Music in film and television – Mars

Fifth from the left.

I have recently been watching the new National Geographic/Ron Howard TV program Mars. And it is no good. It is an awkward mix of documentary footage and interviews with people like Elon Musk who are working on getting humans to Mars, and tedious melodrama. The acting and the dialogue are clunky and wooden, while the story itself is painted with such broad strokes that all I can see is a barn. Everything is a plot device designed to illustrate the “danger of the week” and its transparency is grating.

The third episode (they’re drip-feeding one a week as if it is something I should look forward too and I am only persisting with it because I paid for it and didn’t realise I’d be made to wait a week at a time to be annoyed and disappointed) is even more boring than the first two.

The concept of lava tubes is introduced in the interview footage, then there is a dramatised scene of the crew looking for a lava tube, then of the team back on earth pressing the point that without a lava tube the mission will fail, then they cut to the pre-flight “interviews” where the crew discusses the lava tubes, then they find a suitable lava tube, then they explain what happened in regards to the lava tube discovery in the previous scene…. you get the picture. The science is dumbed down to sub-History Channel depths so that a cockerspaniel could follow it. For anyone who understands a concept the first time, the 15 subsequent scenes explaining it in 15 different ways are beyond tedious. All the episodes have been like this.

One of my main problems with the series as a whole, are the musical cues. A film or TV show can live or die on the music used. Or not used. Being a Ron Howard production, there is the schmaltz you’d expect. Not least in the soundtrack. The third episode features a visually arresting scene where an astronaut is lowered into a volcano on Mars. The actor is saying her lines about how there is nothing down there. She can’t see anything… she can’t hear anything… yet all the audience can hear is her wooden reading and the maudlin strings swelling behind the scene. If the point is to convey the depth of the oppressive nothing that exists in the blackness of a dead Martian volcano, then why the James Horner* strings? Why not adopt the approach of Buffy the Vampire Slayer‘s “The Body” episode? The lack of music makes the entire 50 minutes an intense television experience. The Birds by Alfred Hitchcock has no music, which adds to its eeriness, and No Country For Old Men‘s almost complete lack of music only adds to the vastness of the Texan landscape and the trouble in which Llewelyn finds himself. A string ensemble that sounds kinda like Titanic/Braveheart/Glory/An American Tail: Fievel Goes West is distracting and removes any tension. The scene could have been utterly terrifying, preying on the human fear of the unknown and instead it’s about as tense as an episode of M*A*S*H.

*James Horner hasn’t actually done the score. I am using his name as a shorthand for tone deaf movie scoring.

Baby boomers and their bullshit music 

Some asshole listening to The Troggs, probably.
Some asshole listening to The Troggs, probably.

Those conceived during post-WWII coitus and inhabit the term “baby boomer” have always had a special relationship with music. With the image of free love and iconic events like Woodstock, the swinging 60s and everything that’s been immortalised in film and literature ever since, the music recorded by artists of this demographic has been revered for decades. Sure, there are some great names to come from this era: Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Marvin Gaye and Aretha Franklin all spring to mind. But it always seemed to me that simply being a band or artist that existed in that time gives them membership to some hallowed hall of artists, regardless of their actual output. Hearing The Monkees spoken in the same breath as Betty Davis, or The fucking Byrds compared to anyone. Them, Yes, Supertramp, and a whole lot of bands and groups who wouldn’t even reach footnote status if they weren’t part of some so called “golden age”.

Conveniently, the baby boomer generation doesn’t include anything approaching hip hop or electronica, which allows those genres to be written off as something lesser. Bob Dylan is famous for his lyrics and the way he used language. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature because apparently he’s so good. Aside from the fact he’s not really an author, is his writing any stronger than someone like Chuck D? Ghostface Killah? Kendrick Lamar? These guys write lyrics that cover many of the same issues, through a different lens and in a different genre, but at least equally eloquently and effectively. Ice Cube’s lyrics about the 1992 LA riots are some of the most insightful and affecting commentaries on that time. Listen to Predator and try to tell me it isn’t evocative.

