Books / Music Musings

Some Notes

Streaming Vs. Downloads, Vinyl Vs. CD, and Literature Vs. Literature

After eight months Rhapsody figured out I was no longer located in the States and ceased to function. Considering a tech guy there told me it doesn’t support VPNs (which I wasn’t using in the first place), it makes me wonder just how the hell I was streaming so much for so long. Anyway, it crapped out sometime last week and I’ve been relegated to stuff I’ve downloaded, and since searching and downloading is such a pain and seems my only option now that streaming it out, I got a little bummed out and didn’t do too much listening to new music. Instead I’ve been wading through a fifty-eight McCoy Tyner album collection I’ve acquired, occasionally putting on something new or something I know I already enjoy.

Streaming was such a gift because I was given an incredibly wide range of music, much wider than the range of stuff that’s downloadable, insofar as I’ve scoured the internet—through which I could navigate quickly between the interesting and the crap. Rhapsody, with all its flaws, was still relatively good at getting a lot of new releases, featuring the big hits and a few underground critical darlings and occasionally a completely unknown that turned out to be a gem. I reserved downloading for stuff I had an inclination toward, stuff I was fairly sure was already an Honorable Mention (unless my instincts misled me) and shooting for an A or A-. Downloading waves of new stuff is annoying, particularly when it turns out to be garbage on the first or second play, or when I have to convert FLAC to MP3, or when I acquire so much that I wind up with a collection of albums I never end up listening to for reasons no better than the cover art puts me off. In short, I would much rather receive a deluge of advanced copy CDs every week than be given a free chance to download any new album I desired. It’s much easier to keep track of.

In the meantime I’m going to try using Spotify, which appears to be okay with new releases, though I haven’t used it in a long while (and when I did I used it briefly) and if memory serves correctly it wasn’t so great with older releases. It’s free, though ad-filled, which is okay. If it turns out to be worth it—meaning the selection is wide enough—I might cancel Rhapsody in favor of Spotify, especially if it’s not finicky about where it’s available to stream.

***

I understand maybe 20% of the fetish for vinyl revivalism that’s taken over the listening habits of cool kids. Too lazy to go and look for the articles now, I was reading quite a few about the rising sales of vinyl in an age where the CD is selling less and less, not that vinyl was making any sort of significant gains on the CD, but that it isn’t getting increasingly unpopular is noteworthy. I have plenty of vinyl in my album collection, though not because I see anything inherently valuable in vinyl itself, which is why I can’t figure out why people go out of their way to obtain them over CDs.

There are a few points that vinyl has over CDs. If you’re buying used and you’re not at a record shop run by criminals, the vinyl should be a few bucks cheaper than the CDs, and chances are it still plays well with little to no surface noise and an absence of scratches. There is, in my opinion, some sort of pleasure in getting up and flipping the record over, the strange little excitement between the first and second act of a play rather than a slog through the whole thing in one go. And as someone adamant about album art, it’s much nicer to view it on a record cover than it is on a CD or, even worse, on a little one-inch block on the computer screen.

That said, anyone actively buying new vinyl has to be a bit nuts. It’s incredibly expensive—often costing at least $10 more than the CD—and only occasionally comes with extra goodies like proper liner notes, extra materials, or a free download. The cost is what gets me. Even the 180 gram—supposedly better than the 120-140 gram releases regular throughout the 20th century—sounds nearly identical to its thinner, older counterparts. Anyone getting hung up on 180 gram 33rpm is a sucker, since playback speed has proved to me to be a much better indicator of quality than the material from which it’s made. Occasionally you’ll find a new release on a 33rpm-sized record that’s meant to be played at 45rpm, and I might imagine why audiophiles would dig it. But even then, getting up every two or three songs gets old real fast, yet it’s a sacrifice those who are into their apparatus will make.

But that’s kind of what sticks in my craw. Unless you are very rich and have a great sound system, vinyl doesn’t sound any better than a CD. Again, vinyl doesn’t sound any better than a CD. There, I’ve said it. Some people talk about the ‘warmth’ they hear in a piece of vinyl, and I think they’re confusing ‘warmth’ with the distortion of surface noise or little pops in a not-perfect pressing. And really, I’d challenge anyone who disagrees with me who’s not under thirty-five or forty to seriously ask themselves if they’re not suffering from a severe case of nostalgia. We’ve already got a generation coming that will have never bought a CD, that will have never experienced music outside of a TV, computer, car radio, or iPod (or whatever equivalent takes its place) in the same way many will experience books through screens rather than paper, fewer and fewer who will ever understand the true allure of vinyl: its coming from an age long since past, handed down from one person to another; a way for human beings to communicate with each other through time, to hear as people heard forty, fifty years ago; to be shared with friends, passed along; to be treasured alone, you and Dylan or Davis or anyone, where they are the speaker and you the listener.

***

Finished a few books in the last month or so: Noam Chomsky’s Power Systems, Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim, Mikhail Bulgakov’s Black Snow, David Foster Wallace’s Both Flesh and Not, and a re-read of George Orwell’s 1984. I’d recommend all of them with the possible exception of Chomsky’s Power Systems, a compilation of interviews with David Barsamian, many of which can be found online and aren’t necessarily not worth reading. Anyone who’s read enough Chomsky is probably not going to learn anything new from it. A benefit not to be found in the online versions or in a few of the other interview comps of Chomsky’s I’ve read is a section of notes with sources and supplemental material to support his claims.

