Sound and Sense?

The Post Below was written early on in the Brothers’ experimentation with the blog essay. The Younger, probably rightly, often rails against me for my egg-headedness. As the Greek poet Pindar writes (to prove my brother’s point): “not even the tawny lion nor the red fox can change the color of their kind”.

The post below is one of an infrequent series where I try to figure some things about popular music out. When my brother first read this he told me he felt like he was back in English class and was being forced to respond to a prompt. I apologize to him and anyone else for flashbacks.

“The Sound must seem an echo to the sense”

The epigraph above comes from poet and translator Alexander Pope and represents a dominant trend in interpreting and teaching poetry from Ancient Rome (where similar sentiments can be found in the Latin poet Horace’s Ars Poetica) through Pope’s 18th century right up through the 20th century where it resonated with New Criticism and Formalism.

Alexander Pope, no slouch

What this phrase means is a little more complicated that it seems (although, at times, just as simple). For Pope and others, if a line of poetry is about a whisper, it should be metrically light and full of susurration. Weighty matter (war, violence, etc.) should come in long syllables and harsh consonants. Mourning poetry, similarly, should evoke sounds of grief with nasal consonants and wide open vowels.

Of course, this is a brief and insufficient illustration of the principle as a way of asking whether or not we can expect the principle to work in music as well as it does or doesn’t work in poetry.

(I, for one, don’t think it matters if it works perfectly at all. The value of a theory isn’t its universal application or truth but whether or not the idea persuades you to consider something in a new way. For that reason, interpreters who cleave tirelessly to one theoretical approach—or for that matter politicians who embrace and espouse one governing philosophy—leave me bored and suspecting that they have let ideology get in the way of clear thinking).

I think we all realize intuitively that music regularly matches “sound” with “sense”—for this reason, dance songs are typically filled with happy beats and unimportant lyrics; love songs are pretty; and angry songs are, well, angry.

My question for pop songs, however, aims for more than their atmosphere and attitude. It is more a question of the extent to which the sounds of a song may be able to reflect the sense of its lyrics. If we want to claim (as I do) that pop songs have not only cultural and historical relevance but also the aesthetic complexity to rival conventional forms of ‘high art’, then their amenability to the same types of questions as those posed for the conventional forms is an important litmus test.

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On The Radio (Flashback): Big Head Todd and the Monsters

Mmmmm. Music.

Mmmmm. Music.

So, the other day I was walking from my office past one of our departmental secretaries when I reached into the candy bowl on her desk and withdrew a little dark chocolate. As I walked away and the cacao-infused treat melted in my mouth, I looked at the wrapper, read the word “bittersweet” and, BOOM, I was suddenly not walking but in some time shift driving the Ford LTD to a band rehearsal with a twelve-string, a fender Blues DeVille amp, and a telecaster in the trunk. The radio was tuned to the local rock station and a track hauntingly hung in the air.

For a moment, I didn’t smell the chocolate I was infusing with saliva, but I felt the cold bite of a Maine winter combined with the slightly acrid, styrofoam character of an old engine burning oil mixed in with the sweet synthetic syrup of antifreeze. Even as I was walking in 95 degree heat, 35 years old, and a college professor smelling more of coffee than smoke, I was also 16 and late to be nowhere.

At first, I thought this song was by Matthew Sweet. Maybe it was the bitterSweet thing or that both bands were minor players on the early alt-rock stage.

My brother and I have both written before about the tactile, olfactory and auditory nature of memory–and especially the way that music can invoke those other aspects of the past as well. I have been especially inspired of late by the similar work of the blog Mixed Tape Masterpiece, but even I was surprised by the sequence of memories that ensued from that one word which transformed from taste, to idea, to song and again to smells of a different type.

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Requiem for Grantland’s Quarter-Finals: Ni**as in Paris

This is probably violating some type of copyright. But, hey, free advertising for

This is probably violating some type of copyright. But, hey, free advertising for

Note: I wrote this post before the competition closed and quite erroneously predicted Adele’s victory. OutKast is victorious! This may undermine my claims about ‘recency effect’ or racism (although nostalgia and ‘safe’ hip-hop could be offered as explanations). For the wider public, I actually think that “Hey Ya” is more attractive than the subject of this post…

This is my third and final post about Grantland’s competition for the Best Song of the Millennium. My predictions have failed and the final competition is between Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep” and OutKast’s “Hey Ya”. I feel fairly confident that Adele will win the competition for a few reasons. For one, pop culture seems to have its own type of ‘recency effect’ whereby contemporary or rather recent phenomena are judged as better than those more distant in memory. “Hey Ya” defeated some stiff competition along the way (“Hot in Herre” and “Ignition Remix”) but those songs were also outside the memory of the younger generation.

