The more cutting-edge it sounds, the quicker it’ll date

Written by Nathan Jolly on 29th May, 2018
The more cutting-edge it sounds, the quicker it’ll date

This morning on MAX they played ‘Mama’ by The Spice Girls which — I will freely admit, what with the reed-thin vocals, the sappy sentiment and the feeling of a filler track suddenly being thrust onto the court as a starting-five single — hasn’t held up too well over the past two decades.

But by far the most hilariously intrusive and outdated part of it is the DJ scratches that interrupt the song, inserted as an aggressive attempt to modernise what is a fairly standard pop ballad.

Throughout the ’90s, such DJ scratches infiltrated a lot of pop and rock music. It sounded hip at the time, but nowadays it sounds as hip as… well, the word ‘hip’.

When technology enters music production, it often sounds shiny and new; massive huge sounds that dwarf those rudimentary strummings made by mere human beings. The 1980s was the biggest victim to this, with drum machines robotically marching into play, synth bass tracks which sound like video games, and pop vocals treated with so much echo that I’m pretty sure some of those vocal takes are still bouncing around in a studio somewhere.

While discussing his solo in ‘Power and the Passion’, Midnight Oil drummer Rob Hirst explained it was a way to work with, rather than against the machines.

“It was 1982 and drum machines were entering the music scene and replacing drummers very quickly. They were cheaper and more reliable. It was a time when drummers were throwing themselves off cliff tops. Rather than fear the technological advancement, I thought it might be better to embrace it.  I wondered how I could use it to supplement what I was already doing to make it better. So for the Power and the Passion, I decided to have a drum machine playing in the background on the entire track. By doing this it freed up my arms and legs to add some color to the song, and ultimately allowed for the drum solo which is often sited as the catalyst that makes the song so great.”

The clip is pure 1982, too.

Even when real drums were used during the ’80s, the amount of reverb put on them — for that stadium-sized sound — makes those recordings sound ridiculous nowadays, albeit in a fun, cheesy way.

In 1998, Cher’s ‘Believe’ opened the floodgates for how much auto-tuning can be applied to a lead vocal, and the effect became its own instrument. It now floods hip hop, with most vocal parts swamped in a sizzupy auto-tuned vocoder sound. It sounds fine now, but it will come to define hip hop from a certain era.

Of course, there is nothing wrong with defining a certain time.

The chiming 12-string Rickenbacker at the start of ‘Mr Tambourine Man’ shoots you back to the ’60s so effectively you’ll get hassled by sniffer dogs, while the reverb-soaked drums at the start of Roxette’s ‘It Must Have Been Love’ must make all those with synesthesia see flashes of fluro. These sounds are very effective in summing up a certain era, and are — ironically — often aped by modern musicians aiming for vintage sounds.

But if you are aiming for timeless, stick to tried and true technology.

Or this might happen.

The tickets to Iron Maiden are the only things that remain timeless

The article was originally published on The Industry Observer