The Muppets have been on my mind, ever since Mrs. Jiwaku started working on a painting which is, essentially, a mash-up of the Coen Brothers’ film Barton Fink with Jim Henson’s Muppet characters.
And you’ll probably be wondering what The Muppets have to do with bigotry, though I swear, if you stick with it, it’ll make sense. (And no, I’m not talking about the recent Muppet movie and racial coding of characters. I’m talking about Jim Henson as a political subversive, something I talked about in my classes, but am pretty sure I haven’t posted about here before.)
When my family moved from Nova Scotia to Saskatchewan, I had a pretty hard time of it.
Understatement of my life, but it’ll do. The move began a long period of having the shit kicked out of me, and then struggling to find a way to fit into a youth culture I didn’t really understand. I was almost certainly dealing with PTSD from all the violence; I was definitely emotionally a mess; I was lost and confused about who I was; and my peers were, like all schoolkids, none too sympathetic.
This continued for years, until, at one point, I moved from one school to another, from one neighborhood to another, and I decided that I would rebrand myself. Not that I understood what I was doing in those terms, exactly: I thought of it more as camouflage, as a way of shielding myself from unwanted attention.
I got myself a walkman, and copied some loud, guitar-crammed tapes from a friend of mine named Kyle Thompson. I bought myself a black jean jacket, and a Guns’n'Roses backpatch, and badges. I let my hair get as unruly as my (fairly strict) mother would allow me, and slapped the headphones on when I went out, the music cranked up loud enough for other people to hear the buzz of ambient noise from them. (There were no earbuds in those days, but I wouldn’t have wanted them anyway: the music was more about my newly-crafted identity than about something to listen to anyway, even if it did allow a sort of outlet for my long pent-up rage.)
Lo and behold: it worked. People didn’t approach me like I was wearing a “beat the crap out of me” sign on my forehead. A girl named Melanie with whom I’d gone to elementary school called me one day, after seeing me at the mall with my jacket on, and complimented me on it in such a way as to advertise interest in me. I made friends more easily, at least among people in the subtribe who liked that sort of music. Nobody said anything about my obsession with D&D, or made fun of me for drawing dragons and elven warriors in my spare time, or writing poetry. I was a headbanger.
Consider the final sentence of the preceding paragraph: what does was mean in this context? Was I playing the role of a headbanger, or was I in actual fact one?
It’s a question best left to philosophers, because personally, I cannot answer it definitively. I adopted the identity of a headbanger, of a G’n'R fan. I acted like one, and while my adoption of the role served a social-adaptive purpose, that does not mean there wasn’t an element of role-playing involved. In the city where I undertook this task of self-rebranding, there were three sorts of boys my age: metalheads, hockey players, and nerds who got their asses kicked. I’d simply opted into the the affinity group that invovled the least physical violence being inflicted on me, since after all I had never learned to ice-skate properly.
After my sisters had been taking music lessons for about six months, I think it was, I approached my mother saying that I, too, wanted to learn music. She asked me what instrument I wanted to play, and I told her I wanted to learn electric guitar. She refused, on the grounds that I’d probably join a rock band and start doing drugs (which, though it aggrieved me at the time, I am now thankful for). So I told her I wanted to learn drums, which she also refused because she feared I’d lose my hearing. When, possessed by a fantastical sense of my father’s Scottish heritage, I suggested bagpipes, she told me I’d have to practice outside, which, in Northern Saskatchewan was a non-starter.
So I was watching the film Lost Boys–I can’t remember whether it was just on TV, or I was watching a VHS tape of it (!!!)–when I saw this scene:
That was it. I went to my mom, and told her I wanted to learn saxophone. I was going to be a rock sax player, like Tim Cappello, the “epic Sax Guy” in the Lost Boys scene above. I would have giant muscles and do pelvic thrusts onstage while playing a total of about ten notes on a tenor sax in front a horde of cheering, bedazzled of beautiful young people, including gorgeous young brunettes in white sleeveless tops who would be looking at me that way instead of at Jason Patric’s character.
Then my mom got me an alto sax, and I went to band camp, and reality set in… a little. I didn’t sound like Tim Cappello, for starters. I sounded more like this:
No insult to that kid. That’s pretty good for a month of playing. I was a little more out of tune, and sloppier with the fingering, but about the same. Everyone’s about the same after a month of sax. Mastering this contraption was going to take work: scales, arpeggios, exercises… daily practice.
