Effects of the digital era on popular music

August 5, 2017 | Author: Keith Fadden | Category: Popular Music, Pop Culture, Rock Music, Pop Music, Aesthetics
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Short Essay on popular music...


To what extent has pop music been aesthetically compromised by the digital era? Simon Reynolds’ views regarding consumer –empowering convenience and its negative consequences on our interaction with art have a particular relevance to the digital era in which we live. For the last decade or so we have been living in a world of unprecedented convenience where, with the click of a mouse we have instant access to whatever art form interests us. In my view, this ultra-convenient medium can certainly have a detrimental effect on how much aesthetic value we place on those arts. Essentially it is our sense of experiencing and participating that is affected when it requires little or no effort to access our chosen art form or when we are seduced by the latest technology. The effect of this technological obsession is evident at just about every concert, as you witness a sea of phones held up capturing the moment. Is it really worth paying your hard earned money to see a performer and then proceed to try and capture the experience with your iPhone? Surely by trying to have it all, you end up diminishing your own appreciation of the experience. Shuker refers to the following extract from Stravinsky’s autobiography; Anyone, living no matter where, has only to turn a knob or put on a record to hear what he likes. Indeed it is just in this incredible facility, this lack of necessity for any effort that the evil of this so-called process lays. For one can listen without hearing, just as one can look without seeing. The absence of active effort and the liking acquired for this facility make for laziness. … Listeners fall into a kind of torpor.1

Stravinsky was of course referring to the technology of the early twentieth century. However, the sentiment is surely even more relevant in today’s era of mass consumerism and convenience. The rise of the internet, iTunes, YouTube, and Facebook has had a significant impact on popular music aesthetics such as, notions of style, technique and cultural identity. The effect of the digital era on the sense of style in popular music is alluded to by Simon Reynolds in his book Retromania; The young musicians who’ve come of age during the last ten years or so have grown up in a climate where the musical past is accessible to an unprecedentedly inundating degree. The result is a recombinant approach to music-making that typically leads to a meticulously organised constellation of reference points and allusions, sonic lattices of exquisite and often surprising taste that span the decades and the oceans. I used to call this approach ‘record 1

Roy Shuker, Understanding Popular Music (, London & New York: Routledge, 2001),p55

collection rock, but nowadays you don’t even need to collect records any more, just harvest MP3s and cruise through YouTube.2

From this quote one wonders whether the ease with which the past genres are accessible via YouTube make it almost impossible for a completely new stylistic approach to emerge. In a review of Reynolds’s Retromania Sukhdev Sandhu describes the book as one which examines the ‘poverty of abundance’ regarding pop music today, referring to the sheer volume of ‘anorexically thin’ mp3 pop music inundating our everyday lives and suggests that its abundance affects its ability to astound.3 The sense of engaging with the music has surely been eroded by these ultraconvenient mediums. For example, while discussing mp3 files with a friend who is an avid record collector, he began reminiscing nostalgically about the days before he had a car when he used to get on a bus to travel into the city and spend hours trawling through record stores to find new treasure. He spoke of how good it felt to possess a physical copy of your favourite band under your arm and the enjoyment of picking through the album artwork and lyrics while immersing yourself in the music. This sense of owning and engaging with a piece of music from your favourite artists in its physical form is but one aspect of the sense of self identity associated with the popular music aesthetic. Whether it was Rock, Punk or Ska during the eighties or House, Grunge or Brit Pop in the nineties, these genres once represented important sub-cultural identities for their followers and to be a follower of that genre was to affirm your position in society essentially becoming part of a movement and defining yourself as such. As Frith puts it; ‘Music seems to be a key to identity because it offers, so intensely, a sense of both self and others, of the subjective in the collective’.4 The digital era has provided a platform on which the mass media can now broadcast ideas of social conformity on a scale never previously possible. This bombardment of unified opinions about what is acceptable or unacceptable in society seems to inhibit any disruption to the social norm. The result, it seems, is a distinct lack of emerging sub-cultures and less interest shown by upcoming generations in becoming part of any movement in music.



