Norah Jones and all those Grammys®
has very simple beginnings: During the summer of 2002 I heard a simple,
melodic song on the radio; almost the only words that I caught were
"Don't know why I didn't call" - at least, that's what they
sounded like to me. I assumed it to be an oldie that I had never heard
before, but the tune started appearing with an alarming regularity and
so - "heavy rotation" being the province of new tracks only
- I was made aware that this was, in fact, a new song. Which sounded
a lot like an oldie. But what it was, I didn't know - the radio station
in question (which, by the way, beams from a nearby US NATO base) doesn't
do any back-announcements, and apparently I managed to miss all those
times the identity of the singer had been revealed.
or less at the same time, a friend writing from France asked me whether
I had ever listened to this new singer whose name was Norah Jones. Never
heard of her. It was only later, when her current hit - sporting a salacious
"Don't know why I didn't come" (!) - was described to me in
analytical - and openly unfavourable - terms, that I recognized this
song as the one I had heard all summer long. And which had become more
and more annoying with every listening. So I filed everything under
"same old, same old" and closed the drawer.
no: The CD became a massive worldwide hit, in the end getting a lot
of Grammys® (it's still selling a lot). What really surprised me
was all that hoopla about "the return of quality" (hey, what
about Aimee Mann's Lost In Space, then? Oh, I get it: it wasn't nominated).
Sure, what was the competition? Eminem and Avril Lavigne, you say? Oh,
this was more than a bit disturbing. Sure, industry prizes always refer
to a given year. The same goes for music mags, with their end-of-year
from asset to hindrance?
is this really the way we gauge music when we listen to it? By making
a qualified judgment that says "in 2002" or whatever? And
this is a really thorny issue. Now, it's plainly obvious that no music
mag could afford to slash new CDs left and right - bills have to be
paid, after all. And it's obvious that those in their early 20s have
listened to, say, Nirvana as a group that was already a rock myth from
some distant past. But does the absence of memory (which of course can
make perfect sense in commercial terms) make for a true description
of the music that's listened - and reviewed? Especially now, when one
could easily guess just from listening to most CDs where many artists
(well...) got their "inspiration" (and I'm not talking about
been said that memory can turn from an asset into an hindrance. One
can become "too choosy", judging current things by a yardstick
that may prove to be pretty impossible to beat. But here we're not talking
about "being married to the past". But about having a sound
notion of what "quality" means - and if this looks too subjective,
just ask yourself: would one look for suggestions about a good place
to eat by asking somebody whose lifelong diet has consisted only of
junk food and canned tuna?
now we all should be able to recognize a scam when we see one (and all
the fuss about "are they married or are they brother and sister"
should have been a dead giveaway). But it's only with a certain degree
of shock that one can read words like "Meg excels in those surroundings.
She swings -- rough yet hard, underlining Jack's guitars and vocals
with the boom of the late John Bonham". John Bonham?! (By the way,
it's David Fricke from Rolling Stone 920, April 17, 2003) This from
a drummer who reportedly couldn't even keep time on some old Yardbirds
tunes? (For a reality check, read the Chuck Eddy's review of Elephant
that appeared in The Village Voice, April 11, 2003.)
"You've listened to too much music. And you are just too
hard to please."
The accusation of being an "elitist" can't be too far behind.
In fact, it often appears cleverly disguised as "you've listened
to too much music". Not as in "burnout". But as in "you're
too hard to please". Which, in a way, can be seen as a self-serving
statement (by the way, would any of us accuse a doctor of having "too
much expertise"?). But which can also take us to a very interesting
topic: the quality of one's attention, aka "what do you do with
In fact, it was with a certain amount of puzzlement that I learned,
some time ago, of the way quite a few colleagues listen to the material
they have to review: on their PCs, via tiny headphones (this came out
in public when the fact of getting copy-protected CDs made it impossible
for some of them to listen to the music on their hard drives). Of course,
this immediately takes care of all the discussions about sound quality
Talking over a beer can result in interesting discoveries, such as:
"People who read about music don't listen to music with much attention,
so why should I?"; or "Most readers don't like the things
they read as being too fancy - one must be simple and get to the point
Back to Motown?
It was suggested to me, while we were discussing stuff in a Forum
on the Net, that in a way we are back to the old days of Motown - i.e.,
that today's music industry is very much like it was before the Beatles,
when music was produced with the conscious expectation that people did
something else while they listened, with dancing as the highest level
of involvement one would have with music. (Ouch!) But nowadays this
can easily translate into a "consumer hell" - and especially
so for record companies, since the widely available technical means
of getting music for free can make it convenient for consumers to get
everything they want while not forking a cent (a propos of this, please
check my previous editorial, titled The Value Of Music).
The Dark Side Of... SACD?
Meanwhile, the music industry appears to be trying to shake things
up by introducing new audio formats - the DVD-A and the SACD - hoping
to repeat the scenario that saw boosted back-catalogue sales with the
advent of the CD. Declining sales of hi-fi systems should alert one
to the fact that consumers definitely don't appear to listen to music
in the same way they did in the past. This is mirrored by the reduced
attention given in the press to the fact that some (most?) of the 5.1
remixes are produced without the artists being involved/consulted. (Those
curious about these matters can check a transcription of a talk given
by engineer James Guthrie on March 24 at the press launch for Pink Floyd's
The Dark Side Of The Moon 5.1 SACD at audiorevolution.com.) In the past
we've had to suffer all those CD re-releases with a horrible sound,
in many instances the "digitally remastered" editions being
the last nail in the coffin for our chances to listen to many classic
albums in a not-overcompressed, ugly distorted manner. Which brings
we compress it a bit more?
"beautiful" is a highly subjective judgement. But "tiring"
isn't. Nowadays, though digital has the potential to give us a "more
truthful" sound picture, reality is pretty different, with most
CDs of new material that are being released sporting a highly compressed,
extremely brutal sound. Though who exactly is the culprit remains a
highly debated topic - just have a look on the Net - that this is, in
fact, happening, is not disputed - not that I know of, anyway. (If you're
curious about this, check the article titled Whatever Happened To Dynamic
Range On Compact Discs? It's by George Graham, and you can find it at
georgegraham.com.) Whether someone managed to delude himself into believing
that a highly compressed CD could more easily translate into higher
sales I don't know. But it appears that - far from educating listeners
to appreciate a "beautiful", detailed sound (not an easy task,
I know) - the industry is aligning itself with the sound of those free-of-charge
MP3 files (which it expects to sell???).
blast from the past
course, the past is not a totally forbidden territory. The logical process
by which some artists are taken out of the closet and admitted into
the pantheon, however, remains inscrutable. Sure, we know that many
people like to have heroes that are untarnished by their parents' approval
(can you say Velvet Underground?). But can anyone explain John Fahey?
And how can his music be "understood" when one is by no means
aware of the cultural dimension that gave it its meaning? Some cases
are more mysterious still. Take Love - why not Spirit, then? Or Lee
Hazlewood - why not, say, Donovan? Sometimes it looks like a game of
it all means, I just don't know. But results, as they say, are not pretty.
Beppe Colli 2003
| April 22, 2003