Friday, May 15, 2009

Albums, singles and the two cent jukebox

Making a record of a blog's 100 days

When he released In the Wee Small Hours in the Morning in March of 1955, Frank Sinatra was in the middle of rebuilding a shipwrecked career that had foundered on the shoals of shifting public taste, and a controversial private life in which his divorce from his wife to marry to Hollywood starlet Ava Gardner was merely one transgression of prevailing social mores. But Wee Small Hours was more than a marketing gimmick by a desperate celebrity; it was in fact an ambitious artistic statement by a musician who shrewdly exploited an emerging musical order.

The key to that musical order was technological. For Sinatra, it would be built on the new technology of the 33 rotations-per-minute (rpm) vinyl record, which had better fidelity than the old 78 records. The smaller 45 rpm record was also a new format that would prove to be commercially and culturally viable, one that Elvis Presley would soon ride to stardom. But Sinatra focused on the 33 rpm because it allowed him to record a suite of songs -- the metaphor of choice was "album," as in a collection of photographs collected in a book -- in which the whole would be greater than the sum of its parts.

In the Wee Small Hours would inaugurate a decade of exceptional artistic creativity on Sinatra's part, built on the premise of albums with a thematic orientation. Come Fly with Me (1957) was a suite of songs about travel; Frank Sinatra Sings for Only the Lonely (1958), by contrast, was a melancholy collection focusing
on a sense of romantic loss. When, in the aftermath of its initial cultural explosion, rock & roll music developed a sense of self-conscious tradition and growing evidence of artistic sophistication, musicians like the Beach Boys and Beatles began down the path parallel to that of Sinatra (there's dismayingly little evidence that either community of listeners was aware of the others, much less that of jazz musicians like Miles Davis, who were working from a similar rubric). The 33 rpm album became the culturally dominant, and commercially most profitable, format for music by the late 1960s, and remained regnant until the early 1980s. Albums would often spawn hit singles -- viewed as important marketing tools for selling albums -- but at the height of its influence, heavyweight acts like Led Zeppelin would not deign to release them.

A series of technological changes eroded, without entirely displacing, the centrality of the album in pop music. The advent of the compact disc began to change the equation, in part because it was possible to program the sequence of songs as a listener, as opposed to the artist, wished. Another important factor in shifting the cultural balance away from the album and back toward the single was the arrival of MTV in 1981. In the short term, music video actually turned hit albums by artists like Prince, Michael Jackson, Madonna and Bruce Springsteen into strings of hits. But in the long run it enshrined the individual song, which, after all, was the focus of any given video. The coup de grace in the triumph of the song over the album was the
Moving Picture Experts Group-1 Audio Layer 3 (mp3) file, which entered the bloodstream of the the Internet in the 1990s. While late 20th century adolescents once tended to have "vertical" musical tastes whose locus was sets of songs by a stable of performers, early 21st century adolescents tend to "horizontal" ones consisting of smatterings of songs by a very broad range of artists housed in their iPods.

Now, I'm not a musician, and never nursed any hopes of becoming one. But this musical history, and my deep immersion in it, played a decisive role in my conception of myself as a writer. My ambitions were always set on writing books, which I analogized as "albums," as opposed to becoming a journalist who produced pieces that corresponded to songs. Of course, I understood that successful writers did both, and in fact did a fair amount of journalism in high school, college, and graduate school. But there was never any doubt where my head and my heart would feel most at home.

After a long apprenticeship, I began writing my first book in 1990, and was continually working on one for the next 19 years (I've published a total of ten, which includes to edited anthologies). It was only earlier this year, when I ran into some resistance in the attempt to produce an eleventh -- which, in and of itself, is almost meaningless, as I've never found it particularly easy to get a book into print -- that I suddenly became aware of an imploding literary landscape. This of course was a long time coming, though the recent economic downturn seems to have accelerated the process sharply. These external considerations forced into awareness something I could previously only barely admit to myself: that I was (am) tired. Bruce Springsteen once wrote that two of the most profound days in his life were those when he picked up a guitar and learned he could put it down. For the first time, I was beginning to comprehend the latter.

That's why I've started this blog. It remains very much an experiment. I'm aware that the blogosphere is littered with the detritus of projects that foundered after a few posts, and on any given day alternate between feeling oppressed by trying to keep it up and alarmed by a fear of running out of things to say. I'm also aware of just how tiny a dot this enterprise is within my chosen galaxy of history and teaching. But on my better days -- or the better moments on a given day -- I find a new sense of possibility by thinking of myself as someone who produces singles rather than albums. Actually, the analogy with singles works much better than with newspaper or magazine journalism, since the work of the latter is part of a larger package of writing that may or may not be sought or read, while a blog post has a discrete and measurable (albeit imprecise) readership and is released by means which in effect constitues my own record label. More importantly, I relish the thought that my old posts in effect constitute a catalog that a clutch of "listeners" may seek out or stumble into later -- much later. I've had what for me counts as a "hit" or two (not coincidentally, they're about Springsteen). There's always the hope -- however remote or unlikely, and yet certainly sustaining -- that like the Beatles entering the recording studio in 1964, I too could produce something in a matter of hours which will still be giving pleasure to an invisible audience decades later. If I'm kidding myself on this and other aspects of such a quixotic enterprise, I can only say that it's largely kept me out of trouble, spiritual and otherwise.

That's my two cents for today, the one hundredth since the start of this blog. Thanks for listening!