The bigger issue that I think helps to explain Adele’s success apart from the fact that her presence on the radio is concurrent with the competition (recency effect) and her overwhelming difference from other artists, is her relative ‘safe-ness’, by which I mean , her music is non-edgy but ‘soulful’ R&B derivative, she is not over-sexualized, and, she is white.

I don’t want to make too much of possible racial patterns in pop-culture voting, but from Elvis to Eminem and Macklemore, white artists who channel black music often enjoy more success than their counterparts. (And, I suspect that former American Idol contestants are correct that racism is operative in that competition as well, the difference is that they blame the contest and not the voters.)

This is not to detract from the beauty of “Rolling in the Deep” or the power of Adele as an artist but to attest, instead, that the voting is influenced unduly by prejudices basic to our culture and by the bizarre circumstances of the Best Song of the Millennium bracket to begin with. And, we would be remiss not to acknowledge that “Ni**as in Paris” is an abrasive and, for many people, alienating song. That said, it is better than Adele’s song and I thought this a long time back. So here’s a re-posting of why love this song.

As I have mentioned before, my wife brainwashed both of our children in utero with mainstream hip-hop and top 40’s formats. From the posts on this blog it would seem that I don’t care at all about hip-hop, which is not actually the case. The problem is more that the necessary ingredients to love hip-hop as an adolescent were absent from my youth (listening to R&B, funk; the right atmosphere and geography) and my gene pool (my parents were the whitest people on the planet and grew up in some of the whitest places on the planet; they never listened to jazz, blues or anything edgier than the Rolling Stones).

These, of course, are excuses. The real fault is my own. After an early love for bad mainstream rap (MC Hammer, I still feel you), I was a bit put off by the gangsta rap explosion (which came around the same time as grunge). The kids in my all white high school who were wearing cross colors, dropping their pants low, and talking about forties and the like just seemed like morons. So, I ignored the whole damn thing.

And missed out on some great artists. Sure, I heard enough Dre, Snoop, Tupac and the like to know one from the other, but I didn’t really get to appreciate hip-hop until I met my wife who listened to nothing but rap and hip-hop (with the exception of Bon Jovi, an addition I still do not understand) until she met me. Cross-pollination happened; and eventually so did children.

So, rather than wholly brainwash my children, or fight against their preferences (they really do seem to dislike some of the slower, guitar driven stuff I prefer), I play the local hip-hop station on occasion. And for about the past six  months or so I can’t get enough of one song: “Ni**as in Paris” by Kanye West and Jay-Z.

Here’s the first weird thing about this: I don’t really like either artist individually. Jay-z does too much that isn’t rapping (although, as a producer I find him to be a great deal less annoying than the artist formerly known as Puff Daddy); Kanye, whose talent cannot be denied, just seems too thin-skinned in his public proclamations and a bit of a nutjob.

But, because I am so unfamiliar with current hip-hop, no longer watch music videos, and habitually ignore what DJs say, I didn’t know who sang Ni**as_In_Paris. The music drives forward, the opening rapping is aggressive yet not violent. The alternation between rappers works really well. The contrast between the faster and more muscular phrasing of the first rapper (Jay-z) and the dirtier, drawn-out syllables of the second (Kanye) keeps the song from getting repetitive.

(I had to be told by my wife who the artists were, that Jay-z was saying “ball so hard” and not something like “Hasselhof”; I told her that the lines in the middle are from Will Ferrell and originally reference that “Milkshake” song.)

In fact, I think that it is Kanye whose vocals made me like the song the most. When he first takes over the mic, he raps “She said Ye can we get married at the mall? / I said look you need to crawl ‘fore you ball / Come and meet me in the bathroom stall /And show me why you deserve to have it all”. He stretches and builds the vowels at the end of each phrase, and the growl in his voice coupled with the slightly lazy articulation makes me think of the Ol’ Dirty Bastard (R.I.P.)

Here’s what else sets this song apart from the noise on the radio: like the best rap songs it is clever. The driving metaphor of the song is ‘ballin’ of some sort: Jay-z starts with a great boast (“So I ball so hard muhfuckas wanna fine me/ first ni**as gotta find me”) and later turns through a great list of luminaries (“Psycho, I’m liable to go Michael / Take your pick, Jackson, Tyson, Jordan, Game 6”).

