The measure of all things

Surviving as a qualitative enterprise in a quantitative world

The day after the 2022 Grammys were awarded I received an email entitled “The Grammys, Corrected: ‘Montero’ Is the Song of the Year.” It came from a music analytics company called Viberate, which specializes in “streaming, airplay, and social media monitoring,” according to the company web site. The concept makes a lot of sense in a music landscape as fragmented and streaming-based as we now have. Clearly the old-school idea of what is a “hit song” has been disrupted by new listening habits generated by 21st-century technology.

But in their enthusiasm to promote their analytical prowess, the brain trust at Viberate has ignored the fact that quality and quantity are (news flash!) not the same thing. “We finally have the winners of the 2022 Grammy Awards, with the coveted Song of the Year title going to Silk Sonic’s ‘Leave the Door Open,'” begins the Viberate press release. “However, data tells a different story.”

Actually, no. Data cannot tell a different story. The Song of the Year award is given to a song perceived by those who vote for such things as the “best” song of the year. No amount of analytics, however sophisticated, can change the fact that the voters thought that the Silk Sonic song was better than Lil Nas X’s “Montero (Call Me By Your Name)” and therefore Silk Sonic received the award.

Note that I’m not defending the voters’ choice. Lil Nas X may have the better song here, or may not. Awards of this nature are subjective; arguments afterwards about who deserved this or that award are part of the territory. To promote the “‘Montero’ was more popular so it has to win the Grammy” story line reveals either ignorance (do the Viberate folks not realize that awards in the arts are tied to quality not quantity?), misguided bravado (our numbers are better than your opinions!), or outright cynicism (we can measure this objectively so let’s pretend subjectivity doesn’t exist). You choose!

And okay on the one hand this is a small and ignorable circumstance, just another fledgling tech company trying to boost its profile. But the mindset underlying this press release is all too common. I’ve discussed this before, most directly in an essay making the case for quality as an essential cultural concept being routinely devalued by Big Tech–read here if you’re interested. This time I’m going to take the discussion in a more personal direction, as I have lately been pondering my fate not only as the creator of qualitative content in a quantitative digital environment, but as a human having lived a life in which I have consistently fallen short of quantifiable measures of what is typically deemed “success” in our Western, late-capitalist culture. I have never earned a serious-looking salary; I spent many of my middle-adult years both as a primary caregiver and a freelance writer landing whatever modest assignments I could hustle up. All the while, at a more fundamental level, I have felt out of sync with the general concept of having a so-called career in the first place–a “career” itself being a stand-in for an accepted level of human success in our culture.

Hijacked by metrics

Emblematic of my standing in the world is this web site, a carefully constructed but (let’s face it) simple-looking operation, offering thoughtful, well-written (I think) reviews, downloadable songs, and mixed-genre playlists that either a) relatively few people are interested in or b) relatively few people have discovered in the first place. Each option appears discouraging for different reasons: either I’ve been spending the better part of two decades doing something no one really cares about, or doing something that more people might care about were I more capable of attracting attention to myself.

Dig deeper, however, and the two different explanations for the ostensible failure of Fingertips can be seen as rooted in the same circumstance, which is a culture hijacked by metrics at every level of effort. On the one hand, yes–I could have worked (much) harder over the years to market this site, which by the 2010s would have involved mastering the art of social media promotion and/or search engine optimization. But on the other hand: note how quantitative such endeavors are, how the ineluctable, reductive point is to generate big numbers of clicks. If one’s original goal is an off-the-beaten-path enterprise–that is, not something that is ever going to appeal to millions of people–attempting to generate millions of page views is a fool’s errand from the get-go.

And, were it not a fool’s errand, there’s the off-putting reality of the surveillance-capitalist tricks I’d have to piggy-back onto to effect any sort of far-reaching promotional campaign in the first place.

The bottom line is that a media environment requiring the pursuit of a mass audience seems always to subsume the quality of what is being promoted to the overarching effort to trigger mass quantities of reactions, as instantaneously as possible. There seems no space on the web for the modest success; if something works, it’s supposed to work bigger, and bigger still. It is a media environment that gives birth to an enterprise like Viberate, with a mindset that the only thing that matters is quantity. One person’s hype-free effort to offer quality content–say, a boutique music-curation site–has little place in the metric-tilted environment propagated by our 24/7 information flow and feedback loop. Millions of page views or it didn’t happen. The most popular song is the best song.

The internet didn’t have to develop this way. Things were quirkier and gentler in the late ’90s into the early ’00s, when I started this site. But once the corporations gained a foothold, intoxicated by the power latent in a largely unregulated marketplace, the current situation became steadily inevitable. Fortified by unprecedented amounts of data and the potential to reach more or less anyone anywhere, the internet is a quantitative wonderland; for better or worse, small-scale, qualitative enterprises are more or less irrelevant here.

Facing the music
Chelsea Cutler has criticized the industry’s social media fixation

The fact that the internet reduces to quantity over quality at every turn has had a notable impact on the music industry, both for listeners and for the artists making the music. Singer/songwriter Chelsea Cutler generated headlines at the beginning of the year for posting, on Instagram, her thoughts on what seems to have gone wrong with the music business, focusing on her discomfort with the industry’s mindless embrace of social media for promoting musicians. She wrote: “With the way social media has evolved the last year, I don’t know how to keep up with how insatiable our content culture has become.” In particular, she said, “it feels exhausting to be constantly thinking of how to turn my daily life into ‘content’ especially knowing that I feel best mentally when I spend less time on my phone. It also feels exhausting to be told by everyone in the industry that this is the only effective way to market music right now.”

I’ve long been criticizing the way that musicians have been forced into being social media performers–why assume the most talented musicians are also the most talented attention-getters?–but it’s the logical end result of an online environment in which pure and immediate quantity has become the only meaningful measure of success. (The most popular song is the best song.) The fact that record companies have taken to signing musicians based on one (count ’em, one) TikTok clip is perhaps the apotheosis of quantity mania in the music world. Forget whether an artist has developed a consistent following, has a proven performance and songwriting track record, and shows other important signs of being worthy of serious investment (including whether the music is actually any good!)–nope, let’s throw big bucks at a rando who attracted a one-time crowd on a social media app catering to the shortest of short attention spans. Makes sense to me!

Meanwhile, this over-focus on quantity affects listeners in so many subtle and not-subtle ways that it should be the subject of another essay, and perhaps will be. But let’s start here with the reality that every single recommendation you receive via the streaming service of your choice is based on popularity. And while this isn’t terrible in all cases–sometimes it’s helpful to know which songs of an unfamiliar artist have been most popular–the fact that a basic, quantifiable characteristic (number of streams) is the engine driving the music listening environment of our current day to the exclusion of other factors is not just distressing at a soul level (for what that’s worth), it has opened up a blatantly corrupt can of worms regarding the prevalence of fake artists on streaming services like Spotify.

The fake artist phenomenon is, among other things, proof positive that not everything that’s popular is good and/or worthy of attention; streaming stats will conversely illustrate that not everything that isn’t popular is bad and/or undeserving of attention. But this appears to be too nuanced a concept for a digital world in which everything is ultimately rendered as a 0-or-1, yes-or-no reality. In a way, one might consider quantity to be a digital fact, quality an analog fact.

The tyranny of quantity

Where this tyranny-of-quantity situation leaves me personally is an ongoing question. As of now there are two reasons why I keep Fingertips going despite its longstanding failure as a digital enterprise. The first is that I like the work–I like discovering great songs, many of which are somewhat under the radar, and writing about them in a way that illuminates the listening process. When I’m engaged with it I feel like I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing. The second reason is somewhat tautological: I’ve been doing it since 2003; to stop now seems to make all the previous years of work even more meaningless than they may already be. If I think too hard about this second reason, however, it also turns into a reason to stop–why continue the meaningless work for one day longer?

When all is said and done, a lot of what I’ve written about here over the years has advocated either directly or indirectly for the ongoing importance of quality in a world transfixed by quantity. This may be a little ‘woo-woo,’ but I believe that the physical reality of digitalia–the fact that all computerized information, however complex, whether textual or visual or musical, is reduced to a series of electronic gates that are open or closed, no in between–is if not the direct cause of the interrelated humanistic crises provoked by our having given ourselves over to this black-or-white world, then is in any case a powerful metaphor for what’s rotten here at the core. The world is relentlessly analog: there is nuance, there is gradation, there are grey areas, there is verticality and depth. Anything digitized, deep at the bottom of all the arcane code, possesses none of these characteristics. We can’t change that but we also ignore it at our peril–if not physical peril (it may yet come to that) then certainly emotional and spiritual peril.

This is a lot of writing to arrive at no particular conclusion, but so far I don’t have one. Quantity continues to stamp its cold hard boot on the tender face of quality. Fingertips is a small effort in the quality camp. The question remains whether small-scale quality on the internet is inevitably tantamount to the proverbial tree falling in the unpopulated forest. Some days the thought of how invisible I am here drives me nuts–not because I yearn for fame (at all), but because I know there are a lot of people out there, including people far further up the chain in the music industry than I am, who would dig what I’m doing if they would only stumble upon it.

Other days, I tell myself that’s still my ego talking. I tell myself that the only legitimate reason to keep doing what I’m doing is if it comes from deep inside of me and wants to get out. Whether there’s anyone else in the forest is, in theory, beside the point. I gain some solace from something Toni Morrison once said: “You are not the work you do, you are the person you are.” And, hell, if you think about it isn’t that hard enough? Being the person you are? If the words I write and the music I offer on this web site helps me at least try to do that, then that will have to be enough for now.

