it's just common sense

The musings of an over qualified white male on matters of media, music, science, politics, etc, that are patently obvious.

Monday, August 30, 2004

Dinah Washington

From Dinah Washington to Britney Spears: Technology and the Decline of Musical Integrity

Today, 08/29/04, is the 80th anniversary of the birth of Dinah Washington, ( ), (, for many years one of my favorite female vocalists. Dinah left us, all too early, at the age of 39, (not 42), in 1963. Dinah's work, despite her artistic and commercial successes has lived in the shadows of other, for some reason bigger legends such as Ella, (We only need her first name to identify her), Billie Holiday, and others. Over the years, I have given out more than my fair share of Dinah recordings as xmas or birthday presents, as a way of saying to the recipient, "Here is someone equally marvelous that you will appreciate knowing about".

True vocalists share an array of traits; purity of tone, range, signature phrasing, the ability to comfortably and convincingly convey the emotional content of a composition, as well as the capacity to interpret and offer a diverse set of material. True vocalists are also able to imprint a song with their own particular style, no matter how many times in the past it may have been recorded, their version of the song belongs to them. Take the Kurt Weil composition Mack the Knife as but one of the thousands of examples available. Over the decades this tune, has belonged to Ella, Frank Sinatra, or Bobby Darin to name merely three. Each singer put such a personal stamp on the performance that each recording can be said to be definitive, and bears the mark of greatness through the ability to make the song their own.

Dinah shared each and every one of these elements with other true vocalists. Listen for example to her top ten recording of the old torch song, What a Difference a Day Made, along with the raucous and funny, Judge, I Say Judge, Give Me the Electric Chair. ( See link for a brief biography and discography, ). This is a mere 6 minute foray into what Dinah was, yet dramatically displays the diversity and depth that she brought to the microphone; pure tones, phrasing, emotion, and individuality were hers.

As technology grows however, bringing with it all manner of things that it can do, not only for music, but also to music, new issues of artistic integrity and music criticism arise. It becomes necessary, along the waves of digital change to reemphasize one aspect of greatness that was at one time an absolute given. Astonishingly, this would be the notion that the live performance or CD recording we are hearing is what the musicians and singers actually did. As time goes on, the music that is being offered to us, whether recorded or live, is simply no longer the result of human beings "performing", but the result of software and digital processors that literally change the notes of voices and instruments by raising or lowering off key pitches to the next closest note in the key. Thus, it has become, not only impossible to make a harmonic mistake, but also has become unnecessary to have vocal or instrumental proficiency, and equally unnecessary to strive for perfection. The artist no longer has the compulsion to pay attention, to muster the energy, effort, discipline, and most importantly the integrity that perfection, or near perfection used to require. Digital wizardry will cover for any shortcomings they may have. This is grave and unnerving.

Current technology has evolved devices that are currently called autotuners. Autotuners have the ability to alter tones, that are off key, of both singers and musicians into tones that are perfectly in key. In the beginning, this was something that could only be done in the studio, after the fact. Engineers would apply what was then called pitch correction software to a recording and push the offending tones into pleasing perfection. With the advent of autotuners however, this can now be done in real time, even during a live performance. In short, for so called artists who would choose to use such devices, the "music" we hear is not the result of what they are doing, but rather is some kind of product that has been formulated by a machine and software. I refuse to call this music or artistry. It is disrespectful to other artists and dishonest to the audience, it is cheating, plain and simple.

The reach of digital technology however, is not restricted to the tones of instruments and voices, but to one of the most basic aspects of western music and musicians, and that is rhythm. It is possible in the studio, via a process that at least one manufacturer calls nudging, to take a performance, and to literally "nudge" the beat of the drums, the chords of a guitar, or anything else for that matter into a perfect unison, right on the beat, thus improving what the musicians themselves are doing on yet another level of shame.

If nothing else, the process of art is the process of putting oneself "out there" on a very risky and personal level. It is as though to say, "Here is what I do, this is what I think is good, this is what is inside of me." It takes courage for an artist to actually put oneself out there, no matter what the medium. Prior to the courage, it takes time, lots of time, practice, discipline, and dedication. Or is it just a good brand of autotuner?

There has been a loss of purity in live music for many years now. Dinah or Ella could bring an audience to deep and quiet tears with nothing but their voices and a pianist, truly putting themselves "out there". Increasingly, modern artists seem to need light shows, pyrotechnics, dancers, taped accompaniment of layered voicings, (How else do you think Britney gets to sing harmony with herself in 4 parts?). Yes, even without autotuners, the live performance has become less pure, and we lose sight as a society of the beauty in unadorned music.

