I was in the car with my sons, listening to the Beach Boys. I picked some of my favorite songs: “Wendy,” “Girl Don’t Tell Me,” “Let Him Run Wild.” But when I played another track I love, “Wild Honey,” the boys cocked their heads. “Why did they put that out?” one of them asked. The lead vocal sounded wrong to him. Fair enough. Something was off.
Carl Wilson’s performance on that song is not a typical Beach Boys lead vocal. You can hear him reaching for notes, at times barely getting there. There’s vocal strain, unmistakable pitch imperfections. But the Beach Boys, a celebrated vocal group, let that performance stand.
For me, it’s the imperfections that make that recording great. I was a teenager when I first heard it. It gave me the feeling I got from, say, Chuck Berry’s “Maybellene” or the punk rock of Richard Hell and the Voidoids’ “Blank Generation.” Raw, not too well-behaved, stuff that sounded like I felt. Flawed but fully alive. And surely the flaws were where I saw myself reflected. They were recorded at a time when technology was not yet capable of making the kinds of fixes that can be made easily today. But my sons grew up in a digital era, when corrections can be made and usually are.
In most recording situations today, engineers can see music as waveforms, there on a screen. Listening back to what they’ve recorded, they’re also watching the music go by. People often talk about 1980s MTV as the major turn toward a more visual music culture, but the more impactful visual turn came, I believe, when digital recording allowed music to be seen and, as a result, fixed, using the eyes as much as the ears.
When the capacity to achieve something closer to perfection — or to edit out a blemish or select a single image from hundreds — is widely available, most people choose to make the fix. It’s Photoshop’s world, we just moved into it without thinking. Who doesn’t want to sound or look better?
But when music gets cleaned up too much, listeners lose opportunities to connect their imperfections with those in the music, the human traces that might otherwise reach the ear and burrow into the heart. Fewer are the opportunities to hear oneself in the music, to follow the threads that tie the listener to it. The effect is the same when the pumped-up realities we encounter on social media leave people who are feeling their own unfiltered humanness at a distance, isolated.
I’m not suggesting a kind of abstinence — an out-and-out refusal of the fix — but I am arguing for a more conscious balance. We know when we’re trying to make our images or our music look or sound better than they are, and it’s time to consider, on occasion, choosing not to.
I’ve been there myself, in a recording studio, watching as an engineer sees my vocal going past, a little out of tune. Trust me, I’m grateful when he does his thing and makes it “right.” I’m part of the problem of recorded music revealing less and less about the beauty and the emotional possibility surrounding imperfection.
But I wouldn’t want to hear the Beatles’ debut or Stevie Wonder’s “Innervisions” fixed in the way I’m describing here. It would alter the moods, the meanings, the energy, the uneven pace and breath of the things as we’ve come to know them. Sometimes the drums speed up because of a song’s emotion, sometimes a singer’s pitch drifts because that’s where the feeling takes it. If we had made it “right,” as technology allows us to do to a greater and greater degree now, the music would have moved further away from where we live.
There’s a moment in the history of popular music that has, for four decades, stood as one of the greatest examples of an artist choosing to leave a recording unfixed, unfinished, imperfect: Bruce Springsteen’s sixth album, “Nebraska.” It’s one of American music’s great left turns. Mr. Springsteen’s prior release, “The River,” was his first No. 1 album. He was poised to go to the superstar level. Instead, he released a recording too rough to be played on commercial rock stations.
Why did he do it? He told me in an interview for my book about the making of the album that he felt it couldn’t be “made better” and still manage to transmit the turbulence he’d captured. So he didn’t fix what he easily could have. Joel Selvin’s 1982 San Francisco Chronicle review of “Nebraska” is telling: The album “is a stark, raw document, rough edges intact, and so intimately personal it is surprising he would even play the tape for other people at all, let alone put it out as an album,” he wrote. Understand, this was a very positive review.
Many artists look back to “Nebraska” to remember what it sounded like when a major songwriter and performer, at the top of his game, had stories to tell in song that suffered when he went in to fix the recordings that transmitted those stories.
As Mr. Springsteen said to me, “Every time we went in to improve it, we lost the characters.” Their frailty, their humanness, their conflicts and troubles: You couldn’t hear them when he cleaned up the recordings, not in the way Mr. Springsteen wanted them to be heard. So he released the album as it was, flawed. It was recorded on a cheap cassette tape, mixed onto a malfunctioning boom box. And that’s what you heard when you bought it. I wasn’t the only one who wanted to hear it again and again.
As a teenager, I felt like “Nebraska” was telling me a few things, but one of them in particular stuck with me: You can do this, it said. Steely Dan recordings didn’t have the same effect. Same for Toto’s “Rosanna” and the “Chariots of Fire” soundtrack. “Nebraska” was dirty, kind of mumbled in sections, its hushed tones punctuated by a few screams; it told scary stories. But it felt so close to the world I lived in. It was a recording I listened to and never felt left out. There are times when we need that kind of art. I’d say now is one of them.
Warren Zanes is the author of “Deliver Me From Nowhere: The Making of Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Nebraska’” and “Petty: The Biography.” A former member of the Del Fuegos, he teaches at N.Y.U. and continues to write and record music, sometimes with the poet Paul Muldoon’s Rogue Oliphant band, sometimes on his own.
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