The danger of thinking like it’s 1985
For a devout music fan weaned on what’s now called classic rock, the ’80s were miserable. Sure, we had U2 — they alone helped ease the pain of hair metal and synthpop. But from an audiophile’s perspective, for someone who thinks sound is as important as structure, the era made for painful listening.
Why? Because most music recorded in the ’80s — for all its supposed ambition and technical innovation — sounds more dated, more processed and more fake today than the music of the ’60s and ’70s, including disco. Line up Abbey Road or Dark Side of the Moon next to anything by Duran Duran or Human League and the point is made.
What hurt ’80s music most was the rush to digital sounds. Musicians grabbed every gizmo they could find — synthesizers, drum machines, vocal effects, digital guitar processors — and abandoned their lovely analog gear. When Phil Collins’ engineer figured out how to use a noise gate to make his drums sound as big as a 747, everyone copied. Songs now revolved not around good lyrics or melodies but the sounds of these machines. It all had a big wow factor, but it lacked one important quality:
None of it was timeless.
Oh, people thought it was. That’s what it feels like in the midst of every movement. “This will last forever.” Well …
In 1991, the music of the 1980s officially died. That’s when Nirvana released Nevermind and Pearl Jam exploded with Ten, both featuring a sound that was entirely a return to all that the ’80s had abandoned — authentic instruments without a lot of gimmicks. Video may have killed the radio star, but it couldn’t kill what was timeless.
As a journalist who loves technology, I wonder whether we’ll look back in 20 years and have a similar take on this first decade of the 2000’s. The Twittersphere is filled daily with reports of new apps, new sites, new data visualizations. People Tweet every other sentence from conferences where digital gurus explain where the news business is heading, maybe. Having gorged on print profits far too long, we news types are running towards all things digital hoping for a cure for our indigestion.
A lot of it is interesting, some certainly carries the wow-factor, and some of it is going to be truly useful. But how much of it will last? How much is timeless? How can we even tell?
In the ’80s, pop music became all about the technology and very little about the song. In journalism, we don’t have songs; we have stories.
In music, a great song is timeless. In journalism, a great story is.
In music, the song transcends the instrument — it sounds great on guitar or piano or both. In journalism, the story transcends the medium — you can tell it with photo, graphic, app, text or all.
But an instrument without a song is nothing. So is a medium without a story.
I love apps. I love data. I love visualizations. But unless these toys of ours deliver a great story — one that moves me like the best, most authentic music — they’ll have all the lasting impact of Wang Chung.