Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Are You Receiving?

Why do you like this? That was...interesting. That sounds weird! 

Having gotten those responses (and many others) to some of the music I've played for people, I thought it would be worth looking into the question of why I like what I like. When All Songs Considered asked a similar question on their blog, I posted a longwinded answer from which this adapted.

Well, there is the part of music that is a simulacrum of the in uturo experience, which is something every human from Hitler to Gandhi has in common. The rhythm of the heartbeat, the music of voices from without - these are the building blocks that compelled people to start making music 10,000+ years ago. It is said (by Francis Bebey in his fantastic book African Music: A People's Art, for one) that all of the first instruments were created in an attempt to imitate the human voice and other sounds made by the body. This leads to another basic part of music: communication. The griot tradition is very old and represents music's origins as a way to tell stories, spread news and recount history.

This is all just a grandiose way of saying that music is something that helps us feel connected to other people and that we are not alone.

Now, as to why a particular individual gravitates toward particular music...that must be due to the sum total of their experiences, starting with that time in uturo. I do think that people who are exposed to a broad range of art and culture of all kinds will probably be attracted to a broader range of music. My children (9 and 11) have heard everything from Mozart to Metallica, Stravinsky to Sleigh Bells, Beatles to Bolan, Boulez to Belafonte, Bon Iver, Black Uhuru, etc., etc, ad infinitum. Not to mention great art of all media. Is it just coincidence that they show no affinity for homogenized stuff like the Jonas Brothers and Miley Cyrus, which is aggressively marketed to them? I don't think so.

For me, I am attracted to a huge variety of music and usually left cold by mainstream artists like U2 or Springsteen or Beyonce. I want to find myself in the music, not be told what to feel or be confronted with icy perfection (unless it is mated to sardonic lyrics as in the sui generis sounds of Steely Dan). Music gives me energy and comfort, uplift and sorrow, intellectual stimulation, etc. and I seek out the music that does these things the best - to my ears.

None of the above explains why I strongly dislike Conor Oberst and M. Ward and find Andrew Bird tiresome after a few songs. These are all things critics I respect bring to my attention but that just don't work for me. Why do I like Shearwater but run screaming from Okkerville River? It can all be a bit of a mystery.

I remember reading the first reviews of Metal Box by Public Image Ltd., describing it as weird and nearly unlistenable. When I put it on, it just sounded right. Somehow my experiences from 1964 - 1979 just made that music fit with who I was. I still love that record.

Another example is Grace Jones. I am devoted to her music - the quirky voice, the fantastic Sly and Robbie rhythms, the outre subject matter. But friend of mine just says "She sounds weird," and shudders when I put it on. And when she talks about Johnny Mathis, it's my turn to shudder!

I also think it is quite typical for someone in their 40's as I am to slow down in their quest for new sounds and musical experiences. But I am continually on the hunt and even find myself going back to music that I've previously dismissed to see if my opinion has changed. I just don't want to miss out. Why do I feel to urge to evangelically spread the word about new discoveries when others are simply waiting for the next raft of Grammy winners to help them decide what to buy?

What about you? Are you satisfied with what the mainstream (such as it is in these fragmented times) delivers to you? How big is your musical universe and what do you think made it that way?

Next time: How I got crazy about music, Part 1.