Thursday, December 20, 2012

Why We Need Political Music

This may be a tad embarrassing, but after thinking doing some additional thinking, I have decided to issue a retraction of my recent post titled "No More Political Music."

(Retracting a post is a first for this blog. For the sake of contrast, I have left the post up, but I have deleted some parts I really didn't like).

That is not to say I will start writing much political music anytime soon, but in order to give a reason for this changed, I had spoken too broadly.  In reality, I do not need any grand philosophical reason, other than that just I feel like focusing on other kinds of music for the time being.  After doing some thinking, I decided the previous post is based on a faulty premise.  If we draw too bright a line between politics and the emotions that go into them, we risk losing perspective and compassion.  Here is an excerpt from the post in question:
So why no more political music?  It is because music is a vehicle for emotion, and politics should not be about emotion.  As a lawyer, I believe victories should be won on argument, not emotion.  If you take a position, be prepared to argue it, otherwise, you have no right to hold it.  It is not enough for something to feel right.  It is better to be able to say why something is right when all the noise and all the emotion is stripped away.
But of course, this is nonsense.  It is impossible to separate politics and emotions. This is because our emotions, and not just our arguments, inform our sense of justice.  It is sometimes too easy to shut down into apathy.  Caring is hard work.  I still believe it is important to ready every side to every story, and give every contrarian his or her fair hearing, but at some point we we run the risk of becoming too neutral.  We cannot stand by as passive observers while the world takes on important problems.  Political issues are real and they affect people's lives, and therefore political discussions must take the human element into account.  Our national conversation is not simply "an intellectual feast" (a phrase used by the late Judge Bork) or just one grand thought experiment.  It is instead an application of our values to the very serious problems that face us.  Because politics itself is a discussion about humanity, then music is fully equipped to handle it.

Admittedly, I have been a little bit discouraged by the political conversation in this country.  Even when "my side" wins, I still fee a nagging sense of frustration with the dialogue.  Just because emotion and politics do intersect, that does not mean it is impossible to have an over-saturation of emotion.  One need look no further than cable news to see a saturation of opinion with no basis in fact, and an abundance of those who make the case for fear instead of justice.  Listeners no longer need to be challenged because they now have the power to seek out whatever media is in line with their pre-formed opinions.  It is no longer considered virtuous to seek out opposing views.

This has spilled over into our government.  Partisanship is at a peak, and the dysfunction of our media is mirrored in our elected representatives.  But look one step further.  Our representatives may fail us, but we have also failed them. We the people have failed to get the government we want because we have failed to listen to each other.  We all need to turn off cable news.  Go read a book, or a newspaper, or the blog of a person you disagree with.  This is the only way our national conversation will become healthy again.  Become informed.  There is a place for logic and reason, however cold and dispassionate it may seem.

However, there is also a place for action.  Against the backdrop of today's noisy media, I do feel overwhelmed. Apathy always starts with a claim of "I don't know" which usually turns into "I cannot know."  The noisy partisans who think they are geniuses may be driving us down, but so are all those who would like to form reasoned opinions, but don't put in the effort.

And today's circumstances require more than the apathy we give them.  Our education system is nowhere close to equal.  We are still killing civilians with drone attacks.  We don't have equality in LGBT rights.  We are nowhere near to solving climate change.  Hopefully the rational arguments for justice can get us where we need to go.  But to say that human emotions play no part is ridiculous because these are human problems.  Everyone deserves the joys many of us take for granted. 

And music is perhaps better than anything at speaking to adversity.  If adversity is political, so be it, but you cannot take emotion and detach if from the search for justice.  Otherwise, we make ourselves heartless.  So I was clearly incorrect when I suggested that music and politics cannot mingle.  Who am I to say that the victims of oppression should not voice to that through their music?  What kind of hypocrisy would I preach if I were to say that expression is great, except when you're expressing thoughts about things that actually matter?

And now I'm done writing about politics (for now).

Saturday, December 15, 2012

The Lost Art of Album Art

A couple years ago I was in a used clothing store, and I was happy to find a bin of old vinyl records for $0.50 each. I did not have a record player (and still don't, unfortunately), but I thought my good friend (and co-founder of People of the Future) Andrew would like them, so I picked up a few.  One of the albums in the box was Stand Up by Jethro Tull.  Stand Up was an album I had enjoyed for several years prior, but I only possessed it in digital form.  When I opened up the record I found something I did not expect:

Ok, maybe it's not that cool (it was 1969, after all), but it felt odd that I had liked the album for a while, and had been missing out on part of the experience the entire time. That's not to say that a paper pop-out of the band "standing up" is essential to enjoying the album, but I do enjoy little quirks.

