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A while ago, one of the hottest videos on YouTube was of a young guitarist, sitting on his bed, playing a speed-metal version of Johann Pachelbel’s “Canon in D”. It was totally mesmerizing; I watched it about five times in a row, as did several million other fans. (That’s a screenshot above.) Chuck Klosterman, the culture critic for Esquire, also got interested in the clips, and he realized that it presaged an intriguing cultural shift: YouTube is bringing back the lost art of guitar wankery.
Why? Because 1980s-style shredding faces problematic paradox: “Very often,” as Klosterman pointed out, “profoundly exceptional guitar playing is boring to listen to.” YouTube, however, changes those stakes, because it offers us a new way to see the craft at hand. As Klosterman wrote:
It’s difficult for nonmusicians to appreciate world-class guitar playing through solely sonic means, mostly because a) the difference between great guitar playing and serviceable guitar playing is often subtle, and b) every modern listener assumes production tricks can manufacture greatness. (As a result, radio audiences are automatically skeptical of what they hear.) Guitar brilliance usually comes across as ponderous. But that changes dramatically when one adds the element of video; somehow, watching changes the experience of hearing. There are certain things that sound good only when (and if) you can see them. And YouTube lets you see them.
Whenever you enter the highest, stupidest, Bucketheadiest stratosphere of electrified insanity, one thing becomes clear: Guitar-godding is an athletic pursuit … and athleticism needs to be seen in order to be appreciated … Early in his career, Eddie Van Halen turned his back to the audience whenever he played solos, supposedly because he was afraid rivals would steal his techniques. Had he insisted on doing this forever, very few people would have cared about his music. (We would probably assume “Eruption” was performed on a German synthesizer built from the spare parts off a fire engine.) People needed to see how his fingers worked. Only then could they understand that Eddie Van Halen was doing something they could not understand. His guitar was not a primitive machine that made it easier to meet girls and get free drinks; his guitar was a futuristic machine that was fucking hard to fucking operate. You can fake being cool, but you can’t fake being good. That’s the musical potentiality of YouTube: It allows us to see elements of musicianship that are difficult to hear (even though hearing is supposed to be the whole idea). It could make a handful of people recognize (and care about) virtuosity in a way that hasn’t happened since the fall of King Crimson.
Testify, brother. I think Klosterman’s right, and I for one could not be happier. This is partly because I really enjoy speed metal, and indeed as a teenager attempted to play the stuff myself. (I was fast, but not that fast.) And I confess I’ve been increasingly dissatisifed with the direction of modern pop, which has more and more privileged screechy and/or whiny vocalists who are utterly unable to play any instrument themselves, and thus, usually, unable to actually write music or songs themselves.
It reminds me of that study that I blogged about a while ago, which showed that of all celebrities, musicians were the least narcissistic because the mere act of acquiring and honing a quantifiable technical skill had the psychological effect of pulling your head out of your ass, at least a slightly. I think the same is true of the pop audience: The more they’re schooled to respect actual musicians with actual skills, maybe the less they’ll be impressed by talentless whiny “singers”.
I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).
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