The other day I bought a lovely used 1963 release by Shelly Manne on Impulse! records. Impulse! had a beautiful design for all of the releases that is just unmistakable. Not many labels make all of their records uniform in design, but Impulse! always did a simple black white and orange design that looks great. (RogueArt is a great example of this now … I can easily spot my RogueArt release on the shelf.)
Anyway, I was sitting and staring at this record and admiring what is truly a message from another universe. On the cover is a picture of Manne, looking thoughtful and smoking … that’s it. What I realized is that this is a far better mode of communication than anything that has come since. I see Manne, I get a message of what this thing is and some atmosphere, and that’s about it. Thing is, that is all that you need. The music will speak for itself, and liner notes will give a bit of background, and you’re set. I don’t know what he had for lunch, I don’t know who he’s dating, there is no product placement stamped on his forehead, there aren’t a series of articles describing Manne’s misbehaviour on the weekend, or pictures of him pushing a baby stroller fresh from waking up.
If I did have all of that extra, uh, stuff, I wouldn’t be even remotely better off. In fact, for me, having all of that information would actually put me at a disadvantage. I am speaking of what it is like now, with the Internet providing a torrent of information to me pretty much constantly, and almost all of it is nothing but noise. Would it be better for me to see pictures of Mann’s lunch, see pics of him wasted on the couch with his buddies on the weekend, or know about some shoes that covets? I realize that humans have this unquenchable voyeuristic tendency, but does the satisfaction of that desire to see into private lives actually enhance … anything? At one point I thought that it was pretty cool to be able to know more about previously private lives of people that I was interested in. I’m not so sure anymore.
This is all pretty difficult to describe, but there is a real beauty to me in an object like the record I was holding in my hands. In that one 12″ square of cardboard with a circle of vinyl inside, is the entire expression of how Shelly Manne wanted to portray himself to the world. There is a carefully chosen photo that gives a definite impression of how Manne wanted to be seen, there are liner notes that have to tell me everything I need to be told in a limited space, and there is music that has been carefully chosen and sequenced to communicate something to me in the limited space of a vinyl recording. Of course, people are going to object to the “limits” that are imposed in every step of that process and I am going to respond that the limits are actually what make the record jacket meaningful, rich, and a lean, calculated message. It gets to the point because it must, and every element is there for a reason, because there’s no room for waste. This is not unlike painting, which must get the communication job done inside of a limited frame, and every brush stroke is there for a reason, or it is not there. When I view a painting by Jean Michel Basquiat everything on that canvas (or whatever he painted on) is there for a reason. He didn’t just add a line because there was some space, his painting is tremendous because it is perfect. When I stand in front of a Basquiat painting I can appreciate the perfection of every line and admire the fact that it is there. I have never seen one of those paintings and said “well, there is that one line that seems to be there for no reason”.
Now, we have Justin Bieber (to shoot fish in a barrel). Sure, there have been shallow purveyors of fluff for a very long time, but Bieber came up in discussion recently and I thought that he was an interesting case. I don’t know a single line of one of his songs and I’ve likely heard some of them. The thing is, Bieber (or his handlers) don’t have any of that sense of economy. They throw every stinking thing at you that they can possible find in a torrent of info that makes it impossible to not know things about Bieber. Fact is, I know way more about what Justin is wearing, who he makes the mistake of hanging around with, what his current hair configuration is, and the fact that he seems to have thrown eggs at his neighbour’s house. This info is extremely effective at keeping him in the public eye, but I’m not sure what value it brings … to anything. Of course, this is happening from multiple sources all-day every day so that I know about the Jenners, the Kardashians, what that idiot Kanye West is doing, etc etc etc. The vast majority of this is NOISE. Although it serves the purpose of maintaining attention, that seems to be its sole value. It’s not what people know, it’s just that they’re paying attention. I find myself pretty much constantly working to turn down the flow of garbage coming out of the internet nozzle. The force of attention is very very strong and it is far from easy to quiet down the din. Thing is, while everyone is trying to shout the loudest, all that they are shouting is “look … Look … LOOK!!!” I actually get this pretty much every waking hour, as I have some young folks in my house and they are forever hearing “LOOK!” and then coming to me essentially saying “we’re supposed to LOOK at this” … “LOOK at it … LOOK at it!!!”. I look, and at this point instantly realize that I quite simply am looking at empty images with nothing except shock value, pathetic behaviour, or just about anything that someone can come up with to get some attention … whatever that takes”.
I was told that Justin Bieber has recently had a resurgence in popularity. When I asked why, it seemed that it was pretty much entirely based on his new haircut. While people have survived on haircuts for quite a while now, it seems that the haircut is now the entire package … there is nothing else. His haircut has garnered attention, but his new music just melds right into all of the other stuff being played loudly at the clothing stores at the mall. His new haircut is where it begins and ends. There’s nothing there there. While Shelly Manne was sending a message and it seems rich and clear, Bieber is saying absolutely nothing except “look at me”. I look, and that I say “what?” “What do you want to tell me Justin?” I’m met, however, with nothing … he is two-dimensional, flat, a pretty picture. He says nothing. His image changes, not to send a message, but to recharge the attention machine. We are barraged with the image, and nothing else … nothing at all.
I recently was writing something and summed up the early history of the internet as a ton of promise and hope for an information network, that exploded when everyone saw William Shatner singing and expanded so fast that none of the hopeful bits could keep up. As it turns out, it’s never gone beyond Shatner singing. Media has lost its depth … there’s nothing beneath the surface and process of content creation has just become picking up as much crap as possible and throwing it at me. I have to keep turning away to look at things with depth and meaning, and it gets harder and harder to hear something real above the 2D din.