But I think there is a self-deprecating play going on here (or else I should hate the song for being another anthem to how rich and awesome the rappers are). Let’s start with the obvious contrast in the song’s title between the reclaimed yet still powerful racial epithet and the European city known for its sophistication. From the beginning, then, I would suggest that this song declares “we, who are from the outside, are now where you live; we have the best”.

But rappers have declared this before. Kanye seems to play with this concept by poking holes in the pretense during one of the best parts of the song:

What’s Gucci my ni**a?
What’s Louie my killa?
What’s drugs my deala?
What’s that jacket, Margiela?
Doctors say I’m the illest
Cause I’m suffering from realness
Got my ni**as in Paris
And they going gorillas, huh!

Note the inverted invocation of brand names (Kanye declaring he knows them by claiming not to know them) followed by a re-assertion of the artist’s realness as he reminds us again of the scene that might have been (and still is if we accept “ni**as” as denoting a particularly American identity) one of fish out of water, of outsiders dwelling (and now buying) where they shouldn’t. Implicit then in the last line of this verse is the cumulative force of racism and stereotyped expectation that both rappers buy into even as they undermine their own identities as hip-hop artists by indicating the shifting and problematic nature of their realness.

Moments like this are what I love the most about hop-hop—it provides a framework for some of the most complicated identity negotiation that occurs in modern music. I may spend most of my time listening to whiny indie music, and I have to admit that there is as much crap on the hip-hop frequency as on any other dial, but there is a reason that 100 years from now the rise of hip-hop will garner more notice than the zenith of alternative rock. It is more vibrant, worldly and often packed with the power of great poetry.

Oh, and my children love the beats.

I am also so on board with this:

(Yes. I drive a prius and listen to NPR. We are all stereotypes to some degree.)

On my Wife’s iPod (Again)

So, a few months ago I confessed to misplacing my iPod and daring to run in the wee hours with my wife’s iPod instead (something I unfortunately compared to wearing someone else’s underwear—which would probably be much less comfortable than trying out an iPod, depending on the music). The follow-up confession I feel compelled to make is that even after I found my iPod, I kept using hers.

Yeah, them too,

Yeah, them too,

(So, I guess you could say I found out something new about myself, if we keep up with the transvestitism of the underwear analogy.)

Part of this decision, I swear, has only to do with the novelty of it. Even if you labor sedulously to perfect your playlists the element of surprise and wonder that makes a lot of music listening so thoroughly compelling is gone. When I dumped a thousand songs into my wife’s iPod (which sounds far more sexual than it should) I created something of a hybrid of her tastes and mine. A new, strange, musical offspring.

As I ran around the streets of our adoptive town, I found myself newly engaged both by the strange juxtaposition of some of my chosen tracks next to hers (Wilco as a prelude to Rihanna? Sinatra followed by Fugazi? Whiplash.) and by initial hearings of songs I didn’t know my wife was listening to. See, she and I have been together (if not as husband and wife, as the prequel) for fifteen years. I didn’t know she was keeping secrets from me.

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Radio (on the TV!) Again: 2 Chainz is Different

A few weeks ago I wrote about my (re)discovery of Music Choice, the big media conglomerate that primarily brings music to digital television for whatever narrow profit the banner ads will bring. I have spent more time over the past week or so (as my children and I have been spending chaotic and messy quality time at home) contemplating the various channels that Music Choice gives to the world.

I don’t know exactly how the system works, but there must be some inter-corporate back-scratching going on because the tracks repeat regularly on each station and there are typically underrepresented artists (I have yet to hear They Might Be Giants, the Pixies or Fugazi on any channel). But, since I am too lazy to do any real research on the matter, I will just assume corporate shenanigans informed only partly by actual music knowledge and taste.

The last time I talked about Music Choice I was so breathless with the single “The John Wayne” by Little Green Cars (a passion that has tempered, but only marginally) that I mentioned the artist 2 Chainz only in passing. As to be expected from Music Choice, I have heard this song a couple of times now and I am obsessed (for no good reason) with the double-bind it presents.

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Written Elsewhere: Billie Jean in The New Yorker

In a recent issue of The New Yorker (Dec 24 & 31, 2012) Bill Wyman uses the publication of Randall Sullivan’s biography of Michael Jackson (Untouchable: The Strange Life and Tragic Death of Michael Jackson) as an opportunity to present his own reflections on the pop icon while saying barely anything about the biography.

