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Brandan Lennox's

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My Pet Theory on Popular Music

Kurt Andersen wrote a great article at Vanity Fair detailing how American culture hasn’t changed in the past two decades. He goes into a lot of detail, covering art, fashion, industrial design, architecture, but I’ve noticed this specifically about music, or at least popular music. No genre has dominated music — and consequently style — since grunge and gangster rap in the early 90s.

Some Loose Reasoning

Since the gramophone became the dominant commercial recording format in the early 1900s, popular musical styles have come and gone very nearly with each passing decade:

  • 1920–40: swing dancing and big-band jazz groups, like Lawrence Welk, Duke Ellington, and Count Basie
  • 1940–50: the decline of swing, the rise of bebop and cool jazz (Bird, Diz, Miles)
  • 1950–60: rock-n-roll (Elvis, Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis)
  • 1960–70: hippie and counter-culture rock (The Beatles, The Grateful Dead, Dylan)
  • 1970–80: disco (Village People, The Bee Gees, Kool and the Gang)
  • 1980–90: new wave and hair metal (The Cure, Aerosmith)
  • 1990–95: grunge and gangster rap (Nirvana, Dr. Dre)
  • 1995–present: ?

These are generalizations. Yes, the 70s produced more music than just disco. Yes, rap was around long before Dr. Dre. Yes, pop-punk had a good run in the late 90s.

But I’m looking at Top 40 cultural phenomena. When you think 70s music, you think disco. When you think 90s music (and you’re white), you think grunge. When you think 00s music, you think…of nothing in particular.

What happened?

Further Analysis

When I bring this up, a lot of people tell me that “pop” is the defining genre of the 00s, but that’s some kind of weird recursion. “Pop music” is exactly that: popular music. We only call Ke$ha “pop” because she doesn’t evoke a better description. Other than production quality and vernacular, how different is a Lady Gaga song from a Madonna song from a Gloria Gaynor song? “Pop” is too generic to incite a movement. It’s just furniture.

What else? R&B hasn’t changed. Rock hasn’t changed. Country hasn’t changed.1 Electronic hasn’t changed. And I can’t think of a single genre in Top 40 music today that wasn’t around twenty years ago.

Can you imagine Nickelback on MTV in 1992? Of course. Can you imagine Soundgarden on American Bandstand in 1972? Not one bit.

Theory

Andersen makes several strong arguments in his piece, this being my favorite:

In some large measure, I think, it’s an unconscious collective reaction to all the profound nonstop newness we’re experiencing on the tech and geopolitical and economic fronts. People have a limited capacity to embrace flux and strangeness and dissatisfaction, and right now we’re maxed out. So as the Web and artificially intelligent smartphones and the rise of China and 9/11 and the winners-take-all American economy and the Great Recession disrupt and transform our lives and hopes and dreams, we are clinging as never before to the familiar in matters of style and culture.

As it relates to music, technology has been even more disruptive. Look at this chart from Business Insider:

Graph depicting the decline of revenues in the music industry from 1973–2009

Revenues dropped precipitously around the turn of the century, inarguably because of Napster and affordable high-speed broadband. But Napster was more than just a means of mindlessly stealing songs: it democratized the process of discovering music.

Of the people I know who regularly pay for music — whether it’s from iTunes, Amazon, record stores, or live shows — none of them listens to FM radio. There are so many more sources of music discovery now. You can:

  • shuffle your iPod,
  • subscribe to a podcast like All Songs Considered,
  • browse sites like PureVolume and SoundCloud,
  • listen to playlist generators like Pandora and last.fm,
  • watch independently produced music videos on YouTube, or
  • exist on a social network.

We have such sophisticated artificial and human recommendation engines. Why would you listen to a generic radio station that’s required by contract to rotate the same nonsense day in and day out?

The early 90s were the last stand for Clear Channel radio and big music. Back then, if they decided to make something huge, they could push it to every radio station and MTV affiliate in Western culture. Now our attention is too divided. They can push the songs, but the people who hear them aren’t the trendsetters. Maybe they’ll buy an album or a ticket, or most likely a single, but there’s just no culture behind the music anymore.

Onward

Plenty of artists are still releasing great music. I’m not arguing against that. Some of it even goes mainstream. I just don’t think that we’ll ever again witness a sea change in popular music like we did repeatedly throughout the 20th century, and we’re no worse for it.

Footnotes

Code Hygiene

The second law of software thermodynamics:

Your code tends toward higher entropy. Brandan Lennox, 2012

The Problem

The more code we write, the harder it is to tell useful code from useless code, and the longer it takes to turn the latter into the former.

