Sunday, August 18, 2013

Why Sound City Makes Me Angry

The Dave Grohl-directed Sound City has been praised as a love letter to rock and roll.

It left me seething with rage.

The film chronicles the Sound City studio in the Los Angeles suburbs. Despite the studio's unassuming appearance, many legendary and successful albums were recorded there, including Nevermind. Their success came down to several factors. Magical acoustics unintentionally made drums sound great. A sweet custom recording console afforded producers precise control. The people involved in running the place had great ears for commerce as well as music.

It's when the studio's fortunes decline that things start to turn ugly. Short version: their resolutely analog set-up was incompatible with the growing use of digital recording and production technology, so artists stopped booking there. They were forced to shut.

It's the condemnation of technology and its broader implications that make the movie intolerable. The talking heads are cantankerously retrograde in the view of music: Real music is purely analog. Using a sampler isn't making music. Software such as Pro Tools and Auto-Tune allows people who have no business calling themselves musicians to make music. Watching the narrow-minded white men outright reject any music that didn't meet their strictly-defined ideals made me seethe. It made me resent Nevermind because it framed it as backwards-looking.

Seeing this made me more annoyed about the casual sexism of the place. The highest ranking woman at the studio is fondly recalled for being hot and little else. The beloved rundown atmosphere included a wall covered in porn. Women were hired as secretaries who could be pulled into duty as back-up singers, but men hired as entry-level runners were groomed to become engineers and producers.

People of color got even less screen time than women.

It reminded me of the disco backlash, which wasn't just about musical purity but a backlash by straight white males, especially aging ones, against the rise of music by people who weren't straight, white or male. Then it reminded me of a strain of straight white male conservative Republicans who are bent out shape by the prospect of their reign of unquestioned dominance being challenged. Guess what, fellas, there's more to good popular music than bass, drums, guitar and vocals. And you sound just as cranky as your predecessors did a few generations back when musicians embraced the technology of the electric guitar. A prior generation no doubt decried singers who needed microphones.

It reeks of tokenism, but at least Trent Reznor gets a chance to advocate for technology, recognizing it as a tool that can enable new kinds of creative expression. But he probably only gets a pass because he also talks about playing classical piano growing up, so he still qualifies as a "real" musician.

A member of Black Rebel Motorcycle Club squeezes in a throwaway line about how apps like GarageBand make recording accessible to many more people than in the past. It's because of people like the pigheaded retrograde gatekeepers that populate this movie that GarageBand and its ilk are crucial to the continued revitalization of music.

The hope in making this movie was probably that the audience would run home listen to the great albums made there by Fleetwood Mac, Tom Petty, Johnny Cash, REO Speedwagon(?) or Ratt(???). Instead, it left me filled with the desire to listen to Depeche Mode, Lady Gaga and the Beastie Boys, especially Paul's Boutique, artists who have created great music that embraces technology, music that has looked to the future instead of being trapped in the past.

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