In essence, that critical move is ok—review essays are not book reports after all—but the review, which focuses more on the cultural milieu of Jackson and his negotiation of ethnicity, cultural change and fame, leaves in the reader little sense of the focus of the book and next to no idea of which notions are drawn from the biography and which have sprouted full-formed from the reviewer’s mind.

Not that we can really blame Wyman. Have you ever met anyone who has nothing to say about Michael Jackson? He was one of the biggest and probably one of the last of the great entertainment titans. In the modern media environment, when everything is so clustered and people’s entertainment choices are so varied, can we imagine anyone standing so far and above the competition?

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Scary Songs

Its that time of year again, my favorite holiday Halloween is just next week. After a zombie playlist and an apocalypse list, it seemed fitting we’d do one about scary songs for the holiday. I want to warn you though, mine is not always what you think. I could have picked a bunch of hardcore bands that screech so bad you can’t understand their lyrics but I went for stuff that scares me personally. I like to think I’ve covered all my bases here and I can’t wait to read my brothers forthcoming list, but here it is, scary playlist from yours truly.

1.”Too Close”  Alex Clare

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On the Radio (Flashbacks): Banditos

One unintended consequence of listening to the radio so much recently is that I still often hear songs that played on the radio when I was much younger. The popular format of many stations (modern rock) seems to allow for music at the roots of the modern era (as far back as New Wave, sometimes punk). As a result, listeners get to hear new music and the sounds of our youth (for those of us who are older).

(Just think, our parents had to listen to oldies stations)

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Radio on TV: Warehouse 13

In honor of the fourth season of Warehouse 13  (starting July 23) on the SyFy network, I present the following…

On the Syfy channel original series Warehouse 13, episode 6  of Season 13 (“Don’t Hate the Player”) ends with the misfit genius girl, Claudia Donovan, coming out of her shell (at the advice of  the charming man-child Pete), when she arrives at a local coffee house (full of attentive audience members and well-decorated even though they are supposed to be in nowhere North Dakota) for open mic and takes out her own guitar.

This is to be a moment of revelation, when Claudia unveils herself to the world, when we find out if she’s more than ‘just’ a genius prodigy who can hack into any computer system, recover from years in a mental ward, and catch on as an agent for a government wing so secret its overseers come from outside the government.

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Repetition is the death of Art (?)

You say I need a job,
I’ve got my own business.
You want to know what I do?
none of your fucking business.
But now I’m lying here
knowing that business had a name,
But now I’m a number
1 2 3 repeater “Repeater”, Fugazi

One of the cornerstones of popular music is repetition. From the basic strong structure (verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus) to the chords themselves, pop music is built upon the re-deployment of basic musical themes, motifs and lyrics. This isn’t just about rock n ’roll—the riffs and standards of jazz or the basic  progressions of blues are hewn from the same material.

(We can debate the origins if you’d like. Work songs? Spirituals? Any single genealogy will fail to be as wide-ranging as I anticipate below.)

Repetition, however, has a dodgy reputation among modern philosophers—especially when it comes to forms of popular culture. Theodor Adorno, for example, sees repetition as a feature of industrialization, as an indication of lost individualism, as a preface to the lock-step march of fascist armies. Other theorists, following the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, see repetition as “idiotic enjoyment”.

So, from a philosophical perspective, the prominence of repetition in popular music is either a low-brow reflex of the industrial age (even in our art forms we are on the assembly line or marching to war!) or an unconscious extension of basic pleasure seeking principles (which is, admittedly, an over-simplification).

Ugh. Does it have to be this way?

As I have tried to write about before, repetition is far more complicated than we like to admit. First of all, repetition, from a reception standpoint, is problematic (even if you hear the same words twice with the same melody, your experience of the first iteration alters your reception of the second.)

But, more importantly, the prejudice against repetition (or at least the dim view I’ve selectively presented) is artistically and, for lack of a better word, historically, misplaced. Repetition isn’t slavish: from our earliest poetic forms cross-culturally we learn that repetition (of words, themes, even entire narratives) helps to build more complex and resonant works. Indeed, it is only through repetition that symbols, sounds and words aggregate meaning.

