October 3, 2010

The untangible beauty of music

Image found on Tumblr. If anyone knows the source, please let me know so I can credit it.
Musick has Charms to sooth a savage Breast,
To soften Rocks, or bend a knotted Oak.
I've read, that things inanimate have mov'd,
And, as with living Souls, have been inform'd,
By Magick Numbers and persuasive Sound.
What then am I? Am I more senseless grown
Than Trees, or Flint? O force of constant Woe!
'Tis not in Harmony to calm my Griefs.
-- William Congreve, The Mourning Bride

Jack White took to the 'web a few days ago to express some griefs. As should be expected, the previously unreleased, secret Dead Weather song hidden inside his recently distributed, Blue Blood Blues Triple Decker Record was leaked onto the internet in just over a week.  I'm actually surprised it took that long, considering that copies of the Triple Decker were on eBay the same day that the first 100 units were sold at Third Man Records in Nashville.  This was an exciting release with a two-fold thrill for fans and collectors alike.  And there, right there, lies the crux of the Triple Decker-- The unreleased song and its accompanying b-side are on a 7" single nestled between two 12" colored vinyl platters that contain the Blue Blood Blues single and its b-side.  I've already posted this video once, but in order for this whole thing to make sense, you really need to have Jack's explanation:

To reiterate-- In order to get to the extra song, you have to crack open the outer layers of the colored vinyl single.  And let me stress that there are only 300 copies of the Triple Decker available!   It's pretty damned brilliant. Jack knows how collectors of his music covet his colored vinyl albums.  His limited edition tri-color singles end up selling for hundreds of dollars on eBay.  And here he's combined colored vinyl with a never-heard-before song, and in the process created a conundrum for the lucky/rich/obsessively determined few who manage to obtain a Triple Decker--  To break the seal, or not to break the seal? 

For the true collectors, there's no question.  Breaking that seal destroys the value of the Triple Decker.  They'll either live without hearing that unreleased track or wait until someone else cracks open a T.D., rips the tune, and posts it on the internet.  Which brings us back to Jack's complaint.

He made it clear in his post over at The Vault that his issue was not with the leak of the song in and of itself, though he has at other times expressed disapproval of such musical theft.  No, his concern in this case was the attitude of the websites that posted the song.  He was frustrated that they assumed they had the right to take one portion of his creation and make it available to the public outside of the context in which he'd presented it.  This is an understandable complaint for an artist to have.  Artists from Botticelli to Mozart would probably roll over in their graves at the way their works have been snipped and trimmed and co-opted for various purposes.  Jack's preferred context for his art is vinyl.  He's talked a lot about the romance of vinyl as a tangible media--

Download culture isn't a very romantic experience for the fan regarding art, it cheapens it and makes it fast forwardable, and disposable, and a lot of times ignorable...

That's a shame for a lot of art and music that isn't getting the chance that it would if people just left the needle on the record till the end of the side or what have you.

I'm not telling people not to listen to MP3s, we sell them for all of our records and I wouldn't say to them don't share with their friends or whatever, but if you're asking me my opinion on what I prefer, or what I think is the best way to enjoy music, I would take a tangible, moving piece of machinery to listen to, as it expands the imagination. The physical attachment and the experience is more reverential to the art form.

-- (From bbb.co.uk/newsbeat)

It was obvious in his recent post that he felt the beauty of his latest creation had been compromised by these people who focused only on that one individual part of it--  The unreleased song.  That they'd taken it out of its physical form and turned it into something intangible, without his knowledge or consent, made it in his mind into just what he described above:  Something fast-forwardable and disposable. 

He's since removed the post in which he expressed this grievance.  He does that a lot, apparently, posts explanations, disclaimers, rants, and then takes them down, sometimes replacing them with inscrutable photos or seeming riddles.  But I was lucky enough to have read this post before it disappeared, as well as his replies in the ensuing conversation that took place in the comments section.  I think that I grasped his point clearly enough that I can definitely empathize with his frustration. 

But, at the same time, I question Jack's insistence on the tangible as such an important component in appreciating his music.  I can't help but wonder--  In focusing so completely on the tangible, does he sometimes forget the beauty of the visceral?  I'm one of those people who was less concerned with the unique physical properties of the Triple Decker.  Like those folks at the websites he mentioned, what immediately captured my attention was the words "unreleased song".  Once I got over the initial excitement of watching him crack open that amazing disc and pull out that hidden single in the video above, I became increasingly annoyed at his statement that "you can't hear it unless ..." 

Some people with whom I've had this conversation insist that limiting the availability of the song is what makes it special.  Others go so far as to brand those of us who believe we should have access to this song with having a "sense of entitlement."  There are valid points either way.  There was a time, before museums, photography, and the internet, when only a minuscule segment of the population had the thrill of experiencing the beauty of the Mona Lisa.  But times are different now.  Art and music can and have been made more immediately available to the masses.  How does limiting it make it more special? 

