Black Sheets of Crud
373 · 21 March 02
Bob Mould: modulate.
The autoharp was invented in the early 1880s, so I believe we can safely take that as the latest possible starting point for the debate, crescendoing steadily thereafter, over the extent to which complexity in artistic tools devalues the art created with them. But I strongly suspect that early forms of this argument go back centuries, if not millennia. Surely there were lyre purists who believed fretted lutes were debased, and harpists who considered the harpsichord a parlor novelty. For that matter, somebody must once have believed that instruments constituted cheating by their very nature, and the only real music is singing. Probably some people still believe that now. We may reasonably, if unpopularly, contend that the slow cultivation of a difficult skill is essential to the development of the capacity for sophisticated artistic expression, and in a way the harder the skill the better. How will painters fully understand the enterprise in which they are engaged, we might ask, if large parts of it are done by hirelings? If they don't stretch the canvas themselves, they will become alienated from their surfaces; if they do not mix their own pigments, they resign themselves to making imprecise color choices. One by one you replace acts of craftsmanship with acts of shopping, and eventually you are left with clip-art.
But people are greedy, and impatient, and not very good at holding more than two steps of a deduction in their heads at once. We love music; so we want more music; so we want to be able to make our own; but it's hard; so we make it easy; so now we can play. But what we can now play is not our own, and it's not more, and we've forgotten what we meant to love about it, which was that it's a hard thing someone learned to do so well. This is ultimately the basic pattern of technological development over the last century or two, at least, an ignominiously myopic history of training ourselves to miss points, and methodically constructing devices for disempowering ourselves. The only controversial issue, by now, is where exactly we say we crossed what lines. In learning to make music with a piano, for example, you almost unavoidably learn a fair amount about music. Semantically speaking, the piano keyboard is merely a metaphor for the physics underlying it, and a heavily constrained and selective one at that, but within its own system of rules it is clear and revealing. In learning to play a whole chord family, you will internalize most of the fundamental relationships between the members. Learn one major and one minor, and you can derive all the others. You will probably learn to read sheet music, because it's easily the most effective way of communicating musical instructions to a piano player. You will play harder when excited, and thus learn about dynamics. You will eventually play for somebody, and discover how audiences change things.
Take up guitar, instead, and you may not learn as much. It is no less expressive an instrument, but it's more amenable to superficial acclimation. You can memorize the hand-positions for chords without necessarily comprehending their implications or relationships. Three-chord guitar songs exist, in large part, because it is possible to learn only three guitar chords. If you get to barre chords you'll start seeing patterns, but most people start with the open chords, which are unhelpfully arbitrary in isolation. Get an electric guitar and a distortion pedal and you won't even have to form the hand positions very carefully. Tune the low E down to a D and ditch the top three strings and you can be a heavy-metal rhythm guitarist without learning much more than how to skip one, three, six, eight and ten while counting to twelve.
Or, walk into a music store, find the keyboard section, pick out the one with the most blinking lights, and just press any key. Or buy the software equivalent for your computer, and avoid even having to understand the difference between the white keys and the black ones. The genius and heresy of the autoharp was that instead of learning how a C-minor chord is formed, you could just press the button labeled "C-minor", strum, and have one. This was such a popular shortcut that music technology has obligingly increased the level of abstraction to the point where you can press one button and have an entire "song". Samples, drum loops, sequences, factory presets, combis, performance controllers -- on the best of the new equipment you can punch a few more buttons and twist knobs and change the noises without ever having to learn a grammar at all. Spend ten minutes with a Karma and you can have two club anthems and a car commercial. Give the Media Lab a couple more years and it won't even be that hard. Gesture, and you perform. Think, and you compose. You have music inside you, the promise goes; machines will remove the barriers that keep it from getting out.
And as entertainment, this may be extremely engaging. But it isn't art. Or, more precisely, it isn't your art. I don't necessarily believe that craftsmanship is integral to art, but decision-making absolutely is. "With ACID," Sonic Foundry avows, "you can create original, royalty-free music in minutes". The meaning of "original", in this sentence, is vague (but the meaning of "royalty-free" is perfectly clear). The key to "making music in minutes", using any instrument, is abandoning any illusion of intent. It will make some noise, and if you agree to call that noise music, then you're done. But with a frozen dinner and a microwave, can you be cooking in minutes? If the dinner had five different Spice buttons on the side of the tray, would hitting them constitute cooking? I assert not. You can be eating cooked food in minutes, that much is undeniable, but you didn't cook it. Cooking involves decisions, and of all the decisions represented by your reanimated meal, you made an insignificant minority of them. This is why Photoshop filtering isn't photography, and dancing through a Quake maze is neither ballet nor acting. "Value-add" is one of the software-industry terms I loathe most vehemently, precisely because it refers to (and usually misapprehends) a real idea. You earn credit through action. You cannot be creating original art in minutes, and it's wrong to want to. Of what do you imagine you would be proud? The fact that the people who made the loops in ACID have agreed to waive copyright on them doesn't change whose music it is. You can buy rights; you cannot buy authorship. You can be listening to music in minutes. But only because the music is already there, not inside you but inside the tools that purport to be helping you express yourself. You have expressed nothing, and created nothing, and since you have contributed next to nothing to the process, you shouldn't be very surprised.