Fast-forward a year, and I was still not sounding like Tim Cappello. I still did not have huge muscles, or long hair, or gorgeous young brunettes making eyes at me. Had I taken up the guitar, by this time I would likely have been in a rock band, but here I was still grinding out scales and arpeggios and etudes on my alto sax. But, as luck would have it, my teacher–a bassoonist and a local band teacher–told my parents that I’d learned everything I could from him, and it was time for me to move on to a proper saxophone instructor.
Which I did. (At no small expense to my family: my weekly lessons were in a city 90 minutes from where we lived, for starters, and my father drove me there every two weeks. That’s dedicated parenting.)
During my first lesson, I told my instructor-to-be that I wanted to play rock sax. A vision of Tim Cappello onstage, of the gorgeous brunettes in the white sleeveless tops, of my soon-to-arrive muscles, danced in my mind, while my teacher…
… laughed. He laughed aloud, and told me that if I could play jazz, then playing rock would be easy, so it would be better to learn jazz.
Then he gave me a cassette tape of Miles Davis tracks. I’ve long since lost the cassette, but it was a compilation LP of various Miles Davis quintet performances, and a who’s who of New York City 1950s jazz musicians: Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane, Red Garland, Max Roach… though I didn’t know who any of these people were, or why I ought to be listening to this old-fashioned crap.
But since it was homework from my sax teacher, and it would help me become achieve this:
… I listened to it anyway. Once, then twice.
Nothing happened for a while. I didn’t know how to listen to it, or, you know, what purpose the music served. It’s not like I could crank it up to ward off bullies. There were no Miles Davis back patches available at the “music” shop downtown.
And then, at one point, I got it. Something clicked, and I realized: this music wasn’t about backpatches or hairstyles or being cool or not being a loser. It wasn’t about huge muscles or hip thrusts. I still hoped it might be about gorgeous brunettes for a while longer, but otherwise, the scales fell from my eyes when I got it, probably a few months after the tape came into my possession. I understood, finally:
This music wasn’t about any of those things because this music was, first and foremost, about the music.
Rock saxophone is a funny thing to talk about, once you know enough to know why. But maybe I can help you get a handle on it. One way is to compare the work of musicians who have led bifurcated careers, like, for example, Branford Marsalis, who has played both in the popular music realm, and the “pure music” realm.
Here he is with Sting, playing in a pop/rock mode:
Whatever you think about jazz music, it’s obvious that Marsalis is doing something more complex, more interesting, and more expressive in the latter tracks, while in his playing on the Sting tune, he’s essentially providing a little ornamentation most of the time.
The funny thing is that this is true of all the musicians in a popular music setting: everything they do essentially adds up to simplistic ornamentation, because the focus of the “music” is not the music, but the singer, the lyrics he or she sings, the narrative they convey.
By the way, here’s what Marsalis says Sting told him:
“It’s not about the songs, even… this is rock star stuff…”
Elsewhere–in another video from this interview session, I think–Marsalis says that at rock concerts, people aren’t there for the music, but because the show is an event, with a lights show and dancers and explosions and so on. People download music, he argues, because the realize it is really a fashion accessory with a limited shelf life.
This, coming from someone who played with for years Sting, who once said he’d idolized Elton John and who speaks positively of Bruce Springsteen in the same video above. Take it from me: Marsalis knows of what he speaks.
I’ve discussed, in earlier posts, what I think big business has done to music; I’ve discussed how I listen to music, and my impression of how people who consume primarily popular music listen to it–and the differences between them.
But I want to go back to that first post in this series. I want to talk about one of the more crucial components of the hybrid form we call the music industry, because if it were simply the case that popular music were merely a hybrid form of performance art, I wouldn’t be so leery about it.
The thing that makes me leery is how big businesses exploit probably our biggest Achilles heel in the modern world, and most especially the Achilles heel of the young modern person: identity.
After all, it’s no mistake that popular music targets, and is consumed very energetically by, people in their teen years. Teenagers are casting about for an identity, they are often desperate to fit into society, to have something they can lean on, a functional persona for social living. For me, and for a lot of young people I knew, music was one tool for building that persona… or rather, it was presented to me–and understood by me–as a tool for that purpose.
It wasn’t until I reached Korea that I realized people who listen to a certain kind of music don’t necessarily dress a certain way, or act a certain way. I’ve met, in Seoul, punk rockers who were as polite as my own ever were to me. I’ve met rock drummers who I’d have pegged for D&D nerd chicks back home when I was their age.
The culture industry–the networked businesses that sell us our clothing, our music, our films, our favorite TV shows, our books and magazines–have a vested interest in short-circuiting that process observed by Keats in the following lines, taken from this letter:
Call the world if you Please “The vale of Soul-making”. Then you will find out the use of the world (I am speaking now in the highest terms for human nature admitting it to be immortal which I will here take for granted for the purpose of showing a thought which has struck me concerning it) I say ‘Soul making’ Soul as distinguished from an Intelligence- There may be intelligences or sparks of the divinity in millions-but they are not Souls till they acquire identities, till each one is personally itself.
