Docs of Perception: Visual Records and How We Hear Music

Julianne Escobedo Shepherd | February 2nd, 2011

A still from the author's FlipCam video: Taylor Momsen performing with her band in 2009.

For better or for worse, so much of how we hear music is processed through how we perceive the musicians.

For instance: Clean young Justin Bieber is never meant to be filmed or photographed in anything less than a crystal-clear, super-high resolution, so that we may fully understand and revel in the ungodly perfection of his creamy visage. Never Say Never, the biographical film charting his path from baby drum prodigy to savior of the American economy, is out next week, and in the trailer, even childhood home videos are fairly clear, Bieber having been born in 1994, on the cusp of the age of widely accessible digital video. Blame it on the trappings of technology, but the implication is that the specific essence of a specimen so angelic cannot be captured with anything less than the laser-edge of technology — the images must reflect the purity of the music. Even photographer Terry Richardson, who’s been laboring in the rote trenches of washed-out, high-contrast for years, recently reached a new height in his career through Biebz, capturing his pearly beauty for the cover of Love magazine’s androgyny issue. Mirroring how it takes supercomputers to capture the pure timbre of his singing voice, Justin Bieber is what high-res film is made for.

Stephen Morris in a still from "Joy Division"

But can you imagine watching, say, Joy Division in HD? So much footage exists of that short-lived band, thanks in part to the journalism background of Factory Records mastermind Tony Wilson. All of it seems rendered in washed-out tones, a dreary lens through which to experience their damaged-goods darkness courtesy clunky television cams. In live footage, fallen brethren Ian Curtis is never not grainy; he’s preserved in time as an unreachable brooder, his despondent low voice jarred only between bouts of his jerking dance moves, angular movements thought to have been affected by his epilepsy. Three years after he committed suicide in 1980 — and his remaining bandmates copped synths and started New Order — the first commercial camcorders dropped, offering VHS and Beta options to parents in suburbs and germinating the era of citizen music journalism that would, 25 years later, GRIP THE WORLD (internet). You could say those video-cams were Tumblr’s great-grandparents.

Visual medium — and its quality — shapes our perception of music far beyond time-stamping its technological limitations. I’m neither Luddite nor nostalgist (hate both, actually), but there’s a very special aesthetic aspect to the graininess of those early punk vids, captured on bad cams by devoted fans and documentarians risking conflict with beer or wayward mosher. The scrappiness of old punk flicks, film crapped out with age, is immensely appropriate for the the fuck-all attitude of the music, a sort of ‘70s/’80s sepiatone for the progenitors of the punk wild west.

I recently Netflixed 24 Hour Party People again, spurred mostly by a desire to see how they depicted the early days of rave. I haven’t gotten that far yet (yo, Steve Coogan is mad annoying!), but I do appreciate the way they interspersed archival footage of bands like Sex Pistols with the fictionalized bits on 35 mm — it gives it an air of authenticity and most importantly adds to its energy, the crackling of ancient black and white clips conducting the kinetic tipping point of the tunes. Another film, the recently re-released Don Letts documentary Punk: Attitude, seeks to teach the history and philosophy behind punk through interviews with people like avant-garde filmmaker Jim Jarmusch (who knows from the medium) and Henry Rollins (who apparently thinks your mom is not cool). But where it best attains its goal is through the old footage: provocative Johnny Rotten flashing gleaming sneers, gargantuan Joey Ramone bopping around with an ADD fire under his ass. The most remarkable aspect of this stuff is that even on celluloid (or Beta) the feel of those years is not diminished, its lightning spark of ideation captured forever.

Sometimes those of us whose careers in music criticism predate rampant music blogging grouse about the dilution of the craft (not to mention the dilution of our paychecks). With so many personal tumblrs by ostensibly non-writers and “music dissemination sites” that emptily just throw up a track and keep it moving, there is anxiety that, as an art form, long-form, intelligent criticism is going the way of the magazine (in a toilet shipped in from 1993). While this may or may not be the case, it’s hard to argue against the preservationist value of vast numbers of computer-enabled fan-witnesses capturing historical experiences (assuming they leave their homes). The relatively low expense of tiny portable digital video cameras is augmenting the archives. For instance, if I hadn’t had a FlipCam, how would you be able to see my awesome footage of Gossip Girl Taylor Momsen’s band performing at her birthday party in 2009? The angle might be balls, but as long as the internet exists, future generations can witness the actor who plays her dad in the front row. It is preserved in amber.

Archiving, preserving and translating (yes — criticism!) musical moments like this is important, no matter how raw the material. There’s certainly a constant stream of new punk docs and rap books (a recent favorite) and old dance DJ fanzines (wishful thinking) dropping at any given moment, and each has its place and era that converges its visual elements with its very presence. Each unearthed piece grants us a fuller picture and better understanding not just of the mindset behind the music but of the sociopolitical circumstances that made it happen, the way technology impacts culture, and how we will experience it in the future. The same as the Nightclubbing ladies documented what went down at Max’s and CBGB, or Glenn OBriens TV Party got busy with the artier Soho/Village earlies, little babies today are taking their digicams to MSG or Cake Shop, filming next month’s buzzbands or tearfully faraway shots of Bieber’s coif and footwork. It’s all important. Whether for Altamont style mega-docs in 2032 or for unearthing lost gems we don’t yet know about, history will sort itself out. For now, it’s our technological imperative to stay clicking.