Defending the MP3

While streaming obviously has its benefits, so do MP3s. From a music listener’s point of view this is not a zero-sum game, even if the pundits want us to believe that.

Pity the poor MP3: as formats for recorded music go, it seems to lie somewhere below the 8-track tape in terms of critical appreciation. Despite its track record as a revolutionary medium for music, the MP3 has never been loved as much as tolerated. And by the end of the 2010s there had developed a widespread feeling of “And don’t let the door hit you on the way out” by industry pundits, as well as no small number of musicians and listeners alike.

Given the short nature of our collective memories, not to mention our increasing resistance to actual facts, it’s easy to forget, here in the 2020s, that in the beginning, a new generation of music fans couldn’t get enough of the MP3. And they proved it by uploading and downloading music willy-nilly, with no regard for legal standards of intellectual property, not to mention simple human fairness. Thus was the MP3 format disfigured from the outset: it was never an unconditional force for good in the world. No other previous medium for recorded music was so immediately and boldly embraced by people who did not feel the need to pay for the product they were laying claim to.

If in the early years of the MP3, the magic of music available digitally was marred by issues of legality, the format gathered additional criticism based on sound quality. Audiophiles wanted nothing to do with MP3s from the get-go, but even music fans with less sensitive ears could likely discern a transistor-radio-like quality to first-generation digital music files. This did change with time, as 128kbps and then 192kbps and higher MP3s became the norm. Once reasonable-quality MP3s were standard, however, the format seemed always to contain a whiff of the inadequate about it–the very idea that recordings had to be “compressed” into MP3s made the end result seem suspicious even if many listeners did not notice any problem with their own ears.

And then came streaming–first slowly, then by the mid-’10s flooding the digital music scene. At that point, for many, it was game over: streaming wins, MP3s lose, no one needs to own their music any longer because how can you own a digital “thing” anyway? Actually you can, but never mind: renting music is so much more convenient and then, wow, look at the end result: you can pretty much listen to anything, any time. Isn’t this what those dreaming in the ’90s about that so-called “Celestial Jukebox” were dreaming about?

I’ve been watching all this from my front-row seat in a virtual theater increasingly threatened by the wrecking ball of obsolescence. I still, clearly, feature MP3s here on Fingertips. And while I am not sure if, to use the old nugget attributed to Mark Twain, reports of the death of the MP3 are greatly exaggerated, I am entirely sure that MP3s even now serve a valuable role in the 21st-century musical landscape and if they are to die an untimely death, we will be collectively losing out on something important about how music may enhance our lives.

Look, I can’t and won’t argue against the many and varied benefits of streaming. I stream music myself on a daily basis, in a variety of circumstances. What I am arguing against is the tech-industry-driven picture of a world in which that beautiful human need we have for music in our lives is so thoroughly serviced by streaming that possessing music of one’s own comes to be regarded as somehow foolish. It is after all standard tech-talk to presume obsolescence, to be so interested in selling the latest technology that any and all ways that the newest innovation ignores or counteracts benefits from previous products and services are dismissed without a care.

Food for thought: if the MP3 were so worthless and kick-aside-able, what’s with the concern over the past few years about “stream ripping,” identified as a “major problem” for the music industry starting in 2016, and continuing to nip at the industry’s heels, as discussed for example in a recent Hollywood Reporter article? Stream ripping is positioned as an ongoing threat to industry revenue; what no one seems to mention is the fact that this means that people still want MP3s.

And yes some who rip streams may simply be trying to avoid YouTube ads, but at this point, it’s not as if every last song that’s available on YouTube has an ad in front of it. Furthermore, it’s not clear that ripping a stream is a less involved process than watching a short ad; to me the act of stream-ripping is more about reasserting control as a listener, about taking possession of the music itself in a way that listeners just can’t do when they are streaming. I have never advocated piracy, and I’m not saying everyone should be stream-ripping to their heart’s content. But in this case, for the first time, I can appreciate the gesture; I can appreciate a listener saying, “I want my MP3.”

So let’s acknowledge the actual facts, free of industry spin: streaming has its benefits and so do MP3s. From a listener’s point of view this is not a zero-sum game, no matter what the pundits say. By now everyone knows what the benefits of streaming are. Few talk about the benefits of the MP3. Some of these benefits are subtle and interrelated, but this is the internet so I will attempt to make this look like a list.

Here as I see them are the benefits of the MP3:

1) The benefit of ownership

This is something that the buzzwordy tech crowd and the casual fans content with listening to Spotify playlists do not understand, relate to, or, I guess, care about. Plenty of committed music fans, too, seem at this point entirely comfortable with using a streaming service’s extensive music library as their own, stringing playlists together on the go, and feeling good about “their music.”

But it’s not their music or their library. It’s someone else’s music they are renting, and not even directly. When you rent a car, you are taking temporary possession of one concrete thing. Paying $10 a month to stream music disconnects the listener from any particular piece of music the fee gives access to. And even if an iTunes library full of MP3s does not present the public display of personal aesthetic preferences that a shelf full of CDs or LPs did in the old days, I contend there is an important if intangible reality attendant to having music that is yours, meaning specific music that you awarefully paid for, accessible via your own physical and/or digital resources. The marketplace–which brings together someone with a thing of value and someone else who wants it pays for it–answers one of human civilization’s primordial needs for the successful interaction of individual selves in a collective enterprise. We know that owning certain things, bringing things into your own personal space, carries significance. The act of offering currency, as a stand in for value, for something specifically valued is part of what human culture does, even when that thing of value is a digital file. To rent music via a monthly fee to a technology company isn’t the same thing.

Knowing that you made the decisive commitment to buy a song or an album, to place it among your possessions, even your digital possessions, marks the music as something of personal significance, as being part of you in palpable way. And at the same time, it creates a bond between listener and artist that feels weakened if not disrupted entirely in a streaming environment.

Another thought here: if ownership has been generally devalued in the music industry, think about who has been doing the devaluing: companies (including record companies) with a stake in streaming revenue, and a tentacled variety of hangers-on (consultants, pundits, promoters, etc.) who have hitched their wagons to Spotify and its varied competitors. Vested interests have been in charge of the conversation here.

And yet try as they might they can’t completely kill the concept of ownership, the inherent value of which is at least in part behind the resurgence of vinyl records–among other things vinyl might be seen as a way for streamers to address their unmet ownership needs. I’m all for that; and I would continue to argue that buying digital music is another (cheaper!) path to the intangible satisfaction of ownership (minus of course the satisfying record covers). (Yet another cheap option few mention any more: buying used CDs and converting them to MP3s yourself.) The ongoing success of Bandcamp, not to mention the extra triumph of “Bandcamp Fridays” (when the site waives its revenue share so that the artists accrue more direct income from purchases) proves that there is a substantial audience of music fans who are willing and able to pay for the music they like.

2) The benefit of reliability

As an MP3, a song’s ongoing existence in your life will now not depend on either: a) the uninterrupted existence of a reliable internet connection, or b) the everlasting survival of a particular internet company.

Regarding a), network connections may be reasonably robust here in the 2020s but shit sometimes does happen. When everything’s working normally, it’s easy to forget that “your” music is residing on a corporate server in a remote location. This appears to be a situation most people don’t care about, but for me it’s another aspect of the frayed connection between the musician and the listener that ownership repairs while streaming perpetuates.

The b) situation sounds even more abstract but is in my mind more troubling in the long term. I have records I bought in the 1970s in my possession. What are the chances that the songs in someone’s Spotify playlist will still be there in 2070? Or 2030 for that matter? More to the point, what are the chances that Spotify will still exist?

Of course one may also ask if the technology that supports MP3s will still be around in 10 or 20 or more years. A legitimate question–but I have to assume that something will persist in this regard, even if it involves eventual migration. And I think it’s clear that technology that is independent of one particular corporation definitely stands a better chance of persisting long-term than does any one company.

A more systemic and intractable issue in the realm of reliability is the persistent fact that no streaming service will ever have every last song or album you might want to listen to, especially to the extent that your tastes are wide-ranging. While I am not someone who goes out of his way to collect rarities and B-sides and such, I have still encountered any number of songs I’ve attempted to put in a Spotify playlist but couldn’t find there. Here is where people content to stream rather than own must simply hand control of their music collection over to corporate forces that are impersonal to a fault.

3) The benefit of conscious limitation

One of the interesting things that happens when 21st-century humans are set free among seemingly limitless choices is a kind of shut-down. People get anxious, they artificially and randomly narrow down their options, they make easy or familiar choices over optimal ones, or turn away from making any choice at all. Search “having too much choice” for a quick glance at the articles, essays, and books that have sprung up in the 21st century on the problems inherent with unlimited number of things to choose from.

Thus did the streaming services rather quickly pivot from bragging about the volume of their libraries to bragging about the quality of their curation–it’s a way to allow the listener to sidestep the problem of how to choose what to listen to from too wide an array of options. But underneath it all there’s always the pressure of choice overload when operating in an effectively infinite environment.

When you have your own, demarcated music library of MP3s sitting on your computer or hard drive or smartphone, you go from a paralysis-inducing unlimited space, populated without intention, to a space of conscious limitation: a purposefully constructed musical environment that can ongoingly inspire and nourish rather than paralyze and hypnotize. While it is theoretically possible to maintain a cordoned-off area of conscious limitation as a streamer, it takes discipline to stay there, rather than drift off into a haze of music being fed to you that you have no particular motivation to pay attention to or even remember in another week or two.

