The Curse of the Visual

The other day, my wife and I were discussing a basic change in music, one represented by the fact that very few of the younger generation can listen to complex music [anything that contains more than five non-repeating bars and a simplistic rhythm] and the fact that opera, musical theatre, popular music, and even music videos all now require elaborate and often excessive visual effects, and that so much music all sounds alike.  This goes beyond just music.  An ever-increasing proportion of the youthful population cannot listen to a teacher – or anyone else – for more than a very few minutes before tuning out. Just how as a society did we get to that point?

I’d submit that it has occurred as a result of the intersection of two factors.  The first is that sight is the strongest and most rapid of all human senses.  The second is the development of high-level, high-speed visual technology that reinforces and strengthens the dominance of human sight. What people hear, especially human speech, must be heard, translated, and then essentially reformulated. This takes more time and effort than seeing.  The same process exists with music lyrics, which must be heard and then felt.

All of this excessive reliance on the visual has a far greater downside than most Americans seem able to realize.  There’s now a huge effort to persuade teenagers in particular not to text and drive, for example, but so far, at least, the deaths from driving and texting continue.  The transit authority in Salt Lake has asked the legislature to make “distracted walking” a criminal misdemeanor because of the numbers of injuries and deaths involving people absorbed in cellphones walking into the path of light rail transit cars. Almost every school day, my wife has to stop or slow drastically to avoid hitting college students involved in texting crossing streets, oblivious to traffic.

Although a huge percentage of American teenagers have cellphones or the equivalent, comparatively few of them talk for long periods on them. Instead, they text. While there are text symbols for emotions, those symbols represent what the sender wants them to represent, not necessarily what the sender actually feels… and they make misrepresentation far easier.  Just look at how many teenagers, especially females, have been deceived through the internet and texting by people whom they would have dismissed instantly in person.

The entertainment industry has responded to the change in perception by emphasizing the visual. There are now very few if any overweight singers in opera, musical theatre, or popular music.  Popular music tour shows rely as much, if not more, on elaborate lighting, costumes, and pyrotechnics as on singing. Musical theatre has come to rely more and more on spectacle.  Music is becoming secondary to the visual, and complex lyrics are largely a thing of the past, unless occasionally accompanied by a monotonous beat in rap.

In a sense, even ebooks are a part of this trend – words on a lighted page that can be turned more quickly than a printed page, with speed skimming the prevalent and preferred way of reading, rather than an appreciation of depth. More and more, I see comments from readers that indicate that they don’t understand the innuendoes or the allusions in dialogue.  This isn’t surprising, since fewer and fewer young people can actually verbally express complex thoughts conversationally… or apparently want to, since in walking across most college campuses, no one is talking to those around them, but instead walking, hunched over, texting madly.  In fact, it’s so common that one scientific publication noted a new repetitive motion syndrome – “texting neck.”  It’s just my opinion, but when people are texting so much that it creates an adverse medical condition, it’s healthy neither personally nor societally.

Nor is it good for society when people are more interested in the visual appeal of musicians than in their musical excellence.  Nor is it healthy when fewer and fewer people can and will carry on face-to-face in-depth conversations.

But all those are symptoms of the curse of the visual, of overdosing on sight, if you will, fueled by the high-tech wizards of silicon cities across the world, more interested in the profits reaped from fueling the addiction than in the societal and physiological damage created.




16 thoughts on “The Curse of the Visual”

  1. Tim says:

    You raise many points in one blog. I will concentrate on one. You state that people are more concerned with the visual appeal of a musical performer than their musical ability. Why not? In a culture where overeating is a recognised problem for healthcare, is it wrong to promote a healthier image for people in the public eye?

    If there is a musical reason for people needing to be overweight in order to sing properly, then I stand corrected (looking at some tenors, for example).

    The same personal imaging is true in politics, e.s.p in the US where prominent politicians (and their partners) have a gloss which must take hours to prepare. I cannot imagine any ugly person making it to president nowadays, whereas several decades ago, they did – I assume on ability alone. There was also much less in-depth media coverage, which I believe was a good thing. Charisma is the way forward now.

  2. I have no problem with a healthier image. I have great problems with healthy “images” who cannot sing without electronic enhancement and who sell second-rate music on the basis of visual sex-appeal.

