What We Talk About When We Talk About Music: Part 1 — Background, Caveats, and an Analogy to Consider

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.)

Sobering 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.

Series NavigationWhat We Talk About When We Talk About Music: Part 2 — Ear Training >>

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