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Rock-by-number

August 18, 2009

Man, this looks good:

Those avatars can really swing. It's like you're in a wax museum and all of a sudden the wax figures come to life and you're like jamming with them on a wax guitar.

Seriously, though, the release next month of The Beatles™: Rock Band™ is shaping up to be the cultural event of the year, if not the millennium to date. The making of the game was the subject of an epic article, by Daniel Radosh, in the Sunday New York Times, which featured comments from Paul and Ringo as well as John's widow, George's widow, and George Martin's son. Apple Corps, reports Radosh, hopes the game "will be the most deeply immersive way ever of experiencing the music and the mythology of the Beatles." The CEO of Harmonix Music Systems, the company engineering the game, says, "We’re on the precipice of a culture shift around how the mass market experiences music." Adds Radosh, hopefully: "Playing music games requires an intense focus on the separate elements of a song, which leads to a greater intuitive knowledge of musical composition."

Rob Horning, PopMatters' resident stick-in-the-mud, isn't ready to join in the celebration. To him, Rock Band is a means of distancing rather than immersion. It's yet another sign of the commercialization of the intimate, the replacement of real personal experience with a purchased, preprogrammed replica of experience. Hold that guitar/controller in your arms, yeah, you can feel its disease:

The mix of social, cerebral and sensuous elements in my response to music is most satisfying when it seems immediate and fused, a kind of physico-cognitive dance that occurs spontaneously with the sound ... I don’t want a game to mediate music to me when music is already mediating other, more profound experiences—memories, dreams, secret pathways into the hearts of friends or imagined strangers, sheer abandon to sensory stimuli. These are enough to hold my attention; I wouldn’t want those experiences endangered or compromised or supplanted by the discipline enforced by a game that measures your attention. That seems to me like covert industrial training.

In the 1950s, paint-by-number kits were all the rage. Everyone became an artist, diligently filling in the numbered areas on prefabricated canvases with specified colors. Today, even as we celebrate the contrivances of Rock Band, we look down our noses at those kitschy paint-by-number kits. Yet I'm sure that somebody back in the fifties wrote about how paint-by-number "requires an intense focus on the separate elements of a painting, which leads to a greater intuitive knowledge of artistic composition.” I'm sure it was thought that paint-by-number liberated people from being passive observers of art, that it allowed them to participate, in a deeply immersive way, in the act of painting.

We shouldn't be too harsh on our fads. After all, the reason they become fads is that they're fun. Still, a fad will always tell us something important about the times in which it occurs. "Paint-by-number," wrote Brennen Jensen in a 2001 article, "is all about conformity. Indeed, there is perhaps no greater metaphor for America's Leave It to Beaver, I Like Ike, Man in the Gray Flannel Suit 1950s than this 'digital art' craze that roared through the decade, promising neophyte brush-wielders 'a beautiful oil painting the first time you try!' ... Painting, ostensibly one of the most creative and individualistic endeavors, is rendered rote - a matter of manual dexterity, not inspiration."

Rock Band is the aural equivalent of paint-by-number. It's musicianship-by-number. It's also a fad. Ten or so years from now, we'll look back on the game with a mixture of nostalgia and embarrassment.

But, like paint-by-number, Rock Band is also a metaphor. As even a cursory glance at our cultural touchstones will tell you, we live in an Age of Vampires, and The Beatles™: Rock Band™ is nothing if not vampiric. Take another gander at that YouTube trailer. What's creepy about the game isn't the faux guitar necks with the color-coded digital frets (that's just rock-by-number). It isn't even the waxworks avatars (though they are certainly ghoulish). No, what's creepy about it is its cynical, paint-by-number rendering of sixties counterculture, from, progressively, the Ed Sullivan go-go soundstage to the trippy mindscapes of psychedelia to the flowerchild fields of the hippies.

