My most recent article began as an attempt to write a wide-ranging review of the new Sonic Youth record The Eternal. Several paragraphs in, however, it became apparent to me that I was ranging so widely that I had yet to come close to discussing anything specifically relevant to the record, even though the connection to it would have been clear to someone as invested in the band as I am. So I started over, setting aside those paragraphs for later use. As it happens, that later use came quite soon, since my next self-assigned assignment was to write a review of the new Tortoise record Beacons of Ancestorship. Because I didn't yet have the physical record in hand, however, and wasn't sure I'd heard all the tracks on it, I was reluctant to follow through on my intention of posting a review of it.
What I came up with, as an alternative, is an essay that provides a context for understanding Tortoise's fifteen-year career in relation to the massive changes in the music industry that have accompanied it. So the piece is "about" Tortoise more in the sense of exploring what lies immediately beyond the circle delimiting the band's work than what falls within its scope. Still, I listened to a lot of Tortoise while writing it, suggesting that their music's influence on my ideas might be manifested indirectly even when I'm not talking about them. The same goes for our cat Thing Two, whose body I'd discovered before finishing the last two-thirds of the piece. I couldn't sleep, so I wrote. Here's to you, Little Guy, with three of the paragraphs I poured out in your honor:
In the end, though, post-rock did not prove to have the impact that its supporters had hoped. Although it pointed the way towards a new cultural sensibility, its leading lights were too dim to transform the music industry to a meaningful extent. As it turned out, the crisis in self-understanding that post-rock had signalled proved to be a prophecy whose full meaning could not be immediately discerned. In his remarkable 1977 book Noise: The Political Economy of Music, the French thinker Jacques Attali inverts traditional leftist thinking in arguing that changes in music often anticipate changes in the social order rather than merely reflecting them after the fact. While post-rock may not be the sort of music he had in mind, his suggestive comments about the revolutionary potential in free jazz – a major influence on some post-rock luminaries – make it possible, without distorting his ideas egregiously, to claim that the radical structural transformation that we have been witnessing in the music industry was prefigured, both in post-rock’s rejection of traditional notions of genre and in the reluctance to pursue stardom exhibited by most of its practitioners.When I sat down at the laptop at 3am, I hadn't thought of Jacques Attali in many years. I'm not sure why my thoughts gravitated to Noise so intently as I tried to type my way out of paralytic sadness, but it felt good to reread portions of the book that night. I recommend it. And I recommend the new Tortoise album, out Tuesday, as well. It will always conjure memories of Thing Two for me, but it's better to remember than forget.
That being said, there’s no doubt that the major factor in this structural transformation was the technological progress that made music available on the internet. But it is worth nothing that, long before Napster, MySpace and YouTube came on the scene, astute critics had imagined the future that those services would later make flesh. In his comments on the future of composition, written a number of years before the development of the compact disc became a hot topic, Attali himself proves remarkably prescient. “The consumer, completing the mutation that began with the tape recorder and photography, will thus become a producer and will derive at least as much of his satsisfaction from the manufacturing process itself as from the object he produces.” Interestingly, though Noise is about music, Attali clearly includes the manipulation of images in his conception of composition, a sign that, together with future-oriented media theorists like Marshall McLuhan and Alvin Toffler, he anticipated a world of what Henry Jenkins calls “media convergence.”
This vision of a world in which consumers want to feel like producers of their own content highlights the most profound change that popular music has undergone since being made available on the internet. More and more, even the most devoted music lovers struggle to identify what they are listenting to and, as a consequence, also frequently struggle to identify with it. Despite the fact that today's listeners can carry “their” music around on an iPod or access it from internet sites like LastFM or Blip.fm, they regularly forget what they have in their collection. It used to be that, once you put an LP on the turntable, you were pretty sure of what you were going to be hearing, even if it was your first time listenting to the record. Now it’s common to see people pause to look down at their iPod or up at their screen to remind themselves of the name of a band they’ve heard many times before.