Like most pedantic objections, though, this one admits clauses and clarifications and exceptions. ACID and the Karma are not merely oversized mall-appliance-store home-keyboard auto-accompaniment buttons, after all. The same functions that graft together somebody else's loops can be used to manipulate your own. Devise a melody. Yes, of course you would be a better artist and a morally richer person if you spent a few years learning how to play it on a saxophone, but who has that much time? Mouse it into your sequencer, pick the TurboSax patch, and you're there. Sound wrong? No problem, switch it to a sitar. Still lame? Ah, a Hammond, that's much better. See, all those years you could have spent learning saxophone and sitar would have been wastes of time. What harm has been done? Clearly I'm no purist; stand in front of my wall of CDs for an hour and try to find a single album whose music doesn't involve at least one massive technical short-cut. Where would Tori be without compressors? Still in voice lessons. Turf? No, finger-picking is just a hand-powered arpeggiator. The purists have Yo-Yo Ma. They can keep him. All my favorites are cheaters.
But postulating the technology required for rock and roll doesn't exempt us from poetics. If you make new art that incorporates prior art, whether explicitly or as implicit in your tools, there is no simple formula for determining fractional ownership. Not only does it matter who made what decisions, but context can have an enormous influence over which decisions are significant. This was the point of Duchamp's ready-mades: Marcel did not have anything to do with the manufacture of the urinal, but if the audience understands that, then the content of the artwork is solely the decision to label the urinal as art, and thus the content of the artwork is entirely the artist's doing, no matter how little he contributed to the physical materials. Sample-based music provides examples at both ends of the spectrum; "Ice Ice Baby", say, at one end, a shitty rip-off that would be nowhere without what it stole; the Avalanches at the other, making composites in which the original elements are broken into such unidentifiable shards that they might as well be new. I detest Beck, but love Jesus Jones. One great saving grace is that the artistic and technical temperaments are so often inimical to each other. A few Butch Vigs notwithstanding, most musicians would rather perform than process. And if your tools amount to prosthetics, so that the processing is invoked by performing, then where do you stop being you?
The most compelling counter-evidence, to me, is that the number of artists I consider to have ruined their own work by picking tools with complexities they could not assert themselves over is far lower than any rational estimate would predict. The most egregious example in my pantheon is film director Peter Greenaway, whose embrace of digital video turned his work, in my opinion, from unparalleled genius (circa Drowning by Numbers, one of my two favorite films) to intolerable crap (circa The Pillow Book, which would have become the second movie I ever walked out on if I'd been any less dumbfounded by how much I hated it). I think all but one of Billy Bragg's full-band albums have been regrettable, and to me Patty Griffin's Living With Ghosts and Flaming Red constitute one of the most disappointing two-record sequences in rock history, but these examples come so quickly to mind because they're so unusual. Counter-examples of artists who used new tools to expand their range line my shelves. Tori Amos' from the choirgirl hotel was my favorite album of the Nineties; Low's catalog is one long sequence of stylistic expansions; Runrig's Amazing Things could never have been made without new toys; Kate Bush's Hounds of Love might be the definitive example of new technology allowing an artist to discover whole levels of their own potential. Many of my favorite artists would not be making music at all if it weren't for the things music technology now allows them to do by themselves. Some of my favorite artists who aren't making music (Scott Miller) could be if they learned to love robots.