Simon Reynolds, Retromania, Pop Culture’s Addiction to Its Own Past (N. York: Faber)p24 Review of Simon Reynolds’ Retromania by Sukhdev Sandhu (accessed 12/04/3013)

http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2011/may/29/retromania-simon-reynolds-review 4 Simon Frith, ‘Music and Identity’ Questions of Cultural Identity p110

Theodor Adorno’s views on popular music as commodity music and ‘Trash Art’ could be in my opinion, accurately applied to much of what has been in the Pop charts for the past decade. The domination of the Pop charts today by the mainstream music industry has come as a result of relentless marketing via both TV and internet and has led to what is surely some of the most manipulative, artificial and tasteless commodity driven music ever produced. It seems as though the mainstream pop charts reflect a society conditioned to such an extent that aesthetic values have been reduced to accept music which is primarily based on self-obsession and materialism. There is however an instance I would like to draw attention to where the power of social media famously defeated one of the mainstream juggernauts of the industry, the glorified karaoke that is X Factor. In 2009 part-time rock DJ Jon Morter launched a Facebook campaign to keep the X Factor winner of the by now almost guaranteed Christmas number one spot. When ‘Killing in the name of’ released in 1992 by the aptly named ‘Rage against the machine’ subsequently hit number one it became the first single to do so based on downloads alone. With the advances in technology over the past decade or so, computer software has allowed musicians without access to expensive studios to produce very decent recordings from home and sell their music online which, in relation the industry giants, helps to level the playing field to some degree. According to Paul Theberge, The continuous democratisation of the audio marketplace is significant…Punk musicians of the 1970s and alternative bands of the 1980s developed an aggressive lo-fi approach that rejected the dominant practices and aesthetics of the record industry and played a role in defining these genres, in ideological terms as more ‘authentic’ than other forms of mainstream pop and rock.5 The use of today’s digital technologies is providing opportunities for a wider range of musicians and artists to break new ground in popular music however, from Theberge’s quote we must remember that for authenticity (or rather the idea of authenticity) and originality’s sake, we must make the technology a slave to the artist or we may risk becoming slaves to it.


Paul Theberge ‘Technology and Popular Music’ The Cambridge Companion to Pop and Rock (Cambridge: University Press 2001)p12


Kivy, Peter. Introduction to a Philosophy of Music (Oxford: University Press 2002) Moore, Allan.F. Analysing Popular Music (Cambridge: University Press, 2003) Paddison, Max. Adorno, Modernism and Mass Culture (London: Kahn & Averill 1996) Plato the Republic (Harmondsworth: Penguin) Reynolds, Simon. Retromania, Pop Culture’s Addiction to Its Own Past (New York: Faber & Faber, Inc. 2011) Frith, Simon. ‘Music and Identity’ Questions of Cultural Identity (London: Sage 2011) p110 Shuker, Roy. Understanding Popular Music (, London & New York: Routledge, 2001) Theberge, Paul. ‘Technology and Popular Music’ The Cambridge Companion to Pop and Rock (Cambridge: University Press 2001) p12 ‘Aesthetics of Pop Music’ Internet Encyclopaedia of Philosophy, (accessed 12/04/3013) http://www.iep.utm.edu/music-po/

Article by Simon Reynolds on New Digital Artists (accessed 13/04/2013) http://pitchfork.com/features/articles/8721-maximal-nation/

Interview with Simon Reynolds by Ben Jeffery (accessed 12/04/2013) http://www.thepointmag.com/2012/culture/interview-simon-reynolds

Interview with Simon Reynolds by Wilson Neate for Perfect Sound Forever Online Music Magazine (accessed 12/04/2013) http://www.furious.com/Perfect/simonreynolds3.html Review of Simon Reynolds’ Retromania by Sukhdev Sandhu (accessed 12/04/3013) http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2011/may/29/retromania-simon-reynolds-review

Summary of ‘Towards an Aesthetic of Popular Music’ (accessed 15/04/2013) http://culturalstudiesnow.blogspot.ie/2011/06/simon-frith-social-functions-of-music.html

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