4) The benefit of committed listening

The opposite holds true when you spend actual money for particular pieces of music. As if by magic, investing financially, even in a humble MP3, invests you emotionally too. It’s easy enough to decide you don’t like music that you’re streaming for a few moments before moving onto something else, and then something else. If you’ve paid actual dollars for something, you’re going to be sure to give it a chance. It will sit in your library and call to you. Some music needs more attention and repeated exposure than other music. Streaming incentivizes fast listening and seeing what’s next; it fosters virality over substance. Buying your music fosters commitment. Once you’ve bought the music, you are now on its side: you want to like it, and you’ll work at it if necessary. As such, you learn to listen more patiently, you learn to pay attention to what’s actually unfolding, to move helpfully beyond the realm of the hot take and the snap judgment.

An extra way I choose to accentuate the commitment involved in listening to digital recordings I own versus music I stream is by keeping my digital music library reasonably well-organized. Right at the beginning of the iTunes era, I made the apparently idiosyncratic decision to sort my music by artists’ last names–you know, the way we sort things in real life, versus the idiot iTunes (and, later, Spotify) default of sorting by first name. This step right away made my digital library seem more genuine and, if I may put it this way, self-respecting. I’ve also taken time over the years to create certain sorting categories that make it easier to make playlists–you know, doing the kinds of things that digital music offers as advantages over physical recordings. Paying extra attention to digital storage works as another way to establish a model of commitment in a realm that may too easily transform itself into an indistinct landscape of disembodied and context-free sound.

5) The benefit of convenience

Much of what I’ve talked about here is not oriented specifically towards MP3s as much as any recording you might buy, whether vinyl or CD or MP3. But here’s one that singles out the MP3: MP3s are very easy to access–the first recorded medium, in fact, that doesn’t require a particular, dedicated piece of equipment to be able to listen (that is, you can use any one of a number of multi-purpose devices that you already have). It is also, of course, the first recorded medium that takes up no physical space, which offers related conveniences in terms of transport, transfer, and storage.

Lord knows I am not a fan of convenience for the sake of convenience. I believe with all my heart that convenience is oversold as a thing to seek, never mind worship. (I always refer to the movie Wall-E as the clear and logical endpoint of valuing convenience above all else.) So I’m listing it last. But: I’m still listing it, because hell, it can be pretty great to wander virtually over to Bandcamp, find an album you’d like to buy, download it, and see it populate into your music library in a matter of moments. I’d still rather go to a record store and browse physical objects, but to the extent that my music library is largely digital, there’s no point in not appreciating that aspect of digital music that can make music-buying more accessible.

Only connect

All of these five benefits together add up to what may be the greatest payoff of all: the benefit of feeling connected to something outside of yourself. Ownership lays the groundwork for connection, reliability stabilizes it, limitation renders it intelligible, and commitment deepens the possibility of connecting both to a musical artist’s efforts and to your own inner world of feelings, memories, and simple human aliveness. The accessibility of MP3s is then icing on the cake.

This is not to say that people listening to streamed music can’t likewise develop a worthy connection to what they are listening to. But the streaming environment fights it by its nature, while the personal possession model fosters it.

Note that I am not here to try to cancel streaming, even if I could. I would instead argue for the evolution of an environment for music that embraces both streaming and owning, side by side. Streaming is wonderful for some types of listening and some types of listeners, and falls short in other ways. Whatever its present and future technological limitations, the MP3 remains the most accessible format through which the valuable idea of ownership of recorded music is effected here in the 21st century. In the best of all possible worlds, we might collectively re-establish vinyl (or, better, some more ecologically responsible substrate) at the center of our music libraries, but this is implausible for many reasons. Given the portability and availability of the MP3, there is no good reason that it shouldn’t co-exist with both streamed music and vinyl records in a symbiotic way moving into the future.

Human endeavors, however, quite often fly in the face of “good reason.” I am therefore making no predictions, just laying out a modest case for the music industry’s ugly duckling when no one else seems to want to. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have some new MP3s to listen to and review. Watch this space…


Yeah, but is it art?

Researchers from Georgia Tech have created a robot called Shimon that can write songs, play music, and sing. The marimba-playing robot is going on tour to support a new album that he has composed and sings., Feb. 26, 2020

Among the many and varied innovations that digital technology has brought into our lives is an increasing capacity to produce various types of content in a variety of automated ways. Some of this is as (seemingly) innocuous as Gmail’s “Smart Reply,” which generates responses to emails; others are provocative, such as the “Bot or Not” web site, which challenges you to figure out whether a poem was written by a human or a computer. Visual imagery is another area in which computers have been turned loose to create what some may call “art.”

And then there’s the land of sound, where the computer’s increasing ability to generate music, versus merely assist in its composition and production, presents a deep and murky Pandora’s box of issues, from the artistic and the financial all the way to the ontological. Shimon, the singer/songwriter robot, was inevitable.

As we have collectively become at least a little warier of techno-utopianism than we used to be (thanks, Facebook!), discussions of how computers can create things that previously only humans could write, draw, paint, compose, or otherwise design and produce seem now to take a stance somewhere between the gee-whizzy and the maybe-slightly-concerned—as in, “Wow, look at what computers can do now, or very soon!; I guess we better get used to it?”

Regardless of any given commentator’s assessment of computer-generated writing and artwork and what the future may hold, the one thing everyone holding forth on this topic has in common is a relentless focus on surface output. Discussions are framed around whether an image looks like something a person might have created, whether a poem might be mistaken for something a person might have written. Mimicry is posited as the goal.

What is ignored when considering computer-generated content, of all kinds, is that human-generated art is never simply about the surface of what has been created. The point of a poem isn’t the manifest reality of one word placed after another on a page, it’s that the words were put there, consciously, by a human being with a life history, with connections to and relationships with other human beings, and with an awareness, both instinctive and unique to each person, of the excitement and the fragility of organic existence. Human beings inherently, inescapably bring depth to artistic output; one could argue that that is in fact the whole point of artistic output: the reaching of one individual consciousness towards another, or an audience of others.

Machines programmed to generate output that looks like something a human might have written (or painted, etc.) achieve their task based on massive computational capacity—typically, artificial neural networks designed to mimic, in a limited way, the neural networks at work in the brain, as far as science understands them (which is an incomplete understanding at best). There is nothing resembling “thought” and even less here resembling “feeling” in what the computers are doing to generate these poems or images or songs. Which means that, inherently, there is no depth to it; it’s all surface.

Georgia Tech can happily post a video of Shimon the robot’s “song”—here, if you must:—and, sure, it (kind of) sounds like a normal song. But is that all that music is: sound? Is all we’re hearing when we hear a song simply a sequence of notes, and a series of words?

The same, but different

Let’s try a thought experiment, which at this point doesn’t sound far-fetched. Let’s say that a computer programmed to produce poetry ends up generating a poem that is, word for word, what a human poet somewhere on earth has in fact written. (Maybe this has already happened!) On the surface, the identical words. Underneath: very different. To pretend that the computer’s poem, regardless of its word-for-word match, is the “same” as the human’s is to conflate surface with depth. The human poet dives into their inner world, choosing words to communicate thoughts and feelings—thoughts and feelings that are rooted in the reality of being a thinking, feeling human being who lives and breathes and eventually dies, a human with a family of origin, with a network of friends and loved ones, with a sexual drive and egoic demands, a human who daily struggles with the reality of the aforementioned fragility of human existence. (I re-emphasize this last part because it seems overlooked when considering whether computers can produce human-like art. )

The “gee-whizzy but also worried” folks who confuse the surface of computer-generated content with the depth of art produced by human beings are misdirecting you from the actual trick being performed here. Because the trick isn’t that a computer can write poetry, the trick is the sleight of hand employed to assure us that the surface of the end product is all that matters. Once you buy that, sure: a computer is writing poetry.

But we shouldn’t buy that. Depth is everything here, and nothing that a computer can offer. And note that while the depth inherent to a work of art begins within the consciousness of the artist, it by necessity ends within the consciousness of the observer sensing this depth-to-depth connection. Whether you are aware of it or not, what most engages you, when you look at a painting, or read a short story, or hear a piece of music, is the bridge that any work of art creates between the consciousness of the artist and the consciousness of the viewer/reader/listener. The communication is implicit, even if the art work often prompts more questions than answers. But as the viewer/reader/listener, the reality that another human has reached inside their being to create something that they want you to experience is, in the end, as noted, the purpose of art. And it’s what computer-generated content cannot, by definition, provide.

This missing element of one human seeking contact with another is, perhaps, what underlies that “uncanny valley” sensation that people talk about when encountering an object that seems nearly human but also off in some disconcerting way. Or, for you Philip Pullman fans, think of how the humans in His Dark Materials are instinctively repulsed by the reality of a person walking the earth without their daemon. Computer-generated art or writing creates the appearance of soulful enterprise minus the soul. It should repulse us.

And let me make it clear that I’m not talking about the use of computers to assist in art-making. At that level, the computer is another tool, and a powerful one at that. I’m talking about the concept of the computer creating the art on its own, via programming that removes all direct human input from the end result.

Now then, in a world in which people interact with content in a rapid-fire, look-share-and-forget kind of way, the essential difference between computer-generated and human-generated content may end up unnoticed or disregarded. If so this will be a symptom of a culture that is losing ts capacity for any sort of interior reflection, and with it the desire to seek genuine contact with one another.

