Thursday, December 11, 2008

A Kind of Statement of Purpose

Before I get into any serious writing here, I first want to say a few words about why I started this blog. Mostly, I started it because I spent a lot of time ranking my favorite 100 songs of 2008, and I wanted everybody to see all the work that I put into it (see list below). But I also started this blog to talk about music in a way that I don't think people really talk about music, which is too bad. To illustrate my point, here's part of a conversation between two of my favorite writers, a sportswriter who knows nothing about music, and a music writer who knows nothing about sports.


Bill Simmons: Switching gears, you argue about music almost like your opinions are fact -- like your comment that "'Vitalogy' is almost irrefutably the best Pearl Jam album" -- which is one of the reasons I like your material so much, because you're so sure about your opinions on these things, and you will argue them to the bitter end. But can you really argue about music to the level that you can argue sports?

Chuck Klosterman: Certainly, music is WAY more subjective. These two subjects are not even comparable. For example, I could insist that the greatest band in the world is actually four unsigned guys from Oregon who have never made a record and are just bouncing around the Portland club scene, and that this band is like what would have happened if Lennon & McCartney had formed a quartet with Keith Richards and Charlie Watts, and that these people write the best songs since The Smiths and they play louder than Blue Cheer. I could argue that this group is cooler than The Arcade Fire or the White Stripes, because I could insist they are more "authentic" or "incendiary" or "visceral." I could create reasons that explain this hypothetical band's greatness, and a few crazy people would find my theory interesting and potentially valid. However, I could never claim that the best quarterback in the country is actually some 28-year-old dude working in a car wash in downtown Detroit, and that this person is substantially better than Peyton Manning. That would immediately seem idiotic to everyone.

I think you somewhat misread my rock writing, though; I don't think I ever imply that my opinions are some kind of universal truth. When I say "Vitalogy" is "irrefutably" the best Pearl Jam album, I'm really just saying that fact is irrefutable *to me.* But I am only speaking about my own reality. If I say a band is good, it only means that *I* think they're good; if I say a band is bad, it only means that *I* think they're bad. All my criticism is autobiography. I have no interest in persuading (or dissuading) readers from liking anything.


When I was in high school, I HATED boy bands. I mean, I really saw their very existence as a personal affront, like *NSYNC had formed just to piss me off. At this point, I listened to a lot of what I would later refer to as Unbelievably Boring Classic Rock: Pink Floyd, the Grateful Dead, Tom Petty, Steve Miller, etc. I hated my generation (though, of course, I loved The Who's "My Generation"). I could not understand how, in a world where "Dark Side of the Moon" existed, people could prefer "Bye Bye Bye." Why didn't everybody love the same music I loved? Couldn't they see that it was better?

By the time I got to college, I had discovered the internet as a tool for pirating music, and as it happened, I no longer hated every piece of music made during my lifetime. But man oh man did I still hate. I hated Creed, Nickelback, Linkin Park ... basically any band getting regular airplay on alternative radio stations in central Minnesota and southwestern Wisconsin. I was into the Strokes, the White Stripes, Guided by Voices, etc., and I would rant to anyone who would listen that the music I listened to was better than the music on the radio. When would my favorite artists finally get their deserved fame? (Which is funny, since the Strokes and the White Stripes would have to be two of the five most famous "indie bands of the last ten years. I'm not sure why I thought they should be MORE famous.)

Here's the thing, though. To make claims on a word like "better," you really need objective criteria by which to measure this. And, if you strip music down to its wave forms (because, really, on some level, music is just patterns of noise), there's no doubt that the music I hated (either the boy-bands or the cookie-cutter sons of grunge alt-rock bands) was objectively "better" by any measurable metric than the music I loved. All that "overproduction" I complained about (pro-tools, computerized drums, studio musicians) meant that they almost always did a better job of keeping the beat, staying in tune, following traditional patterns of verse and chorus, maintaining a consistent feel throughout an album. Everything I hated about those bands made them technically "better" at "music." So that can't be right.

The point of all this, which is the same point Klosterman makes above, is that musical truths may be irrefutable to us personally, but they are far from generalizable. Everything is subjective. Which makes music almost impossible to talk about. So it's awesome that I'm starting a blog where all I do is talk about music. Let's see if I can explain why I think this endeavor could be at all worthwhile.

