Monday, August 24, 2009

Death of the Standards

Writing in last weekend's Financial Times, Elijah Wald, author of an upcoming book called How the Beatles Destroyed Rock 'n' Roll, makes an interesting case for technology killing live performance in pop music.

Basically, his theory is that as studio recording technology evolved (aided greatly by the late Les Paul's multitrack developments), pop music shifted its focus from songs to performers and live performance became about the star and not the song. For instance:

Through the 1950s, most dancers still considered live bands preferable to record hops with DJs but the balance was tipping. Teenagers were falling in love with particular performances, which meant it was becoming increasingly common for a record to be a hit, rather than just being a recording of a hit. That might seem a hair-splitting distinction but it is reflected in the words we still use for the pop classics on either side of the divide: 'standards' and 'oldies'. Standards are songs, and even an iconic performance by Frank Sinatra or Ella Fitzgerald is just one recording of that song. Oldies, by contrast, are records – if we ask a DJ to play 'Maybellene', we expect not only to hear it performed by Chuck Berry but to hear the specific recording that was a hit for him in 1955.
The whole piece is interesting, but I wonder if, ultimately, it doesn't make a key distinction between "pop" and "rock" music. Live pop performances, I agree, tend towards the packaged and homogenized, so the 12-year-old girls to whom they're directed sound just like they do on their iPod.

But rock music, it seems to me, has a long history of famous live performances that aren't slavishly faithful to the recorded product. Not even counting the whole jam band thing, live performances captured on tape like At Fillmore East, at Budokan, and Frampton Comes Alive! are part of the rock cannon. Playing live is part of the gig (so to speak), not an ancillary marketing scheme.

Regardless, Wald makes an interesting argument and I'll be anxious to see how it plays out long form in his new book.


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elijah wald said...

I would just note, re: rock and my article, that today's NY Times has a piece on Nine Inch Nails doing their farewell tour, and as a special treat for their fans they are playing all the songs from one of their albums in order...

JDB said...

Good point. And they're hardly alone, as there seems to be a resurgence of appreciation of the album as a form. Steely Dan is doing something similar in the mini-residencies they're doing across the country. The Decemberists just finished up a tour where they played The Hazards of Love from stem to stern. And Marillion's made a full album play through the cornerstone of their various weekends.

But I don't think that necessarily means the live performances are just rote recitations of the studio album. If anything, it's a trend that celebrates seeing bands actually play these things in a live setting.

Regardless, thanks for the comment. Looking forward to the book.