To use the Keatsian term, “soul-making” is a bit like mastering an instrument: it doesn’t come overnight, but rather takes time, takes searching and questioning and investigation. I believe one of the purposes of art is to facilitate this process, by which humans achieve their identity, by which they find out who they are.
In that context, art that facilitates this kind of development and growth–this soul-making–is positive, while art that stifles (along with everything else that stifles it) it is negative.
Which is where my problems with popular music (and a lot of entertainment) begin. For one thing, the simplified narratives necessary in hybrid art forms are one thing, but having worked in a music store for several years as a young man, what I found was that the narratives were incredibly constrained, incredibly hyperdetermined. Love stories came in only a few varieties; conflicts were predictable and ever-familiar in their limited scope. Gender roles, definitions of success… they were all utterly and stiflingly conventional in a myriad of ways, and even the rejection of those conventional narratives took on a predictable, conventional form. (In a word, rebellion.)
I’ve learned a lot of things from reading blogs written, for example, by Asian-Americans and African-Americans commenting on media and entertainment, specifically about what it’s like to live in a world where the media has a ridiculously limited and set number of scripts for people who look like you. (Likewise, trying to imagine what it’s like to grow up as a homosexual in a world where nearly all of the love stories in the mass media (in movies and TV and music) depict heteronormative love stories. My GLBT friends have never talked about it with me, but those friendships led me to imagine.)
But, like I say in Part 3 of this series when I discuss “Gangnam Style,” the hypertrophy of this limitedness (at the cognitive bottleneck of racism) is really just an extreme in terms of degree, not of kind. The fact is that all modern people live enmeshed in a social system where an overwhelmingly limited, constraining range of scripts are available.
This is true in all cultures, of course–every culture has its constraints, and its limitations–but mass media performs its constraining function in a way where culture–the common living property of all human beings within the culture, which can be fought over and changed by people within it–is instead transformed into a product that is mass-distributed for profit. If the world was in the days of Keats the “vale of soul-making,” the vale has been redeveloped into a factory where souls are now mass-produced, and there are a really limited number of models available.
What is most horrifying is that music–something that, in its finest examples and its most exemplary moments–can be a profoundly freeing thing. The music is about the music in the same way that meditation is about meditation, or running a marathon is about running a marathon. By the experience of transcending our social context, traveling into the world of abstraction, challenging ourselves to step beyond the narratives and the identities provided for us–for a given purchase price–we are able to find out who we are outside of the context in which we find ourselves… and thus we are able to reflect on that context, to realize that perhaps that context is not fixed, not absolute. The revolutionary imagination–the mind that insists on betterment, on change, on ceasing in the error of our ways–is absolutely dependent on society-/culture-transcendent experiences, and especially today, when it’s really hard to get out into the woods, music can serve that function.
How immense and terrible is the irony, then, that instead, it has been reduced to a consumer product that inherently–in the narratives that dominate the lyrics of popular music, and its narrative-driven videos, and the personae and meta-narratives of popular music–acts against that kind of experience, reinforcing the status quo and insisting upon the conventional, consumerist mode of achieving identity.
An earlier generation declared that the personal was political; but if the personal–our very identities–are consumer goods, then what does that make the political?
It makes it for sale, like everything else in this world of ours. But the price we pay is not merely monetary… as usual. I believe that the steamrollering and jettisoning of culture on the large scale–what I discussed in part 1 of this post–is mirrored on the personal scale. The prefab identities sold to us as integrally formed around the music we listen to, the clothing we wear, the foods we eat, the car we drive, the beverages we drink (or aspire to let ourselves be seen drinking) all are part of this.
And it leaves me unsure of what can be done, what is to be done. The companies have been hard at work on creating this situation, for decades now, and their influence has infiltrated every nook and cranny of modern civilization. Even if we wanted to throw off the shackles they have crafted for us, we wouldn’t know where to start–since, after all, most of us eat TV dinners in most aspects of our lives.
Which is why it’s possible to be a jazz fan, and read Dan Brown and wear sweatshop clothing; it’s possible to be a foodie and yet never listen to anything besides popular music. It’s not only possible: it’s something that’s integral to the design of our entertainment and popular culture system. Even if one crosses the lines drawn on the pavement in one category of one’s consumer life, it’s rare for someone to cross the lines in all categories, because who has time?
So one is guaranteed to be consuming inhibitive, debased, corporate garbage–the stuff that runs counter to Keatsian soul-making–in most areas of one’s life, no matter what.