The point at which human writing and computer writing become indistinguishable on the surface may mark an inevitable moment in technological development. The question is whether we will have the resolve required to stay informed—to demand transparency in our content sourcing much as we have been learning to know where our meat and produce come from. I contend this will always matter, but am not all that optimistic that the average American, ever intoxicated by convenience, will agree with me.

The ineffable connection

Music actually presents a bit of a special case, because, in a way, we’ve been confronting a related surface-versus-depth issue in the music world for quite a while, long before Shimon came along. Because whether or not we are dealing with computers writing music themselves, we’ve had a corresponding circumstance in the context of sound generated via digital programming versus human hands on physical instruments.

Another thought experiment: program a computer to generate the exact sound of Kenneth Pattengale, of the Milk Carton Kids, playing lead guitar, and then record Pattengale actually playing. These two recordings may be impossible to tell apart. But they are different. The pleasure of Pattengale’s guitar-playing is intimately tied to the knowledge that a human being is producing these amazing sounds in real time and real space. (This is why watching him play versus simply listening to the sound intensifies the joy of the experience.) You don’t have to know Pattengale personally to sense the ineffable connection between performer and audience when you are witnessing his physical effort (which by the way he makes look effortless). Note, however, that you don’t have to see him playing; as long as you know an actual person was playing an actual guitar, the effect on the listener is real.

This is why the “Look: a computer can do the same thing!” framework is dishonest. In an age of consummate computer-generated mimicry (“deepfakes” represent the malicious end of this spectrum), being able to tell, merely by looking or listening, whether a computer produced something or not becomes a false benchmark of validity.

And yes, there certainly exists a lot content in our information-saturated world that requires, for its creation, nothing beyond surface input, content that can therefore if necessary be produced without concerns about lack of depth. I’ll be sorry to know that this may cause human beings to lose their jobs in various arenas, but, sure, send the robots in there and let them do their thing if they must. Just stop writing poetry please. And, dear god, no singer/songwriter tunes. I mean, a human creating art via the filter of his or her own psyche and history, versus a computer “studying” thousands of songs to learn to produce human-sounding lyrics: which would you rather spend your human life listening to?

Truth be told, this is one of the main reasons why I resist the urge to use Siri or Alexa, above and beyond the privacy issues. When I talk to someone, I want to hear, in return, a voice attached to the baked-in reality of conscious human life, with all its history and emotions and frailties. To hear words spoken based on algorithms and machine learning leaves me feeling not spooked but profoundly sad. When Forster said “Only connect,” he didn’t have a USB cord in mind.

And what of the day when computers themselves are in some meaningful way sentient? Oh, don’t get me started. I don’t personally believe that a construction of metal and plastic that ultimately bases its experience on an on-off switch of 0s and 1s, a machine lacking the innate awareness of its tissues’ organic fate—because it has no tissues and no organic fate—can ever be sentient in a way that equates to human consciousness. When computer “consciousness” arrives—if it arrives—it will be its own territory (located, no doubt, somewhere in the uncanny valley). How much you might or might not be interested in learning about and hearing from this new kind of consciousness will be yours to determine.

Me, I’m sticking with the humans. They still have so much to say and I so much to learn about this existence of ours, fated to decay and disappear, and yet requiring neither a plugged-in power source nor ever any operating system updates. Our eventual deaths, to borrow Silicon Valley promo-talk, turn out to be not a bug but a feature. A defining component of our consciousness, this knowledge of our own mortality is what undergirds our artistic inclinations, and, paradoxically, fills our lives with the capacity for profound meaning and connection. The smartest computer in the world will never know what this is like. I don’t need it to write me a poem or sing me a song.

Related links

Another day in product placement hell

Warning: I’m going to steer out of my lane here, because every now and then I feel the need to apply my skills as a writer and my temperament as a compassionate human being to matters that extend beyond digital music. I’m signalling first, so you don’t have to follow me if you’d rather not.

So, I’ve come here today, first, to consider the phenomenon of product placement. By 2019 product placement has been a standard-issue capitalist strategy for a long time. While there are examples of real-life products seen on camera in movies that date back to the earlier part of the 20th century, the idea didn’t become a conscious, proactive corporate advertising strategy until the 1980s; the famous story of how Hershey’s agreed to do a major advertising tie-in for Reese’s Pieces with E.T. in exchange for the candy’s use in the movie remains a bellwether moment. (M&Ms had been the first choice, but Mars, the parent company, either didn’t want to make the investment, or didn’t want to create this association, or both.) Decades later, we all know that corporations spend millions of dollars annually to slip their products onto movie and television screens as naturally as possible. What better advertising, the theory goes, than to have a character, in the context of a story being told, drinking a Diet Coke or driving a BMW or otherwise engaging, however briefly or tangentially, with an identifiable consumer product?

A prominent example from recent years is how Heineken paid 45 million British pounds to change James Bond’s drink of choice from the famous “shaken, not stirred” martini to a familiar green bottle of Dutch beer in the 2012 movie Skyfall.

Heineken, and all the other corporate entities who push their products, for pay, into movies and TV shows, do not do this for their health, or to subsidize the art of movie-making; they do it because they believe there is behavioral impact. You may think that you personally are immune to such huckster-ish ploys, and you, personally, maybe are. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t many more millions of others who, consciously or not, are influenced by the appearance of recognizable brands within films and TV shows.

The bottom line is that product placement would not exist if it weren’t working.

Which makes me wonder, with an aching heart and accumulating rage, why so few people seem to think twice about the impact of violence in movies, and gun violence in particular. The relentless parade of characters incessantly pulling out guns and firing them at will has become so commonplace that maybe collectively we don’t even seem to see it any more.

So: Heineken paid big money to have James Bond drink a Heineken, because it assumed that real-life people will be influenced by this particular screen behavior. And yet we’re supposed to think that people are not at all, ever, influenced by screen behavior that involves firearms?

The NRA must be laughing all the way to the bank. Consumer product companies have to pay a pretty penny to have their products placed on screen. When it comes to guns, Hollywood is perfectly happy inserting them however and wherever they can and the NRA doesn’t have to pay a dime.

Now then, many people point out that we in America are hardly the only ones exposed to gun violence in our daily entertainment, which is obviously true. This argument is used quickly and incessantly to deny any link between on-screen behavior and real-life mayhem. If the movies and the video games were the problem, goes this theory, then there would be gun violence everywhere, not just in the U.S.

But this is rhetorical sleight of hand. To conclude that exposure to relentless violence via entertainment has no impact on actual behavior is to ignore at least two important differences that afflict American audiences uniquely. First is the general environment of gun worship that exists pretty much only in the United States among so-called “advanced” countries, which has been accelerated in recent decades by how the 2nd Amendment has come to be interpreted, regardless of its original intent. (Only two other countries include a right to bear arms in their constitutions—Mexico and Guatemala—and in both cases severe restrictions are involved.)

The second difference is the obviously related fact that it is far easier to own a gun here than just about anywhere else on earth.

And so it is sophistry at best to say that real-life gun violence in the U.S. must, without question, have no connection to the preponderance of on-screen gun violence simply because everyone around the world watches the same violent movies and plays the same violent video games. This argument continues to conveniently overlook the fact that people in other countries don’t watch these movies and play these video games within a culture that fetishizes guns, and within the boundaries of a country that shamefully disregards the inherent danger of firearms by allowing these products to be so easily purchased and so flimsily regulated.

Meaning that on-screen gun violence simply can’t provoke real-life violence in other countries the way it can here. This is not an apples-to-apples comparison.

(Note that I am avoiding arguing against gun violence in entertainment on the merits. I am not saying it is almost literally insane to be so consistently entertained in our movies and in our games by things that would in real life be horrific. Well actually I guess I just said that but that’s not the point of this particular post.)

Let’s assume as so many seem to that there is in fact not a thing wrong with gun violence in the entertainment sphere. But let’s put aside this collective delusion that the truly lunatic amount of gun violence we are subject to on the screen can’t possibly be influencing gun violence off the screen, not in a guns-for-everyone-all-the-time country such as ours.

Side note: remember how movie characters always used to smoke in movies? Once the cultural tide shifted, as the ’80s blurred into the ’90s, and it was clear to one and all that smoking cigarettes presented a major public health risk, Hollywood stopped the ubiquitous presentation of characters matter-of-factly smoking cigarettes. Cigarette smoking is common now only in period pieces—so we can all say, “Wow, in the ’60s, look how much everyone smoked!”—and (think about it) to signal bad behavior in a particular character. Movies by and large never feature heroes who smoke all the time for the simple reason that Hollywood doesn’t want to be seen as endorsing something known to be so harmful. Because everyone knows that what people watch on a screen as entertainment can affect personal behavior. Everyone knows this but stops knowing it when it comes to gun violence.

With common-sense—which is to say, strict—gun regulation, sure, okay, if you must, bring on the violent entertainment. Make it all but impossible for someone to be behaviorally influenced by heroes (and anti-heroes) firing guns in movies and we won’t have to worry about the influence. The way most other countries don’t really have to worry about it, because they have the common good of their citizenry in mind via restrictions and regulations in place regarding the ownership of deadly products.

But without anything resembling a responsible or rational approach to gun ownership, the ceaseless and often outright mindless use of guns in our entertainment vehicles is nothing more or less than product placement for the NRA.

When a gun in some cases is as easy (or even easier?) to buy than a six-pack of Heineken, I can’t see how there aren’t people out there taking all the gunfire to heart. We of course can’t know, without close and careful study, the extent of the connection, but it is morally and intellectually bankrupt to turn a complete blind eye to the issue, to look at the horrific norm we’ve created around gun violence in our entertainment and just say “Nope! Nothing to see here!” Remember: product placement wouldn’t be a thing if it didn’t work.

