Rock and Roll and Me— Part Two

What happens to a person who is involved in rock n’ roll but doesn’t do the drugs and sex thing, is that you end up being the designated driver, or errand runner (a gopher), or equipment watcher. Normally most of that would be left to the roadies, except most of the roadies are equally dissolute. I realized at an early point that: 1) I was not a good enough musician to be in some elite rock or folk-rock band (I tended towards the latter), and 2) I was also not a good enough high tenor to do that at the sort of standards that rock singing requires. I was a pretty good instrumentalist and a pretty good singer, and that was all. Now that was good enough for some folks, but it would not do for me. I strove for excellence, even when it came to popular music. Part of this came out of my classical training. I played in an orchestra (first violin) for ten years of my life, and then briefly with the UNC Chamber ensemble. The point is, I knew what musical excellence looked like, and for me it was either going to be full bore or no bore. I also didn’t want the life on the road life either. So I became an itinerant Methodist preacher and teacher. Go figure.

While I am on the subject, the standard of musicianship has generally deteriorated drastically in proportion to the increase in technological capacity. By this I mean you now have a lot of artists (I use the term loosely), and all they can really do is sing. They count on synthesizers to generate everything else. Indeed even the songs are left to the Pro Tools composition stuff on computers and in synthesizers. If you want to know one of the reasons for the decline of rock and roll and the rise of rap and hip hop it is this very trend. The technology is so celestial and the temptation so great to do everything electronically, even auto-tuning the vocals that musicianship is left in the dust.

I saw something yesterday that blew my mind. My sister gave me the new Harry Connick Jr. lp (which is fair but not great) and right there on the cover is the disclaimer— ‘no auto-tuned vocals on this album’. The reason is obvious, you can be made to sound much better than you in the studio, and even semi-live. I once heard Taylor Swift try to sing ‘Landslide’ with Stevie Nicks…. Taylor was sharp, flat, anything but on key…and uninspiring to boot. I have seen other concerts where she was excellent, but I am suspicious about the degree of auto-tuning and enhancements.

One thing you get from reading the auto-biography of David Crosby is a strong sense of what it takes to be actually a good musician and a good singer and a good songwriter in that genre. CSN created albums ‘live’ in the studio. For example, go back and listen to ‘Almost Cut my Hair’… that was done in basically one take, live in the studio. Roll tape, end of story. Many, many artists today can’t come close to doing that. They can’t play instruments, and some of them can’t even sing. It’s sad. Technology is like the siren song of Scylla and Caribdis…. it’s seductive but it leads to the death of good music and good musical ability as well. There are of course exceptions. John Mayer is a current generation musician who can really play, writes his own tunes, and has a fair but distinctive voice. For every one John Mayer there are vast numbers of other wannabes vibbing off the technology. And unfortunately American Idol and The Voice are not helping with the focus entirely or almost entirely on singing. Get them to learn how to read music and play an instrument first, I say. Then they will understand music itself.

Music is something magical and mysterious. How do those notes on the sheet music turn into something that profoundly moves and even influences you? We will talk more about that in the next post.

  • John Finkelde

    Now I find out that one of my favorite scholars is a classical musician with rock star aspirations! Superb!

    You’re amazing! It’s there anything you can’t do?!?

  • BenW3

    Hi John. There are so many things I can’t do it’s not even funny. Don’t ask me to repair your plumbing,! Ben W

  • Wes Smith

    Dr. Witherington – I really enjoy reading your blog and I enjoy the fact that we seem to have a lot in common: I’m a UMC minister (in the Western NC Conference), I have a deep passion for the New Testament (esp. Paul’s letters), I’m a music obsessive (esp. classic rock, with CSNY, Dylan, and The Band being my favorites), and I’m a lifelong Tar Heel fan to boot…

    Thank you for your ministry and your service to the Kingdom!

  • BenW3

    You are welcome Wes, and keep on rockin with the Rock that doesn’t roll. I miss Western NC. BW3

  • Graeme

    While I understand your perspective that some of the best rock albums ever created were done in single takes by a gifted set of individuals, I think that you might be misinterpreting the reasons for change in today’s pop music. There has always been human error in music, but today the expectation is much higher for perfection in the product that is being produced. Tuning vocals is something that is required not because the artist is poor, but because the expectation is perfection. Because we have the capability to improve music after it is recorded, we do. Professional artists aren’t “auto-tuned.” If correctly done, is a very careful process that requires a gifted engineer to get right. The “auto” tune functionality of these programs often creates a significant amount of error. The change towards more synthesized instruments is not because artists don’t have skill, it is because consumers like how those instruments sound and the feelings they evoke. The reason that so many solo artists today often don’t write their own music and their focus is entirely on their singing, is because to compete with the other top songs in the market they pool from hundreds of songwriters to find their next big hits. As someone who is young and in the music industry, that’s my two cents.

  • BenW3

    Hi Graeme. I mostly disagree with you. If the current audience wanted perfection they would not be downloading songs, which process mostly strips the music of its quality. See the biography of Neil Young and his attempt to develop a process called True Tone, even for downloads. I don’t have a problem with the use of a synthesizer, but not as a substitute for really being able to play non synthesizer instruments. It is in fact true that the technology is too much of a temptation to cheat when it comes to learning how to actually be a musician. I’m also unpersuaded by your last comment. Most artist today know they will not have hits, and it is not their main goal. What is the goal is artistic integrity and creativity. Ccrdially, Ben w.

  • Graeme

    Yes, mp3 quality is quite low and the common consumer these days seems not to care unfortunately. I think I didn’t accurately describe what kind of synthesizers I was referring to. I totally agree with you that using a real instrument is far better than using a synthesizer to mimic the sound of a real instrument. There are many synths and artists that are not trying to do that however, but are creating an entirely new and different sounds. Does this mean they are worse musicians? As an example the group Above and Beyond, longtime English dance music producers use for the most part use entirely sythesized sounds. They just released an acoustic album however demonstrating their music expertise is broader than the genre they have conformed to for so for over a decade. The same song:

    Yes, the vast majority of musicians don’t know they will have hits until it happens. But there are many solo artists, not bands (Taylor swift, Katy Perry, Justin Beiber, etc,) who no longer write most of their own songs but are hitting the charts over and over again.