“The need for free artistic expression far outweighs the supposed benefits of censoring whatever offends certain people.”
This got me thinking about art and censorship. I have had to see many forms of music (plus other art forms) I love be subjected to demonization, being blamed for the ills of society. We saw such occurrences in the PMRC witch-hunt of metal and hard rock musicians in 80’s at the hands of political gatekeepers, bands being blamed for suicides and murders, and so much more. What I was thinking about, however, was also the root causes for these reactions. This is a music blog, not a political or law blog, so I do not intend to talk about the legality of censorship. Additionally many individuals have made far more coherent arguments against artistic censorship than I ever could (these individuals include Frank Zappa, who makes this wonderful argument against censorship proponents in this heated discussion here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B9856_xv8gc).
What is the source of censorship, namely artistic (more specifically music) censorship? Music seems to, at least in the last 50 years, have been a lightning rod for criticism. Why music and not painting or sculpture? My feeling is that people tend to be afraid of what they do not understand, and since music is always changing, people fail to grasp what it is. Music is a living breathing entity that, quite often, is stagnant in the mainstream. As I explored in this post:
(https://mixolydianblog.com/2013/12/19/mainstream-music-and-the-death-of-creativity/), music is not readily accepted by society because powerful groups make it that way. To quote that article:
“I am inclined to blame more than anyone else the media. It is the media that, on a nearly daily basis, promotes these artists. They may say “oh, we’re just reporting the current trends.” I ask though, who is creating these trends? Only a small percentage of acts spread like wildfire via actions of the people (i.e. Youtube), and even then, such acts require corporate promotion to sustain a lucrative career. Whether we realize it or not, in many ways the powers that be (i.e. record labels, corporations, media outlets etc. etc.) control what is popular. Unfortunately, through implicit and explicit messages through advertising and a cooperation between the media (print/internet/television) and corporate powers (especially record labels), we are told what music will be the future.”
Add in government and anybody else you want to the fray and you will see how certain music is feared, controlled, and indirectly (as well as directly) prevented from reaching the populace. Sure it is present in the underground, in the edges of society, but you won’t see it on TV anytime soon.
Rather than going in a “fuck society” direction, we have to understand that society is made up of individuals. As much as I’d like to believe sometimes that those in charge are cyborgs…they are in fact human beings (…I think), and they are making human choices. Music, really good music, sometimes is so powerful that people don’t know what to do with it. Ideas are dangerous, and music is that much more dangerous due to its ties to all emotional and logical functions of the mind. Music elicits a response that no other art form can even come close to creating.
The thing is everyone has their ethical guidelines, their areas of comfort. My challenge to people is that, when a piece of music challenges your ethics, examine the reasons behind the reasons you give for being offended. Why do you logically feel that this music is so abhorrent that legal action must be taken to stop the listening of this music? Does it expose you to truths you may not be willing to entertain? Whatever the case is, ask yourself, does this music have an audience? Why do you think that is? Do these audience members deserve to have their interests destroyed? You do not have to like the music, but to ask for it to disappear or be forced truly to the darkest corners is far too extreme. Essentially by asking for music (or any art) to be controlled by the powerful is to dilute the mission of art. Art is supposed to make you FEEL, even if that feeling is a visceral reaction.
I will end this post with the hopes that this will generate productive discourse, which I look forward to. In parting I share the words of Kurt Cobain reacting to Nirvana’s In Utero being censored by Walmart and other big retailers.
“I just feel bad for all the kids who are forced to buy their music from big chain stores and have to have the edited music.”
Thom Yorke is a music visionary. Even if you aren’t into what Radiohead does, you cannot objectively deny the influence that the group, especially Yorke’s musical direction and songwriting, has had on various genres. Yorke’s approach to music is adventurous and bold, and even though as the years have progressed his music has grown more avant-garde, he has retained his success. Yorke is also a staunch critic of the music industry, especially the mediums that are responsible for music distribution. Included in his criticisms are streaming services such as Spotify and the “middle-man” mentality in major label distribution. As this is the case, Yorke has sought alternative ways to get his music to the fans (for instance Radiohead’s In Rainbows was released in a “pay-what-you-want format,” as well as Radiohead’s The King of Limbs was released Digital Rights Management free).
And with this all in mind, we arrive at Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes, Yorke’s second solo record. Released on the controversial site BitTorrent, the album is (according to Thom) “an experiment to see if the mechanics of the system are something that the general public can get its head around … If it works well it could be an effective way of handing some control of internet commerce back to people who are creating the work. Enabling those people who make either music, video or any other kind of digital content to sell it themselves. Bypassing the self elected gate-keepers.”
Some reviewers have argued that the record is mediocre, and really more of a way to challenge the distribution system as opposed to making a phenomenal album.
But hang on…it’s now MY turn to review the record.
The way I would describe Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes is that it is for those that are already on Yorke’s musical wavelength. If you don’t like the man’s music, you should probably not start here for a change in your opinion. I would tell you to go listen to some trip-hop, downtempo, ambient, and other electronic/avante-garde styles before you approach this album as a non-Yorke listener. Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes is an electronic, minimalist exploration into a world that can be bleak, as well as incredibly beautiful and unpredictable. The songs are sometimes vocal, sometimes not. All songs on the record explore the phenomenon that is the computer, namely how it can create art. Everything is unconventional, mathematical, repetitive with a purpose, and in many ways haunting on this album.
For me personally this record is right in my wheelhouse. I have explored technology’s ability to create music many times as a composer, not to mention written about mathematics’ relation to music (see here https://mixolydianblog.com/2012/08/06/music-and-mathematics-algorithmic-composition-2/). Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes engages the listener in a relatively short timeframe with as few musical materials as possible. Sometimes it is a looping drum track with jarring electronic tones as Thom explores his falsetto tones. At other times the record explores looping patterns with Steve Reich-esque chordal minimalism on the piano/synth.
I feel like Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes is an exploration into what Yorke wants to do when some of his ideas with Radiohead or Atoms for Peace are scrapped. The whole album is mysterious, like a dream that has many layers (yes…I just made a veiled Inception reference). I think those reviewers (The Guardian, NME, Consequence of Sound) that place Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes in an “average” category are misunderstanding the purpose of minimalism. The finite elements ARE the magic, and this is very much true with this album. My earliest experiences as a composer were shaped by the meditative repetition of the minimalist music made by Philip Glass, Steve Reich and others. There is something profoundly bold in making a piece of music that chooses to explore the notes within the notes, rather than a flurry of notes and instruments invading your consciousness.
Truly the album is worth to me more than the $6 USD price tag, but Yorke is cool like that. He wants you to come into his world, and has made it possible for people on any kind of budget to experience his music. Will BitTorrent releases become more common? One cannot say for certain, but the idea is a refreshing look on how we as music makers fix our broken industry. Beyond the release method, what really matters here is the music (in my opinion it is the main thing to focus on). I have traveled through Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes many times since its release, and I still remain in total wonder at the album.
I highly urge you to give it a chance.
Standout tracks: “Interference,” “The Mother Lode”