The Pop Bubble: Music News Is Now Tech News
In a famous review, Times music critic William Mann analyzed Sgt. Pepper’s using terms from classical music: “the tune of the song is recognizably mixolydian” and so forth. This was a sign of pop’s growing respectability, but it was also a sign of how the existing musical establishment didn’t really get what the Beatles were trying to do. Still, the guard gradually changed, and “music review” came to mean “pop review” as much as anything else. Now, though, another shift seems to be taking place. As music reviews die out but the music business remains a somewhat vital force, the most significant reporting on pop seems to be taking place under the heading of technology. And that’s a problem.
Take, for example, a recent CNN story about “the ever changing world of music sharing.” As technology reporting, it’s fine enough, telling us about a number of new services that allow people to share their listening habits. There’s a nod to the dubious legality of some of these, but the story is absent of any particular mention of the actual music being shared, although it does have a confusing High Fidelity reference.
Again, as technology reporting, this is fine. But as music reporting, it’s horrible. The services and devices are described as equally exciting without discussing their durability, sound quality, or userbase. One of the services in the article, known as Jook, is essentially worthless unless a lot of people buy and use it, as it’s a way for a user to physically share music tastes via broadcasting playlists; unless there are other Jook users around, the end effect is not unlike wearing a Laser Tag target while walking down a street, hoping for a game to break out spontaneously.
More than anything else, though, articles like these represent an absolute abdication of the responsibility to educate the public about new art. That High Fidelity ref is the reporter’s way of telling us that people don’t discover music “from a music nerd behind a counter”—or, implicitly, from a critic in a newspaper. They discover it, instead, through the devices that our intrepid technology reporter is introducing us to.
It’s true that CD sales are down so much that only a handful of releases can be discussed by a mainstream publication without fear of alienating the mass audience; any other music deemed worthy of a story is going to have to have some sort of “angle” attached to it. But the angle seems to have moved beyond music itself, and on to Web sites. And the funny thing is that there’s no reason to think that any of these services (save Twitter) will have a bigger reach than any major indie album or mid-level country, rap, or metal album.
The move to digital music was inevitable, and yeah, the music industry was unprepared for it. But, again, in our eagerness to embrace the brave new world, we become a little blind to its flaws. The universal jukebox is great, but when we focus on the jukebox, we start to ignore what’s actually inside it. Trust me on this: you do eventually get tired of listening to all the music that already exists, and you need more. For music to move from art form to fungible “content” entails a fundamental shift in its nature, making it less like Bach and more like porn: an endless stream of minor variations designed to fulfill a desire that no one talks about too much.