What Does It Mean For Music to be Overproduced?
I’ll be talking about music and recording it and mixing it and producing it here, with no knowledge of the technical terminology or theories in those domains. I’m sure people with expertise in that regard will pop up in comments to help. Be gentle.
My girlfriend and I watched the new Alanis Morrissette documentary on HBO recently. The movie was… alright. There’s a Bill Simmonsy feeling to it that I find distasteful, but the footage is great and Morrissette is candid and sweet. They do try to cram a narrative or two in there - there’s this whole diversion about how the members of the touring band needed to understand that Alanis was the draw, not them, but there’s literally no evidence that they ever disagreed - but it’s not as egregious as the Woodstock ’99 doc. If, like me, you were in high school when Jagged Little Pill came out, you’ll probably find it an enjoyable hour and a half.
Like many who have watched the documentary, it has me listening to the album again. I can’t say that I was a big fan at the time, but my older brother loved it and I would often hear him play it. (He is also a big Japanese noise fan, because taste is complicated and no one is the same person all the time.) Also we had like a dozen halfway-decent television channels and not much of an accessible internet at that point so I constantly saw the music videos. I do think, as an adult listener who’s trying to wade through the heavy fog of nostalgia and the album’s one-time omnipresence, that it’s an impressive album, a very good album. It is perhaps the Platonic ideal of a certain cycle concerning popularity and critical esteem. The film presses hard on the angle that Jagged Little Pill was critically derided because it was a girl singing about being mad at stuff. This does not quite fit with my recollection or with a little research into the album’s reception. But I will concede that there was a time when its ubiquity hurt the ambient sense of its artistic worth, as can sometimes happen with popular things. Now, though, the pendulum has swung the other way, and so many people are shaking their fists at the elites who disparaged it and doing a little phony populism that a very good album is being treated as a great one. So it goes.
The strength of the album is its generally excellent songwriting, both Morrissette’s unique lyrics and the unusual, jangly, alterna-pop-rock instrumentals paired with her voice. (A voice which is usually distinct and interesting but occasionally wanders into Muppet territory.) But the weakness is its production, which I have grown to hate. It sounds like, well, the mid-90s pop album Morrissette’s label clearly thought they were making at the time. And it epitomizes what I’m talking about when I complain than a piece of music is “overproduced,” an admittedly vague term that I nonetheless find essential. When I say an album or track is overproduced, I’m saying that the manipulation of the recording, mixing, and producing process is too heavy-handed, too evident; that everything is too clean, slick, perfect, free of noise or error; that there are too many tracks, too many instruments, too many layers; that the song is lost among the artifacts of its creation; that it sounds like it was born in a computer and never left there, whether digitally recorded or not. Overproduced music trades authenticity and immediacy for sonic clarity and pleasantness.
Consider “You Learn,” always one of my least favorite tracks from the album. The documentary contains a demo version that sounded much better to me, at least the snippet we hear, and I went searching for it online. I couldn’t find it, but this unplugged rehearsal version has some of the same qualities as the demo.
Still not a favorite, but it sounds natural, organic, and chill. It’s a low-key track, a little quirky and laid back. And here’s the album version.
Oof. I really hate it, and the production is reason #1. With apologies for my lack of vocabulary in this domain, I hate how the various instruments and tracks seem very separate in the mix, that they’re all so distinctly in a different “plane” than each other. It creates a weird effect where I don’t feel like I’m hearing a band perform but like individual sounds are determined to strike out on their own as a solo act. I don’t have the slightest idea why Morrissette chose to sing/was directed to sing in this exceedingly shrill tone in the chorus, and they add insult to injury by putting that weird effect on her voice, particularly in the opening bars. It’s so clean that it’s grating and the actual tune, inoffensive in the acoustic version, is totally lost in the mixed.
To be clear, I suspect this is all a facet of the time period in which the album was released more than the individual engineers and producers involved. (The previously-mentioned older brother says this album has “90s VH1 drums,” which I think is apt.) Music technology had progressed to the point where it was possible to have an essentially unlimited number of sounds on a given song, and in studio they could produce flawless, glistening, no-human-could-ever-sound-this-way tracks. What’s frustrating is that there were other options available in 1995, if the record company could have been bold enough to see Alanis as something other than a pop princess. Nirvana’s In Utero, famous for the influence of
producer recordist Steve Albini, demonstrates the appeal of stripped-down, somewhat dissonant production. That album sounds raw and real and “close,” so to speak, where so much music of its era sounds intricate and remote and unapproachable. Obviously, I know that Madonna’s boutique label wasn’t going to do a full Albini on an album destined to live forever on Top 40 radio. But I think there was a potential universe in which Jagged Little Pill was made to sound much more organic, imperfect, and dirtier than it does in this one, and I would pay real money for such a thing.
Two key points.
I should say that despite the implication of the term “overproduced,” I doubt that this necessarily means that there is “more” production going on. There probably is more total tweaking and working going on in a more lavishly and lushly produced album than those who are more stripped down and noisy, typically, but that isn’t necessarily the case, and anyway the point is not how much machination is happening total but to what effect.
