Friday, December 19, 2008

Sequestered in Memphis: An Extended Conversation

Alright, so it's another continuation, this one from here.

It's possible at this point that this is just me and Ender's Twin talking to each other via the internet, which is awesome since we live about eight feet apart.

Anyway, in the comments to the last "Sequestered in Memphis" column, he wrote:

i can understand that musicians want to differentiate themselves from past and present works, but really, just to say that you're rock and roll doesn't mean you're exactly like the beatles, led zeppelin, or metallica. it just means that people who may like those bands may also like your music because it shares some similarities. but now we've got so many different genres that you can't really know (1) what something is, (2) if something that's in the same genre is similar, and (3) what differentiates one genre from another.

i just realized another reason why this is annoying, and it beats the itunes reason: with so many different genres, how the hell is one supposed to find new music? for example, if i like band A, their genre may be classified countless different ways. one critic may call them rock, one may call them indie, one may call them metal, etc. which one is right, and how do you choose something new based on those differing opinions.

by contrast, the movie world seems to have pretty set genres. there are a few subclasses in there (horror --> slasher, torture porn (ie, hostel), etc), but for the most part, you know what you're getting. if i go to the science fiction section of a movie store, i can rest assured there's gonna be some aliens, space adventures, superhero stuff, and the like. it's comforting.

maybe this is because movies have plot, which automatically limits the possibilities of their expression. genres in movies are more about the story they tell as opposed to the way they tell it. music seems to focus more on the way a story is told than the actual substance of the story. this is why people recognize music more than the lyrics that go along with it. hell, half the time lyrics are almost a byproduct. sure, there are some great songwriters out there, but then there is also stuff that just repeats the same words over and over again. i'm sure you can think of more examples than me, but you know what i'm talking about. so why is it that the repetitive lyric song can be popular? because we don't give a shit what they're saying, so long as it sounds good. half the time you can't understand what they're saying anyway, so just go with the music that invokes a physical reaction (smiling, foot-tapping, etc).

First, it should be noted that genre, to some extent, works as well in music as it does in movies, but it has less value. Let me explain.

Your movie genres (sci-fi, action, romance, comedy, etc.) have so much value because most people enjoy movies from many different genres, and so the decision, "Should I go see a sci-fi movie or an action movie?" is a real choice that people have to make, and genres allow them to do that.

On the other hand, your music genres (rock and roll, blues, jazz, classical, country, hip hop) do an equally adequate job of differentiating (there's some blurring at the edges, with things like blues-rock and country-rock, but, for the most part, if I say that X's music is jazz, someone else is not going to call it country).

The reason why these discrepancies have no value is that most people prefer to the point of near-exclusivity music from just one of those genres. And for most of the people I hang out with, that genre is rock and roll. So that leads to this weird situation where the only genres anyone really mentions (alternative, indie, emo, Britpop, whatever) are *already* subgenres, which means that they all contain *most* of the elements of rock and roll. And this causes problems.

The question you asked that I'm most interested in attempting to answer is: how the hell is one supposed to find new music? And the question implicit in that seems to be: what is it about the songs I like that differentiate them from the songs I don't like?

You mention going into the sci-fi section and knowing exactly what you're going to get: space adventures, aliens, CGI explosions, whatever. The thing is, if you go into the rock section of a music store, you also know pretty much what you're going to get: 90% of those albums will contain between 8 and 15 songs, these songs will vary in length between two and five minutes, they will be played by bands utilizing guitars, drums, and pianos/keyboards. The songs will have words. They will follow some kind of verse/chorus structure. They will be in one of a handful of key signatures that are useful in American music, and the vast majority of those songs will be in either 2/4 or 4/4 time, and those two time signatures sound mostly the same anyway. Almost no one would define genre in terms of lyrics and, as you mention above, this makes it much harder, for sure. But a given rock album does contain about ten elements that make it a rock album.

The problem with that description, unlike the sci-fi description, is that the average listener (really, probably even most of the really obsessive music listeners) cannot, by using any of those factors, define the kind of music they like. For instance, if you said "I like big-budget sci-fi movies set on planets that are not Earth," that is a viable description of what you like. However, if I were to say, "I like three minute songs with only one guitar, in major keys, with a well-developed bridge section and a key-change before the last repetition of the chorus," ... well, even though that's true, it sounds like borderline nonsense. And even with a description that involved, someone else could like the same song for the lyrics, the singer's vocal style, the drumming, or any one of a number of things.

At heart (and to answer the question of why a song with repetitive lyrics can be popular), we like songs that instill a certain emotion in us (which I'm sure is different for different people, and even at different times). Lyrics can do this, but so can tone of voice, or a certain guitar effect, or a change in tempo. A song with depressing lyrics can make you happy with a hopeful, uptempo backing track, a song with ostensibly happy lyrics can make you sad via juxtaposition and irony. In my opinion, Friday Night Lights uses the band Explosions in the Sky for its soundtrack to create a feeling of wide open spaces, endless potential but also a kind of despair underpinning the whole thing. And that's with no lyrics at all.

This seems to be the problem. Even if we both like the same song, and I were to base a recommendation for you off of our mutual admiration of that song, it wouldn't be anywhere near a guarantee that you would like my recommendation.

So this leads to paragraph-long descriptions of bands that read like personal ads, all of which must be picked over for any sign of similarity to the music that you like. A list of influences is equally useless - like we discussed before, there's really no reason to believe they like the same bands you do for the same reasons you do.

I've always described The Hold Steady as Springsteen doing east-coast punk. Last week, Rolling Stone used that exact same phrase to describe a band called Gaslight Anthem. I got their album - it's okay. The best song on it sounds like the Goo Goo Dolls covering "Heartbreak Beat" by the Psychedelic Furs, which is pretty good, but not great. Obviously, there must be something else drawing me to the Hold Steady. It's probably the lyrics. But, as you mention, there are plenty of amazing songs with obtuse or just plain stupid lyrics. So that's not the dispositive factor, either.

After all these words, I'm not really sure there's a point to any of this. It's possible you're better off choosing music by geography (indie bands from Texas, Boston, and Northern California are usually good, LA and New York are more of a mixed bag, the Pacific Northwest is kind of an acquired taste). I think finding new music probably just requires a much higher failure rate than movies. You can tell thirty seconds into a song if you like it or not, so really the investment is minimal.

Open question for the comments: can you describe the music you like?

I tend to like music built around a melody, with a male singer who isn't interested in proving to me how tough he is, following a verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus-chorus structure, no more than four minutes long, primarily British influences when it comes to things like chord progressions, minimal instrumental showing off (whether it be guitar solos or big drum breaks), and lots of backing vocals.

But that doesn't even begin to tell the story.

1 comment:

  1. aaron, yes, this really is a conversation mostly between us, which is sweet because we're now proving that an Obsessive music fan CAN have a conversation with an Indifferent music fan.

    also, it's technically ok because i'm not 8 feet away from you, i'm 2000 miles away from you.

    which is why i will truly respond to this post when i get back from florida.