Everything Bad Is Good For You, Except Music

9 August, 2005

I recently finished reading Everything Bad is Good for You. The book, which has lately been everywhere in the press that covers such things, argues for the existence of a "sleeper curve" of increasing complexity and sophistication in the popular culture of the last thirty or so years. EBIGFY's author, Steven Johnson, makes this claim as part of a larger argument: that beyond the culture's moral or serious 'content' this increase in complexity is improving people's mental abilities and is possibly linked to rising IQ scores.

While the larger scientific-y argument did not especially interest me, one particular piece of evidence in his case for the existence of the "sleeper curve" caught my eye. Johnson argues that we, increasingly, like to be confused by our media, to have to struggle to keep track of confusing games and TV shows that not only have complex and convoluted plots, but also rule sets or narrative conventions that are purposely obscured or incompletely known to us so that we are constantly struggling not to predict "how this will turn out in the end" but merely to understand "what's happening right now":

Viewers of The West Wing or Lost or The Sopranos no longer require those training wheels [the obvious narrative pointers present in previous generations of television shows], because twenty-five years of increasingly complex television has honed their analytic skills. Like those video games that force you to learn the rules while playing, part of the pleasure in these modern television narratives comes from the cognitive labor you're forced to do filling the details. If the writers suddenly dropped a hoard of flashing arrows onto the set, the show would seem plodding and simplistic. The extra information would take the fun out of watching.

Reading this set me wondering: how did music get left behind in this trend?

Under most schemes one might think of for evaluating musical complexity -- rhythmic variety, harmonic sophistication, lyrical content -- very little has changed in popular music since the late sixties. In that era, the Beatles, the Beach Boys, Bob Dylan and others widened the bounds of acceptable complexity in pop music, introducing instruments, rhythms, and tonalities from world and classical music as well as lyrics which were, for the first time, personal and political, literary and experimental.

But listening to today's most popular music, not many more advances are apparent. With some rare exceptions, we still largely listen to love songs in common time with harmonies derived from the blues. In fact much currently popular rock music would sound like it could have been recorded in the late sixties or early seventies if only it wasn't so loud (instead of a "sleeper curve" of increasing complexity, we seem to have gotten one purely of increasing volume). Green Day are simply a more pleasantly packaged Sex Pistols, Staind a sludgier, utterly generic Black Sabbath, Destiny's Child a slicker, less soulful Supremes.

So, if, as Johnson argues, the popular audience has developed an increasing appetite for complexity in the media it consumes, what went wrong with music? The obviousness of some of these comparisons gets at part of the problem. These bands don't just sound like the sixties acts whose music they ape, they dress and talk like them too. More than TV shows or movies, or even video games, music is an ally of fashion. We use it to define ourselves, to project our identities to the world.

The way adolescent cliques use their taste in music to define themselves as distinct from their peers never really recedes. The entire contemporary popular music landscape is a kind of high school cafeteria with enlightened liberal world music followers (the goody-goodies) sitting separately from successful suburban white hip-hop fans (the jocks), while poor, but authentic white trash metal-heads (the bullies) terrorize effete urban post-rock aesthetes and pointy-headed electronic music enthusiasts (the nerds).

As a facet of fashion, music suffers from fashion's cyclical economy. What's hip this year may be out next year and retro of one kind or another is almost always in style. This stands in sharp opposition to a continuous curve of increasing difficulty and sophistication. One would be hard pressed to argue that clothing styles have increased in complexity over time. If anything, the opposite is true. Just as the functional attire of the working classes (from blue jeans to Carhartts) has gradually replaced the more intricate formal-ware of the rich, musical complexity has been ghettoized, relegated to functioning as a conscious signifier of elite status. And which particular style of music best signifies that status shifts with the changing fads.

Another major obstacle to music's "sleeper curve" is its duration and format. As opposed to TV shows, movies, and video games, all of which are fundamentally long form narratives, the song is a miniaturist's medium. With narratives, especially complex and gradually unfolding ones, the viewer is prepared to live with the characters, to get to know them over the course of the beginning of the story before making up his mind about its quality. A thirteen hour television season may turn out to have sketchily drawn cardboard cutouts for characters or it may featured richly nuanced personal portraits, but it is very hard to know for sure one way or another in the first four minutes of the pilot. With some shows, Sex And The City comes to mind, it can take years before the characters truly emerge from the generic molds from which they were cast.

Songs, on the other hand, have about fifteen seconds to convince the average listener (think of the length of samples on the iTunes Music Store). For most forms of pop music, fifteen seconds of listening is enough to establish a genre (which clique the artist belongs to) and observe enough melodic material to gauge its 'catchiness'. Very few pop music fans indulge in the kind of repeated listening and suspended judgement that is necessary to enjoy more complex or foreign music. In order to begin to like, say, Ethiopian soul music from the sixties, you have to listen long enough to overcome the alienness of the bizarrely tuned guitars, melismatic vocals, and mind-bending genre combination (soul music and world music). Once familiar, these traits emerge as the central pleasure of Ethiopian music from that golden age, but at first they stand as obstacles because of their very unfamiliarity: in fifteen seconds the typical listener can neither parse the genre of Kelkeyelegn by Tlahoun Gessesse nor follow its melody.

Where Johnson describes the state of confusion we find ourselves in while trying to understand some new complex TV show or video game as an important part of the pleasure of this new popular culture, the same experience in music tends to permanently alienate listeners. In their confusion, listeners exposed to new complex music tend to recoil, withdrawing from any attempt to seek out the song's particular pleasures, and hearing it instead, simply as 'noise'. They, therefore, never put in the repeated listens necessary to make sense of it and begin to enjoy it.

Now, some might object to this whole line of argument by pointing out the rise of a certain type of experimentalism and complexity in popular hip-hop. Timbaland, Missy Elliot, The Neptunes, Outkast, and others are making eccentric relatively rhythmically complex exotic-sounding tracks. This music is more challenging than most of the music which has become popular in the last thirty years. In many ways, hip-hop is in a moment similar to that experienced by rock n' roll in the late sixties: its most adventurous and difficult artists are also its most popular.

It still remains to be seen how these artists will develop and how large and lasting their influence will be. It is certainly possible that with patterns of music distribtion and consumption changing so rapidly listeners will begin to seek out and enjoy the complexity they have thus far abhorred. Johnson emphasizes the importance of technologies like TiVo and the DVD in driving complexity because of how they value material that can sustain interest over repeated viewings. Maybe mp3 dowloads replacing radio are starting to show a similiar effect.

I remain somewhat sceptical, however. Late sixties rock turned out to be so exciting because it was a kind of apex between the primitive beginnings of the medium when it was deeply rooted in simple formulas (the blues) and a later period of decadence when variety was reduced to variations in costume and authentic innovation was pushed to the margins. A similar thing happened to Jazz after the success of swing. In both cases, conservative simple forms eventually came to dominate the music's popular presence because of all the forces I've discussed here. Hopefully hip-hop can avoid this pitfall and finally start music down a "sleeper curve" of its own.

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