This Is What It Sounds Like When Punks Try
In the fading twilight of the Rock And Roll Era, the “live album” seems bound for the rubbish bin of our cultural history.
Though pundits have been calling for a postmortem of this particular musical idiom since Little Richard traded his gold lame for a minister's robes, our present moment shows the once-dominant idiom failing to meaningfully connect with the younger generation even as it struggles to maintain its place in the hearts of long-devoted fans, their passion dulled and made numb by the merciless passage of time and the encroachment of “real life.” This leaves only the faithful few to sob and sigh and wonder why, replacing their parents in their role of condescending naysayers just as the emergent youth have replaced them.
The “live album” now seems like perhaps the most antiquated of all tropes we associate with the sputtering cultural movement. This Autumn, the artists who gave us Live At Leeds, Love You Live, Live Rust, and Live 1966 : The Royal Albert Hall Concert (The Who, The Rolling Stones, Neil Young and Bob Dylan, respectively) will be conveniently assembled at the outdoor festival which certain crass commenters have dubbed “Oldchella” - with all these “relics” in one place, what better time to cast them out, along with their outdated notions of “authenticity?”
Like every element of our lives, the way that music is created has been irrevocably changed by the increased prevalence of computers. The longstanding icon of a group of humans operating together, on a stage or in a studio, striking drums and vibrating strings, has increasingly been replaced by one of a solitary individual synthesizing sounds from digital devices. Just as modern technology compels us to lead more and more isolated lives, blissfully trapped in our own personal worlds of instant and unending gratification, staring into and swiping at our personal pleasure machines like so many rats pushing bars for pellets, musicians are less and less motivated to seek out the collaboration of others. Rehearsal halls are empty now while bedrooms around the world are packed with isolated artists crafting pristine masterpieces out of 1's and 0's – both spaces are silent, except between the headphones of these modern auteurs. These wheels have been in motion for decades now, but the “brave new world” these changes once represented have become the standard, the world in which we all must live.
Only the most ardent luddite would unilaterally deny the positive elements of this progress, and those who balked at the synthesizers on Van Halen's “Jump” now seem to be as knuckleheaded as those who booed Dylan's electric set at Newport. Liberated from the shackles of the tactile world, new possibilities for musical innovation are limited only to the imagination of the artists. Unencumbered by human error, music can become “perfect” like never before. No longer beholden to the stock sonic templates of previous generations, musicians working electronically have opportunities to create sounds previously unheard on Earth.
Just as the internet has done for the sharing of information, new technology in music is working towards a democratization of sound, not merely in terms of which sounds are palatable to the listener. Aspiring artists who could never dream of conducting a 100-piece orchestra can now deftly manipulate a digital ensemble ten times that size to suit their particular vision. One who wishes to explore rhythm no longer requires a drum kit and, just as importantly, a sequestered place to cut their chops without the interference of irritable neighbors; they can now craft dense, polyrhythmic beats from their workstations – watching a modern beatmaster such as Zaytoven or AraabMuzik ply their craft can be just as exhilarating and inspiring today as watching Neil Peart dance across thirty tom-toms a generation prior and, again, thanks to the internet, such displays are only a few keystrokes away. Artists not gifted with a technically “beautiful” voice can have their melodic sensibilities freed through “Auto-Tune,” allowing an artist such as Lil Wayne or Kanye West to explore deeper and further-flung facets of their rich personalities. Most importantly, no outside observer can effectively quantify the wide spectrum of emotions that this new music can evoke in the heart and mind of the listener. These are all wonderful things and we are blessed to live in a time where such things are not only possible but commonplace.
As with any progress, however, there is the risk of things being lost, essential things which the quaint “live album” exemplify like little else – one such thing is “effort.” This is not to say that modern, digitally produced music does not require effort. We know that electronic musicians of today spend innumerable hours developing their skills and crafting the perfect track, spilling much sweat and dripping many tears in the process. The difference lies in the visibility of that effort. The modern musician who strides the stage with their machines arrives as a conquering monarch, the difficult choices and hard labor deep in the rear view – if the homework has been done and the audience is receptive, victory is virtually assured.
Synthesizers, samplers, and computers can always crap out, just like amplifiers can fry and strings can snap, but when musicians take the stage with analog equipment, their human flaws and shortcomings are intensely magnified. Musicians of this sort must stand naked, as likely to flail and fail as they are to fly. This is the other element we may lose when we forget the “live album” and what it represents – “danger.”
The greatest thrill of live music comes from this dangerous uncertainty. For the everyday human, victory is not assured. In the fallibility of the artist, we see our own selves reflected. Bum notes and missed cues remind us that the people we see on stage are not gods come down from the mount to bless us with their presence – they walk among us, striving and struggling just as we do. When they are able to transcend their various weakness to achieve a certain alchemy, we in the audience glimpse our own capacity to transcend our own weaknesses, to become something greater, even if only for two minutes and change. The taste of victory is sweet but it is the proximity to the danger of defeat which makes it so, a nutritious meal to the soul with no empty calories.
These are troubling, frightening times in which we live and the same technology which opens so many doors for young musicians also pulls back the curtain which has shielded the general public for so long from the daily atrocities which plague our society. As we grow more aware of these deep-seeded problems, we find ourselves growing disenfranchised and disempowered. The better society we must build together may not need Rock And Roll or the archetypal “live album” born out of that particular epoch, but it will need the inspiration which comes from seeing individuals, undaunted by the prospect of failure, attempt the act of creation without any guarantee of success before a jury of their peers. When this bravery is put onto the stage, those in the audience absorb it and carry it into their own daily work, whatever that may be. It is this courageousness which will move us forward, keep us pushing the proverbial boulder. We can lose the guitars, the drums, the hooting and hollering, but we must not lose the true nobility of our species, to stare into the abyss and do it anyway.