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 Post subject: Right On
PostPosted: 11:59am November 27, 2007 
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This is the full text of Tim Mohr's response to <a href="http://www.nytimes.com/2007/11/20/opinion/20brooks.html?ex=1196226000&en=d332245a02761b71&ei=5070&emc=eta1">this piece</a> by David Brooks. I copied the whole thing because Mohr writes for playboy.com, a place none of you could probably go to read his essay.

I think Mohr is 100% right on about the idea of the calcification of musical tastes, and not just by Baby Boomers (even though they are the most prime target). I know lots of people who just stopped listening to music after college, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. People are into different stuff, and new music slides down the priority list for a lot of people (if it was even on the list at all). I get that completely.

The problem I have (and apparently share with Mohr) is when people who don't even listen to new music try to tell me how terrible music is these days or groan that there just isn't anything to listen to. There is <i>so much</i> good music around it isn't even funny. You just have to look for it actively, as opposed to it being counted down each week by the guy who did the voice of Shaggy on Scooby Doo (and Robin on SuperFriends).


Tim Mohr from playboy.com:
Clueless

Before I wade into yesterday’s David Brooks piece, The Segmented Society, let me first make an admission: Yes, I know, attacking Brooks—or the Times in general, for that matter—on matters of pop culture is akin to shooting fish in a barrel. And yes, it’s clear this is a disingenuous effort on the part of the Old Gray Lady to generate coverage in the blogosphere, where someone with Brooks’ scarce knowledge should by all rights simply be ignored. But hey, if he and the Times insist on getting in our grill, I’ll grudgingly administer a smacking.

So here goes.

David Brooks, you, sir, are a jackass.

Let’s start with the basics: Polarization and fragmentation are not the same thing. Indeed, they are almost diametrically opposed concepts. “People are anxious about fragmentation and longing for cohesion,” Brooks suggests, moving on to attempt to draw a false analogy between his view of the music landscape and that of the political landscape. “This is the driving fear behind the inequality and immigration debates,” he writes.

Actually, the immigration debate is an attempt to conflate polarization and fragmentation, to create two polarized blocks—“real” Americans and illegal (Mexican) immigrants—rather than address the much more complicated, and stratified, socio-economic (and ethnic) reality. Debates on inequality are not based on anxiety about fragmentation, either. The concerns there are about the possibility that economic policy, and particularly tax policy, is pushing us not toward a fragmented society but toward one divided into two polarized blocks—the haves and the have-nots. This is the same concern often expressed about the seemingly intractable red state-blue state divide, too—political affiliations losing the segmentation along issue lines that used to be able to create some flux—and Obama’s “no white America, no black America” rhetoric to which Brooks also alludes. This should be simple stuff for a reporter: Polarization bad. Fragmentation, on the other hand, especially within a manageable spectrum, is far less problematic. And when it comes to the music marketplace, it’s the best thing ever to happen.

But let me explain, by examining Brooks’ ideas about music.

“People who have built up cultural capital and pride themselves on their superior discernment,” Brooks asserts, “are naturally going to cultivate ever more obscure musical tastes.” This is one of those broken-record complaints of the square. People without a clue about music console themselves with the false notion that people who do are just willfully obscurist. (Just as geeks console themselves with the false notion that all jocks are dumb.) In reality, it’s just a question of whether you are open to new music or not. If your tastes ossified when you exited the frat house basement upon graduation, you will be damned to write pieces about thirty and forty year old bands and how great everything was in the old days because for you, everything going forward is obscure, and becomes more so each year removed from the last time you actively listened to new music. Naturally, if you continue to listen to new music, you—duh—listen to new music. The music isn’t obscure; it’s obscure to David Brooks and others of his ilk for whom music is set in aspic.

For people who are open to new music, this is a golden era—the greatest era, in fact. Fragmentation hasn’t been foisted upon us by marketers or music corporations. Nothing could be further from the truth. (The incessant whining of the music industry and the closure of the Tower records chain might have alerted a more astute journalist to the fact that the changes underway are not industry-driven.) The major music labels would love to be able to continue flogging diamond-selling LPs on the buying public forever; segmentation is the last thing they want. Fragmentation has been achieved despite marketers and the industry.

In the past, the industry functioned as a valve. On one side of the valve new music bubbled around in a relatively small and impoverished underground. On the other were record buyers—that was where the big money was. The valve itself was controlled by the few major music conglomerates—they decided what and how to market to buyers. That set-up began to show signs of vulnerability with the re-emergence of independent record labels in the 1980s and into the 1990s. And now, with digitalization, that constricting valve—which was only possible because of the limitations of physical distribution—is a useless relic. Consumers and musicians can get in touch directly, meaning there is no longer any distinction between underground and mainstream. Combined with the plummeting costs of recording, sequencing and mixing, this has caused a thrilling proliferation of new music—but stokes fears among those who are unsure how they will discover new music now that they must be much more self-reliant in this area (not to mention the fears it stokes in the industry, which can no longer extort fans to buy albums from what are really mostly singles artists).