    1. Brian says:

      A co-worker and I were talking about this on the same day you posted your blog. I made the following observation: “Ever notice how many pop ‘stars’ prostitute themselves in the tabloids and often dress the part in order to gain popularity by being controversial rather than through their talent. They offer something distracting while they pick their fans’ pockets for 15 song albums where at least 12 are filler and are indistinguishable from each other. Or live concerts that lip sinking is the norm or the vocals are put through one of those machines that enhance it and smooth out the rough edges. Fans are manipulated fools and their money are soon parted!”

  3. Dave says:

    Appearance is (in my opinion) vastly over-rated, but then again I would say that as a self confessed ugly.

    I value Mr Modesitt for his ability to write books which I find enjoyable. His hair colour/style, dress sense etc is of no interest to me other than to hope he is happy with them so he can spend more time writing rather than grooming.

    If more value were placed on content rather than style then I think there would be fewer problems for all.

  4. Thomas R. says:

    This is the reason that books which require you to think to understand what you are reading are not as popular as the so-called romance novels! One of those authors once said there are only a certain number of plots in that kind of story. Once you know the plot lines, you just change the names and locations, and you have another book! That is true escapeism! No thinking required, anymore than you need to think with rap! I do not know of any solution.

  5. StevenH says:

    Your post brings to mind a couple of things. One is that I had recently heard of a study that showed scientifically that music was sounding more and more the same; the same patterns, beats, volume, etc. So that feeling that people have had about pop music all sounding alike has been proven. The second thing is that moviemakers have been emphasizing shorter and shorter cuts when editing, so much so that it’s really hard to determine what’s going on (the Bourne series comes to mind, although in that case it actually made a bit of sense when considering the fragmented mental state of the protagonist).

    Then there is the tendency to read words in print and words on a screen in different ways: words on a screen tend to be skimmed more (and I myself am guilty of this, alas!) It could be that due to the ubiquity of screens nowadays, this is lessening, but the reading comprehension difference between the two styles of reading is at least 25%. You simply don’t get the same comprehension from reading on a screen that you do when reading on a page.

    And then there is the trend towards shorter attention spans, which I think is the real problem in this case. Visual information hits quickly; audio is a bit slower. And we are being trained by the media/Hollywood/politics to jump from one concept to another without a lot of thought. But I also think that there are other, more subtle things going on in society that are contributing to the problem as well, such as changes in education policies, reality TV, public discourse, the way the nightly news is presented, and the rise in mobile devices and the communication restraints they impose.

  6. Joe says:

    Study on modern pop music:

    We prove important changes or trends related to the restriction of pitch transitions, the homogenization of the timbral palette, and the growing loudness levels

    1. R. Hamilton says:

      But aren’t there some counter-trends? Since at least Star Wars, where predominantly non-vocal soundtracks were desired, reasonably complex orchestral themes seem to have fairly well held their own against simpler alternatives. I hardly think that John Williams, the late Jerry Goldsmith, James Horner, etc composed overly simple music. Rather, they tried to match lavish visuals with equally lavish music…and whether people noticed or not, that added impact. Indeed, with the first Star Trek movie (which was over the top on visuals and mostly a re-tread on plot, if with a twist), the music was one of the few saving graces keeping it from being a total bust.

      I’ve also run across some rather creative music for a few TV series over the years: Earth: Final Conflict and Andromeda come to mind (although one of the best of the latter was not on the soundtrack CD).

      So even in the most visually dominated media, nuanced sound still plays a part.

      I _would_ tend to agree that the substance of auditory messages might be lacking. “Duel of the Fates” wasn’t simplistic – but what minute fraction of the audience could be expected to recognize a couple of lines of the Welsh poem “Battle of the Trees” translated into fractured Sanskrit? Clearly, the sound rather than the message was 99% of the objective, even if there was some consistency of content with use.

      As with most deterioration of culture stories, this one seems to me to be overstated (while still pointing out valid criticisms of the changes of the times). Sooner or later, any excess or imbalance leaves a void that creates opportunities, leading to some sort of correction. The correction may not be painless, and perhaps it would have been better had the need for it been avoided. But if deterioration really trended as much as it’s proclaimed, we’d all be in a hell of our own making by now.

      1. Max says:

        Cowboy Bepop has to be included, if we are talking about shows with excellent sound tracks:

        NY Rush:


    2. As I read the article, it concludes that over the past fifty years popular music shows less variety, a growth of repetitive and similar patterns, and increasing volume.

  7. All changes take time, as you’ve pointed out. I don’t think we’ve yet seen the worst of excessive “visualization.”

  8. Mayhem says:

    I do recall playing an interesting drinking game with the trendy new Sinbad series.

