Sunday, December 15, 2013

Harumph (Music Today Sucks)

I'm sure many of you, if you're over the age of 40, have had the "music" argument with your kids, the one that starts with you complaining about how awful today's popular music is. I personally believe that today's pop music is mostly wretched and will be forgotten in 10-15 years. It is bland and disposable, as if written by machines. On the other hand, I believe music from, roughly, 1963 to 1979 will be studied centuries from now and will be regarded as a golden age, not unlike the late 18th century.

When was the last time someone wrote a song as ominous and wonderfully ominous as "Gimmie Shelter," as soaringly beautiful as "God Only Knows," or with the exquisite craft of “Hotel California?” If I'm missing something, please tell me, because I'd love to download something fresh.

My kids tell me that I simply like the music of my youth. This is a reasonable argument since every generation romanticizes its teenage years. But no, I think those of us who were young in the ‘60s and ‘70s just got lucky. Musical greatness is not linear, and some periods simply stand out, while others are forgotten. Quick, name a song from the 1910s. How about one from the ‘30s? How about anything at all from the second half of the 19th century? 

I'm waiting…

A number of factors came together in the ‘60s and ‘70s that conspired to produce greatness. Technology certainly played a part, with 4 and 8-track recording becoming available for the first time. 

A friend of mine who runs a record label says a big part of it was actually drugs, particularly LSD. It spurred creativity, the argument goes. While there may be something to this, it's not as if drugs have disappeared. Perhaps LSD use has waned...

The cultural backdrop of the ‘60s almost certainly played a role. And while the flower-power generation was grossly narcissistic, and its societal impact almost entirely negative (in my view), there's no arguing that all that social experimentation paid off in spades when it came to music. Landing on the moon after starting from scratch in 1961was no more remarkable than evolving from "The Twist" to "Sympathy for the Devil" in the same time frame.

And, of course, there's luck. Perhaps no age was as rife with musical genius, from Lennon and McCartney to Dylan to Brian Wilson to Keith Richards to Jimmy Page to Lindsay Buckingham. And more. These brilliant artists were thrown onto a canvas of experimentation, drugs, and technology, and incredible art was the result.

Then there' Really, it started to go downhill in the ‘80s and seems to have accelerated ever since. The art of writing a hook has been lost, as has any ability to harmonize. I can’t remember the last time I heard an interesting chord progression (many songs today are played entirely in chord). Lyrics have reverted back to treacly ‘50s simplicity or, in the case of rap, vulgar journeys through rhyming dictionaries. Nothing is implied through suggestion or imagery, it is simply said. "My Life Would Suck Without You," screeched Kelly Clarkson in her recent hit. The Righteous Brothers weep for you.

Much of it also just sounds the same, which is odd as there's more technology than ever with which to experiment. Garage Band, which comes free with any iMac, has more technology than any studio in which the Beatles recorded. Any sound you can imagine, you can create. But ironically, the absence of boundaries has tempered any desire to find and smash through them. 

John Lennon once challenged the Beatles’ recording engineer, the great Geoff Emerick, to make his voice sound like the "Dalai Lama shouting from a mountaintop." He did, with only the primitive tools available at the time. (The results can be listened to in the song "Tomorrow Never Knows.”) Today there's probably a button you push that says "Dalai Lama Effect." 

The contemporary artist is not challenged, so he does not challenge himself. 

I've been pondering getting this off my chest for some time, but there's a reason I'm writing about it now. It turns out there's proof that I'm right! Actual data. Michael Cembalest, a JP Morgan executive, wrote the following to his son as he left for college this fall:

I arrived at college in 1980 (the inception of a decade-long musical graveyard) when many people turned off the radio and instead listened to classic rock and rhythm & blues; blues produced from 1965 to 1978. I notice you like this music as well. Now you can substantiate to today’s generation why that era’s music was objectively “better." 

The Million Song Dataset is a database of western popular music produced from 1955 to 2010. As described in Scientific Reports (affiliated with the publication Scientific American), researchers developed algorithms to see what has changed over time, focusing on three variables: timbre, pitch and loudness. Timbre is a proxy for texture and tone quality, terms which reflect the variety and richness of a given sound. Higher levels of timbre most often result from diverse instrumentation (more than one instrument playing the same note). Pitch refers to the tonal structure of a song: how the chords progress, and the diversity of transitions between chords. Since the 1960’s, timbral variety has been steadily declining, and chord transitions have become narrower and more predictable...

(Source: "Measuring the Evolution of Contemporary Western Popular Music," Scientific Reports, Serra et al, May 2012)

The researchers also found that popular music has gotten a lot louder. The median recorded loudness value of songs by year is shown in the second chart. One illustrative example: in 2008, Metallica fans complained that the Guitar Hero version of its recent album sounded better than it did on CD. As reported in Rolling Stone, the CD version was re- mastered at too high a decibel level, part of the Loudness Wars affecting popular music. 

