Fighting The Law of Diminishing Returns
The law of diminishing returns holds that one can apply a particular skill or work towards a particular goal, and that after a certain result is achieved, the output of the same effort will decline in yield. To put it as a simple example, you can look at popular opinion regarding the careers of Metallica or U2. Here we have two bands that rose to success on a surge of topical, challenging music, creating some of the best rock records of the last 30 years. The sense of urgency in their early work, their hunger and their passion, is palpable. With their early records, they hooked millions of people to their sound and created a rabid fan base, respectively. And then Metallica released The Black Album, which some people consider the death knell for metal. U2 had their own misstep with Pop, and although both bands have continued to find commercial success, the general critical regard is that both of these bands lost something in the fire, and that each record they release gets them further and further away from what it was that made them great initially.
It’s safe to assume that regardless of popular opinion of these two bands, when they go into the studio to make a record, their intention is to dig deep into themselves and try to create art that reflects the digging. Perhaps they have mined the ore in themselves and that those things inside of them, the powerful voice and the artistic strife, do not replenish.
As music fans and consumers, does this law of diminishing returns apply to the music we hear and connect with? Do we reach a point of saturation and cease to find the spark of enjoyment we once had when we discovered the joy we feel in music? Do we find a comfortable aesthetic rut and stay there? Is this why oldies stations are still around, so that we can scratch at the phantom itch of our youth? It seems that the ease with which we can access virtually any album ever made with the click of a mouse and can transfer dozens, hundreds, thousands of albums from jump drives while we talk to friends over coffee, complicates matters slightly. It seems like this ease of access discourages thoughtful listening and encourages quantity over quality. On the flip side of that coin, do we abandon comfort for a dizzying approach to music listening that leads us down a path where we grow to disdain musical forms, stripping out a connection to melody and rhythm for something else entirely?
What about music criticism? If taste drives music consumption, what of the buzz bands who burn brightly and as quickly as shooting stars through the blogosphere and fade from the collective consciousness without leaving so much as the tiniest lasting mark. Does the speed of information work against our ability to truly discover things for ourselves?
As a musician and a writer, the law of diminishing returns casts its shadow on everything I create. Not in the act of creation, but in the raw, irrational light I cast my work in after I have completed it. As a critic, as well, I find myself questioning my ability to hear anything without applying my own accumulating baggage, and I doubt the work of others for the same reason. But what I think is really scary is the thought of becoming someone for whom music does not move deeply; that in this age, as everything starts to truly rush by in what feels like an ever increasing pace, I will lose the wherewithal to be thoughtful in my consumption of music, and that that loss will leave me in an eventual rut where I will simply pull back from the new and the emergent and build a rickety nest of old records by The Replacements and Steely Dan and Neutral Milk Hotel to hide in. That I might find myself stuck in a hazy state of sentimental song snippets, a widening chasm that carries only echoes.
There has to be balance somewhere, in the comfort of the familiar and the challenge of the new, and I’ve been thinking about the balance alot this week because I came across an album I’ve owned for more than a decade and quite possibly have failed to give the attention it deserves. It’s a compilation by a Cuban doo-wop (who knew such a thing even existed?) group called Los Zafiros. It is a reissue called Bossa Cubana that was released in 1999 and found its way into my stacks as a promo CD, in an unadorned paper sleeve. I listened to it, enjoyed it, and then moved on to whatever cool thing was happening in Chicago at the time.
I pulled it out last week and dusted it off, and I am giving it the attention it deserves. I don’t want to spend a lot of time describing it, because I am trying to just listen to it and let it truly settle into my hippocampus, other than to say that the songs presented here constitute an intoxicating blend of Cuban rhythms and American vocal groups of the 60′s, punctuated by staccato electric guitars and seamless harmonies.
We sow seeds in ourselves when we listen to music. Some seeds we tend and help flourish. Others we let wither and thusly give them back to the great ether of forgetfulness. This week I am grateful that this seed outlasted the drought I imposed on it, and I am posting the record here as penance and as a reminder that just as crops must be rotated to keep cultivated soil replenished, flowers don’t burst forth from soil constantly tilled. Only thoughtful cultivation will yield a bounty.
Los Zarifos – Bossa Cubana
1. Bossa Cubana
2. La Luna En Tu Mirada
3. Mirame Fijo
4. Dichoso Mar
5. Por No Comprenderte
6. Y Sabes Bien
7. Cancion De Orfeo
8. Mi Amor, Perdoname
9. Cuando Yo La Conoci
10. La Caminadora
11. He Venido
12. Puchunguita, Ven
13. Herido De Sombras
14. Si Corazon
15. Mi Oracion
16. Un Nombre De Mujer
17. Canta Lo Sentimental