Thorny issues
(vitriol included)

By Beppe Colli
April 22, 2003

Of Norah Jones and all those Grammys®

This 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.

More 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.

But 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, ok. Still...

Still 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 charts. But...

Memory: from asset to hindrance?

But: 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 sampling).

It's 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?

By 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 your time?".

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 (see below).

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 pretty quickly".

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 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 us to...

Can we compress it a bit more?

Ok, "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 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???).

A blast from the past

Of 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 chance.

What it all means, I just don't know. But results, as they say, are not pretty.

© Beppe Colli 2003 | April 22, 2003