Less lavish production, more dissonant and dirtier recording, an emphasis on organic sounds and trying to replicate the live music experience - none of this is inherently better. It’s all a matter of matching the production and recording to the artist and song. I don’t want or need a Mariah Carey punk record. (Although I’d certainly listen to one.) But producers should embrace less-is-more as a tool in their toolbox, and one of the problems with this era of music is that cleaner and bigger sounds were typically defined as inherently better, because they were the result of technological progress.
In Utero is an interesting comparison because it was preceded by one of the worst victims of overproduction, Nevermind. That album of course changed the entire popular music landscape, ushering in a definable 90s rock sound and showing a lot of 80s metal the door. But I find it harder to enjoy now, and have listened to that the least of any of their releases, including the live albums and rarities. In part that’s because I don’t enjoy the songwriting as much, but it’s also a victim of terrible overproduction, which Kurt Cobain would go on to call “candy assed.” I have some respect for Butch Vig but he was taking what was a punk band at heart and rendering their sounds as clean and uncomplicated and “big” as an REO Speedwagon album. Another infamous victim of too much production is Let It Be by the Beatles, originally produced by the legendary Phil Spector. It’s a good example of the importance of context; Spector’s famous “wall of sound” approach was perfect for the Ronnettes and the Crystals but drowned out the intimate sounds that album was going for. The original mix of “The Long and Winding Road” is a testament to the horrors of overproduction.
that brass 🤮
Sadly the Let It Be… Naked version reveals a sickly-sounding electric piano, the kind of sound that anticipated some of the worst trends of the 1970s and which renders Let It Be their worst album, despite the welcome contribution of Billy Preston. Production and mixing have their limits, defined by the songwriting and instrumental choices made, although there are some cover versions of “The Long and Winding Road” that sound good without the bad instrumentals in the originals. But the Beatles did great things with very grand production (Sgt Pepper) and much more limited production (Help!) and both in the same album (the White Album). Like I said, it’s all about matching a sound to a project.
Genre of course has its say in what makes sense, production-wise. Punk’s ethos is stripped down and raw, as well as obsessive with doing it yourself, so it’s no wonder so many punk albums sound like they were recorded with a four track in a bathroom. In contrast I don’t expect Adele to invite Spot to record anytime soon. And it’s not clear to me what it might mean to say that certain kinds of computer-based music sounds overproduced, as that kind of music essentially exists only in the mix. (I wouldn’t call a Girl Talk album overproduced, for instance.) But you’d be surprised at how much room there is to play here. A lot of contemporary hip hop sounds overproduced to me, but there are alternatives. Wu Tang exploded when it did in part because RZA’s spooky sound stood in such contrast to the operatic, whistling beats that Death Row had popularized. (Liquid Swords is the epitome of RZA’s aesthetic and, perhaps, the best rap album ever made.) While I would not call Young Fathers a hip hop group in a simplistic sense, they are certainly at least hip hop influenced, and they’ve been doing really interesting things with lo-fi sounds in that space.
And obviously production can be tuned to a specific album rather than an artist or genre. My favorite band of all time, Boris, has done this throughout their long and extremely prolific career. The lush sounds of the 2011 Heavy Rocks matches that album’s spaciness and shoegaze-metal construction, but 2020’s No is stripped down and minimalist in its recording, in fitting with its hardcore soul. I’m sure there will be many comparisons and contrasts suggested in the comments.
I still quite enjoy Jagged Little Pill, although it has some snoozers on there. Over time I’ve come to see “All I Really Want” as the best track, despite being the last-released single and a song not typically thought of as a standout. Of course “You Oughta Know” is a snarling masterpiece, and I’ve gone through an annoyance-to-admiration cycle with “Ironic” more times than I can count. The album’s implicit politics have been discussed to death, including in the documentary, which is never more heavy-handed and unsure than when it’s wedging consideration of the patriarchy into the conversation rather than letting the music’s oblique but intense politics speak for themselves. For me, it’s a walk down memory lane to the time when I was just discovering that music went beyond my parent’s old records and the showtunes my sister introduced to my life, and to the many pleasures of music in the 1990s, a deeply imperfect time period where there was nevertheless a sense of communal appreciation and shared joy in music that will probably never exist again. And in that year and a half or so that Jagged Little Pill reigned, at the center of the music world was a beautiful but odd woman who was “alternative” without being affected, whirling around and looking like she was having the time of her life on stage.
I still can’t stand “Head Over Feet,” though.
If you’re waiting for the last Book Club entry on Demian, never fear; that will be coming soon, perhaps as early as tonight.
one tidbit I couldn't fit in: that year the very influential magazine Entertainment Weekly said that Alanis Morrissette was all hype and would be quickly forgotten, while Joan Osborne of "One of Us" fame would endure lol
"The film presses hard on the angle that Jagged Little Pill was critically derided because it was a girl singing about being mad at stuff. This does not quite fit with my recollection or with a little research into the album’s reception."
Yeah looks like the album finished 32nd in the Pazz and Jop critic aggregation poll (https://www.robertchristgau.com/xg/pnj/pjres95.php), so it's not like she was treated like Nickelback back then by the tastemakers, there was just a big gap between the popular acclaim and the critical acclaim. The album of the year per music critics was PJ Harvey, and the year before that was Hole, the year before that was Liz Phair:...it's probably the worst possible era for them to be claiming that critics just couldn't handle female artists with attitude.