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 Grantland.com.

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

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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