I spend a lot of time driving my not-quite-16-year-old son around, and I hate it. It’s not the time spent in the car; it’s the fact that he insists on playing his choice of music while we drive. I’ve been trying to figure out why this sets my teeth on edge, and a talk radio station in Boston summed it up for me today: Technology has ruined music.
Before you start blasting me with comments, I don’t mean the technology that allows us to buy one song at a time, download it to a portable device, and play it anywhere we want. That technology I love. The technology I hate is the stuff that allows a way-below-average singer to sound like Sinatra; sound effects (like a vinyl record being scratched by a stylus); an incessantly repetitive beat; and a million other electro-mixing and -editing technologies that I can’t even explain.
Here’s what set off the discussion: It seems as though today’s teenagers are downloading classic rock at an unusually high rate. Why? The radio audience figures classic pop music is simply better because of all the work and sweat that went in to it. Not only did bands and singers have to come together and collaborate hundreds of times, but music was test-driven in front of live audiences over and over again. Lead singers had to belt out songs from a stage, minus the editing and sound studio. You didn’t hear much about lip-syncing before the 1990s. (Milli Vanilli being the exception, of course.)
I also think the excesses we see on stage now are designed to draw attention away from the fact that many current artists have marginal talent. Yes, my generation had guitar-smashing, animal torture, pyrotechnics, gold parachute pants, and really, really bad hair. But it’s interesting to note that Adele — easily one of the greatest voices of our day — does nothing on stage but sing and sells out every show. As much as I like what Lady Gaga stands for, I can’t even sit through one of her videos.
I have tried to understand and appreciate my son’s choice in music, but repetitive, lightning-fast lyrics, electronically created rhythms and sounds, continual rebranding (Snoop Lion — are you kidding me?), and other shtick just don’t do it for me. And this isn’t limited to hip-hop: Most 'tween pop stars have the same limitations. You start with “the look” and then backfill with music. (I know this isn’t unprecedented — hello, Osmond Brothers — but still… Britney Spears?)
But I guess you can’t have it both ways. Digital music has enabled Napster and iTunes the same way it has enabled some person that dresses like a crazed mouse. The biggest upside, I guess, is that you can still turn the radio off, and you don’t have to buy an entire album for one song. The biggest downside is, the alchemy that brought The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and The Who together just doesn’t happen that much anymore. Nowadays, if your drummer dies, you can always replace him with a computer. (Thank you, Spinal Tap.)