We live in the loudest of times. It all began about twenty years ago, when new digital technologies started to radically alter the way music was made, refined, and shared. It suddenly became fairly easy to endow songs with a more aggressive presence: with a click of the mouse, you just made it all—especially the quiet parts—louder. Since then, there’s been a debate over the effects of the “loudness wars” on our ability to appreciate nuance, particularly the dynamic range between loud and soft that, in the parlance of audiophiles, gives music the room to “breathe.”
But now that we listen to music everywhere—often in a semi-distracted state, across a range of devices and settings—it should come as no surprise that artists want their music to come pre-coated with a glossy immediacy. First impressions matter. Why not insure that you can’t be ignored?
Think of how many contemporary pop hits sound as if they were being belted from within a jet engine. The quiet parts of a Taylor Swift song buzz more boldly than the brashest moments of a heavy-metal album from the nineteen-eighties. The imperfections that resulted when artists pushed their recordings past peak levels have given way, in pop music, to new techniques, textures, and tastes. It’s just how music sounds now, from the noisy, self-conscious revolt of Kanye West’s “Yeezus” and the distorted crunch that occurs when a pop song hits the chorus to the way that MP3s gleam with a pre-formatted sizzle.