2006 Year End Thoughts
Rise and Demise
ith every year that passes, we the people become more spoiled. There is a chance we also become smarter, more thoughtful, more charitable, better to our mothers. But it’s easiest to argue that the net-net is zero: while the Big Brother at the back of all our cultural sea changes—the Internet—tallies up wins on one side, the media of yesteryear are counting their losses, probably in a library or some such labyrinthine archive of dusty, yellowed stacks of paper. So the vessels of information are changing. The new forms are daunting to some, dispensable to others. But the omnipresent Internet has tricked us into thinking the end is nigh; that any number of Will Smith movies are actually going to happen. Vis à vis music, the end is about as close as that big, bright star in the sky is to dying. (Music stars, on the other hand…)
As John Pareles reminds us in his year-end New York Times piece, mp3 blogs and the like have arisen out of the Internet’s democratic platform, which lets us the people bust out the Freedom of Speech Act freely, or for a small monthly fee. Now, we’re heard by thousands more, and in more ways, than we used to be, pre-Internet: text, picture, podcast, song, video. We say what we want, when we want, how we want, to the degree that strangers know more about than our parents and friends do. We own so much music that someone with less than 10,000 songs in their iTunes library could be considered not actually a fan of the art form (or else poor and out of the loop). With a few of those precious clicks we can purchase (or lift) the entire repertoire of the Beatles without batting an eyelid. Thanks to YouTube, the digital darling of 2006, the human race has been personalized in 3-D, coveting a spotlight where blogs previously shuffled along with disjointed pictures, sounds and words.
The “look at me” factor is unquestionably a Western notion—psychological studies have proven Westerners to be the most independently minded individuals. In hypothetical threat situations, we select the welfare of ourselves over that of our loved ones far more often than Eastern cultures. Our focus is self-assuredness; Easterners focus on self-abnegation. This explains grossly solipsistic blogs and YouTube clips (a lot of which are engrossing to strangers, in spite of themselves). But it doesn’t quite explain the mestatizing mp3 blogs, which, solely or in packs, command the attention of the youngest earphoned generations in place of Rolling Stone.
But the obscure, diaristic blogs we anonymously, nosily peruse and bookmark, to the unbeknownst delight of their authors, have behind them the same philosophy, the same lure, as anything with the word ‘blog’ in it. They don’t alienate anyone, unless one doesn’t speak the language of the author. Read any major music publication, whether online or in paper form, and you are likely to feel a little dehors: on the outside, uninformed, ignorant, maybe even lost. This won’t stop you from reading, but it certainly hasn’t hurt the number of hits to ‘small publications,’ a.k.a. blogs. The traditional magazine format is highly structured from the inside out: it’s club-like, cliquey, specialized, stubborn, esoteric, sometimes close-minded. A blog can be any number of those things and still garner fans, because it abandons a ‘we’ in favor of an ‘I’—or a very small ‘we.’ Naturally, the more influence even the most indie (read: proletariat) publications wield, the less ‘by the people’ they appear to their audiences. A publication can lose favor by the same means as a politician.
Everyone loves an underdog, and the underdog in music criticism is the mp3 blog, often championing the rights of other underdogs: little-known musicians without money, labels, or producers. The shelf-life of an underdog, as these things go, is far shorter than a politician’s (see Arctic Monkeys). With information being transferred and transported at the lightning speed, it’s no wonder trends crumble, crash, burn, and double-back on themselves as fast as they do. The Internet makes us very greedy. The more it gives, the more we want—and we don’t just want songs, we want agency (a domain), influence (hits), and fame (links, comments, ad space, press)—payback simply for saying we thought something was cool. Credit for being charitable. A little stroke to the ego.
This year, a perpetual underdog of a politician cautioned us about our peculiarly American greed, and we were shown apocalyptic images (unrelated to neo-Christian flyers) in which our greed is said to result. Inconveniently. Is music––and culture, for that matter––headed in the same direction? (Or rather, as Pareles posed, Now what? The only thing we millions of ‘I’s are missing now are contracts with music conglomerates, be they the press or the labels. The missing ingredient in this joyous melting pot: cash.)
Are there dire consequences to our moody obsession with music and the criticism of it? Are there dire consequences apart from the quick rise and demise of many of our favorite musicians and music writers? Beside the seemingly innocuous litigation we’re threatened with for sharing songs with greater frequency than we share saliva? How is it going to end? Or, more accurately, how is technology going to evolve to accommodate us even more than it already has, allowing underdogs everywhere to feel welcome, tasteful, and important? Old movies about the 21st century have proven we’re not very good at predicting technology, but we, or the Orwells of the world, are good at predicting the human reaction to techno-evolution.
The Internet is going to keep fostering isolationism, in spite of its skill at “uniting” people with people (see AOL advertisements), and people with music. YouTube clips and submissions to Garageband.com and MySpace Music pages are just confirmations of the rise of ‘I.’ Frequently, these uploads are intensely private, and thus intensely ironic, forms of exhibitionism. Like the best art, they have the power to be both mundane and shocking, relatable and alien. The Internet has allowed us, then, to take more than the Constitution to its extreme connotation. “Art for art’s sake” has been rehashed as “Stuff for stuff’s sake”: You, dancing in your underwear to Gnarls Barkley; You, singing into your Powerbook about your cat; You, bragging to your friends on you.blogspot.com about the new Swedish band “you” “discovered” (via someonefaster.blogspot.com). Music, thanks to the Internet, is the world’s most contagious virus, the water of cultural resources—fought over, here and there, but absorbed in various forms by all and occurring naturally in our bodies. It’s mostly free, often cheap, and occasionally taxing. In the future we can be assured most of the music wars will be fought on the Internet—on message boards, comments threads, blogs, in emails, videos, blogs, and reusable, recyclable copies of rap and song. The compact disc will die, the mp3 will be reborn, but the music fan will live on, more empowered, more influential, and more forgettable than last week’s ‘it’ band.
Lest we forget, the fan, whether he is logged on, plugged in, writing, composing, or none of the above, is merely a vessel—a carrier. He carries the music, and the Internet merely assures him better means of passing it on. The blogosphere can fill up with opinions and streams until it overloads. But here’s a simple and happy ending to 2006: the music always wins.