Sunday, June 8, 2008

“my dinky piece on Jimmy Buffet was replaced with a news feed about Myanmar.”

I held my interview with Nate Chinen in the middle of a traffic jam on the corner of 14th and 9th. We sat at a small cluster of café tables that conjured an adequate facsimile of a park, though Chinen hesitated to describe it as such. The corner turned out to be an appropriate place to meet: book-ended by a three-story Apple store and Google’s New York City headquarters, what was once a playground for “transvestites and hookers” has been transformed by the arrival of technology.

Chinen, a jazz critic for The New York Times, was once a creative writing major slash drummer slash jazz aficionado at the University of Pennsylvania who blindly moved to the city upon graduating. In other words, he did “the typical thing people do with an English major.”

His aimlessness was soon quelled when he was discovered by famous jazz festival producer George Wein. Wein was looking for someone with whom to co-write his memoir, Myself Among Others, and Chinen made the cut. After completing the book, a process that Chinen describes as a “monastic immersion” in the legend’s life, he worked for AOL City Guide and wrote for The Village Voice for about three years. His work was soon noticed by The New York Times, where he has now been writing music reviews for two and a half years.

Chinen believes that The New York Times has taken full advantage of the perks provided by the Internet. Using the “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” mentality, the paper did not fight the omnipotent forces of Google and Blogspot but instead created its own website.

Not only does the website demonstrate a “clear investment in web extras and features in the music department” such as interview and music clips, but they have also developed multiple blogs, which Chinen thinks provides an excellent way to “augment coverage” on a variety of beats. Just last month Chinen attended the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, and though he wasn’t the critic assigned to review the event, he was able to send mini blurbs to The Times’ ArtsBeat blog at 3 a.m in the middle of a concert.

“People are really into blogs because they are so instantaneous,” Chinen says. He discusses one particularly interesting instance in which he wrote a “dinky” blurb about Jimmy Buffet that ended up on the website’s front page, only to be later replaced by a much heavier piece about the Myanmar cyclones.

Chinen could hardly believe that his relatively inconsequential Buffet bit could hold the same place in cyberspace as one of the world’s most devastating natural disasters. But such is the fluidity of the blogosphere, allowing a breadth of varied content to be conveyed to the public twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.

I ask Chinen what he thinks of our culture’s comfortable acceptance of technology’s overwhelming impact on music – the first thing that comes to mind is the clearly synthesized, electronically robotic voice of Britney Spears blasting through the speakers of innocent listeners. However, Chinen prefers to discuss the aesthetic implications that technology, and the way in which it expands musical accessibility, has brought about.

“Music used to be shaped by localities: Memphis blues and Louisiana blues sounded different,” Chinen explains. “Though there is still an element of that in today’s music, intrepid listeners can be influenced by a lot.”

This smorgasbord of musical influences has the potential to blur previously stalwart boundaries separating pop from R&B and classical music from African tribal chants, a development that Chinen “has to think is a good thing, although there are always ways to take technological freedom too far.”

The arrival of the iThings in our technological canon (i.e. iPod, iTunes, iPhone) has allowed people to customize their musical palettes in a way that, prior to the iThings, had never been possible. As recently as five years ago, the radio and MTV still controlled the tunes that reached the easily manipulated ears of the public; today, however, I can avoid the aforementioned Spears by simply creating personalized playlists on my iTunes.

The result? “Taste has become slippery,” says Chinen. “We are no longer in the era of ‘inescapable pop music’ when everyone listened to the same songs – musical taste is less uniform, more fragmented.” It’s true – I don’t even know what’s being played on the radio these days because I plug my iPod into my radio when I drive and listen to my iTunes when I’m in the house.

Again, it’s hard to say whether or not this new “slipperiness” is a stride forward or backwards on the treadmill of pop culture. All I know is that finding a so-wrong-it’s-right YouTube mash-up combining Kanye West’s “Goldigger” with Beethoven’s 5th could not have happened in the Carson Daly-run regime of yesteryear.


dgold911 said...

I don't want to be "too serious" (apparently my comments are).... so LOVE the Kanye West/Beethoven mash up!!

Jocelyn said...

you are really something ms goldstein!