here’s a bit of a cottage debate in the music world that’s a relatively low-stakes microcosm of a much broader — and much more harrowing — debate.
The question is whether artificial intelligence — specifically its most publicly accessible and well-known manifestation, ChatGPT — can write a song with the same impact as one produced the old fashioned way by fleshy humans.
Garth Brooks told a crowd at the Country Radio Seminar “But if an AI program writes a song that kills me and makes me cry, isn’t that what songwriting is all about?” he said. “If AI gets to that level, I have to be thankful I get to be a fan that one of those songs touches.”
On the other side, Nick Cave said ChatGPT “sucks” at writing songs.
“What ChatGPT is, in this instance, is replication as travesty. ChatGPT may be able to write a speech or an essay or a sermon or an obituary but it cannot create a genuine song. It could perhaps in time create a song that is, on the surface, indistinguishable from an original, but it will always be a replication, a kind of burlesque,” he wrote in his newsletter.
Brooks represents the optimistic view that AI can add to our humanity. Cave pessimistically suggests that it can’t and if it ever does, maybe that’s not the best idea.
It’s not just musicians wrestling with this. Thousands of scientists signed a letter urging labs to “pause” for six months development of anything more powerful that GPT-4, AI’s current iteration. Others, including Eliezer Yudkowsky, considered the founder of the field of artificial general intelligence, thinks development of AI should cease immediately and forever and wrote in Time that nation-states should be willing to enforce the ban with nuclear weapons if necessary because AI will inevitably destroy the human race.
So there’s that.
Music’s early forays into using AI for creative purposes haven’t gone perfectly. Capitol Records signed an AI-generated rapper named FN Meka and then dropped the project due to accusations of appropriation and racism. There are, though, applications of a more practical type. AI could route tours and finagle all the complicated logistics more efficiently than any mushy human brain. AI can help venues analyze security risks (see page 33). And large language models like ChatGPT can write serviceable concert reviews (see page 20), he says nervously.
Even the most skeptical Cassandras and Luddites concede there are reasonable uses of artificial intelligence that would make our lives easier and our work more efficient and produce a better product (though I’ve yet to see a single piece of AI journalism that has parallel references to Greek mythology and 19th century anti-industrial movements, for better or worse).
The philosophers are better equipped to determine if a song written by a technology can be “art.” A machine can process, analyze, collate and generate a song based on every lyric, rhyme scheme and chord progression ever devised and create a “perfect” song. But is it art? Best leave these sorts of questions to Nick Cave.
This is a journal of live entertainment; that’s our lane and the future we face. Is there a point at which an audience could attend a concert performed by an avatar created entirely by AI? Sure. And that’s not even much of a leap. The Notorious B.I.G. died in 1997 and held a concert in the metaverse last year. Cartoon bands go back decades. Those examples required human initialization and input; a pure AI live show is a few degrees beyond that but not so many that it’s inconceivable.
But consider this: every fan says they want a perfect live experience. Every artist says they want to deliver a perfect live experience. But what’s perfect for Joe may not be perfect for Jane and neither may match what’s perfect for the artist. But AI could craft a perfect show for anybody and pump it into a headset. All killer, no filler. No lines to the bathroom, no lukewarm hot dogs, no parking headaches. Sounds appealing, doesn’t it?
But what’s lost is the what technology can’t recreate: genuine community. Sharing an experience with other people is what moves a performance beyond something that is merely consumed.
Misanthropy is commonplace these days, treated in some spaces as the only morally righteous position. Progress eliminates human-to-human interaction. Isolation became the default during the pandemic and persists through paralysis and inertia.
But it must be resisted. It is not good for man to be alone. Live is not live unless it is alive. It means something to be shoulder to shoulder with strangers, to mix sweat and tears with people you’d otherwise never know in the shared space of appreciation. And it means something to throw a side-eye towards a fellow concertgoer and say “that sucked” when something sucks. Because sometimes it does suck.
It is the imperfections and the inconveniences and interactions that make us human and make live performance transcendent and trading that for the convenience of isolation is a travesty that will destroy our humanity.