The Amalgam

These examples all come from our Rails project at work.

  1. For three and a half years, the code, which isn’t public or user-accessible, still contained the default README and an empty doc subdirectory.
  2. We use Workling for background jobs. Mainline development on Workling stopped in 2009, and it’s no longer compatible with Rails 3.1. Same with Machinist.1 Same with Spork.2 Our adoption of a project is a death sentence.
  3. Until recently, we had four separate subdirectories housing executable scripts: bin, script, runners, and utils. Only script is Rails-sanctioned (and necessary).
  4. We have to execute asset precompilation in a custom Rails environment — i.e., we can’t use the production environment like you would expect. I don’t know why. In addition to that, one co-worker recently created his own environment for development. I guess he wasn’t happy with development or production, so he combined the two. So now we have 66% more execution environments than a normal Rails project.3
  5. Speaking of environments, we have a custom initializer for our test environment that adds 10,000 to the current autoincrement value for the id column of certain tables. That’s how we fixed a conflict between Postgres, fixtures, and Machinist. We’ve switched from Machinist to FactoryGirl, but we left that initializer in place because insert reason here.

The Stink

It’s not just a matter of refactoring. I find a lot of code that isn’t even executed anymore. It’s just taking up disk space and attention, but you can’t know that until you spend the time to figure out what it does.

And it’s not just a matter of compulsion. The problems I listed above really do hurt us:

  1. Okay, maybe not this first one, but…
  2. We missed a release date because of a bug in Workling that we didn’t find until the very end of the test cycle. By then, we didn’t have time to replace Workling with a current tool, so we hacked around the bug and released. Is that going to bite us once it’s out in the field?
  3. If I want to create a new executable script, which directory am I supposed to put it in? What’s the difference between a runner, a script, and a util? Who’s executing these scripts, and do they have a good reason for this arbitrary directory layout? Why am I having to make this decision?
  4. Why did someone have to create a precompile environment? How is it different from production? How do we know if a future version of Rails fixes whatever problem we had with asset precompilation?
  5. We spent so many hours fixing problems with Machinist that were never going to be fixed by its developer. But FactoryGirl seems to work fine. Do we still need to futz with these autoincrement values? It slows down our tests and represents a significant break from normal development. Is something else depending on that behavior, or can we get rid of it?

The Cleansing

I need to learn to balance my compulsion for pristine code with my requirement to produce. It wasn’t a big deal when I worked by myself because the projects were small, short-lived, and completely owned by me. Now, it’s not just a poor use of time, but it creates tension between you and me if I’m always rewriting your code without good reason.

In related news, I’m going to start writing a lot more code for myself :-)

Footnotes

  1. Not to mention the selenium environment I recently removed. We haven’t run Selenium directly against our Rails app in at least the two years that I’ve been working there.
  2. Spork 0.9.0 will be compatible with Rails 3.1, but 0.9.0.rc9 was released in June 2011 and somehow still hasn’t made it to final. The last commit on Github was November 8, 2011. Curiously, the only reason I know about Spork was a flurry of activity early last fall. What happened to it?
  3. Stuck in 2.0.0.beta2 since July 2010.

Simple Pleasures

iOS 5 has delivered my most anticipated feature: custom text tones. I can finally hear the Super Mario Kart coin ding every time I get a message:

I found a lot of low-quality MP3s of this sound (and the coin sound from Super Mario Bros., which is different). They all sucked. Thanks to BSNES and Audio Hijack Pro, I created a pristine copy. You can download the ringtone file in MP3 or AAC. 1

Footnotes

  1. iTunes requires the .m4r extension, but it’s plain old AAC.

Hiding Users on OS X Lion's Login Screen

I recently changed my workflow at my job so that all my source lives on my laptop, rather than on an NFS-mounted disk on another server. I simply reversed the flow, so now, that server points to an NFS share on my laptop. It was shockingly easy to set all this up on Lion, but since NFS relies on numeric user IDs rather than user names, I was having problems with permissions. My user over there didn’t have the same numeric ID as my user over here.

My solution was to create a new user on my laptop with the correct numeric ID. Google revealed dscl, OS X’s analog of useradd on other Unix systems:

sudo dscl . -create /Users/brandanl ...

This worked like a charm — except this user was now showing up on the login screen, and I never intend to log in as him. Turns out, I just needed to unset his shell:

sudo dscl . -append /Users/brandanl UserShell /usr/bin/false

Cruft decrufted.

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