By Lucy Cage
Beck is releasing his new ‘album’, Song Reader, as sheet music.
As far as I can tell – I haven’t seen it but obviously that’s not going to stop me opining about it – the collection of song sheets will be beautifully designed, printed and packaged in perfect faux-antique/just-a-hint-of-a-wink-to-modernity style; a lovely, well-crafted object that will delight and amuse.
I’m ambivalent about this: viewing the world through sepia-tinted glasses isn’t my cup of Darjeeling and Beck’s choice of aesthetic only lends credence to those who think that the whole enterprise is horribly elitist/twee/smug/precious/backwards-looking and is more about gimmickry than experimentation.
It won’t help that it’s co-published by McSweeney’s, the US literary quarterly/publishing company run by the writer Dave Eggers, Beck’s collaborator in this project. There’s a good case to be made that Eggers’ enthusiastic cottage industry of a magazine was the spark that set off the whole art-as-artefact, tweedgeek, retro-worship some years back; all that lauding of craftsmanship, quality, limited editions… none of which are bad things per se, obviously, but what it’s led to isn’t all good either, politically or aesthetically. Enough of fixed-gear bikes and wicker baskets: where did the future go? Is everyone settling for the pretence of a nebulous golden age rather than fighting to make a badly-needed new future? How does the fetishisation of marketable product – the limited print runs, the limited access – fit in a world of financially valueless, infinitely shareable digital files? Where’s the liberation, where’s the progress, where’s the shine? (Plus, isn’t this precisely one of those things white folk just love to do and write about as if nothing much else existed outside our bubble of cosy joy?)
Oh, who am I kidding?! I’d love to get my hands on a copy of Song Reader; I’ll get over my privileged discomfort. Sod reverse snobbery: mmm, pretty packaging!
According to a recent interview with The Guardian this was a seriously long-term project for Beck; he started thinking about it before the internet age, before MP3 were zipping across the globe, before the music industry as we know it juddered on its foundations with the realisation that the window of opportunity for making money from music by selling it on vinyl or plastic had begun and ended within the space of a century and a half. That particular paradigmatical ship had sunk. Of course, before then music could be sold on paper: back when every aspirational household had a piano to play rather than a radio or a record player if you wanted music, you played it yourself. And before the words cheap and mass-produced were pejoratives, intricately printed song sheets just like the Beck’s used to sell in their hundreds of thousands. Beautiful things don’t need to be small scale.
(There’s no point even trying to measure the relative moral, cultural or even goddamn psychological worth of the way music was consumed then and now; writing it, playing it, dancing to it, sharing it; concert-going or mix-tape-making or streaming or 7-inch shopping or humming it on yer paper-round: different ways and means of playing with music have their virtues and drawbacks. People were huffing and puffing just as much about the awfulness and moral turpitude of the gramophone – how it would kill music and ruin families – when it was first manufactured for home use, just as they did about home-taping not so long ago and do now about file-sharing… Change is inevitable but it certainly rattles cages, usually with solid financial reason.)