Behind the Music

Bono at Live 8

It's impossible to listen to music in a vacuum, to take the sound of a band on its own merits. There are so many outside factors at play – reviews, friends opinions, larger cultural influences . . .

On more than one occasion in his recent New Yorker essay, Sasha Frere-Jones compared the Arcade Fire to U2 (Issue: 19 February 2007). On each of these occasions, I cringed. Not because the argument was misguided, but because I realized the denial I'd been in -- with its anthemic choruses and generally big sound, Win Butler's group surely owes a lot to Bono and company. During all the time I spent with Funeral, I didn't allow myself to see or hear the connection, even if far less involved music fans like ESPN Radio's Dan Patrick recognized it immediately. It was difficult to handle the fact that one of my most hated bands could have much in common with a current favorite. What was it I saw in one but not the other? Once again, I had to consider the fact that my distaste for U2, instead of being a stylistic choice, might instead mainly be based on non-musical factors.

This isn't the first time this has come up during my largely publicized (among friends, at least) U2 smear campaign. During this year's NBA All-Star Game festivities, for example, I requested that the channel be changed during a Mary J. Blige performance of "One". A friend pointed out that this was a good test of how deep my hatred runs. Did I want it changed solely because of the song, even though it wasn't Bono performing it? I should note that I've never been a huge fan of covers to begin with (yet another conflicted relationship that needs its own column), and I'm not much of a Mary J. Blige fan either, so the test was without a true "control". Besides, it's been rare that I've ever wanted to watch a pre-game musical act; even one of my most celebrated live sports moments, the 1999 Home Run Derby at Fenway Park, was nearly soured for me by Smash Mouth's (hopefully) tongue-in-cheek performance of "All-Star".

It wasn't really the song that made me want to change the channel, but what the song represented. In my mind, any U2 tribute just encourages the growth of Bono's already enormous ego, and further gives credence to the idea that the Irish quartet really is the greatest band on earth, its influences reaching into every corner of every genre. While I can admit that the music itself may be good, even great (I'm talking pre-2000 here), I'm unwilling to anoint the band as any sort of savior, as many seem ready to. It's not that I can think of anyone more deserving of that type of acclaim. I just don't support such overkill for any band, especially one with such an unlikable leader. Some might marvel at how I can so easily dismiss Bono's world-saving activities -- isn't this a sign of his virtue, something I wish more artists would do? I admire his efforts, but I can't help but feel he gets more out of it than anyone else (as I was writing this, I received an unsolicited email explaining that while Bono's "Red" campaign has raised $18 million for drug aid in Africa, nearly $100 million has been spent pasting his image on billboards and in magazines advertising the project). No matter how great the band may be, there are many equally deserving artists to whom we can give our attention. U2 doesn't really need our help.

It shouldn't be surprising that my opinions are affected so much by outside issues. It's virtually impossible to listen to music in a vacuum anymore, to take the sounds themselves on their own merits. There are so many other factors at play, from critical reviews to friends' recommendations to larger cultural movements and trends, that I can't really recall the last time I popped in a CD without any sort of preconceived notion of what it might sound like.

The biggest outside issue is one that has nagged consumers of art (and I'm using that term broadly, here) for years: Is it possible to separate art from the artist that created it, or do we have to take the two as a package deal, with one inevitably influencing the other? Is who we're listening to just as important as what we're listening to? This matter of producer vs. product is a much simpler issue in other arenas, particularly sports arenas. Sports fans seem much more willing to tolerate a particularly offensive personality as long as it translates to strong performance (note that I'm talking personality here, not other off-field factors such as steroids). This is why notorious troublemakers like Terrell Owens and Ron Artest continue to have teams clamoring for their services, and why, for all the recent fuss, Pacman Jones will surely be intercepting passes somewhere come fall. It's also why current pariahs like Tim Hardaway are easily ostracized; they no longer can do anything to distract us from themselves. While the "locker room" and "team chemistry" are certainly areas of concern among GMs everywhere, ultimately performance is the true measure by which athletes are judged.

Art is a much more difficult area in which to tackle personality, because we've been taught that nearly every artist draws at least partly from personal experience. You can't separate art from the person who created it, because his or her soul is supposedly so intrinsically wrapped up with the creation. Art doesn't just reflect life, it reflects a particular life. This is easy to hear in the kind of openly confessional music that artists like Daniel Johnston and Bright Eyes make, but it's just as relevant to DJ Spooky or George Clinton. The simple act of creating an original piece of art signifies a desire to communicate something of yourself, even if only to reveal what you care about most. Which is why it's hard to truly appreciate music that comes from a particularly unpleasant source; it's like eating a delicious meal, then finding out you just digested a couple of bull testicles. You might have enjoyed the experience, but an hour later, all you can picture is the ugly, castrated beast.

Even if we can fool ourselves into disregarding personality, it's hard for our eyes to play along. Sound and vision have a deep relationship, or, I guess you could say, a very shallow one. The entire live music experience is evidence of this, because it's when our perceptions of an artist's music come face to face with the person at its core. I recently attended a Snowden concert with a friend (actually, I went to see Malajube); partway through the band's set, my friend confided that she enjoyed the music, but found herself disliking the lead singer because he looked like he should be at a "frat party" with his polo shirt and generally preppy appearance. Somehow, that made his declarations of being "Anti Anti" less convincing.

A few years ago, some friends came along with me to see Qwel, a hip-hop artist who they knew little about. Partway through the opening act, a local funk band, one friend nudged me and said, "They seem kind of white for a hip-hop show." I explained that, well, Qwel was white. Almost immediately, it seemed that her expectations for the show changed dramatically (she's white, by the way); in fact, I didn't see her for much of the night after that. The problem is, you can't always trust what you see; take Brother Ali, for example. The Minneapolis rapper is a black albino, meaning that he was born to black parents but is whiter than me. He may identify as a black artist (listen to "Pay Them Back" and "Forest Whitaker" for examples), but if my friend were to see his show, she might just assume he was a white rapper.

Surely many of us have experiences where performers seem very different in person than the image of them we've conjured up in our heads. Once artists reveal themselves as real people with real identities, it's much easier to pick apart their creations. Despite my constant desire to understand the personalities behind the music, I sometimes wish it were possible not to think of them at all, to see them as faceless, ego-less purveyors of sound. But then I couldn't go to concerts, and I've got Arcade Fire tickets in May. I'm sure I'll spend a good chunk of the show with U2 comparisons rattling around my brain, and maybe that's not such a bad thing. As I learned some time ago, love is certainly not blind. It might be a little hard of hearing, though.

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