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Book Review: "Selling Sounds" by David Suisman, "How the Beatles Destroyed Rock 'N' Roll" by Elijah Wald, "Perfecting Sound Forever" by Greg Milner, "Ripped" by Greg Kot
Wald asserts that pop reached its high point in 1964 when genres were so well-integrated musically and racially that Billboard briefly stopped keeping separate R&B and pop charts. And what was so awful about the Beatles? In the closing pages, Wald asserts that their later albums were so influential in defining rock's boundaries that they drove a lasting wedge between black and white pop. The Beatles "were the catalysts for a divide between rock and soul that, rather than being mended in later years, would only grow wider with the emergence of disco and hip-hop." That's a debatable point, and unfortunately he doesn't wrestle much with it, limiting the span of his research to the release of "Sgt. Pepper." His book demands a sequel, "What Happened After the Beatles Destroyed Rock 'n' Roll," that might bring the same intellectual rigor to hip-hop that he uses on the racial politics of cakewalks and swing music.
PERFECTING SOUND FOREVER
An Aural History of Recorded Music
By Greg Milner
Faber and Faber. 432 pp. $35
Like Wald's book, Greg Milner's "Perfecting Sound Forever" is sprawling and ambitious, covering the entire history of music recording, from Edison cylinders to ProTools. And it has flaws: Milner's narrative is larded with minutiae, including discussions of magnetic tape, 45s and the drums on Phil Collins's "In the Air Tonight." But when his record-geek's affection for rock music is allowed to blossom in the second half of the book, his thesis becomes clearer: In recent years, the desperate need to mint hits has made pop music absurdly overprocessed. Producers today will occasionally broker "shootouts," in which multiple engineers compete to create the "hottest," or loudest-sounding, version of a record. Though the resulting songs blast out of the speakers, they also grate on the ears, even those of fans. Today, Milner writes, "we're surrounded by music that does nothing but shout."
But however much knob-twiddling engineers have alienated consumers in recent years, Greg Kot argues, record labels and their litigious associates have done much more harm. In "Ripped," the longtime Chicago Tribune music critic assembles profiles of recent alt-rock causes celebres like Arcade Fire, Girl Talk and Conor Oberst, whose successes were largely sparked online, via filesharing, iTunes and tastemakers like Pitchfork.
For Kot, this is a great moment in pop, both for what you can hear and how you can hear it, and the fun is dampened only by major-label greed and the recording industry's killjoy lawyers. Public Enemy's Chuck D nicely summarizes the point: "Piracy? The biggest pirates have been the record companies." Kot's philosophy is appealingly simple -- anything serving fans and artists is good, anything serving corporate honchos isn't -- though it sometimes seems overly rosy. Discussing Radiohead's pioneering pay-what-you-like concept for its 2007 album, "In Rainbows," Kot congratulates the band for innovating when it could have charged standard retail prices: "Rest assured that most of its fans would gladly pay." But Radiohead also had the cachet to charge nothing for its music and to rest assured that enough paying fans would keep the band solvent; upstart bands lack that luxury, and Kot's discussion of the Internet as an excellent distributor gives short shrift to its failings as a moneymaker.
Still, Kot's instincts are on-point: His skepticism about the corporate record industry is inspired by recent events, and there are decades of bad behavior to back him up. Twenty years from now we'll be hearing about new artists and listening to them on new devices, but the din of squabbling over who ought to be popular and who deserves to get paid will be as loud as ever.
Mark Athitakis is a D.C.-based culture critic. He blogs at markathitakis.com.