PM Pick

The unheard music

Over the past few years I have amassed a mountain of songs that I've never listened to, and lately I've begun the quixotic project of trying to listen to it all and sort out which songs I actually like so I can find them more easily. Consequently, I feel like I never listen to music for sheer pleasure or distraction anymore; it's systematic, Sisyphean work, as I keep adding more unheard music to the pile. Not that it has deterred me, but I quickly realized that this is no way to decide whether I actually like these songs. In fact, most songs, if they have managed to make it to my hard drive, are pretty okay. The often snap decision about whether they will make it into the "good" playlist is typically an arbitrary one, based on whim and giving me the gratification of decisiveness for its own sake -- the joy in this procedure doesn't come from hearing the music itself. (This is a clue to why record reviews are so often irrelevant.)

And even then, when allegedly deciding I like a song, it's not that I really like it in that moment exactly. It's more that I have made a promise to myself to like it later, that at some point down the road it will be in rotation on my iPod and I will grow to truly appreciate it then. This realization leads me to believe that the value of any song has little to do with its intrinsic qualities and more to do with what I have managed to invest in them; the songs are repositories for my emotional energy, the energy I've spent consuming and remembering them, linking them in various ways to the story I tell myself about my life.

It may be that certain qualities in songs lend themselves to this kind of emotional investment. It helps if they are a relatively blank slate. If they are too specific, they will crowd out the feeling I need to be able to pour into them to like them. If the songs have timely political messages of their own or are specific gripes about how being a professional musician sucks, they will rarely attract any emotional energy investment. Generic songs about having feelings -- falling in love, going to a party, leaving home, etc. These seem to work the best. Also, context contributes to whether or not a song can attract emotional investment. If it is in the right genre, or was in a movie, or was referenced by friends or something along those lines, it gives one a reason to pay extra attention to a song, and once you have singled a song out to actually pay attention to it, you are 99 percent of the way to liking it. (Not to belabor the obvious, but liking a song is no more than a willingness to really pay attention to it when it is playing.)

As part of my project, I was listening to an album called She & Him and I was thinking it was mediocre and was going to delete it. Then I remembered why I acquired it in the first place -- because M. Ward (whose other albums I have already decided to like) was part of the band. That simple piece of knowledge changed the whole way I perceived the music; it focused my attention and shifted my attitude away from looking for reasons to reject it toward listening carefully for things to like. The songs are occasions for bringing to bear pieces of information like that, to connecting memories and data about what brought pleasure before. If a song can fit into a larger structure -- a musican's oeuvre, an approved genre, memories of having heard it at the bar or whatever -- it becomes more listenable, likable for that reason. But they are too insubstantial in isolation to be fairly judged on their own merits. The criteria can't emerge from some ideal notion of what a song should be; the criteria in practice emerge from the richness of the situation, which paradoxically enough, is a product of the limitations it imposes on what you can consume.

In general, I liked music a lot more when it was scarce. When it was scarce, I was much more likely to look for reasons to include songs in my life rather than reject them. It's often constraints that make music meaningful to me -- for example, I won't forget the one tape I had in the car when I drove across New Mexico (a compilation of the Music Machine, the West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band, and the Gestures); those songs will always have that peculiar resonance. The songs in heavy rotation on the oldies station in Phoenix was partial to in the 1990s -- "Woman, Woman" by Gary Puckett and the Union Gap; "Summer Rain" by Johnny Rivers, etc. -- will always signify that specific time and place, what I was feeling then, the drives I used to take down I-10 late at night, crossing the Maricopa County Line on the way to Tucson. I was discovering new music in a very measured way, and I felt like it was expanding my mind at a pace at which I could assimilate it, enjoy it.

Now, there's no danger of my ever running out of music; there is no need for me to be discovering more. (Maybe I'm just old, and that's why my discovery phase is over. Just about everything I hear sounds like something else I've heard already, and if it doesn't, I get cranky over its newfangledness.) Instead, I am haunted by the fear of running out of attention. So it helps when there are limits imposed on how much music there is to consume, a limitation that was once imposed by radio playlists and the amount of money I was willing to spend on music.

Back in the day, I imagine the infancy of the culture industry also limited things -- the number of records that received distribution was much smaller. This morning, I had reached the a compilation of the Shangri-Las greatest hits. After sorting out the obvious keepers -- "Walking in the Sand," etc. -- I was left with 20 songs that were all cut from the same cloth, all decent in their own right, but indistinguishable from one another. Being able to hear them all at once, with no expenditure or effort, undermined songs that in isolation might have seemed dramatic, powerful, singular. And they all probably seemed that way when they were singles, and you lived with them on the radio for a finite amount of time and grew to like them or not. The songs weren't made to withstand being clicked through, rapid-fire, to determine which are good and which aren't. (No music is made for that.) I ended up grasping for reasons to pick one over the other to put on the keeper list, thinking ashamedly to myself, If this song were to crop up in a commercial or get covered by some other band I heard of, I'd keep it for sure.

