As you’ve probably heard by now, Neil Young recently got on The Vergecast and called the MacBook Pro’s audio capabilities “Fisher-Price quality”. While preparing to discuss my thoughts about this for today’s Mac Geek Gab 800, I decided I probably needed to share them in written form, too. I wasn’t planning on publishing anything, as so many other smart people (Jim Dalrymple and Jason Snell among them) have said all the smart things I thought needed to be said.
But I realized that there’s another angle to approach this from: one of compassion; one of trying to understand where all this comes from. I was never really a Neil Young fan. Quite frankly, I don’t like to hear him sing. I appreciate his place in the history of rock-and-roll, of course, and his songwriting abilities are not-to-be-challenged. I just don’t want to be the one hearing him sing those songs, you understand. Given the rant I delivered on today’s Mac Geek Gab, perhaps there’s not much I want to hear from Mr. Young.
This isn’t the first time Neil has been in the technology news. Years ago, he and famed-producer, Bruce Botnick, were hawking their (now-defunct) PonoPlayer to us music-loving geeks, trying to explain to us why playing music back at bitrates and sample rates far beyond the realm of human hearing mattered. In a conversation I had with him about it at the time, Botnick made liberal use of the phrase, “as the artist intended.” Confirmation bias is really what that was (and is) about: if you believe something sounds better because of some external factor, your brain will actually perceive it as sounding better, and you’ll enjoy it more.
But Neil Young’s most recent comments about the MacBook Pro are more about purity … and relevance. As an aging human who is still lucky enough to be actively aging, I can relate to the concept of relevance! And there are two ways to approach it: waxing poetic (and clinging to!) the things that you did “way back when”, or embracing change and evolving with the times.
Neither of these approaches is wrong, mind you, at least not all the time. Sometimes the only positive thing you can say about the “new way of doing things” is that it’s new and will continue to evolve into something (hopefully) better. If you go in with that assumption, though, you’ll often miss out on the ability to see the benefits of change and evolution.
What bothers me about Neil Young is that he’s a mess of contradictions. His Pono player was all digital, all the time; “state-of-the-art” one might say. One might also say the same about the new 16″ MacBook Pro, as long as that one isn’t Neil Young. To Neil, the MacBook Pro is “a piece of crap … Fisher-Price quality.”
Seriously, Neil? Fisher-Price crap? Nah, man.
When Neil Young was in the studio in the 60’s and 70’s – his golden years, if I’m to intuit his recent ramblings correctly – he was using the state-of-the-art components of the time. On those early records, I would presume that Mr. Young didn’t have much say about the technology that was being used: he was just lucky to be there and have the chance to record his music for others to hear. I dare say that if digital were available at that moment, it would have been used by whatever engineers were recording him: if the engineers at Gold Star and Columbia Studios used a 2019 16″ MacBook Pro to record that album (in 1966!), I am certain Neil Young would’ve equally loved the career and lifestyle that resulted from those recordings being shared with what-would-come-to-be his adoring fans. And he would probably say very positive and even (anachronistically) nostalgic things about that MacBook Pro.
Putting all this together, I feel Mr. Young has conflated his quest for purity with his desire for relevance, finding it hard to let go of the past and adapt to the present. And that’s without getting into the fact that Neil Young certainly doesn’t hear as well as he used to hear.
To paraphrase another great songwriter: I hope Neil Young will remember (no he won’t). This geeky man don’t need him around, anyhow*.
*I hope Neil Young continues to live a long and prosperous life. But if he’s just going to be poo-pooing all new tech that isn’t his, best if he stays out of the limelight when doing so. Focus on the positive, Brother Neil. That has served you well in the past.