I don’t think James Patrick Page was the first musician to understand the power of sharp contrast in a performance; anyone who has ever heard the entire violin section of a symphony start bowing at once, after a period of silence, has experienced and understood it himself. Page’s insight, rather, was that the recording studio and home reproduction equipment had evolved to a point where what he called “light and shade” could be expressed on vinyl. The early wax cylinders of Edison didn’t have enough dynamic range for “Ramble On”, nor did the average unamplified phonograph of the immediate postwar era. Certainly a single-speaker car radio couldn’t handle it. You need “hi-fi” for a Zep album to truly work.
Incidentally, this is why “Stairway to Heaven” loses much of its punch on the radio: it’s heavily compressed by specialized equipment designed to maintain volume and, consequently, the listener’s attention.
Mr. Page was also not the last artist to understand light and shade. The sophomoric mewlings of bands like Evanescence and Limp Bizkit prove that their long-suffering producers, at least, have a grip on the subject. Modern EDM relies on it as well, as a cursory listen to “Feel So Close” by Calvin Harris will demonstrate. In fact, one could make an argument that the intellectual value of music can probably be approximated by its compression level: a Telarc classical disk would score a 9.9 and Ariana Grande would get a 0.1. If you can listen to “squeezed” music at maximum volume for more than ten minutes at a time, I fear for your humanity.
Which brings us, however awkwardly, to the matter at hand.
In my new capacity as content-company quasi-executive, I’ve been forcing myself to read quite a bit of mainstream writing, both automotive and general interest in nature. Prior to this, I had the luxury of avoiding all that junk. At least a dozen times a week, someone would message me: “Have you read the latest by XXXX at site YYYY?” My answer was invariably “Not even once.” What could I possibly learn about my craft by reading my contemporaries, who were, almost without exception, functional illiterates? When I was in the mood to read, I would pick something by a writer I wanted to emulate, not a word salad from a buffoon I desperately wished to avoid.
That blithe luxury, of spending my airplane or recliner time with Congreve and Steinbeck instead of Oppo and Car Twitter, has now disappeared. (It was replaced by another luxury, of a four-wheeled nature, about which more tomorrow.) Now I’m reading a broad spectrum of auto writers.
Having done so, I could use a broad-spectrum antibiotic.
To recycle Pope’s old insult, most of these folks never deviate into sense. The most you can say about them is that they have mastered the art of duckspeak; subject-verb agreement is beyond their exceedingly modest capabilities but they can effortlessly recite whatever gender-or-race-based neo-orthodoxy has attained the status of current fashion at the moment. That’s fine, I suppose. Forty years ago, the pages of Playboy and Esquire were filled with the hyper-masculine rantings of male writers who, were you to meet them in person, you would surely suspect of having been locker-stuffees rather than the arrogant locker-stuffers described in their prose. If the current situation is an overreaction to that, then perhaps what we are seeing is a gradually-decreasing oscillation that will eventually return us to the archetype of dignified and masculine, yet intelligent and curious, writing exemplified by a Coleridge or a Steinbeck.
Unfortunately for me, one unmistakable trait of today’s genderless authors is something I call
FUCKING FUCKING AMAZING AMAZING
after the two words most commonly found in their prose. Today’s latte was FUCKING AMAZING. The fabric on the city bus seats was FUCKING SPECTACULAR. The pablum served to them via Netflix every night is AMAZINGLY FUCKING AMAZING. Everything is FUCKING THIS and AMAZING THAT.
You’re probably aware of what a BIG DEAL it was when Clark Gable said, “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.” That’s light and shade at work. That’s Jimmy Page hitting you with the riff to “Ramble On”. By contrast, an automotive-related article where the author says some variant of FUCKING AMAZING five times in four paragraphs amounts to this:
There’s a reason Page has a hundred million dollars and that dude is playing the matinee slot at county fairs. You can’t pump up the volume all the time.
With that said, part of the reason today’s auto-twitterati hit the FUCKING AMAZING bell so often is this: They know that it’s offensive to their classically-educated predecessors. Much like the Ramones, they take a sort of twisted pride in not being able to play their instruments, which in this case are the instruments of grammar and structure employed by five hundred previous generations. I’m not so dense that I can’t see that the FUCKING AMAZING style is, just like the endless and meaningless tattoos many of them have drawn on themselves, meant to put me and my Gen-X cohort off our lunch. So we stay away. Their toneless bleating is much like the N.W.A. compact disc I used to blast in my Fox. It says: leave me alone, grownups. We’re FUCKING AMAZING over here.
I hope that some of them will outgrow this phase. We need good writers in this business. I’m willing to wait for some of these kids to clean up their acts. I’ll be watching them, looking for signs of intelligent life. Ah, but what if they never grow up? What if their audience, in turn, refuses to grow up? What will happen when today’s thirty-year-olds never actually get around to discarding their furbabies, throwing away their young-adult trash fiction, and joining society as we know it today?
What if the Millennials arrive at financial primacy without having entered an authentic adulthood, in taste or diction? What will my superannuated ass do at that point to pay the bills? Well, maybe I’ll wind up like Paul McCartney, another fellow who never truly got a grip on the musical nature of light and shade… maybe I’ll be (FUCKING) amazed!