As a guitarist, former thrash head and die hard grunge fanatic I just loved this article entitled, “The Romance and Post-Modernity of the Electric Guitar“, which links love of distortion with a rejection of modernist precision. Here’s some excerpts:
“It’s always been funny to rock fans that critics have been plagued by an inarticulate understanding of the music they love to hate. It just sounds bad to them. It’s a racket, an indistinct chaos. It’s a redundancy of noise. The curmudgeons who reject rock music aren’t interested in listening to it at all. Yet, considered beyond its capacity to spontaneously repel or attract listeners, it’s clear that the soul of rock and roll is distortion. It sounds like a buzz saw, and you either love it or hate it.
The distorted electric guitar is so central to rock music that even serious listeners and musicians are scarcely aware of it as an affectation. Distortion is the sine quo non of rock, which perhaps explains the awkwardness one has in trying to name it and talk about it. It has the same kind of ill-fitting and clumsy names that we normally associate with taboo topics. On the one hand, there are the sterile clinical denominations such as “distortion” and “saturation.” On the other hand, there are the faintly off-color poeticisms like “fuzz” and “buzz.” But it’s clear, especially in our hyper-categorized culture, that it’s probably not rock music in any meaningful sense if the electric guitar doesn’t have the raspy burr of an overdriven signal. Given the overwhelming and long term popularity of rock music, it seems odd that there aren’t more words for this defining feature. To be sure, purists have developed a language of metaphor and simile for variations of distortion, such as “crunch,” “grunge”, “dirty”, and “tinny.” But this vocabulary is nearly as remote and bootless — not to mention annoying — as that of the professional wine taster.
What is it about the sound of buzzing and wailing guitars that causes one generation to gnash its teeth, and another to mosh in the pit? The answer is deeply buried beneath layers of cultural meaning. In her book Natural Symbols, Mary Douglas argues that modernity is a cultural trend away from “condensed symbol systems” toward “elaborated language and signs.” This means that the ways we communicate are becoming more and more concrete and precise. In the modern age, old symbols like the Christian Cross or Motherhood lose their abstract impact as they become loaded with all kinds of apology and explanation and elaboration.
In the post-modern period, it has become a convention to question the wisdom of discarding our old “condensed symbols.” It’s not that we want the old ones back; it’s just that we suspect they want replacing. There’s a growing recognition of the vacuum of meaning left in the wake of technology, industry, and scientific elaboration. Precision of language and ideation is itself criticized as misleading, unrealistic, and unpleasant. Rock music can be seen as a general cultural expression of this reaction. It disputes elaborated systems and modernity’s mandate for precision. The central vehicle of this rejection is distortion.
Of course, “distortion” is a term with negative connotations. It’s often used this way when we speak of someone misinterpreting or misrepresenting the facts.
In music, the term is more neutral. It’s simply a physical effect applied to sound. Distortion is the degradation of a pure signal by the addition of interference, often through a little device called “a fuzzbox.” To illustrate, there are numerous other effects that are frequently applied to the pure signal of electric music. Reverb, wah-wah, and chorus are all good examples of effects which are commonly applied in rock music — as well as country, folk, new age, and even classical music. Most of these other “effects” aren’t so much a “degradation” as an enhancement or an embellishment of sound.
But rock music doesn’t just mimic the sounds of a heavily industrialized city. Through distortion, it represents the deconstruction of industry. In other words, the fuzzbox applies technology to the job of degrading itself. The fuzzbox allows the musician to “make dirty” the normally “clean” signal of an unaffected electric guitar. It intentionally distorts the products of technology, making them less precise, clear, and controlled.
All of these characteristics make rock music look an awful lot like historical Romanticism. The rejection of artifice, the championing of the vulgar, the infatuation with mystery and power, sexuality, aggression, primitivism, and the gothic — all of these elements smack of the nineteenth century’s Romantic movement. It’s typical for art to be critical of political, social, and cultural realities. Romantic art criticized enlightenment ideals which championed “Reason” and “Science” over “Emotion” and “Art.” Romanticism wanted to introduce some fuzziness to the crisp picture of reality that the Enlightenment purveyed. Rock music stands squarely in this tradition.
But rock music has a distinctly post-modern complexion in its use of distortion. Rock music stands in an ambivalent relationship to technology, since it’s dependent on it, while at the same time wary of it.
The metaphysics of distortion suggest that chaos is beautiful, and uncertainty is powerful.”