Of course, I am being deliberately hyperbolic. On that note, here’s why it is time to forget The Beatles.

The Beatles

Compared to today’s musicians, The Beatles sound like they’re drumming on the skulls of defeated foes in the frozen tundra. The Beatles were good for their time. Many people neglect that disclaimer. The Beatles are like Neil Armstrong. The first man on the moon, sure. But other astronauts went and they did it better and more smoothly. The Beatles are pioneers, but in much the same way that early pioneers brought flea ridden blankets, venereal disease and whisky, The Beatles have incurred a debt that many are still paying. Oasis, Travis, Keane and the entire Britpop atrocity is their legacy, as much as any of the decent bands that claim they were an influence. When I listen to bands like Radiohead, Blur, Wilco and Parquet Courts, I don’t hear the influence of The Beatles, I hear bands that have surpassed the creative achievements of history’s most overrated band. In fact, John Lennon’s solo work is streets ahead of his former band’s.

Other tedious musicians whose reputation far exceeds their talent (the short version):

Fleetwood Mac

Joni Mitchell

The Rolling Stones

Simon and Garfunkel

The Doors

David Crosby

Cat Stevens

I also think it is important to make these points before more of these fuckers die and it becomes taboo to speak ill of them.

Apple Music vs Spotify

A little over a week ago I decided to activate my three-month free trial with Apple Music. This was at the expense of my Spotify subscription, which I cancelled for the duration of the trial with a view to leaving permanently if the new service worked out better. My initial impression of Apple Music was one of awe. Awe at the depth of the catalogue, the sound quality, and how easy it was to integrate into my music collection.

635714289525358686-Apple-Music 

I haven’t looked into the technical specs of the sound quality, mainly because I think the numbers don’t matter. It’s my ears that count, not bitrates and whatnot. To me, the sound quality with Apple music is superior. Through the same headphones I used with Spotify, Apple Music’s tracks just sound bigger and more present. Spotify had a tendency to sound a bit tinny and exactly as you’d expect a streaming service to sound. Apple Music has a depth that is almost on par with the music I own and have on my device.spotify

Playlists are Apple’s big selling point, with human curated compilations rather than Spotify’s algorithm calculated suggestions. I have enjoyed the Apple ones and they do tend to be close to what I would generally choose to listen to, but this is also its weakness. They are too good at finding things I would already listen to, while Spotify’s wildly off base algorithm would come up with leftfield things that bore no relation to what I had listened to in the past. That’s not to say that Spotify didn’t present a lot of things that were simply of the same genre or from the same country, but sometimes they would come up with something new and exciting that I would never think to search for. Apple seems to take things I have in my collection and feed me back playlists of their favourite Blur songs, or what they consider to be Wilco’s best, or Radiohead’s “deep cuts” – a term that makes me shudder with embarrassment.

Over the course of the last week, I have discovered that using Apple Music has changed the way I approach my music collection. On my iPhone it requires turning on iCloud Sharing to download playlists and albums for offline listening, but the upshot of this is that everything across the iCloud is then synced to my phone. This is annoying and a flaw. Apple think that they can find everything I have in my collection in the cloud and let me listen to it anywhere, but they don’t have all the records I have. Also, if the naming convention is different to what they have, it won’t work. So I end up with a lot of pale grey songs that I can’t listen to but are bloating my music app. In the end I just turn off the iCloud Sharing and don’t sync to my phone. I am undecided if I will continue with Apple Music as I already find myself missing the set-up I had with Spotify.  The latter made it simpler to see what I had downloaded for offline listening and what i didn’t, ensuring I didn’t waste precious data when I needed to preserve it (usually at the end of the month when my cap was at its limit).

Apple Music has tried to make the subscription music indistinguishable from the purchased music for a seamless experience, and they have succeeded. However, this success has added a layer of confusion that may make me switch back to what I had before. Spotify’s clunky interface and lack of integration are seen as weaknesses, but for me they were important ways to separate the owned from the rented.