Which is to say, Brooks has it exactly backwards. Whereas he bemoans marketing as the source of all this evil fragmentation, the opposite is true—he is at sea because marketers are no longer able to consolidate the music market to create albums capable of selling ten million copies. It hardly needs saying, but for anyone who loves music, this is a good thing—and one certainly hopes Little Steven, who, quoted in the Brooks piece, also champions little-known garage bands of today as well as bands from bygone eras who were unable to navigate their way past the industry gatekeepers, feels the same way.

But perhaps not, judging by the article’s next egregious point. Brooks attributes to Little Steven the idea that “most young musicians don’t know the roots and traditions of their music. They don’t have broad musical vocabularies to draw on when they are writing songs.” This is a perfect example of the way baby boomers are blinded by their self-absorption. Yes, Keith Richards knew Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry and Jimmy Reed. But it’s not as if the possible antecedents for music stopped with Chicago blues. Take the contemporary new rave scene. David Brooks may not be aware of the Prodigy, but the Klaxons sure as hell are, and those are the roots of their music. (The Prodigy were also assimilating a number of influences themselves, especially hip-hop and acid house.) Same goes for Gang of Four and their legacy among the angular guitar bands of the last few years, like Bloc Party and Franz Ferdinand. And even for acts from the same baby boomer era Brooks addresses—whether they were non-rock like Serge Gainsbourg or experimental like Silver Apples—who became part of the musical vocabulary of later generations. Today’s rockers are not ahistorical, they just don’t over-inflate the importance of baby boomers’ canonical history, as the boomers themselves do.

One of the greatest things about pop music is the way it changes. And its transience is something to be celebrated, not decried. Pop has never operated in a vacuum; it’s always been tied to youth culture niches. Sometimes it’s trivial—“The Twist,” “The Humpty Dance,” Soulja Boy’s “Crank That.” Sometimes it feels more substantial—the songs that soundtracked the Summer of Love, anti-Thatcherite protest music, Eminem’s anti-Bush “Mosh” released during the run-up to the 2004 election. And even rock addressing seemingly timeless themes like young love is rooted in time and place—think about the difference between the Beach Boys’ “Surfer Girl” and Janis Joplin’s “Me and Bobby McGee,” despite their having been recorded just a few years apart in the same state.

Songs and styles mark ephemeral moments in time. And time did not stop when boomers’ listening habits calcified. The evolutionary course of pop is inexorable—and should be. God forbid we get stuck listening to the Eagles, Pink Floyd and Boston (to name a few artists with the diamond-certified albums Brooks seems to cherish). Man, I lived through classic rock radio as boomers like Brooks spent the 1980s remembering their glory days. If they’re the ones defining it I say screw “this thing called rock,” as Brooks describes it, and f*ck their need for self-affirmation through mass shared experiences like a Bruce Springsteen arena show.

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PostPosted: 12:15pm November 27, 2007 
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Really really awesome. I read the Brooks piece when it came out and gave it a yawn, but then I'm not someone who actively seeks out "new music" as you are.

And this is a monumental point:
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Yes, Keith Richards knew Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry and Jimmy Reed. But it’s not as if the possible antecedents for music stopped with Chicago blues. Take the contemporary new rave scene. David Brooks may not be aware of the Prodigy, but the Klaxons sure as hell are, and those are the roots of their music.
What makes Chuck Berry more legit than the Prodigy?

Of course, I like what I like, and a lot of that has to do with how much time and motivation I have to devote to "new music," but I do try to at least keep an open mind about stuff and am often wowed by the new things that come along.

Thanks for posting. :thumbup:


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PostPosted: 9:34am December 28, 2007 
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Here is an interesting Rolling Stone article: <A href="http://www.rollingstone.com/news/story/17777619/the_death_of_high_fidelity">The Death of High Fidelity</a>, about how modern mastering techniques are "ruining" the quality of the sound of music.

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PostPosted: 10:10am December 28, 2007 
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Another explanation of this problem by Bob Weston (bassist in Shellac, recorded Pixies, Polvo, June of 44, Nirvana, etc..).

Butch Vig's comment in that article is dumb. The idea that bands want/need to sound 'competitive', sounds like stupid marketing-speak. I wish Nirvana's Nevermind would have been recorded by someone other than him. It would be a lot more listenable, cuz the songs are good.
It's appropriate that he's in a band named Garbage... the irony of the band name caved in on itself.
Imagine if Nevermind had been recorded like In Utero... the drum sounds alone in that album are awesome.

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PostPosted: 10:25am December 28, 2007 
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daniel:
The idea that bands want/need to sound 'competitive', sounds like stupid marketing-speak.
Yes, but I bet it's also true a lot of the time. I'm sure you can imagine plenty of bands/artists that would sacrifice dynamic range and sound quality to get airplay and wider acceptance. It comes down to whether he's right about this compression making bands more "competitive." Did the industry create this sh*tty sound needlessly, or did technology and other considerations drive it there?

