Jay Reatard Retires From the Fight Against the Streamlining of Independent Music

So looking back on the last few posts here I realized I haven't really been giving a lot of content. There are the obligatory SF updates but I feel like this blog should be more than that. I've actually had a lot on my mind but was unable or maybe unwilling to sit down and try to work these thoughts out in words. Also over the last year there have been some gnarly misquotes from this blog put up around the internet which for a while now has had me scared to post anything meaningful. But I think I'm over that for now. So in 2010 look for regular editorials on this blog about subjects that I feel are important and interesting. It will give me something to do.


Jay Reatard Retires From the Fight Against the Streamlining of Independent Music

In the mid-1990s everyone from faux-grunge rockers Bush to aging classic rock legends Robert Plant and Jimmy Page wanted Steve Albini’s raw engineering approach to scar their major label records. In 2009 we saw the culmination of the reverse trend. Today independent labels and their best selling artists are cultivating a flaccid, top-40, sonic character. Artists who just a few years ago where releasing sonically challenging records are now being praised for their newest and remarkably easy-to-digest records.

But of course this only makes sense at a time when the “pro tools” esthetic of beat mapped, pitch corrected, and massively compressed recordings have dominated records for over a decade (did you know that Ricky Martin’s “Livin’ La Vida Loca” was the first single to hit #1 that was recorded, edited, and mixed solely in Pro Tools?). There is a whole generation of music listeners who only know the less forgiving and dynamic quality of analog recording as a quirky alternative hailed by mainstream mavericks such as Jack White. Those of us old enough to remember before the age of spotless digital wizardry seem to have not only grown accustomed to the sound of these recordings, we expect it! Things just don’t seem to sound right, are just too sloppy, or just don’t “hit” enough without this digital magic. Even if some of these artists aren’t using the tricks of the Digital Audio Workstation they are still using the esthetic as their guideline.

While searching end-of-the-year lists from the biggest and hippest media reviewers I was struck by the utter lack of artists and albums that could be even remotely referred to as punk, regardless if your definition of punk be informed by The Ramones, The Clash, Black Flag, Big Black, Beat Happening, Mudhoney, The Oblivians, Rancid, or This Bike Is A Pipe Bomb. Reviewers, music buyers, and indie labels at large are not only ignoring new, sonically challenging artists they are encouraging the dumbing down and streamlining of artists who could formally be referred to as experimental.

But this of course also makes sense. With record sales dwindling to nothingness, to keep from going under major labels have set their focus on a dozen or so artists. Meanwhile independent labels have taken up the slack by managing to toe the line between appealing to causal, formally major label music consumers who recoil at anything remotely sonically challenging and, at the same time, retaining their core buyers; the “indie scene.”

How did they manage this? By releasing slicked up and dumbed down records by artists with “indie cred,” their copycats, and anything else that could be tagged as indie while remaining cheerfully refined and palatable. It’s the perfect formula. Release pop records and market them as indie rock. Here when I say pop records I am not referring to songwriting with pop sensibility or a pop melody. I am referring to the spotless, gutless, streamlined recordings that make up the common ground among releases by the likes of the Backstreet Boys, John Mayer, and T-Pain.

This all makes the passing of Jay Reatard that much more difficult to handle. Jay’s presence was a thorn in the side of this movement. His pop sensibilities allowed him to squeeze onto these lists and into the biggest blogs and glossies but his toiled home-recording techniques and stripped down, double-speed live shows are what made it interesting. There are multiple interviews where Jay challenges other artists to release unrefined records that allow the listener into the artistic process, as he so often did with his relentless 7” singles. I can only image he was responding to the same problem I’ve laid out here.

-Jarrett Dougherty


Anonymous said...

Wow, that was a great read! I'm currently taking a music recording course at college, and know too well the need for a "perfect" or "pristine" recording. While it's entirely possible to make a great record using modern technology, it's a shame that so many artists/engineers/producers etc. are taking it all too far. Through out the past year and a half here at school, there have been certain things that just sit the wrong way with me. Over processing, over perfecting... humans arent midi controlers lol. A song shouldn't have to be "perfect" to be good. In most cases, it's the imperfections that i love. To know that a human being sat down and played that part.

Anonymous said...

I couldn't agree more with this post. I'm still fuming about the amount of defense I had to conjure up about SK's The Woods and it's "poor production". I strongly disagree, in fact I still think it's their best work. Maybe that's why I enjoy albums like Land Speed Record and III. I don't know, it always seems more organic to me. With that being say, it's such a fucking shame about Jay. He will be sorely missed.

I KISS the SCREEN said...

Jarrett, I see many of your points but firstly I don't agree with demonizing the actual format of digital recording. I think you and I are close to the same age and the music I remember hearing growing up as a kid is without a doubt the most watered down, plain, evened out, flat, emotionless bullshit. 80's-era Elton John, Billy Joel, Iggy Pop - I mean these all things were recorded analog. So many of the formerly-cool radicals of the 60's/early 70's output in the Reagan era is disturbingly clean, safe and sanctified. It's simply not because digital recording formats exist that we have the problem of disgusting, crappy popular music. The problem is money, the committee-of-executives mindset, the full on ownership of top 40, and yeah, ADVERTISING. Oh wait, I already said money!

