[There are only so many music columns one man can write in a week, so while Ezra Ace Caraeff is covering for a vacationing Cary Clarke's Our Town Could Be Your Life (pg. 33), Mr. Tonry will be filling in here on Once More with Feeling.]
Finally I had my answer. I found it on a French website: A video of a guy tearing pages out of a magazine.
I'd been agonizing over it, struggling to explain—both to you and to myself—just where music begins and ends. The question, more simply put: What is music? The answer seems blatantly obvious at first, but technology has blurred the line significantly. Is a guy twisting knobs on a laptop or mixer actually playing music, or simply engaging in something musical? Clearly I've a penchant for performers who play, those who have taken the time (or not) to learn their instruments. The inclination to delineate the groups no doubt has something to do with my own musicianship. But there's something else: When I hold an instrument I feel some tangible connection. I cannot say as much for a laptop. There is no mystery, soul, or allure.
Now—back to the guy ripping pages. He was with Arcade Fire, playing live in an elevator. Un-unplugged. The page-rips were the beat. Then it hit me. What makes music special and worthwhile is the human element—the soul. It's something that can be performed, perhaps in some mangled, distorted, or even retarded fashion, without electricity. Maybe even, in some cases, without instruments.
On the same site (blogotheque.net) the more electro-centric Animal Collective also perform in what looks like a subway. They're beating on the walls, singing, and scraping a stick down a shopping cart. It isn't necessarily good, but it is uniquely theirs. So what happens to bands when their computer crashes or the mixer breaks? Does the show go on? Can the song be played without the effects pedals? What if there's a blackout?
Which is not to say there isn't a place for electro-centric music, or musicality. I love dancing around to Aphex Twin and the Avalanches. So why make the distinction? There are a lot of people out there who don't know the difference. Sometimes they don't know what's really being performed on stage. Perhaps, if one can't tell, it doesn't matter. But I disagree. Stripping the human element perverts the soul of music, substantially lessening the emotional impact. It's all in the subtleties. So screw the backing track—get a bass player. Let the tempos stretch. Improvise. Teach your friend to play. Because the further this goes, the less kids are going to learn to perform real music. And that scares the shit out of me.