I don't like his comment either - at the very least it's too accepting of the status quo, but I don't know enough about him otherwise to read much more into it than that.

I like playing "I Think I'm Paranoid" by Garbage in Rockband. ;)


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PostPosted: 10:35am December 28, 2007 
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Man, that was a depressing read.

I know that I have run into just the thing he's talking about when I build mixes that use songs from older cds. The songs are at a crazy low level, relative to newer releases. I used to think that was a flaw.

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PostPosted: 10:39am December 28, 2007 
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I'd be curious to know why Iggy decided to ruin that Stooges record.


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PostPosted: 10:40am December 28, 2007 
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Also, all this is a great reason to listen to more classical and jazz. :thumbup:


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PostPosted: 10:50am December 28, 2007 
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The beginnings of an explanation for the Stooges remaster are in the comments at Amazon.com.


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PostPosted: 10:52am December 28, 2007 
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JP:
I'd be curious to know why Iggy decided to ruin that Stooges record.


I actually bought that remastered cd *and* I read the liner notes. I seem to recall that he wanted it to sound completely blown out/in the red as a more accurate reflection of how they sounded live at the time. He certainly got that. Now I need to go re-read those notes and see if I remembered correctly.

And to be fair, it's not really ruined. Raw Power isn't a record I listen to for subtlety or nuance. I mean, it's called <i>Raw Power</i>.

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PostPosted: 10:57am December 28, 2007 
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Michael:
Man, that was a depressing read.

I know that I have run into just the thing he's talking about when I build mixes that use songs from older cds. The songs are at a crazy low level, relative to newer releases. I used to think that was a flaw.


Same here... the cool thing is that when you turn the volume up, you can hear more detail... it's more scalable (from a graphics perspective). What bitrate do you all import your mp3s at? I've been importing at 256 kbps. I've actually gone back and reimported a lot of CDs at that bitrate because I've discovered that I can tell the difference... especially in headphones.

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JP:
The beginnings of an explanation for the Stooges remaster are in the comments at Amazon.com.


Hey! I was close!

According to those comments, anyway.

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PostPosted: 11:04am December 28, 2007 
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daniel:
Michael:
Man, that was a depressing read.

I know that I have run into just the thing he's talking about when I build mixes that use songs from older cds. The songs are at a crazy low level, relative to newer releases. I used to think that was a flaw.


Same here... the cool thing is that when you turn the volume up, you can hear more detail... it's more scalable (from a graphics perspective). What bitrate do you all import your mp3s at? I've been importing at 256 kbps. I've actually gone back and reimported a lot of CDs at that bitrate because I've discovered that I can tell the difference... especially in headphones.


I import at 256VBR. And yeah, the difference is extreme in headphones. The other way bitrate disparity shows up is when a 256 is right next to a 192 in a mix. Depending on the song type, the difference can be jarring.

I find that I don't hear it so much (if at all) when I am listening to a burned copy of a cd ripped at 192.

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PostPosted: 11:10am December 28, 2007 
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daniel:
Michael:
Man, that was a depressing read.

I know that I have run into just the thing he's talking about when I build mixes that use songs from older cds. The songs are at a crazy low level, relative to newer releases. I used to think that was a flaw.


Same here... the cool thing is that when you turn the volume up, you can hear more detail... it's more scalable (from a graphics perspective). What bitrate do you all import your mp3s at? I've been importing at 256 kbps. I've actually gone back and reimported a lot of CDs at that bitrate because I've discovered that I can tell the difference... especially in headphones.
I only listen to music anymore in crappy environments. Standard iPod earbuds, cars, at home through speakers while I'm doing something else . . . so I don't hear a lot of problems. Do you guys have good sets of headphones? When do you use them? I should at least get a decent set of ear buds.

I ripped most of my stuff with iTunes at 128 AAC. Lately I'm doing 192 (I think) or maybe 256 MP3s, but I don't buy CDs a lot anymore, so I don't rip much. I'm glad that DRM is going away and higher bitrates are becoming more available for download, even on iTunes. Also the Amazon MP3 store seems like something I'll definitely be using.


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PostPosted: 11:42am December 28, 2007 
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I have these : <a href="http://www.shure.com/PersonalAudio/Products/Earphones/ESeries/us_pa_E2c_content">Shure e2c</a>, but I really only wear them when I am at the gym or mowing the lawn. Hardly music-centric listening environments. They're terrific for mowing the lawn because they really do kill most of the mower noise.

I used to have a decent pair of old-style over the ear headphones but the ear cushion wore out on them. I want a new pair but I haven't done much lookign around for them. I want a pair to wear while I am at the computer for a long time. The Shure's make my ears tired if they're in too long.

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