Your attention please

The idea that the attention-economy landscape itself, however beneficial to those who navigate it successfully, is actually poisonous to human interaction and civilized culture is only starting to be recognized.

There has been much talk over the last five or six years about the so-called “attention economy,” the widely accepted term that posits that the scarce resource around which national and world economies now revolve is time itself, and that therefore people’s attention is in some important way the new “currency.” Many companies, in particular tech companies, have happily embraced this concept, and openly strategize about how best to succeed in this hyperactive landscape, in which gaining and holding your attention via your smartphone seems to be everyone’s primary corporate goal.

The idea that the attention-economy landscape itself, however beneficial to those who navigate it successfully, is actually poisonous to human interaction and civilized culture is only starting to be recognized. For an articulate discussion of the problem, I urge you to check out the work of a non-profit group called the Center for Humane Technology, starting here: The leaders at CHT have thought deeply about the problems baked into this attention economy of ours and how we might collectively begin to address them. For you podcast fans, I also recommend their podcast, called Your Undivided Attention.

I’m completely on board with everything they talk about, and will not try to improve upon their general critique of a society that has handed over the cultural reigns to algorithms that have created, across our culture, in CHT’s words, “a race to the bottom of the brain stem”–what they also refer to as “human downgrading.” They talk about the damage this is doing to the social fabric via blatant problems such as the ease with which misinformation and/or hate speech spreads on YouTube and Twitter. This is obviously troubling, all the more so because the social media companies involved have long been hiding behind the weak and by now irrelevant “We are not responsible for what users upload” argument. It’s irrelevant because the problem is far less about what users are uploading than what the platforms themselves are algorithmically and vigorously choosing to amplify in order to keep eyeballs on their apps.

What I’d like to do is take all that as a background to talk about a subtler problem, but one I think worth considering. Among the less-often-discussed casualties of the attention economy are those of us who, by inclination, don’t have “being noticed” as a continuous goal and/or don’t feel the need to have significant numbers of people paying attention to us at all times. This doesn’t mean we don’t have reasons to engage in conversations, to speak our minds about things that are important to us, and to want people to listen to us when we’re talking. It does mean that we have no interest in the kneejerk style of attention-seeking that is continually going on all around us. We don’t need to share all the photos and experiences that so many reflexively share, apparently in search of the validation of being “liked.” Some of us understand that the tiny gesture of putting a finger on a like button is not a reward we need to seek with lab-rat tenacity.

Doesn’t everyone want more followers? (Actually, no)

This lack of interest in gratuitous attention-seeking cuts so much against the norm of a culture that has embraced the reality of its attention economy as to seem bizarre. Doesn’t everyone want to be noticed as much as possible? Doesn’t everyone want more and more followers?

Actually, no. We might want to remember that at earlier moments in our culture, up through the end of the 20th century, this lack of interest in receiving widespread attention was relatively normal. Back then, one had to make a definitive effort to attract attention. While many no doubt appreciated the occasional ability to bask in the glow of recognition of a job well done, I’m pretty sure that only a limited number of people lived lives that were grounded in and/or seriously dependent on ongoing attention-seeking. In theory people feeling that need gravitated towards certain specific occupations (actor being one, self-help guru another), while everyone else went along living their regular lives, devoid of very much attention, and no worse off for it (in fact, as I see it, better off).

In a culture overtaken by social media landscapes and mores, it becomes far less obvious that people still exist who are happy without a lot of attention or notice but–news flash–some of us are still here. And boy do we find this endless attention-seeking going on all around us really depressing; I think we are the ones who may be feeling even more battered than most by what digital technology is doing to us and our friends and families. For instance, as a non-attention-seeker, I find it all the more hurtful when a loved one, standing nearby, has his or her attention swiped away by a random phone notification–a notification inevitably coming from either someone not in the room who is nevertheless actively seeking attention or an app the entire purpose of which is to grab and keep attention as often as possible. It’s more hurtful to me because I don’t live with that same motivation, I am not captivated by that same value system. So the isolating moment of being ignored for a notification becomes more globally isolating, in that I ongoingly see less and less in our daily cultural reality that validates my own concept of what constitutes healthy interaction between human beings (and, I should note, what previous generations of humans routinely thought of as healthy interaction). In my mind, I deserve attention because I am a worthwhile human; according to our 2019 culture, I deserve attention when I successfully seek it out.

Can you see the vicious cycle being created? With so many people trained by social media to be consciously projecting their thoughts and activities into the maw of the attention economy, it’s become difficult to earn the attention of others on the merits of what it is you’re trying to say, even within your own personal network. In this way, long-standing rules of the capitalist marketplace have infected our non-commercial relationships. By which I mean that in the marketplace, it’s always been about being the best attention-grabber. We use the word “marketing” to describe that very thing. Here in the 21st-century, fomented by digital technology, this behavior has slipped beyond the bounds of the commercial, to the point where today it often seems that, however consciously or not, people feel compelled to “market” themselves in their own social worlds, and to require being marketed to. What are photos on Facebook of your trip to the Bahamas but an effort, conscious or not, to market yourself in a certain way to a certain group of people? The product you are marketing—this ideal version of yourself–isn’t (usually) something you are asking people to purchase with dollars and cents, but with the currency of their time/attention. (Notice we have always considered “attention” as something one can “pay.”)

It’s one thing for the most-advertised product to be the one that sells the most. It’s another thing–at least, to me–for the most attention-seeking people to be the ones who are paid most attention to. Remove qualitative considerations from the equation of supposedly social interactions and things just get silly and off-putting at best, culturally corrosive at worst.

Yet again the internet promotes surface over depth

I think this reduces to my eternal bugaboo here in the digital age, which is the problem of surface versus depth–more specifically, the defeat of depth at the hands of surface. Seeking attention is a surface-level occupation, dependent as it is, especially here on the internet, on immediate visual impact: the photo that stuns the eye, the video that amazes (or appalls), the headline that grabs the reptile brain by the tail. (I’ve discussed this in more detail back in 2011, in “It’s called it viral for a reason,” and more recently, in 2017, in my essay “Music delivery and the empathy vacuum.“) Worthwhile human interaction, conversely, requires depth, and depth by definition requires time for absorbing and considering. You get to depth via behaviors that are effectively the opposite of scrolling–by staying with something, exploring it beyond its immediately apparent attributes. Not that something or someone can’t have both surface appeal and gratifying depth–of course this is possible. In fact, one would think this could in theory be a logical outgrowth of our attention economy: as it becomes commercially important for people to be spending time with your product/site/brand, in theory this could mean really diving in depth into an experience.

But the social media companies that dominate our online experiences, aggregators by nature, have no vested interest in giving us an experience of depth, not since they have perfected an internet landscape based on the endless scroll of a feed coupled with the dopamine hit of being “liked.” The way to increase time on an aggregator’s site is to offer an endless parade of surfaces combined with a quick (i.e., surface-level) method of interacting with these surfaces.

The surface versus depth problem is built into our digital environment, perhaps because of where the issue is ultimately grounded, which is in automation versus human deliberation. Depth is rooted in the human soul, which is to say in the ultimate mystery of each individual’s consciousness and interiority. Digital decisions, relentlessly based on data and effected at a black-or-white, zero-or-one inflection point, have no depth at all. Getting back to the matter at hand, this is what most troubles me about all the fast-paced attention-seeking that has come to dominate our interactions. In following the cues of the social media companies, we are collectively downgrading our humanity by aligning ourselves with the methodology and approach of the digital realm. Surrendering to surface interactions, surface concerns, surface attractions, we steadily lose what distinguishes us as thinking feeling beings.

In the current environment, someone like me is barely paid attention to–my Facebook posts unironically tell me that they are reaching zero people; my thoughtfully curated playlists get maybe 30 listens in an environment dominated by playlists listened to thousands of times. This can feel discouraging. One might easily think that our culture has reached a place where those of us not oriented towards attention seeking are pushed aside entirely, rendered as irrelevant in an attention economy as those without money to spend are in a financial economy.

But I have another idea about this. Assuming we collectively still do want to exist as a civilized culture, we must also therefore assume we can muster the wherewithal to combat the ruinous forces currently undermining the social goodwill required to maintain a free and functioning democracy, epitomized by a president who is both ignorant and hateful (never a good combination, although not an uncommon one). Because, to be blunt, if we can’t overcome this socio-political moment we will not continue as a civilized culture. It’s impossible to move forward with such rampant misinformation and surface-level interactions fueling such degraded behaviors, of which mass shootings are the most horrific example. (You’ll note that the most recent crop of mass murderers are young men who are in part motivated by the attention they’ll receive posthumously from those who approve of their cold-blooded exploits. Think about how warped but inevitable that attitude becomes in an attention economy.) So, assuming we can do this, assuming we figure out how to rescue ourselves, it is going to be necessary, as part of this course correction process, to break ourselves free of the trance induced by attention-economy operations such as Facebook and YouTube.

And guess what? There’s a population of people out here who have already figured this out. Don’t get me wrong, we’re still struggling with how to exist within a culture that has generally lost its capacity for nuance and informed discourse, but at least we haven’t imbibed the “look at me!” Kool-Aid that is operating like a slow-working poison in our collective bloodstream. We don’t need to be noticed as a perpetual state of being. This leaves us with a paradox, to be sure–the idea that those least interested in being noticed are going to have to teach everyone else how to stop requiring so much attention. How, exactly, can we do this?

