Monday, June 15, 2009

My Sonic Youth Project, Pt 1

I recently stumbled upon this cultural curio:

So apparently, indie rock guitar pioneers Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo have joined the ranks of Steve Vai, Carlos Santana, Brian May, Zack Wylde and others in sponsoring a line of guitars. This is weird for a couple of reasons. First, most of the guitarists who do this sort of thing are either metal technicians (Vai, Wylde) or classic rock vets with a distinct sound (Santana, May). Either way, they are usually players with chops. Thurston and Lee def do not have chops. Which is not a criticism, simply a statement of fact that they have attested to in their own interviews. SY's chops are demonstrated in the manipulation of sound on their instruments.

Secondly, I feel like buying a sponsored-line guitar is kinda like cheating. If you want to sound like someone, do the research, do the modifications yourself and include all gear (amps, pedals, rackmount fx, etc). For a band like Sonic Youth, whose cultural identity has been built on the concept of indie credibility (DIY, vintage equipment, specific and obscure points of musical entry), giving away the secrets of their hours spent tweaking the electronics of their guitars, (which is critical both to the sound of the band and their aesthetic as players) seems like heresy to their own mythos. Or perhaps they are staking claim to a form of guitar geekdom that has traditionally existed outside of the realm of "indie" music. Their sponsored line is a statement of purpose - "what we do on guitar is as valid as what Eddie Van Halen does".

So obviously, they got paid a shit ton of money to do this. But what are the results? Do the guitars themselves bring clarity to these conflicting issues of authenticity?

My "Sonic Youth Project" is to find the guitars at the capital of guitar geekdom (Guitar Center), play them and report back.


andrew gardner said...

I believe the concept of "selling out" is outdated. Sy and Moore are making a living, good for them!

Evan said...

I didn't use the weighted term "selling out", which while agreed is outmoded, the related concept of authenticity is still very much relevant. Feist can hawk ipods, no problem. But if "1,2,3,4..." were used in a diaper commercial, I think her fans would probably yell foul. So while "selling out" (i.e. association with a corporate entity) is done, authenticity is not. The rules simply depend on the artist. In the case of Sonic Youth, their brand of authenticity is largely based on celebrating obscurity. The issue is not the fact that they are making money off of Fender. It's that they are revealing the sonic alchemy of their craft, which is integral to their allure. We're not supposed to know how they get their sound. It's the equivalent of Aretha Franklin making a vocal technique video. You'd be psyched, but also kinda bummed out about it.

andrew gardner said...

Thinking of it from a tech geek perspective, we are living in "open source" times. More and more projects are collective, bringing together the ideas of many for the benefit of many more. Wikipedia, of course, is an example. . . but Linux, Unix, Ubuntu, arguably strong computer Operating Systems, have also been developed and maintained by dedicated fans. . . for "free".

Continuing from the tech perspective, Apple created the iphone, and in addition they created a developer kit so that fanboy and fangirl programmers can work on applications for the gadget (though, of course. Apple takes a piece of the pie when it sells) Google has done the same, and Palm is criticized for not doing it with the "pre." This way people are developing their own ideas within the structures provided by the corporation. Apple gave away some ideas, but they are still recognized as the source.

So, SY puts their stamp of a fender that "reveals the sonic alchemy of their craft". . . Hell, I learned a great deal from watching a Zach Wilde guitar wanking instructional video, you might argue that he "gave away" his ideas. I'd argue that he was sharing and making a buck in the process. Now that his ideas are out there, I can do what I want with them.

I wonder about a deal with Fender? Do they (like Apple) get a chunk of change for each unit produced, or was it a one time deal? Either way, some kid may buy the guitar and further manipulate it. . . continuing or deviating from the tradition that SY is "promoting".