Sunday, June 19, 2016

Tenth PDF Installment of RWUG and a Necronomicon

Here's the tenth eBook installment of this blog, collecting the last several articles in PDF format. The other installments are located here


P.S. I'm working now on a Necronomicon formulation of this blog's philosophy, somewhat like Cyclonopedia. The conceit is that the ultimate, horrific theory of the nature of reality might be scrawled on a wall by a madman, and the revelation is preserved and published in textbook form for your perusal (at the risk of the loss of your sanity). The result is a peculiar blend of fiction and nonfiction, secular science and religious megalomania, dry academic jargon and ecstatic poetry. I'll likely post this RWUG Necronomicon in individual chapters as I complete them, and afterward I'll anthologize them. 

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Hit Music: The Assault on the Brain

Let's take on the pressing mystery of a type of so-called “hit music,” such as the kind often played on Virgin Radio. A few days a week I leave work at lunch to get a sandwich at Mr Sub, and they always play that radio station. I’m treated then to certain recurring songs, interspersed by the banter of Ryan Seacrest and the blather of ads.

What these songs have in common is minimalism. There’s hardly anything going on in them. I’ll give you some examples: “One Dance,” by Drake, “Love Yourself,” by Justin Bieber, and “Hands to Myself,” by Selena Gomez. Not all the hit songs on that radio station are minimally musical like those examples. Most, in fact, are dance, rap, or soul songs. In the case of rap or soul music, the instruments might be low-key because those songs feature the lyrics or the soaring voice. But then there are these minimalist songs where the instruments, the voice, and the lyrics are hardly even there. Those are the ones that especially cry out for some explanation. Why do they exist? What do these ghostly, gutted songs reveal indicate about the current state of Western art?

Now, in my opinion, 98% of all Virgin Radio’s hit music is abominable: balless, brainless, vapid, happy-talking, and/or annoyingly repetitive. But if I were to vent that opinion for the next little while, that would be a mere cliché. Hit music is made mainly by young people for young people—younger than me, at least. And we all know that older people lose touch with young people’s culture. Besides, we’d be talking about taste in music, and that’s subjective. So instead of committing the old guy’s fallacy of mistaking his aesthetic taste for knowledge of some objective fact, I’m going to leave aside the value judgment and point straight at the objective features of those minimalistic songs. On YouTube, you can listen to the ones I listed and then you’ll know what I mean, if you’re not already familiar with them.

For some background, I recommend this video interview of John Seabrook, author of The Song Machine: Inside the Hit Factory, and this article that discusses the recent history of hit-song writing. The upshot is that hit music today is manufactured by teams of song engineers who fill in the blanks of the track-and-hook template, following rote procedures made possible by the computers on which almost all of this music is made. The beats are separated from the melodies, and teams of producers are swapped by studios to work on dozens of songs for each headlining “artist,” like Rihanna, Britney Spears, or Justin Bieber, which are then pared down to form the CD. This method of engineered, assembly-line music-writing is very different from the romantic one of the 1960s and 70s, in which individual artists expressed their vision on account of their personal talent. Think of The Beatles, Jimmy Hendrix, or Led Zeppelin. Hit music now is like fast food or the Marvel comic book movies that have taken over Hollywood. The food is manufactured to exploit weaknesses in the human brain, such as its love of sugar and fat, just as the movies are made by armies of computer graphics engineers who serve up action and teenager fantasies. Apparently, the brain also has an infantile love of repetition. The brain releases dopamine if we can predict when the song’s hook will reappear, so a hit song must be simple and catchy.

This, though, is the formula for hit music in general. Again, the result is commercial music that has no existential impact and poses no artistic challenge to dubious conventions. But where does the absurd minimalism of a subset of hit songs enter the picture? Here are a few possible explanations. First, the musically-minimal songs push the boundaries of computer-driven hit music, by catering to no one, with virtually no attractive features. As machines and computers dominate the landscape, we must dehumanize ourselves to adapt to that inhuman environment. Hit music isn’t aimed at whole persons, with our everyday concerns and existential questions. Instead, the music targets the brain’s pleasure center: the song is formed by mechanisms of mass production that trigger the listener’s complementary neural mechanisms, to complete a capitalistic exchange of money for the fleeting pleasure taken in the bare-bones sounds inserted into the track-and-hook template.