Come on, hear the noise

I'm taking a break from Pittsburgh this morning to blog about Nick Hornby's opinion piece in today's New York Times. Hornby is the author of the fabulous novel, High Fidelity, inspiration for the differently fabulous film, High Fidelity.

His Times piece is an extended, romantic rant about how popular music has lost its soul:

"In truth, I don't care whether the music sounds new or old: I just want it to have ambition and exuberance, a lack of self-consciousness, a recognition of the redemptive power of noise, an acknowledgment that emotional intelligence is sometimes best articulated through a great chord change, rather than a furrowed brow. Outkast's brilliant "Hey Ya!," a song that for a few brief months last year united races and critics and teenagers and nostalgic geezers, had all that and more; you could hear Prince in there, and the Beatles, and yet the song belonged absolutely in and to the here and now, or at least the there and then of 2003.

Both 'Hey Ya!' and Marah's new album are roots records, not in the sense that they were made by men with beards who play the fiddle and sing with a finger in an ear, but in the sense that they have recognizable influences — influences that are not only embedded in pop history, but that have been properly digested. In the suffocatingly airless contemporary pop-culture climate, you can usually trace influences back only as far as Radiohead, or Boyz II Men, or the Farrelly Brothers, and regurgitation rather than digestion would be the more accurate gastric metaphor."

A lot of this is old news, and it's impossible to miss the irony of a piece about the redemptive power of rock music (note the Springsteen reference) showing up on the gray pages of the Times, just above this piece by the postmodern provocateur Stanley Fish, talking about why academics should stick to the ivory tower.

But Hornby's point bears notice, and not just because it's Hornby who makes it. Virtually all of the public debate over popular music during the last five years has been about what the Interent means to the future of music. There's a huge, dead vocabulary out there that everyone uses to talk about this question: "piracy," "theft," "the public domain," the "commons," "creativity." Everything new is really old; we have to liberate music from the corporate oppressors so that consumers can rip, mix, and burn! Or we have to teach the young that there's no such thing as a free lunch, and that they have to behave as ethically online as they do elsewhere. Songwriters and musicians "deserve" to make a living. Or the music industry has no business sniffing around the personal storage devices of private citizens. And so on.

Hornby is talking about all of those things, and brilliantly, he's talking about none of them. I take his implicit point to be this: Fights over file sharing aren't really fights over private property, or corporate structure, or communications policy, or privacy, or control of the Internet. They're fights over culture, over where culture comes from, and how, and over what culture means to all of us.


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Pittsblog 2.0 is written by Mike Madison, a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh. Send email to michael.j.madison[at] Mike also blogs at, on law and technology. Chris Briem of Null Space drops by from time to time.

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