Academic journal article New Formations

Software Sequencers and Cyborg Singers: Popular Music in the Digital Hypermodern

Academic journal article New Formations

Software Sequencers and Cyborg Singers: Popular Music in the Digital Hypermodern

Article excerpt

It has been almost twenty years since Andrew Goodwin's classic essay, 'Sample and Hold', claimed that pop music had entered a new phase of digital reproduction. (1) If the digital sampler was postmodernism's musical engine, then hip hop was its recombinant form, and the erosion of divisions between original and copy the celebrated consequence. Popular music had become an engorged repository of itself, its history ransacked as source material for a kind of stitched-together melange of past fragments. For Goodwin, sampling had undermined received ideas of human creativity and craft, deconstructing notions of the romantic author and pouring into pop a distinctly post-human sensibility. In fact, as divisions between human creativity and machinic automation blurred, it became impossible to tell whether a sound had been produced manually, synthesized or reproduced digitally. The 'strange case' of the handclap was a particularly postmodern parable. Techno musicians had favoured the sound of a first-generation synthetic clap produced by the Roland TR-808 drum machine over a more natural-sounding successor provided by Roland's TR-707 because the former, while sonically non-mimetic, had become the 'real' signature of electronic music. In other words, the synthetic sign had replaced the organic referent to become the 'real'. In which case, digitalisation accompanied a wholesale transformation towards postmodern culture as a regime of surface over depth and play over seriousness. (2)

But an air of ambiguity pervades Goodwin's essay, and rightly so. As he puts it, 'pop might be eating itself, but the old ideologies and aesthetics are still on the menu' (p272). Indeed, to this day, discourses of authorship and authenticity continue to lubricate pop's sense of itself as trading in talent and originality, while 'aura', far from disappearing, is alive and well in attitudes to the immediacy and presence of the live performer. Meanwhile, the co-mingling of analogue and digital technologies in the studios and bedrooms of musicians is testament to the complex interweavings of socio-technical forms and their convergence in practice, while a distinctly 'modern' medium, vinyl, continues to be valorised by DJs as containing 'warm' qualities flattened by digital reproduction. Hardly postmodern then, if the prefix is taken seriously as a wholesale departure from the conventions, practices and forms of the modern era. Indeed, we might speculate, twenty years after the orgy, that the term postmodern was always a lazy, totalising and fashionable shorthand that could never have captured the full complexity and range of phenomena it was supposed to cover.

In this essay I want to examine music's technological mediations, linking this to more recent attempts to theorise the shifting nature of contemporary popular music. The basic argument is that we can learn a lot about where we are in the history of popular music by looking at conditions of cultural production, not merely at single styles, techniques or devices such as the sampler. I want to suggest that an examination of recent production techniques and technologies labelled 'digital' can tell us significant things about contemporary musical cultures, including how they are meeting broader tendencies towards flexibility and de-materialisation in social practices at large, but that this meeting takes place in an extended moment of cultural acceleration and intensity--a hypermodern moment. This moves music onto terrains that threaten, stretch and play with boundaries between human and machine, as well as real and simulated, although not always in expected ways.

The focus of attention will be on digital recording practices and changing forms of musical creativity, not merely because so much attention has been heaped upon the digital--in music, in characterisations of so-called 'network economies', in the business of globalisation and the rise of new media--but also because it is an apposite time to grasp Walter Benjamin's 'now of recognisability' and assess how these technologies align with new and old habits of thought and practice, before they slip unnoticed into convention. …

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