personal, and gloriously human. What place is more gloriously human than our homes? So it makes sense that the home could be a good place to make music. The cost of recording equipment has decreased substantially in the last decade. The result is a boom in a new kind of folk music, if we think of folk music essentially as being homespun. It might not be a backporch version of the mouth harp or the washboard, but the bedroom or basement home studio brings the playing of instruments into the neighborhood again.
A classic record like Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska demonstrates how magic can be made with the crude, less-is-more, production tools and techniques of home recording. In the early 1980s Springsteen purchased a cheap, four-track Tascam cassette recorder and two Shure SM57 microphones to make demos for his next release. Many of those songs were re-recorded in a proper studio with the E Street Band and became Springsteen’s landmark album, Born in the USA. The quieter and darker songs were intended for a solo project. During sessions in a professional studio, Springsteen kept reaching for his original cassette, repeating that he wanted it to sound just like the demo. The decision was finally made to release the original home recordings because they voiced a more haunting and broken sound that best fit the songs.
The counterintuitive idea is that low-fi does not necessarily make bad music. High fidelity recordings, especially of the last few decades, can end up sounding hygienic and boring. As profit margins reduce music to the lowest common denominator, record companies deliberately choose a predictable, homogenous sound that will not threaten sales. Yet music is precious and vital precisely because it is unpredictable and sometimes even volatile. Music suffers when it is constrained in a plastic, commercialized package. Nebraska’s raw sound is the sound of emotional immediacy. It is the intimate soulscape of Springsteen sitting in a living room groaning out one last tune before calling it a night and heading to bed. Nebraska contains a depth of the human experience that needs to be expressed in the simple and dirty format of a cassette tape.
Because of records like Nebraska, a mythological romance with cassette tapes and vintage prosumer-grade machines has developed. While it was risky for an established artist like Springsteen to release a scratchy home recording, many artists have based their entire musical enterprise on home recorded sound. Divergent movements of lo-fi rock, emo, post-rock, post-punk, and experimental have formed around these machines. Elliott Smith made little sketches on a cassette recorder that ended up on the sound track of a major motion picture, 1997’s Good Will Hunting. He started experimenting with the four-track in high school and discovered what would happen if he double tracked his voice and layered on his own harmonies. When pop radio artists layer their vocals, the tracks are engineered to digitally edited perfection to form a singular, larger-than-life radio voice. For Elliott Smith, the method was an imprecise smattering of his voice that is fragmented and yet somehow transformed into a larger musical whole. The grit and messiness is so essential to his records, it is hard to imagine how he could have become the same artist if his first three records had not been made on cassette.
Along with my homage to cassette recorders, it is important to note that many artists are using the digital technology of computer recording in ways that also represent a relatively lo-fi aesthetic. You can hear the hum of the computer fan buzzing in Sam Beam’s early Iron & Wine recording, The Creek Drank the Cradle. In Bon Iver’s Emma Forever Ago, you can hear the hiss of cheap microphones and the double tracking of out-of-tune guitars. The point is not to elevate low-fi. The point is to challenge the plastic sound of radio pop in order to re-discover creativity. Lo-fi garage bands can quickly become derivative of themselves. Even Guided By Voices, the post-punk patriarchs of lo-fi, eventually decided to make more sonically defined records. Again, the hope is that artists who are not constrained by the production standards of commercialized radio will explore more interesting possibilities for their music.
Whether analog or digital, in home recordings we hear lots of “mistakes”: fingers squeaking on guitar fret boards, footsteps, breathing and sighs, sirens passing by, and dogs barking outside. Some of these mistakes are musical—missed beats from the percussion, an early entrance from an anxious vocal, a dynamic irregularity in the bass guitar line. All these blemishes make up imperfect recordings that remind us that music is made for humans by humans.
Home recording especially favors the worlds of electronic and ambient experimental music, especially where the sound is intentionally non-literal and dream-like. The Scotland-based band Boards of Canada, a personal favorite, describe their studio in the countryside as “not big” but “full of gear.” In a 1998 interview, they explained that the advantage of having their own studio was being able to “live for our music.” Their distinct warm and emotive sound emerges through extensive experimentation. They start by creating their own instruments and sounds by sampling their performances on traditional instruments and then processing each sound. Sounds might be processed by recording onto a VHS tape, running a sound through a broken speaker or through samplers and synthesizers and back to digital. These sounds become percussive and melodic loops that make up lush, expansive soundscapes. Since they began in the late 1990s, the brothers have amassed thousands of tracks. They cull through the tracks to find the best ones that make up each record. Their latest album Tomorrow’s Harvest (2013) was made over the span of seven years.
Kieran Hebden, aka Four Tet, began by using the primitive sound capabilities of early personal computers to sample instruments from his vast and ever expanding record collection to make his distinctive house music. He drew from sources as diverse as Miles Davis, James Brown, and Fela Kuti, but Hebden realized that he kept sampling records on which jazz drummer Steve Reid played. Hebden eventually met Reid and they later collaborated on three records and toured extensively. Their shared music is all about improvisation; they debunk the idea that electronic musicians must be isolated and confined to their sequencers. At the same time, many electronic artists are best described as “laptop musicians.” They create surprisingly dynamic and earthy sounds by taking advantage of the ever-expanding development of music software, digital emulations of vintage equipment, as well as forward-thinking, sound-shaping tools.
While the music industry is caving in on itself, there is a flourishing of independent music to which we now have unprecedented access. Computers and the Internet opened the floodgates of illegal downloading, but this technology also has provided us with something of a music renaissance. The push-back against independent music is that it is elitist and dreadfully hipster. This is a fair concern. If we chose a band only because it is the latest thing, then we are participating in the same kind of faddism that pervades the Top 40 list. Independent music can also be worn merely as a fashion, a trendy scene. The question is how we are entertained, how well we are listening. Is our listening a substantial or precarious investment? Music should call us back to pay attention again and again and again. Anything less is just candy.
Joshua Banner is Minister of Art and Music at Hope College, Holland, Michigan, and is a contributor to For the Beauty of the Church: Casting a Vision for the Arts (Baker Books, 2010).