Forsake Your Drum Machine: A Review of Rick Moody, On Celestial Music
Posted July 24, 2012on:
There’s a certain ebullience to Rick Moody’s new essay collection On Celestial Music, a compulsion to keep talking, what Moody himself calls an “inability to stop trying to explain this imprinting, this mark that music has made on me.” This sentiment may bring back all the nights you stayed up with a friend, putting songs on the speakers one after another to keep the party going until the proverbial break of dawn when everyone is spent and sub-verbal. Apparently, the prolific novelist Moody, still best known as the author of The Ice Storm, is one of us—not a rarified music critic but a music nerd who’s parlayed his chops as an A-list fiction writer into a chance to go semi-pro. Not a bad hustle. Fortunately, his critical substance complements his prose chops rather than imparting the sense that he’s out of his depth. In fact, Moody claims more than an incidental relationship between his skills and his subject:
“There is a link, I mean to suggest, between literary writing and music—a very specific link, a link of great relevance, which finds itself in the fact that literary writing is an aural phenomenon, though it appears on the page. The origin of literature is in the oral tradition, in what is spoken. That is, literature that avoids its sonic register does so at its peril. Literature that never lived in someone’s mouth, or someone’s ear, is desiccated literature.”
To someone from the world of poetry, which can feel like the neglected sibling to our favored brother Narrative, this declaration feels like a welcome mat. Between reading Stein or inheriting the modernist one-two punch of Pound’s suggestion that poems are more a musical composition than a literary art and Zukofsky’s more succinct “lower limit speech / upper limit music”—and an arena full of poet-critics carrying their torch—Moody’s statement feels like an familiar and welcome turn. Maybe poetry’s focus on musicality and aurality over the lauded glories of finely hewn story and character development hasn’t been for nothing. Maybe mom and dad will give us the keys to the car that bro outgrew, etc.
That welcome mat that seemed incidental ends up presaging Moody’s thematic preoccupation with the importance of conversation and human connection. The opening essay, “Against Cool,” traces the genealogy of that now-banal word, ultimately aiming that “against” in the direction of present-day cool’s detached judgment, the kind of cool that, in Moody’s words, “enables you to step over bodies…enables you to look the other way…makes you functional, eager for routine distraction, passive, doped, stupid.” This salvo serves as a kind of manifesto for Moody’s approach in the essays that follow, whether it’s in his examination of the Magnetic Fields and their 69 Love Songs—emphasis on “love”—or of the social complexities of musical “guilty pleasures” (his include, yes, early Jethro Tull), or fun, exhaustion, embarrassment, and joy that emerges from the collaborations at grown-up music camp.
The preoccupation with human connection reaches an unexpected head, however, in the book’s final essay, “Europe, Forsake Your Drum Machines!” While more equivocal than its title implies, the essay suggests the device strips the quirks and errors from human drummers and replace them with an easy but cold and unwavering beat-machine. Machines 1, Humans 0. (If nothing else, that’s a fun rhetorical position to take, though arguing an “eliminate all drummers” position, disingenuously or not, might bring a Montaigne-esque smile to the face.) Moody’s position is a bit crotchety, as it recapitulates an argument that’s been thrown at most pieces of musical technology—namely, that they take away the human touch, the spark and liveliness of human creation. Aspects of music we now take for granted—the electric guitar, microphone-amplified singing, recorded music itself—were all once decried for their mediating qualities, the way they separated person from person. Moody indeed acknowledges that this new digital technology doesn’t inherently eliminate evidence of the human touch or preclude human ingenuity. He mentions the possibilities enabled by engineering and recording software Pro Tools, citing drum-and-bass artist Roni Size (remember him?) as one exploiter of its editing capabilities, and he elsewhere lauds Brian Eno’s expressive drum machine work.
Still, Moody writes that “for listeners who prefer that music suggest certain of the human passions, who recognize most in music its ability to summon up some of the bittersweet feelings of being alive—memories, dreams, wishes, regrets—this contemporary music is emptied of any meaningful affect.” But in surveying the essay, the “contemporary music” that’s ultimately condemned is the kind of Top 40 radio hits (from her majesty Lady Gaga et al.) that derive from 80s synth pop and four-on-the-floor club beats, which suggests that it’s ultimately not drum machines per se that Moody so dislikes but rather painfully ordinary drum machine programming. (Machines 1, Humans 1)
Late in the essay, we get to the meat of what’s troubling Moody. While there’s no doubt of his sincere distaste for drum machines, it’s revealed to be a bit of a lark. He writes:
“I am not going to go so far as to say that all synthetic musical products are not, in fact, music, but I will say that music produced by machines is really good at getting you to obey the beats; it is really good at getting you to submit.”
“[S]ynthetic music has become the corporate music par excellence. What the multinational entertainment providers urgently require, after all, is recordable and reproducible predictability, and with certain minor adjustments, now all music can be recorded by a solitary producer whose sole instrument is his computer…”
Oy, now we see the real trouble. Corporate capitalism has long used music to sell detergent, juice drinks, and other bundles of goods. In the aggregate, though, that music is merely part of a broader sensory landscape that serves a larger, perhaps more nefarious purpose—namely, training people to be consumers, to “submit” to a consumption-based lifestyle. Now, Moody seems to be saying, corporations have stumbled upon a particularly cheap and potent form of this training music (Gaga is auditory crack rock), and the by-products of this are both a corporately manipulated populace (nothing new there) and the accelerating disappearance of actual musicians, “sacrificed to ensure a strong price-to-earnings ratio…” The drum machine, then, is an tool for the elimination of the human feeling that’s part and parcel of one thing we so enjoy about music: the sense that we’re connecting with a particular, complex, messy human, not a corporate mouthpiece.
This part of Moody’s essay stings and lingers long after his rhetorically fun anxieties over this or that item of music tech fade from one’s mind. Agree with him or not, he poses challenging questions to consider in a time when not only music production seems to be conspiring to transform populations of all sorts (undocumented immigrants, recent college grads, unionized labor—the list is long) into superfluous or invisible entities. Is there a limit to how much music technology we should be using? Is it making music worse? Are we slowly alienating ourselves from some primal connective need facilitated by music, mistaking canned cheese for the real thing?
But if it is indeed not the technology per se but how we use it that shapes the direction of musical culture, then there’s hope that, as seems historically the case with most inventions, real live humans will continue to find the quirks of that technology and use them in ways that defy mechanical predictability. It may be true that 90% of music (with a live drummer or a canned beat) is shit, but even then, for every handful of sub-europop radio hits that use Autotune to turn hacks into pop stars, there’ll be a Bon Iver recording “Woods,” using Autotune to stir an eerie regret. Insert your own examples. Ultimately, if it’s really the loss of the “authentic” connection of human music that we’re concerned about here, then rather than imploring musicians to forsake drum machines, we’d be better off fostering people who value heterogeneity over sameness and perfection, who seek real connections over easy sociability. That’s not as simple a project as consigning a machine to a scrap heap, but it would allay Moody’s concerns, and in the process probably give us more songs to love.
Michael Nicoloff is a poet, critic, and wage laborer. Work of various sorts has appeared in 6X6, The Brooklyn Rail, The Recluse, The Poetic Labor Project, and elsewhere. He still owns a drum machine, wherever it is.