For all the benefits of modern consumer society, this leaves me wondering how much we’ve lost from human nature, what the cost has been… and when and if we will ever finally recover from it. It’s heartbreaking when the sordid mess stands before you in the clear light of day.
Heartbreak often leads to other emotions. Which is why I often get emotional about this stuff: because to me, it’s not just the arts that have been strangled to death sometime in the last century: it’s also us, all of us, on some level we haven’t realized yet, and may never do.
Consider this an addendum to what I wrote in Part 1… a special case of the observations made toward the end of that post, I suppose. Or perhaps, a rallying cry, or a crying out in the wilderness. I’m not sure which. But it’s late, and I need to end this post now.
One more installment, tomorrow… maybe. (Unless there’s call for a sixth, but five is all I have lined up, and so the last post is in the chamber, for now. Would be nice if those reading commented: this series has taken me weeks to write, and has been one of the hardest things I’ve had to write for this blog… and it seems to be getting very little notice, unfortunately.)
Right, so last time, I drew a parallel between my view of music in the modern industrialized world, and the way “foodies” think of food in that same setting: namely, as something that has been essentially debased for expediency of production by large corporations, in the name of profit.
But I’m sure those who aren’t feeling deeply insulted by this still have some sort of question in their minds about what it is I mean when I say “music” in the sense that “foodies” say “food” but implicitly don’t really include processed, sugar-laden, canned junk among the things they’re talking about.
I would say that this may be the wrong question to ask. After all, I’ve been finding more and more recently that the apparent, obvious question isn’t at all the one that needs to get asked. It’s not, “Why do I keep burning the oatmeal?” but rather, “Why am I always so distracted while I’m making breakfast?”
What I’d suggest is more useful in this case is to talk about what happens when I listen to “music,” and how I perceive it to differ from how people who listen to popular music do so… or indeed, how I do so when I am listening to popular music.
Except I will stop using “I” in this explanation, because this is not unique to me. I am not special and outstanding in this regard: pretty much everyone I know who appreciates what I mean when I say music has some variation of this experience when they listen to it. Indeed, the explicit training one gets when studying music involves learning the skills to do some of this… a process that is called “ear training”–and yes, we really call it that.
While not everyone who values “music” gets that formal training in the setting I did, I suspect they all approach that kind of music in approximately this way, perhaps even training their own ears, because the structure of music itself is designed to make particular sorts of demands on anyone who wishes to listen and comprehend it.
(Much like how, if you want to understand language, you need to have a grasp of the grammar and the vocabulary being used; if you don’t know the grammar or the vocabulary, I’m afraid you’re not listening to it the way people who understand it do; you might get something out of the music of the language, or the facial expressions of the speaker, but you’re not listening to it in any useful sense.)
Which is the bottom line, by the way, if you’re taking notes. Music has a vocabulary (and an etymology), has a grammar, has connotations and a history and requires certain skills if you’re going to listen to and appreciate it. You can try, but you won’t get much farther than someone who wants to read a book in a language he or she doesn’t know.
This is because music that is designed to be listened to is different from all other music–music to be danced to, music to fill the silence, music to serve as background. People may try use music designed to be listened to for other purposes–people cranking Vivaldi through subway speaker systems, for example–but music that is designed to be listened to is characteristically different from all those other musics, and all those other musics end up, on some level, being roughly similar, and roughly interchangeable.
Caveat: I’m talking about Western music. (And its direct offshoots in other cultures. Kpop is, in all relevant particulars, Western music. Structually, aesthetically, it is American pop music sung in another language, with a few cosmetic modifications. Likewise, the compositions of Toru Takemitsu may have been written in Japan, but they’re basically Western “avant garde” classical music–whatever the hell that is being called now, it’s music designed to be listened to, and only to be listened to.)
In other words, let’s not talk about Balinese kecak, or Indian classical music, or West African griot traditions–and for that matter, let’s leave aside Afrobeat and other African popular musics, which I don’t know all that much about, though their hybridity seems characteristically different to me than the hybridity in “Western” popular music.
When I listen to music, I am listening to a lot of things that I believe most people listening to pop music don’t really listen to… for reasons I’ll get into a bit later. The following should give you some idea as to what I listen to. It’s an excerpt from an email I wrote to a commenter here who asked me, by email, for some tips about listening to jazz, and how one might better appreciate it.
Here’s part of my response, constructed–as is the only way I could explain it–in terms of how one learns to play jazz music. A note, the person is a musician:
Well, the thing is that jazz is essentially about multichannel linear harmonic/melodic invention. So, like, you start with a harmonic structure [and a set melody that accompanies it, which is called the "head"]. What can you do with it? You can play melodies that fit it.