    Players had to drink any time the camera cut was less than 6 seconds. Put it this way. We didn’t last long.

    One small counterpoint – in high level gaming, audio cues are often far more important than visual, partly because of the visual overload that tends to happen. There are generally less of them though so they have more impact.
    The development of haptic feedback has had a similar influence in console gaming, where vibration can provide additional signalling capacity.

    I would agree though that the current generation are being conditioned towards faster and faster visual changes, which their brains adapt to and consider normal.
    Older peopl who were conditioned towards picking up subtle variations will naturally find following the changes more difficult, just as the young find picking up on subtlety harder.
    It isn’t their fault exactly, it is the way popular culture has trained their reactons.

    1. Tim says:

      I remember when I visited a friend whose children were playing a complex American football game on their PC. I offered to join in – only the eldest stated that it would be beyond me. He was right. These 11 and 10 year olds had far faster reflexes. And I was then in my 30s and very IT-literate.

      Evolution can hurt.

      To hold on to past values however is also not right. Though I was taught Latin, scientific method and studied without the need for a constant feed of music, should I condemn or envy the youth of today?

  9. MingoV says:

    It isn’t appropriate from a neurological standpoint to conflate visual imagery with reading. Reading requires visual processing, shape decoding, word and phrase recognition, phrase interpretation, and linkage to existing information. It’s a more complex process than spoken language that we are “hardwired” to understand.

    However, I do agree that listening takes a back seat to both seeing images and reading text. I approach this from an educator’s standpoint. Education in the USA has overemphasized reading and underemphasized listening for decades. Students have to listen to their teachers, but that listening almost always is supplemented by text, diagrams, photos, or the students’ own note-taking. Students rarely are required to recite memorized poetry or prose. If they do, they memorize from text rather than from an audio recording. The bottom line is that the old oral tradition is dead.

    I had classmates in college who essentially hand transcribed lectures (nine pages of notes in fifty minutes) and didn’t process any of the lecture information until they read their notes. (I could never discuss the lecture with them until the next day.) When I attended medical school all lectures were taped and transcribed. 98% of the students in my class paid for the transcriptions despite receiving handouts for almost every lecture and despite access to excellent textbooks. When I taught medical and graduate school I provided handouts (for later use), referenced specific pages in the textbook, used visual aids when appropriate, but still observed almost all students taking detailed notes instead of listening.

    I estimate that fewer than 5% of college grads can learn well solely by listening to a good lecturer. It saddens me.

  10. Brian says:

    I’ve turned my back on so called ‘popular’ music’s hyping of style over substance and have searched elsewhere for talented performers to entertain me. One I recommend is Tarja Turunen.

    For her rock projects, Tarja has only been writing her own songs for 6 years now, but has improved by leaps and bounds in this time. She is now producing her rock band’s albums so she can develop her unique sound and not be told what she should sound like (like everyone else, no doubt). The constant throughout the years is her amazing singing voice.

    Since I’m not ashamed to admit that I’m about as dumb as a post when it comes to the technical aspects of music, I’m curious to know if Tarja has fallen into some of the same traps referred to in LEM’s blog and in the above posted link to the article discussing the changes in the last 50 years? As an example, I post her new single from the soon to be released live “Act 1”:

  11. Brian says:

    Believe it or not, when I lived in Waterloo, Ontario, some years ago, I occasionly attended a performance by the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony at Centre In The Square in Kitchener, Ontario. The last one I attended featured Beethoven. I remember passively sitting in the audience. There was no interaction between audience and orchestra, really. We just accepted what they provided. What they offered was quite good, but I was passive. When this genre of music was at its height, regular folks like me simply accepted passively what their betters gave them in society as a whole. That is if they deigned to notice me at all.

    I submit that the complexities of music of the past have been replaced by more simple rhythms and themes because of the DEMOCRATIZATION of society as a whole. Most folks today demand participation in their lives as whole and this has translated into the area of entertainment. Attend a pop/rock/metal concert and the audience actively participates. They sing along, clap their hands, wave their arms in the air, jump around, dance, and/or bob their heads; all with the urging of the artist. This is only possible if the rhythm is simple.

    The world we live in is complex and the solutions to our problems are not simple. When looking for entertainment to give us a break from life’s complications, regular folks like me appreciate actively participating in the simplicity of….play. Yes. Play.

    A note on ‘the visual’. Don’t forget the MTV generation is in charge of most things now. Just saying.

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