Overall, the researchers concluded that there has been a “progressive homogenization of the musical discourse”, a process which has resulted in music becoming blander and louder. This might seem like a reactionary point of view for an adult to write, but the data does seem to back me up on this. All of that being said, I do like that Method Man-Mary J. Blige duet.  

So there it is. We are being assaulted with loud, bland music. The scientists say so.

Excuse me, while I turn the dial on my radio back to Classic Rock…

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Earthquake for Unions in Detroit

To residents in New York, or California, Illinois or others, who wonder why their property taxes are so high, the answer isn't complicated: it's the wildly generous pensions we pay to our public employees, particularly teachers. The typical teacher where I live is able to retire at age 57 with a (present value) retirement package worth $1.6 million (see "Your Kid's Teacher, Millionaire"). Some of us have been arguing for years that this is an unsustainable tax-and-spend death spiral that will result in New York's gradual slide towards bankruptcy, like Detroit.

Not surprisingly, public unions are not particularly accommodating of this argument; after all, in many states, such as here in New York, state constitutions protect retirement benefits from ever being touched or modified in any way.

Except, no. In a remarkable ruling last week, a federal court ruled that federal bankruptcy law trumps state constitutional law, and that existing pensions in Detroit could be cut or even eliminated.

If this isn't a wake up call to public sector unions and their political enablers, I don't know what is. Your pensions are not safe, and it's a problem of your own creation. Your members, many of who don't even want to be but are forced by state law, will be the victims of your decades of overreach.

It would be nice if this could be calmly fixed before the inevitable crisis, but don't hold your breath.

Monday, December 2, 2013

The Obama Ex-Presidency

You weren't thinking he'd retire to a farm and chop wood, were you?

We have a pretty well established tradition in this country of retired presidents leading quiet lives, having passed the mantle on to others. Our very first president established this tradition by relinquishing power to be a gentleman farmer at Mount Vernon.

In particular, ex-presidents are expected stay out of political affairs. There's only room for one guy at the top, and that person has to be free to make their own way. George Bush has become a painter, like Churchill. In a recent rare interview, he was served up the opportunity to criticize Obama on a silver platter, but he politely demurred. (Must have been difficult, considering how much blame Obama continues heap on Bush for just about everything, but he seemed quite peaceful about it.)

Jimmy Carter was the first to break the mold, offering his acidic opinions for anyone who would listen, which fortunately is almost no one. I have to give Bill Clinton some credit, though. Irrepressible as ever, there was no way he was going to hang out all day gardening in Chappaqua. Instead, through the Clinton Global Initiative, he has found a "third" way - staying relevant on the world stage while not interfering too much politically. (Okay, he interferes, but it could be much worse.)

Normally, it would be way too soon to think about how President Obama will spend his retirement years, but Obama himself has forced the conversation by suggesting that he won't leave Washington in 2016. The last time this happened was Woodrow Wilson, and that was only because he was dying.

I will call this now: Obama will be the most meddlesome and irritating ex-president in our nation's history. For starters, he'll only be 55, and looking at another 30 years or so to fill. He will become the community organizer again, this time writ large, a roll he will arguably like better than actually being president. Think about what a community organizer actually does: disrupts, argues, and hectors, constantly jabbing at existing power structures. This is, in essence, how Obama has tried to run his presidency. The tiresome process of consensus building is something with which he has no experience, and it holds no interest for him. This has resulted in not just zero lines of communication with his opponents, but, remarkably, his allies as well. Not surprisingly, leadership as Scold-in-Chief isn't very effective, and actually being responsible for the outcome of things like Obamacare is an annoyance.

But how much fun it will be on the outside! No responsibility! No more boring meetings or stupid heads of state to meet with! The press, ever idolatrous, will provide a mic as needed. Watch out, in particular, if there's a Republican in the White House. Obama will be asked for his opinion on every policy, and he will gladly give it, even organize actively in opposition to whatever warms the hearts of the MoveOn crowd.

There will not be the slightest hesitation. This is a man who decides what laws he wants to enforce and which he doesn't, and even makes new law himself. This is a man who cheered the nuclear option last week after saying it was a fundamental threat to our democracy when he was out of power. This is a man who lied about Obamacare because, with a compliant Fourth Estate, he knew he could. This is a man who has blown off scandals that would have felled others because, again, he knew he could. To suggest that over two hundred years of tradition, starting with George Washington, will give him any pause is about as likely as Self Magazine running a cover story titled, "Get a Large Ass Just Like Michelle."

Somewhere, Saul Alinsky is smiling.