Note: the “head” is the recognizable melody that jazz musicians use to start and end the tune. For example, in this one:
… most people will recognize the melody of a famous Disney tune. Then comes a bunch of stuff in the middle, and then the recognizable tune. That recognizable stuff is called the head, though the melody is less important than the harmonic structure, which (basically) most jazz musicians repeat, perhaps with slight (or not so slight) variations, and which they use as a basis for their improvisations. If you like, you can sing along the main melody over and over and you’ll see, it fits perfectly, because the original harmonic pattern is maintained and looped over and over. (And indeed, you’ll notice occasionally that tones in the melody get played in the improvisation, when the improviser paraphrases the melody, or just because the tone is solidly within the harmonic structure.)
Back to my emailed advice:
Then you get better, and you start adding in color notes — dissonances that fit against the harmony in interesting ways. (The most rudimentary is the flat 5 in blues; a Bb in the passage E-G-A-Bb-G-A-G is the classic case.)
In the Miles Davis track I embedded above, all of the soloists play “color” notes; they kind of sound off, not quite for the harmony, but in a good way. This is somewhat tricky to do passably, and it’s hard to do it as outstandingly as they do in this particular track.
Then you get better, and play melodies that imply alternate harmonies stacked on top of the harmonies in the original structure. Then you start doing interesting things rhythmically–first you drag or accelerate the swing rhythm–which in itself is essentially stacking triplets onto quarter notes, or going into double-time or half-time; many amazing musicians stop there, but some go further, doing insane, hard-to-notate things with rhythm–running 17 evenly spaced notes on three beats of a 4/4 measure, for example.)
Then there’s tone: the things you do with pitch, with intonation and microtonality, with the way your instrument sounds… like, for example, overblowing on purpose on a flute, or using harmonics instead of fingering a note on a saxophone, to get a fuller sound, or opening a key you’re not supposed to, to get a more nasal tone on a given pitch. The use of vibrato, the use of growling, bending pitches… all of this comes into play.
Then there’s how some players play (and I now long to master it, though it’s fucking hard work) where you have this encyclopedic knowledge of riffs, licks, of melodic fragments that have been played by other musicians, and you can not just playy them back, but transpose them indefinitely into different harmonic structures, and even develop them as motifs as you improvise a kind of patchwork. An adept listener will catch phrases — like when a trumpet player grabs a bit of “Taps” (that bugle tune they play at military funerals) and then turn it upside down, play it backwards, transpose the pattern across a few harmonic changes, or up the scale, or whatever.
Which is to say that playing jazz is a bit like what they do in that stereotypical Chinese circus act where they spin plates on like four or five different poles, and mostly you marvel that they can keep the four or five plates spinning all at once. Or juggling like five or six different things — a butcher knife, a torch on fire, a tennis ball covered in glass shards, a cucumber, and a desktop computer.
I suppose the act of listening to jazz is like that — I mean, the most demanding jazz — but you could start with one of those elements. Listen to, say, how Miles Davis in “So What” (on Kind of Blue) makes his trumpet sound so much like a human voice — like a person singing. Listen to the spaces he leaves between motifs, and llisten for how he repeats himself, but makes little variations in the repetitions — moving the pattern up or down, extending it, inverting it. Kind of Blue really is a great starter album if you’re trying to start in on understanding jazz — the harmonies in the tunes are very, very static — “So What” only has two chords — so you can pick out when they are mapping new harmonies onto the static ones. It’s really stripped down jazz.
(Stripped down from what Charlie Parker had Davis doing a few years earlier.)
I don’t know how helpful what I’ve said is. It really amounts to saying that, well, in jazz, active listening is crucial, it’s a very different kind of llistening than from many other kinds of music (though much like how one listens to orchestral music, for example), and the above is basically a list of the components that musicians use when creating modern jazz (ie. “post-big band” let’s say, though that’s problematic shorthand).
On a more rudimentary level, don’t depend on the drummer to keep time: drummers ornament time. Bassists are the ones who keep time, both rhythmically and harmonically. (They indicate where we are in the tune’s overall, looping (repeating) harmonic structure. Pianists and guitarists, when they are “comping” (accompanying) behind a solo, mostly also ornament or punctuate time, mostly askew (ie. on off-rhythms), while providing harmonic cues, echoing crucial motifs from the solo and bouncing them back at the soloist, and also introducing new material a soloist may respond to or integrate into the improvisation.
