The Chronicle Review

Are Liner Notes Dead? Does It Matter?

June 27, 2008

The context for pop music has shifted to the Web.

"It's the pictures that got small," Norma Desmond famously quipped in Sunset Boulevard, when faced with the inconvenient truth that Hollywood had moved on without her. One frequently hears a parallel dismissal of contemporary popular music, but such laments tell us more about the insecurities and hidden emotional investments of the naysayers than about the music that has left them behind.

Popular music isn't diminished — not really. But our experience of it has shifted in fundamental ways. Specifically, we have lost certain markers that used to place it in context for us. Those of a certain age might mistake that loss for the disappearance of context itself, and mourn its passing, but the truth is more complicated and, ultimately, more satisfying.

In one respect, though, popular music certainly is a great deal diminished from when I fell in love with it during the Nixon administration: Even when it's good, it now comes in very small packages. Back then, I could luxuriantly wallow in the full "package" of a rock LP: the 12-inch-by-12-inch front-cover art and back-cover text, and sometimes — in the otiose, progressive-rock days that marked my musical coming-of-age — a gatefold album with another 288 square inches of discursive space inside. The canvas of the LP cover — called an "album" for good reason — spurred both innovative cover art and the proliferation of musical commentary. Indeed, during the 70s, the cover art sometimes eclipsed the music inside. On the progressive-rock scene, the artist Roger Dean (Yes, Gentle Giant) and the design firm Hipgnosis (Pink Floyd, Genesis) developed a look every bit as distinctive as their clients' sounds.

The commentary was distinctive, too, in part because ambitious "concept albums," like all conceptual art, require a good bit of didactic support. For example, Genesis's The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway (1974) was accompanied by a wealth of imaginative photographs and fantastic text by the band's frontman, Peter Gabriel, to shore up the somewhat incoherent story of a Newyorican graffiti artist, Rael, the "imperial aerosol king." To be a fan of this music, as well as the musically more conservative "rock operas" of bands like the Who (Tommy, 1969; and Quadrophenia, 1973) and David Bowie (The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars, 1972), required that one do a bit of studying while the album was on the turntable. The lavish, often beautiful production of those albums made that homework a pleasure.

Intelligent, witty liner notes were an important element. There has been a Grammy Award for Best Album Notes since the first year of the British Invasion (1964), and perusing that list gives a sense of the vital music criticism that has been tucked away in liner notes for many years (and for many years before the creation of that Grammy, of course). The writer Nat Hentoff, for one, virtually built a career as a popular-music critic through his sensitive, incisive liner notes for giants like John Coltrane and Miles Davis, and even wrote the notes for Bob Dylan's sophomore effort, The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan. None of Hentoff's many books on popular music have reached as wide an audience. Arguably, the tight space of the liner note disciplines a writer in much the way the 14 lines of the sonnet or 17 syllables of a haiku do.

But liner notes are not necessarily groundbreaking. Of the 45 Grammy winners, historic and retrospective albums have the edge. Both the 1978 and 1979 awards, for instance, went to the notes for Bing Crosby reissues; for the past five years, the award has gone to the notes for historic reissues of the music of Fats Waller, Jelly Roll Morton, Woody Herman, and John Work III, as well as for the seven-disc Martin Scorsese Presents the Blues. If in their heyday liner notes taught us how to hear new sounds, they now seem more invested in preserving the legacy of the old.

The rich musical context of the record album, with liner notes as its centerpiece, began to shrink with the commercial introduction of cassette tapes in the 1970s. Music lovers never viewed cassettes as a serious rival to LP's, though: The sound was too hissy, the tape mechanism too unreliable, the tape itself too easily ruined. Cassettes were a necessary evil, the only way to program your own music in the car; but for that, all that was needed was a home cassette deck and a box of blank TDK's. The only prerecorded cassettes I've ever purchased featured authors reading their work, for classroom use. A friend bought me a Wayne Newton cassette for my 40th birthday, but the cassette just underscored the joke. I assume the eight-track was out of print.

On the journey from Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville's recently discovered 1860 phonautograph recording of "Au Clair de la Lune" to today's Super Audio CD (SACD), and into our unimaginably high-fidelity future, the cassette was something like a parallel road not taken.

The audio compact disc, on the other hand, has definitively changed the way we consume recorded music. Liner notes are now confined to a four-and-three-quarter-inch square; the cover of a CD is about 16 percent the size of a record album. Thus when boomer rock fans like me refer to new releases on CD as "albums" — indeed, when the Grammys persist in calling their award "Best Album Notes" — our nostalgia is showing. There's nothing albumlike about the new space for commentary; the liner notes for most CD's are no more designed to be read than the warning label on a pack of American cigarettes.