Given that our culture is fundamentally consumerist, every countercultural movement is by definition anti-consumerist, a quixotic attempt to create an imaginary space that exists outside of and in opposition to the marketplace. Counterculturalism is a doomed attempt to maintain innocence in the face of the market's all-consuming cynicism. Once the Beatles, and particularly John Lennon, became aware of their power, they dedicated themselves to sustaining the countercultural dream of the sixties, even after the dream had evaporated. The Beatles™: Rock Band™ makes a particularly good vampire. The blood it sucks is the blood of the innocent.

Comments

"It doesn't matter if you're the greatest guitar player in the world. If you're not enlightened, forget it."
--George Harrison from Zen Guitar

Posted by: Linuxguru1968 [TypeKey Profile Page] at August 18, 2009 03:03 PM

Or maybe it's just a game.

Posted by: Phil Gilbert at August 18, 2009 03:23 PM

Wake up, Phil. We're "on the precipice of a culture shift."

Posted by: Nick Carr [TypeKey Profile Page] at August 18, 2009 03:33 PM

Or, maybe the game has just accentuated a fundamental problem with the guitar to begin with. Learning music via guitar has the disadvantage that you make you learn/think geometircally rather than aurally. If you think about it, anything you can sing you can play on almost any instrument immediately but not vise versa. How many high school kids can play the solo to Stairway to Heaven but not sing it? Creatively is an inside-out thing NOT outside in. The irritating almost embarrassing thing about GP is that it make this really just too obvious.

Posted by: Linuxguru1968 at August 18, 2009 04:01 PM

Nick: Pop Will Eat Itself (and here is how, in this case).

Part of what this game does is make a false assertion about music, so to speak. It asserts that the essence of what's enjoyable and attractive about this music is reducible to a conjunction of various algorithms. Ultimately it's not satisfying- the fun wears out (as you observe). The player who was once caught up in the fun then gets to compare and contrast the definite articles with the game - and thereby gain insight. By asserting that the essence of the music is reducible to these algorithms, the game ultimately points out why that assertion is false.

-t

Posted by: Thomas Lord at August 18, 2009 08:23 PM

I remember going to the roll-out of the Roland G-707 sometime around 1984, it was billed as the first MIDI guitar. The Roland people said the guitar could be interfaced to a computer, so you could use it with instructional software that would make learning real guitar techniques as fun as a video game. They had a band from Japan that played synth-pop prog-rock crap, I decided that if this was the direction musicianship was headed, I want no part of it. I'll stick with my old Les Paul Deluxe and an under-powered, overdriven vintage Fender tube amp.
It was almost 20 years later that I got to play a MIDI guitar rig for the first time, in a specialized music store in Tokyo. I started playing it, I bashed out a few bars of a Ramones tune, but I could not get it to make a single sound. Now I've been playing these tunes for many years, and I can slide around my fingers on the frets to make a rich sound. But the MIDI guitar can't pick up ANY of that. I played and played, in almost every way I knew how, I could not get it to make any sound. So I called the clerk and asked, WTF? Is this busted, or am I missing something? So the guy strapped on the guitar and started picking.. picking OH SO carefully. It's hard to describe what he did, but if you know the style of Joe Pass, it's sort of like that, very clear, very lightly picked, no bending or sliding, no whammy bar, barely tapping the fingers against the frets, but doing so with excessive precision. The guy could make it play jazz styles, but it was apparently impossible to just rock out on the MIDI guitar.
Now that's what is known as "technomorphia," the technology determining the resulting forms, by limiting what is possible. I've spent a lifetime playing my one guitar, I've adapted my skills to that instrument, we grew up together, but at least I can transfer some of those skills to a different instrument (with a little accommodation).
But the Guitar Hero instrument is just a crude abstraction of a real instrument. You could just as well hook up the trigger buttons on a little toy xylophone instead of fake frets, it would be just as playable, maybe more. And ultimately, that's why I had a surprising reaction to this Rock Band-Beatles combo: I LOVE IT! As much as I hate the Beatles (like any self-respecting punk rocker would) and as much as I hate Rock Band and fake music games, these two things go together. Nothing gives me more pleasure than seeing the Beatles infantilized and reduced to a caricature like this.

