Grunge, in this context, literally means ‘Dirt’ but it’s interesting to note how often we use words like Grunge, Dirt and Grime to describe musical styles and genres. Perhaps this is because we find cleanliness in art to be unemotional and uninspiring.
The ideas surrounding ‘the beauty of decay‘ are very much entwined with analogue recording and delivery formats. The oxide layer will wear on a magnetic tape over time and the grove in a vinyl will mechanically wear out, eventually. Record covers develop marks, wear, fingerprints — patina — and although some of us try to minimise this by using plastic sleeves, entropy is inevitable. The great Japanese novelist Tanizaki discusses a ‘sheen’ that can lead to reverie and tranquility:
“Yet for better or for worse we do love things that bear the marks of grime, soot, and weather, and we love the colors and the sheen that call to mind the past that made them. Living in these old houses among these old objects is in some mysterious way a source of peace and repose.”Tanizaki
The object itself becomes as important to the experience, as the music contained within. The ‘story’ of where it’s been and who has previously played it, means we often anthropomorphise these objects, imbuing them with a life and even a soul. That connection is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to form with a digital stream. Henry Rollins, interviewed in the book ‘Why Vinyl Matters’ proposes that there is no such thing as digital music:
Digital technology can emulate music and that technology is getting better, but there is no Led Zeppelin on a Led Zeppelin CD. There isn’t a nanosecond of music on any music streaming service.Henry Rollins interviewed in Why Vinyl Matters
Rollins is suggesting that digital is only sampling “reality” in opposition to analogue recording where the oxide particles are so tiny and so many, that for all intents and purposes the signal can be considered continuous and infinitely changeable. However, digital audio does not produce a quantised output waveform, like many people believe it does. These are technical considerations and it is perhaps, more interesting to consider Rollins’ words from a philosophical perspective.
Jean Baudrillard, in his book ‘Simulation and Simulacra’ suggests a “precession of simulacra” where everything in society passes through four phases, the first being a faithful copy of an original and the last is a pure simulacrum bearing no relationship to reality whatsoever.
It is possible to map music across these four phases (sacramental, maleficence, sorcery and pure simulacrum) with the analogue recording being considered a true copy and the mobile phone speaker playing music aloud, usually a low fidelity reproduction of a (data) compressed audio file made from a digital master, approaching the fourth phase of pure simulation.
However, when examining the idea of reproduction we must also consider what makes an original piece of art, original. Walter Benjamin in his work ‘Art in the Mechanical Age of Reproduction’ suggests:
‘… what shrinks in an age where the work of art can be reproduced by technological means is its aura.’Walter Benjamin
These ideas have stuck with me and continue to inform my thought-processes surrounding the practice of recording, producing and releasing music. The idea that a copy can develop its own unique qualities through interaction, use and wear would suggest that a copy can become an original, albeit in a new form and therefore, transcend the procession of simulacra and develop its own aura. Over its lifetime it develops a story that the original does not have.
The most important factor in all of these ideas is us. In our function as collectors, listeners and consumers, it is we who interact with these mediums, we who remember the stories surrounding them and we who recount them to our peers.
Perhaps the patina we celebrate, is not about the object itself. It is instead, a reflection of the imperfect beauty that lies in us all.