Considering the aftermath of a two-week digital cleanse, gifted singer/composer Gabriel Kahane recently wrote a post that began as a heartfelt defense of non-violent resistance and expanded into a musing on what we human beings may lose when we hand too much of our existence over to our digital selves. These thoughts in particular struck me deeply:

Empathy requires time, contemplation, and ideally, the physical presence and energy of other human beings. Twitter allows for none of these. In fact, by disconnecting people from the ideas they espouse, and reducing those ideas to words on a screen, it further diminishes our ability to empathize with the ideas of others.

Kahane was writing about life and death matters, with our country’s existence abruptly and breathtakingly on the line. Entirely sympathetic to his views, I want to dial back the stakes a bit, not because they aren’t important (oh, but they are), but because they are beyond my bailiwick. I believe his thoughts to be very relevant to our current politic crisis; I also believe them to be relevant to the artistic crisis we have been experiencing in the music industry since the onset of the digital age. And in a weird way, they may be connected.

Let me try to explain.buy records

The digital age, in music, began in earnest when the means to rip songs off CDs decoupled an artist’s output from their capacity to maintain ownership of their own work. I won’t yet again run through why the gleeful piracy instigated first by Napster and later by the torrent sites was so shameful; it’s old news here.

Then came the second half of the digital revolution, when the technology and marketing aligned to convince the world that MP3s were now, anyway, beside the point; what everyone really wants and needs is to stream music. It’s convenient, it’s cheap, and it’s all but limitless. You can listen to anything you want to, any time, anywhere. You’d have to be some weird kind of fetishist to still want to “own” music in the face of this digital cornucopia.

Now I have nothing against streaming at all. I stream music all the time, primarily as a way to listen to albums and/or songs that I might want to buy. But, yes: I still want to own my music. I have for years been trying to formulate the definitive argument on why owning is important and why it remains a necessary option even in the age of streaming, and I’ve been circling around a variety of positions without landing on exactly the right defense.

There’s the “streaming services don’t have everything” argument, which has its merits; there’s the “streaming services can go out of business” argument, which seems also important, given their ongoing unprofitability; there’s the “no music when the internet goes down” argument, which is compelling under certain circumstances. But I’ve always felt that deeper than logistical concerns like this, there remains a more profound reason to want to own music versus rent it. Sometimes I’ve posited the “you wouldn’t rent your clothes, why rent your music?” argument, which has its charms but never really caught on.

And then I read Kahane’s piece and the light bulb went off.

The disappearance of empathy

Kahane began with the thought that empathy requires “the time, contemplation, and ideally, the physical presence and energy of other human beings.” From the beginning of the digital age, when piracy ruled the musical oceans, as it were, I argued time and again against piracy based, ultimately, on the premise that it simply was not fair to the musicians. The idea of fairness always got pooh-poohed by the technology zealots who believed they were heralding a brave new world in which everything digital was somehow free because, well, the future.

But maybe the real reason the zealots, then as now, cared so little about fairness was because to be tuned into treating other human beings fairly requires a state of empathy. And if, as Kahane now asserts, empathy requires time and contemplation and the physical presence of others, well, aren’t these things that the digital realm erases? With its unstoppable flow of data, driven by clicks and swipes, digital content consumes our waking hours even as we spend very little time on any one specific item, so compelled we are to move from one thing to another and another. Not spending more than a few moments on any one piece of digitalia eliminates contemplation. And because it’s all happening on a screen, we are not dealing with any human being’s actual presence or interpersonal sense of felt energy.

And in this digital realm, vacuumed of humanist values such as contemplation and three-dimensional interaction, empathy far too easily disappears. Lack of empathy rather obviously fueled the piracy era; few people seemed willing even to consider the harm being done to actual individual human beings by illegally possessing and distributing music, never mind to consider refraining from piracy because of this harm. Even if the vast majority of people who pirated music during piracy’s heyday quite honestly “meant no harm,” had no evil intentions per se, neither did their actions ultimately reveal the positive intentionality that civilized society requires. Together, after all, we must do more than “mean no harm”; we must have the wherewithal to understand that active collective purpose to do good is also required.