Posted by: Charles [TypeKey Profile Page] at August 18, 2009 11:25 PM

I imagine Guitar Hero may have a similar effect on music and culture as karaoke has had in Japan. I would argue that karaoke has had an obvservable effect on the Japanese popular music industry and the musical education of Japanese youths; nothing more nothing less.

The fact that Japanese pop music is generally more melodically complex than Western pop music may be a result of this.

Linuxguru1968 is right that GH accents the limitations of guitar (an imperfect instrument) compared to voice, but karaoke obviously doesn't suffer from this problem.

Posted by: cbp at August 19, 2009 12:55 AM

Everything that starts as a movement becomes a business.In the sixties it was the hippies - it's now a big business. Now it's the eco/green movement. Anticonsumerist as it may be, it's turning into big business also.

As you mentioned, we had paint-by-number. It went away as a fad. I would not worry about this either.

Posted by: Dragos Ilinca at August 19, 2009 04:10 AM

Nick,
Posts like these, nuanced, critical, are the reason I thing Internet is the biggest thing since print—and I love the fact that you hate me for thinking so.

Charles,
That comment was impressive. It's a bit unfair to comment after you, but I'll try not too sound too young doing it anyway.

Phil,
I don't think it's 'just' a game: Guitar Hero has already proven to be a massive game and it is the main access to musical interpretation for the coming generation. This particular version will be the main window to the sixties for everyone born after 1990 (and most of those after 1980).

You can't teach someone to be a rebel or an artist, but you can teach him to try, and this is what this game is trying. You can't have 10% of a generation growing up being punk and hoping all those are 'the real deal' but you can prove more then that that music is what comes out of a guitar when you press the right keys. The wax-like apperance, the colored buttons, the clumsily small instruments are part of the same childish tones that makes this game un-serious and therefore fun (all this has been heavily studied in Boston labs: Guitar Hero is the most though-trough product you can think of). You are right in saying it throw everything in the same sugary basket. It might encourage late teenagers to leave and practice real rock, and it might lock some others in its easy rythm——but given the alternative (MTV) the net effect cannot be negative.

Posted by: Bertil Hatt at August 19, 2009 07:18 AM

Has anyone ever played RB? I did once at a friend's house. The only "cultural shift" that happens is that millions of American parents who once reveled listening to great music now cringe as their ten-year olds royally screw it up. The problem with games is that it eventually takes the cringe factor away and turns crappy imitation into everyday expectation.

Posted by: Dave Bruno at August 19, 2009 11:21 AM

Charles frustration with the midi guitar underscores my point about the physical artifact of music creation being an impediment to creativity. New Wave/Punk in its initial stage was more of a "just get up an play" phenomenon with less emphasis on musical virtuosity. An instrument optimized designed to play jazz or classical music is probably not going to release the same kind of energy as his regular axe.

Music isn't algorithms of scales, chords and rhythms. Its a collaborative cultural process of internalizing sounds and then recreating them on an external artifact like a guitar. On guitar its easy to play I,VI,V cords and major or minor pentatonic scales - to change key you just like up the fret board. You almost don't have to think about it. Try that on a saxophone or piano;its a lot more difficult and requires a little thinking(creativity?). Two guitarists I grew up admiring were Larry Carlton and Robben Ford. But, in some ways I like Ford better because he started out as a sax player. He kind of plays sax music THROUGH a guitar and in some way sounds more musically interesting.

GH may inspired generations of kids to pick up the guitar but will them be as naturally clever as guitar heroes of the past?

Posted by: Linuxguru1968 [TypeKey Profile Page] at August 19, 2009 04:22 PM

What I find really interesting is the 'game' advert's orientation towards the songs from the White Album. These songs best echo the psychedelic-indie-lo-fi sensibilities of today.

Posted by: Richard Watson [TypeKey Profile Page] at August 23, 2009 05:49 AM

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