have already discussed this
Joe Carducci article about the perils of studio-centric music production, and of course both do so excellently (check them out!) so I'll try to keep my comments fresh. My favourite paragraph, as anyone who knows me at all will have already guessed, is this one:
"The only heat R&B, once the hot form, can hope to generate today is freezer burn. (Look at any hip-hop video: The sound is intimate, nearly reverb-free and at psychoacoustic odds with the image of the inevitable wide, high-ceilinged stage on which two dozen dancers are shaking four dozen butt cheeks.) In today's faux-R&B, the Tin Pan Alley pattern of the singles market has interfaced with the modern record industry technocracy completely -- aided and abetted by an increasingly cosmopolitan, increasingly ignorant audience. Indeed, this is an "R&B" that's increasingly sci-fi in its hysterical self-loathing flight from the American earth of roadhouse, kitchen, church, juke joint, whorehouse, etc. (Again, see those videos.)"
This paragraph amuses me because I agree with it completely, and yet fail to see how Carducci can be expressing a negative opinion. Sure, you can draw a comparison between Celine Dion and Destiny's Child and say that the music for both has a certain cold perfection - everything is immaculate and inhuman. But the disgust that Carducci might rightly feel for Celine's producers is misplaced when directed at Timbaland, She'kspere and Rodney Jerkins; Celine's music can be relied upon to be the perfect embodiment of a formula so bland, safe and entrenched in consumer consciousness that it tends to be actively insulting. The "formulas" used by the leading R&B producers however are at their best fresh, experimental and in a way risky. Sure, these guys are biting each other's styles, but they're also constantly slotting in new ideas, new tricks that potentially counteract the flawless nature of the music.
Carducci longs for the element of chance that once informed the recording of rock music - the "live" aspect where if something seemed to work in mid-performance, the band could go with it, rather than being slaves to the click-track and over-dub. I do like the idea of bands allowing their material to breathe; in many ways it's like the band is having an internal dialogue with their own songs, giving and receiving feedback which can lead the music to a closer concept of its most perfect state.
What Carducci perhaps fails to see is that R&B mirrors this feedback process, only on a broader, communal level. In a sense, every "important" R&B single over the past few years (we could say maybe starting with Blackstreet's "No Diggity" in '96) has been a bit of a manifesto, a collection of musical concepts which other producers use as a template for their own work, jettisoning some ideas and taking others further. It's obvious that without Timbaland's pioneering beat programming on tracks such as Aaliyah's "Are You That Somebody?", She'kspere would never have been able to come up with TLC "No Scrubs", but it's also obvious that the vocal-beatbox effects Timbaland used liberally during that period have failed to become a staple of the genre. And She'kspere himself has introduced his own innovations on tracks like Destiny's Child's "Bills, Bills, Bills" and "Bugaboo", creating beats that aren't just syncopated, but are in fact angular and unstable as they threaten to skip over themselves - still, he's already stopped using the now-banal bubbly "whoop-whoop" sounds that were all over his '99 releases.
You might say that all of music, and not just R&B, is built on this kind of communal experimentation, with artists feeding off each other's ideas. The point I'm trying to make though is that there has yet to be (and hopefully never will be) established a firmly enshrined set of guidelines about how to make clinically perfect pop music. The absolute stylistic gulf that exists between Max Martin (Britney's producer) and Babyface should be enough to prove that. Sure, studio-bound music isn't as "fiery" or prone to ill-timed guitar solos as some live stoner rock band might be, but the element of danger, the process of success-through-mistakes is still clearly present within the music, which is part of what makes it all so exciting.
But perhaps Carducci is simply getting caught up in that old red herring: what "rock" is supposed to stand for, and consequently what it is supposed to exclude. Like any staunch believer, he treats the creeping onset of the opposition (pop) as some sort of drug that we must be careful not to succumb to. But if pop is a drug it's not a narcotic, it's ecstacy: mindless, energetic, all-welcoming, and if it's made with the right ingredients it gives you a great buzz.