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I’ve been watching the excellent Neil Brand’s excellent series Sound of Song on my PVR, which is ironic given what I’m going to write about. One of the talking heads, whose name I neither recall nor noted - but as I'm suggesting you watch the series all concerned can get their credit there - made the thought-grabbing comment whilst the wax cylinder gave people recordings of music, the invention of the shellac disc in the early 20th Century actually gave people music.
Not recordings of music, but music itself. The wax cylinder was so scratchy and faint that it operated as little more than a souvenir, but with a 78 disc... you could let the band go home early for the night, if not for life, and produce actual realio trulio music. If wax cylinders were like a sports report, shellac discs were like being at the match.
Great, yeah? But every great thing brings something bad. A pinch of ying for a tad of yang. Because even Edison and his wax disc let a bad genie out of the bag. Just think how life was like before those scratchy recordings came along. We had to make our own music, we needed skills and ability. We'd need hours to practice, to hone, to achieve mastery of our chosen instrument. We'd need to learn songs, if not actually write them. We were skilled, creative, because circumstances didn't let us being anything but.
Edison removed all that, set the ball rolling on a long journey to each of us having headphones on, each with a soundtrack to our lives playing, 24/7.
Yes, there's a lot more music than there ever was but, even as gig-goers, now we're mostly passive consumers. I'm listening to music as I write this, music artists have probably spent weeks honing but, in my case, just as background, aural wallpaper. Is that progress? Of sorts, I guess. Sampling has even produced the reductio ad absurdum of listening to recordings of somebody else mixing up recordings of a third party's original music. Weird.
Thinking about recorded visuals rather than sounds has left me wondering whether we're experiencing the same journey... but possibly backwards.
Granted, a century and a half ago to be entertained we were at the theatre or music hall, a century ago at the cinema, audiences enjoying collective experiences but, nationwide, multiple, fractured collective experiences. A bit like enjoying the fiddle band down the pub.
We keep being told that Savile got away with his crimes because he was a star. But, nobody has pushed the root cause analysis and said that Savile was a star because we only had three channels. With three channels, plus the need to watch what was on when it was on (remember me and my PVR?), a nation was collectively at the same music hall. A golden age of watercooler-inspiring moments was born, with the risk that when we idolise individuals and believe they can do anything they will do anything.
It couldn't happen nowadays, not because we're less naive than we were were forty years ago but because our three channels fractured to three-figures ten-plus years ago, so around the watercooler we were left describing rather than discussing what we saw last night. And now with the PVR, Netflix and the rest, even if I watch what you watch, it probably won't be on the same night. Saviles should never grow so monstrously tall. Watching will be like reading; it's a bit of a coincidence if we're consuming the same thing. Visually, we're back in the pub with the fiddle band, but in a personal booth, without the bonhomie and sense of community in miniature.
Talent has been spread thinner; we could never give a television presenter complete management control of a mental hospital(!). Or could we? Whilst the watercooler moments have gone tepid, something seems to have happened to the cult of personality. We can't let go of them, even if they do less and less to deserve our idolatry. Is it a hangover, a desire to hang on to the past, or do we genuinely, psychologically need these Biebers and Madonnas? What does that say about the human race and where we're going?
Let me dwell on that awhile.