The real genie in the jewel case, though, even more than the smaller packaging, is technology. What is changing the way we acquire, listen to, and read about music is the digital audio format that has made flawless duplication child's play and threatens to put an unresponsive recording industry out of business. The advent of the audio CD not only cut the discursive space of the album to a fraction of its original size: It made possible the exchange of audio files stripped of all context whatever, save the tag embedded in an MP3 file — the file's "metadata" — that includes only the name of the artist and the track, some technical information, and a matchbook-size rendition of the album's cover. While MP3 files enable us to purchase music online in a number of convenient formats, they also can be tampered with, especially in the shadowy gray market of Internet file sharing. That means it's possible to have an MP3 file that doesn't even include the proper name of the artist or track title.

Changes in the format and delivery of music — in both technology and packaging — would seem to have spelled the death of context for contemporary popular music, liner notes being only one element of that context. Our music has become much more a part of our multitasking lifestyle, only rarely indulged in as the sole focus of our attention; more the "furniture music" envisioned by the French modernist composer Erik Satie — meant to be in the background rather than listened to — than the object of my teenage study and obsession.

But the shrinking context of contemporary popular music hasn't been an unmitigated disaster. As the $300 iPod has supplanted the $3,000 amp/preamp/tuner/turntable combo as the locus of musical reproduction, we've gained a lot: An MP3 makes its own context in the many different environments of our everyday lives.

Increasingly, the context for popular music is left to the discretion and initiative of the listener, rather than provided, or imposed, by the manufacturer. That means more work for us; but at the same time, the possibilities are much richer. The best information about popular music always had to be sought out, beyond the album cover — by way of magazines, radio programs, word-of-mouth — and this is more true today than ever. The rock print media, with rare exceptions like Blender, is much impoverished from 30 years ago (the heyday of Rolling Stone, Creem, and Crawdaddy!); but the Web is a gold mine of information and intelligent opinion (on sites like Pitchfork and, for example).

As rich as liner notes sometimes were, and are, they too have built-in limitations: They provide some context, of course, but only for an individual text (an album), and with some more-or-less obvious commercial limitations. The immortal opening line of Greil Marcus's Rolling Stone review of Bob Dylan's Self-Portrait — "What is this [expletive]?" — would never have been printed in the liner notes of the Columbia release (though one can imagine it resurfacing now, as a kind of ironic gesture, in a reissue).

Liner notes build a limited, and often limiting, context; but "off-site" commentary forges a continuing conversation among critics, fans, and artists at some distance from the forces of music marketing. In a way, listeners hungry for context have never had it so good. The aforementioned Ziggy Stardust, for instance, has spawned an incredible Web-based labor of love at, with hundreds and hundreds of pages of analysis, photographs, news, reviews, and ephemera. Certainly nothing approaching this thick description of the album and its era would be possible in traditional print media.

There is good evidence that fans continue to hunger for that kind of context. Dissatisfied with the thin descriptions available for music obtained from iTunes, subscribers have pushed for digital liner notes, in PDF format, that can be downloaded along with album tracks, and something of a grass-roots movement to bring back liner notes is afoot. These notes aren't yet viewable on iPods and other portable music players, but plans are in development; the splash page at reads: "Bringing yesterday's analog experience into today's digital world. Coming soon."

Among the important lessons taught by the late Jacques Derrida — though I don't think he had the average Metallica fan in mind — is the idea that while context is essential to all interpretation, context itself is always a kind of interpretation, always itself part of another, larger context. The point is comically suggested in James Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, when the protagonist, Stephen Dedalus, identifies himself on the flyleaf of his geography textbook:

Stephen Dedalus

Class of Elements

Clongowes Wood College


County Kildare



The World

The Universe

Even the universe isn't the end, the ultimate context, Stephen knows intuitively; "What was after the universe?" he wonders.

In listening to pop music, as in many of the activities of daily living, we have to work to get the context we want. In truth, we always have. If a viable format of digital liner notes becomes available, readable on an iPod, we'll have taken a step back from the brink. But the job of fans and students of music is always to push at the limitations of how music is presented, to provide alternative content to challenge the commercial context. Liner notes, after all, are but one context, one interpretation: It's our job to put them in context.

Kevin J.H. Dettmar is a professor of English and cultural studies at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale. In the fall, he will become chairman of Pomona College's English department. He is author, most recently, of Is Rock Dead? (Routledge, 2006). Section: The Chronicle Review Volume 54, Issue 42, Page B18