On The Prospect Of Acoustic Lies

by Thomas Brett

In his Harper’s (April 2011) essay “Seeing Through Lies”, the English art critic John Berger (author of the classic 1972 book Ways Of Seeing, an exploration of how we look at and experience visual art) discusses the revelatory quality of the late Jean-Michel Basquiat’s artwork, specifically its ability to cut through the noise of our time and communicate deeper truths:

“Confronting his work, or being confronted by it, has little to do with High Culture or VIPs but a lot to do with seeing though the lies (visual, verbal, and acoustic) that are imposed on us every minute.  Seeing those lies dismembered and undone is a revelation”(46).

Before reading this, I had never thought about the idea of acoustic lies.  What does this or could this mean?  Can sound and music actually lie to us–be less than honest and forthright?  If so, how can we know when this is happening?  Can sound and music deceive?  Can we be so deceived?  Is electronically reproduced sound–the sound coming out of your home stereo speakers or headphones– inherently an acoustic lie?  Is the sound of the auto-tuned voice an acoustic lie?  Is any intensely commercial popular music an acoustic lie?  Conversely, what is “truth” in sound and music, and is it connected to that quality so many of find essential: authenticity?   And following Berger, how exactly does great music help us listen through acoustic lies?

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