Which is the real thing: modern jazz is actually not one musician juggling, but a group of them juggling and passing things back and forth between them: bassists will sometimes play with rhythm ornamentally, or follow a soloist into new, implied harmonic variations on the tune’s structure; drummers will sometimes play back “melodic” patterns using the timbral variations and tuning of certain drums or cymbals or even just the angle of sticks on the edge of a drum, or whatever.
I don’t know if this is any help at all. I’m kind of the opinion that appreciating jazz (or any creative music) takes a kind of work, a kind of study that is unpopular these days, especially at the start of the learning curve. But it’s not really like, “work,” you know?
Except of course that it is something like work. I mean, it’s not easy. There’s a learning curve, there has to be effort. It’s like learning to savor wines, something I’m not great at–I like a good wine, I know a bad one, but the in-betweens are a bit muddled for me, and I know that all that lies between me and knowing that territory better is a learning curve. (Living in Asia, where wine is often overpriced, has been a disincentive to climb that particular learning curve.) If it’s any consolation, it’s no easier becoming a jazz musician…
But as a listener, once you learn how to listen to music in this way… well, I can’t say there’s no going back. But I can say that you never see music the same way again.
(And one more caveat, since I’m talking extensively about jazz music: I’m talking about “traditional” modern jazz–the stuff that follows some fairly well-established rules of harmony and structure. Which is relatively easy compared to some of the stuff out there.
(There’s plenty of jazz music that goes a few steps further and abandons strict harmony, strict structure, or the idea that improvisations are solos, or that tunes need heads. There is jazz out there that not only plays tennis without a net, but without a court and the balls are translucent and there are five people on a side… and yet it’s still actual tennis, and you can watch it and talk about its merits or demerits.
(It’s difficult to listen to, of course… but for some of us–including me–it’s worth it. Sometimes, anyway: most people don’t listen to that kind of thing every day…)
Now that you know how I listen to the music I listen to, it’s time for me to talk my understanding of what people who listen to popular music are doing when they “listen” to their music. And yeah, you saw that right: “listen” is indeed in scare quotes… but perhaps not for the reasons you might imagine. While I think we can all agree that popular music’s audiences don’t have trained ears, what I’m going to talk about next is the nature of popular music itself, since that hyperdetermines how we interact with it (just as the nature of “music” determines how we interact with it)…
The key to understanding that is understanding the concept of hybridity.
What is hybridity? I’ll explain that in my next post, which will be up tomorrow.
See you then. But for now… a little night music to send you on your way:
I’ve been working for about a week now to put together a blog post that simply isn’t working. Like a story built to fail, the damned thing just is not cohering, no matter what i do: it veers off the road, it catches on fire, and when I put out the fire, the engine won’t turn over.
So I’ve decided to break it down into pieces. Maybe. It depends whether that is still necessary at the end of this thing I’m writing now. It’s hard because, frankly, I think that what we conventionally include in the category of music includes a lot of things that are music, but far more things that, right at the bottom, involve music only tangentially. In other words, I think the world has misdefined the word “music.”
Which probably sounds ridiculous, so it’s my job to convince you otherwise. And I assure you, I can and will do it… or at least, get you to where you can see why I think so.
But first: I have serious reservations trying to explain my apparently “strong” opinions about music. I have these reservations for a reasons.
To be frank, people–especially Westerners, most especially North Americans–are deeply, deeply emotional about their music (and cultural consumption in general). I am sometimes outspoken, but to be honest even when I’m really polite and nice and sensitive about it, people lash out at me for, say, commenting that I don’t care for whatever their favorite music is, or that I don’t find it particularly interesting. Even when they themselves are willing to call something cheesy, uninspired, or whatever, they seem to react quite harshly when someone else happens not to like their music.
This is especially true when insecurity kicks in, and when the person shrugging in boredom at their current favorite bit of popular music is a musician, someone who has specific ideas about music, who has whole working theories–theories that are constantly evolving–about music and what it ought to be and how best to listen to it, who is deeply invested in music that the other person sees as “art” or as “upper class” or whatever. The insecurity tends to bring about a reaction somewhere along the lines of lashing out and calling me a “snob” or accusing me of thinking I’m better than them.
Indeed, the discussion with a friend that provoked me thinking about trying to verbalize all this, at one point involved him clarifying that to disagree on musical taste was not to dismiss the other person as a “bad” person–or at least, I remember that. I was a bit shocked, actually, since I couldn’t see that in anything I’d said, and because I think that’s pretty self-evident… but I was not too shocked, because frankly I’ve seen that particular leap made so many times I have lost count.
So: ground rules. If you feel insecurity kicking in; if you feel threatened by what I’m saying here: take a break. Reflect on the fact that nowhere am I saying good people share my taste in music, and bad people don’t.
