Monday, December 6, 2010

Black Licorice: The Musings of Alex Ross

It’s been well documented for several years now that the vinyl record is coming back into style as a viable format for music. After all, in a world of downloads where albums are sliced and diced and sold song by song, all music costs the same and is therefore created equal, and everything exists in cyberspace, it’s only natural that music lovers would take refuge in the idea that they still have an actual artifact whereby they can foster a greater sense of connection to the sounds that bubble forth from their speakers. The art on the dust jacket is huge, a masterpiece unto itself, and when that beautiful and glossy black licorice disc is placed gingerly on the turntable and the tone arm is slowly lowered, making contact with a snap crackle and pop, there is a sense of ritual. There’s also no real skipping of tracks, so albums must be listened to all the way through, as cohesive works of art. Yes, it is high time that vinyl had a renaissance.
            There is another peculiar feature of all the records in my collection which I find rather poignant and extremely pertinent to today’s day and age. Provided that what you’re listening to is a full length album produced sometime between the late 50’s and early 90’s, it’ll say “33 1/2 rpm”. This of course means that the record in your hands spins at thirty-three and a half revolutions per minute. We live in a world of at least thirty-three revolutions per minute. Wars rage all over on foreign shores, warlords and generals depose kings and presidents, Tuaregs blaze through villages brandishing scimitars and Kalashnikovs, computer viruses threaten our lifeline to information, and a new pubescent pop star ascends the charts every day, only to be mercilessly toppled tomorrow by the industry that created them. Too many revolutions.
            The world may be revolving too fast, but if you’re anything like me, the music keeps you grounded. When things start spinning too quickly and we feel a bit nauseous, we drop that needle to hold it all in place. It always gets off to a wobbly start, but a few clanging guitar chords or a slurry of violins later and it’s like someone flipped a switch and turned the gravity back on. It’s an indescribable feeling, and yet someone must endeavor to do the impossible and describe it or their experience will go unshared. That is what music journalists do.
            The word “journalist” carries a lot of weight, and when we picture a Clark Kent-like character in a trench coat with a press pass stuck in his hatband, chasing down the next hot lead, we do ourselves a disservice. This is no more a journalist than a doctor is necessarily a handsome middle aged man in a white coat. In America, news is controlled by the individuals who own the format. Elsewhere, it is controlled by the government. A few People tried to remedy the obvious potential for biased reporting in such a scenario by creating something called the Associated Press, and now news networks have never had it easier, as honest reporters do the legwork and corporations like Fox and MSNBC rip off AP stories, freeing them up to hire only pundits in place of real reporters, ever-eager to pick and choose which information makes it to the public and how they will put their spin on it in order to further a social or political agenda. There is plenty freedom for the press and very little for the consumer.
            Music, though, while able to be commodified, is unable to be spun. Even if an album is a blatant piece of propaganda, it satisfies the needs of the artist or artists that created it. The people who write about music are alchemists, almost as much so as musicians, using words to illustrate and communicate a unique auditory experience which they have had on another plane of existence. They use absurd words like “crunchy” to describe things like the sound of an electric guitar run through a glass tube and a speaker because our vocabulary lacks the necessary words for these things, didn’t a lot for them, because we didn’t expect them, couldn’t have predicted them, and while a review of the latest record by someone’s favorite post-punk power trio (mine is Dinosaur Jr.) may not seem nearly as important as coverage of the latest genocide, at least it is mostly incorruptible, colored by opinions but never by ulterior motives. Plus, while it’s sometimes hard to put ourselves in the shoes someone suffering thousands of miles away when we sit down in our easy chairs to read the paper or watch the evening news, or even hit, who doesn’t listen to music. The pundits will run out of hot air, but the band plays on.
            That’s why it would be a disservice to ignore the good work that my friends at EC Radio do every day, working with minimal resources to share with all of you the music we love, and music journalism is an indispensible part of that mission. I myself would like to continue to write columns of this nature, provided of course that my higher-ups, head of journalism Kristen Saucier, Vice President Dan, and of course the omnipotent president Joe, will allow me to do so. I want to tell you about new music that will change the way you see the world, about the albums that changed my life and reminded the importance of learning an instrument and making music, and why artists that were dead decades before we were even a naughty gleam in our fathers’ eyes should still matter to us. So in the end, did I turn this piece into a platform for my own agenda? Absolutely.  I guess I’m no better than any other pulpit pounder who’s never heard the term “objective journalism”. But like most propagandists, I believe in the greater good of what we do here.
Alex Ross

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