Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Pop Music: How Deep Is Your Love?

Some mid-life musical musings, in three (or more) posts:

I recently bought the soundtrack for Saturday Night Fever.

My wife and I were preparing to celebrate our anniversary. I was trolling through that enormous repository of commercially approved downloads, looking for music she might enjoy on the ride into the city. As I perused through her list of favorite artists, sampling their new material, it occurred to me she might be happier with something she hadn’t heard in a while, but could sing along to. The Saturday Night Fever album had just received a new coat of paint, so I clicked “purchase” and burned it straight to CD.

The CD’s inaugural spin was pleasant. Neither of us had owned this soundtrack before, but it didn’t matter. The movie came out when I turned 12 and was just discovering my preferences in pop. For the next five years it was impossible to listen to the radio for more than five minutes without getting hit by something from this album. Although I was a vocal member of the “Disco Sucks!” cadre of pubescent male radio listeners, I secretly enjoyed the illicit thrill of dance music (girls dance to it — what's not to like?). For me, the songs conjured memories of sweaty palms and nervous laughter in roller skating rinks. Now, over 30 years later, I couldn’t recollect more than one or two lines from various choruses. My wife, on the other hand, is the youngest of four and knew the album from front to back.

So, mission: accomplished. Personally, however, what started out as a nostalgic trip was gradually prompting feelings of unease. It took me a while to put my finger on exactly what was bugging me, but I gradually identified the problem. First of all, there was the sound. The songs had been tweaked to meet the current taste for all things bright and bassy. Just touching the volume knob was enough to fill the car with the aural landscape of 70s disco, making the music startlingly close. The distance I was used to — chiefly the flat, arid sound of AM broadcasting, or the dull bellow of a DJ’s sound system — had been obliterated, and with it the romance of memory.

I thought of the 15 (or so) million people who, back in the day, had crowded the record stores to purchase the vinyl double album. If they were like me, they played their records from beginning to end, by halves. The stylus touched down, the familiar hiss and pop gave notice to just how loud the volume was going to be, then the music erupted. And the listener stayed with it — no hitting the “skip track” button when things got slow.

Those filters and limitations, and many more besides, were now completely removed. Not only that, but my temperament as a listener had changed. I was now taken over with a new set of expectations cultivated by digital convenience — a shorter attention span, the knee-jerk impulse to cut immediately to songs I wanted to hear, etc. The banalities of “A Fifth Of Beethoven” tested my patience in ways I hadn’t anticipated. The now unmediated presence of the Gibb brothers and their production team seemed to highlight a falseness within their expressed sentiment. And then it dawned on me that there was something about owning the music that deflated its former drama. Prior to this, stumbling across a radio station playing “Stayin’ Alive” had been a giddy treat. Queuing up the song in my car stereo at my own convenience ... not so much. Worst of all, I had now rendered impotent the future power of random radio play.

There remains, of course, the unalloyed pleasure of hearing one’s wife singing along to songs she hasn’t heard in years. But the experience has me re-thinking my expectations of — and my relationship to — recorded music, and music in general.


dan horwedel said...

So, maybe a mid-life crisis isn't about wanting more control, but it's coming to the realization that we've had too much?? Hmm.

side note: my word verification for this was "exessess"

Whisky Prajer said...

To quote my favorite Vulcan theologian: "After a time, you may find that having is not so pleasing a thing, after all, as wanting. It is not logical, but it is often true."

My word verification is "epitynci" which I believe is the Vulcan art of self-restraint.

DarkoV said...

Impressive that your wife can reach the singing heights of the Bee Gees, the only singing group in history, as far as I know, that mutually agreed on going the eunuch route as their training methodology. I somehow envisioned her singing timbre to be more in the low Bonnie Raitt or (as you had once referred to) Michelle Shocked.

Continuing onward and admitting a secret here, my daughter clued in on a weak spot I have for Philly's own Hall & Oates and bought me a vinyl Best of for last Christmas. It's amazing how much Flight of the Conchords were "influenced" by this hairful duo.

And, yes, She's Gone still works for me. It'll take a devil to replace it.

Whisky Prajer said...

My wife is more of a Bonnie/Michelle sort of singer, but she'll happily resort to falsetto when necessary. Or else she'll sing an octave (or two) lower.

Hall & Oates ... funny, but for the longest time I was sure they were Canadian. I tended to confuse them with latter-day Chilliwack.

yahmdallah said...

The album always sounded like crap (as did most of the Bee Gees releases) because their record label - RSO I think - had crappy prints, and I think even the master recordings were bad. They always sounded fuzzy and had a limited dynamic range. It's just slightly possible that they purposely had the sound very compressed in anticipation that it would be played very loudly in dance clubs*, but I bet it was just the record company being cheap.

*Btw, if you listen to the recordings of The Who, they also are amazingly compressed. Put on a Pink Floyd album followed by a Who album and you'll hear the difference immediately. I always wondered why this was so - and for a while chalked it up to Pete Townshend being mostly deaf - but then one day turned it waaaaay up, and wouldn't you know it, it was perfectly equalized for playing at top volume. Suddenly all the resolution and dynamic range was there. So I think they equalized it on purpose for that. Just a theory.

Whisky Prajer said...

Crappy record label/crappy prints explains a great deal, actually. I was listening to it again the other day and wondering where the "middle" had disappeared to. No wonder just about everybody blamed the John Travolta vehicle for ruining music.

As for The Who, I'm embarrassed to confess I didn't buy my first Who album (Who's Next, fittingly) until I was 19. And at that age, the only volume I resorted to was LOUD -- the way "Baba O'Reilly" was meant to be heard.