Media Theory for the 21st Century

February 25, 2008

Technological Cleansing?

Filed under: Discussion — reneehudson @ 10:51 am

I have a longer post which I will put up later, but for now I thought I would leave you with this since it doesn’t fit in with my other post.

In Media Ecologies, Fuller writes: “The MP3 file format, which has achieved such mass usage as a means of circulating tracks via the Internet, is designed simply to match the included middle of the audio spectrum audible to the human ear. Thus, it obliterates the range of musics designed to be heard with the remainder of the body via bass. This is not simply a white technological cleansing of black music but the configuration of organs, a call to order for the gut, the arse, to stop vibrating and leave the serious work of signal processing to the head” (40-41).

This immediately made me think of Jay-Z’s song “Dirt Off Your Shoulder,” which begins: “You’re now tuned into the m—-f—- greatest / Turn the music up in the headphones.” This is clearly not an instance of “white technological cleansing of black music,” but an acknowledgment by artists that the method of listening to their music has changed. The music hasn’t been cleansed, it’s evolved in order to become a part of the insular world created by MP3 players. Nevermind the fact that some DJ’s (and many a dorm room party) use their computers to play MP3s, which once again allows listeners to use senses other than hearing to experience the music played. The music itself signals a life outside the MP3 player – think of Fifty Cent’s “In Da Club,” which presents a double articulation: he describes his experience in the club while knowing that the song will also be played in clubs . . . perhaps in MP3 format.


1 Comment »

  1. There’s a detailed article on this “cleansing” in a recent issue of Rolling Stone.

    The central idea is that in order to pump up the volume (for headphones, MP3s, iPods, computer speakers, whatever), sound engineers are increasing the overall volume of tracks against their own better judgment. The fact that we listen to MP3s has substantially altered the way that the original tracks are recorded–for the worse. The volume boost makes the music initially seem more intense but ultimately means cutting off the extreme lows and highs at either end of the frequency spectrum. In terms of the phyla of genres Fuller is discussing, this basically means we lose out on the deepest bass tones. The range of possible effects is smaller and the ones that are possible are less subtle. Presumably, this allows for fewer psychosensory or physiological reactions in the bodies of the audience.

    The movement toward this type of crappy production basically started with grunge (“white” as can be) in the 1990s but now effects virtually all popular music. You’re right that “the method of listening” and the methods of distribution have changed. But, crucially, the equipment has co-evolved with the new production style in a manner that has had the effect of removing the most extreme sound features. “Cleansing” may not be the best word for this process because it implies a sort of pre-meditated denaturing of the sound, which is in direct opposition to the stated goal: maximum loudness, no matter the cost.

    Either way, the feedback loop you describe between the distribution and content applies equally to distribution and production. Still, it is pretty strange that Fuller is worried about cleansing when the pirate stations he’s discussing are clearly not using high-end equipment. I guess there’s still a premium placed on both subtlety and extremity in the, um, “pirate community”–both of which get bleached out and blurred over by the amped up volume and/or poor equipment.

    Primarily instrumental drum-and-bass movements like dubstep (a descendant of the genres Fuller discusses) are clear reactions against this trend. If anyone’s interested in this stuff, I patched together the three pieces of the pirate radio broadcast by FMB Crew recorded by Simon Reynolds, which has some pretty serious bass action. You can download an MP3 of the “whole” thing here:

    Even better you can download Mary Anne Hobbs’s influential BBC Radio 1 feature the “Dubstep Warz” (2006) in its entirety.

    This is nearly two hours with great examples of jive/hype talk at the beginning, a clear (verbalized) focus on “moving bodies,” and a ton of un-cleansed music. Plus it symbolizes the docking of the pirates on the shores of the mainstream.

    Comment by jeremysc — February 26, 2008 @ 10:54 am | Reply

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