Warped Sense of Beauty

My wife and I were just talking about the backlash against photo retouching that is currently happening.  Her point - and I agree because there's a ton of evidence out there to support it - is that we are so bombarded with photos of perfect-looking people from all the retouching that we lose touch with what people actually look like.  I'm working my way through the Scott Kelby book, Light It, Shoot It, Retouch It and it really makes clear how much of an illusion our notion of beauty is.  (By the way, don't get me wrong.  Kelby's brilliant, he's incredibly generous in sharing this stuff, and I learn and use it.  So I'm not arguing that retouching is evil; that's not where I'm going with this.)  Each chapter follows the process of a single photo from lighting, taking the photo, and then retouching it.  When it gets to the retouching stage, he'll remove minor blemishes, fix hair, soften skin, whiten teeth, brighten eyes, etc.  And he has an eagle eye for tiny imperfections that need fixing.  Basically, in perfecting the image he's perfecting the model's beauty.  (And he's not doing any of the more egregious stuff like reshaping features, slimming figures, or replacing body parts.)  When you consider that virtually every photo you see in a magazine or advertisement today has gone through this process - and in many cases much more rigorously - then yeah, it's not hard to see why people develop a warped sense of what beauty is.

I also observe this in music.  Virtually every song you hear on the radio has been sliced, diced, and reassembled with perfect timing, so you never hear the ebb and flow of tempo that a real band does and that sublimely makes a song more engaging.  Auto-tuning has given us a warped idea about what real singing sounds like, and it's created an environment where singers aren't as skilled in general and very mediocre singers become major stars.  Brick wall limiting has created music not only lacks dynamic range, but is also fatiguing to listen to because it's at maximum volume beginning to end with no break.  But over the last 20 years, the loudness war has created a generation of music listeners that perceive that sound as normal.

Even guitars are part of the picture.  Over the same 20 years, I've noticed that guitar amps no longer sound and feel like they used to.  Even though modern amps often try to emulate the sound of the classics,  unless they're painstaking replicas they usually are missing that visceral impact and touch response that good amps used to have.  They have this sort of polished sheen and homogenized response, with all the imperfections and personality removed.  They sound more like a recording of an old Fender or Marshall, than what an actual Fender or Marshall sounds like.  Like a fashion photo, a recording goes through its own extensive retouching process -- through microphones, compressors, EQs, consoles, studio effects, mastering, and so on -- by people who are as fastidious in what they do as any photo retoucher.  By the time it gets played back on a stereo system, an electric guitar sounds quite a bit different.  That sound works great in terms of balancing with other instruments and becoming part of a finished song, but it's a far cry from what the guitar actually sounded like in person.

On the surface of it, an amp that produces a refined, studio-like sound seems like a good thing.  But I don't think it works out that way in practice.  Anybody who loves live music will tell you that the experience of hearing a live concert is fundamentally different than that of hearing a recording of the same event, no matter how well done the recording is.  Part of it is seeing the performers, but there's also an impact and immediacy to the sound itself that just moves you on a different level.  It's raw, powerful, and full of emotion and energy that gets lost in the recording process.  And a lot of these newer amps lose that in my opinion.  They're trying to sound like a record and unfortunately they're succeeding.  Nowadays, live guitar often just doesn't sound all that great in my opinion.  It's smaller-sounding and lacking in dynamics, like hearing a jukebox as opposed to live player.

Worse, when you record these amps and apply studio processing, you're essentially doubling up on that retouching process.  And that can really suck the life out of it.

But we have developed a generation of guitarists for whom, that is what an electric guitar sounds like.  Their concept of electric guitar has been shaped almost exclusively by what they've heard on record and by what their guitar sounds like through these newer amps.  In fact, they might not even care for what a real Fender or Marshall really sounds like; they prefer the sound of the idealized, studio perfected one.

Philosophically, you could argue that all of this is just common evolution in style and that I'm just an old codger railing against progress.  And you might be right.  But I honestly feel sorry for people who've lost the ability to see or hear the beauty of imperfection.  As an artist, I totally understand wanting to remove flaws from your creation; it's a natural and positive tendency.  But being an artist is all about good taste and knowing when to stop.  Because if you overdo it, you're creating the artistic equivalent to Pleasantville and that's probably not what you want.