ImageThe Vancouver Courier, Aug. 29


Does pop music study reveal we’re dumber and angrier?

Allan Olson was no fan of rock music. Decades ago, when he dropped by the family’s place on visits, he often asked his long-haired nephew to spare his eardrums from sonic assaults. “You’re not going to play any of that Pink Zeppelin, are you?” he once asked with a straight face.

My uncle would have loved this: a Spanish study from a few weeks back determining that western popular music has become more simple over the past 50 years, with less dynamic range. Dumber and louder, in other words. I can hear Al laughing in heaven: “I told you so! Led Floyd was awful, too!”

A team led by Joan Serrà, a postdoctoral scholar at the Artificial Intelligence Research Institute of the Spanish National Research Council in Barcelona, used a dataset that “includes the year annotations and audio descriptions of 464,411 distinct music recordings (from 1955 to 2010), which roughly corresponds to more than 1,200 days of continuous listening,” according to the team’s paper in Nature. They analyzed a range of genres—rock, pop, hip hop, metal and electronic—measuring pitch, timbre, and loudness.

The Spanish study has met with some high-level skepticism. John Matson, associate editor at Scientific American, argues that the songs in the database are heavily weighted from 2005 on, reflecting the digitization of current music. Not only that, he believes more “complex” songs from the past had a better chance of surviving the competition, with the blander tunes of decades past fading “into analog obscurity.”

“Oh my God, you’re right,” Serrà responded in a letter to Scientific American. “Why didn’t we think of this? My career is ruined!!” Actually, she acknowledged this might have a small effect, but not enough to significantly skew her team’s results.

I don’t have a knack for the brain-busting analysis of historical artifacts, so I could no more argue the merits of this research than I could prove or disprove the Shroud of Turin was Christ’s beach towel. That doesn’t mean I can’t cherry-pick data to fit my own confirmation bias. For example, most wartime songs strike me as fairly insipid, both lyrically and melodically. But I also think “Swinging on a Star” from 1944 is a baroque masterpiece compared to Groove Armada’s “I See You Baby (Shakin’ That Ass)” from 1999.

I’m now as old as my uncle when he begged me to keep the needle from the vinyl. And at the risk of sounding like a curmudgeon-on-training-wheels, I find most electronic dance music is as mind-numbingly awful as he found “Pink Zeppelin.”

The Spanish study follows on the heels of a paper from 2011 that analyzed the most popular songs in the U.S. from 1980–2007. The researchers found that “use of words related to self-focus and antisocial behaviour increased, whereas words related to other-focus, social interactions, and positive emotion decreased.” So music hasn’t just gotten dumber and louder over the past half-century, it has become angrier and more self-absorbed. At least according to the “experts.”

In an interview on CBC Radio, Maura Johnston, music editor of The Village Voice, insisted that it’s not all about a descent from the Mormon Tabernacle Choir to Ghostface Killah. It’s the culture that music is embedded in that has become louder and dumber, she helpfully observed. However, the argument about musical complexity as a measure of musical substance is a bit tricky, especially if we take a wider time frame than the Spanish study. Brahms, Schubert, Sibelius, Mahler and Smetana drew on traditional folksongs and dances of their time in their symphonic creations, and some of the classical masters most affecting work—Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata,” Bach’s “Air on the G String,” or Pachebel’s “Canon”—are among their simplest constructions, at least to my ears.

The scientific breakdown of pop music’s constituent parts and their change over time is very intriguing. Yet it has nothing to say about how music affects us emotionally, which is the reason for its existence in the first place. Researchers could run guitarist David Gilmour through a mass spectrograph to determine his proportions of chemical elements, and still have zero clue about his genius.

There’s still a big difference between the map (musical notation or frequency display) and the territory (the inner world where the artist’s creativity meets with the listener’s comprehension)

The Vancouver Courier, Aug. 17

Three extraordinary but forgotten years in B.C.

Dave Barrett accomplished much in 1972-75

 Roberta tottered on her heels through a crowd of tourists to a seat on the Seabus. She had an appointment with ICBC, about a fender-bender in the parking lot of a North Vancouver recreation centre (involving an ambulance, of all things). With a stressful week nearing an end, she looked forward to a getaway with friends in Whistler. It would be a nice break from her night classes in English Lit.

 Roberta is a figment of my imagination, but the particulars of her day are not. The public services and infrastructure mentioned above were initiated during a three-year period in B.C., from 1972 to 1975. Most of us take these things for granted—the Seabus, the resort area of Blackcomb and Whistler, a province-wide system of community/regional colleges, the B.C Ambulance Service, and more.

 In a small window in time, the first NDP government in B.C. turned the idea of the common good into a commonplace. The two principals behind this massive shift were premier Dave Barrett and his Minister of Lands, Forests and Water Resources, Bob Williams. If Barrett was the heart of the new administration, Williams was the brain.

 On B.C. Day, the former cabinet minister spoke at a small gathering on Cypress Mountain to honour the ailing former premier and celebrate the 40th anniversary of his government’s election. (By the way, the B.C. Day holiday was also the Barrett government’s doing.) Williams, now in his late 70s and still working as a consultant, recalls the night of the NDP victory, when he and Barrett sat in the back corner of the Only Café in the Downtown Eastside, scribbling down “a lot of the programs for the incoming government.” Earlier that day, he heard a terrified caller to the Jack Webster radio show ask if the election could be annulled by a meeting at the Vancouver Club.

 Williams recently scribbled down another list—21 major accomplishments of the Barrett government. These included the Agricultural Land Reserve, a ministry for consumer protection, a department of housing, Robson Square, a revamped labour relations act, ICBC, community health boards, the Burns Lake  Development Corporation, the Coordinated Law Enforcement Unit, the doubling of B.C. Parks from three million to six-million acres, and even a province-wide upgrade for ambulance service.

“Most people don’t know that ambulances were low Cadillacs when I was young. And somehow you crammed the body in, and the attendants had to crawl in beside you.” A team in Saanich designed “the modern ambulance, which became the standard for North America.”

This people-friendly policy-making was the precise opposite of today’s slash-and-burn ethos of privatization and profiteering. It generated both natural capital and social capital for the province, as well as the more mundane but essential variety. All impressive achievements by any measure. Yet when it comes to provincial history, what does the NDP reign conjure up in many minds? Ex-premier Harcourt’s “Bingogate” and the fast ferries fiasco of the Glen Clark administration (a guy hounded out of office because of a wooden deck built by a neighbour, although no wrong-doing was found).

“At the end of our administration, some of us had come to the conclusion that our real job was to transfer power to the people,” says the former MLA, who went on to help create Vancity’s community and business programs. Williams still thinks about “decentralizing power, both economically and socially in this province” and enthuses about the staying power of economic cooperatives in northern Italy, where the state is secondary to local communities in supplying social services. This sounds nothing like the typical caricatures of socialism: the nanny-state’s culture of victimization despised by radio shock-jocks, or the Stalinist-lite social engineering dismissed by right-wing think tanks

Why has the extraordinary three-year period of the Barrett government gone down the memory hole? I suspect because it counters the media-mediated myth that socialist governments cannot deliver anything but debt, dependence and inefficiency.

The Barrett government’s legacy is still with us, although much of it is being dismantled and sold for scrap. In a time of globalized kleptocracy, the odds seem to be stacked against progressive politics anywhere. Yet according to recent polls, the odds are also stacked against the current premier. Public knowledge of B.C.’s historical record surely can’t help her.

Vancouver Courier August 9