Site icon

What We Talk About When We Talk About Music: Part 5 — What I Listen to When I Listen to Popular Music

This entry is part 5 of 7 in the series What We Talk About When We Talk About Music

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.

In Part 3 of this series, I insisted that I actually do consume some of what everyone surely agrees is “popular music” by my definition of it–a hybrid form of performance art incorporating not just music but other performing arts, from theater and narrative storytelling and verse to fashion, makeup, dance, and more hyperreal narrative arts that are relatively new to the world, such as video and internet presence-management.

But I also insisted that when I consume it, I “listen” in ways that are much more like the way most people listen to popular music. That, for example, I don’t listen to a rock song the way I would a Bach Cello Sonata or a John Coltrane album.

I think that listing examples might be foolish–since, as I noted earlier in this series, one’s individual taste is idiosyncratic in many ways. And yet, I feel like sharing a few examples, not only to drive home the point that I do listen to some popular music, but also to emphasize that this mode of listening is not necessarily inferior to the mode by which one listens with a trained ear to music that demands one.

I do both. I think people who can do both lead richer lives. Of course, we must, as I noted in Part 4 of this series, resign ourselves to some degree–unless something really unexpected happens–to being someone who eats TV dinners in most areas of our lives, while rising above that in just a few areas.

Maybe you’re someone whose music is like TV dinners, but who approaches other areas of your life with the mindfulness I hold as so important. That’s fine. The one thing I think is truly, devastatingly tragic is the person who eats TV dinners in all areas of his or her life. Don’t be that person: you were put on this planet for more than that.

Anyway, some examples.

Nick Drake: Place to Be.

Nick Drake is probably the most heartbreaking popular musician I know. Not because of his personal story, the lack of recognition for his work and his premature death by suicide… I mean his work. Where most guitarists settle for three chords and a few licks, Nick Drake mastered the guitar. He plays it beautifully. I think his lyrics rise above the common mass, too; they express sentiment, not sentimentality, and the also refuse to take refuge in the illusion of normality. Drake was obviously depressed, and music strikes a chord with anyone who has struggled with that demon. His lyrics are intelligent, inventive, and haunting, even after a major auto company tried to use his music to sell cars. Yes, even “Pink Moon” still shines bright.

Mouse on Mars: Schnick Schnack. It sounds like nothing you’ve ever heard, right? Music is made of timbre and tone and rhythm, and one can be a virtuoso in creative their own instruments and playing with sounds.

This music refuses to be interchangeable, even though it’s extremely rudimentary in terms of most of its structural, harmonic, and melodic aspects: you cannot imagine a different group just playing the same way but singing different words over it. It is quite insistent in its timbral and textural identity and uniqueness. And if you speak French, it kinda-sorta tells a story in the middle, but not really. Narrative is irrelevant here. The story is about what Mouse on Mars sounds like, and how nothing else on Earth sounds like it.

Portishead: Glory Box. This whole album sounded unlike anything before, in that the musical content actually fit the dark gloominess of the songs. The lyrics and the music were weirdly off-center and unpredictable. The video is mediocre storytelling, but even it is ambiguous, strange, and inconclusive. A lot of people talk about musical lyrics as “poetry” but they’re distinct forms–with poetry usually being much more powerful, ambiguous, muscular, and weird. Portishead’s lyrics are still song lyrics, but they hang closer to the best traits of contemporary poetry than most lyrics in my opinion.

Hum: Mrs. Lazarus:

I’m not usually into heavy guitars, but this band was so consistently lyrically inventive… and they made the music actually fit the narratives they played with, which are some of the most unusual in popular music. I mean, this song is about some kind of time machine-riding man who keeps returning to the past to be with a woman he loved once, and loves still, but who has died. And it’s not nostalgic or sentimental… it’s just kind of weird and painful and loopy.

Yo La Tengo: Sugarcube. For one thing, the video? It shows what happens when the band is willing to throw evertything else out the window and refuse to stint on the video in the name of hybridity. They are mocking a lot of people, but they are also mocking themselves, gleefully… and most notably, they are mocking the hell out of the corporate, industrialized identity-manufacture of the pop music business. And why wouldn’t they: unlike many of the musicians they lampoon, if they found themselves having to pass as plain-looking (or slightly geeky), middle-aged office workers, their looks, at least, would ensure success for as long as they kept their mouths shut.

I’m also predisposed to like Yo La Tengo because they actually can play their instruments. I’ve seen them live. They not only can play their own instruments at a much higher level than most rock musicians I’ve seen play, but they can also play one anothers’, and do so live, onstage. If I had to choose only one rock band to ever listen to again, it would probably be Yo La Tengo, because, in a way, they distill all the component parts from the genre, sum it up, reformulate it, play it with a rare degree of proficiency–in other words, they approach this in the most music-like way of any band I know–and they do so dressed the same as I am on a given day, with a grin on their faces that suggests nonetheless that they know taking this stuff too seriously is like arguing with your TV.

That’s enough examples, I think.

You’ll notice that in many of the above cases, if I don’t mention the music, I talk about narrative, or some other component of the hybrid form that I feel is good enough to stand out as exemplary. So, yes, when I listen to popular music, I listen in much the same way as others–though the exception is that I have pretty high expectations for the narratives, for the dancing, for all those other components. This, in fact, is why I despise most popular music. If a group does amazing narratives and so-so music, I might like them a lot. If they do narratives and music both at the so-so level, I have no interest… but such bands or performers normally (and routinely) top the popular music charts.

I could go on about the composition professor of mine who was a huge fan of Tom Waits, or how a brilliant jazz guitarist from of mine once described Guns’n’Roses’ Appetite for Destruction as “classic sleaze rock” (and he could play all the songs off it).

Or I could list off more songs, more performers whose work I have enjoyed in the past, but I feel like doing so strays from my point, which is that as much as I enjoy all of the above, and plenty of other stuff, I still often find myself hungering for music that nourishes me in ways that the above examples just can’t quite manage.

Or I could post some examples of music I listen to as “music,” if readers are interested, as a kind of counterpoint to this post. I imagine anyone who’s been reading my blog very long at all has a pretty good idea of what I’d post, but I’d be happy to oblige, for the sake of balance.

But in any case, for this post, I think I’ll just stop here.

Series Navigation<< What We Talk About When We Talk About Music: Part 4 — Music and IdentityOn Listening >>
Exit mobile version