Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for September 19th, 2014

Erase and rewind

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The Cardigans

Note: Every Friday, The A.V. Club, my favorite pop cultural site on the Internet, throws out a question to its staff members for discussion, and I’ve decided that I want to join in on the fun. This week’s question: “What’s your personal one-hit wonder?”

More than most other kinds of art, pop music feels like a numbers game. Each year, thousands of new tracks are released, many by unknown artists, and they percolate up through the ether, dropping one by one, until the survivor emerges as the song of the summer. Nowadays, it all feels downright Darwinian: record labels and radio stations may still serve as gatekeepers, and occasionally we’ll all end up with a copy of the same album whether we like it or not, but there are more ways for independent music to reach us than ever before. In practice, though, it turns into a long tail distribution, with a handful of outliers overwhelming the countless songs at the unlucky end, which might as well not even exist. To a greater or lesser extent, that’s true of all media: if you’re trying to make it in any industry, you naturally tend to measure yourself against the artists you know, forgetting that they’re all drawn from the highly skewed sample set of the names you’ve heard in the first place. Everyone else is invisible, until, suddenly, one of them isn’t.

In music, the process can seem especially ruthless, simply because the scale involved is so vast. Even in these days of easier access to production and distribution, there seem to be limits on how many new books, movies, or television shows the world can absorb, but a song can be streamed, judged, and forgotten within minutes, and it’s still impossible for even a professional critic to hear more than a fraction of what’s available. When a song invades the popular consciousness, or even your own brain, it can seem both inevitable and inexplicable. Music of all kinds operates within stark limits, and most big singles these days sound more or less alike, probably because they pass through the laptops of the same handful of superstar producers. Yet within those constraints, a world of variation is still possible, and a song that survives long enough to be heard by anyone is by definition an exceptional result, with the delta-qs, as Pynchon puts it in the story of Byron the immortal light bulb, lining up just right.

Jason Derulo

That’s why we associate the one-hit wonder more with music than with anything else. It seems intuitively unlikely that an author could produce a great novel by accident and be left with nothing else to say, but with music, an artist—or, more accurately, the sum of all artists—is actively collaborating with statistics. A hit single can seem like a fluke because it probably is; if it differs from hundreds of similar songs released the same year, it’s in indefinable ways that the artist himself often has trouble replicating. This isn’t for lack of opportunity: if you make it high enough on the Billboard charts, you’re usually granted another shot. It’s at that point, though, that regression to the mean extracts its revenge. If an artist’s followup single is almost always viewed as a disappointment, it’s only because we’re measuring it against an outlier of outliers. But even if it achieves a measure of commercial success, or leads to a lasting career, for a lot of listeners, it can’t have the same power as the song that grabbed us in the first place.

And repeating that kind of impact over time is rare enough that a lot of listeners, like me, ultimately give up on trying to be completists. There was a time when I thought that I had to listen to everything a band or artist produced before I could express an opinion on their work, or name one of their songs as a favorite; now, I’m content to endlessly replay a song like “Erase/Rewind” without feeling as if I need to be familiar with the complete works of the Cardigans. It also frees you from potentially embarrassing investments of time. I’m not necessarily ashamed of the fact that I’ve probably listened to Jason Derulo’s “Whatcha Say” more than any other single of the last five years, but I’m a little relieved that I don’t feel obliged to check out everything else he’s done. I’ve learned to be grateful for three minutes of diversion without taking on the burden of fandom. That may not be fair to the artists involved, and it’s more of a reflection of the way I listen to music in my thirties than how I might have approached it ten years ago. But I still hold out hope that somewhere, someday, I’ll hear at least one more song that will change my life.

Written by nevalalee

September 19, 2014 at 10:10 am

Quote of the Day

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Edgard Varese

There is an idea, the basis of an internal structure, expanded and split into different shapes or groups of sound constantly changing in shape, direction, and speed, attracted and repulsed by various forces. The form of the work is a consequence of this interaction. Possible musical forms are as limitless as the exterior forms of crystals.

Edgard Varèse

Written by nevalalee

September 19, 2014 at 7:30 am

Posted in Quote of the Day

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