I’ve become interested over the past couple of years in my students’ shrinking vocabularies. It’s just anecdotal, but I fancy that I’ve seen an incredible and radical shrinking up of my students’ words. When I began teaching college students 15 years ago, my students—rightly or wrongly—were embarrassed when they didn’t know a word or couldn’t pronounce it. Of late, though, many of my students don’t even feel the need to feign an understanding of “big” words: lustrous, translucent, pusillanimous. I’ve been keeping a list. I’ve seen numbers used online that say that the average vocabulary of a teenager in the 1950’s was 25,000, whereas now, it’s 12,000. Another report says—and this was a decade ago!—that a the average teenagers’ active vocabulary is down to just 800 words a day.1
And even if, as some critics of the “shrinking vocabulary” thesis say, teenage vocabularies are not smaller, but just different, I’m still concerned. In her forthcoming Wonders of Creation, Kristen Page laments that in 2007 “the Oxford Junior Dictionary removed close to forty words relating to the natural world in order to make space for words describing our more solitary and digital world. Words like acorn, wren, bramble, dandelion, and willow were removed to make way for words such as blog, broadband, chatroom, and MP3.”2 And so, maybe there is no net loss in the quantity of the vocabulary, but there is, as it becomes more and more mechanized, a limitation in its range.
And that’s what bothers me: if you have a restricted vocabulary, you have less access, less ability to “touch” and cope with emotional gradations of being a human being, right?
But what interests me here is if it is possible to restrict our emotional vocabularies by means of the “mechanization” of our music. The Czech writer Milan Kundera once said he couldn’t have written under Soviet control without access to Janacek’s music. Janacek’s string quartets, for example, are complicated, polyrhythmic, and use surprising instrumentation. For Kundera, to resist the monoculture of Soviet propaganda, he thought, he needed access to music that resisted simplistic cultural narratives. He needed access to rich music to get at the emotionally complex lives of human beings.
But what if you consumed, day in and day out, our popular music?
Take, as an example, Calvin Harris and Rihanna’s, “This is What You Came for,” in C Major, with a tempo of 124 beats a minute. It has an astonishing 2.6 billion views on YouTube, even if forty-seven of those hits are mine. The catchy melody is monotonously repeated six times, one time an octave higher, with one modulation to a new key. But in addition to the pounding rhythm and the monotonous melody is the fact that Rihanna’s voice is overwhelmed by the synthetic accompaniment; indeed, her voice was intentionally engineered to take on a more metallic, machine-like. One music critic summed it up this way: “[it] will definitely be a hit; however, by manipulating her voice so much [Harris has] stripped away the personality that made [Rihanna] so compelling. The result is surprisingly soulless.”
The technique to make vocals sound more metallic, to create what one music writer called “robot lust,” entered mainstream music in 1998 with Cher’s “Believe,” when producers manipulated her voice to create a “post-human perfection” by means of Auto-tune. Auto-tune had already been around for a couple of years, designed originally to effect a subtle, pitch-correction—just think of how many office karaoke parties it could have saved! But while working with Cher on the song “Believe,” producers Mark Taylor and Brian Rawling discovered that if Auto-tune were amped up to its highest setting it would hyper-correct the music, rendering a voice “between organic and synthetic, human and superhuman. A voice born of the body but becoming pure information.” And now that sound is everywhere in popular music.
But such a mechanization of the voice is accompanied by other phenomena: the complete collapse of lyrical complexity and the meme of humans entrapped within technological artifice, as depicted in the music videos. Nobel-prize winning Bob Dylan, as Christopher Ricks points out, has insisted throughout his life that his musicality existed merely to point to the lyricality of his songs. If you take away the melody and the beat, some songs collapse, says Dylan, but other songs are revealed to possess a true lyrical core.
In contrast to, say, Dylan’s “Positively Fourth Street,” Calvin Harris’s “This is what you came for” uses only 40 different words throughout the whole song, with particular emphasis on “you” and “oh ho.” As one user on YouTube commented: “I heard the word “you” used, like, 52 times in this song. Anyone else?” Similarly, DirectorX’s 2022 song, “Don’t’ You Worry” for The Black Eyed Peas and Shakira, has a shockingly limited lyrical range:
Don’t you worry bout a thing cuz everything’s going to be all right/ thumbs up vibe/ ready for the night/ lit like a light/ bout to take a flight/ soaring higher than a kite/ look mommy I can fly/ I feel so alive/ I’m living my best life/ do just what I like/ everything will be oooo ooo kay aya ya aya… every day like a holiday/ work hard play hard that’s the only way.
