Saturday, January 24, 2009

Painting by Numbers

Guitar Hero gets a bad rap. Granted, it's not the game itself that critics carp on. Maybe it's the image of grown men wanking away at it that, for a few of us, epitomizes the emasculating inauthenticity of the times. In a remade Fight Club, Rock Band -- with its interactive light and smoke show peripherals -- would replace the bachelor pad packed with Ikea furniture.

As I once said on a podcast, I feel weird when I watch people play Rock Band or Guitar Hero. I'm reminded of how human music is and what it means for us to make it. I think, this is what happens when a culture decides that music-making is strictly the domain of the specialist and that we should stop performing when it becomes clear that we aren't cut from professional cloth.

This is a relatively recent development in the industrialized world. Throughout history, more people have created music than have consumed it. And while we've recently reversed that equation, cultural prejudice hasn't curbed evolutionary predisposition. So for me, Guitar heroism is sort of like seeing a clawless cat pretend to scratch a post. Or a future in which only porn stars have sex and the rest of us plebes simulate it with reel-feel plastic. But the game isn't to blame.

The fact that Guitar Hero's interface imitates actual guitar playing is important, but I believe that the game, like painting by numbers, is singled out because its source of inspiration amounts to more than mere entertainment. Nobody worries over Wii bowling -- and yet, as a game that adds a dose of lethargy to an already lazy pastime, Nintendo's bestseller can also claim candidacy for sign of the times.

The trouble with cultural criticism of this sort, though, is its tendency to ignore contrary evidence. Guitar Hero is emblematic of an era. So is Myspace and its armies of amateur, attention-seeking troubadours. All of them making music.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Are We What We Link?

Are we obligated to outline our thoughts on the things that we point other people to? On Twitter, where I more or less say look at me or look at this, it's tough. At times, “agree” or “disagree,” “like” or “dislike,” is all it takes. When I link to a Ku Klux Klan boycott , I safely assume that my audience knows that I'm laughing at, and not endorsing, the so-called United Northern and Southern Knights. The link alone is enough. At other times, such as yesterday when I Tweeted the url to Nick Carr's writing on our age of advertising, inauthenticity, and sacrificed attention spans; and to Rob Horning's essay on how Guitar Hero is a symptom of a generational aversion to actual challenge, Twitter's alloted 140 words won't cut it. Directing attention to these writers was a way of saying that what they wrote is well worth reading; I didn't intend to endorse the messages in their entirety.

I was well aware of the irony when I Tweeted these. In pointing towards writing without engaging with it, I was proving Horning's point about the dangers of dilettantism -- in effect saying, “I've read this, so should you; talking about it is too much trouble, though.”

More Intelligent Life's Brett McCallon indirectly called me on it, by taking the time to write the following thoughtful email (to which, I'll respond in a separate entry as soon as I'm able):

I've listened to, and read, a number of your objections to GH/Rock Band, and those of the bloggers you've linked, and I'm still a little puzzled. It's not, of course, that I don't understand why someone wouldn't be into it, but the arguments against it seem to me to be a huge marshaling of rhetorical grandiloquence to assault a straw man. If you have a moment, I'd like to share a few counterpoints.

1) I don't think I ever linked you to my first column for More Intelligent Life, which regarded my Rock Band Band; if you have the time, it might make understanding my thoughts on the subject a bit easier.

2) In that article, I draw parallels between the experience of playing RB, and the ethos of the punk movement; I found it amusing that Carr used the same argument to opposite effect. His feeling about the Clash seems driven by a weirdly nostalgic view that wants to separate art out completely from the rest of modern life in a way that is deeply ahistorical. Because "Complete Control" is a rant against obedience and conformity in consumer society, it somehow can't convey that message if it is sold in a different package than it was originally (both times, I might add, by a multinational corporation)? Do the pieces that Mozart wrote for wealthy patrons (and therefore, presumably conforming to those patrons' tastes) lose their value due to some overarchingly "punk" reading of music history? He references John Lydon to dismiss him, but surely Johnny Rotten's layers of impenetrable irony were as intrinsic to the punk exercise as Strummer's (sometimes hammy, definitely put-on) working class solidarity-speak. Are we, finally, still stuck on "authenticity" as the apex of punk's meaning? Even at this late date?

3) While there will, of course, be a few people who conflate ability w/r/t the plastic instrument rhythm genre with actual musical skill, I can hardly believe that either of the authors whose posts you twittered, or you yourself, really believe that that is the majority opinion. Certainly, the drums can make one more aware of what goes into playing a real drum kit, but it's barely more than the rudimentary beginnings of developing that skill set (Bill Harris' Dubious Quality blog has some great entries where he details the benefits and drawbacks of knowing RB drumming as he begins his real drum lessons).

