Manufactured Happiness

What if they were really Milli Vanilli?Several weeks ago a suitcase was picked up at a flea market in Australia that could have potentially been the sort of thing that would have caused the guy on Antiques Roadshow to gush from every orifice: It was thought to contain Beatles memorabilia, including heretofore unheard recordings. The speculation was that the suitcase had been the property of a man who had worked as a roadie for the band, as well as had spent time working in some capacity in the recording studio. He was reportedly killed by police in 1976. In L.A., not Sydney. Subsequently, a “Beatles expert” came to the conclusion that the contents of the case were not “authentic.” While aspects of the story would lend themselves to novelization by, say, Kinky Friedman, it raises another point, this about how musicians are generally perceived by listeners.


Fundamentally, the basis of general perception is a simple one: We are provided with what is, in the parlance of the industry, “produced.” That term is a good one if you consider the associated term: “manufactured.” An object that is manufactured is not natural, not organic. It may most certainly begin with organic elements (though that is not necessary), but those elements are manipulated and processed to become a “product.” That is what we hear. Something that has been manipulated. Somebody—or more likely, somebodies—makes a determination of what music is released to the market. This is no different than the choices made as to what new car appears in showrooms or which new flavor of Sobé appears on the shelves. The product’s release is predicated on an analysis of success in the market. We hear what is deemed most likely to appeal, most likely to sell. In other words, we know the music of (most) performers after an orchestration of controllable aspects of the presentation. What may seem and sound simple and straightforward may actually be the result of extensively baroque efforts.

(Some people may dispute this by citing “live” performances, but the technology of lip synching has been taken to such levels that it often defies sussing by those aren’t actual CSI-style investigators. And does the term “Milli Vanilli” ring any chimes?)

Let’s get back to the case. The suitcase. What if it turned out that the “unheard” recordings, when heard, were, well, shit? What if what we have long considered to be the music of the Beatles was nothing more than George Martin’s engineering of a group of musicians who were not the four whom we thought we have been listening to? What if the whole thing really is a murder mystery with motive?*

It probably doesn’t really matter. Well, at least not from a musical point of view. Every time we put on a disc, turn on the radio, or download music, we are hearing something that has been produced. Does it matter, audibly, if the music comes from a particular person or a specific instrument being played by one? If you answer that “yes,” then the questions that arise are (1) why and (2) how do you know that the source of the music is what you think it is? After all, it would be as easy to create the “sound” of a particular musician or band as it is to make Fred Astaire dance with a vacuum cleaner in a TV commercial. What is it about personas that are so important when we listen to music? Is it the persona or the performance that is important? Is it the music or the maker? Try to separate the person or the band from the experience. It can’t be done effectively. Hearing a “Beatles” song (or any other band, for that matter) performed by another group, even if it is a note-for-note rendition, you will conclude that it is not as “good” as the “original.”

We listen with more than our ears.**

*Imagine the consequences if it was discovered that the “Beatles” really were fakes. The value of their music would plummet faster than a fraudulent Van Gogh. (Think about the fact of art fakes: Even though there is a finite amount of work from any given deceased artist, even though there are countless art majors and curators and auction-house experts, dodgy works have been found displayed on the walls of even the most high-toned institutions.)

**This is not just the case with music. Let’s say that it was discovered that Hamlet wasn’t written by the man whom we have come to think of as “William Shakespeare.” Whether that other person was Bacon or Marlowe, the play would not resonate as well as it does. If it was written by a complete unknown, chances are, outside of English departments, the play would drop from sight in short order.

8 thoughts on “Manufactured Happiness”

  1. Good article Mac; Rock needs more rockcrit philosophers like yourself. Might keep it a little more honest, if the music industry had to take closer looks at itself more often.

    I would argue that it does matter who performs the song, but only on certain levels when it regards a work’s value in relation to the rest of the catalog. What I mean is that “Stay In Time” by Off Broadway is an amazing song whether or not you’ve heard any of their other songs. At the same time, it could have just as conceivably have been done by Gary and the Boners and it would have been a great song. The point is, the group’s catalog is not universally known enough to color opinions of “Stay In Time”. On the other hand, “Sub Rosa Speedway” might be a perfectly fine Klaatu song; it might be an inferior Beatles song.

  2. You’ve got good point. But. What does it matter who wrote an essay about music? We read with more than our eyes, but we don’t need to know an author, do we? Authors can be composites of editing and ghost writers can’t they? Can your work be replicated by others effectively? Perhaps.

    And I suspect you haven’t really read Hamlet or you wouldn’t make such a broad generalization. Hamlet stands by itself as a mighty good work. I’d be pretty contented to have “only” written Hamlet. Maybe Timon of Athens would not be read as much if it weren’t Shakespeare. But not Hamlet. It pretty much can stand by itself.

    I don’t know that all originators need to be identified. But when something is good it’s nice to be able to thank the person that gave it to you. Even if it’s only a little mental meditation on their genius.

    In two hundred years no-one will give a crap that most any of us lived. We might as well say thanks now while we have the chance. It’s nice to know where and to whom to address the praise and/or blame.

