A new White Stripes song came on the radio last week. The song itself — a 157-second slice of raw, immediate AC/DC-Queen falsetto disco rawk called “Blue Orchid” — is kinda new, kinda old, kinda weird and pretty great, like White Stripes singles always are. But what may be even more significant than the song itself is the fact that we’re hearing “Blue Orchid” right now, less than a month after it was recorded.
This isn’t the way it usually works. But then, the White Stripes don’t work like other star bands. Their music gets by, as the Zen saying goes, by doing just enough, but never too much: a few instruments, recorded on a few tracks in a few hours for a few dollars. This approach works for them artistically, and in the context of an industry that normally spends millions recording and promoting its stars, it also makes Jack and Meg genuine radicals. Now the band have extended those same values to their method of distributing their music — a process you could call “instant music.”
According to band associate Ben Blackwell, the song was written and recorded on March 10 in Detroit (the vocals finished a few days later), mixed at Ardent Studios in Memphis on or around March 21, mastered in New York on March 28, and immediately delivered to the Stripes’ label (V2). On April 18, “Blue Orchid” was released on iTunes as a 99-cent download. Within minutes, a song with no video, no movie tie-in, no advertising campaign, no TV appearance, no fashion spread, no ring tones, no hype and, most importantly, no payola men or market research, was gaining radio airplay nationwide.
This is exceedingly rare in the major-label rock world, where records get released when labels want to release them, rather than when they are completed. In the past year, Queens of the Stone Age and Sleater-Kinney also have recorded music very quickly and very in-the-raw, but the time lag between creation and distribution was much more than six weeks. And while there are instant records in hip-hop and reggae, they are seldom commercially released, and are heard only by specific audiences in specific markets at specific times. Country music seems more open to instant music: Note all the post-9/11 and pro-war songs that were recorded and quickly aired.
If instant music became more widespread — if more musicians exploited digital technology to decrease the time between music’s creation and distribution — it could signal a positive shift in the pop-culture loop: Musicians could make direct commentary on what’s going on day-to-day in the world, as griots, troubadours and bards did for most of human history pre-phonograph. Instant music also means less hype — and a far less mediated interaction between musician and audience.
Music is powerful. What would happen if the messages in it were radical and immediate, instead of conformist and packaged by the concerns of nameless number-heads and spin hucksters? What if we heard a song in the now,rather than 10 months removed from the setting that shaped it and gave it heat? Of course, some songs are timeless from the moment they’re finished. But some gain significance/richness/power from the audience’s proximity to the creative moment. Just the opportunity to make and distribute music in this way can push musicians to do interesting stuff they might not otherwise do.
The instant-music-for-the-people thing used to happen all the time in rock, especially in its classic, high-moment artistic-and-cultural-impact phase in the mid- to late ’60s, before it got corporately routinized into the Banality With Significant Exceptions situation that we have today. For example: On June 27, 1967, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards were handcuffed and thrown in jail on serious drug charges. Theverynextday,The Who went into the studio and, in a show of solidarity, recorded pointed cover versions of “(This Could Be) The Last Time” and “Under My Thumb.” On June 30, The Who released the songs to radio and stores with the statement: “The Who consider Mick Jagger and Keith Richards have been treated as scapegoats for the drug problem and as a protest against the savage sentences imposed upon them at Chichester yesterday, The Who are issuing today the first of a series of Jagger/Richards songs to keep their work before the public until they are again free to record themselves.”
What happened next: Public outrage grew, the Stones’ sentences were lifted on July 31 by an appeals court, and less than three weeks later, the band released the psychedelic victory song “We Love You,” recorded while the pair were appealing their convictions, with John Lennon and Paul McCartney on backing vocals. Jagger said the song was a “thank-you to fans and supporters for their help during the trial and appeal period.” “We Love You” opens with ominous sounds: a prison warden’s footsteps, the clanking of chains and the distinctive slam-shut of a prison-cell door. It was the sound not just of the loss of personal liberty, but the shutting down of immediacy and freedom, the restraints against movement by chains. Rock & roll represents nothing if not the absolute destruction of chains: the sweet-heat moment of dance action; the moving, trembling, deafening vibration of molecules; the mind-body-spirit reaction to being in the presence of culturally-personally-spiritually-aesthetically resonant sounds and songs. The door to that space has been closed for too long in rock. Perhaps, with “Blue Orchid,” that door is opening again.
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