I think the answer starts with what comes naturally to us: remaining silent. I don’t mean silent in the sense of not expressing ourselves, but I do mean silent in the context of the attention economy–which is to say, silent in the face of a culture that burns through people’s private concerns in that exact place where an all-consuming search for attention and profit-hungry data mining intersect. Because all that attention that people think they are seeking? In the end, the only ones truly being rewarded are the people pulling the technological strings. The Facebook model is instructive: allow everyone to believe they are just sharing things they like with people they know, then let the algorithms take over and watch the profits role in for the pipeline owner while our humanity is ongoingly degraded via privacy invasions and lowest-common-denominator amplification procedures. And then–an unhappy bonus!–watch the bad actors swoop in and wreak havoc on a culture being flayed by misinformation and rancor, which serves to ratchet up people’s need to participate, share, and argue. Rinse and repeat.

Being silent in this context is resistance. If people could learn to be silent in this way, refusing to put their words and pictures and emojis and links into the attention economy pipeline, a lot of it would rather quickly and thoroughly dry up. If people could learn that it’s far more important and rewarding to talk to one person, face to face, or ear to ear, or even screen to screen, than to broadcast to some imaginary audience, the pipeline would dry up. Civilization could re-group, re-orient towards actual collective well-being. Trolls would lose their maleficent sway over our national discourse. And–imagine this–we could at long last begin to harness the communicative power of internet technology in a way that benefits humankind rather than rewards those who embody our worst collective inclinations.

It’s the end of the world as we know it. Literally, the end.

Because then there’s an ice wall.

Living in my comfy bubble of music appreciation, I had thought myself insulated here against the manic idiocy on display in a culture that has willfully separated belief from facts—like believing in a caravan of vicious immigrants coming to do harm, or believing that removing assault weapons from the hands of average citizens means that “they’re coming for your guns.” It’s a vicious cycle, because at the same time, facts then become things that don’t have to be believed. The end result—and boy will historians have a field day with the current generation, if there are any historians left—is that flagrantly misinformed people may believe themselves possessed of great knowledge, while simultaneously accusing those who actually work hard at collecting and analyzing factual information as being the hoaxsters.

Oh it’s a wonderful formula. This is how the current American president can time and again accuse news organizations—staffed by people who are trained in the actual skills of gathering and reporting on actual occurrences—of being “fake,” while he himself utters lies in a more or less continual stream. This is not partisan information this is actual reality; the fact that anyone might think this is a partisan swipe shows how successfully facts have been degraded in our present moment.

Anyway, as I said, here in my sheltered world of listening and writing about music, I have felt removed from this otherwise stubborn problem of what might be called intellectual pollution—until a few days ago, when I received an email from a musician announcing a “Revolutionary Music Submission,” offering a “story of unrivalled [sic] and unprecedented significance.” This turns out to be a song that, according to the email, “forever disproves the proofless spinning globe Earth theory.” It’s an email about how the Earth is flat, in other words, complete with an accompanying explanatory song.

“I realize you may find this proven reality difficult to accept,” the email, quite reasonably, goes on to say. After that, not as much reasonableness; the note continues: “It’s time to wake up, detach oneself from the mainstream media matrix of deception, realize the scientifically proven truth and accept it. This important informative song needs to be heard by every human alive who is not already awakened & aware.”

I’m not going to name names because the point isn’t to quarrel with one random guy with off-kilter beliefs. And I suppose I should have read it and shrugged it off. “People!: what are you gonna do?,” and so forth. But it bothered the hell out of me. Even here, even here, there’s a guy insisting that reality is fake, a guy so drunk on the democratization of opinion (thanks, Twitter!) that he proudly asserts that the experts who study the universe and reproduce observations under properly controlled conditions are the ones pulling the wool over our eyes, while he, musician-guy, he is the one who sees to the truth of the matter, he is the one offering (and I quote) “scientifically proven truth.”

(Side note: this same flat-earth proponent has more than 33,000 Twitter followers.) (Extra side note: I suppose there’s always the chance that this guy is some sort of troll-cum-performance-artist, who doesn’t believe a word of what he’s saying. This is a side ring in the circus of our so-called “post-truth” era: provocateurs purposefully spreading hoaxes, just for laughs. Maybe this is what Andy Kaufman would be doing were he still alive, who can say.)

And look, I know that music has been used in the service of all sorts of nefarious schemes. But my long-standing gesture to the world with Fingertips has been to offer a place of support and solace and tolerance and (I’ll say it) beauty. As such, I feel sullied by the existence of this particular email. Hey, I can stomach all sorts of dopey songs and hype-heavy press releases. The people behind such things may be producing music I don’t care for, but at least they’re doing their best, living here in the real world. But this “Wake up, sheeple!” flat-earth email made me sad, first, and then angry. Angry at the world we have created with our technology, which has mindlessly empowered all sorts of ignorance and malevolence. Who could have anticipated, back in 1989, when we were celebrating, with a hopeful surge, the destruction of the Berlin Wall that all too soon in its place would be constructed not a physical wall but metaphorical one, aimed at disuniting fact from belief, and that, all too soon, forces of greed would rise to weaponize this wall. Misinformation is right at the top of the list of tools used by the corrupt to gain and maintain power. (Walls are another.)

Meanwhile, outside of the bubble of insanity fostered by online algorithms, real scientists remain at work. Just this week a group of astrophysicists unveiled the first-ever photograph of an actual black hole (see above). To the Flat Earth stalwarts, this must look like just another bit of fakery, and as such more evidence of a vast conspiracy to push this Round Earth idea down the throats of the masses. To me, this is proof of the actual mystery of the universe, which is far grander and more pervasive and unfathomable than the feeble concept of reality promoted by people obsessed with denying the accuracy of provable information.

One last question occurs to me: What is the conspiracy here?? I mean, conspiracy theories by necessity are grounded in the idea of hidden powerful people pulling unseen strings for their own evil purposes. So: who is making money and/or accruing power off faking the idea of a round earth, and keeping it going for 2,000 years? I guess that Aristotle really pulled a fast one and made out like a bandit, deducing from assumptions he found logical in his own place and time that the planet we live on—like all other observable heavenly bodies, I should note—is round. About the saddest thing going here is that this doesn’t make any sense as a conspiracy in the first place.

But, obviously, sense is not the operative element. It doesn’t make any sense that a grown man with a concrete track record as an amoral con man, with a demonstrable record of bankruptcies and scams and sexual harrassment to his credit, was elected president of the United States either. Abandon sense all ye who enter the 2010s. The world as we knew it ended on 11/9/16, no 150-foot ice wall around the flat edge of our ailing planet necessary (look it up if you must). And, as of now, with apologies to Michael Stipe, I don’t feel all that fine.

Back in the saddle

So I’m back.

And what did I do over my summer vacation? I spent oh let’s say a hefty portion of the last three months attempting to remove myself from promotional mailing lists, for one, and, secondly, deleting emails that arrive that via that feckless mechanism. It turns out that extricating oneself from a mailing list is not as easy as it should be, since PR folks have long since adopted the strategy of creating stand-alone lists for each of their projects; to remove myself from one of them does not often end the stream of emails arriving from any given PR person and/or agency. It’s wac-a-mole city.

And why have I been trying to reduce the number of emails I’m receiving? Because I’ve realized that it’s the endless, faceless avanlanche of promotion that has been getting me down, not the music itself. And—with apologies to all hard-working music PR people out there—I have also realized how very few times any of their emails have introduced me to a song I end up featuring here. Which is to say: among the many ways that Fingertips is out of step with the music industry in 2018 is the fact that it almost (but not quite) goes without saying that a band employing professional PR assistance is a band that is not going to interest me musically speaking. And let me immediately follow that up with the contrasting fact that there are a small handful of PR people who do, semi-consistently, promote music that I do in fact like. I’ve just finally been realizing that I can pay attention to them and ignore everyone else. I believe in the synchronicity that brings bands I like to the attention of PR people I like, and am at long last ready to act accordingly.

If, in eliminating bulk emails almost entirely from my life I miss out on maybe one or two songs I might otherwise feature, it’s a price I’m willing to pay. I feel much lighter in this regard than I did a few months ago.

As for the larger-scale question of whether it still seems useful and relevant to people to be featuring free and legal MP3s, I guess I’ll skirt that for now and just keep at it. I received enough heart-warming feedback back at the start of the hiatus for me to know that there is an appreciative audience for what I do. Not necessarily a large audience, but an appreciative one. Unlike the model of success presented to us by both the internet and, alas, by our tragically incapacitated US President, I do not need large numbers to prop up my sense of self. No one should; in any case, for me, ever and always, quality trumps (pun intended) quantity. Try it yourselves and see how it goes.

So, I guess I’m saying that things here will continue more or less the same as before. I will still be reviewing free and legal MP3s, and creating monthly(-ish) playlists. I may or may not decide to post the reviews in batches of three, as previously. I’ll see how that goes. It might be only one at a time, sometimes, or two. But the output here will more or less resemble what it was pre-hiatus. It’s my inbox that’s going to look and feel a lot different. Thank the lord.

See you in September

Fingertips will be on hiatus until September.