    I think what you are saying is mostly appropriate as a sad commentary on how most contemporary music is overproduced to the point that the artist is not at the epicenter of the work. This is easily remedied by staying away from arena rock and spending more time in small clubs to see music performed live. You can’t lip synch in a small bar in North Dakota the way you can in a Target Center or a First Bank Center.

    And while almost all of us can replicate Johnny Rotten’s phrasing on “Problems” or “God Save The Queen”, the fact is that it IS replication, not origination.

    Music, by the way, ain’t a “product” no matter how many corporations want to tell you it is. If you sang in the car today or hummed a tune to yourself while you did chores at home or even made up a tune as you were at your job then that’s music too. But music, like art, is not the spiritual side of business. It’s music and if all the electricity in the world were eliminated in the next minute, two minutes from now somebody would still be making it.

    And, if it were a good song and I heard it, I’d want to know who was singing it. Just to say thanks.

  3. Well, as the Poems of Edward de Vare aren’t bad, and as he is one of the people to whom the works of “Shakespeare” are ascribed, and as no one that I’m aware of has ever actually busted out with a reference to one of de Vare’s poems, I’m sticking with my point about the nebulous nature of “Hamlet.” To be sure, the play itself is wonderful, but is Pierre Menard’s version of “Quixote” as “good” as the original.

    And while I agree that humming a tune can be musical (although I think of the references to the people in “1984” mindlessly humming), my point is that the “product” that is produced is one that is valued in the market and that the maker has a big influence on the perceived value. Another simple example: Have you ever noticed that all of the “manufactured” performers–be they surnamed “Simpson” or members of a so-called “boy band”–tend to be attractive?

  4. Interesting article! This might be way off track, but I was just thinking about the early 1980’s radio hit “They Don’t Know” by Tracey Ullman. This was probably one of the best pop singles from the past thirty years and it’s not even her song (the late Kirsty McColl wrote it). For some reason, it doesn’t bother me at all. I actually like the fact that it’s not her song and that the most she probably contributed was to stand in a studio and sing into a microphone.

    “They Don’t Know” reminds me of the whole Brill Building scene where it was extremely easy to separate the maker from the music. Or the performer from the writer. People will always recognize Phil Spector (writer/producer) but does anyone remember an individual from The Crystals (performers)? I guess in the end, it’s the song that matters.

  5. I certainly think that performance – and therefore ego, persona, costume, character – is part and parcel of music. Recorded music is manipulated into something that someone else has made a judgement(probably, hopefully, several people have made a judgement)upon its quality. Recorded or live performances that ring with sincerity (Bjork’s “Bachelorette,” Guns ‘n’ Roses’ “Sweet Child of Mine”) draw us in and stir everything from nostalgia to wonder. Lackluster and/or forced performances make me want to change the channel, turn the dial or rip the headphones out of my ipod. If The Beatles are a fake, which in my opinion is pretty ridiculous (ahem, see “Let It Be.” Absolutely NOT fake – reality is not that twisted), then their music will stand on its own and the “performers” will be neglected by future generations. We may give the odd nod to the writer, but the true magic is the work. I mean, who gives a flying f about Billy Bob S. and his band of Merry Cohorts. What truly shines is Rosalind’s bossom heaving from the short run to the stage, or Othello’s tortured, ranting epilogues (see poetry slam night at Claire De Lune).

    Ultimately, the important thing is how the work affects us, whether it’s manufactured, produced, concocted, cooked up or spewed from the arse of a cranked up producer. Music is something beyond culture, language, lineage. Music and art are whole other landscapes of emotion and being. If you don’t feel it, it ain’t right. It’s as simple as that.

    Oh, and mindelessly humming is what humans have done for millenia before your Big Brother dreams of a totalitarian narcotic void. I wouldn’t worry too much about it.

  6. >Ultimately, the important thing is how the work affects us, whether it’s manufactured, produced, concocted, cooked up or spewed from the arse of a cranked up producer.

    I don’t think this is the case. If we are affected in a positive manner by something that we think is the result of the effort of X, and then we subsequently learn that X didn’t do it, then we’re probably less satisfied than we had been before. Which explains, in large part, why cover bands–even those that are absolute Rain Men of mimicry–do less than the originals.

  7. I see your point, Mac, but where does that leave bands like The Sex Pistols, or the Monkees? The Pistols were credited with being one of the founders of punk rock (personal opinions aside), but they were just a creation of Malcolm MacLaren, right? This is common knowledge, but it doesn’t seem to shake their rep as pioneers of an entire revolution of music. Or with The Monkees, they were created out of a TV show and were also “assembled” much like the Pistols. Yet, they still have a pretty large following a good 35 years afterwards.

    I think we can all see the line between, for example Motown performers and modern-day Boy bands. Neither of them wrote their own songs, and there was a lot of attention paid to image-creation and generating “hits.” So maybe it’s something a little deeper than that, when I think it can be agreed that “Standing in the Shadows of Love” will be remembered long after “Bye Bye Bye.”

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