Then again, there's modulate. I don't remember the last time a record has appalled me this efficiently. By a minute and a half into "180 Rain", the opening song, Bob Mould has accumulated such a litany of offenses to his own legacy that I'm suspended in horror. Gutless drum loops, twittery factory-preset synth fills, pointless flanging, one-note bass pulses and, credibility-defyingly, a pitch-corrector straight out of Cher's "Believe". Factually speaking, I have no idea how much of this song was meticulously constructed from scratch and how much involved just pressing some "Start" button, but Mould's burden is that I have two decades of his music and not-his music as precedent, and from those I cannot imagine deriving any conclusion other than that this song is a cop-out of historic proportions. I will never forgive Paul Weller for sacrificing the Jam to the Style Council, but at least that took effort. "180 Rain" sounds like exactly what ACID expects you to be doing after ten minutes, pushing random buttons and groovingly along uncritically, and the fact that it's Bob Mould singing over it, and Bob Mould's name that gets it released as if it's a real song, no more redeems it for me than Todd English could rescue a McFish sandwich by salting it adroitly. This is Bob Mould, I mutter to myself in infuriated amazement. This man wrote "New Day Rising" and "Black Sheets of Rain" and "Hoover Dam"; listening to him reduced to two-finger typing on an idiotically perky iBook (or however this was done) is like enduring repeated aversion-therapy screenings of the end of Charly. It's not even that the song is bad (actually, on its own burbly terms I quite like it), it's that Bob Mould was a musical revolutionary, and the twenty-four-year-old who programmed these loop riffs is a clever kid, and if cleverness has supplanted revolution, my heart is sinking. "Sunset Safety Glass" is chattering and aimless. The "instrumental" "Homecoming Parade" sounds like Mould might have discovered, when he got one of his new toys home, that the recorder had been running while he was randomly poking at it in the store. "Lost Zoloft" makes David Gray sound like Alice Cooper. "Without?" could be ersatz Evelyn Glennie commissioned by a cheap-ass mouthwash company. The coy "Quasar" is basically why I can never listen to Kid 606 records for more than five minutes in a row. "Comeonstrong" sounds like somebody with a library of Mould's guitar samples and no concept at all of what was important about them. "Trade" sounds like one of those New Wave b-sides a reissue would have been better off without. "Author's Lament" is a Trent Reznor sleepwalk.
But as willing as those songs make me to try to forget this album ever existed and hope desperately that the other two records Mould is supposedly releasing this year will turn out to be the ones he was really working on, then there are the other songs. "Semper Fi" has more useless synth twittering and pointlessly busy hi-hat loops, but it also has bouncy kick-snare caroms, Mould's howling guitar and his weary, inexorable voice. The drum-machine thump in "Slay / Sway" is endearingly artless, and tags along after Mould and his guitar in a way that reminds me at once of the deliberate raggedness of Atom and His Package and the incongruous clarity of GbV's Do the Collapse. "The Receipt" starts off like more time-killing toy-fiddling, ambient noises wandering from one speaker to another in search (presumably) of one I don't have to listen to, but then the guitars and drums suddenly materialize, and for a couple minutes we have a song. And then, on "Soundonsound", Mould finally devises a truce with his toys from which I can imagine a far, far better album than this one day emerging. The dry, stuttering drum part has modern sample-resolution, but beatbox unpretentiousness. Adrift acoustic guitar fragments blend into the synth flutters. The guitars roar in for the choruses, and Mould picks his way carefully through a bitter relationship autopsy. "She's pulling the weeds up slowly, / He's picking the pennies from her vest. / They're stuck in their own dimension / And cashing in change for something less." "I frame the picture neatly, / You appear to wear the crown." Yes. This is a possible future. This is something the past could have been leading towards. Having been Bob Mould all those years should have earned him the benefit of some doubt, otherwise won't all successes be inherently final? For just this moment, I can imagine that this isn't Mould getting sidetracked by technology, it is technology arriving just in time to accurately render Mould's experience of having been who he was, and turning slowly into somebody else. It's not like I want him to keep making "New Day Rising"s; as with both the Replacements and Soul Asylum, I liked the major-label Hüsker Dü albums better than the indie ones, and I've come to wonder whether Sugar wasn't actually more important and influential in some ways. I support his right to move forward. No, it's more than that: I support his right to careen sideways, and backwards, as long as I think the motivation is progress. And so, as silly and judgmental and possibly patronizing as this sounds, I am content, and maybe even pleased, to distrust so much of this record. If he'd asked me, I would only have told him not to release these songs, not to not make them. Some aspect of the new technology will let Bob Mould do something that nobody else could have, and how is he going to figure out what it is without trying all the buttons? I listen to Alanis and claim that all I demand from adults is a lot of curiosity and a little wisdom. Bob Mould deserves the same tolerance, regardless of how much less (and more) he has to prove. This album seems profoundly unwise to me, but the best thing about wisdom is that foolishness doesn't diminish it. Arguably wisdom is an accumulation of failed foolishnesses, and the more foolishnesses you try, the more often you'll screw one up. And if that's modulate.'s lesson, then I guess I don't even wish it hadn't been released. It is a master craftsman's badly botched first attempt to make something new. And when he learns to make these correctly, I'm not sure I won't still cherish this mangled one more.