The co-opting of the "underground" by corporations and other aboveground scum has much to do with money, but also has a lot to do with control. At THIS point I think around 95% of things referred to as "indie" (in terms of status not as in a [BARF] style of music) are obviously frigging NOT INDIE. It's like Noam Chompsky said about "liberal" and "conservative" - "The terms have been abused for so long that they're basically unusable".

People with LOTS and LOTS of money get scared that things can grow despite being designed by committee first. So, things - labels, artists, bands, films, and perhaps worse, IDEAS and AESTHETICS are bought and stolen in order to serve the controllable system of Fake Capitalism; the insidious, designed illusion that life itself lets talent and hard-work rise to the top. When in fact, generally, the talented, hardworking individual who uses only original ideas that they are passionate about is actually the unspoken enemy of aboveground prosperity.

Sadly, the system has been in place for so long that now there's more than an entire generation of people that have been conditioned by birth to believe total and complete lies. To me that's where the "underground" began shrinking into the tiny form we live with now.

And I don't want to sound critical, but I'm not sure that I would agree that Jay Reatard was 'responding' to the problem you're writing about. In my opinion he was basically following his heart, allowing himself to think freely and allowing himself to make a mistake or two sometimes (the near-forgotten way of actually learning things!) - these elements align him as a complete opposite with what is aboveground, but it's natural, not reactionary.

We need more people like that, and I know we agree there. Awesome post man.


Anonymous said...


Screaming Females said...

I'll reply to some of these other things later but to clear something up real quick, esthetic is most often spelled aesthetic but can also be spelled the way I did. Look it up. It's true! Or it can even be spelled with that letter where a and e are attached. (Does that thing have a name?) The only reason I know this is because I accidentally typed the word without the 'a' and Word didn't correct it so I looked it up. I decided to leave it. I always liked writing 'cannot' as well.

Anonymous said...

I had a long post about economics, Adorno, Horkheimer, "Dialectic of Enlightenment", the production of mass culture, etc., etc... But, given that I'm out of touch with 2009 it seems inappropriate. [Still a *great* chapter of a book for anyone who cares about the production of consumer culture to read!]

Instead, I'll just suggest that you can turn the tools of the dominant culture against itself. It might be uncool but Le Tigre/Le Tigre, etc., is IMHO a great example of that attempt.

I'm not saying this is a way for SF to go, but there is plenty of room for ironic play with digital tools and production, and ironic response against certain standardizing tendencies even among "indie" labels/producers/etc..

The point that indie labels are dropping the ball, so to speak, is important. Some of these tools allow kids who can't imagine signing with a label to at least put something together and get it out. A 'punk' band in hometown USA can put together an MP3 and get it out! Is it (or both) 1) a product of all that is awful about streamlining and standardizing the production of music. 2) a great example of someone using tools intended to standardize music to instead publish something radical??

I'm tempted to get into a debate about what 'punk' should mean, if anything, but that should happen in another post, I think. [I'm not sure music has to be analog and sonically challenging to be radical. I'm still in the camp the the smiths and M's solo work, and even Belle and Sebastian, etc., in Tigermilk, Talking Heads, some Pavement/Malkmus, can be at least ideological radical while flying under the radar of extreme sonic dissonance. Sonic Youth?(Daydream Nation is now totally acceptable but was hard to consume when it was released.), etc, etc..]

The central point I would make is, instead of demonizing a tool or digital methods, I would argue that we should say: If you are going to use these digital tools, don't use them as they want you to, don't use them to do what other people do, use them to subvert the dominant culture's idea of what these tools should produce.

Screaming Females said...

Mike and Anonymous dude,

I totally agree that just simply being analog does not make a recording challenging and, equally important, recording digital does not necessarily make a record pop. I was trying to get that across with "Even if some of these artists aren’t using the tricks of the Digital Audio Workstation they are still using the esthetic as their guideline." What I was trying to say was that the sonic esthetic/ aesthetic that was made possible with the creation of pro tools and other Digital Audio Workstations and that sonic quality that has now dominated music for over a decade is now the standard. It is so accepted that "indie" bands and labels are now being dominated by it. And NO ONE has seemed to notice!


I KISS the SCREEN said...

I understand what you're saying, I was trying to say that in my opinion that sonic aesthetic already existed before the advent of any digital recording.

And as far as noticing that "indie" bands and labels are dominated by it, I'm not sure that I think of it that way. Sturgeon's law ("95% of anything is crap") is still true. I just think that all of that music/ideas/etc. would be just as offensive if it were completely analog.

Joe Steinhardt said...


the "ae" letter is called a schwa.

as for the essay, my only thoughts are wonder if the punk bands of the past were making sonically challenging records because thats all they could afford and there wasnt a cheap way like pro-tools to produce quality sounding work, or if it was actually a statement. im sure for some bands it was one, for other bands it was the other. i just know half the time i listen to some record i think is employing some really brilliant technique to the point where i want to read about it, i find out it was a mistake, or a product of the person having no clue what they were doing. oh well. jay reatard RIP.

Joe Steinhardt said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Joe Steinhardt said...

dear anonymous #4,

thank you for not bringing Adorno into this.