To me, what is special in a piece of music is the emotional response it stirs.  Whether it puts a smile on your face or brings tears to your eyes, the fact that it touches you makes it beautiful.  That sort of beauty has no physical presence.  It's completely intangible, but no less appreciable than anything that you hold in your hand.  A "moving" piece of machinery may certainly expand the imagination, but so can a "moving" lyric.  Or voice.  Or guitar solo.  Can anyone out there not think of a time when they've closed their eyes in order to more fully enter a piece of music, to let it get inside of them?  To completely experience the rapture of it? 

So I would argue against Jack's apparent belief that publishing music on the 'web cheapens it (at least not when it's done with the artist's consent, of course).  In my own case, a weekend on the internet contributed immensely to the reverence I have for his art.  I will certainly admit that his views have inspired me to get a turntable and begin collecting vinyl records for the first time since I was a teenager, and I'm having a ball with it.  But after I've gone through the ritual of putting the record on the turntable and precisely placing the needle at the edge, once the vinyl's begun moving around, you'll find me lying back with my eyes closed so that I can listen with full attention. 

And that once-unreleased, now almost impossible to legally own Dead Weather song is still out there on the 'net. I could easily find it and share it here, introduce the handful of people who stumble across this post to its haunting vocals and hypnotic guitar, but I won't. Despite the fact that I'm peeved that I can't just buy the damned thing, this ain't that kinda blog.



shawnte said...

I'm definitely divided on these issues. On one hand, I do sympathize about music being such a disposable commodity, in electronic formats.

But I also lose sympathy pretty easily when it comes to things like such limited edition pressings. Yes, I understand that this is the only true way you feel your product should be experienced...but try not to have so much disdain for the majority of people (who have no way to get their hands on it), trying to experience it in the only form in which it will ever be available to them.

KaliDurga said...

To be fair to Jack, the folks at the sites that posted the song crowed a bit about taking it upon themselves to make it accessible. He's right, though. The 'net is a blessing and a curse in that respect-- We get great music we otherwise might never be able to hear, but what long-term effect do such acts have on our collective integrity?

Monya said...

An especially thoughtful entry on a complex issue.
I will only say that there was a time when education was only for the rich, male and fortunate...
You know how I feel about JW but one really can't have the proverbial 2 pieces of cake...Jack has benefitted enormously from his exposure on the web. Like the H-bomb, we can't un-invent it...
Sorry - the bourbon has kicked in...I regret that I missed Jack's missive and ensuing comments.
Now to go find that song.

KaliDurga said...

Monya-- I've been talking to a lot of people about how the Triple Decker is like the ultimate musical Catch-22. Some element of Jack's fan-base would complain no matter how he released it, and we fans who couldn't get one are stuck with the question of whether to bootleg or not. So both he and we are damned if we do, damned if we don't. I wonder whether he thinks of all aspects of these things, or whether he's just so caught up in the idea that he doesn't care until later. I wonder so many things about Jack. He's a puzzler, that's for sure.

Anonymous said...

love, love, love this post.

i also love jack white to the point of stupidity. but i just can't wrap myself around his thinking. i am so, so glad that when i was a teenager on limited funds that this kind of nonsense was not going on. i lived for music and this would have killed me.

you said it best, he is a puzzler for sure.

KaliDurga said...

Hello Anonymous, thank you for dropping by. Next time, give me a name of some kind to call you by, whether real or pseudonymous :)

And, heck, if we could figure Jack out, he wouldn't fascinate us near as much. As much of a pain in the ass as things like the Triple Decker are, I hope he'll always remain inscrutable.

Angelina S. said...

Great, great post!

I don't agree with the people that say limiting something makes it more special. That just makes it more expensive. As you said, if it moves you, the song is special whether you have an ultra rare 45 or downloaded an mp3 from your friend. And the thing that is really special about the triple decker isn't really the song. It's the object as well as the idea. The object itself is something that's never been seen before, and is quite beautiful in it's own right. The idea behind it is maddening and brilliant. Break this beautiful object to get to these unreleased songs, or keep it pristine. Damned if you do and damned if you don't.

Anyway, did that make any sense? I've got some serious sleep deprivation going on here.

KaliDurga said...

That does make sense, Angelina, especially the part about the idea behind the Triple Decker being both maddening and brilliant.

At the very least, no matter what people like you or I think about it, this release has sparked some tremendous interest in what Third Man does. Ultimately, that can only be a good thing.

the gardeners cottage said...

i just found your blog via every jack white song. it sounds as if you are a woman and i'd love to email you but i cannot find your email address anywhere. you can email me at janetkorff@gmail.com
i have no female friends that understand my jw obsession!


KaliDurga said...

Very nice to "meet" you, Janet, I saw your comment over at Saro's blog, too. This is what I love most about the internet-- The opportunity it creates to find and bond with people who share interests (and even obsessions ;) ). Check your inbox.