And with one previous post spotlighting perennial Fingertips favorite Neko Case and a song from her terrific new album, Fingertips will now be taking a hiatus from MP3 reviews until September. Whether the reviews start back up at that point I actually don’t know. That is some of what I will be pondering these next few months. Part of me is happy with all the work I’ve done here over the past 15 years, all the worthy artists whose songs I have closely examined and offered as legal downloads; and by June 2018 another part of me wonders whether this particular effort has at last run its course. Music changes, technology changes, with (alas) no rational or humane actor steering things. The web has enabled both our better angels and our tireless devils. I’m on the side of the angels but it’s exhausting and often discouraging work.

I imagine I will continue to post playlists because it’s kind of my personal art form—I feel compelled towards expression in that medium regardless of who may or may not be paying attention. And the intermittent essays may continue as well. We’ll see how it all shakes out after some time off.

Thanks to all of you who are out there, paying attention. The world needs not merely attention but attention pointed in a helpful and hopeful direction. Keep the faith, stay in touch, and place yourself whenever possible in the path of beauty. Now and always, it’s our last best chance.

Rescuing classic rock (a playlist)

Is it too late? Has classic rock been bludgeoned to death, far beyond any hope of recovery?

When it comes to the music itself that’s clearly not true—there remains a trove of worthy rock’n’roll that was made in the generation that spanned 1965 (or so) to 1985 (or so). But the genre we employ to refer to much of the music from that era—i.e., classic rock—has twice now gone through the market-driven ringer of over-simplification and reduction, to its great detriment, and ours. By 2018 the genre of classic rock has become not just moribund (hell, the genre is dead by definition) but horribly, fatally uninteresting. Personally speaking, if I never again hear any song that is closely associated with the central core of the classic rock library (I’m looking at you, “Won’t Get Fooled Again” and “Jumpin’ Jack Flash”), I will be quite satisfied. (Well, okay, I still kind of like “Layla,” but I would, I’d be okay without it.)

I understand that music evolves. And that, as music evolves, the songs of the past retreat, becoming all but irrelevant to the musical wants and needs of succeeding generations. This is not the problem. If classic rock were simply being ignored, the music could still be accessed by anyone curious enough to explore things a bit. The problem is that classic rock has instead been shrunken and packaged into something that it never was in the first place. And the genre has gone through this diminution process two different times over the years, leaving the music funneled into a tiresome library that is a miserable shell of its former self (or shelf, for that matter).

As with any good capitalist story, things got interesting for rock’n’roll when it started making money. Rock came of age as an artistic medium in the late ’60s, was let loose on the FM radio dial in an unfettered manner beginning in the early ’70s, and had its first golden age right then and there. That was pretty much of an organic and symbiotic process: FM radio promoted rock music as a worthy avenue of musical expression precisely as the quality of the output increased interest in the new FM stations that were playing it—so-called “progressive” radio stations that were willfully blending a freewheeling variety of contemporary sounds: there was prog rock but also folk rock; there was glam rock and likewise southern rock; there was psychedelia and (yet to be named but extant) power pop and a certain amount of British Invasion pop; and then there was music that blended well into the mix even as it arrived from seemingly external genres such as blues, R&B, funk, soul, and jazz. And then of course there was the music that seemed all but genre-free for being at the foundation of rock’n’roll culture: the Beatles, the Stones, the Who, Led Zeppelin.

As the listening audience grew, the ad sales grew. And as the ad sales grew, economics inevitably began to dictate the aesthetics. On-air talent could no longer be trusted to create a profitable product. And once consultants were brought in to focus a station’s musical offerings on lowest-common-denominator appeal, the expansive playlists of free-form radio were chiseled into the restrictive format known as Album-Oriented Rock (AOR), which began in the early ’80s and took over the FM dial for a few persuasive years. AOR stations retained a generic core of music that “rocked,” reinforced by newer music that rocked both a bit harder and with minimal personality—thus the rise, in the ’80s, of bands like REO Speedwagon and Styx, Journey and Kansas. Ironically, each of these bands began in an authentic effort to make music for progressive radio, where they rarely were embraced. Their songs tested great in focus groups, however, and as they became staples of AOR radio, whatever individual charisma each band might have had was buffed to a faceless shine. All the more regrettable, these bands spawned replica ensembles (cf. Loverboy, Night Ranger, White Lion, etc.) whose musical specifics were vacuumed into the hard-rocking miasma that had overwhelmed rock’n’roll radio and in so doing laid the seeds for what was all too soon to be known as classic rock.

Because, yes, classic rock as a radio format began in this mid-’80s moment, as a new-wave-turned-New-Romantic-induced round of synth pop was, thanks to MTV, becoming mainstream. There remained a Middle-American audience that still craved its guitar rock, and that’s what classic rock radio stations were happy to churn out for the next two decades or so. Along the way, alternative rock came along (never mind hip-hop, a whole prodigious line of discussion), spawning new radio formats while simultaneously hardening classic rock into more and more of a museum piece. And that’s where it remained through to the 2010s: a radio format with an increasingly older audience, somehow satisfied listening to the same few hundred songs, over and over and over, hosted by DJs who, if they actually remembered what progressive radio sounded like, probably tried not to.

As streaming took over music distribution here in last five or six years, classic rock became another genre for playlists to cover, but all too often the end results were reductions of reductions: the limited landscape of classic rock radio either winnowed down further or—worse—expanded without nuance or prowess by amateur playlist makers who cut and paste randomly from their own personal favorite artists and albums. These playlists tend to be hard-rock-oriented, with an occasional nod to prog rock, and in any case pretty much never display the artistic and musical breadth that classic rock actually has to offer.

And so, now, the question: can classic rock be rescued from this ignoble fate? As much as I’d love to think otherwise, I’d say the answer is no, probably not in any immediate or widespread way. It’s just like this: if a significant and vocal plurality of the population gets steered away from reasonable discourse and an understanding of what facts are, those of us who know better are not going to penetrate their bubble of ignorance. Same on the musical front, where bubbles of ignorance are perpetuated by the technologists currently in charge of musical distribution. The best we can do is seek out and identify those souls operating from a place of aesthetic merit and authenticity, and offer encouragement and support. That philosophy underlies my efforts to find the musicians I feature on Fingertips, and I can only hope that I myself occasionally land, however serendipitously, on someone’s screen—someone willing to give an ear to my humble efforts at music curation in a world where much louder and tech-oriented voices tend to prevail.

So if classic rock is to be rescued at all, it will be like this, through small, artisanal undertakings such as my recently posted Spotify playlist, called “Classic Rock You Aren’t Tired Of” (see link below). It’s a work in progress, and has begun with 176 songs by 176 different artists. Eventually I aim to populate the list further with multiple songs by certain key bands. But if you’ve read this far, perhaps you’d be willing to give it a listen in whatever form it’s in right now. One thing I can guarantee is that this playlist is far more representative of the music on which classic rock radio was based, even if the format quickly betrayed its own origins. Whether you’ve heard a lot of this or very little of it I think you may be in for a treat. (Insider tip: be sure to shuffle the playlist for best effect!)

Bursting bubbles: the problem with playlists

As many of you may know, I regularly wax lyrical (or try to) about the benefits of musical diversity, especially when it comes to playlists. Hearing music from different decades and genres mixed intelligently together feels inspiring, entertaining, and rewarding to me, in some inscrutable and wonderful way.

The 21st century, however, doesn’t seem to agree. I mean, look around: we are in the Age of the Playlist, according to all accounts, but what kinds of playlists are we given? Sonically homogeneous ones, as far as I can see. Even Spotify’s lauded “Discover Weekly” playlists, ostensibly tailored to each listener’s individual tastes, while an improvement over mindless lists of predictable hits, are not terribly wide-ranging. And then there are the many and varied “mood” playlists around and about the internet, which seem to be populated almost exclusively with songs from the 21st century, and even then primarily from the last five or six years. There is no reason a playlist called “Rainy Day” should be built with songs only from the 2010s but on Spotify it is.

Rest assured: we have both the technical capacity and the intellectual curiosity to handle a much less reductive and more thoughtful musical landscape. And yet the powers that be at our mainstream music services seem not to care about being either less reductive or more thoughtful. It’s no doubt easier to offer formulaic playlists, and if people are clicking on and listening to such things, which they are, there becomes no financial motivation to fiddle with the model.

But like some out-of-sync Lorax, arriving not to speak for the trees but for the forest itself, I arrive to insist that this kind of musical segregation, as a default presentation, is not only unfortunate but maybe even harmful, culturally speaking. I mean, it’s okay (of course!) that EDM playlists and ’90s playlists and such exist—but I would like to help you see that it’s not okay that these playlists that separate songs into like-sounding silos are the default means by which people are encouraged to listen to music here in 2018.

Now then, I’ve long recognized this as an aesthetic/artistic problem: people should ideally be given more opportunity for diverse listening, I’ve insisted, if only because it’s fun and interesting and good for the spirit. Likewise, I’ve long since understood the problem to have sprung largely from technological and financial circumstances, in that segregated playlists featuring one genre or one decade are easier to automate than sensitively curated playlists that mix everything up. In this way, the segregated playlist is another side effect of our having handed control of music distribution over to the technologists.

But lately I’ve wondered whether there’s more going on here than a failure of taste, sensibility, or technology. In the face of wider cultural circumstances that have unfolded in recent years and have been coming to a noticeable, unhappy, and protracted climax since, oh, November 2016, I’ve begun to consider whether there isn’t some larger misfortune on display via the seemingly innocent problem of overly homogenized playlists.