This is why the MP3, to me, functions as a vehicle for empathy, even without a physical presence. The purchased download represents a conscious decision to be supportive, to reach out and connect with the artist, and your digital library, residing within your own personal computing space, becomes an articulated statement—not as public as records on a shelf, to be sure, but still, potentially, as intentional.

The age of streaming has introduced a subtler means by which empathy drains from the music delivery ecosystem. Streaming, even when paid for, falls woefully short of proper compensation to the artists. Maybe more to the point, streaming, removed from the engagement of owning, keeps listeners disinterested in the specifics of their streams. It has become more important simply to keep the stream flowing than to focus too purposefully on the songs that are flowing by. By making music ceaseless and ubiquitous (remember that widely-used ’00s metaphor about how music should be “like water”?), streaming subtly turns a connective, popular art form into a generic, dissociated sound delivery vehicle.

For casual music fans this may well be enough. And I am not disparaging anyone who does not feel a need to connect any more deeply with the music they are listening to. It’s a wide world and we all have different needs and feelings about what we listen to and how we listen. I get that.

But when the technology industry willfully pushes a certain way to listen to music, extolling its benefits with no recognition of its disadvantages, well, I have to speak up. Because there end up being unintended consequences.

Music minus any implied presence

Streaming is convenient, without question. But it is also now another digital activity that happens in an empathy vacuum. Because look: Kahane spoke above about how social media “disconnect[s] people from the ideas they espouse, and reduc[es] those ideas to words on a screen,” which “further diminishes our ability to empathize with the ideas of others.” I would say that streaming, relatedly, disconnects people from the music they are listening to by removing any depth of context from the act of listening—there’s not only no package to hold physically, there’s no linking of the sound of the music to any contextual anchor that would ground the sound in dimensional reality: no liner notes to consider, no organizational folder in which the song as an object, even a digital object, resides. Music is reduced to sound in a stream, which, echoing Kahane, I contend diminishes our ability to relate to it as the expression of a three-dimensional, living, breathing human.

What’s more, the stream we listen to now, as distinct from listening to terrestial radio, is generated without any apparent human intervention. What radio lacks in a physical product to buy and hold it makes up for with the aural presence of human beings—hosts to present the music, conversation in and around the songs. Best of all, radio offers community, baked into the understanding that what you are listening to on the radio other people are listening to also, at the same time. Radio is a communal experience. Streaming offers each listener his or her own hermetically sealed flow of music. There is no implied presence of anyone else.

I don’t think we, collectively as humans attempting to live peacefully together, can afford to engage in too many more activities that inherently sap us of empathy. While there is no way to correlate the rise of first piracy and now streaming with the rise of tribal intolerance online, and the election of a singularly unqualified and frighteningly autocratic man as President of the United States, I see a through-line here that troubles me.

The great music writer Alex Ross is the only person I’ve yet come across who has noted a correlation between piracy and autocracy in his December essay for The New Yorker entitled “The Frankfurt School Knew Trump Was Coming.” Speaking of the way an authoritarian leader can use mass distraction and misdirection to blind his supporters from the harm his policies are actually going to do to them, Ross pointed to the enabling mechanism of social media, which presents information without requiring it to be truthful—without, even, caring if it is socially poisonous. He writes:

From the start, Silicon Valley monopolies have taken a hands-off, ideologically vacant attitude toward the upwelling of ugliness on the Internet. A defining moment was the turn-of-the-century wave of music piracy, which did lasting damage to the idea of intellectual property. Fake news is an extension of the same phenomenon, and, as in the Napster era, no one is taking responsibility. Traffic trumps ethics.

And so the snake eats its own tail: traffic trumps ethics, increased online activity vanquishes empathy, leading to more traffic, leading to more deplorable (yes I’m using the word purposefully) online denizens who seem if anything eager to glory in the misfortunes of others. (Have you seen those mugs being sold to right-wingers that claim to be filled with “Liberal Tears”? Has there ever previously been a political movement whose only apparent purpose is to revel in the misery of their opponents?)

