Photo by Dina Regine

With so many of us getting more into recording since quarantine, it’s recently struck me harder than ever how deeply social-media mentality has seeped into our psyches as musicians. We’ve all been hearing for years how Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, etc. can adversely affect self-esteem, perceived quality of life, and overall happiness. And we’ve all heard how Instagram photo filters have so warped the self-image of pre-teens, teens, young adults, and even old-ass adults the world over that there are plastic surgeons buying effing yachts off money they made mangling some formerly beautiful person’s perfectly normal face to look like a half-space-jackal anime character.

Yet so many of us are blind to how this same manner of thinking affects us in other ways—including how we present our music. Even many who resist the unspoken social-media mandate to post pics that paint “everyday life” as pristine, flawless, and oh so woke, still somehow end up thinking their music shouldn’t see the light of day unless it’s been edited, compressed, noise-gated, and EQ’d to be the sonic equivalent of a nipped, tucked, Botoxed, and Photoshopped “influencer.” We see through the bullshit of YouTube and IG’s soulless shillmeisters, and yet unwittingly embrace their fake, manufactured aesthetic as the ideal. Without even realizing it, we’ve let ourselves be conditioned to think good music in the 21st century equates to robotically unwavering tempos, metronome-perfect timing, and either “flawless” execution or jaw-dropping virtuosity—and there sure as hell better not be any fret or amp noise!

What’s so ironic is that, while expecting these things of ourselves, in the very next breath we’ll turn around and kneel at the metaphorical alter of artists from yore who did none of this. We’ll oooh and aaah and fawn over songs that literally changed the fucking world with their soulfulness, fire, and humanity.

The greatest guitarists of all time laid down legendary performances precisely because they knew vibe beats mechanical precision, hands-down, every time.

We’ll adulate bands, players, and singers whose studio recordings moved and breathed as unpredictably as a living organism, varying together in bpm and instrumental and emotional nuance in ways that would give modern MP3 compression algorithms a panic attack. We’re either oblivious about or completely forget the fact that some of the greatest guitarists of all time laid down legendary performances precisely because they knew vibe beats mechanical precision, hands-down, every time.

Jimmy Page—perhaps the most potent riffer/composer/studio wizard in all of rock guitardom—didn’t let a little flub here and there hold back mind-blowing tunes like “Heartbreaker” and “I Can’t Quit You Babe” (where he stumbles a little in the solos) and ““Since I’ve Been Loving You” (where you can hear John Bonham’s kick-pedal squeak throughout the entire song). Said Page of instances like these in a 1977 interview: “There are mistakes … but it doesn’t make any difference. You’ve got to be reasonably honest about it.” Meanwhile, Eddie Van Halen freely admitted to botching a bit of the tapping in “Eruption”—y’know, that little 1978 ditty that single-handedly obliterated the world’s guitar paradigm?

In a bit of a silver lining, COVID has forced us to reckon with this outlook somewhat. Lockdown has sucked the big one for everyone, especially touring artists, but it’s also found us watching more homegrown guerilla performances from bands and artists we’ve always loved but who’ve had to figure out ways to get their craft out to the world without the aid of their usual backing band, sound person, lighting crew, etc. And admit it—it’s been refreshing to see artists put themselves out there for the world despite the less-than-ideal circumstances, knowing full well the usual recording-studio sheen and/or video-editing magic won’t be making them come across like immortals from another galaxy. Their hair isn’t perfect, they might have a zit or two, their house/apartment/garage looks as shabby as ours, their amps buzz and their guitars don’t always stay in tune or even necessarily sound that great. And it’s important that we realize it’s been refreshing precisely because of these things, not despite them. The trick is going to be holding onto these realizations once we finally get back to some semblance of normality. But, in my opinion, allowing this humanity in our tunes is as important today as it was in rock’s golden age.