To flout Godwin’s law: while the Nazis hated jazz music, Hitler and I both love us some Wagner. Fuck the Nazis, though. I’d rather hang out with any one of my friends, including those whose musical preferences leave me cold, than Adolf Hitler.
Well, unless it was just me and Adolf in a room, no weapons, just fists and wits. Because I’d kick the little asshole’s head in. Just sayin’.
Okay, so, we’re clear? I’m not calling you a moron? I’m not calling you stupid? I’m not calling you an uncultured boor–at least, not in a way that I (in a million ways) am too?
Then let’s proceed.
Let’s talk about food. After a lot of thinking, this is the best analogy I can find, and the parallels will be apparent if you bear with me.
First off: let’s agree that a working definition of words is not what we say they mean, but what they mean in daily practice. In other words: we might think we mean home-cooked food, we might want to mean that we define food as a fine French meal, but if we’re eating mostly potato chips and TV dinners, then that’s what we really mean when we say food.
If you’re like me, you probably don’t eat fine French food or home-cooked meals every time you eat. Once in a while, a burger hits the spot. Sometimes, you crave some potato chips, even if they’re they fancy, restaurant-made kind, or those pricey kettle chips or whatever.
(Likewise, if you look at my Last.fm profile, you’ll see what I’ve been listening to for the last little while. It’s not a complete record–I sometimes forget to use the AudioScobbler app on my iPhone, sometimes I listen to music from my wife’s computer, and sometimes I listen to music on my own, without logging it for Last.fm. It’s not like I’m paid to log it, after all. But anyway, if you do look, you’ll see that it’s not all composed music or jazz. Just sayin’, again.)
Okay, so: imagine that you’re in a world where most of the people around you are eating potato chips and burgers and TV dinners for every meal. Imagine you’re someone like a lot of my friends who really care about food. (I hate the term “foodie” but the people I am talking about call themselves this.1) Now, what do you think it would be like to live, as someone who cares deeply about food–about where it comes from, about how it’s made, about how one ought to cook it to maximize joy and happiness and pleasure in one’s daily eating–a biological process that we can either embrace and elevate, or that we can unthinkingly degrade and subjugate to interests other than our own.
The so-called foodie often doesn’t reject all “junk food” across the board; nor does he or she reject canned food, when he or she does, simply because it’s not classy, or because they’re snobs or they want to show off how much better they are than everyone else. They have whole discourses running through their minds about food; how it is, and how it could be, and how it really ought to be, if only it could be. They have concerns about food, about the food industry and the evils it does in our world, about the fact that quality is not completely subjective, about how much happier they themselves are when they eat things that are so delicious, so eye-opening that they can barely remember what it was like when they, like everyone else, ate their fair share–if any such thing could exist–of those industrially-manufactured TV dinners and bags of chips and those fast-food burgers.
If you’re not a foodie, here’s one insight in a nutshell: the majority of the food industry in the industrialized world is built on A Single Simple Idea: sell people highly processed pseudo-food, and call it food. The stuff lacks the joy, the power, the freshness, the subtlety, the beauty–true, real, palpable beauty–of proper food, but everyone calls it food. Many, if not most, people in the industrialized world actually think of this crap as food by default, and a scary number of people actually base their diets on it; in fact, a scary number of people have little choice but to do so, since their local shops stock pre-processed food in higher amounts, priced more cheaply, than raw, healthy foods.
(Which is the basic root of America’s primary current public health crisis, as well as a lot of other places.)
Such people, when they meet someone else who cares about food, speak freely. When they talk to friends who eat potato chips and hot dogs, they are more circumspect, more careful. They have to, or they’ll be called snob, be accused of thinking they’re better. And most of the people I know who really do care about food don’t exactly look down on people who eat processed pseudo-food, or think themselves better because they eat consciously while most people don’t. They do long for a world where more people ate consciously, thought consciously about what they consume and commit to consuming food that is not only delicious–truly, complexly, authentically delicious–but also nutritious and environmentally sensible. They’re not food snobs, they’re people who long for more, and know in ways that most people don’t even imagine why we all ought to long for more from our daily bread.
The parallels with how I think about music are similar. There are some divergences, of course–some ways in which pop music is unlike junk food, some differences in how music has been steamrolled and jettisoned and the way traditional food culture in the industrialized world has been. But the parallels outweigh the divergences, so this is a good place to start. Substitute the big music companies for the food industry; substitute limited-shelf-life pop music for extended-shelf life processed foods and junk foods; substitute an industry built explicitly on the disposability of cultural content for an industry predicated on the interchangeability of food products; and substitute a world of people listening to that ultimately disposable pop music for one filled with eating unhealthy, prepackaged junk. Make all those substitutions in your mind, and you’ll be somewhere along the way to understanding how I think and feel about music.