I think it's hard to talk about music because there are people like me, who really LOVE music, and there are people who enjoy music, as a thing that happens in the background, but they are people who would probably survive okay if Hype Machine were shut down (mostly due to the fact that they have no idea what Hype Machine is). They like the bands that they like (which are probably bands they listened to in high school, maybe college), and they're not really looking for any more. I really don't think there are that many people out there who actively dislike music, so we'll ignore them for the time being.

So there are three types of music conversations that can take place.

If the Indifferent guy talks to the Indifferent guy about music ... nothing happens. It's a 30-second conversation about how the new Guns N Roses isn't really that bad, and how Axl is a crazy dude who probably has a great drug hook-up.

If the Obsessive guy talks to the Obsessive guy ... it gets territorial. It becomes a contest. The point becomes to stump the other guy. The conversation actually searches for a LACK of common ground. Two guys talking about fantasy football might be trying to prove who's the bigger fantasy football geek, but they have no choice but to talk about players that they both know, there being only so many roster spots in the NFL. But when two music geeks talk about bands, they will invariably reference bands the other person has not heard of, or is not as intimately familiar with. I don't have the statistics to back this up, but I feel like the majority of these conversations end up with someone inventing a band just to see if the other guy claims to have seen them live "at this little club, before they got big." It goes nowhere, which is weird, because you'd think these two guys would be friends.

The majority of conversations, though, involve one of each - the Indifferent guy talking to the Obsessive guy. These occasionally start out pleasant, but eventually the Obsessive guy has to throw in some tidbits to prove his musical superiority. The Indifferent guy, being indifferent, realizes he's gotten in too deep, and loses interest in the conversation. And so the Indifferent keep listening to the radio, and keep listening to the same albums they've been listening to for the last ten years, not because they're scared of new things, but because they're scared of having to talk to the Obsessives any more than they have to.

So ... that's pretty much it for talking about music. And that's too bad, because I know there are songs out there that the Indifferent listener would love, if only the Indifferent listener were exposed to them. But where is that person supposed to go?

No matter who we are, though, music finds us. We all listen to music, and we all have experiences shaped by music, and even for the Obsessive, it's not always the hot new indie band. Here's a couple of examples:

1) The first time I kissed a girl (in a Dairy Queen parking lot, awesomely) the song on the car stereo was "Seek Up" from the Dave Matthews and Tim Reynolds "Live at Luther" two-disc set. Let me be the most recent person to tell you what you already suspect - that album is completely unnecessary. I don't know what even DMB fans see in it. It takes bland songs and makes them even blander (and it's recorded in rural Iowa, so ... you can really feel the excitement). For the rest of that week, though, I listened to that song about ten times a day, and every time it sounded better than the last. It still brings a smile to my face, and I think it always will, even though I'll tell you that casting Dave on "House" as a mentally handicapped patient probably wasn't too much of a stretch for him.

2) Last year, Ilana was driving me to the airport, and "Apologize" by One Republic came on, I'm not kidding, three or four times on the 20-minute drive. I think even NPR was playing the song at the time. And, right as I'm about to change it, Ilana mentions that the song sounds like it was written specifically to be played in the background of Olympic ice dancing routines, and she proceeds to explain how each throw and spin and ... I dunno, whatever else they do in ice dancing ... would fit in. And she was right. It was hilarious. I could imagine the whole routine. And it was one of those moments ... one of those times where it was perfectly clear that yes, I love this girl with my whole heart, because she might be the only other person on the planet capable of having this conversation. And that song ... blows. I mean really ... it's terrible. Can the singer not pronounce the letter A? Why does he always say "It's too late to 'Pologize." And yet, if you were to ask me whether that song has brought me more happiness or annoyance ... well, happiness wins out easily.

So THIS is what I'm trying to get at with this blog. We all have experiences like this. I can remember being fifteen and convinced that "Iris" by the Goo Goo Dolls was the most powerful song of all time. For some reason, that song just cut to the depths of my soul. Today, I'm pretty sure I couldn't listen to that song all the way through without mocking it in some way. Does that make the experiences of my teenage self any less real? Of course not. We're all capable of articulating how music makes us feel. And if different music makes us feel the same way ... if Blue Oyster Cult does the same thing for you that the Hold Steady does for me ... then we have something to talk about after all.