Abbey Lincoln, ( ), tells a story about appearing live with Ella Fitzgerald, obviously fairly late in Ella's career. Apparently, it was normal for Ella to walk around back stage, before a performance, worrying and hoping that she would sing in a way that the audience would enjoy. The First Lady of Song never disappointed, and never used the "gift" of digital perfect pitch, she, like Dinah Washington, and many others managed that on her own.

Shame on the so called artists who use such devices, and shame on the audiences and consumers who accept such artificial tripe. Being an artist means having talent, and having talent means hard work and practice. It does not mean having a good autotuner.

Happy Birthday Dinah !

The List of Digital Shame
(To be periodically updated as new information becomes available)

Cher, N'Sync, Shania Twain,
Britney Spears, Reba MacIntyre, Sum 41,
Good Charlotte, Mariah Carey,
95% of music from Nashville, (Gee, what a surprise),

And Now This: Ashlee Simpson walks off the stage at Saturday Night Live. The band started playing one song, and with her microphone at her side, the pre-recorded vocal track, (that she was presumably to lip sync), was actualy some OTHER song. Ashlee, in one of the great show biz ad libs of all time, opted to walk off the stage, rather than sing the correct song live. Of course the microphone she held was probably not turned on anyhow.

Ms Simpson, at first selfishly blamed the band for starting the wrong song, but as of 10/25/04, she had recanted and apologized to the musicians. Interesting as a final that Simpson had previously made public statements to the effect of' "I would never think of lip syncing, that's just not me" note Can anyone say Milli Vanilli?

Check your work?

Raft Guide Sociology

At 51 years of age, I have had 2, maybe 3, maybe 4 careers so far. This depends on exactly how one wishes to define the word "career". At any rate, it was my 12 years of experience as a raft guide, which brought me into constant daily contact with as many as 350 lumbering Americans on vacation, that ultimately gave me what I hope is the unifying theme for this weblog: The notion that nearly everything we need to know, and skills of thinking were given to us by the 8th grade. This is followed by the sad observation of the raft guide: That very few Americans bother to call this information to mind.

A raft guide is thrust, during the course of the job into extended, intimate contact with anywhere from 6 to 24 tourists each and everyday, on a very random basis. It would not be inaccurate to say that the sociologically inclined guide gets an up close and personal view of America, fingers on the very pulse of the nation, from something close to a statistically valid sample of the populace. It is a view that puts us in touch with the very fabric of the country, mingling with the national consciousness, its values, opinions, preferences, desires, its very guts and zeitgeist.

It was during the course of my years as a guide, as a result of interaction with the customers in my boat, that I developed the thesis noted above. It is the idea that almost everything that one needs to know was learned by the 8th grade. I refer of course, not just to the mere facts of subject matter, but as well to the notion that retaining and using the knowledge and skills of elementary school, gives us the ability to answer, analyze, and to perceive nearly every situation in the human experience. If we would only do something so simple as to ask ourselves, what is it that I already know about this?, we could certainly save ourselves from our own stupid questions, observations, and opinions. Save us that is, if we are only willing to use that which was given to us and honed, by the time we were all 14 years of age. This of course is what Mother Mary Trinity meant when she said "Check your work!".

The overwhelming national malady, as any raft guide will tell you, is that we are a nation of mental cobwebs, a people who have become mentally lazy, despite, the much heralded "information age". The national disease is seen daily in a population that will not call upon the information, and capacity to reason that was required of us to graduate from 8th grade. It occurs on 2 levels, a failure to call upon the very facts of addition, subtraction, geography, and so forth, and secondly, to the failure to use those facts and our own common sense to just figure it out for ourselves. Most Americans do not "check their work", before opening their mouths.

How else is the poor raft guide to explain to him or herself, the numerous adults in a season who truly want to know, "Does this river finish in the same place that it started?". How else to explain that 5 of 6 Americans are unable to locate Canada on a globe? The numerous people who ask, when they are 500 miles from the nearest ocean, and 2500 feet above sea level, "Is this water fresh or salt?". And what about a president who states with all seriousness, "The reason I keep inisting that there is a connection bewteen Iraq and Al Queida is because there is one." Anyone of these miscues is reason to repeat the 8th grade, and I could offer thousands of more examples in my experience that occur with sad, startling frequency, about the lack of mental processes, about the absence of using what we already know.

It is often said, trite but true, that learning is a life long process. At least one dominant and valid observation on learning says that new information will be retained and more meaningful when it is attached and connected to as many related pre-existing categories and concepts as possible. I believe it is time to get our cognitive wheels going and to more often check out or pre-existing mental categories before opening our mouths.