So while I think the subscription-type services that will allow users access to all of recorded music that Reihan Salam describes in this Slate article are inevitable, I don't think they will do much for people's enjoyment of music. They may discover a lot more stuff, but only in the collector's sense of having filed away an awareness of it. It will become much harder to find the time and the discipline to invest emotional energy in a few songs when the temptation will always be there to indulge that antithetical pleasure of judging -- in or out? keep or toss from the playlist? The editing will be a never-ending process, and we'll never get to the point where we have the time to listen to the carefully compiled playlist and start making the effort of investing ourselves in the music, in bringing the songs to life so that they can return the favor later on.

Perhaps that is why muxtape, the site that lets you upload and share online "mixtapes" of 12 or so songs is such an attractive idea -- not so much for the consumer but for the uploader. It takes those playlists of chosen songs and gives them an immediate broader context for emotional investment -- a community of fellow listeners. It helpfully imposes some parameters, limits that sharpen your focus. It becomes a forum for making your listening habits performative. Which 12 songs will go together? How can I put my tastes to use to impress somebody out there who might be listening? Isn't that the bottom line in amassing a mammoth knowledge of pop music in the first place -- impressing people? But when you are simply listening to music -- for yourself, rather than brandishing the extent of your familiarity for others -- you are just remembering yourself and what effort you spent in the past to really listen. That energy returns to you, as if the song supplies it. That seems to me to be what it means to like a song. And if we don't budget the time to make that investment, if we feel too overwhelmed with choices to bother to attach much feeling to the choices we make, we'll end up amassing all kinds of music, enjoying the pleasures of curating a collection while not really liking any of the music.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Keep reading... Show less

Pauline Black may be called the Queen of Ska by some, but she insists she's not the only one, as Two-Tone legends the Selecter celebrate another stellar album in a career full of them.

Being commonly hailed as the "Queen" of a genre of music is no mean feat, but for Pauline Black, singer/songwriter of Two-Tone legends the Selecter and universally recognised "Queen of Ska", it is something she seems to take in her stride. "People can call you whatever they like," she tells PopMatters, "so I suppose it's better that they call you something really good!"

Keep reading... Show less

Morrison's prose is so engaging and welcoming that it's easy to miss the irreconcilable ambiguities that are set forth in her prose as ineluctable convictions.

It's a common enough gambit in science fiction. Humans come across a race of aliens that appear to be entirely alike and yet one group of said aliens subordinates the other, visiting violence upon their persons, denigrating them openly and without social or legal consequence, humiliating them at every turn. The humans inquire why certain of the aliens are subjected to such degradation when there are no discernible differences among the entire race of aliens, at least from the human point of view. The aliens then explain that the subordinated group all share some minor trait (say the left nostril is oh-so-slightly larger than the right while the "superior" group all have slightly enlarged right nostrils)—something thatm from the human vantage pointm is utterly ridiculous. This minor difference not only explains but, for the alien understanding, justifies the inequitable treatment, even the enslavement of the subordinate group. And there you have the quandary of Otherness in a nutshell.

Keep reading... Show less
3

A 1996 classic, Shawn Colvin's album of mature pop is also one of best break-up albums, comparable lyrically and musically to Joni Mitchell's Hejira and Bob Dylan's Blood on the Tracks.

When pop-folksinger Shawn Colvin released A Few Small Repairs in 1996, the music world was ripe for an album of sharp, catchy songs by a female singer-songwriter. Lilith Fair, the tour for women in the music, would gross $16 million in 1997. Colvin would be a main stage artist in all three years of the tour, playing alongside Liz Phair, Suzanne Vega, Sheryl Crow, Sarah McLachlan, Meshell Ndegeocello, Joan Osborne, Lisa Loeb, Erykah Badu, and many others. Strong female artists were not only making great music (when were they not?) but also having bold success. Alanis Morissette's Jagged Little Pill preceded Colvin's fourth recording by just 16 months.

Keep reading... Show less
9

Frank Miller locates our tragedy and warps it into his own brutal beauty.

In terms of continuity, the so-called promotion of this entry as Miller's “third" in the series is deceptively cryptic. Miller's mid-'80s limited series The Dark Knight Returns (or DKR) is a “Top 5 All-Time" graphic novel, if not easily “Top 3". His intertextual and metatextual themes resonated then as they do now, a reason this source material was “go to" for Christopher Nolan when he resurrected the franchise for Warner Bros. in the mid-00s. The sheer iconicity of DKR posits a seminal work in the artist's canon, which shares company with the likes of Sin City, 300, and an influential run on Daredevil, to name a few.

Keep reading... Show less
8
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image