Impenetrable filter bubbles

After all, thoughtful people have here in the 2010s come to identify the affliction of so-called “filter bubbles”—the damaging societal effects that can unspool from individuals being exposed only to a narrow range of information (and, often, misinformation), an idea introduced by the activist Eli Pariser in a widely-viewed 2011 Ted Talk. And yet in 2011 I’m not sure even Pariser anticipated the social poison that filter bubbles would release into our collective atmosphere, the harm that has come to us when large groups of people not only stay isolated among those others whose opinions validate theirs, but even worse, only read news stories they “agree with”—as if news stories, ideally reporting on facts, were something with which one can in fact “agree” or “disagree.” (Reminder: they are not.)

But in our filter-bubbled society facts have become confused with feelings, and as people with similar feelings communicate exclusively with one another, these feelings supplant facts as social currency.

This is not a helpful cultural trend. The current occupant of the Oval Office won the election because of feelings, not facts. Because there are no facts in the world that could justify the result. He is historically unqualified and temperamentally unsuited to the job in which he has, seemingly to his own befuddlement, found himself. Remember too that whatever Russia might or might not have done to sway our impressionable electorate, such folks were only swayable to begin with because they inhabit their impenetrable filter bubbles, and continue from there to insist that provable facts are “fake” merely because they don’t like them. If people could range farther and wider away from their known universes of interests and beliefs, it would be harder to convince them that all sorts of evidence-free ideas are somehow truer than actual truth, and/or to convince them that there is somehow no such thing as truth in the first place.

Okay: so you’ve noticed that I’ve strayed beyond the essay’s original intent. Let me attempt to gather things back together. A homogeneous playlist, drawing only from its own limited reference point, is its own kind of filter bubble. Just as in a healthy society, citizens have open minds and are ever curious to understand what is actually going on in the world around them, so, it seems to me, in a healthy musical landscape, listeners would be curious and open-minded enough to enjoy playlists that don’t go in one prescribed and predictable direction.

I understand that I’m not presenting a flawless analogy here. No doubt there are people who enjoy a range of music even as they are often just listening to one genre at a time. You might listen to a vintage hip-hop playlist now, and then switch over to a 21st-century indie rock playlist, or whatever. But I will still suggest that there may be something that shrinks rather than expands a world view when experiencing music as existing in discrete silos of sound rather than in a larger, interwoven universe.

The appropriately-named Pandora, a streaming-service pioneer, was in my mind a major culprit in the story of how the internet promoted compartmentalized listening environments. The way into Pandora as a listener is to identify an artist, song, or genre as a seed for a “station” that is then created for you on the spot. Suppose you enter “Juliana Hatfield.” You’ll get, first, a Juliana Hatfield song. Then you’ll get a song by a different artist—Liz Phair, say—along with an explanatory note, if you want it, that tells you that this next song was chosen because it shares a specific series of musical qualities with the previous song. Things proceed from there, with the operative idea that you are going to continue to want songs as much like each other as possible. You can go on to create as many different “stations” as you want, each micro-targeted towards the sound of the original seed. Along the way you can give a song a “thumbs up” or a “thumbs down,” to help “train” Pandora even further towards delivering music as much like what you are hoping to hear as possible—provided that what you are hoping to hear each time is a song very much like the previous one.

Pandora has always been so proud of their human-generated capacity to analyze music into component parts and make connections between artists and songs based on these analytics that they seem never to have contemplated the idea that people might actually be entertained by a stream of music that offers the unexpected as an ongoing rule. Nor, of course, have they contemplated the longer-term cultural effects of operating a popular service that encourages uncurious listening. It’s weird, because all the streaming music services, Pandora among them, make a big deal about introducing listeners to new music. But they have strong-armed the meaning of the word “new” into such a constrained box—“We’ll play you new music that sounds exactly like music you already know!”—that we maybe need a different word for it.

Homogenized playlists and their discontents

I should note that Pandora’s approach was partially born out of the licensing idiosyncrasies built into the world wide web that separate the idea of a fully on-demand streaming platform from what is considered to be “internet radio.” A fully on-demand system, where a listener can pick out what he or she wants to listen to on a song-by-song basis, is a more expensive and complicated proposition online than a radio model. In line with Silicon Valley’s tendency to present bugs as features, this was the main reason Pandora gives you the opportunity to create a Juliana Hatfield “station” rather than actually let you listen to a Juliana Hatfield album.

By now of course it’s not just the algorithms producing the homogenized playlist environment in which we are mired. There are plenty of human curators who at this point are doing little more than imitating the robots, with the addition, maybe, of finding lesser-known new songs to throw into mixes that fit right in with the established aural palette.

For casual listeners seeking amenable background music, the idea of a stream that aims above all to provide aural consistency may be just the thing. Likewise there of course are occasions and moods that seem well-suited to a single genre or musical ambiance. What I am questioning is the single-genre and/or single-mood playlist as more or less the internet’s default mode. And, circling in on the principle point, I am wondering whether this may slowly be having as deleterious an effect on musical culture as information-based filter bubbles are having on our culture more generally.

Think about this: rock’n’roll came of age as an artistic musical medium precisely when music was most freely presented: when FM disc jockeys in the early- to mid-’70s were unleashed to present their playlists (called radio shows back then) with no guiding principles other than their own taste and expertise. Many artists and styles of music were mixed together, and listeners willingly came along for the ride. Not every song was a winner, not everything from back then is worth revisiting now, but the free-ranging canvas on which the DJs painted was an environment that gave space and validation to everyone from Joni Mitchell to Yes to the Velvet Underground to Stevie Wonder to Roxy Music to Randy Newman and so much more. As a listener you may not have been in love with every song a DJ was playing. But there was no “skip” button, and not often a lot of other interesting listening options. You stayed with it. Your mind was not trained at that point to be quite so judgmental, so in need of immediate gratification that you couldn’t sit through one song that you didn’t know and maybe didn’t immediately like. And this too: you stayed with it because you trusted the human being who was putting the show together.

So three mutually reinforcing phenomena were fostered back then: artistic exploration by musicians, intuitive and idiosyncratic playlist creation by DJs, and open-minded listening by music fans. This sounds to me like the opposite of what single-genre playlists might be fostering, over time, in artists, curators, and listeners alike. Expecting little more than one type of music from your playlists seems like another minor but symbolic way we shut down the capacity to be reached by external reference points.

In fact, I’ll go as far as to hypothesize that had the constraints of today’s musical landscape been in place back then, little of what we now know of as classic music might even exist. You don’t get to “classic” via algorithms that focus on formula; you do not find artistic breakthroughs through the relentless application of RIYL. To funnel music ongoingly into pre-established sonic silos is not only to encourage listeners to seek and be satisfied with the overly familiar but to render jarring and/or foreign any music that does not glide soothingly into place from the previous song.

Return to eclecticism?

So, we have found out the hard way that people who are too dedicated to their own information bubbles tend towards an adversarial sort of “other-ing” when encountering people who have different opinions or orientations. In the worst cases, when his or her information bubble itself is dominated by evidence-free ranting, a person can lose track of reality altogether, all the while thinking he or she is the smart one. What, therefore, I have to wonder, will be the long-term effects of music listeners who grow accustomed to hearing music cordoned off by style and sound?

The answer is probably nothing as serious as what’s going on politically, if only because the stakes are not as high. Another mitigating factor is how readily available musical diversity remains, even for those who listen genre by genre. You don’t find a New York Times story on the Fox News web site, but you will find pop and country and hip-hop and rock and jazz playlists all available on your streaming service of choice.

This is certainly better than the complete isolation we’ve gotten with information filter bubbles. But I also think that expecting listeners to actively decide to go explore an unknown genre is expecting a lot. As such, the detrimental effects of genre segregation—whether they be artistic or social or some combination of the two—may not become clear for quite a while. I don’t anticipate that this would mean that one day people who like one kind of music will be unilaterally angry at people who like a different kind of music. But I do believe that brains that receive homogenized input, of any kind, are brains that do not over time develop the elasticity that characterizes our best and brightest citizens.

But I hold out hope, if cautiously. In the early days of digital music, I sensed a bracing spirit of curiosity in the air, as music from a wide variety of eras was abruptly available to one and all. There was a cultural moment or two when it seemed normal for high school kids in the mid-’00s to be listening to Led Zeppelin and The Who, for instance, because it was now so easy to hear anything from any time, anything you might be curious about.

If eclecticism didn’t take root for long at that point—if, instead, a literal Pandora’s box of genre- and decade-focused listening has become the norm—there remains much promise latent in the accumulated force of recorded music. The President and his partisan zealots can walk around pretending that facts don’t exist but the music industry really has no motivation to pretend that wide varieties of music don’t exist. As such, at some point, I’d like to believe the platforms will catch up to the reality that an amazing amount of recorded music is out there and available, in greater variety than ever, and that the best way to put it on display is, at least sometimes, to mix it all together. Not all music from all genres is great, by any means, but there is enough that is great to keep you listening for years and years. What creates cultural vitality is the widespread ability to appreciate an inclusive spectrum of artistic output. I mean, if the progressive-radio DJs of the ’70s created wonderful, idiosyncratic mixes with just 15 or 20 years of rock’n’roll at their disposal, think of the eclectic adventures to be had with 40 more years of music and so many new genres to choose from.

Look, people: the robots aren’t going to save us here. It’s going to take human beings, one by one, looking up from their screens long enough to picture a wider world than they can imagine, and realize that it’s up to them to find their way in it. And maybe, just maybe, the mundane act of expanding one’s world view just that little bit of enough to encompass an unpredictable playlist can for some be a small step in the larger process of remembering that we are all connected, and not just when we look alike or sound alike.