It has also been said that the best learning is that which is done by ourselves and for ourselves. I would therefore plead, that America shake the mental cobwebs away, look at our world, call up those facts and skills that were there in 8th grade, and start mentally manipulating the world on our own behalf, using that which we know already, as well as our common sense. Let's start checking our work. Let's not be too lazy to step back and take a look at what it is that we may already know about something. And let us do this before we ask for the information to be handed to us on a silver platter, thus exposing our lack of thought. The mind is a muscle, it needs exercise. Let's use our common sense.

Saturday, August 28, 2004

Useful and Informative Links

Links for Breaking News and Analysis Free From Mainstream Spin

1) Political Action and Human Rights Links
The headlines are maybe a bit raucous in tone at times. Rest assured however, that stories and pieces of news are well established at buzzflash days or sometimes weeks before the cable or your local print and air outlets ever pick it up.
As its slogan says, Conventional Wisdom Since 1865. Outstanding writers, inside the beltway information, and directions for direct action to politically minded individuals. I stopped reading major news magazines when i settled on this one.
Another good source of breaking news, way ahead of the mainstream. Particulalry admirable in the current, (10/14/04), controversy over Sinclair Broadcast Group, and in motivating people to action.
A regular antidote to the shallow reporting and intsitutional bias of mainstream media.
A dogged group of people who persistently check facts in mainstream reporting, with a special and well warranted emphasis on Fox. If you watch Fox News, you are 200% more likely to belive that WMD's were actualy found in Iraq, and you are 800% more likely to believe there is a link between Saddam and bin Laden!!
Human Rights Watch: One of the great underreported legacies of US foreign policy over the decades has been the ongoing and decades long support for brutal and oppressive regimes across the globe who happen to favor American coprorations. With limited exceptions during the Clinton Administration, this is the dominant theme of US global relations since WW II, and it continues to this day. Use this link to be informed as the US in the 21st century descends to new depths.
The US DOD has specifically stated that they will not do body counts in the most current Iraq war. Would it not make for more humane warfare to have some idea of civilian deaths, so crassly referred to since the so called First Gulf War as "collateral damage"? It is impossible to see the numbers of Iraqis killed, and not find the abusrdity of fighting a war with jets, against fertilizer bombs in automobiles.
Coomon Cause, Holding Power Accountable: Information on media, politics, special interest groups, and election reform among other things. One of the hallmark organizations doing its part to guard democracy.
Thoughtful articles on all manner of things.
Another good source for political news and analysis, without the conformity and compliance found on cable.
The History News Network, a very erudite group of academics posting essays on current affairs, placed in learned historical context.

2) Links on the Evils of Advertising and Consumerism
How arrogant can tobacco companies be? This arrogant!

3) Blog Like Me
Another new blogger that enjoys thinking about politics, music, and such.

4) Links for Following the Trail of Big Money in the Media and Politics
One of the biggest issues facing the US today is the increasing concentration of all news media into the hands of a select few giant corporations. Corporations with political agendas that are subtly, (and not so subtly), foisted upon an unthinking electorate. Republican administrations ceaselessly since Reagan, have eased the rules of ownership, thus lessening the ability of all Americans to get diversified points of view, instead of the right wing bias. This issue is huge, and will hopefully be addressed in a post on this weblog someday soon.
Media Reform Information Center: Tons of links to truly watchdog the media and learn about the sources and validity of bias and complicity in the USA today by giant media companies.
Who Owns What, from the Columbia School of Journalism. One of the best ways to get a real grasp on how it is that our information is being manipulated is to follow the money. Do you really think that GE, parent of NBC, and countless other examples give unbiased news and information, news that may hurt their share price on the DJI?
The website of the Center for Responsive Politics. Follows the trail of money in politics, what industries and companies are donating financially, how much and to whom.
Along the same lines as above, but with an emphasis on current occupants of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
Large corporate donors to the GW Bush 2004 campaign. Hey, even if he loses, these companies will surely always be backing the right anyhow, so you will always know who to boycott.
Advertising supporters of the Rush Limbaugh show, the evil, racist demagogue of the right who dropped out of Southeast Missourri State University after only one year and never finished.

5) Laugh if You Don't Cry Links
The transparent and patent idiocy of GW Bush is always funny, and tragic.
The sharpest eye seen in a long time to point out the terribly obvious absurdites of American political life. One could teaxch a course in modern political dynamics with Tom Tomorrow!