I wanted to post this after having seen Jeff Beck and Imelda May pay tribute to the couple at the Grammys last Sunday. As the Grammys was a live event, I found the overall production/performance of most artists (including Taylor Swift – sorry) at the Grammys to be riveting. Not because the performances were amazing, but because it’s so rare to hear imperfections in the music and media I take in on a regular basis (yes, I don’t get out to live shows often these days). Missed cues, flat high notes, and awkward timing is what makes awards shows so fun to watch – you never know what you’re going to get.
Maybe that’s why I found this particular video of Les Paul and Mary Ford to be so interesting. I understand that in working with a tape recorder, Les Paul and Mary Ford would probably be the first to say that they’ve done countless takes to get things right. That said, if you watch them do a demo of their recording process, there is a clear sense of polish and discipline to their approach that makes it look easy. To me, it shows not that these guys worked harder than people do now, but that they had to out of necessity.
Nothing against current artists (especially Jeff Beck and Imelda May, who sounded great), but generally speaking, I think the rise of recording engineering virtuosity and efficiency has dovetailed with a decline in performance precision. As studios can quickly edit multiple takes together to create a flawless track, it puts less pressure on artists to sound awesome live. Most still do sound awesome live, but I think the change of recording technology itself has driven the changes in performance proficiency.
Finally, not to make an example of Taylor Swift’s poor performance at the Grammy’s, but I think she is a great example of the contemporary successful musician: doing a lot of things well, but maybe not doing one thing amazingly well. She’s been a pretty busy bee, and is more of an impresario than a songwriter. Writing her own songs, yes, but then recording them in the studio, working on the accompanying music videos, appearing on Saturday Night Live, appearing in commercials, not to mention the touring and all the trimmings that go along with establishing a brand. Again, not that Les Paul & Mary Ford weren’t establishing themselves with a multi-pronged approach (I mean, I guess Les Paul did that electric guitar-making thing along with his loop-recording innovations…), but you get the idea. We may sometimes have unrealistic expectations of our stars.