An article in last week’s New Yorker (not the egregious debut-fiction double issue) chronicled the effects recording technology has had on popular music and the way music is produced. It was an extremely cursory survey — the topic probably requires a book the size of The Printing Press as an Agent of Change to be thorough — but a welcome relief from the ahistorical criticism that typifies magazines. Typically magazines are enlisted to promote the idea that whatever is happening now is the most important thing that has ever happened, the culmination of trends that have building for a long time. Magazines serve the purpose of binding us to the present, selling us the status quo as the teleology of history. Readers enjoy this, as it convinces them that the accident of their birth in these times was extremely fortunate for them. And it’s extremely freeing to have the zero degree of memory modeled for us day after day — the way several different books can be cited as the most important book of the year on successive days, the way that one long-term economic prognosis on the front page of the Money and Investing section of the Journal can be completely contradicted the next day with no notice of the sudden shifts in direction. An alternate history is always generated spontaneously to make the current pronouncement inevitable, which has the sum effect of making the past irrelevant.
People are generally uninterested in historical/technological studies like the New Yorker piece because they expect magazines to confirm that the readers themselves, as the profound individuals they all are, are really the only agents of history — that we have complete autonomy and our choices have the complete impact we intend. We want magazines to pander to our importance.
The article debates whether recording has destroyed music, an Adornoesque plaint that follows this logic: recordings commodify sound and mechanical duplication alienates it from the performer. Music reappears in culture as an industrial product, accomplishing the promulgation of industrial ideology. It thus accustoms workers to the rhythms of the assembly line, it teaches them to mistake flashy tricks and effects for true creativity and improvisation, it flattens composition to the repetition of a few set formulas and encourages listeners to see that as true creativity, the wise choice among circumscribed options (kind of like American democracy). The ease with which music can be played with records makes it ubiquitous, and utterly devalues it, destroying its “negative” function — its ability to negate the techno-rational affirmative culture that entombs us. Positivists might say that technology allows consumers to become more active in their consumption, that reproduction makes consumption productive — the sort of thinking that views dee-jaying as a creative art. The real problem is that music is already a commodity the first time we hear it — we cannot conceive of music that’s not already implicated in consumer capitalism. No music remains innocent.