David Foster Wallace’s posthumous Both Flesh and Not has a few decent pieces, but it doesn’t measure up to his previous collections. While his essays on David Lynch or the over-pampering abound on a cruise ship were successful with their technique of descriptive, exhaustive examples as bludgeoning tool to drive his arguments home, that technique loses its charm here because A) the essays aren’t as funny, nor, in my view, are their subject material as interesting, and B) the arguments aren’t as strong, which Wallace with his humbleness schtick, is apt to concede. One piece that thoroughly interested me was “Future Fictions and the Conspicuously Young,” penned toward the end of the 80’s when Ellis, McInerney, Hempel, and Moore  (and others) appeared, were immediately praised, and almost as quickly derided by critics.

Wallace breaks the output of the Conspicuously Young (CY) writers into three categories: 1) Nihilism of the rich, 2) Catatonic minimalism, a.k.a. Bad Carver, and 3) Workshop Hermeticism. The first two are self-explanatory, the last one needing a bit more; it essentially means stories developed in and for the workshop, where everything’s in its right place, follows the rules, and is near-mathematical in its calculation of the technically faultless short story. Whether CY writers were guilty of this at the time of Wallace’s writing (1988) I don’t know. I can only vouch for Ellis, who falls into the first category and whose Less Than Zero has been described as “disturbing” only because, as Wallace notes, he has a handful of violent and sex (and sometimes both) scenes described with the emotional wallop of a tomato. McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City I remember solely for its second-person perspective, and its story and resolution are so Plain Jane I’m reticent to put it into any other category. I’ve read a few of Hempel’s early short stories, and unlike McInerney or, especially, Ellis, I enjoyed them. But that wouldn’t stop me from throwing some of them into the third category, as she can be prone to quiet stories of women in bathtubs where the epiphany arises when the water temperature changes. As for Moore, or Vollman, or anyone else mentioned, if I’ve read them, it’s been their later work, published well after 1988. And considering the tide of celebrating writers as young as nineteen has long since passed and appears unlikely to return (look at the quick backlash Jonathan Safran Foer received), I see no reason to dwell on it.

Though Wallace does dwell on a point about the institutions from which such young writers spring that I alternately agree and disagree with. For example, I can’t say whether writers teaching at MFA programs are prone to recruiting students whose writing demands little attention and rarely threatens to break the mold so that they might focus more on their own work since they are, after all, themselves writers. Anyone I’ve met teaching at an MFA program at least appear to be fully invested in teaching—maybe this is because the available slots where one can make a decent living have become rarer. I doubt Wallace could really substantiate his claim even in 1988, and is, by my estimate, a reaction to his own professors who did not take a liking to his very early (and very bad) short fiction.

However, he raises two points that have concerned me for some time. One is the idea of the “McStory,” a zombie-like creation without much to differentiate it from the next semi-lifeless pile of prose on the conveyor belt. Among friends I’ve called it the “garden-variety good story,” where the biggest problem is that it’s boring, a descriptor I’d hate to use but unfortunately does the job. These are the “Workshop Hermeticism” stories Wallace referred to, those with little technical fault and littler intellectual curiosity, risk, or personality. In my experience, more often than not these are young writers copying writers they like or have just happened to have read without understanding what it is about the author’s writing that makes it good or plagiarism-worthy. And my guess is that this problem—which is a problem, just go look at the plethora of print and online lit mags with short stories and tell me most of them are honestly worried about anything other than themselves—stems from the not-terribly-well-read student, who, as Wallace notes, has little or no knowledge of history, philosophy, or even literature, is not really engaged in current events, is interested in big questions but content to ask them in ages-old ways, not because it’s worth it to reiterate but because they’re unaware the question has been posed such a way in the past.

But I don’t despair the way Wallace does. He’s convinced writing teachers are incapable of critiquing stories in any way other than from a mold they shape after experience takes its toll. There’s a certain amount of truth to this; anyone experienced or hardened enough will create guidelines from which they’ll work, but I don’t see why this precludes open-mindedness in considering “how a ‘good’ story works.” Considering no student in a program is a professional, and is at best a professional-in-training (as horrifying as the description sounds), there’s a simple test I’ve found handy in discerning whether the author is genuine in his quest to improve or self-satisfied sop when a difficult/challenging/potentially bad story rears its head; if the writer can’t take criticism, he’s a self-satisfied fool, one who’s confused bad art for different art. Usually these are stories with fairly bizarre elements, many of which are never explained though they beg explanation, can’t be situated in or out of the universe the author’s created, and any explanation given fails to glean understanding, as there’s normally little thought put into it other than ‘the universe is absurd; you can’t explain some things,’ which is no excuse for incomprehensible garbage. On the other hand, those who can take criticism have something difficult in their work that’s pleasurable to pursue. Even after putting the story down and not understanding it after two or three or four reads can be frustrating, but it’s hard for me to articulate the simultaneous satisfaction that comes from being challenged in this way rather than insulted with inanities.

Of course, like Wallace, we all would like to think that we ourselves are the real artists, the one attempting to produce stuff that’s meaningful, important, eye-opening, and that others are simply falling victim to a cycle or system which they can’t notice. Though you’ve got to wonder if this signifies we’re bound together by being in on something we can’t see or standing around the outside looking in.

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