Back in the spring came a revolutionary moment in American culture whose full significance was not quite grasped at the time, although the event itself was widely seen and much commented-upon. I refer, of course, to Blake Lewis’s performance of Bon Jovi’s “You Give Love a Bad Name” on American Idol:
What Lewis did was to break the fourth wall of audio vérité, something no other AI contestant had ever done. He performed his own purpose — freshening up an old favorite — by miming the gestures of someone taking an old LP off the shelf, blowing off the dust, and cuing up the turntable. And (this is the important bit) he then imitated the hiss of a needle in a well-worn groove. The gesture of incorporating audio decay into one’s own performance makes audible the passage of years: with this gesture, a song that lives in the eternal present of AOR radio is stripped of its appearance of living outside time. Lewis’s performance insisted (gently) that the song lives in history (i.e., old song made new, etc.), and did so by representing it as something with a material existence subject to the ravages of time. Songs are embodied in objects (LPs, cassette tapes, eight-tracks, 45s) that decay, and the decay becomes part of the our hearing of the song: we hear it as the sign of passing time, of history. In truth, Blake wasn’t doing anything that hiphop artists hadn’t done for decades, but, as I said at the time, this marked the moment that hiphop, and certain of its underlying aesthetic elements, penetrated the widest possible sphere of American pop-cultural consciousness.
What hiphop does is to make unignorable rock music’s rejection of what Theodore Gracyk, in his excellent philosophical study Rhythm and Noise: An Aesthetic of Rock, calls realism:
Needing a label for the position that performances always have ontological priority, let us call it recording realism. It is related to an established position concerning photography and cinema: the parent theme is that any mechanical recording is essentially the documentation of some independent reality. Although not himself a realist, William Moylan summarizes its basic aesthetic: “The recording medium is often called upon to be transparent. In these contexts, it is the function of the recording to capture the sound as accurately as possible, to capture the live performance without distortion.” Ideally, recording is invisible and the audience should ignore contributions of the recording process.*
Or, one might add, the materiality of recordings. When you do pay attention to the contributions of the recording process, or to the “thinginess” or records, you see them as things in themselves and not simply auditory snapshots of some other, independent reality. They are things with a history, things in time, things that decay. Records are made out of records; records are about other records. Hiphop simply raises this notion to an overt and generally avowed aesthetic principle. (As Gracyk demonstrates, in rock it is overt but generally disavowed.)
Last week I read a paper for the IU musicology department that draws on some of these notions by looking at some very decayed sound recordings and thinking about how their decay is part of their presence. One of our graduate students, Amanda Sewell, told me about a film called Decasia: The State of Decay that does the same thing. Decasia is a wordless art film that sets very old and decayed silent film footage to the music of can-banger Michael Gordon. The film’s website has two clips:
When the decay of an expressive object becomes its primary expression, what do we feel? Nostalgia, longing, melancholy, regret, desire, foreboding, fear?
*Theodore Gracyk, Rhythm and Noise: An Aesthetic of Rock (Durham: Duke University Press, 1996), 39.