how music works

David Byrne is a genius, and he steals all my ideas.

I had no idea he had this new book out until I stumbled across it in the pirate store, of all places. From the preface:

…the same music placed in a different context can not only change the way a listener perceives that music, but it can also cause the music itself to take on an entirely new meaning. Depending on where you hear it–in a concert hall or on the street–or what the intention is, the same piece of music could either be an annoying intrusion, abrasive and assaulting, or you could find yourself dancing to it. How music works, or doesn’t work, is determined not just by what it is in isolation (if such a condition can ever be said to exist) but in large part by what surrounds it, where you hear it and when you hear it. How it’s performed, how it’s sold and distributed, how it’s recorded, who performs it, whom you hear it with, and, of course, finally, what it sounds like: these are the things that determine not only if a piece of music works–if it successfully achieves what it sets out to accomplish, but what it is.

This is what I call “the politics of Bruce Springsteen appreciation.” Awhile ago, I noticed that people about ten years older than me whose taste in music I respected didn’t like Bruce Springsteen, while people that age who had what I thought of as pedestrian taste in music thought he was the shit. I thought he was the shit, so this confused me until I thought about sociocultural context. My generation doesn’t care that Ronald Reagan stole “Born in the U.S.A.” or that a bunch of frat boys listened to Springsteen in the ’80s because we were babies then. We can know it as really awesome music without any cultural associations we don’t want. But another generation was defining their taste in music (and their image along with it) in the ’80s, and if you were a punk, it wasn’t “cool” to like Springsteen. That kind of prejudice can tend to stick even after you’ve matured past image bullshit. Springsteen’s music is the same, but it’s heard differently by different people at different times, and even someone whose music preferences otherwise align with mine is going to find points of contention if their formative social environment didn’t support the same hearing mine did.

I was recently on the other end of this experience when my students invited me to participate in their mix CD exchange. It was fascinating to listen to one 16-year-old’s mix after another. For one thing, their mixes contained way more ’90s music than mine. Some of it is respectable (The Pixies, Beck, Radiohead, etc.), but that other songs have withstood the test of time boggles the mind. Third Eye Blind’s “Semi-Charmed Life,” for example, made it on two different kids’ CDs. I don’t like any of their mixes all the way through, and had a friend given one of them to me and said, “Here, I made you this mix,” I would have been confused, but hearing the songs recontextualized from a 2012 teenager’s point of view changes how they sound. It can simply inspire marveling at how two tracks can coexist on the same CD: “Wow! You like MGMT and The Dave Matthews Band?” or it can alter my perception of the music itself, like the day I found myself driving home from work with one of the more smoothly crafted mixes in my car and actually enjoying an Oasis song. The horror!

A few months ago, I was at a dinner party where some guy said my tattoo reminded him of the Hall and Oates’ song “Private Eyes.” I said I didn’t know the song and mostly associated Hall and Oates with people making fun of them. He said, “Really? I think they’re one of the best bands of the twentieth century!” I scanned for irony, detected none, and then felt like an asshole. For a day, I thought maybe I was missing something, that Hall and Oates was a great musical oversight on my part, so I watched a bunch of their videos on YouTube, and UH, NO. But then I thought about the politics of Bruce Springsteen appreciation and felt like an asshole again. Without knowing this guy’s music-listening context, how could I judge? He looked about my age, but clearly something about where, how, or with whom he grew up had disposed him to hear music competely different from me. Maybe Hall and Oates is the best band out of all the other bands he knows. Jesus, though, out of what musical pool does Hall and Oates rise to the top? I mean, really.

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