- What We Talk About When We Talk About Music: Part 1 — Background, Caveats, and an Analogy to Consider
- What We Talk About When We Talk About Music: Part 2 — Ear Training
- What We Talk About When We Talk About Music: Part 3 — Hybridity
- What We Talk About When We Talk About Music: Part 4 — Music and Identity
- What We Talk About When We Talk About Music: Part 5 — What I Listen to When I Listen to Popular Music
- On Listening
- Modern Day Vaudeville
This post is part of a series. Since the posts build upon one another successively, I suggest you start with the first post in the series.
Last time, in Part 2 of this series, I talked about “ear training” and the skills that are required by certain kinds of music if one is to listen to them competently–the requirement of a degree of work, a degree of slogging up a learning curve to grasp those kinds of music.
The parallel for my overarching analogy of those mostly eat TV dinners and junk food on the one hand, and the self-described “foodies” on the other, involves not just learning to cook, but also relearning how to taste, how to think of food, rethinking completely how one acquires the foods one eats, and even developing a new aesthetics of food.
One needs a new aesthetics of food because the megacorporations have run an excellent scam on us, using our own natures. Human beings are, after all, evolved, and evolution ensured that we respond very positively to certain kinds of foods: it installed huge buttons labeled salt; sugar; fat; richness. What industrial food corporations do is simply push those buttons, hard.
Coca-Cola has essentially no real nutritional value–in fact, it has negative nutritional value, because of its chemistry and because of its extreme sugar (or, in the case of diet versions of Coke, pseudo-sugar) content. But if we’re used to drinking it, then our brains respond with a big fat “Hell yes!” because that sugar button, when pressed, creates a positive response in our brains.
(When you don’t drink colas for a while, like say a year or two, drinking more than a little but of the stuff becomes pretty difficult. Take it from me: before I started drinking coffee, I used to gulp down 2L bottles of Coke to stay awake, and now I can barely touch the stuff.)
The analogy breaks down a little here, or so most people would argue: after all, those who eat primarily industrial food (as opposed to, er, “food”) tend to suffer more health problems. Listening to the most processed, studio-crafted pop music doesn’t make you sick, doesn’t send you to the hospital, doesn’t fuck your body up.
Music, of course, is a mental and psychological thing, not a physical one like food. Therefore, it’s possible to look for analogies elsewhere. One needn’t even look at Twilight or the Fifty Shades books, or Dan Brown’s ouevre. I’d say the best examples to look at would be romance novels and pornography, because they are the closest analogies to how we react to food. There’s some talk out there about how pornography is influencing men’s sexuality, for example:
In other words, internet pornography is the psychosexual equivalent of Coca-Cola… and it’s about as good for you as Coca-Cola.
I’m no expert on romance novels, but I suspect they interact with women’s psychosexual wiring in ways comparable, if less extreme, than internet pornography does with men’s psychosexual wiring. But, you know… all this is up for more discussion, study, and so on.
However, I think we can probably agree that what one puts into one’s mind is important, as much as what one puts into one’s stomach.
Now, for a simple fact: anyone who has a trained ear finds the musical content of music rudimentary and simple to the point where it is essentially impossible to listen to it in the way one listens to music designed to be listened to. (Say, modern jazz or an interesting orchestral composition.) In other words, in very general terms, most popular music contains musical content that explicitly is not designed to be engaged in that way.
That’s not to say that people who have undergone ear training cannot or do not enjoy popular music, mind you. Far from it: I myself have some popular music on my iPhone (as anyone who checked out my Last.fm profile will remember). But just as obviously, most people in the world neither have undergone ear training, nor do they seem to interact with popular music the way a person with a trained ear interacts with the music that demands a trained ear.
But just as Gary Wilson discusses when talking about the reward circuuit in the human brain, and notes that sex and porn are as different as are video games and checkers. Likewise, “music” and popular music are radically different from one another.
Now, you’d think that getting people to explain their musical preferences would be difficult: along with ear training comes a whole training in vocabulary–both musical vocabulary (recognizing certain intervals, types of harmony, and so on), but also in terms of language used to talk about music.
In practice, though, I’ve not found this to be a problem, Most people who do not have a formally trained ear seem to have perfectly no problem explaining what they like about their favorite musicians or groups.
That’s because discussions of popular music are predominantly predicated on things other than the music. Ask people out of the blue what they like about their favorite music, and the vast majority of what they talk about is related to extramusical components of the act: the emotions they feel when they listen, or the narrative within the song–I mean, in the lyrics, which strictly speaking are in verse, in other words a form of poetry, which is not music but a related art form; or they talk about the metanarrative of the performer’s life, or persona, or whatever. They may discuss (or imitate) the dance performed in the video or in (televised) live shows.
