Friday, October 12, 2012

Music For Edgy and Intellectual Musicians

As I walking to class I saw one of my classmates.  This would have been fine except that both of us were listening to our ipods, and I'm sure we both had that sinking feeling "Oh no, I have to talk to someone now instead of staying lost in my tunes."  To her credit, she acknowledged this conundrum and laughed about it, and then decided to ask me what I had been listening to.  This reminded me of something one of my friends had told me about, where ipod listeners in New York City would confront each other and whichever one was listening to more obscure music was the "winner." 

"Dave Matthews Band," I said, acknowledging my defeat.

I made sure to clarify that the reason for this has been mostly to revisit my high school self, and that I don't fit into the usual stereotype of DMB fans. I am not a drunk frat boy with a popped collar, etc.

"Oh I never made those assumptions about you," she replied.  "I just assumed you had terrible music tastes."


I told her that I usually listen to enough weird music that I had built up the credibility to occasionally listen to DMB, but by that point the music snob in me had officially evaporated.  The truth is, I'm used to people saying that the music I like is too weird, so being caught on a day when I was listening to something "mainstream" really threw me off guard.  I then started to second guess myself.  Even for those of us who claim to be interested in music as a pure art form are still influenced by the tastes and opinions of those around us.  For most of college I didn't listen to much DMB, perhaps to protest how popular they had become. Only recently I've come back around.

So when I saw my classmate again the next day I said, "Today I decided to listen to something edgy and intellectual."

"Oh, is it Steve Reich or something?" she asked.

Sure enough, the music playing on my ipod was Steve Reich's 2009 Pulitzer Prize winning composition "Double Sextet."  I sounded amazed that she guessed correctly, but she just said "Oh, I just know what edgy and intellectual means."

So I asked myself, if Steve Reich, one of the greatest composers in American history, can be put so neatly into a little box, then what makes him so artistically different from all the rock bands of the world?  What is the basis for the value judgments we make?

It's a hard question, but there has to be an answer.  Music fans of all genres cling to greatness, and if greatness doesn't actually exist, then all of us are under a collective fallacy, governed by no standards other than our own tastes.

I went to a concert in Rochester where "Double Sextet" was performed at the Eastman School of Music.  The concert was very well-attended, much more so than many other concerts I had seen at the same hall.  Particularly striking was the number of faculty members present.  The audience was pretty much a who's who of musical importance.  If you want people to know that you know what's up in modern music, then going to a Steve Reich concert is the way to do it.

Of course, nothing ever begins this way.  If the classical music establishment loves Reich now, it's only because he had rebelled against a different sort of establishment back in the 60s and 70s.  Reich came of age when dense dissonant music was still the norm, and by creating his signature free-flowing minimalism, he had the courage to do the exact opposite of everything that was expected of him.

So why is it that we can put Steve Reich in a neat little box?  Maybe it's because he invented the box.  But so did Dave Matthews.

When I was in 7th grade and all of my friends listened to Green Day, DMB's Before These Crowded Streets was "edgy and intellectual" by comparison, and most importantly, it felt authentic.  For me, DMB as fratboy champion didn't come until later.

I think we all want authenticity in the music we listen to, but that is balanced against an acute awareness of what everyone else is listening to.  If all the music you listen to is purposely obscure, then you can't sit around on Saturday night and compare favorite albums, because no one's lists will overlap.  At the same time, people do want to be the innovative listeners who have discovered something no one else has.  Listening is a social activity, and no one wants to be left behind, and certainly no one wants to be embarrassed.

But embarrassment has little connection to truth.  When someone says that a particular artist is their guilty pleasure, it says nothing about the content of the music itself, only that somewhere in society there exists a negative judgment about it.  But if you're anything like me, you don't want to be caught listening to something that may give away that your tastes are terrible.  All of these social issues go through the mind of a listener, and curiously, very few of these issues actually have any relation to the sound coming out, and how it moves us on an emotional level

So if authenticity exists, I have found it difficult to boil away all the other factors that determine why we listen to the music we listen do.  If you treat it like a sport, you're likely to lose often.  Ironically, it is the people who love music the most who try to outfox each other.  Perhaps we should not define ourselves by what we listen to, but rather how we listen to it.  If we listen to popular music with the attention any music deserves, then shouldn't that be better than listening to classical music just because we think it will make us seem smart?  Reich had it right when he said that the distinction between popular music and classical music is only artificial.  Similarly, I would say the the stock we put in someone else's opinion is also artificial.  If you like something, listen to it.  It should be that simple.  Of course, it never actually is.

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