Listening With the Eyes

posted by Tom Moon on August 25, 2009 at 7:20 pm
in , , , ,

Thoughts on listening, prompted by the eminent release of The Beatles Rock Band....

There’s much to be excited about in the cover story of the August 16 New York Times Magazine, which chronicles the making of the soon-to-launch video game The Beatles Rock Band. Author Daniel Radosh had access to the game’s designers and the living Beatles who approved every screen – at one point Paul McCartney describes himself as “executive tweaker.” The story offers an endearing portrait of a team dedicated to preserving the halo of magic that surrounds the Beatles while tackling the technical and aesthetic challenges of building a video game.

What’s troubling is the story’s underlying assumption: That the video game will help bring the Beatles “into the modern era.”

As though the music can no longer do that alone.

You know this modern place. It’s where music no longer exists for its own sake. Radosh notes that the modern consumer “experiences music differently,” as a kind of “sonic wallpaper.” As a result, plain old audio, even plain old audio by the world’s all-time most influential rock band, is no longer sufficient. It seems the best way – possibly the only way – to get people to dive deeply into the grooves is to hand them a plastic guitar-shaped controller and invite them to “play” along. Progress!

The irony, of course, is that the Beatles were miles ahead of everyone else in pop music in embracing the visual. The Beatles seized the possibilities of animation, and pioneered what became known as the music video – in the process creating visual languages that enhanced the listening experience. The Beatles Rock Band may one day be considered another pioneering achivement, a canny “extension” of a storied brand. Here’s hoping.

Still, we’ll be left with a curious condition: A huge audience for music that regards listening to be an activity that involves the eyes. In this “modern” era, people don’t often immerse themselves in sound, and nothing but sound. They forage for music via YouTube, seeking enchantment through the corresponding videos. They’ve come to expect a visual “supplement.” Some aren’t interested in a song unless there’s a scene attached.

I can’t help but wonder: In this modern age, how much of the delightful audio wonderments the Beatles and countless others painstakingly embedded in their recordings are even getting through to us? What are we missing when we listen with our eyes? Does this type of listening erode our ability to appreciate plain old music? Will we someday lose the ability to process complex ideas, to follow an extended melody around sharp curves and through dense forests? Will we no longer bother to engage such a melody unless it is in some way “illustrated?”



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#1 from frankenslade - 08/27/2009 7:42

Good questions, but this has been going on for some time - at least since the heyday of MTV in the ‘80s and probably as long as any sort of imagery has been associated with pop music artists. Had the first still images that ‘50s teens seen of Elvis Presley been replaced with stills of a less-alluring man would there have been as much passion for getting some folks to listen more carefully? There are more visual avenues competing for listeners’ attention, but who’s to say the percentage of listeners who actually listen for the subtleties that attact people like us to music has ever changed? Could it be that the old “It’s got a great beat and you can dance to it!” reaction that teens on American Bandstand once noted has always been a primary entry point and that the public has always been more willing to make time to dig deeper for “good-looking” artists. In my mate-seeking days, for instance, I sadly admit to having allowed more time for a conversation to develop with a prospective partner who caught my eye than otherwise might have been warranted. Videos and these games may simply be new media for encouraging us to dig deeper. The richness of The Beatles’ music will be evident regardless of what gets a new generation of kids to pay attention to them.

#2 from SAS - 08/31/2009 10:05

As frankenslade points out, music has always had a relationship to visual imagery.  After all, one lament as LP’s have evolved into CD’s and now MP3’s has been the ever-shrinking size of album artwork.  Was Sgt. Pepper’s, with its spectacular gatefold cover, ever really “plain old audio?”

But I think you’re missing a few other points about what’s going on with the Beatles’ Rock Band project.

1)  It’s not so much about “interesting” new generations of listeners through the bells and whistles of a game like Rock Band.  It’s about EXPOSING new generations of listeners through Rock Band.  As radio, MTV, record stores, and magazines have lost their over-arching power to reach audiences, artists—yes, even the Beatles—have to seek out other outlets to get their music to people who haven’t yet heard it.  So we see acts angling to get their songs into video games, onto shows like American Idol, and into commercials and narrative TV shows.  But again, I think this has more to do with exposure than some incapability of new listeners to enjoy visually unadorned music.

2)  But insofar as the music is being adorned, I think you’re missing something still by considering the adornment as “visual.”  I think what’s being added to the music is more accurately described as “interactivity.”  Younger audiences seem to want to take pop musicians off the pedestal and become more involved with the music.  This interactivity is obvious in Guitar Hero and Rock Band, but think about a show like American Idol, where amateurs compete by performing the songs of our favorite stars, as the audience votes each week to determine who they like the most.  Think of the more intimate and interactive relationship that indie artists have with their fan bases through social networking and other websites.  There seems to be a definite trend toward less stratification between artist and audience.

3)  Finally, games like Rock Band are less about “listening with our eyes” than they are about “listening with our wallets.”  I don’t think younger audiences enjoy the pure listening experience of the Beatles’ music any less than previous generations.  They just aren’t accustomed to PAYING for the pure listening experience.  Bands need to find new delivery streams where their work can’t be acquired for free, and video games happen to be one of the most viable current streams.

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