If there’s one man who can be said to represent cranky old men everywhere, then it is surely Neil Young. The veteran singer-songwriter has had a career spanning over 50 years, and, in that time, he has written some of the most evocative songs of the period. As a result, he is today regarded as one of the most influential artists in the history of popular music, up there with the likes of Bob Dylan and John Lennon.
It is understandable, therefore, that he has a thing or two to say about the digital modernisation of music. What had once been an analogue dream of wood, metal, skin and bone is now an ethereal and electronic pastime without any tangible connection.
Now there’s an endless list of things that Young has gotten pissed off about over the years. If choosing a hill to die on was an Olympic sport, then Young would be Edmund Hillary. But there’s one issue that grinds his gears more than anything — the internet. For Young, the internet has not only destroyed the musical infrastructure, which he helped build throughout the 1960s and ’70s, it is also destroying our brains and our ability to connect to music on a fundamental, human level.
One of the ‘Heart Of Gold’ singer’s biggest qualms with the world wide web is the ubiquity of music streaming. For Young, it represents a “Huge step down from vinyl,” in terms of audio quality. He is likely referencing the fact that the music we listen to through our phones has been compressed within an inch of its life. The result of that compression, for audiophiles, at least, is a significant decrease in the sonic breadth of the audio. According to Young, when you stream a song, you are given roughly “five per cent of the original music for your listening enjoyment.”
But Young’s distrust of the internet is based on more than this seemingly arbitrary comparison between formats. In his view, the internet’s power to change how we interact with music is symptomatic of something far more insidious. As any music technologist will tell you, the act of compressing a song is a way for producers to flatten out the frequency of a piece of music.
In doing so, the producer will often unknowingly squeeze out sections of the audio spectrum — erasing the subtle nuances of the recording that musicians hold so dear. In Young’s view, these imperfections and nuances are what allow us to connect to pieces of music on a human level. It might be the subtle difference between two singers’ vocal timbre or the humidity in the recording studio on the day of recording, all of which are things that are very much tied to the physical world.
The internet, for Young, represents a space in which all features of the physical world have been removed. In listening to music in a vacuum, we detach our brains from a key source of mental development — sensory perception. Young believes that choosing to experience music in this chamber of binary code is unhealthy and a product of a world that is gradually poisoning our minds in the same way that it poisons our food and the ecosystem of which we are part.
Young’s argument is that the internet is just another method by which people can isolate themselves from one another and the world around them, steeping themselves in a pool of on-demand distractions, on-demand culture, and on-demand opinions. In his own words, the internet is an “insult to the human mind and the human soul.”