So if I’m angry, if I’m resentful–it’s primarily because of this: I feel that mostly, we in the developed world have a very debased idea of music, and that the primary reason for this is the same reason we have a debased understanding of food… of community… of education… of health… of pretty much everything. Because big companies have found it expedient and extremely profitable to sell us absolute shit in the place of things that nourish us.
My rage is redoubled when I reflect on this, because for all the things I am relatively conscious and try hard to be thoughtful about–music, narratives, software, to some degree food–there are countless things I am the same as most people. My clothes were no doubt sewn by children in a sweat shop somewhere, when I shaved my face I used crappy disposable razors that were horrible for the environment and provided an inferior shave; I have a truly skewed view of fitness… but those things, the things I realize, are only the tip of the iceberg. We are lost, deep in a maze of impoverishing, insulting simulacra… and the biggest problem is how hard it is to wake up to this fact, to face it, to find the energy to care about a few more things.
Music probably isn’t the most crucial of those battlegrounds… but I love music, I have seen what it can be–so much more than most people imagine, so powerful, so delicate and intricate. I feel about music the way some people feel about architecture, about the relationships they have with flesh-and-blood people. So its mass debasement for something so fleeting as short-term financial profit therefore distresses–and enrages–me to the point where I find myself wondering when and where the jettisoning and steamrolling will end. I suspect we’ve lost so much of our culture already, that we may be past the point of no return.
Then again, the American craft beer industry is doing better than any other segment of the beer industry. A couple of decades ago, it was pretty near impossible to get a beer other than the crappy megabrew lager swill that still dominates… but which is being supplanted.
(And it may be the beer industry might be a slightly better parallel: people who homebrew or appreciate and feel passion about craft beer and people who really care about music in the sense I do have more in common in some ways, and music, like good beer, isn’t necessary to life the way food is… though they make life more wonderful, and though every culture has produced some kind of beer. But mainly, the parallel is between Budweiser and pop music… thought the biggest difference is that both craft beer and organic food cost more than the junk food… while most truly outstanding music sells for basically the same price–or cheaper–than the mass-produced stuff.)
We haven’t really gotten into what goes into my definition of music, or why I don’t think of popular music and properly fitting into the same category. Those questions would swell this post up to something more like 5,000 words or more.
But I intend to deal with them, in good time. For those interested in exploring these questions, as well as the aforementioned divergences–which are crucial to understanding how I think about popular music versus what I simply call “music”–the way foodies just call the good stuff “food,” though they mean the nourishing, wholesome, wonderful stuff they wish everyone had a chance to share and enjoy–I’ll be back tomorrow, to talk about learning curves and ear training. (And eventually I’ll get to the rest of what I have to say. Trust in me… just in me, I sing, with my kaleidoscoping eyes spiraling before you, dear reader)
Though the above is more my speed, here’s the original, with the kaleidoscoping eyes and all…
See you tomorrow… same bat-time, same bat-channel.
1. I prefer “gourmet,” because it was a perfectly good word for the same thing… and because I instinctively don’t like that particular American mode of coining words by tacking on -ie at the end of it. I understand why people hesitate to call themselves gourmets, though. I just don’t like the word foodie. But that’s beside the point: the world doesn’t have to follow my aesthetics of language,: sometimes, one must use the words that become prevalent in the culture, however tinny they sound.
Note: This is another post from lat semester, when I was teaching a film class. I am not teaching now, but the thoughts seemed worth posting. (Because right now I’m too busy to write much new for the blog, but feel I should post more often than I have been.) The post is definitely not intended to be any definitive discussion, just interesting notes from a small class discussion.
I had an interesting discussion in my class today about horror across the three cultures represented in my Understanding Anglophone Cultures Through Film course: Korean, Japanese, and Anglophone.(1)
We watched the Korean film <<여고괴담>> (Whispering Corridors 1), Juon: The Curse (Part 1); and the little-known but (in my opinion) excellent The Haunting of Julia, also published at one point as Full Circle. (The film is based on Peter Straub’s novel, which in different editions also has borne each of these titles.) I haven’t read the book–I kept seeing a copy in a huge used bookstore near my apartment when I was in undergrad, but when I saw the movie and decided I ought to read it, the thing finally had been snapped up by someone else, doubtless someone who’d also seen the film on the Showcase channel late one night. However, I’ve seen people say it’s easy to tell that the book was Straub’s first (horror) novel, so maybe I didn’t miss much… I don’t know.