I have strayed from my original purpose. But everything post-11/9 seems to connect back to our dire circumstances. At the same time, one thing the new president has surely done is light a fire under those of us who still remember what American values actually are. We must continue to recognize each other, nourish each other, and be humane to one another. Any true path of resistance is grounded in empathy. Don’t let your digital life strip you of this consciousness-raising trait.

And if you don’t have the energy to be too overtly political right now (we’re all on overload at this point), do yourself and the musical world a favor and buy some music. Schroeder would understand, and approve.

EPS4-01

In 1978, John Prine released a wonderful album called Bruised Orange. According to a story he told a couple of years later, the record company, doing that record-company thing back in the day, sent him a case of oranges as part of some kind of promotional effort or another. When it came time to make his next album, he figured he would call it Storm Windows. Because he needed some. This, at least, is the story he told at the time. And I’m guessing he actually had no idea what kind of future we were going to end up in when he sang the song that closes out EPS 4.01.

This playlist, I feel compelled to report, was created in an unusual flow. I’m not sure if it’s any better or worse than my previous output but I will say that I found myself feeling no need to edit or tweak the way I normally do, even if it meant rather inexplicably returning to Bonnie Raitt after just a couple of months. Nothing against Bonnie she’s just not that close to the top of my list normally! And now I also don’t seem to feel the need to comment other than to say that the more time goes by the more I love Liz Phair. And the more David Bowie seems to represent the apotheosis of rock music.

These opinions are my own and do not represent the views of the current Administration. And never will.

p.s. “I Live My Broken Dreams” really does end that abruptly. An impossible segue.


Full playlist below the widget.

“Opus 23” – Dustin O’Halloran (Piano Solos Vol. 2, 2006)
“No Plan” – David Bowie (No Plan EP, 2017)
“Lorelei” – Cocteau Twins (Treasure, 1984)
“So You’re Leaving” – Al Green (Let’s Stay Together, 1972)
“Silence Kid” – Pavement (Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain, 1994)
“I Live My Broken Dreams” – Gramma’s Boyfriend (PERM, 2015)
“Butch and Butch” – Oliver Nelson (The Blues and the Abstract Truth, 1961)
“Alison Gross” – Steeleye Span (Parcel of Rogues, 1973)
“Run Back to You” – Marshall Crenshaw (The 9 Volt Years, 1998)
“I Just Can’t Live My Life (Without You Babe)” – Linda Jones (single, 1969)
“Birth, School, Work, Death” – The Godfathers (Birth, School, Work, Death, 1988)
“But Will Our Tears” – Soy Un Caballo (Les Heures de Raison, 2007)
“Surf’s Up” – The Beach Boys (Surf’s Up, 1971)
“Baby Mine” – Bonnie Raitt and Was (Not Was) (Stay Awake: Various Interpretations of Music from
       Vintage Disney Films
, 1988)
“Time to Dance” – The Jezabels (The Brink, 2014)
“E-Bow the Letter” – R.E.M. (New Adventures in Hi-Fi, 1996)
“I’ll Stop At Nothing” – Sandie Shaw (single, 1965)
“When You Find Out” – The Nerves (The Nerves EP, 1976)
“My Bionic Eyes” – Liz Phair (Liz Phair, 2003)
“Living in the Future” – John Prine (Storm Windows, 1980)

Jesca Hoop

“The Lost Sky” – Jesca Hoop

Itchy and curious, “The Lost Sky” grabs my ear in a “where is this going?” kind of way, as the song’s opening verses unfold over minimal, agitated acoustic guitar work and a precise, intermittent bass line. But as the song proceeds I slowly get the idea that where the song is going is where it already is: the ear has to adjust to its edgy open-endedness, its determined lack of solid ground. Symbolic of its restless core is what happens at the end of the (not very chorus-like) chorus (1:23-1:26). Listen first to how the melody has slowed down and seems at last to move towards resolution; and then, nope, it turns out that the note the ear is waiting for (1:23-1:26) is not an ending but a beginning: the resolving note starts the next verse and off we go again.