It does raise a larger question about album art in general, and how important it is (or should be) to us as listeners.  Album art, is of course, is a natural and foreseeable product of the record industry.  If you need to put a record in a piece of cardboard, you might as well make it look pretty.  Musicians really went to town with this, and in some cases the artwork is just as iconic as the actual music contained on the record.

King Crimson's In the Court of the Crimson King comes to mind:

Not only does the album cover get your attention, but most people would agree when they hear the opening riff of "21st Century Schizoid Man" that the cover pretty accurately describes the character of the music.

I personally enjoy album art that relates to the music in some profound way. Consider Pink Floyd's Wish You Were Here.  The two themes of the album were 1) the experience of losing someone to mental illness, and 2) the band's criticisms of the music industry.  These two themes intersected in the story of Syd Barrett, and the album's cover powerfully conveys the message of the music:

One can also take a different approach, and choose a cover that deliberately has nothing to do with the music.  This was the process behind Pink Floyd's Atom Heart Mother where graphic designer Storm Thorgerson was reportedly instructed to take a photograph of whatever he wanted, which ended up being a cow in a pasture:

It is my feeling that album covers featuring pictures of the artists are not as memorable, but of course, there are notable exceptions:

Well, this has certainly been fun reminiscing about the late 60s and early 70s, but now what?  I believe that in 10 to 15 years discs will largely disappear, and so what does that mean for the future of album art?  In the iTunes/Amazon MP3 age albums still have a picture associated with them, but you need to put on your reading glasses to make it out.  One could have the greatest album cover ever, and most people will only see it displayed as a 1 inch by 1 inch display on their ipods.  It's discouraging.

There are, of course, many good reasons to get rid of discs.  For one, they are terribly inefficient.  I consider myself an environmentalist, and to me it makes no sense to create plastic discs and ship them across the world when we could transmit the same information digitally. I do not have any hard numbers on this, but it stands to reason there would be considerable savings by replacing discs altogether, and markets will inevitably want to do things as cheaply as possible.  Radiohead reportedly considered releasing their album In Rainbows in a digital-only format, but ultimately rejected this idea over concerns that not all fans would have access to the material. I personally think this will become less of an issue as internet access for the general population improves, but it is definitely something to think about for the time being. Ironically, Radiohead, as far as modern bands go, tends to be quite focused on album art.  One wonders how they will react to a future that is based upon digital-only releases.

Some have noticed that MP3 files do technically have a lower quality than compact discs.  This is certainly true, but one wonders if the general public really cares that much.  I consider myself to an audio person for the most part, but I admit I cannot tell the difference between a CD audio file and an MP3 encoded at 256 kbps. That is not to say I think the distinction is unimportant.  (I'm sure I'll write about this issue soon). In any case, I think that improvements in bandwidth and increases in hard drive space will mean that in the next few years you will see a shift toward a sale of lossless audio files.

It is worth questioning why there should be such a thing as album art at all.  For most of music history it would seem that musical compositions were not generally tied to a specific piece of visual art created for the purposes of promoting the work. (I could certainly be wrong about this, and it sounds like an interesting topic for research).  Either way, we do not now usually associate classical compositions with a piece of "cover art" per se.  One could make the argument that an album with no cover is actually a restoration to what music should have been all along: an absolute statement divorced from any interpretive device.  Why should music be anything more than simply what you make of it?  Consider the line spoken by Fran Drescher's character in the spoof rock documentary This is Spinal Tap: "You think the cover is the reason an album sells?  What about the White Album?  There was nothing on that cover!"

But now the lid is off the box.  Some past albums are so associated with their cover trying to separate the two would be ridiculous.  (Leave it to xkcd to demonstrate this point).  Going forward, it is a different story. Album art came about because it was necessary.  Can we convince ourselves that it is still necessary even though we no longer have cardboard to decorate?  Even if we do not need album art, I think simply liking it is a good enough reason to keep it.  I'm willing to let the fiction go forward if you are.

And don't forget to eat a peach for peace.  Cheers.