But, and here is the squishy part of my response, repetition is so thoroughly the standard condition of human life between the poles of birth and death that it is foolish to dismiss its appearance in popular art forms as the mechanization of popular culture or a widespread embrace of idiotic joy. Every minute is filled with repetitions: breath, blinking, moving. Each human day is a series of mundane repetitions broken up only rarely by new routines and the unexpected. Perhaps repetition in music is merely a reflection of this essential feature of human life. Shouldn’t art be in some way an extension of regular life either as an expression or organic outgrowth of that which occurs or a reaction to what isn’t there (an expression of absence)?

Pop music, then, built so thoroughly from repetitions of different kinds, showcases this human tendency. There are, if we want to go back to a darker reading, of course, market-based advantages to this. A song that introduces you to a chorus and has you singing along by the end of the first or at least by the third iteration is more likely to keep your attention, to drive advertising dollars, to translate into record purchases. Repetition is thus also the bedrock of commercialization.

But, to turn away from the negative, again, repetition is also a fine way to develop the most essential of artistic measures, the contrast. Why have a bridge in a song at all? What does it do? Would a guitar lick or solo mean anything without a repetitive chord progression behind it? What about drum flairs or variations? Variation cannot exist without regularity, without repetition.

Of course, if repetition is the status quo of pop, then it doesn’t necessarily work all the time. And, if it is the expectation, then by defying expectation certain songs or artists can achieve surprising effects. To explore this, let’s consider one band’s songs as evidence of the success of non-repetition and the horror of repetition misused.



On the  album Transatlanticism, Death Cab for Cutie includes several songs that break basic expectations. One that uses repetition and non-repetition to great effect is “Passenger Seat”. The song is built around a basic piano lick with the vocals narrating a ride home (there is ambient sound behind the single-key and chord progression, but the body of the song is piano and voice). The narration builds to what seems like a chorus as additional vocal tracks join Gibbard: “ ‘do they collide?’ /I ask and you smile.” Pop music has the audience primed to expect this to be the chorus, to be repeated again (the melody is repeated for the next line). We are, happily, disappointed.

It is what happens next in the position of the bridge where we find repetition and non-repetition combine. Gibbard sings “when you feel embarrassed then I’ll be your pride” and then repeats the same melody with “when you need directions then I’ll be the guide” except on the second “be” he varies the melody and rises up into his falsetto—a variation that takes a simply, but poignantly put, sentiment and renders it unforgettable. I still get chills every time I hear it.

This moment is made possible by the repetition of the music, many of the same notes, and by the close variation of these lines (the anaphora of “when you…then I’ll be” combines well with the similar sounds in “feel” and the rhyme “pride/guide”). A lesser artist, moreover, might make the mistake of milking that final moment, of repeating the lines and the melody that are so effective at the end. Gibbard does not. He lets the lines hang. He leaves the audience expecting and wanting more.

So here, I suggest, we find a song that uses various types of repetitions against the additional backdrop of millions of repetitions of pop formulae to set up and then defy audience expectations. By defying the expectation of repetition, Death Cab for Cutie makes the song more likely to be repeated entire; it creates a new desire in its listeners that can only be fulfilled by additional iterations.

Or something like that.

Gibbard is a lesser artist on a later album. I will write very little about this case, because I still find the whole album to be a capital crime against good taste.



On Narrow Stairs, the early track “I will Possess Your Heart” starts out with ambient noise and piano, only to devolve over a repetitive bass line into a long non-repetitive, slowly building, musical feint. By the time we get to the lyrics, we expect big things. But, this song disappoints. The repeated lyrics are interspersed with a vocative “love” and the most repeated line in the song, “I will possess your heart”, turns over again and again until you (or at least I) hate it.

Again, there are plenty of times where a repeated phrase that seems annoying at first listen wins you over. (Earlier I mentioned Rihanna’s repeated “ella”; think also of the inane “Poker face” which wins through a combination of melody and rhythm despite the awkwardness of the lyrics.) In this line, Gibbard falls far short of his own standards. What does it mean to possess one’s heart? Is the singer some sort of a mass murderer who collects the organs of unwilling paramours? In seriousness, I know this is a metaphor, but it is a bad one. Something about possessive love of this sort is unsettling, almost menacing. Without a catchy melody or an attractive beat, the sentiment is a strange one to choose to repeat. Sometimes, one writes bad lyrics. Cover it up by not repeating them!

I am sure that the song merits more consideration than that, but the repeated title is just too grating, it makes me want to reject the entire album (and I only listened to it twice after hearing this song).

And, as usual, I have probably gone on too long. Have I made any sense about repetition or do I need to return to this again? Are there songs that you wish repeated something or you think repeat too much, brother?