4) I'm going to quote myself (apologies) from the comments on my article--someone raised the standard objection to playing GH (that you could invest that time in mastering a real instrument, and that that would somehow be a more "authentic" experience:

Your comment voices a common belief, especially amongst musicians who haven't played games in the rhythm genre. However, I believe it is off-base. As a musician, I can tell you that the game does not require all that much time in order to achieve competency. Granted, playing on the higher difficulty levels requires more effort, but it's similar to the amount of effort one would expend on improving in another video game, not the amount required to master an instrument. Also, and this is key, playing Rock Band is not a simulation of playing music, so much as it is a simulation of being a rock star -- this is a feeling that most people, regardless of talent, will never experience. Also, it is relatively easy to get a few friends together to play the game over beers. Setting up a genuine rock and roll band requires a level of investment and effort (and generates a level of neighbor-annoying noise) that simply doesn't apply to the game scenario. Playing in a Rock Band band is more akin to joining a non-serious bowling league than it is to forming a band. And as such, it's a really fun way to spend time with friends.

5) Two real-life examples of musicians who play a lot of Rock Band:

My friend Dan is like a songwriting machine, churning out at least four or five new tracks per week on his real guitar, thanks to Garage Band. He also spends far more time playing Rock Band than anyone else I know. Does the latter have a detrimental effect on the former? Does his time doing the latter somehow devalue the former? Clearly, one is not creative all of the time. What's wrong with listening to music while also trying to ape its rhythms?

I'm a pianist, with fourteen or so years of classical training. I have a piano in my house, but I also have a 2-year-old, and my time to practice is hard to come by (when I have free time, she's generally asleep, and would wake up if I started gearing up Rachmaninoff). Once a week, though, I can go over to my friend's house and pretend to be a rock star, while cutting up and drinking. Where, really, is the harm in this? Would anyone conflate these two activities, really?

6) Do you really think that the Internet has led to an increase of dilettantism (which it undoubtedly has), without also spawning a hitherto unimaginable spread of deep, deep expertise? I don't mean to assume that the former isn't happening, of course -- I see its effect on my own media consumption habits. But let's face facts: one of your best go-to tropes, both in the Twitter feed and on GFW Radio, has to do with the absurd level of interest and time that people have poured into becoming expert at some unbelievably small slice of the human experience (here, I'm thinking specifically of the rant about how many ninjitsus that some anime character could learn if he split himself into some ungodly number of clones, or some other nonsense--hopefully you remember. It may have been Naruto). You and I think this is a ridiculous thing to focus on, but there's just no question that people throughout society are diving ever more deeply into extremely specific rabbit holes (some of which you and I would approve of, if that matters) to approximately the same degree that others of us (me included) are increasingly expanding our dilettantish knowledge base. And both of these phenomena are facilitated by the Internet.

7) The PopMatters article posits that someone who wanted to learn all about psychedelic music would be overwhelmed by the mp3 blogs -- as a counterpoint, I would offer my own example. I began reviewing music for Splendid magazine in 2000, and quickly deepened and developed my knowledge of dozens of genres precisely because I was faced with the need to sound authoritative, combined with a hunger for knowledge about the subject. Whie I certainly don't know everything about pop music now, I would never have achieved even a portion of the broad, fairly deep knowledge that I maintain of the history of thousands of bands, labels, and innovations without the Internet. It's not like reading a book, but it can eventually generate its own sort of expertise, and I guarantee that my experience when faced with the endless information available on the Net is not unique.

8) If game design were a more widely practiced art in our society, would people be complaining about the inauthenticity of Little Big Planet? Isn't the whole anti-GH argument (at least the "you should buy a real instrument" part of it) just a repackaging of the "you shouldn't play video games anyway, because they're a waste of time" argument?

These blogs are trying to point out a legitimate new development, but it seems to me that both of them go way, way over the top in decrying it. Rock Band is a pop culture phenomenon that is arguably on its downswing. I don't think that people have invested any more time into it than they did into "useless" but now nostalgically regarded phenomena of the past: pinball, classic arcade games, etc. It has arguably exposed a younger generation to music they might otherwise have missed, thus deepening their cultural awareness (though, to be fair, I kind of wish some of those songs had remained buried). Would it be a bad thing if something similar had gotten people our age interested in the great jazz of earlier decades? Most of the people who play GH/Rock Band (including me) never had any intention of learning to play the guitar, nor are we under any illusion that we have done anything to develop our knowledge of that instrument. It's a fun way to hang out with friends. I'm just not seeing the problem.