They often talk about stuff tied up with identity, too–coolness, or wildness, or craziness, or being “emo” or being “genuine” or “authentic”… an interesting point to which I will return in tomorrow’s post.
As an example, consider the international pop sensation of 2012, Psy’s “Gangnam Style” which, as I write this, is sitting at over 1.5 billion views. 1.5 BILLION. (I know, you can see my point coming a mile away now, but bear with me.) If you’ve been living under a rock and never seen it before:
Assuming you were already aware of the song, why do you think most people were interested in it, and/or why were you interested in it the first ten times you watched the video on Youtube?
I’ve seen endless discussions of the subject… the stereotype of the laughable Asian male, the comedy of the video, the politics of the video, the craziness of the dance, the misinterpretations of the lyrics (“Open condom style”? Ha!).
People talked about pretty much everything… except the music. The discussion of “Gangnam Style” was pretty much devoid of any discussion of the music, really. Okay, not completely, but relatively: I saw it talked about one or two times, and that was it.
Now, you might want to argue that “Gangnam Style” is an extreme example–one that depends primarily on the antics in the video (and, within Korea anyway, the mockery of rich so-called upper-class Koreans) for its popularity.
Guess what? I’d agree: but sometimes, in hypertrophy, we see something about the norm.
That is to say: “Gangnam Style” is an extreme example, but its extremity is paradigmatic, not exceptional: it is popular for many of the same reasons that any popular music is popular, except that those characteristics (and its popularity) both partake of an extreme exaggeration of the norm. It is a question of degree, not kind, and its extremity makes visible a pattern that is integral to the popular music industry: that the music in general really isn’t that important.
The proof of this is in the pudding. While there are some popular musical groups whose work does provoke discussion of musical content among the fans–Stereolab, Yo La Tengo, Portishead, Rush, and Mouse on Mars come to mind. But most of the time, the things I hear people talk about when they talk about popular music has nothing to do with the music. They talk about how they feel. They talk about the lyrics. They talk about the narrative. They talk about the performer’s persona (or the personae within the group). There’s some metanarrative stuff, sometimes–linked stories between videos. There’s the videos, period. The internet presence of the musicians, and the metanarrative online among fans–something that’s absolutely integral to the Kpop scene, for example.
But people generally have precious little to say about the actual music… practically the only thing they consistently fail to talk about is the music. The conclusion to which I’ve come is that in most popular music, the music itself is of minimal importance… which would explain why most of the time, the music is practically interchangeable with any other music of the same type.
(It’s a funny thing: people in popular music circles often say, when confronted with songs that may or may not be plagiarized, “There’s only twelve notes, after all.” I’ve never heard a jazz musician or a composer say that in a way that excuses one song sounding suspiciously like another–they just openly admit having borrowed the harmonic structure and making a new tune out of it, like the famous “Rhythm Changes” harmonic structure taken from the Gershwin tune “I’ve got Rhythm.” Nobody justifies playing the same thing two gigs in a row by saying there are only twelve tones or… well, hundreds of chords to be superimposed onto an established one.)
So if the “music” is of minimal importance in “popular music” in terms of how its listeners interact with it, what the hell does that mean?
One way to explain it–a way that I’ve made the attempt in this series to move beyond–is that it’s easy to sell TV dinners to people who have been trained to eat TV dinners and think of them as food. That was my dominant explanation for it until recently, one I largely tried to keep to myself to the best of my ability, because even if it’s true, people don’t like being told that they’re eating TV dinners and nudgess, however slightly, towards more wonderful food.
But a much better way to explain it is to piece together the things that people say interest them about pop music, and recognize that those things are an important part of how popular music works. (Like I mentioned in Part 1 off this series, we’re working with what words really mean–and defining that by actual practice, rather than by what people would like their words to mean. “Cool” or “sexy” are words that–quite emphatically–refer to extramusical qualities.
So it is, in my experience, with most of what people say about popular musicians and popular music acts. So what do we do with that? What paradigm is useful here?
I’m thinking of the old vaudeville show. You know, like this:
The vaudeville show was a hybrid form. That is to say, performing vaudeville involved all kinds of things: in the clip above, there’s comedy/gags, singing, dancing, and more.
I’d argue that popular music has much more in common with vaudeville than it does with any more “pure” form of music. In popular music, all the things discussed by fans — from dances, to the metanarrative of fandom on the discussion boards, to the makeup and clothing in videos thhat end up on Youtube, to the packaging of albums… all of it is part of the industrial manufacture of “music” not as music, but as hybrid entertainment product.
Now, one could easily point to the jazz world and note that jazz musicians were obsessed with being “cool” and “hip”… and that is true. Miles Davis talks about this at length, discussing fashion, hair treatments, and even the language of cool young men in New York City when he was starting to play music professionally. But he also makes clear that, no matter how good you looked, or how well you dressed or did your hair, if you couldn’t play, it didn’t mean a damned thing… and meanwhile, jazz history is full of performers who turned up at gigs looking like crap (often strung out on drugs) but who remained at the apex of the form’s most important figures.