That's what I want to write about - all the songs that I love (because there are so many), all the songs that I hate (because, c'mon, it's fun to hate), and all the reasons for each. That's a thing that people would want to read ... right?


  1. glad to know you're also putting off studying, aaron. i'm definitely an Indifferent guy, and yes, conversations are EXACTLY like that. it's like every time i have to hear about airborne toxic event, i suddenly lose interest.

    movie conversations are much the same. it's definitely subjective, which is why i can confidently say that There Will Be Blood was one of the worst pieces of shit i've ever seen, yet the academy loved it. also, there are Obsessives (me), and Indifferents (most everyone i meet). the conversations are very similar to music conversations...

    and by the way, the top 100 songs list rocks.

    oh, i also have no idea what/who hype machine is.

    and collectively, we can say that NSYNC sucks.

  2. i'm not one to blog, but i suppose i'll jump into the blogosphere for when a friend of mine starts a blog.

    i am in the indifferent guy bag. i think the listens to what he did in high school and maybe a bit in college is me to a T. if what comes out of this blog aaron is that you let me know about NEW music to get into, in my post modern era of my life, then that would be something special.

    seeing that i can't contribute to a contemporary discussion as much, lets turn back the clock to high school and discuss 5 of the best hip hop albums of my younger year. I'm not one for favorite this or best that as those often change often. ah, the life of a soul who fears commitment. So, here are five that on any given day i might call the best hip hop albums of my youth.

    1) Bone thugs n' harmony - Art of War
    This is a two disk album, but it really has everything. A lot of people don't like bone thugs because they get caught up in that whole "murda mo" shit, but rugged raw lyrics were and still are an integral part of hip hop. There is an intimidation of your musical peers thing going on. I'm no historian. Maybe it comes from dueling saxes or trumpets in jazz bands. Maybe it stems from free style battles or break dance battles. Alas i digress. Art of War has all of it. Rugged lyrics, a lot of songs about smoking weed and feeling great, singy songs, rappy songs, and foursome that really compliments each other well. Bizzy was the fastest with a high pitch. He was kind of silly though, not my favorite. Layzie, had amazing verses, and I think may have been the overall most talented in the group. Krayzie was my favorite because his deep voice could be the hardest when talking about murda-ing motherfuckers, or it could be the most soothing when he was talking about getting high. Wish bone, was mostly just comical to me.

    Notorious BIG - Ready to Die
    I won't talk about this as much because there are thousands of students who have written honors theses on this album. But, track one to 14 were all amazing. Biggie changed everything. He WAS hip hop. He was huge, he was young, he was cocky, and he was rugged. Favorite songs: I literall can't pick one.

    Common Sense- Resurrection
    I loved this album because common is deep and he rapped over jazzy melodies with pianos. I liked it a lot and I always will.

    Nas - Illmatic
    Damn, its been a while since i've listened. I think I'm going to do that now.

    Outkast - ATLiens
    Godamn this album was funktified greatness. I remember driving down the west side highway list ATLiens, throwing my hand in the "ayer" Outkast really kicked off an that whole goodiemob southern rap thing. In my opinion though southern rap is garbage, simple, heavy base, crap. The lyrics are repetitive and catchy, there is not storytelling going on, and for some reason it takes 15 guys to make one damn song with three versus. Regardless, outkast, so funky.

    Ok, I'm done, and will probably wish i put 5 other albums up by tomorrow morning, but here was my two cents, at least for tonight.

  3. Throw strikes!

    And "ender's twin" THANK YOU! I too firmly, with all my hateful soul, believe There Will Be Blood was by far the worst movie I have ever seen. And I have to argue that point every time I meet someone new who said it was just wonderful. I mean if you arguably play the same character in every movie you make it's not acting is it?! You are then Keanu Reeves

  4. That BOC comment better not have been a knock on my dad.

    I think the Obsessive-Indifferent dichotomy is more true in the music realm than in the movie realm. I know people who are really into moves, a film student or two for example. I also know a few people who are indifferent to movies. But But most people fall somewhere in the middle when it comes to movies as opposed to on far ends of the spectrum in music.