Prowess and Cheapening

I.

I had a discussion with some friends in Boston last week that kind of clicked with some ideas that have been in the air around me.

I guess I was the least musically-inclined person involved in the discussion.

Let me sketch out the situation:

One of the songs from Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories starts. One person brings up Daft Punk’s recent interviews showcasing a nostalgia for live instrumentation, and interpreted them as putting down whole genres of electronic music (e.g. Chicago House music) in their praise of “classic”, expensive recording methods. House is an historically accessible genre, ‘cheap’ to develop and rich with its own history and politics (note: I am not deeply familiar with House personally but trust my personal authorities on this).

A little later, as the discussion progressed, another person- a singer, actually- was lamenting the invasion of auto-tune into classical Indian singing- specifically the difficult and ancient art of Raga (Hindustani singing, noted for often fluctuating over what we’d consider to be “unstable” in-between notes) which can be created artificially so that pop stars today can effortlessly emulate what used to take tons of practice.

I must admit that in these particular examples, I did not easily evoke Guardian sentiments about purity and prowess. If I am going to pay $100 to see men compete at ball games, they better be built like monsters and jump 20 feet high. I think for many people, though, the very Olympian sense of “Excellence”, of personal prowess, is easy to understand and is basically a moral sentiment, a purity thing. “Playing Well” is the goal, “Winning” is secondary. “Playing Well” accepts limits and rewards approaching them through struggle- limit breaking is cheating. Transhumanists not welcome.

II.

For insiders in any given activity, really, that search for a more excellence-enabling environment is kind of an ongoing social event surrounding the actual game/activity. Fighting game players denounce “cheese“, the frequent repetition of a sort of dominant move, even when the game rules don’t explicitly disallow it- these are humans basically using social pressure to patch holes unaccounted for in the Official Rules, in order to make the gameplay itself more equitable (and therefore more enjoyable for players and viewers). Strategy game communities have recognized “cheap” strategies that would threaten the honor of the user. Sometimes the game developer will patch the exposed unfairness over, encoding the user’s desires. Other times, experienced “elder game” players may work out and exchange counter-strategies for what might appear to be a dominant strategy used by cheap players.

Rap music (note: I don’t mean to paint myself as a maven on the subject), inspires frequent arguments over the boundaries of the now-sprawling genre. (Here is a fun Radiolab episode on these issues of insiders, social rules, etc with regard to hip-hop). One of my discussants read Daft Punk’s interview as the expression of anxiety for the state of a certain threads of “cheap” music production, (read less charitably, “impoverished” music in maybe more than one sense of the word). The use of auto-tune to emulate an ancient and difficult vocal technique is likewise a “cheapening” that threatens to crowd-out and extinguish its high-end, “all-natural” subject of imitation.

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