Black Magic: Shaping Audience Conceptions of Recording Practice
Alan Williams, UMass Lowell
Recording practices were once closely guarded secrets – rarely remarked upon, barely acknowledged. But as public curiosity developed about the ever evolving sounds embodied in recordings, explanations and representations emerged that simultaneously served to reveal and obscure the processes that shaped the music that caught the ear of the listener. This presentation examines the formation of three distinct mythologies – technology as magical wizardry; technology as musical sham; and technology as marker of nostalgic value. In the first thread, audio technology is harnessed by creative geniuses, working in a realm far removed from the normative listener and/ or musician. In the second thread, audio technology is seen as bestowing talent where none exists, manufacturing inherently inauthentic product, and implanting the uncomfortable notion that all musical performance is potentially a sham. The third thread exhibits a selective memory that praises some forms of technology, while rejecting others, often posited as past versus present.
Building upon the work of Barthes, Théberge, Taylor, Keightley, and others, I will analyze media representations of recording practice from literature, film, television, and Internet memes to illustrate how each mythology is constructed and disseminated, and in turn how these mythologies inform the listener’s experience of recorded audio, and musical creation in general.
Alan’s first slide covers mythology and marketing, and he outlines the technological literacies he intends to discuss by playing Jerry Lewis meets the Theremin from The Delinquent Detective (1956):
He speculates that the scary/sci-fi 1950s context of the theremin was possibly a cultural allusion to the scary nature of Elvis, whom Lewis impersonates in the Theremin scene.
Our next video is from 3 years earlier – Les Paul and Mary Ford on the TV show Omnibus in 1953 where they demonstrate Paul’s ‘Cyclotron’ – a multi-track recorder. Les Paul talks the presenter through a bunch of tech audio terms that are used. In the ‘comedy’ of the show the tech terms are used as deliberate jargon, the audience participates in a meta-joke that… oh just watch the clip. Alan’s point about the way the technology is used in this narrative is clear, and it’s a great (and very modernist/50s) example.
Alan observes, however, the unintended error (that the final playback is the real one), is in itself a fake – and this technological lie is actually concealed from the listener.
Next we see a clip of the Monkees, which, Alan says, were provided by the industry to give the market ‘The Beatles as they used to be’, and he then cites the ‘Monkees don’t play their own instruments’ controversy of the 1960s. He contrasts this with The Beatles, who were perceived as using the technology to become more authentic, and the Monkees, who were perceived in the opposite way.
Out next example, Alan suggests, provides a narrative trope that the technology storyline is used to debase the value of popular music, noting that The Brady Bunch was soon to release its own commercial pop.
Inevitably but no less pleasingly, Alan now speaks to the ‘Milli Vanilli controversy’, which speaks to a narrative trope of the rise and fall of the pop star.
The music industry was reportedly ‘shocked’ at the time, although lip-synching was of course common in commercial pop at the time and had been for many years by the 1990s. MTV, in this narrative, is conveniently scapegoated. And for those who are young enough to have forgotten Milli Vanilli? Here’s Ashlee Simpson!
The next narrative trope is the ‘technological magicians’ – the folks behind the scene. Alan resurrects a wonderful video from 2013 to illustrate this via an ‘engineer is hero’ story:
The South Park version of this narrative was similarly virally circulated, and became its own meme, with YouTubers inserting their own popular music to devalue (original below – here’s the rest).
Despite all of these anti-tech narratives being far too simplistic (and not mirrored in film or other media), Alan notes that this makes the trope no less attractive or enduring. He ends with a single phrase: “Once the seeds of doubt are planted, every record becomes suspect.”