What I’d say is that with music that is designed to be listened to, all these other things may exist, but to some degree they end up, necessarily, being considered “distractions” from the music, or at best supplemental… whereas in the vast majority of popular music, it is the music that is supplemental. (This reaches an extreme in certain strains of jazz and in classical music, where every effort possible is made to sideline everything but the music.)
To restate my thesis about the nature of popular music: as I see it, popular music is not a musical form, and to call it “popular music” amounts to a misnomer. It is rather a hybrid entertainment form, fusing drama (in the acting out of fictional personae and character roles), verse (in the form of lyrics), film (in music videos), dance, packaging, publicity, fashion and makeup, and the hyperreal internet metanarrative that we see throughout the entertainment industry… along with, rather nominally, a component consisting of highly simplified, and conventionally more or less minimally-relevant, music. The degree to which any one of these components dominates depends on the performers, on the genre, and so on… but it nonetheless seems to be true of popular music generally.
Hybridity, by the way, is interesting because it makes certain demands upon a performer or creator. You cannot sing a difficult aria from opera while dancing around on stage: it’s not possible. For performers who must dance, the song must be simplified and made less difficult. In a genre where youth is necessary, difficult singing and dancing are likewise unachievable, so simplification must occur. While many of my friends have argued with me that song lyrics are “a kind of poetry” close examination reveals that few songs have lyrics that work more than superficially like poetry. Poetry is all about subtleties, and about language, and images, and only sometimes about narratives; song lyrics, on the other hand, are about rhyming and, most of the time, telling a story of some sort. Poetry is capable of rarefied things that, while they may be possible in popular music lyrics, are far from the common practice by the most celebrated exponents of the form.
My point being that the primary demand of hybridity is simplification, and, effectively, a kind of coarsening of each component. By coarsening, I mean that as subtle as it might be, the heights of subtlety that are possible in a more “pure” form of that component (in modern dance, or “pure” music, or poetry, or what have you) become impossible as the burden of more and more compromises take their toll.
A simple example: there is no Broadway musical–or, even, an opera–that comes even close to exploring character motivation in the way Shakespeare’s plays do. You’d think that someone would have written a musical that goes that deep, but at least, I’ve never seen on that does. You have to write the song to match the dance steps, you have to write the lyrics to suit the narrative, you have all these mutual, interconected constraints.
Now, as I’ve recently noted, constraints–such as a tight focus, or telling a very particular kind of story, can be extremely empowering in a creative enterprise. That’s true… but there’s a point where the demands of all those constraints force more than focus, more than peeling-away-the-extraneous; they not just simplify, but force simplification upon the creator.
To return to the analogy of food, consider the question of a meal prepared according to a set of arbitary, extra-culinary requirements: the meal must be prepared in 30 minutes or less; it cannot include any red foods; it should only contain vegetables grown in the immediate region where it was cooked; it should be cooked on a low fire; the cook must keep one hand tied behind his or her back while preparing the meal; and so forth.
It’d probably make an interesting episode of a reality TV program, but is hardly the optimal conditions for the food one eats every day of his or her life: we long for the savory wonder of foods slow-cooked for hours; we occasionally want to eat something that didn’t grow within a mile of our kitchens; we would like to be able to use tomatoes, and to use both hands while cooking.
Surely, my analogy above is unfair. But a more accurate analogy doesn’t help: if we required people to sing, and dance, and be beautiful, while preparing our food, would they do a very good job of it? Likkely not… and if we kept eat8ing the food they made while singing, dancing, and being beautiful–and primarily focusing on that and not the food–one could only fairly conclude that the singing and dancing and beautifulness is more important to us than the food.
That’s how I feel when I listen to the hybrid forms of entertainment that pass for “music” in the modern world. And thanks to the success of the corporate effort to universalize it, there is no corner of the planet to which repair wherein I can both live in a city with modern amenities, and not have to have this hybrid stuff–and usually the most debased form of it–forced into my ears every time I step out of the house. (Though, to Ho Chi Minh City’s credit, this is much less of a problem here than it was for me in Korea’s cities.)
For those keeping score at home, this post is what I’ve been building up to, the climax in a four-part series. But I’ll be following up with one more post, in which I seek to make a final point… about why, though you may not expect me to say so, there is “popular music” worth consuming, and how I “listen” it when I choose to do so…
For that, and maybe more, tune in tomorrow.
But for now, check out this gorgeous, free, concert by a trio of outstanding musicians in top form. Only 48,000 odd listens, compared to Psy’s 1.5 billion. Organic and fresh food, in a world of TV dinners, fake maple syrup, and Coca-Cola: