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Yesterday, Douglas Wolk—whose byline I recognize and who, according to Beaujon and this online encyclopedia thingy, is sort of a dude—published an item on NPR’s Monitor Mix blog to the effect that, dammit, AutoTune and Pro Tools and click tracks and, you know, Twitter are conspiring to kill rock & roll.
Holding up the 48th second of the Beatles‘ “Rain” as an example, Wolk claims that, “if some band of 25-year-olds with radio aspirations wrote and recorded ‘Rain’ today…that take would probably be thrown out, or at least digitally edited to fix the screw-up.”
With respect to Wolk, this strikes me as a hollow, distinctly codger-y argument. (And one that cites exactly zero contemporary acts by way of illustration.) Couple points here:
1. “[The Beatles’] recording [of “Rain”] is a mess.” Not perforce true. Sure, it’s loose, and there’s a soupy-psychedelic lag to the arrangement, but the Beatles were always in tireless pursuit of shit like that. (As when John instructed George Martin to make “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite” smell like “sawdust on the floor.”)
2. “It’s full of mistakes, accidents and inconsistencies that would be utterly unacceptable by the pop-music standards of 2009.” What “pop music” are we discussing here—the Jonas Bros., or indie rock’s more mainstream extrusions? ‘Cuz it seems to me we’re still in an era where authenticity, even salable authenticity, gets stored in the garage. manifested in tape hiss, &c. &c. The White Stripes were massive in spite and because of the over-discussed sloppiness of Meg White. And I’m no expert in the whole Jay Reatard thing, but doesn’t he tend to drop eighth notes here and there?
3. The Beatles is an odd band to tout as an example of studio imperfectionism. It’s true, their obsessions geared toward invention rather than toward metronomics, but after 1964, this was no garage band. These are the guys who lugged 40-piece orchestras into Abbey Road and spent over 30 hours recording this song.
4. Studio perfectionism isn’t a product of Pro Tools. And it’s not a phenomenon unique to rock, either—think Glenn Gould, whose OCD approach to studio work infuriated sound engineers and entailed unprecedented (and literal) cutting and pasting in order to effect a synthetic perfection that live performances couldn’t approach. (Christ, imagine what a pain he would’ve been in the Pro Tools era!)
5. “The lead singer’s wobbly notes, and the not-quite-in-tune bass guitar, would get fixed with AutoTune.” Sorry, how many current rock acts actually use AutoTune on a consistent basis?
What I’m wondering, I guess, is why we have to discuss this exclusively in terms of songs from the mid-’60s. “The high-tech ideal of popular music means no botched rhythms, no sour notes, no shaky dynamics, but also no ‘Sex Machine,’ no ‘Louie Louie,’ no ‘Rain.'” These are the only three songs Wolk even mentions in the post. I’d love for Fischer to chime in on the lo-fi implications of all this, and mebbe Riggs has something to say re: Emo or something like that. But this whole thing strikes me as a pretty straw-man mode of obituary.