Soundbreaking: Stories from the Cutting Edge of Recorded Music Edited by Sandra Choron
When the mode of the music changes, the walls of the city shake.*
—Plato, The Republic
(as paraphrased by Tuli Kupferberg, THE FUGS)
Soundbreaking: Stories from the Cutting-Edge of Recorded Music is the PBS documentary project comprised of over 160 original interviews with artists arranged into eight theme-oriented segments. The slick oversized hardcover book MRR was given to review features biographies “in their own words” of twenty-one artists, performers, producers and engineers, while the TV episodes are organized around developments in recording technology and techniques instead of musical sound, genre or history. BEATLES producer George Martin’s final project, Soundbreaking was not a labor of love, inclusion, erudition or illumination so much as a promotion of artistic individualism and techne. A celebration of artists and their techniques.
The project embodies the 19th century “great man theory” transposed from history to music. From this perspective, unique individuals with natural attributes—superior talents, heroic endurance or transcendent inspiration—come to be highly influential and have a decisive effect on music. Like “great men,” great artists are not made but are born or can be summoned forth by some unique moment in time according to the theory. Instead, they are ultimately the products of their environment. Or as playwright Bertolt Brecht rhetorically asked about the “great men” depicted in his poem “A Worker Reads History”: “He alone?”
So Soundbreaking doesn’t deal with how rock and roll as a musical genre came to be or changed the world, but rather how Les Paul’s novel invention of the solid body electric guitar or Eric Clapton’s “brilliant” use of that guitar changed that genre. This perspective ignores that “great artists” are rife with flaws, contradictions or outright villainy and whitewashes the unsavory aspects of their character. We’re encouraged to disregard that John Lennon was a wife beater, Eric Clapton a racist, Phil Spector a murderous psychopath, Beck a Scientologist toady or Paul McCartney a banal turd because they are “musical geniuses.” Soundbreaking mentions that Elvis Presley and LED ZEPPELIN stole from Black musicians only in passing, thus sidestepping a broader discussion of the historical importance of Black music to rock and roll. In intentionally avoiding any overarching historical or sociological framework—context if you will—what results is a scattershot “hit or miss” approach. All of which means that Soundbreaking is often temporally jumbled, topically muddled and ultimately lacking either an individual or historic pivot.
Before going further, there’s much to be admired about Soundbreaking. Many of its interviews and themes are brilliant, provocative and informative. Its aesthetics are gorgeous, from the archival black and white film footage to the studio quality sound and the elegant coffee table book. The series is full of amusing, stunning, even revelatory moments. For all its shortcomings and boring interludes, the series is riveting and the book collectible. Some artists (Tupac Shakur, Kanye West) and types of music (underground, independent) are barely mentioned. No matter what approach is taken or how comprehensive the intent, aspects are invariably left out (Patti Smith, punk rock). The complaint that Soundbreaking fails to see the forest for the trees still means there are plenty of wonderful trees to enjoy.
Given the sheer volume of information the book and series have to offer, a few examples will suffice. In the category of “genius artists,” numerous musicians marvel at Phil Spector’s “wall of sound” technique, yet nothing is mentioned of how demanding, abusive and egomaniacal the legendary record producer was let alone any broaching of the issues of mental illness or homicide. The interview snippets and chapter devoted to Joni Mitchell, while insightful, fall short. “I’m a painter first,” she says. “ So to me, a producer is completely unnecessary. […] When I began to record, most of the men were very resistant to taking instruction from a woman. And a producer is often a sycophant, a babysitter. If you know how you want to make your house, you don’t need an interior decorator. […] When I got my first record deal I requested that I would not have to work with a producer for personal reasons so that I could continue my experimentation and allow my work to unfold organically.” Her rapturous praise for self-production notwithstanding, Joni Mitchell reveals that sexism in the music industry is the real reason she didn’t want a producer, a subject that is never revisited.
The episode “Sound and Vision,” about the rise of MTV, is a waste, an incomplete portrayal of the profit-driven cable TV channel that presents MTV as trite, derivative and not at all cutting edge. By contrast “The World Is Yours”—the episode devoted to rap, hip hop and sampling—is a true revelation. Denied access to musical instruments not to mention recording studios, record contracts and industry support, rap and hip hop artists used sampling to revolutionize music at the time. Called the “musical equivalent of Adam’s rib,” the art and practice of sampling didn’t just add sound samples to an artist’s song as yet another element of musicality or kind of instrumentation. The artists using the technique intended to make sampling into its own art form, a way to create new songs and original music, and was therefore also a profoundly political act. “Sampling is basically the ability to take a piece of a song and then loop it,” record producer Jimmy Jam says. “You make it go over and over again and then create a new song.”
Culture commentator Jason King makes the connection to politics explicit when he asserts: “There’s a kind of political aspect to the sampling of PUBLIC ENEMY. They were sampling particular artists, particular sounds that referenced the entire history of Black musical materials. They connected the past to the present to the future.” But the music industry, including many musicians, equated sampling with stealing other people’s music despite the fact that “[t]here’s really a limited number of notes and a limited number of chords, and these have all been replayed throughout history” according to record producer Mike Simpson. Unlike individual cases claiming legal harm (SPIRIT v. LED ZEPPELIN, Sean Hall et al v. Taylor Swift), the whole corporate music industry sued rap and hip hop artists for copyright infringement and used both legislation and tracking technology to crush the art and practice of sampling. So, unless you’re a multi-millionaire rapper like Kanye West who can afford to pay exorbitant fees for sampled beats, sampling is illegal.
Soundbreaking’s TV episodes start in the present, jump backward and forward, repeating until timelines are often hopelessly jumbled. Various themes become muddled with too much attention to detail and fascination with minutia, racing to connect all the dots in an episode until the viewer loses sight of the bigger picture. Clear narrative structure frequently suffers. The series hits many high notes, to be sure. But they can’t be sustained because of uneven tone, style and method.
I grew up believing rock and roll was a revolutionary form of music, only to experience my favorite rock songs become soundtracks for car commercials. At the risk of getting mired in an intractable “form vs content” debate, I’d contend that both form and content can be revolutionary but both are easily co-opted. The deliberate dodging of historical and political context in particular means that all these wonderful artists—no matter how “great” or “brilliant” they might be—amount to a loose gaggle of unassociated talent. No one stands out above any other, leaving George Martin—“the fifth BEATLE” who knew and worked with most of these artists—the default pivot of Soundbreaking: Stories from the Cutting-Edge of Recorded Music. Thus life imitates art.
*When modes of music change, the fundamental laws of the State always change with them. —Plato, The Republic (original quote)