MR. SOUL: CAN NEIL SAVE ROCK?
Neil Young made that comforting claim of immortality in 1979 – in the face of the surging, white-hot Punk scene – as he reflected on the shaky relevance of Rock-N-Roll and on his own work as a 34-year-old keeper of the flame.
The grunge power-anthem “Hey Hey, My My (Into The Black)” rumbled across the musical landscape – with bottomed-out distortion – as if the Rock gods themselves were roused from stoned self-glory and were growling to live on.
A new generation flocked toward Punk’s rawness and in-your-face rebellion, and Rock music – once undisputed heavyweight champ – found itself on the ropes.
Rock-N-Roll had grown fat, happy and lost much of the edge it had sharpened in the heyday of the ’60s and early-’70s when it was the wild-eyed, tie-dyed barbarian at the gate. Punk kicked in the door and took our breath away with all the thrashing, white-knuckle energy and authenticity that Rock had lost along the way. The situation was dire as pop-glam bands like ABBA were running up the charts. It was a wake-up call (a rude one at that). It was a black-booted, drunken roundhouse to the chin for a tired genre that had rested on its laurels for too long.
Despite its adolescent sluggishness and self-absorption, Rock-N-Roll did indeed live on – co-opting Punk’s brazen “best practices” from game-changers like The Clash and The Ramones – to become a permanent, indispensable part of our culture, offering an edgy antidote to our stiflingly routine existences.
Rock-N-Roll became the Jameson in our coffee. The hash in our brownies.
Punks like Joey Ramone kicked Rock in the ass
It’s not an external, artistic threat like Punk was – a raucous, leather-clad party-crasher (that was slobbering drunk) – but rather an internal, technology-tipped threat, a cheapening and thinning of Rock-N-Roll’s 800-pound gorilla sound from inside the music industry itself.
So what’s gotten Neil’s back up?
Compressed digital downloads (a source more insidious than Joe Strummer and Joey Ramone could ever be) – specifically the flat-sounding, infuriatingly pervasive MP3 format – once held
in the highest regard as the future of the music industry.
On the one hand, MP3s are small files so they transfer in seconds (immediate gratification for 21st-century consumers), and we can cram thousands of them onto our sleek, candy-smooth mobile devices. On the other hand, MP3s sound like shit. Pick an adjective (or add one of your own): thin, mushy, tinny, watery, buzzy, flat, murky. They all apply.
That’s easy, and damn near unbelievable (until you listen to them). Ninety percent of the musical data from a song – in a “lossless” format like a CD or the download-ready FLAC (Free Lossless Audio Codec) – must be removed to convert it to a highly compressed MP3. So the MP3 contains only one-tenth of the musical data contained in the uncompressed CD version of a song. The upside: You can fit 10 times as many MP3s on your mobile device.
Welcome to underwater listening
Despite blowhard claims from industry hacks and grossly misinformed mainstream media hawkers, MP3s and CDs – not unexpectedly – do not sound the same. The shortcomings become more intense and downright displeasing as the quality increases from CDs to even higher-resolution music like studio master recordings. You begin to notice all that extra juicy-juice you’ve been missing.
It is safe to say that execs made very bad decisions – ones that sacrificed quality for convenience. Way back in the day, the questionable industry thinking may have gone down something like this (spoiler alert: we dislike most industries and corporations):
If a three-minute song on a CD can be as large as 40 megabytes in size, a four-gigabyte mobile device could only hold 100 songs. That just isn’t enough, even for their primitive brains and grossly underdeveloped auditory processes, they need more music at their gnarled fingertips. But how do we fit more songs on our tiny mobile devices? We compress them down to nothing. Our mobile devices will hold thousands. Pure genius. We’ll sell them empty songs of nothingness. They won’t even notice. Agreed, meeting adjourned.