Other things begin to anchor me as I listen, starting first and foremost with Hoop’s harmonies, which kick in at 1:12 on the song’s incisive question “Why would you say those words to me if you could not follow through?” The narrator is a brokenhearted lover, and as the song plucks along my heart warms with the understanding that it only ever takes a talented songwriter to render the familiar unfamiliar. Here we get propulsive but diligent music, evocative lyrics, and then, yes, those increasingly startling and satisfying harmonies (where she takes it at 2:31 caused me just about to gasp), and there I am, embraced yet again, with gratitude, by the potency of song. It’s a nice place to be right about now.

Born in California, singer/songwriter Jesca Hoop moved to Manchester (UK) in 2010. “The Lost Sky” is from her forthcoming album, Memories Are Now, coming out in February on Sub Pop Records. Here is someone who apparently cycles through Fingertips in five-year loops; Hoop was previously featured in 2007 and 2012.

MP3 via Colorado Public Radio.

The William Shakes

“The Fault” – The William Shakes

At once comfortable and intriguing, “The Fault” is better than it has any right to be, and certainly better than you are imagining it could be, based on this: The William Shakes is a project established to create indie rock songs from “de-contextualized” Shakespearean dialogue. Yeah, I know. But trust me, this works amazingly well.

The mastermind here is Boston area musician Mark McGettrick. According to press material, McGettrick was inspired by David Bowie’s famous “cut-up” methodology for writing lyrics, and for whatever reason thought to apply it to the Bard. McGettrick selects a character from a Shakespeare play, isolates that character’s lines, randomly puts them back together, and then “curates” them into song lyrics. “The Fault” is based on lines spoken by the character Cassius in Julius Caesar, who among other things uttered the famous “The fault, dear Brutus is not in our stars/But in ourselves, that we are underlings.” The project has yielded a four-song EP, entitled How Goes The Night?, which is coming out in February.

Back to the song itself, which is almost hypnotically powerful–all forward motion and economical guitar accents, with a cascading melody often magnetized around one central note. McGettrick has an incisive, slightly wavery voice that wanders DIY-ishly off pitch in a fetching way that somehow makes the words all the more absorbing. And what words!; and how they shine a shrewd light on what song lyrics have to do and what they don’t have to do in service of convincing music. Shakespeare’s iambic pentameter has built-in scannability (e.g., “So well as by reflection, I your glass”), his vocabulary relentless vigor; these two factors help to generate a song with ineffable backbone. As a long-time fan of song lyrics as sound versus sense, I am not bothered if I do not understand what a singer is singing or what the words actually mean. In fact, I believe that a song’s overall meaning is sometimes clearer on an abstract and intuitive level than a concrete and explainable one. Listen to “The Fault” and maybe you’ll hear what I’m talking about.

McGettrick composed and produced all songs on the EP himself, and played guitar, bass, and percussion as well. A handful of other musicians contributed, from Boston and beyond. McGettrick has been around the Boston music scene for a number of years but this appears to be his first solo recording.

Orouni

“The Lives of Elevators” – Orouni

What a fluid and charming piece of work this one is, buoyed by an effortless sense of melody and the fragile but authoritative voice of the eponymous Orouni. A Parisian singer/songwriter whose self-proclaimed influences include the likes of Leonard Cohen and The Kinks, Orouni makes carefully composed songs in which the notes seem handcrafted, one by one, then sung with an ongoing aura of surprise and assurance. The chord change at 0:56, gentle and resolute, is emblematic of the song’s pervading ambience of precipitant redesign, which culminates at 2:37 with a trumpet solo. It is both unexpected and ideal.

“The Lives of Elevators” is a live performance, from a recently folded-up French music site called Findspire, the offerings of which remain available on YouTube. Watch the video and be lulled by the easy-going flow, as we check in visually with each musician, so locked into the groove that they somehow seem to be playing one thing but listening to another. I mean that as a compliment, even if that doesn’t sound like one.

Orouni has recorded three albums to date, which you can listen to and purchase via Bandcamp. I recommend a visit there. “The Lives of Elevators” is based on a 2008 New Yorker article of the same name, written by Nick Paumgarten, which itself is worth reading. The song is a new one, which might appear on the next Orouni album, which might be released this year. Plans are yet unclear. Thanks to Orouni for the MP3.