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Musical Sounds, Meaning, & Streaming Media

30 May 2016

Beyoncé advises me to “hold up” as I write this, her rap-singing above a series of spare staccato chords and pointed baseline. I’m acutely aware of the politics of a middle-aged gay white man setting in his underwear feeling the thrill of Miss B deep down, the interactions of gay black men’s—especially gay black men’s drag—cultures, black women’s culture, southern white men, and gay men of all colors. The arguments and accusations of appropriation swirl around in my head even as I’m pulled emotionally and, importantly, meaningfully into Lemonade for the umpteenth time over the last few months. I have no conclusions to draw at this point, other than to point out the intense interweaving of interactions and meaning, histories and identifications involved in my adoration of Beyoncé and Lemonade as well as its visual album.

My big writing project this summer is an attempt to theorize the relationship between music, sexual and gender difference, and queer communities—or more broadly, between musical sounds, social interaction, and meaning formation. (My thinking on the matter has been most profoundly shaped by Barry Shank’s The Political Force of Musical Beauty.) The relationships and interactions among meaning, community, habits of mind, cultural practices, politics, inequality, and power are hard enough to make sense of  — add into it the ephemerality of musical sound, where the experience of beauty and pleasure is tied to a relatively short, time-bound experience of purposefully arranged sounds, and you have a maelstrom of complexity that is difficult to describe in any kind of orderly way. Much like a more permanent physical object — say, a rock — sounds, patterns of sound, arrangements of qualities of sounds have meanings only inasmuch as they are ascribed to them by a community of listeners. Also much like a rock, the meanings of those sounds change over time and, in an era of mass reproduction of recorded sound, will often have different meanings within different communities of participators (listeners, hearers, dancers). During my morning news read, I stumbled upon Dan Chiasson’s “All the Songs Are Now Yours,” his review of Every Song Ever by Ben Ratliff where Chiasson considers the power of streaming technology for the musical connoisseur, which raises intense questions about how meaning is ascribed in a context of virtually unlimited, decontextualized streaming of musical sound.

In his review, Chiasson describes listeners “freed from the anguish of choosing,” where search engines and “smart lists” choose for her what she will “like” or be interested in. “It is like an open-format video game, where you make the world by advancing through it,” he observes. And here is the rub. Although problematic in some ways, Marshall McLuhan’s observation that the medium is the message asks us to consider streaming services from the perspective of how the technology (the medium) changes us. Whereas Chiasson (and I presume Ratliff) are somewhat awestruck by the scope and scale of musical availability and seem to genuinely derive pleasure from endless “discovery” of music, I notice that streaming technology is changing (has already changed?) the social processes of ascribing musical sounds with meaning. In other words, as McLuhan urges us to take note, our own interactions and habits of listening have been modified to accommodate the technology. The medium has changed us.

Chiasson begins to get at this when he observes that streaming eliminates (or transforms) the experience of nostalgia for music of our childhoods, making all the songs and sounds available to us at the click of a link. Indeed, the former cultural process of winnowing through the less (culturally) important music to rest upon a handful that survive in collective memory has been eliminated, as now all musical sounds are continually available, perhaps forever. “[N]othing in the past is lost, which mean temporal sequence itself … gets lost.”

Yet from my perspective as an interactionist, we must go further. The practice of streaming has broadened the impact of our always-on, always-available enwebbed culture — extolled as radically democratic, but increasingly revealed as radically consumerist — a process that began nearly 150 years ago, when recording technology was developed, enabling the mass-production and distribution of musical sound and the private, home experience of listening to those sounds. Then radio emerged as a means to broadcast sound to a mass audience; and eventually individual listening devices (Sony Walkman) enabled a further privatized listening practice, intensified by smart phones that put the entire opus of human musical sound potentially at our fingertips on our evening commutes. In other words, streaming can be seen as another stage in the movement of musical sound to an individual experience rather than a communal one.

I do not wish to make a normative argument here, nor an evaluative one (although my suspicions of both will probably be discernible in my words). That is, I don’t know if this individualization of musical beauty and its reduction to personal taste is good or bad — but I think it safe to say that such a reduction has happened (although some people might view what I see as a “reduction” as a kind of freedom). And I am sure that it is changing (has already changed?) the ways that musical sounds can accrue meanings at all. Of course musical sounds still have meaning, created and ascribed interactionally and socially; but it seems in the context of streaming that the meanings of the sounds are greatly reduced to communities of taste (perhaps exclusively so) rather than political communities or cultural affinities. This is potentially and paradoxically a flattening of culture through its infinite diversification into a billion individual taste conglomerations.

Rather than musical sound gathering layer upon layer of meaning as various communities use, engage, and participate with it together, through live performance (or recordings at a rave or dancehall), dancing, drag shows, political rallies — streaming technology intensifies the possible dislocation of sound from both communities of origin and communities of participation, where meaning now coalesces and adheres to a single individual and her iPhone. (And what do we then make of silent discos?) This is musical sound potentially bereft of contexts of participation in communities, a musical beauty stripped of history and memory, left with the bare sounds and their associations within a single listener.

At best, such a reduced meaning seems to me a brutal formalism, where at base, the forms of the sounds themselves—tempo, timbre, pitch, etc.—are the only meanings left. What would Beyoncé’s “Freedom” mean to me without all of the gay black men I have known and known of, all the drag shows I’ve seen, Ru Paul, or the gender queers of 1980s balls; or the history of black popular music, late 1960s rock, Jimmi Hendrix, and black power? Would it still be a musical sound worth listening to?

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