I often get overly defensive about pop music (just ask me what I think about Nickelback). I have a soft spot for perceived dumb songs with a fun heart and danceable beat. I figure that if I love Weird Al’s “Party in the C.I.A.”, then some part of me also has to love the Miley Cyrus song he’s parodying. My secret to feeling this kind of love is not really paying attention to the lyrics.
I mean sure, if I listen to a Ben Folds song enough times I’m going to gain something from the words of the song. And Ani DiFranco demands that I listen to her lyrics by singing the way she does.
But I couldn’t begin to tell you what A Long December is about even though I’ve listen to that song over a hundred times. I do know that it never fails to make me sad or melancholy if I haven’t heard it in a while. I’m perfectly capable if analyzing words that are meant to tell a story or have metaphorical meaning beyond their physical presence. It’s just not my main concern when I’m listening to music.
I’m more interested in the way long comes out of Adam Duritz’s being, making it sound like the longingest long in the history of longs. I’m hypnotized by the second sung note in “At Last” by Etta James, forcing me to feel something powerful every time I hear it. And I love that the greatest note the Temptations ever sang has to be sung out of key or it would have been wrong. The words are important in each of these instances, but it has more to do with the sounds they produce and less to do with the message they project.
In high school choir, we had a student director from Austin Peay teach us for about a month. He tried to get us to learn this spoken word arrangement called “Geographical Fugue” that I initially found pretty silly (I found a rendition of this piece on the internet…performed by Italians!). At one point the basses (go basses!) had to repeat the word Titicaca more times than any 16-year old should be expected to say that word with a straight face. But when the song was working and every one had the rhythm of the piece down it could be mesmerizing. If you’re like me and you find yourself constantly rapping in the shower, you’ll notice that sometimes the only way to remember the next word in a verse is to say the word right before it out loud.
I guess I’m trying to say that, at least in my world, rhythm has a language all to itself. I’ve written about music in various forms on my last three days off, but when I read sophisticated music criticism, I have to admit that I’m intimidated. I read things like this song is catchy but lacks the dynamic propulsion to make it great or the rhyme scheme is primitive at best and I’m baffled. The part of me that likes understanding everything wants to be able to decipher their code and see the patterns that make this song brilliant and that song marginal, but I honestly, and possibly stupidly, have no idea what they’re talking about.
I do know that music is meaningful to me in a way that nothing else really can be. Music allows me to escape my thoughts and immediately emote. It’s a shortcut to feeling something different from the feelings I felt seconds earlier. I know the words to a lot of songs, but I think I only understand the context of their sounds.