I don’t think I know of a song that is closer to pure propaganda, a memorable tune with a message targeted at a post-COVID world with a serious labor shortage: if you work hard at your tedious job during the day, so that the economy doesn’t collapse, then you can get high at night. The fact that it isn’t government-sponsored propaganda makes it all the more interesting. It shows that we are a market with a predisposed taste for the mechanistically reductive, a music that mechanically hammers home a simplistic lyric. If you’re building a machine, you want as few parts as possible to accomplish as many cycles of production in as little time as possible. That’s become the paradigm for songs, too.
Technology plays a strange role in all of these music videos. “In Don’t You Worry,” the music video depicts a spaceship landing. Sexy cyborgs walk down the ramp and dance on the new planet, until one of them comes to life (you’ll be happy to know, it’s Shakira!). Shakira is wearing a weird, metallic swimsuit: she’s some kind of human-cyborg chimera. But don’t worry: between the artificial manipulation of your neural pathways and the unbelievable robotically stimulated pleasures in the near future, you will “live your best life/ do just want you want.” Rihanna, too, is embedded in a technological grid: in “This is What You Came for” she stands alone, inside a huge white cube, at one point, literally dancing on an arbitrary mathematical grid, made by lasers. The cube is located in a vast natural field, and later in a warehouse. Inside, within the matrix-like cube, images of crowds and natural landscapes are projected on the blank walls. And even Cher, back in 1998, was depicted trapped inside a glass cube, with hands pressed up against the inside of the walls.
It’s all a kind of transhumanist manifesto: the robotic is uploading old human drives and perfecting them in pure metallic “robot lust.” But first of all, we need to restrict the complicated domain of the possible sounds of the natural human voice, narrow down our emotional vocabulary, reduce to a smaller range of metallic pitches the range of possible human vocal sounds. From the gravely voice of John Prine or Johnny Cash, to the bird-like warbling of Ella Fitzgerald and the intentionally off-key notes of Louis Armstrong, or the tonally inaccurate, soul-felt bellowing of pain of Bob Dylan, we have a mechanic cubism, that fragments the natural overtones of music into shards of gradated, step-wise pitches uploaded into a factory-pounding machinescape. Meanwhile, the lyricality is reduced to primitive exclamations of emotion (oh, oh, oh, oh, oh), verbal emojis (thumbs up vibe), or cliched messages that our corporate overlords want us to heed.
But if we go further and contrast the popular music of today with the pop music of the nineteenth century, the differences become astonishingly obvious. Just listen to the first three minutes of Mendelsohn’s Hebrides. True, like Calvin Harris, Mendelsohn does use a repetitive melodic motif, but you’ll notice the difference: every time it is repeated, there is different instrumentation (now horns, now woodwinds, now strings), a key change, a rising crescendo, a hushed decrescendo; and sometimes, the base motif is dropped entirely, but developed by a related but different set of notes, which sets up a triumphant return in which the whole orchestra triumphantly puts forward the crash of the waves with fortissimo effect. Mendelsohn had meant to capture the majestic crash of water against the outer rocks of the Hebrides islands, on the western coast of Scotland. And thus, he works hard include a rich variety of sounds, imitating nature, not machines, to create the sense of great volumes of heavy waters surging, crashing against jagged rocks, and then turning into an iridescent mist of a million drops of spray.
In other words, while Harris intentionally aspires to the sound of machines, and chooses the female voice because it better blends into his machinescape, Mendelsohn has aimed to create an art which resembles the complexity of the natural world.
My Irish ecologist friend tells me that a single Irish oak sustains 400 species of moss, fungus, insects, and wildlife. But now imagine a field full of flowers; dozens of types of flowering grass; root vegetables; shrubs; trees, let alone the insects, birds, creeping mammals; hidden lizards. Mendelsohn’s music better resembles the ecological diversity of untended nature, whose range is infinitely richer than the mechanized.
It’s strange, then, that we find classical music flat and boring. But I’m beginning to wonder if that is in part due to the restriction of our emotional vocabularies, which is due in part to the mechanization of our music. If we’re going to be uploaded into digital utopia, do we first have to be pared down to kilobytes?
2 Kristen Page, The Wonders of Creation (Wheaton, IL: IVP Press, forthcoming).
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